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Some Thoughts on Alignment

Mandos, Admin ALFA

An important part of your roleplaying experience is alignment. While a player should never feel pressure to pick a certain alignment; they should be held to their choice and to the logical ramifications of that choice. The biggest challenge facing players and DMs in terms of alignment is confusion over definitions. If you as a player have a very different standard of Lawful Good than I do as DM there will be problems.

Example:Let’s say I hold that Lawful Good means that you do what is immediately right, every time. Your paladin character chooses to tell a lie to try and prevent a disaster. By my lights you have just committed a major trespass in alignment.

What follows are some brief thoughts on alignment. This same essay caused considerable angst on the ALFA boards (some of it was well said and this edited version incorporates some critiques from the board). There are two main axes in alignment, one along chaos and law, and one along good and evil. I think the DnD system of alignment, heavily influenced by Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, is a pretty clumsy attempt to classify ethos. But it is the system we have, and so I am going to work with it.

Think of Law and Chaos as a sliding scale of Objectivity to Subjectivity. Objectivists think things are true and false, while Subjectivists think it depends on your point of view. Like Wordsworth, the Objectivist things the waterfall is truly sublime; the Subjectivist holds that it is pretty.

The first says something about the waterfall that may be true or false, the second is a subjective statement about the observer, an inclination that by definition may not be true or false. Do you remember the movie The Professional? Leon’s one rule was “No women, no children.” It was not much of a standard, but this cold-blooded killer held firmly that it was wrong to kill women and children. A subjectivist might say that he hoped he never had to do so, but maybe there would be a situation so desperate he would do it.

Evil and Good are simpler to understand: weal to others on one hand, woe on the other. Acts of beneficence to others on one side, acts of cruelty and selfishness on the other. Do you remember the film Aliens? Cpl Hicks & Ripley, they were good. Paul Reiser’s character was bad. Hicks and Ripley I suspect might be on different sides of the Law/Chaos divide but their actions were characterized by virtues like courage (physical and moral), charity, and loyalty. The main thrust of the good/evil axis seems to be along the outward focus of good on others, and the selfish focus of evil.

Here are some examples:

Lawful Good: You do what is right, every time, right now, because you are not given the future. If-then scenarios are nonsense to you. When someone proposes an evil now for a greater good in the future, you refuse because for all you know there will be no future. You act as if each moral choice were the last one, the defining moment of your life. A paladin like Galahad, or a Marine Officer is a good example. *

Neutral Good: Your actions are typified by virtue, but you might bend your morals in the uttermost extremity. For example, you might, at the utter extremity of need, torture a prisoner if you absolutely felt it was the only way to save a comrade. The action would be abhorrent; the idea is that there is a possibility you might bend your ethics given a dire enough situation.

Chaotic Good: You live by a code of right and wrong, but you bend it as you see fit to achieve good ends. Dirty Harry, or a vigilante, might be CG.

True Neutral: Most people. You are good to those who are good to you; bad to those who are bad to you. You probably have no ethos, or a cynical ethos (“You leave me alone, I will leave you alone.”) Michael Douglas at the beginning of Romancing the Stone might be an example of this. N.B. “Balance” is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of. No one, outside of a cheesy fantasy book, has ever struggled to maintain “balance.” Remember Gandalf barring the way of the Valarauka over the precipice of Moria? “You cannot pass! I am a servant of the Secret Fire, you cannot pass!” Men don’t plunge to their death, wreathed in flame, for balance. Balance forsooth!

Lawful Evil: You serve a bad cause well. A good Wermacht Officer, or Sonny in The Godfather are examples of people with adherence to an objective code, but who follow a path of evil. The noble enemy type might be Lawful Evil.

Neutral Evil: You have some scruples, but not a lot in your pursuit of an evil goal. A bank robber who would kill any man, but might risk his life to protect a child could be NE. Also, an evil person who does the minimum to achieve their goals might be NE; they are not gratuitously wicked.

Chaotic Evil: Me me me! The evil character that holds to nothing but what they want, right now. Wez (“You can run, but you can’t hide!”) in The Road Warrior, or Gary Oldman’s character in The Professional (a terrifying character) are examples of CE.

Chaotic Neutral: I am suspicious of this as an ethos. The old 1st edition rules leaned towards describing CN as insane. I see it most often used as a dodge by players whereby they do not have to follow a consistent ethos, rather they can whatever helps the character power game at the moment without consistent characterization. In essence, CN=whatever I do. I can imagine, however a character that has enough mix of wrong and right that they are neutral, along with a strong degree of unpredictability. Do you remember the movie Boys Don't Cry? I forget his name, but the main foil could be good to those he liked, even display great virtues, but he could turn on a dime and be very wicked. He might, without being clinically insane, chaotic enough in his actions to be CN (of course when he ends up raping and killing the heroine he steps into the chaotic evil sphere firmly).

Lawful Neutral: You have a strong code you follow, but it is marked by both good and evil. Imagine a ward boss or a union man who is loyal, subscribes to a strict code, but that code could include vengeful or wicked acts. Imagine a businessman who would stick to a contract like glue no matter what the cost because that is the way things are, but would lie steal or cheat outside of it in a heartbeat. The hallmark of LN is strict adherence to a code or ethos that is not marked by great altruism or selfishness.


*Lawful Good does not = stupid or weak! I am a Marine Officer. I have trained, and trained others, to infiltrate enemy defenses and cut the throats of sleeping men. We have, with clear consciences, diligently practiced the craft of ending the life of enemy combatatnts with tanks, rifles, side arms, K-bar’s and knees and elbows. One the other hand were an enemy to surrender to me, no matter what happened, no matter what the situation, I would adhere to the Geneva Convention in how I treated them (not because it is a convention, but because it is a good convention). That is what Lawful Good is. It is about this choice in front of you, not about being a pushover.

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