Wednesday, December 30, 2009


A thought on Alignment in D&D, so why have an alignment system at all? Especially in matters pertaining to character action? So, a query: does evil actually exist and do we need a system to distinguish good and evil in D&D?

Star Trek and Star Wars are two entertainment universes where good and evil have been explored. In Star Wars, evil absolutely exists. It's in stark reality: Sith vs. Jedi, Empire vs. Republic (or the Alliance to Restore the Republic), the Dark Side vs. the Light Side.

In Star Trek, evil is not always explored. It's more subtle in Star Trek. Although extremes did exist: Khan vs. Kirk; Nero vs. Spock. Kirk vs. Commander Kargh. And Picard vs. the Borg Queen. Yet, we have alignment in D&D, evil absolutely must function in a D&D game on paper. In practice, D&D games are as individual as their DMs.

Greywulf runs a horror game about the End of the World. I set up games more along Star Trek's lines: treating each person with their own individual set of beliefs. Not to say that evil doesn't exist in my universe (it does). But I try to take each race into account.

I run the orcs like they were Klingons (a role many argue that is best suited for Hobgoblins). Star Trek's Phase II own Commander Kargh is an inspiration of how I run orcs (also World of Warcraft is a big inspiration). An orc commander is like Kargh, serves his country first and distrusting of his human counterpart. Not necessarily evil, but mistrust of humans may make an orc to act coolly at best.

However, other GMs treat orcs differently. So, what is alignment in D&D for? I believe it is there to describe how certain magic spells interact. Detect Evil detects the presence of evil -- like how Luke could tell the difference between the Dark Side and the Good Side of the Force in ESB on planet Dagobah. Detect evil detects malevolence, hatred, and mal-intent. Detect Good, its opposite, detects peace and serenity. Detect Law detects order, while Detect Chaos gives feelings of confusion.

Some spells are labeled "evil" meaning to use them you use them with pure malice and evil intent. I.e. spells like Drain Soul, and Drain Life (from the WoW RPG) have the evil descriptor since you are taking a piece of a man's soul or draining his life energy from his body.

Some spells are labeled "good" meaning to use them, you use them to preserve life and to preserve order. However, situations can call into question the motive of using such spells. Any spell, whether good or evil, can be used for good or for evil. Cure Light Wounds can be used for malice like a doctor curing a patient he hates against his will (although the Hippocratic Oath may demand him curing the patient anyhow). Spells like cause light wounds or harm may be used to save human life from threat of death against a terrible foe.

So, does alignment suck? I argue, that although our Universe is relative for a reason -- and that good and evil exists in our universe to provide a point to learn and to make choices between the two -- alignment is flawed in a game like Dungeons and Dragons. Some argue to take it away and some spells don't work.

I argue that those spells do exist and they do work. Detect Evil will still detect evil. A feeling of coldness, a feeling of not rightness, death, separation -- Detect Evil will still work in a game without alignments. So will detect good, which produces feelings of oneness, unity, holiness, serenity, and peace.

So do I use Alignment? Yes, I do. But I approach the matter in a complex way. Ideologically speaking, from my point of view, evil has to exist in the Game World as it does in ours. But a character doesn't have to act evil. He has his own motives. This can be serving the best interest of your country (Commander Kargh), feeling revenge after terrible loss (Nero), or being used to slavery, being finally free, and then swearing utter loyalty to an insidious force (Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader swearing loyalty to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious).

Lawful Goodness aside, in the World of Galatea, everything is spelled out.

~ Paladins serve honor, God, and country. They seek to do good, using holy magic along with their martial might. They are the paragons of virtue and thus act as such.

~ Warlocks traffick with demons or use demonic magic. They are viewed as selfish, dark, or evil by the populace at large. Still, very few Warlocks seek redemption by using their magic for heroic ends while others use their magic for malice and evil purposes. The Warlock still attends to a code of honor.

~ There is a code of honor among thieves in the nation of Caithness. This honor works to Caithness' advantage in using thieves and rogues in their espionage program. In the orc horde, honor is everything -- especially among rogues and thieves.

~ Some warriors and wizards totally give themselves to the Dark Side, figuring that the ends justify their means. They work evil to achieve their goals.

~ Some kings, given the trappings of power, are good and righteous kings. Others abuse their power and station, creating laws that perpetuate their state.

And there are many examples. But one thing is for certain -- Alignment in D&D is flawed. Doubly so in the Paladium Books' family of games. But it is an easy way to describe a character's actions and belief system.

1 comment:

greywulf said...

Good post.

I'm enjoying my campaign's look into the tangible nature of Good vs. Evil right now, though my own personal preference is for the simplicity of Classic D&D's alignment system. This was before AD&D went and broke it all :D

In Classic D&D there's just three Alignments - Lawful, Neutral and Chaos. There's no definite "good" or "evil" as such - those are just matters of perspective, after all - but the cosmic battle is really the one between Law and Chaos.

And I love it. It's civilization vs. the untamed wild. It's Order vs. Disorder. It's Lovecraftian Horrors vs. Robots.

Good versus Evil doesn't even hold a candle against it :D

That's why in Classic D&D, a Goblin's alignment is Chaotic - he's a savage unbound by the laws of man. He might well be evil, but he just as equally might become your best friend (then kill you - chaotics are like that :D).

It's a simpler, purer and much smarter alignment system than the one it evolved into with AD&D, that's for sure.

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