Alignments: Not Just a Game Mechanic

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Alignments: Not Just a Game Mechanic

Post  Gawain_VIII on Tue May 31, 2016 10:57 pm

Most of us are familiar with the basic alignment definitions. A 3x3 grid of nine alignments, and a character fits within one of those nine squares and no others. This system works perfectly fine... if the campaign setting is a black-and-white story-book morality play--or the original published Forgotten Realms setting.  However many campaign worlds are very much "shades of gray" settings, not unlike the real world.  There are rarely, if ever, any absolutes, and there are nearly always mitigating circumstances.

Any discussion of alignments within a shades-of-gray setting should take these factors into account.  You might compare them to political ideologies.  Are you Lawful or Chaotic? Good or Evil? Democrat or Republican? Liberal or Conservative? Labour or Conservative?  Well--like so many things in life, the answer is All and None at the same time.

Alignments, like politics, are often perceived on a one-dimensional sliding scale. Forgive my incredulity, but NO! That's WRONG!

Despite being shown as a grid, the alignment system is really TWO separate and distinct sliding scales.  We usually call them "axis" as a matter of convenience, but if you look at the history of how the alignment system developed... and how they've been played (regardless of the finite definitions given to them)... The Law-Chaos Axis is fulfills a completely unrelated game function than the function that the Good-Evil axis provides.  If we can think of them separately, we might be able to, together, as a gaming community, build a wholly more believable, and altogether dramatically improved, story in which to immerse ourselves.

Law-Chaos is visible. It is a character's behavior. It can be seen by anybody who spends a significant amount of time around you.  Although a lawful character might occasionally do something impulsive, for the most part he is structured. He has a daily routine. He plans, makes lists, always arrives at appointments 15 minutes early.  The Chaotic man is rash. He sees something, he goes for it. He might be self-serving, greedy, or hedonistic... he might be hyper, rambunctious, or simply bored. Whatever he is, one thing is certain: You never tell him the odds! One thing the Chaotic man and the Lawful man have in common? They both will nearly always follow the law, customs, and traditions of the society in which they are a part.

But... but... he's not LAWful. He doesn't follow the rules!!!  You are confusing nomenclature with definition.  Yes, it's likely that the chaotic might be perceived as more likely to be a law-breaking criminal because of his rash behavior... that perception doesn't mean that he will.  The studious, neurotic, dope-smoking, bow-tie wearing, OCD college Philosophy professor is VERY lawful... but he's breaking the law.  The wild, crazy, happy-go-lucky, teen heart-throb, daredevil musician is just as Chaotic as the professor is Lawful... but he's never broken the law.

The Neutral (on the L-C scale) guy, which I think most (all?) of us would agree should be 90+% of the entire world, isn't neutral because he's in between Law and Chaos... he's not undecided... he's not standing rigid to the cause of balance, enforcing a law for each chaotic act made--and breaking a law for each lawful act made... He, like the rest of us, simply have qualities of both. This hypothetical Neutral guy is introverted and loves surprises; he never plans, but hates when things don't go as expected; ne never intentionally breaks a law, although he is rarely ever early for a meeting; he is shy, yet opinionated. He is... you and me.

The Good and Evil axis is a completely different beast. It is vague, undefined, invisible. It is motive. It is intent. It is desire.  The local Lord is quite likely CLEARLY Lawful. We know this because of his behavior. What we, the players, don't know is if he's Good, Neutral, or Evil... Why? Because his behavior doesn't betray his intent.  Our characters can guess and speculate... we can initiate intrigue based on what we THINK his motives are but, excepting the DMs, not a single one of us really know--nor should we.

One of my old characters, Balteus, is clearly of the Neutral variety. If you had played with me back then (on another NWN server) you would have seen this by interacting with him. He was a strong force of presence, convinced beyond all reason that the local Lord is a devious, corrupt, power-hungry tyrant, and he didn't keep it a secret... but he loved his home and his King. He was a loyal citizen of the Crown and demonstrates a great deal of restraint precisely because the Lord--corrupt or not--is a legitimate noble of the realm.  For his allies, he is nearly always the voice of reason between the Lawful and the Chaotic. Without him playing middle-man those two factions would likely not remain allies for very long.

But... was he Good or Evil? Maybe he's Neutral. Is he genuinely purely out for the betterment of mankind or is he an evil power-schemer, playing politics, angling for a position of authority on whichever side ends up winning after the simmering heat between Loyalists and Anarchists explodes into a raging boil. Is he trying to make that explosion happen--forcing a Civil War, or does he simply see it coming with no way to stop it?

Nobody knew. Not one. Why? Because Behavior can be observed. Intent can not.  Think about that next time you consider how you're playing your character's alignment... and what you ICly say about other character's alignments.


Last edited by Gawain_VIII on Wed Jun 01, 2016 11:05 pm; edited 2 times in total
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Re: Alignments: Not Just a Game Mechanic

Post  fredseeker on Wed Jun 01, 2016 10:54 pm

This take on alignments is insightful. There are more examples where game nomenclature is confused with real-world definition (ie: Charisma being a combination personal charm and physical appearance). I like to think of the alignment chart as something plotting out what my character has done, rather than dictating what it will do. I do use it to help predict/extrapolate what they might likely do, but it cannot be known what anyone definitely will do in any circumstance until it occurs (and in retrospect, they might have done differently if given the chance). Characters should not be "locked-in" or arbitrarily limited in their choice of actions simply because their sheet says they are X/X alignment. That's what they make pencil erasers for, because Alignment status is just as mutable as one's Facebook status. It indicates what they have done and a slice of their current mental state, not telling what it must be in the future. To do otherwise is putting the cart before the horse.
I remember seeing alignments listed with an addendum to them before... like Lawful/Neutral "with Good intent" to indicate leanings and foreshadow (to the DM) what that character is likely to choose to do.

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Re: Alignments: Not Just a Game Mechanic

Post  GM_ODA on Thu Jun 02, 2016 6:50 am

fredseeker wrote:
I remember seeing alignments listed with an addendum to them before...  like Lawful/Neutral "with Good intent" to indicate leanings and foreshadow (to the DM) what that character is likely to choose to do.


HELLO AGAIN FREDSEEKER!!!! Good to see you again friend!

Just a fyi, the formatting of the Alignment spec you refer to is from 2nd edition...

"Lawful Neutral with Good Tendencies" ... there is even a plane for this between Heaven and Nirvana... according to cannon.

Good points overall both of you, do carry on. I enjoy these sorts of discussions.

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