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Writings > Other Essays, Rants, and Non-Fiction > Why don't you include Alignments?
Why don't you include Alignments?
Published by Dragavan on 2006/11/27 (7352 reads)
Warning to those of religious faith: This rant/essay may offend you.
This is also a long, slightly rambling, rant of an essay. It all ties together, but will meander along the way.

Alignments and The Nature of Good and Evil

A topic that seems to come up a lot when discussing RPGs and my personal take on them is the subject of Alignments. Not just because of them as a game mechanic (which I don't really care for in most games), but because of what they represent in the "real world", which is the concept of good and evil. I have been in many an argument over this subject, which often comes out of the game world and into our own. It always seems to come down to weather or not people believe in an absolute universal good and evil (usually from some outside source or judge). It should be obvious that I don't. To make things easier to get into I will be starting this were Alignments in gaming began.

In the beginning of the RPG hobby (which was a little war game called Chainmail that had a fantasy add on that came out in 1971) there was very little characterization. You played a group of soldiers on the field of battle and everything boiled down to numbers. What made this different than other war games of the age was the fact that it included one on one combat, magic spells, and the concept of assigning alignments of good and evil to single pieces. All of these were just things that numbers affected differently, to give it a different depth and feel. The fantasy concept of morally good and evil characters fighting different ways, having different spells, and being affected by different magic were all in there.

Garry Gygax took what he created in Chainmail and created D&D in 1974, the first truly accepted role-playing game. Gone were the players controlling entire armies. They now just played that one unit they gave a little more depth. But it was still mostly devoid of true characterization in the rules. It was still mostly numbers that balanced out to give it the best game play it could. Alignments were there because the concept of truly creating a character with a unique personality, background, depth, and culture was not built into the system yet. Alignments were still just a way to measure what spells and things could affect what other things (mostly for balance reasons, in the end).

The books didn't even go into depth what alignments meant back then. Much like the classes (which you had to have all four to really play the game successfully) they were there to balance things and give the players the chance to choose a side (without having to justify it any back-story sort of way). They just said you were good, neutral, or evil. Both good and evil were more powerful but also had greater risks. Neutral was allowed to touch on both sides, but not as well. It all still was about numbers.

As the industry grew into being and others started to make games (mostly variations of D&D in the early days) the concept of alignments was carried through most of them. Some tried to change them and make them more logical and easy to understand (like Palladium did), and even D&D added a new layer to them to give them more depth (chaos through law). But for the most part they were in place to give a place for numbers to affect you different ways and give you limitations on what actions your character was allowed to do (yes, that was how it was designed in the early days).

As more games came into being and the industry continues to expand and grow the inclusion of an alignment "attribute" became less and less common. It seemed that as they added more about creating a character background, personality, and story into the systems the more they got rid of these absolute settings for things like morality and belief. They also often got rid of the limited set classes (not requiring the group to have four set stereotypes to successfully do anything), but that's a whole other topic.

D&D, however, stuck to its guns and expanded (and loosened) its alignment system and explanations. Although they were still deeply ingrained into the system, they added notes about being able to change them over time and losing certain bonuses if you go against them (not just saying you can't). They became more of a guide, but still a necessary part of the system since so much of the magic system requires knowing the difference between good and evil aligned characters. I will admit it works in the way D&D is designed, because it is a black and white world of good versus evil with active living gods gathering forces of followers on either side to battle it out. The good know they are good and evil know they are evil, much like they are just labels on their uniforms. They could call them purple and green and it would make very little difference in the game.

Although I personally don't care for games with them, it's when people start to talk about it as if it's "more realistic" to have these alignments or talk about trying to assign these alignments to people in the real world that I have a real issue with them. This is when the concepts of absolute good and evil and the possible forces behind them seem to come up. This is where I think alignment systems really miss the ball on what I see as reality.

Even within the relatively small scale of a single country you don't have an agreement on what is seen as true morals of good and evil. You take the scale larger and throw in the dozens of major religions of the world and it becomes even farther from an agreement on what is morally right and wrong. If you really want to pull this out farther we should throw in the millions of animal species that don't have our "intelligence" and what they do for all sorts of reasons without any measure of good and evil. According to some, others are evil and wrong and even going to be punished forever by their gods for doing what they think is good and right.

Although I am educated in several, I don't actually follow or believe in any of the major religions of the world. So my stance is from a position that is not dictated by some doctrine or belief in some divine right. It comes from watching and studying the differences between cultures and religions who don't agree. Take the largest ones and you have millions of people who almost diametrically oppose each other on many of the core components of their faith and what they believe is good and evil. Where these faiths comes from are a matter of faith as well, but one that I don't agree with. I am of the belief that man created God (just as they did the gods of old) to explain the things they can not understand and then to control others or excuse their actions.

Remove God (and all the related religions) from the mix and the idea of this universal measure of good and evil tends to go with it. Still there are those that try to argue it, but that seems to then move over to being a part of Human nature to understand the basics of good and evil on a core level. That we, as people, understand that certain things are inherently wrong and evil. The most often quoted being murder (which is a label we put on killing with certain intellectually created explanations put on it, but it's still just killing).

I see everything being tainted by our very existence and various cultures. Humans create these beliefs and in doing so create the concepts of good and evil. Tigers don't have a concept of evil. Ants don't have a concept of good. Only humans as they evolved (yes, another subject that is going to piss off some of the faithful out there and I am not going to get into here other than to say I believe evolution happens in at least some form) started to create the concepts of good and evil. I would bet these were done for much the same reasons parents tell their kids certain stories and religions do the same to their congregations, to help guide and control their actions.

Culturally certain things become acceptable and unacceptable as time goes on and they evolve. Logic and personal safety dictates the evolution of the culture to make certain actions wrong (as do certain neural-chemical reactions that cause paternal instincts). Random killing is a detriment to the growth and safety of a community, so they make killing within the group unacceptable. Unacceptable becomes wrong. Wrong becomes evil and part of the faith the group grows and creates over time. As these communities meet other communities they either come to a mutual agreement to get along or they end up battling it out. Either way, in the end there will only be one larger community and they will have a greater accepted understanding of what is acceptable and not. What they see as good and evil. What their created gods see as good and evil.

If it was the ants that evolved to be the dominant social intelligent species on a planet the concepts of good and evil would completely different (or possibly even non-existent). They have a completely hive mentality, where the individuals mean nothing and the hive as a whole is all that matters. The death of one of the hive means nothing, even if it was at the hands of another of the hive, as long as the hive as a whole continues and moves forward from that point. Hell, I have seen hundreds and thousands of ants pushed into a deadly liquid or stream (killing them) so that others can walk over the dead bodies to get to the other side. Extrapolate this out into a culture that would evolve from them and you would not see the same good and evil that we accept as normal.

The same could happen if another completely alien creature (that has no connection to earth at all) evolved on some distant world (which is nothing like earth) somehow gained a level of intelligent thought (even if it was nothing like we understand as thought). Their culture and belief could be light years away from what we understand and perhaps even can conceive of. Even if they evolved a sense of something we could think of as morality and a sense of good and evil, there is nothing that says it would have any resemblance to what we have here on earth.

Now take these several very different alien (humans, ants, and many others) cultures with very different views on good and evil (and religions) and compare it to the alignment systems in the Role-Playing Games. What you end up with is only choosing one of them as being right and the rest have to fall in accordance to the beliefs of that one to see what alignment they are. This is like choosing which religion is right and true. Sure, it's easy if you are a follower of one, but as an outside observer it's not quite the same. So who is to say what is the correct beliefs for the alignment system we want.

So, since I believe that there is no absolute universal good and evil, there can be no absolute universal Alignment that works for a "realistic" feel in a role-playing game. My game is something I want to reflect that feel, where morality and beliefs are based on cultures, upbringing, and religions so everyone will have a slightly different one. There is no external force that judges them on a moral basis (although they will find themselves judged enough by those around them). There is no universal measure of good and evil. There is only the creation of good and evil through the cultures and religions of the world.

That is why I created the "Personal Belief Structure" for the Land of Karn. It is a way to take notes on your character's personal morality. What they were brought up to believe is good and evil, right and wrong. It doesn't mean they always act in accordance with their beliefs (as many people often do go against their own beliefs), but they will be torn with mental and moral strains when they do. Normally they will try to follow these beliefs as a good person, but some people go bad and don't seem to care that they are doing things that even they believe are evil. But most of the time it will be a case of what one culture/person believes is perfectly okay is seen by another to be completely wrong and evil.

This can be seen when cultures clash for the first time. Take the example of the Native Americans (who had no concept of ownership) and how Western Man came in and settled the land. These new people claimed land as their own and defended it to keep it (as was often needed where they came from). The Native Americans would travel right into this land, not knowing anything of trespassing or ownership, and get attacked. So they fought back and wars started. On the Settler's side they were perfectly in the right to protect their land from invaders. On the Native American's side they were unjustly attacked for no reason and perfectly in the right to defend themselves. Neither side saw what they did as wrong and saw the others as the evil savages. Neither side was wrong. I am not going to go into all the things the "white man" did to the "Indians" in those days and try to justify them, I am just using this one small piece as an example.

This is also not an excuse to make a completely amoral character who thinks everything that is normally "bad" is right and good, as the player will have to justify everything on their sheet with the GM. If they can't justifiably show how and why their character would have been brought up to believe that, they shouldn't be allowed to have it. Most of the time the character's PBS will closely resemble their culture and religion and they will be judged by the culture they are surrounded by at any given time.

If you want to play in a game world that has absolute black and white moralities, where gods are directly interfering in the world, where people are judged and rated according the laws of the universe, etc. you are more than welcome to. Sometimes it can be fun to have such a release form reality, where everything makes perfect sense, where there is no gray area to muck around in. Most of the time I don't want this though.

I want the world to be fantastic, but I want to feel it could exist. That means that the gray area is where the world lives, only the people in it see the absolutes of black and white and none of them necessarily match. That is where the Land of Karn lives.
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