About Alignment

Today I’m going to touch on the game notion of Alignment, with some observations on how Alignment is discussed in orthodox LotFP, as well as the purpose it serves, and whether we want to explore other ways of solving the problems Alignment purportedly solves.

Some of us are familiar with the alignment systems of older D&D/AD&D, where characters are either Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, or some combination of one of those three and one of Good, Neutral, or Evil.

(If you don’t know this system, that’s fine, and you don’t need to since we’re not using it, though you may find this explanation on Wikipedia interesting.)

Alignment has been part of D&D since the early days, and probably is related to the wargamer roots of the game, in that the original designers (mainly Gary Gygax) wanted a way of organizing player and nonplayer characters into “teams” of antagonists. As a result, the system has some clunkiness and problems: there’s a ton of discussion about alignment systems, in terms of how they can guide or ruin roleplaying, how or whether they relate to actual ethical systems in real life, or are capable of representing coherent moral systems, whether and how they should or should not link to game mechanics, and whether they make sense at all or should be lopped off the game system entirely.

Alignment

What do I think? Well… I’ve never been a huge fan of alignment systems, for complex reasons we maybe needn’t get into.1

Still, I think, as game developers Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws have argued, that Alignment is also a solution to the problem of both motivation and consequence in RPGs that are trying to tell a fantastical story… at least, in a certain mode. (That is, the high-fantasy mode.)

A hypersimplification of classic (A)D&D alignment, but then classic (A)D&D alignment is a hypersimplification, too.
A hypersimplification of classic (A)D&D alignment, but then classic (A)D&D alignment is a hypersimplification, too.

Now, we’re not really playing in the high-fantasy mode, so much as in a spooky, horror-inflected dark-fantasy mode, and that’s reflected in the rules system. Here’s the pertinent bit from the Lamentations of the Flame Princess—Rules & Magic book:

Select Alignment
Alignment is a character’s orientation on a cosmic scale. It has nothing to do with a character’s allegiances, personality, morality, or actions. Alignments will mostly be used to determine how a character is affected by certain magical elements in the game. The three alignments are Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.

To sum up Raggi’s explanation:

  • Lawful characters believe the universe is ordered, that there’s a meaningful destiny (unknown to the characters) built into reality; that “plan” is unreliably knowable through omens, and threatened by unnatural stuff like magic and the (non-divine) supernatural.
  • Chaotic characters believe that magic is an ultimately entropic, inevitable, and ubiquitous force; it’s shadowy and terrifying, but then the universe isn’t ordered, it’s fragile and unsympathetic and probably will end in catastrophe.
  • Neutral characters live balanced on the knife’s edge between these two extremes. (This includes anyone who hasn’t consciously and through effort aligned with the forces of Law or Chaos.)

In the LotFP game system, alignment relates to class mechanically this way:

Clerics must be Lawful. Elves and Magic-Users must be Chaotic. All others are free to choose their alignment.

tumblr_n8ijr7rMrW1qzr8nao2_500
Erol Otus art, depicting reality as seen through a Chaotic character’s eyes.

I’m guessing these rules are going to change, since Clerics (like Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings) are expected to be moved to an Appendix, but anyway, there’s a few things we can say:

  • These rules suggest Alignment is really just about characters’ relationship to the supernatural.
  • They suggest ethics and morality are wholly unrelated to alignment. (A Lawful character can do evil things, and a Chaotic one can be saintly.)
  • They don’t do a lot in terms of suggesting character motivations, the way classic alignment does in traditional D&D.

All of that’s fine: I am happy to have alignment get out of the way. I’m also happy for actions to have story consequences: you loot a church, maybe you get hunted down by priests; you go about haphazardly throwing yourself in danger’s way, and you get scarred up. What I think is missing, though, is the creative constraints on character action and roleplaying that alignment creates. The devil with the contract in hand is interesting because his evil is legalistic (i.e. Lawful Evil): he has to get you to sign away your soul, in order to drag you to hell.

the-devil-tarot-card

There are other ways of codifying character motivations and nature, and for implementing consequences for following those motivations, ranging from XP bonuses or penalties, all the way to interesting mechanics systems that track action consequences and dramatize a character’s sturdy or failing grip on humanity, sanity, etc. I’m going to think over whether we should explore such a mechanic, and am curious what you think. (As you can tell from my writeups of our campaign’s abhuman “races,” I like cumulative consequence mechanics for PCs.)

For now, though, I think it might be handy to think of a few motivations for your character. For example:

Clarinda O’Dwyer is a Sorceress from Ireland. She has three major motivations:

  • Personal: To find and rescue her sister’s child, which was kidnapped from his crib by shadowy beings one night a few months ago.
  • Situational: To earn enough money to get ahead of her debts and fund the search for her nephew.
  • Ultimate: To liberate Ireland from English rule and cast the English out violently.

Personal motivations create a character arc I can play with as a GM. Situational ones create the impetus for characters to go adventuring instead fo spending all their time pursuing their personal motivations. Finally, ultimate motivations are the kinds of things it’s unlikely a character will achieve in the campaign, but they tell us something about her yearnings and values.

The motivations above work well because they’re tied to specific things and people: a missing relative, a colonized nation, and specific debts that need to be paid off… surely to specific debt collectors, and surely to avoid imprisonment in specific debtors’ prisons.

Many's the adventurer who's ended her days in debtor's prison: those situational motivations are important!
Many’s the adventurer who’s ended her days in debtor’s prison: those situational motivations are important!

So if you’re looking for a way to enrich your character, you might try come up with one of each of those motivations for him or her. You needn’t tell other players (though telling the me, the Referee, makes it possible for me to work new threads into the story that reflect these motivations).

Anyway, something to think about. We can talk about it next time we play, maybe before or after the game starts.

  1. What’s that? You want to know why? Well: Gygax himself claimed Paladins can kill evil orcs without moral qualms. Obviously Orcs can kill Paladins without moral qualms… so what’s the difference? Maybe none: good and evil are subjective, according to the eye of the beholder. But the real problem is that alignment is somehow supposed to map onto the gameworld in a story-objective way: good and evil are absolute forces outside characters’ heads, so they’re not at all subjective. How… premodern. It’s a mess when you get down to it, and likely that’s in part due to the fact Gygax himself was a big Christian who believed in objective morality as a feature of the universe. But I digress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *