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All About Alignment, Part II


Last installment, I discussed the problems of alignment, and why despite those problems, throwing out alignment is the wrong move if your campaign is based on the themes of myth, legend, and fiction that most are. I argued that because morality is “hardcoded” into the most popular RPG genres, such as high fantasy and space opera, RPGs need an alignment system to maintain their verisimilitude to their genres. I then explored whether we could make sense of the inscrutable yet insanely popular Dungeons & Dragons alignment system by applying theory from real-world moral philosophy.

Successfully explaining the differing D&D alignments as different moral frameworks took us from Lawful Good’s deontological altruism to Chaotic Evil’s consequentialist nihilism. But this result, which might be called “alignment as philosophy,” is highly abstract. In our follow-up discussion on the forums, many of you said you needed a simpler, more concrete system for your games. So this column, we’ll take a look at some simpler approaches, including the original Chainmail/D&D system and the popular Palladium Megaverse system.

Alignment as Allegiance

The system I described in my last installment could be called “alignment as philosophy,” explaining the differing D&D alignments as different moral frameworks. A vastly simpler alternative is what I call “alignment as allegiance,” meaning that a character’s alignment is simply a statement of which side he is on in some struggle existential to the campaign world. In a World War II RPG, the alignments could be Allied, Axis, and Neutral. In a Star Wars RPG, the alignments could be Alliance, Imperial, and Mercenary. In a Mad Max/post-apocalyptic RPG, the alignments could be Settler, Raider, and Drifter.

Under this alignment system, a character’s personal virtues and vices matter don’t matter, only his allegiance to the cause. In a World War II context, if your character is a nasty piece of work that gets off on fear and likes to carve up the flesh of his defeated foes, it doesn’t matter, so long as he fights bravely for the Allies, he’s a good guy. (Inglourious Basterds , I’m looking at you!) Likewise, if your character is an upstanding, honorable, disciplined soldier who writes books, loves his wife, and gives to charity, it doesn’t matter. If he fights for the Axis, like Erwin Rommel, he’s a bad guy. If that’s too historical, then consider that you needn’t mourn the death of the contractors on the Death Star because they were aligned Imperial.

While this might seem like a radical revision of what alignment is supposed to do, it actually harkens back to the very first alignment system in the very first RPG. Consider that the word “alignment” is not a term that has anything to do with ethics or morals when used in contexts outside of role-playing games. Rather, alignment is mostly used in two ways, neither tied to morality: 1) to refer to something that we need for our car (“I need to get my car’s alignment adjusted”); 2) to refer to which side in a conflict a nation chooses (“The alignment of Italy with Germany created the Axis of Steel that was to terrorize Europe”).

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In the latter reference we find the origin of the term: Alignment in D&D originally referred to which side in a conflict a character chose! Chainmail, the miniature wargame from which D&D descended, provided an order of battle dividing all creatures into “Law,” “Neutral,” and “Chaos.” These were factions within the wargame, just as in a wargame about World War II there would be “Allied,” “Neutral,” and “Axis” factions. When Chainmail individualized to D&D, the individual character’s choice of a faction became known as his “Alignment,” as in indicating which of the warring factions the character had “aligned” himself with. The only suggestion of a moral context is seen in the fact that presumably pleasant creatures like treants and unicorns were said to be aligned with Law while the likes of evil high priests, vampires, and orcs were said to be aligned with Chaos.

Why did Chainmail and D&D use Law and Chaos to describe the warring factions? Many people mistakenly credit this to Michael Moorcock and the Elric series, but the origin actually comes from Poul Anderson’s classic Three Hearts and Three Lions:

[He] got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos… Humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though some of them were so only unconsciously, and some, witches and warlocks, and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos. A few nonhuman beings also stood for Law. Ranged against them were almost the whole Middle World, which seemed to include realms like Faerie, Trollheim, and the Giants – an actual creation of Chaos. Wars among men, such as the long-drawn struggle between the Saracens and the Holy Empire, aided Chaos; under Law, all men would live in peace and order and that liberty which only Law could give meaning. But this was so alien to Middle Worlders that they were forever working to prevent it and extend their own shadowy dominion.”

A similar primeval struggle seems to show up in almost every game or genre, representing the war between civilization and barbarism, Western “white hats” v. “black hats,” and so on. It is the implicit alignment system of both Villains & Vigilantes and Marvel Superheroes and pretty much every other superhero game. As a system, it’s exceptionally simple to define, as all it really requires is being able to identify two competing sides that a character is fighting for (if not willing to die for any side, the character is neutral). It maintains the sense of grand struggle that is provided by an over-arching alignment system, a sense that the character’s decisions are part of something larger than himself. And it achieves all these goals while maintaining maximum flexibility for the player characters to develop their personalities without concern that they’ll violate their alignment.

There are two downsides to “alignment as allegiance” system. The first is that there has to be some sort of existential conflict within the campaign, within which characters give steady allegiance to one side or another. It would be hard to use alignment as allegiance in Cyberpunk 2020, for instance (everyone’s alignment would just be “Self!”). The second is that the system does not provide any role-playing guidance for how the character might behave. For instance, despite their vast differences in behavior and code, “alignment as allegiance” puts Superman, Batman, and the Punisher all on the same side (Hero).



Alignment as Attitude

Fortunately, there’s another system you can turn to if what you want is a simple system that can differentiate between, e.g., Superman and the Punisher without requiring an understanding of Kant. If last installment’s system was “alignment as philosophy,” explaining the differing D&D alignments as different moral frameworks, this system could be called “alignment as attitude” and it appears in all the Palladium Books Megaverse RPGs. By virtue of the great popularity of Palladium’s Rifts and its ilk (Robotech, Heroes Unlimited, etc.) these rules are probably the second-most popular alignment system in tabletop gaming, and even more probably the closest in practice to how players actually think about and use alignment in play.

Rifts and its relatives describe alignment as the characters’ “attitudes and moral principles.” These alignments are organized along a single axis, good/selfish/evil, with 2-3 alignments of each type. Each alignment is assigned a highly descriptive names: The good alignments are “principled” and “scrupulous,” the selfish alignments are “unprincipled” and “anarchistic,” and the evil alignments are “aberrant,” “miscreant,” and “diabolic.” Each of these alignments is further defined by a short set of guidelines that describe the habitual behavior of its adherents. For instance, both principled and aberrant characters “always keep their word” while anarchist characters “may keep their word” and diabolic characters “rarely keep their word and have no honor.” Miscreant characters “will betray a friend if it serves their needs” while diabolic characters “will betray a friend because you can always find another friend.” Anarchistic characters “do not work within groups and tend to do as they please despite orders to the contrary,” while unprincipled characters “work with groups, especially if its serves his needs, is profitable, and/or he’s in the limelight.”

Because the names are descriptive and concrete, and the guidelines are so clear, players can instantly grasp what it means to be “principled” or “anarchistic.” It’s much easier to grasp a concrete set of guidelines than to try to grapple with what it means to be “lawful good” or, god forbid, “chaotic neutral.” It’s also much easier to assign famous characters into this alignment system (i.e. without much debate one can see that Superman is “principled,” Batman is “scrupulous,” and The Punisher is “aberrant”), which is helpful both in gaming in popular settings and also in generally setting expectations. So if the approach to alignment from my prior column strikes you as too abstract and philosophical, the Palladium Games’ system is a fast, simple, and effective alternative.

The downside to the Palladium approach is inherent in its strength; the alignments really are just habitual behaviors. It removes the metaphysical meaning of the alignments entirely. It is hard to envision heroes rallying to the cause of Principledness in the way that we imagine the heroes of Law doing. Nor is there a sense of metaphysical karma: Nothing in the Palladium system marks out a Principled character as anything other than a schmuck who lets the bad guys take advantage of his honor and gentleness.

In practice, you can overcome this if you’re willing to “hack the system” and correlate the Palladium alignments with the D&D alignments:

  • Principled – Lawful Good
  • Scrupulous – Chaotic Good
  • Unprincipled – Neutral (with good tendencies)
  • Anarchistic – Chaotic Neutral
  • Aberrant – Lawful Evil
  • Miscreant – Neutral Evil
  • Diabolic – Chaotic Evil

You can tinker with the specific behaviors for each, and add new ones to fill in the gaps (“Bureaucratic” for Lawful neutral, for instance), and otherwise flesh out the system to your taste.

What Would You Use?

Given that I’ve presented three different alignment systems for your campaigns, I’d love to hear which system is closest to what you currently use, and what you might use for your next campaign.


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