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Inside lives a goblin that feeds on indecision.

Alignment Heresy and A Reformation: Introduction

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D&D's various alignment systems provoke a lot of discussion, partly because they have multiple interpretations and multiple purposes. To quickly review changes across editions:

Original D&D and Basic D&D had only three alignments: Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. (One version of Basic, I forget which, added "Good" and "Evil". Not Lawful Good or Chaotic Good, just "Good".) Essentially it represented which "side" a character was on in an epic struggle, and spells could detect alignment. If I recall correctly, in OD&D Clerics could only be Lawful or Chaotic, and Chaotic clerics had "evil" replacements for a Lawful cleric's "good" spells.

AD&D introduced the familiar ninefold alignment system: one from column A (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic) and one from column B (Good, Neutral, Evil). Alignment restricted available classes, and the number of alignment-sensitive spells and class abilities grew. Debates about the meaning of Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil abounded, and explanations in both AD&D and 3.5 official publications were maddeningly vague in some respects lest someone take offense.

D&D 4e pared down the list of alignments to Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, Chaotic Evil; Lawful and Chaotic became intensifiers and not powers in their own right. For the first time, alignment had no mechanical ramifications except for choice of deities, and even then a cleric or paladin of any god could be Unaligned. Alignments became moral stances or ideals, and official publications strongly discouraged (Chaotic) Evil PCs.

To sum up, the original designers of D&D borrowed an idea from Michael Moorcock solely to arrange "sides" in a wargamey sense, and subsequent editions "fixed" it by expanding it to encompass philosophy and ethics. After several attempts at exegesis by players and game designers alike, alignment is now a vestigial system, D&D's equivalent of an appendix which does nothing. At least 4e alignment doesn't randomly kill people, as far as I know.

Alignment as it stands is fairly useless, but my relatively new interest in old school gaming unearthed two interesting uses of OD&D alignment:

1. Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role Playing (whew!) explained alignment as a cosmic affinity, not a moral or philosophical choice. Lawful beings believe the universe had a plan, and they have a part in that plan. Chaotic beings see a universe shaped by vast uncaring powers that could wipe out this island of safety and order at any moment. Neutral beings, the vast majority, might swing one way or the other depending on circumstances, but lack the certainty of Lawful and Chaotic individuals. Spells detect Chaotic alignment and ward off its influence. Interestingly, all Clerics must be Lawful, and all Magic-Users and Elves must be Chaotic.

2. Carcosa, an OD&D supplement now published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, uses a similar but more specific scheme. Lovecraft's eldritch horrors -- and things like them -- are very real in Carcosa. Chaotic beings worship them, Neutral beings try to avoid them, and Lawful beings staunchly oppose them. As in LotFP, Lawful isn't necessarily good, although Chaotic is either evil or insane.

These definitions, harking back to Moorcock, got me thinking about what alignment could mean. The next three posts are three thought experiments.

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Updated 04-29-2012 at 09:14 PM by fmitchell

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