Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Making Alignment Mean Something

Alignment is a part of the game that has NEVER been a real issue in my games. I've run games with new players where we didn't even mention alignment during character generation. Alignment has only been mentioned when I'm trying to explain the difference between the Old School and New School understandings of the Law-Chaos axis (I attempted to create a way to use both with my Civilized-Barbaric axis, not understanding that Old School alignment is more about allegiance than personality) or when players are describing their characters.

I don't know the last time alignment was even mentioned in my games, though; these conversations all happened months ago, at the latest. I'm not even sure that the latest round of generated characters (to replace the fallen) have an alignment; they very well may, but I've had no reason to ask. Honestly, I was about to just throw alignment out the window until recently; I just didn't know what to do with it.

I think the reason that I didn't know what to do with alignment is that I didn't really have anything in my setting that the players could have allegiance to. My settings, up 'til now, have consisted almost entirely of wilderness; the one time the players ventured into a city, they promptly got themselves arrested and sent out into the wilderness again. Magic was value-neutral and I'd done away with Clerics. What Law was there to swear fealty to?

Even in the wilderness, I had just plunked down a bunch of dungeons without any real organizing principle. There were no real puppet-masters or dark lords gathering their power. The worst that was out there was a large goblin warren, or perhaps a cult or a crazy wizard. What real Chaos was there?

My thinking on this started to change with Carcosa and Pellantarum, however.

What if there were things that were out there that really were working to destroy, or at least subvert and rule tyrannically, the civilized world? What if Dragons controlled politics for their own ends, using both civilized and uncivilized peoples as unknowing pawns in their Byzantine games of chess? What if Cthuloid entities were constantly attempting to break into this reality and tear it apart? What if mushroom-men and mindflayers were also attempting world domination, by means and to ends so alien as to be inscrutable to the civilized? What if the undead were not the random products of poor burials or cursed ground, but the tools of dark, evil and very intentional necromancy?

Well, that would be real Chaos.

And what if there were genuine organizing principles in the world? What if magic, or at least certain schools of magic, were a rough analog to science and the progress, order and dominion over the world that it gives to civilization? What if the gods create and bless order and love and protect the civilized? What if Clerics, Paladins and Rangers weren't being overzealous after all, and in fact were the ones with the true understanding of the workings of the world and what is at stake?

Well, that would be real Law.

And what if this struggle between Law and Chaos were a hidden struggle, one of which the common man remained ignorant and which the educated dismissed as over-simplification or the crazy black-and-white ravings of fundamentalist bumpkins? What if accidentally becoming a pawn of a Dragon was only too easy, or if some problems just seemed so much easier to solve with the summoning of a Cthuloid being? What if the mushroom-men didn't seem all that bad, and besides, they offered fungus products at a considerable discount? What if the mindflayers paid good money for goblins you were just going to slaughter anyway? What if eternal unlife was a true possibility, albeit at terrible cost?

Well, then we'd have a genuine campaign setting concept, one where it starts to make sense why a Lawful sword or a Chaotic throne won't work for those who are aligned in opposite ways, or even those who aren't aligned, one where even alignment tongues begin to make sense (almost- they still need some tweaking, I think). In short, it's a campaign setting where alignment is no longer a question of abstract philosophy; alignment is now about, "the forces of Chaos pose a constant existential threat to Law, civilization and all humans and demi-humans- what, if anything, are you going to do about it?"

Stay tuned for more thoughts on this in the near future; in the meantime, how do you handle alignment? Are you satisfied with the way alignment works in your games, or does it get in the way- or do you wish it could be something more?


  1. I came up with some pretty decent guidelines for alignment behavior once but haven't really used them. In actual play, the dichotomy between holy/unholy forces in the supernatural is good enough for me, and dabbling in the unholy is less a matter of damnation and more a matter of high risk-high reward.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out to me. I'll probably incorporate it into what I'm hoping to do with this.

  3. All interesting thoughts. The only thing I would add is that I think there is a danger of domesticating danger by making creatures like mind flayers and shrooms mundane. For example, fungus products at a discount or mind flayer merchant slavers. I think I prefer such creatures to be more secret and deadly types, only interacting with the common experience of people via several layers of middle men, if at all. It really depends on the overall tone of a particular campaign, of course.

  4. Very good point, Brendan. For mindflayers, I hadn't been thinking of them so much as slaving merchants as 1) owning slaves and 2) trying to enslave the world. I figured that orcs would probably regularly sell them slaves and if the PCs caught wind of it, and were willing and able to risk the danger involved in getting to the mindflayers, they might sell slaves to the mindflayers. With the shrooms, I was thinking that bad things, like the zombifying fungus, would probably be mixed in- it would be a shroom plot- and there would also be danger in finding and dealing with the shrooms themselves.

    Honestly, though, I have been having trouble coming up with ways for the mindflayers and the shrooms to be as archetypically chaotic as Dragons or Cthuloid beings or Lichs. I suppose that simply enslaving the world, or taking it over with mind-controlling sporecery and growing a god, a la Demonspore, *are* pretty Chaotic. They still deserve more thought, though. Hmm…