Friday, June 10, 2011

Making D&D Alignments Work

Nerd alert! This post is for my D&D readers. You pipe-smoking intellectuals who come here for the dreamy intellectual poetry might want to sit this one out.

Dungeons & Dragons has been around for over thirty years and its system of alignments has been around for nearly as long. The alignment system defines characters along two axes, good vs. evil and law vs. chaos, with neutral between both. The intersection of the axes allows characters to choose an alignment that suits them, such as chaotic evil, lawful good, neutral good, lawful neutral or true neutral. This alignment defines their personality and also has game effects. Something about this system captures the imagination of players. I have to admit that I have thought about it a lot. My opinion of it has swayed back and forth from it being one of the stupidest ideas ever to a system of quiet brilliance.

Here's a quick review of what each point in the axis means:

Good characters like helping people and being nice. Evil characters like hurting and enjoy being mean. Neutral characters follow selfish ideals or have a true commitment to being impartial.

Lawful characters obey the law and have strict personal codes. Chaotic characters disobey authority and have few personal restrictions. Neutral characters can go either way.

It's an interesting way to view the world. But is it applicable to real life? A look at psychologist Theodore Millon's Inventories, which I covered briefly in this post, shows some similarities. Millon also has axes of personality and motivation, but many more of them.

The Law vs. Chaos axis in D&D bears close resemblances to two of the axes in the Millon Inventories: Systemizing vs. Innovating (cogniative) and Conforming vs. Dissenting (behaviour). Systemizers live their lives based on past experiences and evaluate new things based on old views, while Innovators seek novelty and change. On the other axis, Conformers follow societal trends and obey authority while Dissenters follow their own drum-beat. Realistically, the behaviours covered in Law and Chaos should follow two axes, not one.

Good vs. Evil is a little more difficult to compare. For one thing, Millon does not acknowledge the existence of malevolence in his inventories. Most of the axes that deal with such things view behaviour as either selfless or selfish, which in D&D terms translates into good or neutral. I would imagine that psychologists would see the desire to hurt or cause harm as a rare mental disorder rather than having its own place on a Millon axis, and when such individuals are following selfish desires when they act upon those brutal urges.

Regardless, Millon has two axes which could fit upon the D&D scales: Nurturing vs. Individuating (motivation) and Complaining vs. Agreeing (behaviour). Nurturers love to help others while Individuators prefer to help themselves first. Complainers are angry and sullen while Agreeing folks are generally nice. Once again, two realistic axes in place of D&D's one.

Aside from the four axes I listed in this post, Millon classifies personalities with eight others, making a total of twelve. While Dungeons & Dragons has 9 possible alignments, if you made an alignment for each of the combinations in the Millon Inventories, tacking neutral into each axis, that equals 531,441 possible alignments. Not gonna happen. Still it's fun to think of the possibilites. I'd love to see a spell called Sense-Blast that did extra damage to characters with the Intuitive alignment, or the Antisocial Sword that does 1d extra damage to Gregarious characters. Ha!

But D&D has only two axes and if you play you have to live with them and the limited roleplay possibilities that result. Not only that, but in a game system where your alignment can shift depending on your character's actions, leading to important game effects, you have to pay close attention to what your actions really mean. DMs especially should think about alignments and be clear with players about the decisions when they arise with players. Players who commit alignment-altering actions and unexpectedly find their alignment shift can get pissed-off.

That doesn't mean you can't have fun with the system. Here's some tips on the common pitfalls that can make this system annoying and how to avoid them.

Chaos is Bad

As a Discordian, this particular logical flaw is very important to me. The Milgram Experiment proved conclusively that most of the human race is Lawful. We obey the rules and if somebody in charge tells us to do something, we do it, especially if they're yelling. Another trait of humans is the tendency to fear and hate things that are different from us. Therefore, many players confuse Chaos with evil.

This just isn't true. Chaos is change. Change is neither good nor evil. Yes, change claimed your kindly grandmother on her deathbed. But it also killed Hitler. Change began every government and will destroy every government and all its laws. When a law is broken, even if it is theft or murder, good or evil can result.

Remember, Order and Law are merely artificial constructs that allow us not to think very hard. The breaking of a tradition merely forces us to re-examine it. Unless the breaking was intended to maliciously hurt or generously help somebody, the act of breaking is not a moral action.

The Chaotic Good Paradox

A Chaotic Good character has a thin line to walk. His mantra must be to do as much good outside the scope of the law as possible. The only real way to do it seems to be selective about who and what he uses as the targets of his chaos. Destruction and punishment of evil must be the main focus, rather than fixation on Law versus Chaos. Cruel brigands should be his target just as much corrupt tax collectors. Robin Hood is a good example of a Chaotic Good character. He robbed only the rich and wicked and routinely gave the money to people in need. Similarly, Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly loves to win fights by thwarting warrior codes and catching opponents unprepared. A Chaotic Good character should have no problem knifing a psychopath in the back if it prevents others from being hurt.

Malcolm Reynolds and Robin Hood were lucky, however. They were in direct opposition to governments which could be fairly called Lawful Evil. It is much more difficult to play Chaotic Good when living under a government that is Lawful Good. How is it done? With difficulty. Certainly a Chaotic Good character would refuse a draft order and engage in illegal protests if he was riled enough. I also don't see this character paying taxes. But neither do I see him hurting soldiers, police and government agents when they come to arrest him, unless he knew they were bad people.

Whose Laws are you Following?
Lawful characters are great if your campaign takes place in one kingdom. However, it's more than likely that your decade-spanning epic will not. So what happens when your goodie-two shoes paladin crosses the border?

If said paladin enters a wilderness area with no government or laws, I hardly think it would make sense to take a literal view of things and let your paladin start robbing travellers. It would make much more sense for him to continue to live the life of a law-abiding citizen from his own kingdom within the barbarian reaches.

Well and good. Now he travels to the magical elf-lands of Franduil. Like most elves, they are Chaotic Good and live as a sort of anarchist commune. Their legal system is lax and it is more likely that families and clans will punish their own, if at all. Your paladin's urge to smite the guilty is going to get him into trouble. Not only that, but if he imposes his kingdom's laws upon the elves, is he truly acting in a Lawful manner?

After eviction from Franduil, our paladin travels to Wickedia, a Lawful Evil kingdom ruled by vampire overlords who rob their peasantry of riches and blood. What does the paladin do when he witnesses his first perfectly-legal virgin sacrifice? If he halts it, he's breaking the law. Does he impose his own kingdom's standards on Wickedia?

Here are the basic moral dilemmas. If he chooses to impose his kingdom's laws elsewhere, how exactly is "Lawful" even a universal alignment if it's based on ONE KINGDOM? Next, if he chooses to follow local traditions, he will often find himself doing stuff contrary to his alignment. And lastly, if it's his own choice whether he chooses to follow the laws of whichever kingdom he's in, how is he any different from a chaotic character?

Honestly, I don't have the answers. This is a matter of choice for your Dungeon Master. DMs, think about this one. If you don't have an answer you might have annoyed players.

Vigilantes: What alignment is Batman?
A D&D sourcebook called "The Complete Scoundrel" lists Batman as being a Lawful Good character. But is he really Lawful Good? He's a vigilante, one of the most lawless professions known to man. He is routinely hunted by police for being a vigilante. He constantly assaults police officers, resists arrest and wrecks public resources to evade capture. Yes, he hunts lawbreakers, but he breaks the law to do so. So what alignment is he?

I'd say he's Neutral Good, honestly. But once again, if you're playing a vigilante, ask your DM. The same goes for evil vigilantes like the ones that Woody Guthrie used to complain about.

Evil characters in the party
It's likely that a Lawful Evil character with his code of honour could fit well into a party situation. But what about a Chaotic Evil character, the sort of personality that is basically a dangerous sociopath. Or the Neutral Evil character's pure and passionate dedication to cause harm in the world? What is stopping these characters from slitting their friends' throats while they sleep and fleeing with all the magic items?

Obviously, the most simple solution is for DMs to say outright, "No evil characters allowed." It's an easy solution that works. But some players like being evil.

The best way to justify the existence of an evil character and his continued cooperation with a party of adventurers is the long-con. He is only temporarily working with them so that once they have defeated your campaign's antagonist, he can make his play for true power. Either that, or traveling with a pack of powerful troublemakers who constantly engage in combat provides many opportunities to inflict suffering on others. Of course, there is also a chance that a player of an evil character will engage in "character development" (in D&D? Seriously?) Witness the development of Sawyer in "Lost", in the first season starting Neutral Evil and later becoming Lawful Neutral.

These solutions sound good until that paladin character shows up. If the alignment system was more ambiguous, it might be easy for a paladin to work with evil characters and have doubts about them without smiting them. However, paladins come equipped with Detect Evil spells and paladins cannot suffer evil to live, right? If you're a DM who wants to allow evil characters in the game, you might actually want to say, "no paladins allowed."
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That's the best I can do for making the D&D alignments work. Personally, I'd rather play an RPG like GURPS or Savage Worlds that allows for complicated personality customization. But D&D has such massive appeal that it is easier to find a game. D&D games can be found in the most unlikely places, from tiny prairie towns to isolated forest cabins to secret games in the basements of Mormons. So if you're starved for the art of interactive storytelling, D&D and its beautiful and flawed alignment system is often your best option.

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5 comments:

  1. I just happened to stumble by and found this article interesting, although we haven't often had the alignment woes that seem to plague so many D&D groups. I've always read it is that a Lawful character is one who has a personal code and behaves according to it with predictable regularity. E.g. The reason that the Lawful Good Paladin has no problems with the laws of the Lawful Good Kingdom is that they match his personal Lawful Good code, not because there is something significant about the laws themselves. No matter where they go their behavior should stay constant.

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  2. That's one option for sure. But that leaves these problem: personal codes that are lawless. For instance, could a priest of the Goddess Eris (of Discord, Strife, or change according to the Discordians) have a strict personal code to never stay in one town for more than two days, always actively disobey authority, and live the life of an ascetic who can only obtain food by stealing? That's NOT lawful behaviour at all and I think that any DM who's worth his starch would never consider it Lawful, no matter how strictly the player followed his code.

    The fact is that to some extent, a Lawful character must consider the laws of whatever place he's in. And that's one of the problems with the Lawful alignment. As I wrote in this article, Lawful bears similarities to two REAL personality axes in the respected Millon inventories. A Lawful alignment resembles Systemizing and Conforming personality traits, but if one follows a personal code (Systemizing), it will often come in conflict with Conformation with society.

    Give that a mull. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. You should know that Batman is All Alignments. http://feldsparia.blogspot.com/2009/11/batman-is-all-alignments.html

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  4. I enjoyed your article very much. I'm currently playing a Chaotic Good character in a D&D campaign and rarely does my character work well with Lawful Good characters. I've cited that it's a matter of not wanting to be restricted in my character's creativity and freedoms to pursue good acts by their own methods.
    Your article helps with that argument and it's well written to explain the difference in the Law-chaos axis.

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  5. Thanks, Digo. I appreciate it. Good luck with your party and helping them to understand Chaos!

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