Strap in folks, this is a long one, but one that I am rather excited about. I hope you find it as useful as I have found it to be fun to work on and write.
Of all of the various “controversial” mechanics in D&D, Alignment is probably the most, because it doesn’t really work. What started out as a simple guide for which fantasy troop types could or would work together, it evolved into the nine-fold metaphysical mess that it is today. This failure is largely due to the fact that it couches Good and Evil in materialist language:
Basically stated, the tenets of good are human rights, or in the case of AD&D, creature rights. Each creature is entitled to life, relative freedom, and the prospect of happiness. Cruelty and suffering are undesirable. Evil, on the other hand, does not concern itself with rights or happiness; purpose is the determinant. — 1e DMG
The inherent problem with this is that materialism has no real metaphysics. Indeed, once one starts to seriously look into metaphysics, the materialist world-view begins to collapse in on itself. Note the relativism implied in "life, relative freedom, and the prospect of happiness." What is life when undeath is a reality? What is freedom when dangerous and powerful magics, including spells like Charm Person are available? Though undesirable, what if cruelty and suffering are the only means towards happiness? Is the purpose to serve others evil? All of these platitudes have no real meaning.
Thus, the instinct by many players today to entirely eliminate Alignment from the game is quite correct, from a materialist POV. I, however, reject materialism and my instinct is that it should be part of the game. The question has always been how.
In the modern, materialist world-view, the opposite of being is nothing — something that is no thing, has no being, has no material form. This is not how ancient Greek philosophers, and much of Western thought prior to the Enlightenment, understood things. Plato, Platonism, and Neo-Platonism all find that the opposite of being is becoming. Aristotle developed this into potential and actuality. To possibly over-simplify, there are things that change and things that don't. Those that don't are superior to those that do. As to why, remember death is the one change none of us can escape.
When one reads the Fathers of the Church, they use Platonic, Neo-Platonic, and Aristotelian language and concepts to explicate the Gospel, but ultimately reject the metaphysics of philosophy in favor of Scripture. English translations of Genesis describe the opposite of being as:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. (1:1-2)The words "without form" and "void" in the Masoretic Hebrew are ṯō·hū and ḇō·hū, the latter only being used twice in the OT, both in conjunction with the first. In fact, the only way that we have an idea of how to translate ḇō·hū is other translations, specifically the Septuagint Greek. Ironically, a close examination of that Greek offers a different meaning.
The first word is ἀόρατος, which means "unseen" or "invisible." The second is ἀκατασκεύαστος, meaning "not properly prepared." This lack of preparedness implies something unformed, or (far more relevant to the subject of this post) chaos.
This primordial unseen chaos is represented by "darkness upon the face of the deep." Here, "the deep" is ἀβύσσου or the abyss. This abyss, however, is described in terms of the sea with the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the water. In the Masoretic Hebrew, the abyss is rendered ṯə·hō·wm, which has been etymologically linked to Tiamat — the Babylonian goddess of the sea and a symbol for the chaos of primordial creation.
Being, therefore, is the order brought by God's creation and the purpose with which it is endowed. Using philosophical categories to explain the image and likeness of God in humanity, we are created to become like God and have the potential to share in God's eternity by the actualization of the divine in us. Paul describes this with the Greek word δικαιόω. Often translated as "justified," it literally means set right and shares the same root as righteousness. All of this, of course, is made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ, because without Him through whom all things were made, we are completely incapable of being.
Jesus also reminds us that only God is good (see Mark 10:18) and His brother James states:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
Thus, the source of all good in the world is God the Father, in whom is no change (note the link to Plato's thinking). Given this, there is no neutrality in creation. Either God's goodness flows through something or it doesn't and humanity has been given the task of tending creation — ordering the world according to the goodness of God.
It should be noted that the word alignment means to set in a straight line and the word for sin in both Greek and Hebrew means to miss the mark — the alignment of your life and actions have failed to align with the purpose set before you by God.Let us now look at how D&D actually uses Alignment. It is possible to break down Alignment mechanically into four broad categories:
- A code of conduct required of a PC to take advantage of class abilities. See clerics, monks, paladins, etc.
- Something that determines the efficacy of certain spells such as Detect Evil and Protection from Evil.
- An effect of a magic trap or item that either changes the alignment of a PC or determines the ability of a PC to use said item. See Helm of Alignment Change, Intelligent Swords, etc.
- Alignment Languages.
Let's take a look at how Scripture might help to clarify these mechanics.
Scripture clearly shows that there is no one way that an individual can become righteous. People from all walks of life from both the Old and New Testament are today recognized as Saints in the Orthodox Church: shepherds, kings, prophets, judges, fishermen, lawyers, tax collectors, physicians, slaves, women, children, etc. At the same time, many of these very same saints spent time falling away from God. It was an act of repentance that separates a King David from a King Saul, both of whom where made righteous by being chosen by God and anointed by the Prophet Samuel. All of this suggests that the core idea of having certain class abilities tied to behavior is Scriptural, as is the idea of quests of penance to get those abilities back after a fall.
The behavior that is and isn't acceptable, however, is not necessarily going to be universal. The way a monk and a paladin deal with a situation, given their different set of skills, is necessarily going to be different. This all suggests that Players and Referees need to world build so that various organizations that represent various classes have clear cut Codes of Conduct. I might also suggest having clear paths of penance so that players can weigh the cost/benefit of breaking their codes. This would also free the Referee to be rather strict about enforcing those codes. Given the fact that most of the classes that have such codes are some of the most powerful in the game, and given that the Referee and players are clear as what is expected, this seems to me to be a reasonable ask for these classes.
There are two basic types of spells that specify evil: Protection from Evil and Detect Evil. If we take a look at the original wording of the former, it really doesn't have anything to do with evil mechanically, despite its mention of "evil attacks:"
Protection from Evil: This spell hedges the conjurer round with a magic circle to keep out attacks from enchanted monsters. It also serves as an “armor” from various evil attacks, adding a +1 to all saving throws and taking a –1 from hit dice of evil opponents.
These spells specifically target attacks from enchanted creatures. Depending on how one interprets enchanted this could theoretically include traditionally Good creatures such as unicorns. Later editions do try to define "enchanted," such as Moldvay's "summoned or created" — a definition that does fit nicely into a Scriptural POV. Given this definition, however, this spell seems to be a variation on Protection Scrolls, which specify a type of creature that are affected — Protection from Lycanthropes, for example. While more recent versions of the game expand the scope of this spell to include Law/Chaos as well as Good/Evil, I think it far more practical to move that variety more in the direction of the Protection Scroll. Either PCs can have access to a variety of Protection spells or a specific category of creature is invoked when the spell is memorized or cast. Thus, this category is less about Alignment than it is about a targeted category of creature.
When it comes to the spell Detect Evil, the original explanation runs very much counter to Scripture:
Detect Evil: A spell to detect evil thought or intent in any creature or evilly enchanted object. Note that poison, for example, is neither good nor evil. Duration: 2 turns. Range: 6”.
Given that humans sin in thought all the time, this spell would produce nothing of any real import. Although it specifies an ability to detect an evil enchantment on an item, it explicitly declares a mundane object, such as poison, which is almost exclusively used for evil intent, as undetectable due to its neutrality. Given that it is impossible to be neutral when it comes to God (the source of all good), this use of this spell is non-sensical from a Scriptural POV.
To fix this, I think that the whole concept of detecting thoughts ought to be abandoned. Not only are there other spells that deal with this ability (ESP, for example), but the explanation is so ambiguous that, in my experience, the spell is rendered largely useless in this regard anyway. In order to make Detect Evil into a useful utility spell, we can take advantage of the Scriptural understanding of the co-creative role of humanity. In other words, the spell is able to detect the manner in which an object was last used — something aligned with God or aligned with a human desire for power, money, lust, etc.
Thus, in context of a murder mystery, Detect Evil might be an interesting spell to use in order to try and determine a murder weapon, for example. It also gives the Referee a clear directive as to whether or not an object reeks of evil. In terms of world building, it also drives the need for spells like Bless and Purify Food and Water in non-adventure settings. Every year at Epiphany, for example, the priest goes from house to house blessing houses with the holy water blessed during the services of the Feast.
Magic Traps and Items
Now we finally come to a subject directly relevant to the subject of the megadungeon, and something that I think ought to be far more common, at least from a Scriptural POV. In Genesis, God warns Cain as he meditates on murdering his brother Abel:
So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin crouches at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” — 4:6-7
The Masoretic Hebrew for "crouches" is etymologically linked to an Akkadian word rabitsu, which is a crouching demon that hides near doors. This warning refers to the fact that not all thoughts originate from within our minds. We are constantly being bombarded by thoughts from the holy and the demonic. To illustrate this, try praying the Jesus Prayer multiple times concentrating on the words: "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." Very quickly, our minds will wander away. These thoughts that catch our attention are from the same rabitsu that were waiting at the door of Cain's heart.
In other words, as adventurers delve into the depths of the megadungeon trying to align themselves and the dungeon itself to the purposes of God, the challenges PCs should face ought to go beyond the physical. This can take the form of traps and magic items that force a PC to change their alignment away from God's purpose. Their resistance can either take the form of a Saving Throw or the Player's choice to refuse the power available to them through use of an item.
This is all well and good, but in the traditional D&D alignment system, the alignment change is the consequence in most cases. The rest lies in that nebulous space where Players try to interpret how their characters would now act "evil" or "chaotic" instead of "good" or "lawful." Unless the PC was a character that depended upon a specific alignment, there is no clear cut way as to how this mechanically affects the game.
If, however, "Alignment" referred strictly to a PCs relation to God's purpose, then there are some mechanical choices that can be made and imposed. In Orthodox Christianity, the "likeness" in the "image and likeness" of God refers to our eternal quest to become more and more like God. Thus, we can tie level progression to Alignment. Thus, a PC can't progress in level, regardless of the amount of XP accumulated, unless they are properly aligned.
Those that fail a Saving Throw or choose to use a powerful magic item with an Evil Alignment must then perform some kind of act of repentance. This could take the form of tithing in cases of a missed Saving Throw, or a quest in cases of choosing to use evil magics. To my mind, this makes Alignment consequential and can make many Alignment decisions by Players far more meaningful: "I don't have the magic weapon necessary to defeat this monster, unless I pull out and use this evil sword."
Alignment Languages have long been a source of confusion and mockery. The idea that a PC who dons a Helm of Change Alignment simultaneously and instantly forgetting one language and learning a new one is rather laughable. In context of Scripture, however, understanding speech is tightly linked to a relationship with God. Prior to their attempt to control God by building the Tower of Babel, humanity all spoke the same language. As punishment for their audacity, God confused the languages. We see another explicit example in the Gospel of John:
[Jesus said,] "Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. — 12:28-29
Those that were ready — Aligned to the purpose of God — heard the voice. Those that were not merely heard thunder. This suggests that Alignment languages can be understood by anyone who is willing. Thus, if a PC were willing to change their Alignment (as with the evil magic items above), an otherwise unreadable text would become known; however, like those willing to use evil magic items, they would then have to repent in order to advance in level. It would also make texts written in a heavenly language indecipherable. This renders spells like Read Languages and Comprehend Languages even more important than they already are, because they would allow a PC to read a forbidden text without making the necessary Alignment change.
If we are to use Scripture as a guide for making Alignment mechanically meaningful, we are forced to understand that the traditional Good/Evil and Law/Chaos dichotomies are meaningless. All order and good that is in the world have their source in God. Everything else is a manifestation of evil and chaos. Thus, a more useful language to use is In or Out of Alignment (with God's purpose).
At first glance, this may seem to run counter to the existence of Assassins, Barbarians, Druids, Thieves and any other class that have Alignment requirements that in traditional D&D embrace Chaos, Neutrality, and/or Evil. In a world in which Chaos manifests itself as the megadungeon, however, even PCs that live and operate in that grey area between Civilization and the Wilderness can align themselves with God's purpose by becoming adventurers that delve into the megadungeon.
Understanding Alignment as "In" or "Out" allows us to have some very clear mechanical consequences for choosing one over the other:
- Classes that require a code of conduct to use certain class abilities are Out if they break that code
- All PCs that are Out may not advance in level, regardless of XP earned
- PCs that are In may read and understand "heavenly" languages
- PCs that are Out may read and understand "demonic" languages
- PCs that are Out may avoid certain magical traps and use certain magical items
- PCs that are Out must perform penance in order to become In
- The penance necessary to become In is up to the Referee and may include quests of various kinds
To my mind, this is a far more useful Alignment system than any I have encountered in D&D or elsewhere. It helps portray a world in a way that helps players understand how their choices interact with the realities of that world.
So, are you In or Out? ;)