- Spells like Detect Evil and Protection from Evil
- Ethos classes such as assassins, druids, monks, paladins and rangers.
He goes on to illustrate how LotFP and Carcosa handle the first in heuristic way — every action can be clearly understood as being in or out of a particular alignment. For my own purposes, this can be simply stated as (Christian) Civilization vs. (Demonic) Wilderness. Or, to put it more bluntly: are you in or out of the Church? I say this in context of the pre-Reformation world where being Christian and Christianity was inseparable from being part of the Church.
The second is where D&D has historically ran into trouble. The five- and nine- alignment systems do not lend themselves well to an heuristic approach. In addition, they are so ambiguous in their moral/ethical distinctions as to be indistinguishable — True Neutral, Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Evil might as well be the same. This confusion is only exacerbated by our modern relativistic inability to define good and evil.
Even so, such definitions are not necessarily useful in terms of determining whether or not a particular class is adhering to the class ethos and therefore is qualified to retain or lose all class abilities. Take, for example, this Christian understanding of good and evil:
- Good = God (and therefore, the presence of God)
- Evil = the absence of God
Thus, any act that moves us toward God and being like Him is good. Any act that takes us away from Him and His likeness is evil.
Given this criteria, the killing of any human being for any reason is evil because it is a willful destruction of God’s image and likeness. Thus, every time a paladin or a ranger killed an evil human, they would lose their class abilities. This only gets messier when dealing with demi-humans — are they or are they not made in the image and likeness of God? Why? In the end, this approach will most likely place the vast majority of PCs in the evil camp and make it virtually impossible for either the paladin or ranger to be played at all.
I suppose that if one was willing to limit the image and likeness to humans and if evil human opponents were used in moderation, one could have a simple means by which a paladin or ranger could be reinstated (such as confession). If handled correctly, this could introduce some interesting moral choices into the game; however, this is a very narrow interpretation of the game that severely limits the utility of these classes. Even in campaigns, such as my own, which strive to equate the Wilderness with the monstrous and demonic, this line gets fuzzy when players interact with and humanize monsters. There are currently at least five henchmen NPCs in my current campaign that started out as monsters.
The ugly reality is that PCs represent that morally ambiguous part of civilization that has to do dark and nasty things so that everybody else doesn’t have to. Thus, having a mechanical consequence that punishes players for doing the morally ambiguous things that the game (in essence) requires that they do is inherently unfair (and one of the reasons we’ve been arguing about how to implement the paladin since its inception).
When I did the meditation on alignment that Brendan cites in his post, I was purposely sidestepping the moral issue for exactly this reason. From a practical point of view, determining “sides” in a manner akin to the wargaming roots of the game makes much more sense than the moral/cosmic adherence implied by the traditional D&D alignment system. Brendan, by the way, was ultimately critical of this approach because he not only sees a need for the moral/cosmic, but sees the dynamism implied by my approach as a problem. I tend to see it as a feature — changing alignments is more akin to changing political parties than changing religion and is therefore less dramatic or earth shattering. Indeed, depending upon the mechanics a particular campaign ties to those alignments, it could even be good strategy.
However, I recently made reference to a speed bump that the Pathfinder campaign I’ve been participating in ran into. This is in part due to an absence of the moral/cosmic alignment system, despite the fact that we had no real ethos classes. Some of our more inexperiences players — lacking a moral/cosmic basis by which to weigh their decisions — did a few things that some of the more experienced players found to be rather heinous and offensive.
This has reminded me that there is one more practical way that alignments are used in games:
- A basis which aids a player in deciding how their character should act in certain situations.
Given that a cosmic alignment doesn’t necessarily imply a moral/ethical code (see the heuristic approaches of LotFP and Carcosa above) and that a more traditional (Christian) definition of good and evil is not very useful in context of the average adventuring party, there has to be a different criteria by which to aid players in making moral decisions for their characters.
Given my recent experience, I am going to propose this schema:
- Evil = selfishness
- Good = service to others
This does several things:
- It anathematizes selfish play (and all of the various vices that unfold from this kind of play).
- It nicely plugs into the cosmic schema of Civilization vs. Wilderness while allowing for the kind of moral ambiguity that adventuring requires while also being applicable to the more diverse alignment system that I proposed here.
- Finally, it gives characters of diverse backgrounds a means of negotiating cool reasons to work toward a common goal. Take, for instance, a thief who is loyal to one of the local crime families and a fighter who is loyal to the local city guard. In a normal schema, these two would not work together. However, when serving others is understood to be the moral center of a character, it is possible to understand the taking down of a rival family’s smuggling operation as mutually beneficial. Ultimately, it gives players of wildly different characters a means by which justify the kind of trust necessary for really good games.