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The Contract

Morality? Play!

by J.S. Majer (editor, Drew Meger)
January 17, 2002  
The scholar Maimonides (1) once wrote a treaty that considered the question, "what makes for a good deed?" Okay, so he was explaining "good deed" in respect to Judaism, but the question is as open for any ethic. The problem with good deeds is that a good deed is not good qua goodness, or at least such a definition has a strong case against it. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with them.

Is a good deed done with good intentions but having bad results better or worse than a good deed done with bad intentions and having good results? Surely the triple good is better than the triple bad, but is it better to want to give money to charity and not do it or to give money to charity, but only for the tax deduction? Does the answer change depending on what the charity is?

Maimonides went out and ranked each one, placing every step between triple good and triple bad in a precise order. I would never be so bold. I am not one of those fuzzy wuzzy relativists who believe in constant moral uncertainty, but I do believe that good and evil exist beyond mortal ken.

The weakness of human perspective (one man dying to save a thousand seems right, but not so right if his survival could have saved ten thousand), cognitive dissonance ("killing people is wrong" she said in support of the death penalty) and action-character duality (think of the NRA gun argument) perpetually mires the situation. They are evident, but not present. They exist in ineffable forms, which can never be absolutely defined, but can be conditionally defined. (2)

Thus, it might seem that I would not like alignment systems in role playing games. If such were the case, I would find myself in good company. Alignment systems provide players and characters with fixed stars, when my own beliefs see nebulous chaos and chaotic nebulousness. If I did enjoy alignment, it would have to be for its escapist quality, my desire to cast Know Alignment on my future employers.

This assumption is incorrect. I like alignment. It is by no means clear-cut and it serves its purpose admirably. But to answer "how?" we have to answer "what?". I will be focusing on AD&D's alignment system. I recognize that there are others out there, but AD&D remains singularly paradigmatic.

Alignment falls into the list of terms that have become changed irrevocably by role playing games. Some others are class, magical item, banal and obfuscate. The use of these words was different before role playing games attached themselves to them. No two changes are alike, but alignment is one of the strangest.

After all, think of alignment and most people (U.S. types at least) will think of their cars. You hear of the non-alignment pact, but rarely the positive version, at least in the same macro-political spectrum. Mostly it finds use as a practical term of expressing a physical description of things: the alignment of stars, proteins, and pages.

The closest gaming alignment and real world alignment comes in a collective political sense. A term like "political alignment" refers to which other group someone's political views are in accordance with. It is direction, but always direction in relation to others. When someone is aligned with the Green Party, they hold views that lead them to move in the same sort of political direction as the Green Party, and as opposed to the directions that any other party is headed. We do not use it with concrete ideas: no "they are aligned towards abortion." We use it when dealing with real people and real groups.

People sometimes speak of a "moral compass," the notion of a guideline or standard of guidelines that keep a person on the straight and narrow. The alignment system looks like someone took this idea too literally. Alignment means moral character, but not just moral character because there is the important quality of relation. There is a center where two dualistic axes meet. All alignments are points that make sense when considered in their "alignment" to the central point. Alignment is the compass rose of morality.

Why alignment? The simple answer, supported by X, is that it has to do with enforcing duality. If you are good, you should fight evil, thus by being good you can easily single out who is evil because their alignment says so. Rampant slaughter is justified, not to mention easy because discerning just who is evil is as plain as the face they wear. If a game where lots of killing is a desirable thing, there needs to be an alignment system so as to easily delineate who is the enemy.

This certainly shows up even in just the name alignment. Falling back on the notion of political collectivity, alignments generally involve groups of people. Thus, those of your alignment are those who move in your moral direction. Theoretically, they have goals understandable to your kind. You can trust them, or not trust them, as you would trust or not trust yourself. Your alignment is your people.

But the system is not that simple. There are a pair of axes, and a sum total of nine possible positions to represent a moral codes. Why? Why not just stick to good and evil, like it was in D&D? And then are even nine positions enough? Is it not so complex that it completely eschews the idea of position?

So why not just good and evil? Someone always has to be able to say "But I'm not a witch at all!" My guess is that Chaotic Good wakes the notion up. Original D&D had, as an alignment system, just the first bit: Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. The problem is that the first is shorthand for good and the last the same for evil, and then you have to reckon with devil-may-care Robin Hoods mucking the vision up. People could complain the same way about evil overlords, but that is not an obvious a vice. So the minimal standard was considering lawfulness and goodness. Why not even more? Again, these two are the minimum standard.

It is, of course, too easy to end up using as another sort of standard entirely. Some idiot is always going to play the paladin who uses Detect Evil as a sort of weapon magnet. (3) I cannot deny that it can be used as an impetus to go out and do some serious slaying, but I disagree that it is the purpose of alignment.

Tangent for a moment to look at alignment in action. A paladin, by definition, is Lawful Good. So this paladin sights an Orc walking down the road. An Orc is, by definition, Chaotic Evil.

So do we cue up the Mortal Combat music and start warming up twenties? Not so fast, young Skywalker. The paladin is both Lawful and Good. First off, is it good for Good to kill Evil? Maybe Good is supposed to cure Evil. Furthermore, the Orc is not actually in the act of doing anything evil. The Orc might as well be on the way to a sewing circle, admittedly a sewing circle of Evil, but a sewing circle nevertheless. What if it is a converted Orc? Is there a burden of proof?

Let us assume that it is Okay and Right for Good to kill Evil. The paladin is also Lawful. She follows rules. Which rules? Whose rules? Is it the rule of whoevers kingdom they are in, in which case there might be prohibitions against unwarranted killings, or is it the rules of nature or God, in which she might as well come out swinging? Does she need to announce her intentions or can she just sneak up from behind? Are there a specific set of rules that are always followed, or is it more a sense of rule-mindfulness? Yes, there are Laws, but which ones?

Nearly any position can be justified without resorting to much lawyering. Get to the point of "the Paladin throws herself on her sword," and, yes, something is being taken too far. However, killing or not killing, the two basic ends, seem equally likely and completely dependent on other internal factors. A Paladin of a different cut might have a different take, not to mention what the Orc would do in the opposite situation, which is almost even harder to say. Nothing is set in stone for any of the alignments. People stop having fun with alignments because people are lazy. "Paladin equals good guy" is easy.

Character development is the first role of alignment. A long list of ethically probing questions could do the same, a Meyer-Briggs test could do the same, but a system of alignment works just as well. It promotes the exploration of an ethical code, discovering what rules your character lives by. To this extent it is just like any personality descriptor found in a variety of games.

Such a fact, however, does not alone justify the existence of alignment. I think that one of the reasons people harp so strongly against alignment is the codification, the utter prevalence of it. Alignment does not seem to be there just when useful, but always there. I mean, do we really need to know that a moose is True Neutral? Is a moose True Neutral?

I have never known any moose that was particularly interested in maintaining the balance. On the other hand, perhaps being True Neutral is, by definition, like being a moose, in which case I can think of a more than one Druid in the party that has not ever gotten in a fight over nookie. Color-coding dragons to alignments is not only silly, it is extraneous (when is the last time the fact that a Green was Lawful Evil made any damn difference in how or why you killed it?). But to answer why alignment was codified is to answer why it is necessary in a certain type of game.

Why does Cyberpunk 2020 not have an alignment system? Is it because of the moral ambivalence of the game? Not necessarily. In CP 2020 the rule-makers love to go on about the "cyberpunk way." There is a grubbily anti-heroic philosophy that is the way that characters are supposed to act. There is an ethos and a lifestyle, and the Referee is encouraged to promote said lifestyle via their games. In a lot of other games a similar centralized code exists.

AD&D is completely devoid of such a motivator. Fair reason too, because it is more flexible. There is, however, still a need for codes, mores and ethics. While there can be any kind of fighter, it takes a certain sort of person to be a bard. But how do you get that across? How do you make it so it has to be that way? Require that bards have a neutral quality in their alignment. It is just add water ethics, but the ethical system is directly tied to the class.

Any class or kit with an alignment restriction has limited the way that those people who choose to play that class have to play. The difference between a paladin and any other fighter is not the holy powers that a paladin has, it is the requirement to adhere to a certain ethical system that justifies the addition of the extra powers, otherwise there would be no reason not to be a paladin.

So I have no problem with alignment systems. They serve their purpose, to help define the ways characters are and point out ways that they should or should not act. It is a character aid and useful for what it is.


1 - (1135-1204 C.E.) That's one transliteration of his name. He also has Arab and Jewish names. He was a Spanish Jew in the Middle Ages who moved to Cairo and philosophized for the Sultan. Even if most of his writing was crap (which it isn't) he would still be well known for filling out the Jewish angle of the Big Three Western Religion's Aristotelian extrapolators and apologists.

2 - I imagine there's a good gravity analogy here, but ethics is enough of a project to tackle without dragging physics into it.

3 - "Is it evil?" "Yes." "I hit it." This is actually more fun to play with than it sounds like. It works out well when you play it as a character who, while understanding that his moral code is ridiculously simple, chooses to work with it anyway. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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