Abandoning Alignment

By | January 5, 2013

Hello again, and welcome to 2013!

Our New Year’s Resolution this year is. . .well, nevermind, we stink at keeping New Year’s Resolutions, and we don’t want to jinx anything!  Instead, I’m going to talk about something the Infinite Earths system leaves behind like last year’s digits. . .alignment.

Alignment is a staple of derivatives of Dungeons and Dragons, and it was actually one of the first things we cut from our ruleset.  We would like play using the Infinite Earths ruleset to be less about “these are the NPCs that are always okay to kill” and “these are the NPCs that are not okay to kill.”  It’s this same design goal that is behind many of our decisions about Race and Culture (which I will be speaking more of in the coming weeks).

Having an alignment system in place allowed some players to conceptualize social interactions between beings with different complex moral systems as simplified and “black and white.”  Here’s an example:  we once encountered a player, a paladin, who would cast detect evil on any innkeeper.  If the innkeeper registered as evil, the paladin would attack and kill the innkeeper and saw this as perfectly in-keeping with his Lawful Good alignment. His logic was simple:  it is Good to destroy Evil.  And I can’t fault that logic: any number of entertainments and philosophers will tell you that this is morality boiled down to its essence.

And this serves to highlight two problems with alignment:  one, of course, is that alignment for some players gives “permission” to treat opposing-alignment characters without consideration.  It is an afterthought as to why or how the innkeeper was evil: it sufficed only that he was.  The second problem is that alignment tries to reduce complex moral structures into a nine-axis “easy button.”

The innkeeper in question was Lawful Evil.  This meant that he was a greedy sonofawitch who wouldn’t break the law, but would try to make as much money off anybody who came through his doors that he could.  This alignment could also probably be called “typical businessman” without offending anyone other than typical businessmen (I kid, I kid).  Does this outlook on life necessitate the pointy end of a sword?  I would say no, generally, myself: the punishment does not fit the crime.  To some people, though, it would.  And that’s fine, but the fact of the matter is the underlying moral structure ultimately wasn’t a consideration:  he was evil, he got the sword.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “there are lots of ways you could turn the tables on this paladin, either using the rules or the story to punish him for his overly-enthusiastic destruction of evil.”  But that misses the point, and turns the problem into one of “Player vs. GM.”  The point is that this behavior, on the part of this player, would not have existed if the player did not have a “free pass” to behave this way due to alignment.

Another solution that may be brewing in your mind is an examination of the interpretation of alignment.  Perhaps it is only Good to destroy Evil if Evil reaches a certain Evilness Threshold beyond which Evil is Really Evil instead of just Sorta Evil.  This brings up the third and biggest problem with alignment:  it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

The number of times, in my 20 years of gaming, I’ve heard people claim that Lawful Good means that when you cross the borders of a country, your entire moral perception shifts to the laws of the new country, is staggering.  The number of people who groan and facepalm when a paladin joins the adventuring party, or the number of people who choose to play Neutral or Chaotic Neutral because that way they can do “whatever they want”, is likewise both staggering and disheartening.

Alignment over the years has become a bastion of arcane and often nonsensical interpretations of morality.  And yes, you could argue about what alignment means, you could set a house or GM-made rule that identifies how you as a GM will consistently handle alignment-based decisions, but the fact of the matter is that having to make up rules about using the rules highlights the fact that these are bad rules.  They are an artifact of gaming history, a legacy that add little and subtract quite a bit.

What do they add?  An easy method to figure out if you can kill that guy.  What do they subtract?  Any decisionmaking about whether you should kill that guy.  Have you crafted a sympathetic villain, who would actually be willing to change his ways?  Screw it, he’s evil, kill him.

Alignment, to our minds, serves to reduce tabletop gaming to a video game.  The decision tree in a video game goes something like this:

  1. Is its nameplate red?
    • Yes: Kill It and Loot It
    • No: Continue
  2. Is its nameplate green?
    • Yes: Talk To It
    • No: Continue
  3. Is its nameplate yellow?
    • Yes
      1. Does it have something you want?
        • Yes: Kill it and Loot It
        • No: Ignore It
    • No: It’s nameplate is gray, Ignore it because its Loot is crap

Don’t get us wrong: we love video games!  And that decision tree is based on World of Warcraft, a game that we’ve played now for more than 6 years (skipping Cataclysm because. . .meh).  There’s nothing wrong with that decision tree. . .for a video game.

But tabletop games have a living, breathing person acting as the story engine, so there’s no reason to simply things that much.  Having structures in place which simplify what we would consider story complexity (given that alignment more-or-less directly correlates with PC and NPC motivations) also reduces player and GM/Guide creativity in handling situations.  It leads to people thinking certain races are “heroic” and certain races are “villainous.”

Removing alignment removes a lot of junk, clearing the way for a more behavior-based interaction system wherein players can interact with NPCs based on their behavior, not a vaguely-defined, variously-interpreted nine-point star.  And we won’t even get into the religious overtones of alignment.

We’ll just wave goodbye, thanking it for its service and all the mind-boggling arguments it’s gotten us into over the years.  Next week, I’ll talk about how the behavior-based social system in Infinite Earths can be used to enhance social interaction between PCs and NPCs and enrich the story overall.  And our Paladin and Innkeeper will be making a return.

See you next time!