Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Alignment, huh. What is it good for?

That does it.  I'm done with ENWorld again.  Seriously.  I have better things to do than waste my time on the kind of childishness that is not only prevalent, but seemingly actively encouraged by the moderation there.  ENWorld becomes a microcosm for exactly why gamers have a reputation as socially illiterate jerks that nobody wants to spend any time with.

In any case, as a parting shot, if you will, the thread that broke my desire to try and make a comeback was one on alignment.  The question posed was: does alignment add anything to the gaming experience?  Here's my position, in bullet point format.
  • Alignment actually detracts from my gaming experience.
  • Alignment has been kicking around for 40 years now.  What exactly it means is still the subject of intense debate among D&D players.  Nobody has ever managed to clarify how it is meant to be used, and interpretations of it are problematic.
  • In many, many years of hanging out in RPG related forums, I've noticed that there is almost always an alignment related thread on the first page of any forum.  It's a constant source if strife; or at least disagreement.  The attempts to assign alignment to fictional characters is another great example of how it is too shallow and too restrictive to actually accurately exemplify any kind of rational person's philosophy, even given the relatively shallow expectations placed on D&D characters.
  • Alignment as a predictive model, or roleplaying guide for characters, is too shallow and superficial to be very helpful.  For the most part, falling back on alignment descriptions as a guide to roleplaying is a step backwards in roleplaying from the assumptions of even the most novice of roleplayers.
  • Alignment is frequently used as a preemptive bludgeon to control or constrain bad player behavior, or at least to punish it.  It could be useful for gamers who's groups include disagreeable player behavior, but for groups composed entirely of reasonable people, it's at best superfluous, and at worst, a potential source of conflict of interpretations.  The constant referral to LG characters and paladins in particular who run around slitting people's throats, killing orc babies, or torturing prisoners in game leads me to believe that either players are picking the class without buying into the archetype, which is problematic, or are simply incapable of behaving appropriately with their characters.  These kinds of things don't happen in my games (or at least, if they do, the players don't try to pretend that their characters are good.)
  • For people with this problem, my first response would be seek out better players, but my second response is that yeah, I can see how alignment would be useful to you.  But surely you can see how it is an active detriment to gamers who don't need to police bad player behavior? 
  • Other than in truncated form in the Elric books, alignment is not something that really features in any of the fantasy fiction source material that makes up the foundation on which D&D is based.  It's a very specific and unique artifact to D&D itself.
  • Alignment isn't really a major issue for most characters even so; where it really becomes problematic is with the paladin class (and to a somewhat lesser extent, the cleric class.)  Most alignment issues can be avoided if those classes are avoided.
  • The reason that it is so problematic with the paladin class in particular is that it gives a great deal of power over character resources and character decisions into the hands of the GM.  For the most part, this is not desirable, and in fact, the implicit social contract between gamers is that this is the GM meddling ham-fistedly into player sovereign territory.
  • Sure, there are differences of opinion on where the line between player sovereign territory and GM sovereign territory actually lie.  If it were not so, there wouldn't be any such thing as debate over sandbox style play, or railroads. 
  • Now, you may be doing something entirely different with alignment.  If that works for you: great!  I'm talking about a pattern that I've observed over many, many gamers over many, many years.  I make no claim to the universality of this pattern.  Neither do a handful of anecdotal exceptions prove sufficient to convince me to change my mind that this pattern of alignment usage and misusage is rampant amongst D&D players.
  • I've looked at various alternatives to alignment.  4e's reduction of alignment to fewer alignments—as well as the assignment of most individuals in any given setting as completely unaligned, is probably the best compromise.  It gives something to people who want (or need) alignment, but also removes it as a factor for those who don't really care for it, while still retaining a nod to the classic expression of alignment.  In other words, it keeps a fairly traditional D&D alignment for those who want it, while removing it as a factor that is significant for those who don't.  I'm also somewhat in favor of a system more like d20 Modern's allegiances as a substitute for alignment.
  • That said; I'd still prefer no alternative to alignment at all.  I think that the entire concept was initially meant to be no more than "team jersey" for the overtly wargaming slant of the earliest version of the game.  As the game evolved into a roleplaying game "for real" the continued use of alignment, and the attempts to shoe-horn it into a roleplaying mileu were flawed from the get-go, and the whole concept should have been done away with sometime in the late 70s.  The fact that they managed to survive past the Holmes edition of BD&D (which was really meant to be nothing so much as a reorganization and representation of OD&D anyway) is somewhat surprising.
  • If you disagree with me on the use of alignment, neither you nor I are bad people with wrong-headed thinking that needs to be excoriated.  Rational people can disagree over things, and the discussion of such is at the heart of any interesting conversation.
  • If, on the other hand, you feel the need to constantly drive home the error of my ways, I can see why alignment appeals to you.  You should also see quite clearly why I will never game with you, you control freak.


James Sullivan said...

I have experienced a broad spectrum of Alignment based arguments, homebrew alignment systems, etc.

My first DM took the Palladium alignment system (Principled, Scrupulous, Unprincipled, etc)and ported into his Forgotten Realms campaign. It worked...OK.

I find alignment to be just about useless from the player perspective.

From the GM perspective, I use it as a tool. I do not constrain players to an alignment. I chart their PCs behavior on a chart that I use to determine how the world responds to them. I don't tell them their alignment (or how I decide it), I only use it to inform my decisions on how to play the NPCs they interact with.

But my style has always been about consequences generating story. I really don't care what your PC does (within reason) but you best be prepared for the consequences of your PC's action.

Rod Thompson said...

Ah, the alignment chart, introduced with 1e to control the players, rather than the game. I like James' idea of using it to track how the sandbox views the characters. Frankly, my group plays every chaotic good, no matter what they write on the character sheets and it works for them. Your game, your rules, who cares about what people you don't play with think?

Konsumterra said...

alighnments purpose is to start fights - like religion it is an easy way to divide people. In my game it is imposed by outer planar beings. I have no alignment as an option but some classes do best to appease and deal with planar powers so find it handy. Religion and society have always imposed unlivable bullshit rules and morality so games shouldnt be some magical idiological vacuum. If you dont have alignment try hinduism, catholacism, islam or confucious and see if that is more managable than alighnment.