Monday, October 22, 2012


Alignment always seems to be a hot topic amongst the role-playing community.

Morality is such a integral part of the human experience that we spend a great portion of our lives studying it and trying to understand it.  For thousands of years our philosophers and religions have struggled to make sense of it.

Even today,  most of our forms of entertainment deal with morality on a regular basis.  So it is no surprise that we should give some consideration to the issue in a game where anything can happen.

The 3-alignment system from the original D&D game was inspired by the popular fantasy books of the time, in particular the works of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson.  

When I first got started with the old Basic D&D "Red Box" I found this alignment system to be confusing and rather arbitrary.  I didn't have the same literary background that game designers did, and the game didn't do a good job of justifying this odd law/chaos conflict. It just assumes that the major conflict of the gameworld is between law and chaos, rather than good vs evil, which tends to be the more relevant axis of contemporary morality.  

As an adult, I understand that lot of that law/chaos conflict was influenced by the wargamer mentality where the game is about the "big picture", and where there's little focus on individual actions.  And I know that a part of it also has to do with the tone of the pulp fiction of the day that featured morally questionable anti-heroes as the protagonists.

But I don't think it was an ideal moral system for a fantasy game, especially in the simplified version of the game where abstract concepts of grey morality are likely to be overlooked by kids who just want to kick Bargle's ass and get some payback for Aleena's death by magic missile.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against a great law/chaos conflict as part of the campaign background, but I do think it's rather presumptuous to assume that this would be the case in every fantasy world, rather than the good/evil conflict that is more universally understood.

So I was thrilled when I finally got some AD&D books and found that the game had 9 alignments, allowing for a much more nuanced approach to morality.  This 9-point alignment scale is incredibly versatile, and it allows us as gamers to communicate much about a creatures personality with a mere two letters. The simple notation "LG" denotes an upstanding guy who is reliable and kind-hearted.  Likewise, when you see somebody with "CE", you know they are dangerous and unpredictable.

This alignment system has been a resounding success, and over time it has become so dominant within the RPG culture that it has reached memetic status.  Even people who have never played the game can understand the concept when you stuff their favorite fictional characters into the appropriate boxes.

So it is particularly surprising to see the 4th edition of D&D do away with 30 years of success and tradition by dropping 6 of the classical alignments and going with a 5-point alignment system: Lawful Good, Good, Neutral, Evil, and Chaotic Evil.

I'm not sure why this was changed... it's not like the existing alignment structure was difficult to comprehend.  The fact that the 9-point alignment system has become a universally understood meme, and the fact that it persists years after the game abandoned it says something about the degree that people have embraced it.

I could understand doing a simplified good/neutral/evil system, or going back to the old law/neutrality/chaos system, but this half-assed approach is just really bizarre, particularly after the universal acceptance of the 9-point model.

While there are an awful lot of issues that people argue about regarding alignments, this dumbed-down alignment system doesn't really address any of them. It just changes a well-understood and much-loved game mechanic for something that's more awkward that the thing they were trying to fix.

Even worse, this attempt at simplification actually throws the established order of things into chaos.  Especially with regards to demons, devils, and other creatures that have always been associated with a particular alignment up to this point.  

Needless to say, this was an unwelcome change for long-time players, and it is one of many changes that radically alters the game in the 4th edition.  Given the negative reaction to the game, I sincerely hope WotC and Hasbro learn from their mistakes, but I have grave doubts about the future of the brand.

In the meantime, I will ignore that particular idiocy and continue to use the 9-point system as God and Gygax intended.


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