Thursday, August 13, 2020

D&D Alignments as Meta-Factions of Religious Allegiance

Paul Siegel and Dan Collins, who host the YouTube channel Wandering DMs, recently aired an episode on Alignment in D&D. Paul is skeptical of using alignment at all, but around 38:08 he states that his previous best attempt to understand alignment was to interpret it as allegiance to a side in a cosmic battle, rather than regarding it as having anything to do with personal morality. Dan states that he conceives of alignment in terms of a character's basic response to the existence of a being like Cthulhu: a Lawful character fights against Cthulhu, a Neutral character runs away, and a Chaotic character furthers the ends of Cthulhu. (Presumably, any Great Old One, demon lord, or similar being of cosmic evil could stand in for Cthulhu here.)

Paul has several criticisms of alignment as found in original D&D and its successors:

  • The existence and mechanics of alignment languages make little sense; for example, why would a character forget their old alignment language upon switching alignment? 
  • In OD&D, alignment languages have the side effect of reducing the value in learning multiple languages; there are only three alignment languages spoken by all creatures, and the rules only prohibited learning 'opposing' alignment languages. In Gary Gygax's original Greyhawk campaign, this was interpreted as permitting Lawful and Chaotic characters to learn the Neutral alignment language, and as permitting Neutral characters to learn any alignment language--at least, according to Mike Mornard, one of the original members of the Lake Geneva Greyhawk campaign.
  • Equating alignment with personal morality requires either forbidding certain actions for player characters, as being inconsistent with their alignment, or carefully tracking PC actions with some putatively objective criteria that could then force an alignment change after a sufficient number and intensity of violations of the original alignment's values--all of which are impractical or at least very tricky to implement.
  • It is either impossible or impractical to define an objective list of values and actions for each alignment.
  • Having an alignment rule adds nothing to the game, and it is not necessary to have an alignment rule even if a campaign features a cosmic conflict between good and evil.
  • Alignment would have no meaning or application in Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. Since Conan is such an important source of inspiration for D&D, this means that D&D does not need alignment, either.

I agree with many of Paul's points, but I still think that a three-value alignment system (Law, Neutrality, Chaos) is useful for most D&D campaigns. 

It may seem strange that Paul leaned so heavily on the one example of Conan (and I may have exaggerated the weight he was trying to place on this one point in my summary of it here). But considering the example of Conan and the Hyborian Age is very important when evaluating and interpreting the rules for OD&D. Conan was one of the main inspirations for D&D, for both Gygax and Arneson. If a rule like alignment would be useless in attempting to adapt the Hyborian Age, or similar worlds of pulp and weird fiction (such as Fritz Leiber's Nehwon) to D&D, then that would be an important piece of evidence against the necessity or the utility of alignment in D&D.

However, I think that alignment does have a use in D&D, and it is precisely that suggested by Dan and Paul in their best attempt to define alignment in a maximally clear and concise way: alignment indicates allegiance to a cosmic force or a group of gods or other similarly powerful beings. The main function of the alignment rule is just to serve as a marker for which cosmic faction a character belongs to and identifies with. 

The exact beings or forces that a person is aligned with or against can vary from campaign to campaign, but the general three-value alignment system is likely to be useful in many if not most OD&D worlds. Chaos aligns with a big bad or cosmic threat, Law with the forces that oppose it, and Neutrality with neither, or with forces that are orthogonal to the central cosmic conflict.

Defining alignment in this way neatly sidesteps the interminable issues surrounding morality, much less how to quantify these in game terms. It also sidesteps the puzzles surrounding alignment languages, because alignments can be conceived of as factions without having to introduce the notion that aligned creatures share a common tongue. Alignment in this sense is more of a tag than a mechanic, which simply labels the main faction that a character belongs to.

An alignment is a 'meta-faction' in that it can lump together otherwise disparate groups or creatures. If Cthulhu is the big bad, then those aligned against him may otherwise share little in common, and their rivalries may also be quite significant for the campaign. Similarly, those aligned with Law may have intense internal rivalries, similar to the rivalries between different monotheistic religions or different sects of the same religion.

Strictly speaking, alignment need not be allegiance to a religious cause or faction, but most often the cosmic evil in fantasy fiction is indeed a god or spirit of some kind. Cthulhu is an alien entity, but even he inspires religious devotion among his human followers, who form nameless cults in his honor, for example.

Returning to the case of Conan, alignment works surprisingly well with Howard's Hyborian Age. Chaos aligns with Set or the Great Old Ones; Law aligns with Mitra; and Neutrality aligns with various other gods and unaligned entities, such as Conan's own god Crom, and beings such as Bel and Anu.

This conception of alignment is not far from that found in Chainmail, the ur-text of D&D. As Dan notes in the video, Chainmail includes a table labeled "General Line-Up" (on page 39 of the 3rd edition), which divides Fantasy Supplement creatures into three categories: Law, Neutral, and Chaos. The purpose of this list is to determine which creatures will tend to fight as allies in miniature battles; as the text itself says:

It is impossible to draw a distanct [sic] line between "good" and "evil" fantastic figures. Three categories are listed below as a general guide for the wargamer designing orders of battle involving fantastic creatures.

Two aspects of this original Chainmail rule are useful for D&D as well: (1) alignment is not based on strict criteria for good and evil; (2) alignment is a general guide for which creatures will fight together against common foes. In this case, returning to the simplicity of Chainmail helps resolve much of the confusion and muddle introduced by decades of development of D&D.

Granted that alignment is useful to many or most D&D campaigns, is it truly essential? Is it impossible to play bona fide D&D without alignment? Well, many effects, such as of spells, magic items, or monster powers, are defined in terms of alignment. Ditching alignment would require tweaking with these game elements, such as the rule that only Chaotic clerics may cast the reversed form of cleric spells. Arguably, though, the central motivation for D&D characters is winning treasure, rather than choosing a side in a cosmic battle; D&D, at least in its original, 1974 incarnation, is fundamentally a game about finding treasure from the dungeon underneath a mad wizard's castle, or from another similar place of adventure. This motivation does not depend fundamentally on cosmic allegiance, so the game could probably survive in recognizable form even without alignment. Nevertheless, alignment is likely to be useful in most D&D campaigns, as long as there is a recognizable cosmic big bad whose existence shapes the interactions between many of the characters and creatures of the campaign setting.

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