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Out of Alignment

I'm an alignment-free dungeonmaster. My husband isn't*.
As you can imagine, this has led to some interesting discussions over the dinner table and in our gaming circle about the merits of the alignment system in AD&D.
The alignment system proposes objective morality—absolute good and evil. Playing without alignment tends to imply relative morality—cultural, subgroup, or even personal good and evil.
There's clearly a lot going for the alignment system. Most people have some absolute standard of good or evil. The problem is, few people have the same absolute standard of good or evil, and that's where lots of blood gets shed in human history. Not many people think that tearing the beating heart out of a human chest is a Good act, but hey, the Aztecs did. Not many people think shooting a stranger down in cold blood is a Good act, but if you're at war ... or a member of a gang (there may be some argument for the similarity of the two), you do. There are few acts you can think of that haven't been considered either Good or Evil by some human culture at some time or another. Multiply that by all the planes and worlds and races and times in D&D, and you can imagine the moral confusion that could result.
The DM has, basically, three choices:

Choose an absolute alignment system with Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos on each side and every character placed somewhere between those axes. This is old-fashioned D&D, and it can work pretty well. It's a good choice for people whose personal beliefs tend to be absolute—if you believe killing is Evil, then as a DM, set up a world where killing is Evil! This is the logical option for some of the religious fundamentalists out there who keep objecting to D&D's "moral ambiguity," and I'm not sure why more don't make use of it.
Some moral questions that DMs who choose this option should consider are (a) which comes first, the action or the alignment change?; (b) do entire races have alignments, or only individuals? (This is the classic, "Are orcish babies evil?" question), and (c) is there redemption for characters whose actions have shifted them over to one alignment or another, and if so, what's involved?
Another consideration is the classic AD&D rule that penalizes characters for alignment change. The DM should carefully consider whether or not to keep it in play. An alignment change that makes good roleplaying sense (say, an evil character who converts to good under the beneficial influence of the party's cleric) probably shouldn't be arbitrarily punished.
A final question I might ask is whether the DM will keep the "alignment languages" of 1st edition (DMG p. 24), and if so, what the rationale would be for people sharing different languages of morality, and are these are learned or innate languages? If alignment languages are learned, then they are probably not universal.

Replace the alignment system with another system that permits more nuances of behavior. For example, one might replace alignments with a system that considers instead loyalties and beliefs. These systems aren't major breaks from the alignment system—they still require players to assign their characters to some more-or-less objective, quantifiable category of values from the start—but they do allow for the possibility of different beliefs, for intergroup variation. (The Al Qadim D&D campaign setting took a step in this direction with its division of priests into Ethoists, Pragmatists, and Moralists [AQAA, p. 58-65]—so that priests of the same deity would share some beliefs but could vary widely in how they decide to follow those beliefs.)

Discard the alignment system in favor of a relativistic system wherein each culture (or group, or maybe even person) has a set of values, and judges others based on those values. This doesn't mean that groups can't set their own absolute standards of morality—a church (and, in theory, the church's deity) may very well have absolute moral standards that their paladins had better obey ... or else! But moral decisions aren't easy, and the paladin who's been taught that orcish babies are unqualifiedly evil may get into arguments with other characters who have been taught otherwise—even, possibly, members of the same church! This completely frees characters of moral- or value-based a priori categorization and opens up the roleplaying possibility of penalty-free moral reconsiderations, conversions, and so forth. Ideally, under this choice, characters would have personalities and their actions would logically reflect those personalities. (An interesting aspect of the Birthright D&D campaign setting, I think, is that churches devoted to the same deity may vary widely in their interpretation of that deity's teachings—yet they all get spells, implying that the deities are more concerned with having worshippers than about what those worshippers actually do...or that some deities poach on each others' territory!)

Which choice is best? This question has caused more flaming on the ADND listserv than, I think, any other. Some gamers are absolutists, and they'll tell you in strong terms which system is best. I chose to discard the black-and-white of the alignment system in favor of the muddled palette of greys involved with moral relativism, so my answer is—of course—choose the system that works best for you, and let others do the same.

(*Addendum, three years later: Unhappily, he's no longer my husband, either, see Gaming Groups and Divorce.)

originally written January 17, 1998

 

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