Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Redefining Alignment

Thanks to my recently acquired copy of the excellent Stonehell Dungeon, I've had "basic" D&D - be it the Moldvay/Cook edition, the BECMI boxed sets, the Rules Cyclopedia, or Labyrinth Lord - on the brain a lot lately. Basic D&D uses a simpler set of alignments than AD&D or its descendants. You have three options: Law, Chaos, or Neutrality.

The lack of a Good/Evil axis makes things problematic or interesting, depending on your point of view. Personally, I like the implications that spring from that starting point. What I dislike is that Lawful beings are described as believing in "truth and justice" and "the greater good", and Chaotic ones tending "to act in evil ways". What this ends up meaning is that Law is Good, and Chaos is Evil.

I understand the reasoning here. Making Law vs. Chaos the same as "good guys vs. bad guys" isn't such a bad move. It's simple, it's easy to work with, and as so often is the case with easy, simple things, after a while it gets boring. I'd like something a bit more interesting. So, I've been toying with the idea of redefining the alignments, and in so doing, I find that I've been thinking about redefining alignment itself.

Instead of using alignment as a descriptor of a character's philosophy on life or moral code - something I think it does pretty poorly, by the way - I want to use alignment as an explicit setting element. I want a game where beings that have an alignment have literally sworn themselves to furthering the causes of either Law or Chaos. What are those causes, you ask?

LAW: Stability, permanence, rigidity, predictability.
CHAOS: Flux, entropy, mutability, randomness.

Needless to say, most thinking beings don't swear themselves to abstract concepts such as these. (In truth, even the most fervent adherents of Law and Chaos cannot embody either principle in a truly pure fashion.) The vast majority of people are "neutral" in that they do not attempt to live their lives purely by axiom, or subject themselves completely to the whim of chance. Neutrality, however, is not an alignment; not a principle to which one aligns oneself. Rather, it is the lack of an alignment.

This sounds a little half-baked right now, but I'm going to run with this idea and see what happens. I realize that I've made something that sounds a lot like Allegiances from Chaosium's licensed Moorcock game, Stormbringer. Nevertheless, I like the way I can warp some of the assumptions inherent in D&D with this scheme, so I think I'm okay with that. I like the idea of a setting where "good" and "evil" are more subjective than they are in vanilla D&D, and where a more stringent application of the "Law vs. Chaos" angle might alter some of the old, traditional setup, which I'll examine more in future posts.

(Did Gygax lift the alignments from Moorcock in the first place? I think I've read that he stole the good Law vs. bad Chaos angle from Poul Andersons' Three Hearts and Three Lions, but surely he read some Elric, too.)

1 comment:

  1. I set up alignment in a more "personal ethos" method, and I remove neutral because as you one is pure in their character and neutral often gets used where it shouldn't.

    I make players basically choose between law/chaos and good/evil, and rank one before the other.

    I don't make them use those terms however, they can phrase it as they wish, the idea being on one axis is an external code (honour, law, loyalty, a code of conduct, Responsibility, Socialism) VS internal code (Chaos, Libertarianism, Freedom, Anarchy). The other axis is self-interest versus the interest of others. This could be good/evil, selfish/selfless, competative/co-operative.

    They then set one as more important than the other when push comes to shove.

    A lawful good and good lawful character could be best friends and agree on everything, until someone breaks the law, but does nothing morally wrong (or does something morally right, like stealing to feed the hungry).

    These are just how the character feels is right. An Honourable Selfless warrior could do something Dishonourable and Selfless in a moment of weakness, he'd just feed bad about it. Likewise a Selish and Chaotic pirate could risk his life to save some stranded peasants..he'd just feel stupid about it and consider it a bad idea in hindsight.

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