The Gassy Gnoll: Protection from Good/Evil

It’s obvious by now that the Gassy Gnoll sometimes gets… confused. Perhaps it’s the hair in his ears tickling his brain. (He tries valiantly to keep it trimmed, but as he gets older, it seems to gain speed and strength.)

I saw an old article from Derrek Myers about alignment in 4e D&D this week and it also tickled something in my brain… For nearly two decades I’ve been arguing against the idea of alignment. What do “good” and “evil” mean, anyway? Doesn’t the context matter? Even the whole debate of “law” vs. “chaos” doesn’t really capture it cleanly for me. It’s a very gray area…

For me, it’s more about deeds. Forget about the motivation behind the deeds for a moment and let’s look at a single deed. Let’s say someone gives money to a charity. Discounting for a moment that the organization managing charity funds may choose to misuse them, doesn’t the deed of the individual giving some of the money in his or her possession to another organization to use to help one or more others have merit? Yes, I think it does.

By that criteria, this is a “good” deed. Great!

So does that make the individual who *did* the deed a good person? Not necessarily. The individual may have given money to the charity to help them with their income taxes. Or perhaps to assuage some guilt about some “bad” deed they had done previously.

And does the deed ever get followed-through on by the charitable organization? Does the money ever reach the people it was intended to help? Or does it line the pockets of those working in the organization with little (or none) trickling to the people who need it?

Every deed is one in a
chain of others. Sure, these “chains” may hint at patterns of “good” or “evil” by individuals, organizations, or businesses, but does that really make them any better or worse than any of the rest of us? I can’t say.

Are there people who have consistently done good? Of course. You can’t discount the deeds of Mother Theresa or Gandhi. They did more good than harm most likely. But through their deeds, they sometimes got hurt or others got hurt because of them. Did that make them less good?

At any rate, this is my rationale and why I’m not a fan of polarized alignment systems. They don’t reflect reality.

In-game, I’ve seen characters who are supposed to be “lawful” decide that they want to kill others because they stand in their way. I’ve seen characters who will rob corpses before they’re cold, stripping them down to nothing, and trying to sell those items to make a quick gold piece. Reminds me of a quote from Army of Darkness when Ash (Bruce Campbell) says “Good. Bad. I’m the one with the gun.”

So why continue the facade of including the same old D&D alignment chart everywhere?

Honestly, I can only think of one good reason and it is to help young people and inexperienced role-players to figure out their own moral compasses and relate to characters in books, on TV, and in the movies. Role-playing can be a tricky thing to wrap your head around at first (in my experience), so having some training wheels makes a lot of sense.

But beyond that, I think alignment should be tossed out the window. Instead of good and evil, law and chaos, I like the DCC RPG approach of using “holy” and “unholy” to describe those people/things/creatures that don’t fit into the religious world view. So if you’re worshiping a kind and good god who reveres life, anything “undead” would be “unholy”. Or if you worship an evil god, goody goody paladins might be “unholy” to you. It’s based on… context!

And I think that’s the key. Context. If you’re a priest, you won’t have “Protection from Evil” – you’ll have “Protection from Unholy” or “Turn Unholy”. And if you’re trying to “lay on hands” for someone not of your religion, it’s not going to be as powerful as if you’re healing another member of the flock… It becomes more about the context of the religious or philosophical beliefs than anything else.

So what do you think? Should we just toss the idea of “good and evil” or “law and chaos” alignments in RPGs except to help out new role-players? Or should we leave them in because they’re somehow sacrosanct and traditionally have been there?

Curious minds want to know!

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11 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Protection from Good/Evil

  • I’m in favour of dropping them to help new players just get to grips with the character they want to play. Experienced players will just play an evil character if they want to anyway, and shouldn’t be constrained.

  • I don’t think that alignment is simply sacrosanct tradition or training wheels for new players; I think it’s a useful guide to what values and perspectives the character holds and
    I think that the de-emphasizing of alignment that’s gone on over the years has been detrimental to the hobby. I think that the harsh penalties that 1e and 2e imposed for changing alignments were probably ill-conceived and ham-fisted, but that doesn’t mean a player shouldn’t consider alignment before they act.

    I think the problem comes when you try to bound alignments too tightly, to where a Lawful Good character can never lie, and I think the shift away from alignments stems from a negative reaction to that tendency. A Lawful Good character can lie, but it should be a big deal and cause internal conflict. Good role players don’t “need” alignment because they do this already, but it can still be useful shorthand for describing the character. I think alignment chafes players when they misunderstand what the alignments mean (choosing Chaotic Good when they really want Chaotic Neutral or Chaotic Evil) or when a game tells them that they can’t play the character they want to (as with 4E).

  • roleplayer

    Ridiculous question. The answer is yes. But the problem is most people don’t know how to use their alignment.
    This isn’t the author saying ‘We should forget about that system’, it’s the author saying ‘I honestly have no clue how to stay in character.’
    When did you have your morals set in stone. 18-22ish? Why shouldn’t your character have set morals at around the same age? They know what they would and wouldn’t do. That sets them into an alignment.
    From then on out, you play as if you were under that alignment. If you want to do stuff drastically outside your alignment, you’re either playing that character wrong, or you didn’t create him properly. Did you flush out his morals during creation? Did you decide what he would and wouldn’t do in situations? Your fault, not the rules of alignment’s fault.
    If you do something outside of it, your alignment may change. No shit, it makes sense. You might be an upright citizen, great person, but if you murder someone in cold blood, would you not feel that guilt, that remorse? Would you not automatically feel like a worse person? If not, your alignment was never good to begin with.
    This isn’t a case of ‘this system is outdated’, it’s a case of ‘this doesn’t tie in directly with my games’, meaning your games are filled with people rollplaying, min/maxing, and not caring about who they’re killing or any plot.
    The ONLY place lack of alignment would be necessary is when you’re running a hack ‘n slash campaign with ZERO story. As soon as a real plot is added, you need alignment to help you make your decisions on how to get to endgame.
    TL;DR If you feel alignment isn’t necessary, you’re a rollplayer, not a roleplayer

    • I would actually say that your alignment shifts if you *don’t* feel bad about acting out of alignment. Feeling bad shows that there’s still an internal conflict between your alignment and your actions; when there’s no guilt, your alignment has shifted to account for your actions.

    • flyinglama

      I take issue with your statement that:
      “The ONLY place lack of alignment would be necessary is when you’re running a hack ‘n slash campaign with ZERO story.”
      To make my counter point I’m going to assume that your statement is correct. I am running a GURPS, which has no formal alignment system, game that is exploring the nature of divinity. Now I think you would agree that one can not explore philosophical concepts in the same way you would explore the tomb of horrors. However if we are limited to the ‘hack `n slash’ campaign the former doesn’t exists. Therefor we can’t be in a ‘hack `n slash’ campaign. Therefor your statement is false.
      I will agree with you that in more subtle games a degree of role-playing is required and that systemically supporting role playing is a positive feature of a system. My issue with alignment systems is that by their nature they are obtuse or convoluted. For example in D&D 3.5 there are 9 possible alignments, which is very small considering it needs to represent all possible behaviour archetypes of human behaviour. Furthermore, this system is ambiguous in that there are multiple way to represent the same archetypes. Next lets consider the other option, lets have several thousand alignments each corresponding psychological and cultural norms on earth. Now while this covers the possible archetypes well it isn’t very use-able.

      The way I would handle the issues that alignment solves is to look at each action in 3 different ways. First, the PCs performing the action needs to know how they fell about the action. Next the other PCs need to know how they fell about the action performed by their comrade. And finally the rest of the game world needs to know how it treats people who perform the action. If you are thinking about the answers to each of these questions was they arise in-game you are forced to role-play. There are a set of rules in GURPS with this in mind if you want a more mechanical approach.

      • I agree with you and Sean that roleplayer is being a bit overzealous in his denunciation of rollplayers, and catching actual role-players in the blast area. But I think it’s also worth noting that while you and Sean aren’t using the D&D Nine, you are both talking about some semblance of an alignment system. And as to the D&D Nine, I think you’re just falling into the trap of expecting them to be more rigid than they’re meant to be: your own response seems to say that the Nine are both too narrow (very small considering it needs to represent all possible behaviour) and too broad (this system is ambiguous), which doesn’t make sense.

        The D&D Nine isn’t going to satisfy everyone, sure, but it’s not a fundamentally flawed system, either (if treated appropriately).

        • flyinglama

          I appear to have been ambiguous in my use of the word ambiguous, I was meaning ambiguous in the set notation scene. Namely that it is possible
          to have non-unique representations of the same archetype. I can only agree that I am talking about a alignment in the scene that we should be mindful of why they were created in the first place.

  • re: roleplayer, so if you are playing a game without alignment (say Shadowrun, Legend of the Five Rings, Traveller, Champions . . .) you are not a roleplayer? Sorry, that does not work for me. I have dropped alignment from my was D&D is now Pathfinder game and I have not seen any difference in the roleplaying involved.

    Alignment can be a useful tool as long as everyone is agreed on what it is trying to do. For me, alignment does not achieve the ends of providing a comprehensible moral structure for a character and if it does not do that, it seems to have little use. So, for my campaigns, good bye alignment. Hello personal codes of conduct.

    • forged

      I’m just curious. The D&D system is very integrated with alignments. Certain classes (monk, paladin) have fairly strong alignment restrictions. Spells, abilities, and even some magic items are built with alignment in mind as well. How did you alter those aspects to handle using D&D without alignments?

  • Fitz

    In case you want to see a whole other side of this discussion, check out the Reddit comments stream… The debate has been lively there as well – and on Google+ here and here.

    But I have to say I’m a little surprised that this is a controversial notion. I expected a little controversy of course, but it’s turned out to be much bigger than that. 🙂

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