Saturday, 19 September 2015

Stupid Good: The Case For Custom Alignments

It so happens that in my campaign that the party:

* contains a priest of Ygg, God of Knowledge At Any Price;
* has been fighting demons sprung from a painted canvas, who claim fealty to Lord Fraz, Princeof Deception;
* has also antagonized a hierarch of Pholtus, lawful God of Blinding Light,a narrow-minded and fanatic sect familiar to Greyhawk canon.

Yes, these could be summed up in basic D&D alignment terms as Neutral, Chaotic and Lawful respectively. Or in AD&D terms as Neutral, Evil and Good.

But a different, um, alignment of forces occurred to me. Ygg stands for knowledge, the two other cosmic adversaries obfuscate and deny it. Once this "second axis of alignment" has been sketched in, other possibilities fall into place- the holy mystical force that stands for Knowledge Good, the merciful and cruel Oblivion personifying Stupid Neutral, and the Luciferian figure who brings humanity Knowledge Evil.

This kind of thinking is much more satisfactory to me than the usual second axis of Lawful/Chaotic tagging on after Good/Evil. I mean, it's really not clear whether Law/Chaos is supposed to be about:

* a cosmic force for the organization of matter and energy?
* a political philosophy of social organization?
* a matter of personal style separating staid bankers from wackadoo Malkavians?

Best Lawful buds for life!
This makes it the weak axis, more suitable for explaining why elves and dwarves, or demons and devils, distrust each other. I mean, since when does Jehovah team with Asmodeus to fight elves, Zeus, and Demogorgon?

It's far more interesting to cast out the Lawful-Chaotic axis and create your own cosmic alignment struggle, for a campaign, region, or episode.


Step 1: Fill in the blank with some THING interesting: "_________ is a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it."
Step 2: Think of ways you can be for and against this THING.
Step 3: Now personify "good" (morally upright)and "evil" (morally corrupt) variants on both the pro-THING and anti-THING forces.

Example: THE SEA is a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

You can be for the Sea by celebrating its life. You can be against it by celebrating ... dryness, the creation of new lands, ice ages ... so ...

The Good defender of the sea is the mermaid goddess SHAI, who tends the dolphins and whales and bargains with land-creatures for fish using a great random wheel of coral.

The Good opponent of the sea is SAINT COURVAL, who represents the dominion of wood over water. Ship hulls, docks, stilt houses are her domain, she blesses the salt-thirsty mangrove's roots, and her exorbitant ambition is to plank over the whole surface of the sea.

The Evil defender of the sea is the predator DAGON, half squid, half shark, bringer of the tsunami, begetter of the hurricane.

The Evil opponent of the sea is THULIS, Ice Demon, Wind of the Arctic Pole and Presence of the Ice whose lust is to roll forward the glacier, gather up the seas in piles of ice, and lock up the tides forever.

See, players like to think in terms of good and evil - the bright knight versus dark demon is a fantasy cliche. This cuts good and evil down to size - while the distinction looms large in players' minds still, it's just a lifestyle choice within a larger and more clearly defined struggle over the way the world should be. So, strange bedfellows and moral dilemmas are more compelling and believable than if you have your second axis based around, "Say, I rather admire the way you carry out completely unacceptable actions in an orderly and predictable manner."

Really interesting things happen when you insist on treating these alignments on a par with good and evil. Players have the option to cast their lot with one side or the other or remain neutral. Spells can detect friends of the sea, items can only be wielded by friends of the land, But if you don't want to give alignment such powers (anyway, I don't in my own campaign), the system can still be a structure for the world and its struggles.


  1. Really interesting read. It's a good tool for worlds where good and evil are not the defining powers. Maybe a world where magic is looked upon suspiciously or a world of nature vs machine.

  2. Well, that clarifies what that vision-snake was on about. Nice to know Grimnir's craziness is putting its mark on the very moral structure of the world.

  3. Also: "Contrary to popular opinion, Good is not always dumb."

  4. "since when does Jehovah team with Asmodeus to fight elves, Zeus, and Demogorgon?"

    that is exactly what is going on behind the scenes in Planescape

  5. This makes a lot of sense. If you have a good/evil axis, the other axis is more useful if not related to personal morality and behavior at all. Keeping the sides of this axis as "factions", as intended on OD&D, works very well.

  6. It is good to see that I'm not the only one who sees alignment this way. TSR's choices of good and evil, and law and chaos don't have to define the whole industry.