Saturday, March 22, 2014

Much Ado About Alignment

Just some stream of consciousness stuff here - me thinking about the over-thinking of alignment.

Alignment is the wrong tool for the job of "defining" a personality, but that doesn't mean it's not a useful tool for the game (you know - THE GAME). Let's review ...

Alignment seems to have originated as a way to do fantasy army factions, not unlike English vs. French at Crecy, or Warhammer's Empire vs. Dwarves (or whatever).

These factions were more than just simple nationality or "race", though - they did have some basis in values - good guys vs. bad guys, with neutrals joining either side. What were the factions really fighting about? I guess the good guys want a good universe, where there's some measure of freedom and happiness and justice - good luck defining exactly what that means to a multitude of people, but you sort of get it in your heart. Finn and Jake are Lawful, but that doesn't mean they spend much time thinking about it or hewing to a masterplan of goodliness.

Chaos is the bad guys - they like to dominate and bully and kill because it's fun (but don't adventurers have fun killing people and taking their gold? Well, yeah, sort of ... but it's for the greater good, and they only kill bad guys!). So, it doesn't matter that the Chaotic warlord thinks he's bringing the blessing of his rule to people who can't rule themselves - he's a dick. You know it, I know it, the people he tortures know it.

Okay - so we have two factions, vaguely warring over control of the universe.

Alignment has another dimension though - game balance. Chaotics can use poison and flaming oil and do whatever they want WOOOOO!, but Lawfuls would never stoop to such lowly tactics, right? And neutrals are not low enough to poison people, but flaming oil is badass and super fun, and they don't mind getting down and dirty like that. That means Chaos should pretty much always win, right? What's the balancing factor?

Well, go back far enough and you find that you had two brands of clerics - the Lawful clerics and the Chaotic anti-clerics. Anti-clerics cast the reverse of lots of cleric spells, presumably healing spells included. So, it's just possible that the old intention was that chaotics get to play with poison, but they don't necessarily get healing.

A lawful cleric (remember, no neutral clerics - they would eventually show up as druids) doesn't necessarily have to heal anyone if she doesn't want to - she's a crusading, fighting-priest - like the armored bishops of old who smashed in the heads of blasphemers and railed against Chaos in sermons and probably withheld their divine favors from folks who didn't toe the line (or who didn't come across with a sizable donation for the cause!). Side note - clerics should be the most awesome class in the game to play, bar none. I think it's a sorry lack of imagination, grit and gusto that has made them into "walking healing wands". Cleric players out there - get into some old time religion and make those clerics awesome again.

So imagine the balance - chaotic characters can coat their weapons with poison (save or die!) and stab people in the back and steal from their friends and such, but they may not receive healing, which means they have to be sneaky as hell (pun intended) and might have to put up with tons of shit from the lawful cleric in the party, including giving up a hefty portion of gold in exchange for saving their sorry butts. Neutrals aren't as bad as that, but they have a bit more freedom to play dirty, and probably have to tithe to the party cleric in exchange for the good stuff. The lawfuls are restricted in their tactics, but enjoy full support from the Lawful church as their reward for playing by the rules.

So, alignment, if reduced to a matter of vague faction and game balance, are probably game enhancers. There's going to be some guidance in terms of personality, but let's not worry over that too much. Law and Chaos are extremes, so embrace them. If you want to be complicated, be neutral and pony up some gold when you contract mummy rot - such is the way of the world.

4 comments:

  1. I think the issue, for me, is that the rules are almost exclusively punitive in nature. If a Cleric acts within their alignment they are never rewarded, but one step outside and things can get ugly. While you certainly could argue that access to spells are the benefit, other classes get this without the moral baggage.

    On a side note, Clerics are unfortunately relegated to heal bots for a variety of reasons, the most predominant one being that it's hard to find without them and the game NEEDS it to function. 4th did a lot to fix that, and a lot of other games have handled this better.

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  2. In AD&D and earlier games if you played a cleric (as I liked to do) the other players would quite outright demand that the cleric take only healing type spells. If you took anything but they would be pretty outraged that you were "wasting" a slot on "wizard spells". Peer pressure at its worst. It really put me off playing clerics until 3E came out with the spontaneous healing rules.

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  3. Clerics ARE badass.

    They get 300 followers.

    Fighters, a mere 50. That's barely above glorified caravan guards.

    Fighters rule the kingdoms, but they need the Clerics for men.

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