Thursday, May 26, 2011

More on Alignment

I have found that one of the topics that always gets comments (and more so than most other topics) on this blog is alignment. Yesterday's post was no exception. One line of these comments usually questions why alignment is even necessary. An example of this is a comment from Roger over at roles, rules & rolls in response to my claim that spells like Protection from Evil require an alignment mechanic (and thus require alignment):
Why not just call it "Protection from Unholy," define that as undead and extraplanar creatures (plus whatever other monsters you think the spell should protect from) and leave it at that?

This is a good question, especially when one looks at Protection from Evil in Holmes and Dispel Evil in Cook:

Protection from Evil — This spell hedges the conjurer round with a magic circle to keep out attacks from enchanted monsters such as elementals, invisible stalkers, demons, etc.
Dispel Evil — This spell will banish or destroy any enchanted or undead monster that comes in range if the creature fails its saving throw vs. Spells.

Evil is clearly equated with enchanted monsters and the undead. Therefore, Roger's question deserves an answer.

It's in the game. This is particularly important given this thought experiment. I am not trying to create my own definitive version of D&D with all the house rules that I think are best for my game Rather, I am trying to create the one that I would have played back in 1981 with only the Holmes & Cook editions available to me, and given a slight prejudice for Holmes over Cook when there is a difference. As such, I need to figure out what exactly these rule-sets mean by alignment (especially since it does have mechanical function).

It has a wargaming pedigree. Alignment has its roots in Chainmail. This is the origin of its mechanical properties and consequences. As I've pointed out before, I am as much of a war gamer as I am a role-player (in some ways more so). In fact, there are plenty of scenarios where I would choose an evening of war gaming over an evening of role-playing (especially if minis were involved). As such, I have a soft spot for those elements of D&D that harken back to its wargaming roots.

Unholy is an alignment. The reason that the Cross has the ability to ward off the undead is not because of the Cross, but rather the God who willingly was crucified upon the Cross in order to defeat death. In other words, the Cross is able to drive off the undead because God Himself works through the Cross. There is a catch, however. If we do not believe in the power of the Living God to affect our lives, our own pride and sin get in the way. Only by properly aligning oneself with God do we allow God to work in and through us.

Having spent much time with the saints by reading their lives, as well as spoken with priests who have had to do exorcisms, I know that evil is a real thing. It can be seen, felt, heard etc. (thus, being able to "detect" it isn't necessarily meta-gaming, especially if you skin it with a "I have a bad feeling about this" kind of vibe). It has power, but only if we allow it to — by aligning ourselves with it. Therefore, as much as I'd like to dump the whole alignment system because it doesn't work as nicely as I'd want, there is a theological reality to it that I, as a Christian, truly appreciate.

This is why I keep revisiting the idea. Despite my reservations, I think it is useful and potentially evocative enough to keep around.


  1. Your statements have the ring of truth... it's just so clunky mechanics-wise! And trying to enforce alignment changes always triggers debates on the nature of evil...

  2. @Ka-Blog!
    it's just so clunky mechanics-wise!

    Which is why this whole line of thought is so challenging (and why the temptation to dump it is so strong).

  3. I can definitely appreciate the desire to include it rather than house ruling everything. I think one of the reasons I'm reasonably in favour of dropping the alignment system is because I've been working on creating a setting recently. As part of that endeavour I've been questioning a lot of the basic concepts and assumptions, like how magic works, what the wilderness looks like, which races belong on which side of the fence, and even what role alignment plays. Because of this, I'm much more open to dumping (or rewriting) something I find counterintuitive or possibly detrimental.

    For my own purposes I'll likely end up using Roger's "Protection from Unholy" style of replacement for these spells and abilities. I think it accomplishes the purpose of the spells without opening the door to having a plethora of "Protection from X Alignment" spells, which is the main thing I don't want. I'm fine with someone being able to say, "oh, there are undead nearby", but not "oh, that vendor over there is evil".

    Part of this is for the protection of the players as well. Maybe it's the wrong approach to take on the issue, but in a fallen world I would put any given person down as being evil. It's part of their sin nature, and even if they may not appear evil they would still show up in the negative on a Detect Alignment spell. Thus, I think scrapping the Alignment system as a mechanic will be beneficial, as it will keep the players from assuming an ally is a villain just because he has anger management issues and an unhealthy fancy for the distaff.

    I'll definitely still be using Alignments, but not in a mechanical fashion. It will more be a general character synopsis to give a vague idea on how they act or what they strive to be.

  4. @Svafa
    in a fallen world I would put any given person down as being evil

    I would disagree. While we are born into the consequences of sin, we are not born evil. The Fathers of the Church write about how we participate in sin, and this requires choice. We are tempted, we plan, we act. It is possible to say no at any time — even after we have acted (hopefully before too much damage has been done).

    Interestingly, Holmes' version of Detect Evil reflects this view — it doesn't detect inherent evil, but rather evil thought and intention. Thus, someone who is merely eating his lunch (even if they had a Chaotic Evil alignment) would not register as evil.

  5. I think we're essentially getting at the same thing. My choice of wording may not have been as well thought out though.

    In your more recent post, the last section describes rather aptly one reason I'm in favour of scrapping Alignment as a mechanic. I would ascribe the evil nature to the corrupting influence of sin. That may be the wrong way to look at the Alignment system though, as I stated. :/

    In the section you quoted it wasn't so much my intent to say everyone is evil, but that anyone could (or could not) register as evil on a Detect Alignment spell. I do not think I represented that well.

  6. Third time Blogger has eaten this!! Aaargh!
    In our games, we’ve replaced ‘good vs evil’ alignment with ‘heroic vs villainous’. This is much more graspable in play, while evil is relegated to largely supernatural forces of cruelty and destruction, with good as their opposite. This makes anti-evil spells more applicable, and we leave open ways for truly evil characters to transcend and become supernatural forces (i.e. an evil fighter could become a wight or ghast on death or other evil spirit).