Last week, we started talking about Alignment, a tricky subject that is a core aspect of Dungeons and Dragons. I introduced the concept and shared an opinion of Jacob from Edgeland Games. This week, I will respond to a few of Jacob’s points.
To start, let’s talk about monsters and their alignment. How does alignment translate into actions? Jacob brought up the Tarrasque. This terrifying creature is identified as Neutral (or True Neutral, depending on the edition). By definition, Neutral means the creature is neither good nor evil, and its actions are simply instinctual. It is driven to feed and sleep. However, in the course of these actions, the Tarrasque will bring destruction to entire continents, potential killing millions and creating long-term consequences that could negatively impact future generations.
If the exact same results were accomplished by a demon prince or vampiric warlord, they would be defined as evil. However, the Tarrasque is considered a force of nature, and is thus free from moral judgement.
It could be argued that alignment in this form is defined by the inherent nature of a creature. A creature is defined by good or evil simply by virtue of how it is born. This could make sense in the case of non-intelligent creatures. In the real world, a pet dog isn’t really good or evil. He may do something bad, but he’s simply an animal operating on instincts. In D&D, animals and monsters cannot make moral judgements or choices, thus their alignment is set. The label of good or evil is assigned by observers of these actions.
However, in the game, this exact same system is also applied to sentient creatures with the capability to make choices and the intelligence to understand them. For characters like this (whether PCs or NPCs) alignment is still defied as one or the other. This is where it gets really messy.
A good character can do an evil action, and visa versa. Taking it a step further, a character could take an action that they understand as good but seems evil to observers. A great man once said “every villain is the hero of their own story.” Heroes do good things, right? What we’re talking about here is the fact that morality is fluid.
Without diving into the rabbit hole that is the physiology of ethics, there is an on-going debate about absolute right and wrong. And because D&D is a world simulation, it only makes sense that this same debate exists in the game world. This is even more true considering the fact that the game includes the concepts of deities. In its early stages, the debate over ethics was based heavily on religion. With gods wandering through D&D, they probably have an impact on right and wrong.
For the sake of this article, we need a definite answer so that we can move forward. Let us say that in D&D, there is a clear definition of right and wrong to the extent of also defining good and evil. But the fact remains that an individual does not make one single choice about how he or she is labeled as such and allow that decision to dictate his or her entire life.
This can easily be incorporated into the game by simply removing alignment as a functional component completely. If the choice between good and evil is left up to role playing, there is no problem. In my experience, many groups play this way, even if they have not acutely thrown out the alignment component.
Ultimately, the choice between good and evil is central to D&D. A party walking down the road is attacked by bandits. Do they defend themselves with lethal force? What if instead of bandits, it’s a pack of howling demons? Or what if it’s a group of enslaved goblins? On a larger scale, what do the heroes during times of war? How do they treat prisoners? Every encounter, from a tavern brawl to a dungeon delve to an epic world-saving quest rests on the foundation of moral choices.
In my experience, players generally skew towards good. It’s the assumed social contract at the table. I’ve witnessed players having to actually make the choice to do something other than what is assumed to be good. Or at the very least, struggling with the decision of where to fall on the morality scale. I’ve even seen this decision left up to the roll of a die. This is where I disagree with Jacob.
Min/maxing a character does not automatically translate to a lack of role playing and moral decisions. I have spent hours building a PC that is numerically perfect, and then played a game full of rich role playing and carefully thought out decisions. But that’s just one example. This situation is where the game and reality come very close to each other. If a player enjoys role playing, it will be easy to do, no-matter the nature of the game. If, on the other hand, a player enjoys manipulating the rules of the game, role playing will take a back seat.
In the second case, if alignment shifts and takes on a stronger mechanical component, it is simply another set of rules to learn. Using these rules does not force role play to happen.
To conclude this week, I think it’s safe to say that while alignment is important to D&D, it’s the responsibility of the player, not the rules, to make sure that it is portrayed correctly. A static statement cannot properly handle the complexity of alignment. But alignment has had a mechanical impact on the game for years. Next week, we will discuss some of these mechanics, discuss their intention, and propose alternate methods for handling alignment at the game table.