Musings on alignment

Discussion in 'BOARDANIAN ROLEPLAY GROUP' started by Buzzfloyd, Sep 29, 2005.

  1. Buzzfloyd Spelling Bee

    This is just a mini-essay I wrote today. Alignment is a concept I do battle with every time I create a character for D&D. I hope people will have comments to offer, or maybe disagree with some of my thoughts or be able to clear up any misunderstandings on my part (of which I'm sure there are several - I am still very much a novice player). The brief bits explaining Discworld are for the benefit of others who I am showing this to, rather than you guys, obviously.


    On Alignment

    The alignment system in D&D 3.5 edition is a decent way of simplifying a lot of ideas about morality common in high fantasy settings. It is functional as a prima facie evaluation of character behaviour and player choices in a roleplaying game; and, if all you’re interested in is a hack and slash style adventure, it saves a lot of time and uncertainty.

    Unfortunately, if you wish to play a more involved, story-based game, the alignment system quickly becomes too simple to reflect the nature of realistic characters. After all, real morality and ethics are a lot more complex than something that can be displayed in a cut’n’paste diagram.

    A man who kills others for a living (ie an assassin) is evil in D&D terms. But if he kills monstrous races for a living, then he’s an adventurer, and might be good or neutral. The difference is in whether or not you’re a human-friendly race; so ethics in D&D are based upon a humano-centric, or contextually racist, assumption.

    Let’s look at the example of an assassin a bit more. In D&D, a working assassin is always evil, because they take innocent life for profit (which assumes that the victims of an assassin are always innocent). That sounds acceptable as far as it goes. But what about a character like Ogami Itto, of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series? Along with his infant son, he chooses the assassin’s road as a means to avenge the slaughter of his wife and household. In the story, Ogami is clearly the moral victor, whether judged by the standards of feudal Japan or of modern Western Europe. He ought to be defined in D&D terms as Lawful Good or Lawful Neutral, but because he is an assassin, he must be Lawful Evil. Bringing existent, fully actualised characters into the D&D setting like this brings its shortcomings into sharp focus much better than building a character within the system would.

    We might take the example of a character of my own, from an open, text-based roleplay based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Jago Idlewild was a member of the Ankh-Morpork Assassins’ Guild. The guilds in Ankh-Morpork are nurtured by the city ruler as a means of keeping otherwise lawless activities within the public eye. The Guilds of Thieves, Assassins and other undesirables are not considered evil, but part of the smooth running of the city (and wider world) and its politics. It was when examining ways to retool this character for the D&D setting that I really started to think about the problems with the alignment system.

    Jago was a superb candidate for the old nature/nurture debate, as his somewhat antisocial character was moulded by his infant years with his prostitute mother, and subsequent harsh upbringing in the bleak, monastic Fools’ Guild. The illegitimate son of a noble, he left his later career in the army to avenge his mother’s death from a venereal disease by killing his father, to whom he attributed ultimate guilt for his mother’s ignominious end. Joining the Assassins’ Guild was an ideal means to achieving this goal.

    This motive alone would not make a character evil in the metaphorical eyes of the alignment system. I would have been inclined to give Jago the label Chaotic Neutral. However, because he was an assassin, he must automatically be converted to Chaotic Evil.

    According to the rulebooks, an evil character is one who willingly and deliberately chooses to perform immoral acts, delighting in doing so. It is not that other people don’t matter to them, as with a sociopath, but that they actively desire to do them harm. But this picture clearly doesn’t fit Jago Idlewild.

    Let’s take a look at one of Jago’s colleagues, the Guildmaster, a troll prince named Onyx del Capitanues. On Discworld, trolls are a different type of species from those in D&D; more like Earth elementals, they are essentially large humanoids made of stone. Onyx was a good candidate for a Lawful character, since he had a strong moral code based around the notion of honour; he was never seen to break either that or the Assassins’ code. But what about evil, his default alignment in D&D? Onyx’s player was inclined to see the troll as an evil character, which would, of course, be the decider. But here is another problem with the D&D system.

    Onyx was certainly not a character who delighted in inflicting harm upon others. He took pride in his profession, but obtained no vicarious thrill from it. He did not seek to do others wrong, but conducted his personal life with the same care and courtesy (and arrogance and pomposity – he was a well-rounded character) that went into his professional life. Furthermore, Onyx saw the Assassins’ Guild as a political necessity; to him, assassins were like caretakers, doing the dirty work that no one else wanted, to keep the city’s well-oiled machine running smoothly. To him, assassination was not immoral, but a utility developed into an artform.

    There might be an argument that Onyx’s amoral outlook made him evil; he simply didn’t see other people’s lives as important. But the D&D rulebooks make it clear that amorality constitutes neutrality, while immorality constitutes evil. It’s a difference of only a few letters between the words, but philosophically, the leap is enormous and defining.

    So, in a D&D setting, Onyx should be a Lawful Neutral character according to the assumptions of the various alignments, but will automatically be converted to Lawful Evil, due to his profession. His creator would probably have been happy with that anyway, but there is clearly a problem with the system if his alignment by the books meets his player’s vision only by accident.

    Any person of reasonable intelligence can see that there must be conflicting viewpoints when defining moral terms like good and evil. In the D&D setting, these are also concrete forces as well as philosophical positions. The definitions given are traditional ones, and easy to fall back on. Yet, when you actually examine their application, they are over-simplistic and unrealistic. This is the understanding of a small child who sees and defines others’ actions only in terms of how they are personally affected: if someone regularly does something I don’t like, it must be because they are inherently evil, and not because they have a reason of their own of which I am unaware; if someone regularly does something I like, it must be because they are inherently good, and not because their goals coincide with mine. This way of thinking is unimaginative and unrealistic; it is redolent with stupidity.

    From the character’s point of view, they are always good or neutral. No one sees themselves as evil without total self-loathing.

    There is a similar problem with the definition of a Chaotic character. One chaotic type may be independently-minded, doing as they see fit, rather than as society does. However, if they are following some personal code, rather than emotion and whimsy, they are considered Lawful, even if they do not abide by the law of the land or government. Additionally, a chaotic character may be one who is insane. This, in my opinion, is erroneous.

    People with mental illnesses do not act randomly. They develop neuroses, paranoid beliefs and psychoses which cause them to behave in an unusual manner. The acts of an insane person may appear random to an outsider, but make perfect sense when viewed with the delusional mindset of that particular person. The embodiment of Law in the D&D universe is the modron, a creature that is characterised by its utter unpredictability and appearance of madness, due to the religious following of apparently random internal laws. That is, its behaviour is utterly predictable if you are aware of the rule it is following; but without that knowledge, their behaviour may appear bizarre. The creators of the alignment system apparently fail to realise that people are like modrons in this respect.

    Following this notion of mental illness further, what if a character has a pathological condition that causes them to commit evil acts? Only sadists and those with serious emotional disturbances are motivated to cause suffering to others as an end goal. Should those who cause suffering to others as a side-effect be considered evil? Again, it is a question of amoral behaviour versus immoral behaviour, with the added question thrown in of whether a mentally ill person can be held accountable for immoral behaviour.

    I have to say, though, that the D&D model of evil can only be explained by mental illness, in which case, are all mentally ill people who commit immoral acts considered evil in this setting, or only if they commit immoral acts against our heroes and their allies?

    It appears, then, that a character is categorised as Chaotic or as Evil based upon some external criteria for morality aside from their own viewpoint; the forces that affect and define the D&D universe. But, in that case, we run into problems at the other ends of the axes.

    A Lawful character, we are told, may be one who follows the law of the land, or one who follows a strict honour code of his own. But if a character can be chaotic even though they are following a strict code of their own, surely the personal honour code must be likewise discounted. A Good character may be one who acts to save life or to destroy the lives of evil people or creatures. But if destroying life constitutes evil in some characters, regardless of their personal understanding of who it is acceptable to kill, surely the same must apply to all? The goblin doesn’t think it’s a characteristic of a good person to kill goblins.

    If an assassin is always evil, what is a Neutral Good character who destroys an evil wizard in return for payment from the lord of the land? Apparently, vengeance for evil deeds is not evil, even if it is characterised by behaviour that is, in other circumstances, always considered evil. If this is the case, then might an insane, ‘evil’ character not be so evil if he fervently yet wrongly believes it is right to kill a ‘good’ character? If all your alignment amounts to is which team you happen to be batting for, rather than what you actually do, then ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become terms with no meaning.

    These are questions that the D&D alignment system fails to address. This system is useful in many circumstances, but ultimately flawed and not sophisticated enough for anything more than a hack’n’slash dungeon crawl. For players of a similar opinion to mine, we’ll have to hope that our DMs are Chaotic enough to allow us sensible flexibility over the rules. ‘Sensible’ being a value judged from an external and subjective point of view; for preference, my own.
  2. Roman_K New Member

    I bow. Truly, I bow.

    The alignment issue has been slightly bothering me, too, mainly in the context of assassins. A good example is the character of Artemis Entreri from R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms-based books. The first time the character is shown, he's displayed as evil. As the books progress, though, Entreri became more than just a side character, though. A moral code, of sorts, is revealed. Entreri is not evil, he just doesn't think much of taking life. The alignment for him in some old Forgotten Realms source book I can't remember much about anymore was Lawful Evil. It fits, in a way. But, in another way, it doesn't.

    The best way to handle alignment in roleplaying is, in my opinion, to do away with it altogether. Let the roleplaying show what the character is all about.
  3. Whitewolf New Member

    I had a lot of things i wanted to comment on your post but i forgot most of them by the time i was done reading, and i'm having trouble formulating the things i do remember (i'm lazy and i do not enjoy writing), so i'll just say this one thing:

    Certainly, the alignment system is an oversimplification, but so is everything else on the bloody character sheet too.
  4. Garner Great God and Founding Father

    Might I suggest that if one does not enjoy writing that a message board is probably not the ideal medium for one to communicate on?

    3.5 D&D does not over simplify everything. in fact, their combat rules border on the ridiculously excessive in many places. The game is, as ever, retooled to focus on its core audience, mostly socially awkward teenagers with limited interpersonal skills and a penchant for memorizing combat modifiers. Those who want to focus on their characters and actually role play instead of kicking in doors are, as ever, left wondering why they shelled out so much money for rule books that they'd just as soon ignore.

    The alignment is oversimplistic to fit the game's "Epic struggle between good and evil" theme, which can also be translated as "We know you gits are going to min/max the paladin, so let's make it nice and clear that you can't rob the villagers with that character."

    the combat and magic rules, on the other hand, are enough to terrify some newbies away from playing.
  5. Ba Lord of the Pies

    This reminds Ba of Order of the Stick. They had a character in the comic recently who was a samurai. But she wasn't. See, she was a samurai from a distant land. But she wasn't a member of the samurai character class. She was, in fact, a paladin, with a bit of monk mixed in. There was quite a bit of confusion because of this.

    Being an assassin does not necessarily require one to be evil. Probably not something a good character would do, but not necessarily evil either. Being an Assassin, the prestige class, does. These are not the same. One could go with a fighter/rogue and have a pretty good assassin, and they wouldn't necessarily be evil. What would decide their alignment would be their motives and their choice of targets.

    Now, as for killing people vs. killing monsters... In a properly run campaign, killing a monster is okay if the monster is either nonsapient or trying to kill people. If they're sapient and not hurting anyone, you don't need to kill them. That many DMs ignore this is no fault of the game designers.

    Also, at least in 3.5, evil is not necessarily someone who actively tries to bring about EVIL, but someone who simply has no concern for others. A sociopath would be of evil alignment. A good person does what they can to help others. An evil person doesn't care who they hurt so long as their goals are met. A neutral person will try not to hurt anyone else, but won't help them either. 'Least, that's how it's explained in the Player's Handbook.

    Yeah, it's oversimplified. But anytime characterization has to be fit into rules it's going to be oversimplified. Ba can't think of a system that wouldn't be worse.

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