Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I Thought Everyone Knew

I don't play with alignments, but I must not have made this clear, as I was only just asked about it today.  So lets talk about the subject.  Since alignments are, effectively, a philosophical conception, let's treat them as one.

Opening my DMG to page 23, I find the following written:
"Alignment describes the broad ethos of thinking, reasoning creatures - those unintelligent sorts being placed in the neutral area because they are totally uncaring."
I find it interesting that Gygax and his buddies, for reasons that completely escape me, felt that it would be a problem to use the ideologies invented by thinking, reasoning humans through all history - believing instead that it was better to drum up a simplistic sociological diagram to replace all that.  It was the 1970s, however, and I wonder what obscure University of Chicago professor's baby was stolen in order to instigate this atrocity to human thought.

And what is described by 'unintelligent sorts'?  Do we mean animals?  Do we suggest that violent behavior in the quest of food is a neutral aspect?  Was Jean Val Jean neutral?  It sound more that, having no means to explain away the motivations of non-thinking creatures within our invented belief system, we have to put them somewhere, anywhere, that doesn't get in the way.

Let us continue:
"Note that alignment does not necessarily dictate religious persuasion, although many religious beliefs will dictate alignment."
Lovely side-step there.  Not all religious types of a particular religion are lawful, or chaotic, or good, or evil ... what people proport to believe does not dictate their actions.  I believe that is the crux of the above statement.  But since alignments are used to indicate class loyalties, or racial loyalties - as they are, let's face it, every monster is defined by its alignment - aren't we really saying that religion has no place in D&D?  That the paladin isn't serving his or her god, but rather his or her social status ... so who cares what the god thinks?

Of course I'm wrong - every other thing said about alignment and religion clearly ignores the above quote ... further demonstrating that the authors are pulling this out of their ass.  But then, I'm ignoring this little gem:
"As explained under ALIGNMENT LANGUAGES (q.v.) this aspect of alignment is not the major consideration."
This is a whole section written on p.24, where it talks about languages existing between ideologically inclined individuals.  It never does explain why religious practice and religious beliefs have nothing to do with one another, but it does describe one of the stupidest conceptions ever presented as part of the game.  I strongly suggest the gentle reader take a glance - it is a lovely hodgepodge of discontinuous, vague, non-definitive suggestions for how people of similar alignment might communicate with each other.  In terms of clarification, it is like listening to a New Jersey politician defend welfare.  I have no idea what premise suggests that people who are mutually evil are able to communicate with each other ... I presume Hitler and Goebbels looked into each other's eyes and just knew.
"The overall behavior of the character (or creature) is delineated [represented accurately or precisely] by alignment, or, in the case of player characters, behavior determines actual alignment.  Therefore, besides defining the general tendencies of creatures, it also groups creatures into mutually acceptable or at least non-hostile divisions."
I love the English language.  I really prefer when it is used well.

I could not resist inserting the accurate definition of the word 'delineated,' since it is clearly not the word that the Gygaxian crowd really meant.  Each part of this description of alignment becomes increasingly more muddy as the two sentences go on - first character is precisely defined, then generally defined, and then, finally, acceptably general.

In other words, well, yes, the alignments kind of mean something, but don't take them too much to heart, as they are really just guidelines meant to encourage creatures to either join together or mindlessly kill each other.

Moreover, since we don't want to tell characters exactly how to behave, we'll employ the technique of letting them do whatever they want and defining them after the fact.  Which works in every case except, of course, the paladin - the ever-present defining template on which are alignment-based debates hang.  Understand, the only reason why a paladin's alignment had to be good was because it was perceived that the class was so powerful, no other means could be used to bind players who chose to play it.  Nevermind that there is no precedent whatsoever, even in such writings as Le Morte d'Arthur or the Song of Roland, to suggest that knights behave anything like the description of a 'Good' alignment in the DMG.  Once again, they pulled it right out of their ass.

Fact is, the paladin doesn't need the counterbalance to its supposed 'power.'  I've played with non-limited paladins for years and have never noticed one yet that overbalanced a party.

If we are going to define players by what they do, and not restrict them before the fact, why have an alignment system at all?  For simplicity?  For the sheer pleasure of being able to label each other?  My my my, this game was written in the 1970s.

Now watch as we qualify further what we've invented:

"This is not to say that groups of similarly aligned creatures cannot be opposed or even mortal enemies.  Two nations, for example, with rulers of lawful good alignment can be at war.  Bands of orcs can hate each other."
Then what the fuck is this alignment thing good for?  If it can be utterly ignored in terms of creatures' behavior towards one another, WHY DO WE NEED IT?  How is this improving the game?  How does it expand the game's potential in making it either fun or interactive?  We've already said that the players don't behave according to alignments, that alignments are assigned according to their behavior - so please, why are we wasting out time?

"But the former would possibly [???] cease their war to oppose a massive invasion of orcs, just as the latter would make common cause against the lawful good men."
Woah.  Just let me hold onto my head a moment.  What the fuck do you mean, 'possibly'?  You mean they might not stop fighting each other to oppose a massive invasion?  Would they stop fighting if it were only a mild invasion?  Or would they keep fighting each other if the massive invasion weren't by orcs, but was brought on by a group of lawful good elves?  And while we're considering that, would orcs NOT make common cause against a massive invasion brought on by chaotic evil troglodytes?  I'm feeling like Rocco from Boondock Saints: "Fuckin'- What the fuckin'. Fuck. Who the fuck fucked this fucking... How did you two fucking fucks..."

Here's a thought.  Let's just assume that sometimes creatures fight each other, and sometimes that's not convenient.  Sometimes, its convenient to defend ourselves, and join together.  Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with what we believe.

The rest of the paragraph reads:
"Thus, alignment describes the world view of creatures and helps define what their actions, reactions and purposes might be.  It likewise causes a player to choose an ethos which is appropriate to his or her profession, and alignment also aids players in the definition and role approach of their respective game personae.  With the usefulness of alignment determined, definition of the divisions is necessary."
The point was not made.  Maybe Gygax thought the point was made, maybe it fitted some cog in his brain, but the point was decidedly left to die in the proverbial dust.  Nothing is defined here.  No purposes are there to aid anyone in their profession or otherwise.  Usefulness was not determined.

The only successful result was the creation of untold numbers of meaningless, often passionately meaningless debates between D&D players, sometimes ending violently.  The perpetration of an ideological system, which players were told they needed to adhere to, without any proper format or thought, meant that every one of those arguments began with trying to wedge actual ideologies into this mock system.  I cannot begin to understand what has sustained its existence.

No, I don't play with alignments.


R said...

I'm highly biased, as alignments in the campaign I run are very important (as are ideologies in general) - but I wanted to say that I agree with you that the original setup of alignments is piss poor (the whole concept of alignment-languages is ridiculous to me). With a little bit of work, it's actually not that difficult to set up better parameters and guidelines than those provided.

I don't really want to start an alignment debate, so I'll just say that they are very useful for me as a philosophical shorthand for a character's belief system, which again, is critical in my campaign (Planescape).

Thanks for the response.

nextautumn said...

What has sustained its existence is the fact that some DMs (just some) want their players to behave as if they were in their characters' place, and some of the players in those DMs campaigns would prefer to behave as if they weren't (to put it awkwardly). For example, in real life, you (and I mean YOU here, as well as most gamers) wouldn't normally murder someone just for annoying you (because you're not chaotic evil). But from what I've read about a lot of games, that sort of thing goes on all the time. So the alignment system forces you to choose whether to be evil or chaotic or whatever, in which case you can murder and steal and...worse - or you can be good or lawful or whatever, in which case the DM who craves realism can say, "Dude, would a good person really murder the peasant for being slightly impudent?" It all depends on the way you want to play the game. I'm a little more gamist myself (less realism) but I still use alignments as a rough guide. I guess it's like this: if you're going to be a douche, BE a douche. If you want to be selfish, BE selfish. If you want to be a hero, ACT like a hero. It's not for everyone (I don't judge and I don't promote one way or the other), and the game works without it, but there was meaning to the madness.

Anonymous said...

Alexis, all I can say is amen.

KenHR said...

Alignment is pretty damn useless as it's presented in AD&D. It was a bit better in the original game, which only used the Law-Chaos axis; not bad for capturing the "Elric" vibe.

I played around a bit with the concept of alignment languages in a game a few years back. They weren't languages, per se, but more non-verbal cues to the makeup of a character's...character. As you say, Adolph and Joseph looked into one another's eyes and just knew. The concept worked all right that way, but I ended up discarding it because it didn't really add all that much to the game.

Adam Thornton said...

Well, I like the Great Wheel.

Nevertheless, I play without alignment, and wholeheartedly endorse this post. I've found that roleplayed alignment almost always falls into one of:

1) Lawful Irritating (the classic paladin)
2) Chaotic Idiotic (barbarians, fighters, Smashy McCrunchnuts)
3) Douchebag Dickhead (Half-Drow Ninja Assassin)
4) True Apathetic

I don't dig any of these guys in my game.


CaptPoco said...

Alignment has its uses, I think, as a ready-made philosophy that you can use for your character if you're too lazy to think about your character's morals or ethics (and, hey, I'm pretty lazy). The alignment languages thing was meant to be something like Medieval Latin or Classical Arabic. So, members of the same church (or alignment in this case) share this liturgical language that was used to write their holy book.

However, I think you make some really good points, and really, most people agree with you. The 4e people have, for all intents and purposes, shelved alignment.

rologutwein said...

About the only real use I see in Alignments are as a short-hand way to let (or remind) GMs how a particular NPC may react to a given situation. And even then, that's really only useful if it is a pre-generated adventure. But on the other hand-I always wind up modifying pre-gen adventures to suit myself, so....alignment? Meh.

As far as paladins and rangers go, I do feel there could be some kind of code or ethics they go by—but that should really be based on whatever 'order' they belong to. If you subscribe to the fact that their magical powers are derived from a divine source, then you may very well want to have this code of ethics ENFORCED by removal of divine powers. Afterall, an other-worldly force probably would take away the powers of those who went against it's own designs.

Anyway, just my two cents.

JD Neal said...

People in the game world are supposed to treat the player characters according to how the PCs act and the people are. If the PCs run around causing chao and being evil, they make bunches of enemies. If they are good, they make allies and freinds...

No one really needs a longer tag for NPCs other than "Evil" or "Good". The GM will play the NPC or monster as they want, not as they are told.

On one hand I think Gygax was subtly including bits and pieces to give people something to talk about, without any real in-game purpose for them. More controversy = more sales.

On the other I think he considered most players of the game idiots who needed every little thing about it explained ("Let me explain the difference between good and evil...)" Gygax probably understood "moral alignment" perfectly well and he wanted to tell other people how to play it in D&D. The same way everyone else who touched the rules changed them to play their way.

On the third hand I think he envisioned most people distancing their selves from it and playing it like chess. Or any other gameistic game like Sorry and Monopoly where they played by the rules, and not with creativity and imagination.

On the fourth hand, I think he expected people to use or ignore it as they desired.

On the fifth hand, he was tryng to design a game everyone understood and new how to play and could play the same way, with fewer personal interpeations.

On the sixth hand, he may have wanted some explicit definitions for things like how holy water works (some mumbly-jumbly good = positive energy and evil = negative energy sort of thingy...)

I ran out of hands a long time ago. Reading and studying AD&D and alignments as a scholar was fun. Playing it meant ignoring a lot of what seemed like meaningless gamer b.s. and just doing things our own way.

It served a purpose for a few moments of entertainment, and after that it just got in the way. If people didn't understand things like good and evil and how character actions effect others and how to play monsters -- how was reading a book going to help them? Except to make them rules lawyers with no imagination playing games the same way all the time...

E.G.Palmer said...

I always assumed that alignment was a description of basic personality traits, not an ethical construction.
I also assumed that alignment language was meant to refer to the way people of similar personalities can communicate in a subtle manner.
Politicians speak to each other in ways that allow unspoken understandings that non-politicians don't pick up on.
Military men do the same, as do any definable group.
Alignment refers to mind-set.
I thought everyone knew.