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Alignment was first introduced in the Dungeons and Dragons game, and covered three options: Lawful (which were those who followed the rules of society, and generally were considered the “good” guys), Chaotic (those who decided that the individual was greater than the whole, and were generally considered the “bad” or, more accurately, “selfish” guys) and Neutral (the people who believed that a balance between the two had to be met).

When the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons came along, they added another axis (the Good-Neutral-Evil axis), creating up to nine options for your character to choose.  Loosely interpreted, you chose an Ethical standing (Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic) and a Moral standing (Good-Neutral-Evil).  With this, you got a good description of the tendencies of your character.

Let me emphasize this point: tendencies.  Alignment was always meant as a guide for the behavior, not a fast and tight judgment on all of his or her actions and thoughts.  A Lawful Good character (often referred to as a Boy Scout, or Superman) would tend to favor the course of action that benefitted the greater good for all, choosing most all times to work within the boundaries of the local law, and do what he can to help those truly in need.  However, even he may occasionally see the necessity to work outside the law, for as short a time as possible, to make sure everyone would be better off.

Again, let me emphasize this: Alignment was always meant to be a guideline for the behavior, not the ironclad rules of how you had to behave.  After all, even Batman (a decidedly Chaotic Good character) would work with the law when it was needed.

But there soon arose those in the game that decided that Alignment had to be the 100%, No Way Out rules as to your behavior.  If you played a Lawful Neutral character (the law is the law, and it is that way for a reason; you do not break it), and you chose to break into the Baron’s private home to look for evidence of his membership in a horrid cult, many DMs would chose to start penalizing you, or worse yet, TELLING you that you couldn’t do it.  Because, to them, you were breaking your alignment.

Now I will agree that constant and prolonged behavior that goes against the grain of your alignment will cause me to pull you aside, warn you once that you are in jeopardy of having your alignment changed because of your actions.  Then, if you continued, I would pull you aside the tell you to change your alignment.  Your constant disregard for the laws would cause you to slip into a Neutral Good alignment (the laws or not, you do that is best for people).  It may seem like railroading, but remember that the behavior of your character has said that your constant deviance from your alignment has dictated that your behavior is no longer Lawful Good, but a looser Neutral Good (when it came to following the law).

Now, in the Palladium Role Playing games, they used a different series of alignments.  Kevin Siembieda introduced the concept that Alignment could be broken into three groups: Good, Selfish and Evil.  The Good Alignments consist of Principled (again, Superman), Scrupulous (more Batman or Charles Bronson, working for the good, but often forced to work outside the law).  The Selfish Alignments consist of Unprincipled (think Han Solo in the original Star Wars movie… the mercenary who often gets pulled around by his very nascent morality) and Anarchist (to hell with the rules, everyone else is on their own, this is just about me).  And finally, the Evil Alignments: Miscreant (your common street thug or petty criminal), Aberrant (the honorable villain; they may not give much of a damn, but they have their own code) and Diabolic (evil madman, the cackling villain with plans on world domination).

The point being this:  even the Palladium system, while different from the original Ethical-Moral system used in AD&D, still put the emphasis on alignment being a tool for Role Play, not a hard and fast guide to behavior. Alignment really is just another stat to guide the tendencies and personality of your character, but one that is more often misinterpreted than any other.

The most often abuse of this system I have ever witnessed has been with monsters.  Many DMs (myself included), like to change the written alignment of a monster to better reflect the story we are attempting to involve the players in.  After all, how mind-blowing would it be to face a tribe of good-aligned orcs being terrorized by an encroaching evil elven enclave?  It would shake your players up enough for those couple of sessions to resolve the issue, and then you could go back to life as “normal”.  But still, it would always be there in the back of their heads, making them wonder if what they were doing was the right thing.

And yet, I have been criticized for doing just that, for going against the grain, and one time I was even told I was the worst Role Player and DM in the world for doing things like that.  (Seriously, I was told that.)  I was floored by this.  This actually referred to a Third Edition D&D game I ran (not 3.5, Third), and the person in question decided to grill me about monster alignments.  It was actually put forth to me that many monsters in the manual could never be otherwise.  I have a problem with this.

Literature is littered with characters that “had a change of heart”, for either weal or woe.  Saruman the White, Drizzt Do’Urden, Gatsby… all of these people held a set of ideals for a long time and then changed their leanings, or were raised in a certain atmosphere and decided not to be what they were raised to be.  This means that Morality and Ethicality can change, over time or through choice.

So why is it then that a creature like an orc or a dragon, possessed of the same mental faculties as humans (sometimes with higher mental faculties), would never be an alignment other than what the book says is their tendency?

Because, it challenges the player’s knowledge.  Most of the DMs I have ever run into that have a problem with this kind of thing are those that have a long career as a power-gamer, a munchkin, or a metagamer.  (Aside: a metagamer is a player that uses out of character knowledge, in character.  In other words, the player knows that the monster is vulnerable to electric attacks, but the character would have no reason to.  The player then starts telling every other player at the table to start using electricity against the creature, without having any in-game justification for knowing that).

The other category of DM that does this, I have found, is the Evolved Rules Lawyer.  Now, if you ask any player or DM in the games what they hate the most, I promise you the term Rules Lawyer will come up.  (Aside: Rules Lawyers are those players that will quote, page and passage, the rules for the game to you, even if you flat out say “Not this time”).  Rules Lawyers feel that the rules must be followed to the letter, no exceptions for story or interest, and more often than not will out and out argue with a DM when the DM makes a judgment call that the Rules Lawyer doesn’t agree with.  Rules Lawyers also have a tendency to flame out when it seems that either the DMs decision will nullify their own decisions, or when another player’s actions make them seem wittier or more resourceful than the Rules Lawyer.

In the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons, they have come up with a rather interesting new version of Alignment: a five point linear scale.  And it goes something like this:

Lawful Good – Good – Neutral – Evil – Chaotic Evil

I have heard some serious criticisms of this system, but it really is elegant in its simplicity.  In the middle you have a Neutral alignment that can be construed as either desiring balance, or unconcerned in any way.  Moving down the line, we come across the Evil alignment.  In the new edition, it is just that.  Evil.  No justification, no redemption.  Evil characters act only in their own best interests, and even will attempt to appear to do the right thing when it serves them.  Further down the line is Chaotic Evil.  Imagine an evil so utter that you will do whatever it takes to achieve  your goals.  Chaotic Evil is the level of depravity that is almost always marked by madness.  If we go the other direction, we first encounter Good.  Good characters are just that; they are the heroes that just want to make sure the right things happen.  And one step beyond that is Lawful Good.  This is the utter good that characterizes the shining heroes of legend, the one little boys aspire to, and little girls fall in love with, at least while still idealistic about life.

I have heard this alignment system called oversimplified, dumbed-down and plain out stupid.  This does not do justice to the simple but elegant system.  If you think about it, read the above original alignment system.  Neutral and Chaotic Good were only concerned with doing good in general.  Neutral and Lawful Evil were only concerned with doing for themselves.  And honestly, Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral were just opposing sides of looking at moral neutrality.  They distilled it down to the basic and powerful iterations of disposition for this game.

Of course, the one thing I really don’t like is the lack of… guidelines these alignments give.  I mean sure, Good is good, but it leaves a lot of grey area for behavior when it comes to Good.  And for the DM, just calling something… Evil.  Well, a lot of times that isn’t quite enough.  And not always does Chaotic Evil describe the Big Bad Guy well enough.  The system still works, but it requires work on the part of the DM and Players.

That right there is the point of my whole article.

“Work on the part of the DM and Players.”

I have said it before, I will say it again, and I stick to it.  The best games come down to the corroborative work of the DM and Players, no matter the engine and edition.  Many gamers have become horribly lazy when it comes to taking ownership of their part in the game.  They want to be led around by the nose and just pointed at the monsters they are out to kill.  And alignment systems (as any good mechanic will tell you) are not for lazy people to fool with.  They take adjustments and tune-ups, and from time to time, a good solid whack to keep straight and functioning.

So let me say this now: if you don’t like alignment systems, don’t use them.  But then, don’t come crashing down on those that do.  They have chosen a more intricate path to tread, and in return they are going to receive a more rewarding experience for their time.  I am not saying your style is not rewarding; I am sure to your tastes, it is.

By the same token, those of you that are “Role Playing Snobs“ like me, don’t antagonize those that toss them aside.  They have chosen their style of play, and frankly, that’s entirely up to them.

Just don’t expect me to defend your style of play.  Frankly, I think it’s boring as hell, more than a little mentally deficient.  It’s kind of like getting a gold medal in the Special Olympics, and winning an argument on the Internet.

What do you think?

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