Thursday 24 December 2020

Alignment II: Complications and Excuses

Revisiting my musings on the D&D concept of alignment ten years ago, I stand by the observation that conceptually, it's a mess. Is alignment:

* A force that guides great destinies, setting mortals and monsters at opposite ends of the cosmic chess board?

* A political ethos that rules the morals of states and societies, and those who follow them?

* A style that shines through in the tactics and personality of individuals?

I made these observations about the Law vs. Chaos dimension, originally. But on reflection, they also apply to Good vs. Evil. I missed that originally because people in Western culture, raised on Western stories, will believe that good and evil nature goes through and through. Good people live in good realms and follow good faiths of good gods. Evil people likewise stick to their zone.

Good and Evil Wallpaper (66+ images)But storybook morality falls apart in the real world. Cruel and power-seeking worldly systems can and do serve noble ideological goals. A society supposedly dedicated to tearing down the universe can sweeten its appeal to the outcast by giving them kindness and understanding. Kind and power-hungry individuals can each find their place within those systems.

Yes, the three levels on the average reinforce each other. But the really interesting cases are those where the morality of ultimate ends, worldly means, and individual character fall out of ... alignment.

Think of a repurposing of the I Ching hexagrams, not a system to define characters, but a way to generate possibilities. The first three are the three levels of GOOD --- and EVIL - - : cosmic ends, worldly means, and personal character. The second three do this for LAW --- and CHAOS - -.

Using a site such as this one we first get:


Here's someone who, like most in their society, upholds a cosmic order where the strong rule and everyone knows their place. Although the gods of this order are cruel, the church and state who serve them are set up to cushion the blows as much as possible, seeing the diabolic as the only effective bulwark against forces that would utterly wreck the world. Despite their strictness in rule, the powers that be find it expedient to hire less constrained agents. Such a one is our hero, who believes in rules -- for other people -- but is otherwise good-willed and magnanimous.


Here is a harsh contradiction -- a lawful evil social order served by a chaotic good person while the order itself serves a chaotic good metaphysical cause. Can anyone believe in all three layers simultaneously? Does this example break down and force us back into the seamless view of alignment?

No, not necessarily. Consider, through the dark arts of social psychology, the many ways in which people deftly reduce the cognitive dissonance from incompatible elements of their belief system. The ease with which people go from hugging their dog to dining on pork, or the ways belief systems put qualifications around "respct for human life", prove that excuses and rationalizations are everywhere.

We can put all of them to use in our example.

  • Means-end separation. The dictator is only taking charge to preserve the dream of freedom and benevolence! When its enemies vanish then the true end state will be possible! (But the enemies never vanish, do they...)
  • Denial of responsibility. The system is too big to change, I can try to make it better from within, if I didn't do this someone worse would.
  • Advantageous comparison. Say what you will about our kingdom, over there they have it much worse!
  • Euphemistic labeling. Come with me to the Cells of Liberation where the truth will be extracted from you in the Palace of Joy.
  • Selective moral concern. Oh yes, it may seem that we are mean and oppressive, but only to subhumans / criminals / malcontents who deserve it. To our loyal people we are liberal and fair!
  • Straightforward fingers-in-ears denial. What? Nonsense! We don't torture people. I don't know what you're talking about. Those are all lies spread by our enemies.

None of these excuses are ironclad, and each of them can be toppled over time. Then you have personal evolution or a social revolution. But the fall of a tower of mutually reinforcing rationalizations should never be taken for granted. Its tensions and dynamics contain the seeds of situations much more intriguing than the storybook goodie/baddie distinctions that alignment by-the-book encourages. 

Next and finally: Everyday morality and alignment.

Friday 11 December 2020

Alignment I: It's A Relationship

A decade ago I dedicated a number of posts to thrashing through alignment in the D&D family of games. A few complicated half-baked systems emerged in these pages. But in the actual play of games I've run since then, I've never had players write down their alignment. Let me show you how it works instead, from my online game this year.

The atmospheric "burning bridge" from Dragon Age -- looks well burnt!

The adventurers, seeking a prophecy at a Dervish shrine, had to cross a magic bridge. The span gave protection from fire through black ashes that floated up from the chasm below and stuck to the person on the bridge. The amount of ashes was in proportion to the virtue of the person. This was relevant to the next magic bridge, which roasted its passengers with flames.

Judging this strange place was uncontroversial. Everyone remembered the characteristics that had emerged over by then six months of weekly play. Some characters had shown benevolence and moral prudence, attracting a full coating. Others had shown the deficient magnetism of their moral compass by constantly urging mayhem, torture, and murder. Sparse were their ashes indeed! 

And this discrepancy set up one of the more touching moments of the campaign. A virtuous lizardman sun-priest embraced a questionable armadillo-folk* entertainer, and this act of compassion transferred half of his protection to the sinner, allowing both to pass scorched but alive.

Indirectly, my example illustrates the first and most useful point about alignment. It is not a rule, but a relationship.  I treated the rewards of virtue as judgement from an implied spirit of the bridge. The spirit had total access to past deeds, and its own concept of sin and virtue. Would a different spirit have decided differently? Possibly!

Do you, the GM or designer, sometimes need to make benefits or malisons depend upon player behavior? You can avoid the many pitfalls of a universal rule by stepping into the role of a supernatural judge with its own agenda. For example, if you feel the powers of a paladin need a limitation on behavior, you can make level advancement conditional on a "performance review" with an angelic tutor. Play it out as you would for any other non-player character in a mentor role.

Alignment in the environment is another story. You can have spells that detect, defend, and attack the forces of good, evil, law, and chaos. But only by becoming a lich or a saint can a player-character register in this world of essences.

This brings me to two ideas from my earlier musings on alignment. They have endured in my game-running, not as rules, but as principles, lurking in the background. I'll cover them in the next two posts.

Alignment is inconsistent - but so is morality

Neutrality is everyday morality

Saturday 27 June 2020

One Page Dungeon Contest 2020: Stela Obliterata

In these pandemic times, I have summoned seven redoubtable players from my previous one-shot games and campaigns to join in a weekly online game, following the path of least resistance to Roll20 and the well-supported, and still world's most popular, 5th edition D&D. For this year's One Page contest I thought I'd work-up an area based on the campaign.

Here I must ask my current players to look no further!

The campaign is set in a region of Mittellus, far away from where eight years ago the Game of Iron campaign began. It is a desert-ringed land, culturally combining ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ruling empire a torpid and death-obsessed metropolis amid concentric canals that divert its life-giving river. There is more promise in the vassal kingdoms. The campaign began at the edge of one of these, Wahattu, which had recently seen its neighbor Dulsharna fall to incursions of gnolls.

My principal goal was to make this campaign last longer in game time than previous ones, which had compressed three or more years of real-time play into less than a game-year. To this end, characters would spend months between levels training up. I also wanted to give the players more of a stake in the land by having them sponsor and economically improve the last bordering village, Alakran.

After about 12 sessions they have had some outdoor and social adventures, and run through two adapted scenarios I placed in the map (Jason Morningstar's Khas Fara from Fight on! #2, their introduction to Alarkan; and following a newly dry streambed to relieve a family of flying camels from drought, they found it had been diverted to feed the fell doings of the Sinister Shroom, whose Pod Caverns lay below).

I might have more to say about this low-level economic game, and about 5th edition in general. later on. But right now, here's the entry ... wherein the players have only ventured to, and been soundly thrashed in, the bronze cedar tomb.