Friday, September 11, 2015

Universal Alignments

Ahnuld is the epitome of Chaotic Good.
One of the long-standing issues that many gamers have had with D&D is the idea of Alignment. I’ve seen commentary ranging from “I don’t understand how it works” to “I think it’s complete nonsense.” This is brought up most often when discussing the idea of “Racial Alignment.” And, admittedly, the notion that all members of a species are good/neutral/evil is pretty far-fetched. I mean, RA Salvatore has made a killing debunking this myth for decades.

So, how do you, as a player or DM, deal with this in-game? The answers will vary, based on tastes and views. And, here I will present mine.

Many moons ago I worked fervently on a project that was intended to be my interpretation of an updated “Player’s Handbook” for OSR D&D-style games (eventually published in rough form as Hero’s Journey). In this work, I defined Alignment in the following manner:

Every character has a set of social values and a moral compass. Together, these two facets form the character’s Alignment, and define much about a character’s personality, and how they interact with the world around them.” Followed by: “A character’s Alignment is mainly for background purposes. It is there to help a player define a character’s personality, and guide him in how the character will react in any given situation.

This is how I interpret the Alignment rules, regardless of edition. And it works for me on most levels. Even on the idea of Racial Alignment. In order to understand it, you have accept a few aspects of a “race” in D&D. I will use my beloved Orcs as an example.

In every edition of D&D (and even in other games of the same genre where they appear), orcs are universally accepted as being “evil.” It makes them easier to plug in as villains, and it makes it simpler for the players. If they are confronted by a group of orcs, there is usually very little question as to how the encounter will proceed. But, why is this? A couple of reasons come to mind.

The first is perception. In most fantasy worlds, it’s a given that civilized society views orcs as evil, usually due to some past transgression, such as serving the Dark Lord du Jour as foot-soldiers. So, orcs are never given a chance to be anything else. They are attacked on sight, even if they aren’t being all that aggressive. This has the effect of ingraining in them that they will be opposed by whomever they meet, and the only way they can survive as a people is to fight back. Often preemptively.

The second is related in a couple of ways. In the orcs’ case, they are generally more primal in nature, prone to violent tempers and outbursts. Naturally, these attributes make them brutish, and emotionally shallow, which in turn makes them easier to manipulate (by the aforementioned Dark Lord du Jour). So, their natural aggression and violent tendencies are viewed as “evil” to most civilized folk. This is why they, as a race, are viewed as such.

But, as a DM and/or player, we have the option to ignore or change these rules. That lone orc who deserts the evil army in search of a higher purpose might not be such an outlier. He may be indicative of a whole movement among orc society. These kinds of orcs would naturally run afoul of their more traditional brethren, which explains why so few, if any, of them are encountered by Player Characters.

I think I have been in love with this idea since reading The Crystal Shard back during Desert Shield. And games like World of Warcraft have only cemented this idea in my head. Which is why I write games like Life of Rage, and why I am a big proponent of “monster” races being an occasional option in D&D games.

It’s also why I’m working on my latest RPG project. But, more on that later…

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