Sunday, 5 June 2011

Alignment - Which side are you on?

Copyright © Mark Kelly.
In days gone by, Dungeons & Dragons set in motion something that other rpgs - including MMOs - would copy/emulate and attempt to make their own, and that is 'ALIGNMENT '.
Love it, hate it, like it or feel 'meh' towards it, alignment is now as much entrenched within the concept of role playing as orcs, elves, dragons and outrageously big-breasted female warriors with skimpy bikini armour are.  Face facts, you can't play any role playing game without it ... or can you?

In a simplistic way I see alignment as one of two things: 

  1. Confining a player to a fairly rigid rule set by which he/she can operate within the game system.
  2. An encouraging yardstick to promote actual 'role playing'.
Reading this, you yourself might (and should) be able to add more to this, and I hope you would, as alignment is open to a plethora of interpretation reflecting an individual's moral ideal and mindset.

Across the rpg platforms that I have personally experienced, both as player and DM, I will reference three;
Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy RPG and Dragon Warriors.

The original Dungeons & Dragons game created a three alignment system of Law, Neutrality and Chaos.  In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons this became a two-dimensional grid.  One axis of which measures a 'moral' continuum between good and evil, whilst the other an 'ethical' continuum between law and chaos, with a middle ground of 'neutrality' on both axis for those who are indifferent, committed to balance, or lacking the capacity to judge.  This system was retained more or less unchanged through the 2nd and 3rd editions of the game.

By combining the two axis, any given character has one of nine possible alignments, as shown in the table below:

Lawful GoodNeutral GoodChaotic Good
Lawful NeutralNeutral (2 versions)Chaotic Neutral
Lawful EvilNeutral EvilChaotic Evil

In the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons the whole alignment issue has been simplified (no surprises there, a la MMOs), so now the alignments are defined as the following:

Lawful Good: Civilization and order.
Good: Freedom and kindness.
Unaligned: Having no alignment; not taking a stand.
Evil: Tyranny and hatred.
Chaotic Evil: Entropy and destruction.

So, from the above, that tells me that players have been either confused by the original alignment set up, or found it too restricting, or (most likely) hard to comply with 100%.  These 'new' definitions are equally confusing, as in life everything is about perspectives; what one person thinks as being lawful, another will consider it oppressive, possibly evil.  Where one individual sees law, another will see a loophole by which to circumvent other laws and continue to break the law.  It is hardly black and white as role playing systems would have players think.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay originally used a linear five placing system: Law - Good - Neutral - Evil - Chaotic.
In changes of alignment (for whatever reason) a character moved one place along to the next position, but never jump a position, e.g. a 'good' aligned character could shift either to Law or Neutral, but never jump straight to Evil.

In practice the system was used to regulate reactions between characters of differing alignments.  However, in the newer edition, the concept of alignment - as well as (apparently) the presence of 'Law' as the antithesis of 'Chaos' - has been discarded, with the emphasis more towards personalities and the unique natures of characters rather than a linear alignment system.

There is no alignment system in use with this particular game system.  In practical terms this is a good thing as it allows a free range of game options by both DM and player.  Some might decide to include a rough alignment system akin to the D&D model, whilst other may prefer to leave it open to interpretation allowing for a more natural mode of game play.
As a DM of Dragon Warriors, I have never used alignment.  I see no point or reason for it.  The basis of my thinking being that in normal terms, things such as lawful, neutral and chaotic are open to interpretation by the individual, so one player's idea of how to rp such an aligned character is going to be either slightly kilter or way off the mark from another player's idea.  Then unnecessary conflict arises.  
In such a situation, as a DM, you should then intervene and 'explain' how the alignments work and what, by the rulebook, they mean.  This, again, is not a good situation.  As you are now dependant on the given definition of Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic as laid down by 'Anon', who, for all you know, doesn't know squat regarding the true nature of Law, Neutrality and Chaos.

To forego an alignment system is to allow natural order and expression for your players and their characters into your game.  Across all walks of life you see contradictions to every rule, and role playing should be without exception.  If a player character wants revenge upon a murderous tyrant for the wholesale slaughter of his family and village, but in game alignment terms cannot due to the fact they have rolled a Lawful Good character, you are then faced with a disgruntled player who now feels trapped and confined by the alignment system and has the problem of either being true to their character's alignment, or face a sudden personality shift for their character.

As an example, if said character were a Paladin, they would find that upon committing an act outside of their lawful good status they have suddenly been reduced to an ordinary fighter.  This would be punishment from their deity, thus removing all Paladin status/skill/abilities.  A hard pill to swallow.

It takes more to play true to an alignment than just having a character don a suit of shining plate, remain chaste and sport hair like Hugh Grant, then state they are 'lawful good'.  
I know it would seem I am picking on the poor LGs, but that really isn't the case.  It is possibly the hardest alignment to play accurately, and I have yet to discover a player who can.  Not only that, but the entire party dynamic is then affected, not to mention severely limited in how they operate, who they can interact with and where they can go.  And by all accounts, you cannot mix your alignments, so any LGs cannot be in a party where there is any form of chaotic alignment character/s.

By and large, players will usually choose (if the game system demands it) either Lawful Neutral, Chaotic Good or Chaotic Neutral, as these are viewed to allow for the most flexibility in terms of game play - but do not forget, I am only referring to D&D for these examples.  Other systems out there might have such things down to perfection, and in some cases form the backbone of the game system world, but having not experienced or encountered them I can only refer to what I know and have played.

Lawful Good: Batman, Dick Tracey and Indiana Jones.
Neutral Good: Zorro and Spider-man.
Chaotic Good: Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, and Malcolm Reynolds from Firelfy.
Lawful Neutral: James Bond, Odysseus and Sanjuro from Yojimbo.
Neutral: Lara Croft, Lucy Westenra from Dracula, and Han Solo in his early Star Wars appearances.
Chaotic Neutral: Captain Jack Sparrow, Al Swearengen from the Deadwood TV series,  and Snake Plissken from Escape From New York.
Lawful Evil: Bobba Fett from Star Wars, and Magneto from X-Men.
Neutral Evil: Mystique from X-Men, and Sawyer from the early seasons of Lost.
Chaotic Evil: Carl Denham from King Kong, and Riddick from Pitch Black.

*I must emphasise that this is not a list of my creation but one taken from wikipedia on Alignment.*

As I have openly stated in numerous posts now, my all time favourite game system is that of Dragon Warriors, mainly due to its open and flexible rule system and relatively straightforward combat system.  This system lends itself perfectly well for my kind of DM style, which is to allow players the free reign required to truly explore a fantasy setting and be true to their own moral code.  To this end I have had players whose characters (to quote from Lord of the Rings), 'look foul, but feel fair' - and as it should be.

So should a player be allowed to use their own moral code and judgement as the backbone for their character?  Personally I think so.  At least with that logic you, the DM, are confronted with a more 'natural' set of reactions by which to respond to, and more in keeping with the player's ideal of what their character would, should and could do or say ... or not, depending.

If you wish to break it down to simplistic terms, it's not as if we all walk about our daily lives with a floating sign above our heads stating, 'Lawful Good', 'Chaotic Neutral', 'Neutral Good'.  Life would be simpler, for sure.  Weird, but simpler.

I just think there is nothing worse than leaning over the DM screen during an encounter between party and NPCs and asking a player what is the alignment of their character.

  A weary party of adventurers have tiredly shuffled into the main street of the town of Gormthick.  Locals skirt around the haggard and bloodstained group, casting them looks of suspicion and unease.

"Surely people have seen warriors, a mage and a thief ..." the cowled, robe-wearing, staff-carrying speaker is interrupted by one of his companions.
"Do you mind?  I prefer the term 'rogue'.  Really!"
  Rolling his eyes skyward, Dirk Longwand continued, "... as I was saying, you would think two warriors, a mage and a rogue, are not an uncommon sight?"
"Maybe," ventured their rogue companion, Albright (otherwise known as 'Al' to his friends), "it's Tatyana's chainmail bra and g-string ..." The resulting iron shod toecap of Tatyanna's boot connecting with Al's behind produced a squeal of such high pitch that even the local dogs began to howl in response.  

 Tatyanna gripped Al by a handful of his leather jerkin, and as Al would later complain, most of his manly chest hair, and snarled into his grime-caked face, "Listen, worm!  I've turned a deaf ear to all the back-chat from your arse-of-a-mouth as I'm prepared to.  Now I'm going to cut out your tongue!"  A silver glint announced by the hiss of metal on leather introduced the end of Albright's life to his throat.
 In the ensuing struggle of male warrior, mage, female warrior and gibbering rogue, all four failed to notice the town Watch standing, observing, with crossbows and cudgels at the ready.  

  The Watch Sergeant stands a gleaming figure, resplendent in polished plate armour, adorned with a rich green cloak and the brightest of yellow feathers gathered to nest at the crown of his helmed head.
  Clearing his throat in theatrical fashion, the Watch Sergeant waits for silence from the scuffling strangers.  Clearly ignored by the squabbling foursome, Watch Sergeant Harris, with smooth grace that would make a baton twirling instructor weep with sheer joy, carefully took aim at the back of a bobbing head within the mêlée, and gave it a swift and sharp 'crack' with his baton.
 "OW!  Holy-mother-of-pendulous-tits!  OW, ow, ow ... oh!"  Tatyanna stood erect, dropping Albright instantly, dagger hand swiftly placed behind her, rubbing the back of her skull furiously with her free hand.
 "Now," Watch Sergeant Harris's smile is as broad as his face is wide, a fact that is not missed by all stood in front of it, "would someone kindly explain as to what is befalling our quiet little town?"
  Dirk Longwand steps forward, chest thrust forward and begins to say, "..."

DM: Hang on.  I need to know what Dirk's alignment is?  If he's anything other than lawful, you can't talk to the Watch Sergeant.  Sorry.  Actually, I want to know what all your characters' alignments are?
(sounds of rattling dice emanate from behind the DM screen)

A topic clearly open for a longer debate due to its nature, so should anyone reading this feel inclined to comment or add to it, then please feel free.

Until the next time ...

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