Alignment 4

A few weeks ago, Wizards of the Coast released the Monk for the D&D Next Public Playtest. In that version, Monks had to belong to the Lawful alignment. I found this strange and objectionable, for a couple of reasons, and that has led to this post, which is about alignment rules and how I think they ought to work. The extremely short version is: no mechanical impact at all, thank you very much.
Monks must be Lawful; beyond that, I can make suppositions about what the designers are getting at, but no more. Probably they mean that monks lead lives of discipline and asceticism under a monastic rule – a quite strict code of behavior. There’s my first problem: the legendary and modern-media touchstones for monks aren’t all like this. Just as common as the peaceful-warrior type is the trickster monk – sometimes these are the same character. The trickster monk, like trickster archetypes everywhere, disrupts a corrupt or destructive form of order; training as a monk gives the character an exotic form of wisdom and clearer perception of the world, but discipline is an open question. To continue with The Karate Kid as a model for a moment, the Cobra Kai characters could be treated as non-monks, or argued as Lawful, but I think the former misses the point of the movie (Miyagi’s ethos as a monk is superior to their ethos… also as monks), while the latter is highly debatable, and brings me to the big problem with alignments.
The internet, to say nothing of wasted hours during gaming sessions, are a fine bit of evidence that no two people will ever agree on definitions of all nine alignments. ENWorld is down right now, but if it were available I would post links to just a few of the endless arguments on how to classify existing characters in various IPs. Much like real people, though, even fictional characters that have been in writing for a modest amount of time have multiple, conflicting motivations that are poorly encapsulated in alignments. The 2e text in the DMG discussing alignment change (and the penalty for changing alignment) was a perfect example of how a consistent yet dynamic character might be correctly characterized as one of several different alignments, depending on her outlook on a particular situation. I can certainly be glad that 3e mostly did away with penalties for alignment change, though it still included alignment-locked classes that stopped advancing if they stopped qualifying.
So those Cobra Kai monks? They’re driven by the belief that might makes right, and while they might be loyal to John Kreese and the dojo’s rigid internal hierarchy, they do so not out of dedication to personal discipline, but from the direct threat of physical violence, made even clearer in scenes of the Cobra Kai students away from the dojo. Explicit disregard for the rules is pretty much the centerpiece of the climactic sequence. This is D&D’s stated definition of Chaotic Evil. Ah, but isn’t this – taken from the text on Lawful Evil – also true, especially of Kreese?

He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion.

Well… yes. If I can only apply one of Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic to both Mr. Miyagi and John Kreese, though, there’s not really a clear answer, and especially not one that fits comfortably with “all Monks must be Lawful.” With Lawful as a stand-in for “obeys a code of honor” (any code)… well, that’s like saying that any behavior that can potentially be defined by rules is Lawful, even Robin Hood’s – the quintessential Chaotic Good.

All of which is to say, again, that alignments should not have mechanical impact in a system. Holy weapons, unholy weapons, these are well and good – just don’t make their target something that as nebulous as alignment. In D&D 3.x, for example, it’s entirely too easy to get into a situation where the ideal undead-hunter or demon-slayer is not the one who is pure of heart, as Good characters are much more vulnerable to unholy weapons, blasphemy, unholy aura, and so on – things that their chosen opponents have in great supply. There’s a serious disconnect between theme and implementation here, stemming from the game’s inability to differentiate between a conscious dedication to a moral and ethical stance and passive drift into one alignment or the other. I hold that if alignment is going to have mechanical meaning, there needs to be an additional level of distinction separating fiends, blackguards, and the like from ruthless but entirely mundane crime lords.
For the sake of discussion, let’s term these alignments as Greater Evil and Exalted Heroism. The theme behind the aforementioned powers suggests to me that they should be the weapons of Greater Evils, fully-functioning against all but the Exalted Heroes. My point here is that the sanctity of spirit that Exalted Hero status requires is something akin to paladinhood. (I don’t know, maybe this is something they addressed in the Book of Exalted Deeds – I never really delved into that one.) Holy weapons, holy word, and holy aura, on the other hand, have reduced, if any, effect against ordinary people, including evil characters who have not become Greater Evils. I’d like to see the core of “Good” in D&D – in the form of these weapons that are reserved to Exalted Heroes – take on an aspect of mercy and high-mindedness, destroying only those who have gone beyond the pale. This would be not entirely unlike reclassifying a lot of Good characters and a lot of Evil characters as neutral, but with the benefit of matching up more comfortably with the way people tend to talk about characters and alignment.
Oh, and a note on Neutrality. “Ethical Neutrality” – a decision to do some evil stuff because you think the forces of Good are too strong – is about the stupidest thing ever. I much preferred the description that at least one player used in King’s Gate: “You don’t need a little [evil] in your life to be balanced any more than you need a little sickness to be healthy.” An actual ethical neutrality would be about holding oneself apart from the world’s conflicts, particularly between those forces that self-identify as Good and Evil, or a conscious decision to live with all of the ethical discernment of beasts in the wild.
Since I’ve wandered far afield of my initial point, let me bring it back together by saying that Lawful and Chaotic behaviors are situational and cultural, and the strain of maintaining lawful good alignment in a corrupt society has an artificiality to it that I’d rather see phrased – and handled – in a non-mechanical way. I’d be just as happy if detect evil as an at-will ability never showed its face again, while we’re on the topic – having to write the story around such a power causes a lot of things that may not break the game, but they certainly interfere with the fiction. If the game wants mechanical consequences to actions, though, let it find more objective terminology: characters who have sworn such-and-such an oath to the Gods Above or the Adversary undergo a lasting change to their souls. Greater Evils mostly gain destructive potential (as a tradeoff for their newfound vulnerability to holy weapons, et al.), while Exalted Heroes mostly gain resistance to unholy weapons and spells that normal people do not enjoy, but become bound by a clear code of conduct, possibly including all kinds of unusual things to maintain ritual purity.
I don’t have a problem with a field for alignment on a character sheet. It’s not hurting anything just by being there, and it’s an element of tradition for a great many players. I personally don’t miss it in AE, and wouldn’t miss alignment if it were cut completely. Maybe it would be a good area for an early-release optional rules module. Likewise, I want a great many forces of opposition and conflict in games. What I don’t want is for the mechanical construct of alignment to compel or particularly even inform the characters’ decisions. I don’t even have a problem with the existence of cosmic-level good or evil, as this page should make pretty clear. Aligning oneself with or against various political entities and particular villains is by far the more interesting question in the course of play (since it’s rather unlikely that any celestial PCs will Fall, or the like – of course, I’ll be fascinated if I discover that I’m wrong). In Aurikesh, I am not asking PCs to make an alignment choice, though I am asking that they steer more toward heroism than itinerant murder hobos.
There is also Pendragon‘s handling for character personality – Passions, Virtues, Vices, and Religious and Chivalrous thresholds. This is a highly granular system for numerically describing a character, and does that pretty well; on the other hand, it also dictates a character’s actions at times, and a series of bad rolls could lead to a character being seriously screwed. It isn’t a perfect system, but it does a great job of rewarding characters for adhering to a demanding code of behavior.
While I’m here, and to save me from having to write another post on alignment in the future, I want to make just a few more points on Evil. D&D has always treated the concept of evil PCs as characters who are very Mua-ha-ha evil, slaughtering and sacrificing their way across the countryside and betraying each other on a whim. Look, this is ridiculous. Evil is tribalism, putting the needs and desires of the in-group over the good of the whole community. If you want to play a campaign of evil characters that won’t implode the first time one of the characters falls asleep, play mafioso. Brutal, intelligent, with a strong ability to cooperate and work with those who have earned the loyalty of the group: frankly, I think an awful lot of D&D campaigns wind up in or at least pass through this point. In LARPs, evil PCs with any will to live look around and realize that survival takes cooperation. Maybe you don’t volunteer as much of your resources as you could, but doing the socially-acceptable minimum can still get the job done, and while all of this is going on, you quietly keep an eye out to the main chance. Or maybe you know what you do is wrong, but you believe that your bloody deeds will keep your loved ones safe and out of the muck you’re now standing in – “evil because I think it’s my duty” is a concept that has still not lost its hold on me.

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4 thoughts on “Alignment

  • Stephen

    It's interesting you mention Pendragon at the end, as the first part of the post put me distinctly in mind of a Pendragon-by-way-of-Unknown-Armies type of archetype system.

    That is, you distill out a short but binding list of codes that are standardized, and that's what supernatural alignment effects glom onto. You may keep the standard two axis model as a prereq for most archetypes, but people not following the archetypes aren't expected to care overly much. So you can decide to try to follow "The Champion" if you're LG, but you can also be LG and not care about any of its tenets.

    Sticking to an archetype could provide Pendragon religious/chivalry bonus-style effects, and might serve as a gate for particular classes. But rather than just making the Monk Lawful, you could create a series of archetypes (e.g., "Can only use Ki powers while successfully supporting The Ascetic (LN), The Trickster (CG), The Hermit (TN), etc."

  • Brandes Stoddard


    The only major addition I'd make to that system is to give it a way to handle change in a character's personality and archetype over time. I mean, we may all want to be iconic heroes, but it doesn't always work out that way. All you'd really need is a way to respend Ascetic Monk abilities over into Trickster Monk abilities (assuming they're different), possibly with some "spin-up" time immediately after the shift, but quickly returning to the power level you'd attained in the previous archetype.

    Interesting idea!

  • Ms. J.

    I dislike alignment, for all the reasons you mention. Now, to be fair – when I think of roleplaying my mind immediately goes to LARPs. In that context, especially for long-term characters, "alignment" as a single, permanent trait is kind of silly.

    Tabletop is a different animal, and leads to characters painted with a much broader brush. In that respect, holding to a particular code might work better.

    Here's what I would rather see in a tabletop setting, though: some people can choose to follow a set ethical code, as an IP choice. It could be a guild oath, a chivalric pledge, or whatever. Breaking a moral *code* is one thing — that's something where the character has deliberately picked a side, so to speak. Most people, and characters though, act in a way that is largely determined by specific circumstances. Choosing a particular character class/career path may mean committing to following a particular path, and to get the specialty class benefits, the character would have to hold to that moral code. Break the code, poof there go the abilities. I've seen that done fairly successfully in LARPs (though there is a certain amount of narc'ing on your Knight buddy to plot involved), and I think it could work in a tabletop setting as well.