Saturday, November 7, 2009

On Alignments and Psalm 8

Psalm 8

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

I've been meditating upon this, the first Psalm of praise within the Psaltery. It asks an important question: who is man that God should give us the role of royal regent within His creation? That God made all of humanity in His image and likeness — His representation within creation — and His priests — His representatives within creation — is an awesome reality. When doing a little research I ran across this little piece of analysis by James Luther Mays:

Human dominion extends over domestic and wild animals, birds and fish. The list is meant to include all living creatures. This designation of the sphere of human dominion reflects the struggles of early humans to domesticate and control, to live with and by the use of the wilderness of the world. It represents the entire human undertaking to do what the other animals cannot and do not do, order and shape what is already there into habitat. Animals are dependent on a habitat; humans depend on their capacity to craft one. The power and responsibility that belong to that capacity are interpreted by the psalm as a regency given to humankind in the world. The psalm invites us to see all the civilizing work of the human species as honor and glory conferred on it by God and, therefore, as cause and content for praise of God.

What struck was the last line: The psalm invites us to see all the civilizing work of the human species as honor and glory conferred on it by God and, therefore, as cause and content for praise of God. This puts an interesting spin on alignment. It reinforces the notion that within the three alignment (Law/Neutral/Chaos) system, Law equals civilization and Chaos equals the wilderness. But more than that, civilization is defined as the human activity that specifically gives rise to the praise of the One God.

This reinforces my own adherence to the three alignment system and further clarifies my own discomfort with the nine alignment system introduced in 1e. The pseudo-Christian Cleric of OD&D actually makes sense within context of Law/Neutral/Chaos. There is enough flexibility within three alignment system to accommodate a wide variety of world-views, especially a scriptural one. Once D&D moves away from this flexibility into the specific world-views of the nine alignment system, that freedom is severely hampered. The pseudo-Christian Cleric no longer fits as well and the system begins to demand a pagan/polytheistic world-view. This demand found its full expression in 2ed and thereafter, which marks the beginning of my own alienation from the game.

Once again, I find the freedom found in OD&D and her clones allows me to play the game we love in a way that I can live up to the call of Psalm 8.


  1. The Alignment system is an artifact of the wargames origins of D&D. You can see most in the First Fantasy Campaign from Judges Guild, which has a lot of Dave Arneson's notes from his Blackmoor Campaign.

    It better just to jettison alignment altogether and go with a system that best reflects your mileau. If that happens to be the Law-Neutral-Chaos of the original then more power to you.

    When I used the nine-alignment system it was more a reflection of a character's attitudes and personality than an alleigance to the forces that drive the universe. Eventually I just ignored it in favor of my own cosmology.

    If you viewed the nine alignment as an alliegence system then I can see how Law-Neutral-Chaos worked better for your mileau.

  2. Rob,

    Yes, the three alignment system comes out of the wargaming roots of the hobby — which is one of the reasons I find myself attracted to it. The older I get, the more I appreciate these roots.

    When you look at the various diagrams that Gygax and company produced to explain the five and nine alignment system as well as the cosmology that grew out of these diagrams, there is very little room for understanding alignment as anything other than some kind of allegiance to the powers of the universe. I think this is why many of us chafe at the system.

    There are mechanical uses for alignment, however. There are spells, items and class limitations that are dependent upon alignment. For my own purposes, the three alignment system does a very nice job of expressing the scriptural metaphor of civilization vs. the wilderness which dovetails nicely into the sandbox/keep on the borderlands type of campaign model. To boot, it does so in such a way that players need not feel shackled by the alignment system. In other words, I get to use the mechanical and metaphorical aspects of the alignment system without all the pseudo-philosophical/pagan baggage.

  3. @ FrDave: And so then what do you do with the Neutral and Chaotic cleric?


  4. There are mechanical uses for alignment, however. There are spells, items and class limitations that are dependent upon alignment.

    True which is a point that I was stuck on for a long time. I switched to GURPS in the late 80s so I didn't have to deal with this issue. But when I returned to writing for D&D then I had to figure things out.

    My answer is that the alignment stuff still works just ignore the Gygaxian verbiage in favor of your own ideas. For me "evil" is defined as the demons and anything touched by them. The demons defined as those who reject the One's (God) plan for creation.

    So while Detect Evil doesn't work on a follower of Set the God of Tyranny, it would work on a Demon Cultist. The same for Protection from Evil and the other alignment spells. I adapted them to fit the cosmology.

    Of course if your cosmology already fits one of the D&D setups (in your case Law-Neutral-Chaos) then you had a lot less work to do then I did.

  5. As for the pagan aspect of my cosmology. I choose a more allegorical approach because I never been comfortable in portraying a fictional Christianity in any other than a version of our world.

    Probably because I am history buff I am very much aware of the fact that part of the impact of Jesus Christ is that he was born in history, acted in historical times, and was witnessed as part of history. He wasn't some mystical figure out of some golden age like so many religions had at the time.

    That always made be uncomfortable in transferring Christianity unless it was something like GURPS Yrth where people were gated to another world.

    The result in my cosmology God exists and has a plan for the Wilderlands salvation. I have some vague notes on a Veritas which would be the manifestation of Christ on this world. But nothing has jelled yet. Not even sure if the "present" of my campaign would be the right time.

    I understand where your ideas are coming from. I thought about some of the same issues and relying the thing I found implementing my approach.

  6. JB,

    Druids and Magic-Users dressed up as priests play the part of non-Lawful Clerics in my world.

  7. Rob,

    I sympathize. I struggled with the idea for a long time for much the same reasons you do. Three things changed my mind. Firstly, there isn't a segment of life that shouldn't be included within the Christian life — that includes the way we play our games or go about being hobbyists. Second, I took a page from C.S. Lewis who wasn't afraid to use Aslan as a fantasy world analogue for Christ (who explains that He has a different name in our world). Third, if we can make up fantasy versions of Zeus, Isis, Tezcatlipoca etc. all of whom were revered within history, why not Christ? It has made for a marvelous challenge which has produced more fruit than I ever thought possible.