Saturday, 2 October 2010

Limits of AD&D Alignment 2: Behavior

The other problem with alignment in AD&D is not so much about the structure of Good/Evil and Law/Chaos, as it is about the use of alignment. As I outlined previously, a number of AD&D classes (some adapted from the OD&D supplements) traded game benefits for alignment-based restrictions upon the behavior of characters of that class.

Some of these restrictions make sense when two assumptions about the spiritual universe both come into play in a campaign:

1) Certain kinds of magic, like a cleric's spells or a paladin's powers, are derived directly from God, gods or other divine powers;

2) Those divine powers themselves have a value-based alignment, and consciously uphold and represent it through the magic granted to mortals.

Break either one of those assumptions and alignment in a campaign can exist blind to behavior. But if a cleric by her behavior breaks her god's core values, it's only right that her god, if aware and in charge, should refuse to let sacred power be used by such a person.

Cartoon by David Sipress, Boston Phoenix
Now alignment, as we have seen, is great for describing a character's values and motivations. But the real devil in the details comes when DMs try to translate those values and motivations into concrete actions. When do your actions uphold your alignment, and when do they violate it? Veterans of the game are familiar, by experience or hearsay, with these advanced difficulties and dilemmas:

  • Team alignment vs. alignment principles. Having defeated the orc lair, you are the custodian of three kneeling, disarmed cowards, their wretched females and puling young. Do you show mercy as a Good person should? Or slay them all, ruthlessly pursuing the agenda of Team Good against Team Evil? Perhaps you trot out a rationalization - "It is mercy to end their miserable existence!" How seriously should you take your principles in time of holy war? Is the survival of a great champion of Good (yourself) worth a little ethical slippage?
  • Conflicting alignment principles. Looking back at the Schwartz value diagram, the three "self-transcendence" values that correspond to Good - benevolence, justice, and equality - often clash. Does a Good person spread benevolence equally, target it where it will do the most good, or give it to the most deserving? How much should justice, in a Good society, be merciful or harsh, when benevolence to a murderer is cruelty to the victim's family? And should a Lawful knight follow the traditions of his people, or the command of his reformist monarch?
  • What does it mean to be Evil or Chaotic? Is an Evil character merely free to pursue her own selfish interests liberated from any concern for others? Or must she actively refuse to cooperate, actively commit acts of cruelty, even at the expense of the ambition and power she craves? Likewise, must a Chaotic character act crazy and stick it to the Man at every turn, or is that alignment merely about seeking personal freedom from obedience, conformity, and tradition? 
  • Do I follow my alignment at the expense of an enjoyable game? If the extreme answers to the above question are true, then what place does an Evil or Chaotic character have in a game that is best played in a cooperative spirit? For that matter, if a Good character is in a group with Neutrals who slay  and pillage when expedient, doesn't ethics dictate that their ways part - or at least that the Good character should endlessly harangue and undermine the efforts of the party?
  • What does it mean to be Neutral? Do you simply not care about alignment concerns, acting on a variety of motivations as it suits you? Do you have some minimal amount of compassion, setting you apart from Evil, but not enough to make you truly Good? Are you an opportunistic neutral, siding with the winning team? Or do you take an active part in ensuring alignment balance, siding with the losing team, and making sure to commit a carefully balanced schedule of Good, Evil, Lawful and Chaotic acts? Doesn't that last one make you kind of like the person who felt she had to sleep with men on even-numbered days and women on odd-numbered days in order to count as a bisexual?
The answers to these questions are not supposed to be easy. They are hard moral questions even in real life. Discussing them might be interesting and enlightening in a more free-wheeling situation. But when a DM has to answer them fairly in order to decide whether to to strip a player's character of his major powers, or a player has to guess how to behave in order to avoid such a fate, the exercise becomes less fun and more arbitrary.

I'll let the problems stand for a while, and next post, consider a number of ways they might be solved without completely throwing out the idea of divinely directed sacred magic.


  1. Very nice summary.

  2. These are interesting questions, and, when considered over the years, I am afraid I have seldom been consistent in how I answer them in the game (I'd like to think that in real life I have been a little more consistent, but in real life deciding the fate of baby kobolds hasn't come up).
    One of the things that I think is important to recall is that the 'alignment' concept in games like D&D seems to have grown out of broad categories for war games like 'The Chainmail Fantasy Supplement.' These were just rules that said that a player could not have 2 inimical types of creatures (like elves and orcs) serving together on the same side. By choosing 'law' or 'chaos' or 'neutrality,' a player was limiting the kind of troops or monsters he could select.
    As a referee, I'd like to think that if choosing a certain alignment places restrictions on your character, it ought to deliver some advantages too. So perhaps if you choose 'Law' (or good), burning down orphanages results in penalties against your character (loss of xp?), so it limits your character's range of actions, but perhaps you could earn extra rewards (like XP or something) every time you prevent an orphanage from being burnt down or perform some other act of weal? So the disadvantage (alignment limits your actions) is balanced by an advantage (performing alignment consistent actions gives you extra benefits like xp?).
    However, I give up on making any of this reflect how people justify the goddawful things they do in the real world. One of the wonderful things about the fantasy world is that god(s) could tell you right away when you fuck up. Here in the real world, supposedly 'good' priests bugger children while the clergy covers it up and, as far as I can tell, no one in the real world is losing any XP.

  3. @shimrod: thanks!

    @limpey: Good point on the origins of "team" alignment; following that model, the concept of a party with opposite aligned members in a Law/Chaos system becomes just unworkable, which is probably how it should be.

    About xp +/- for alignment behaviors ... I first reacted against the idea, based on my principle that you don't need to give out xp for roleplaying. But then I had some second thoughts that'll probably end up in the next post after part 3, along with some insights that might speak to your point about real-world vs. game morality.

  4. Roger wrote: ...About xp +/- for alignment behaviors ... I first reacted against the idea, based on my principle that you don't need to give out xp for roleplaying...

    Yes; and I actually don't like giving out XP for role playing simply because I like to think that the player should have full control over determining his or her persona... and if I am DM and giving rewards to the players who I feel "played their character well," I feel I might be using my subjective judgement to control the actions of the players.

    I have mixed feelings about it, since it requires that I (as referee) interpret the actions and motivations of the players, which could result in frustrating conclusions for the players since we might have honest disagreements as to what the 'right' thing is to do in regards to paladins and baby kobolds. Kill them all so they don't grow up to be adult kobolds or show mercy? If it were ME (not my fantasy character), I would tend to want to show mercy, but maybe that's just my 'real world' morality intruding into fantasy world ethics.

    Perhaps if the player knows beforehand what consequences a certain action will have, it will mediate the situation a bit, so it's not as if the player is walking blind into a moral conundrum... i.e.: "As you draw your sword to slay the beasts, you realize that your god would not approve; do you still want to go through with it?" Perhaps also the players and DM should have a gentleperson's agreement before hand that the DM will play the parts of the different gods and goddesses who may be the ones who arbitrate such decisions of what is or is not proper behavior, but the players should be expected to understand what they can or cannot do to win or lose divine approval. At least then you are not hitting the player with a negative 'alignment gotcha surprise.'