Monday, July 11, 2016

Alignment Redux

After listening to the Antagonist's latest podrambling, I had a few reactions to their comments on the problem of alignment (I'm going to keep this alignment-focused). I see the point of their discussion, but feel the two of them were talking a bit across one another.

See, the Ginger Giant seems to like players having slightly wacky PCs (mental trauma for almost dying), while the Antagonist and I fall a little closer on wanting serious PCs. Which isn't to say that I don't like a whimsical or gonzo game, I just prefer to know what I'm getting into and have most of the players interested in the game I'd like to play (which, for longer-term things, is generally something more serious). I got the sense from their discussion the the Ginger Giant doesn't think alignment is worthwhile or adds much to the game and that's why it is problematic (the shades of grey problem), whereas the Antagonizer sees alignment as an active problem (and mostly the Chaotic Neutral problem).

Basically, I see a combination of two problems with alignment, both of them coming in at the point where people have different underlying assumptions about the game.

First, is the (shorter) Chaotic Neutral problem. We've had a few discussions about alignment before, but basically Chaotic Neutral (and Unaligned in 4e) can be an excuse to play a character who's a selfish prick. Not only that, but they can be disruptive to the group's goals and the group itself. But that's not in and of itself a reflection of the alignment, its a reflection of a player who wants to play a selfish prick. They are, wittingly or not, stealing the show from everyone else and making the story more about their character's story than about the group or the adventure. So I think this problem can, to a small extent, be mitigated by a discussion at the table about what sorts of games people like to play and what people are signing up for. Some folks seem happy to watch or participate in conflict within the party, which I find occasionally fun but I don't like that to be the focus of the game. Because if that were the focus of the game I'd like it to be more in the form of a Vampire LARP rather than a D&D group. Those rules are designed to pit player against player, often without requiring any storyteller to intervene on the basics. Now, I definitely was thrilled with the one 4e halfling game that I played in back in the day where we made a slight mockery of things (it was a one-shot, perfect to bring in Frondo Maggins, a do-nothing hobbit with a heart of gold), because we did add in elements of feuding amongst characters and slightly wacky concepts. So its not about ignoring the wackiness, but trying to get the players on the same boat: the game should not be about one character and their zany actions. It could be about the zany group and its members' interactions. It could be about the adventure and narrative wherein the group is the relatively vanilla protagonists with little background or flavor. It could be about some grand narrative of the world where the PCs play a small but vital part. Difficult to do perhaps, but I bet if you nip it in the bud you can channel people's desire for zany characters into something better than Chaotic Neutral.

The second, longer shades of grey issue is that I wonder if we're doing a disservice to our players when we play a game with shades of grey using alignment since alignment was originally absolute. Because we're bringing in our modern mores to the archaizing game (and possibly archaic alignment element), people often have this sense that a drow or orc could be good. Drizzt didn't help here, though Unearthed Arcana was the book that gave us drow PCs in the first place. Evil wasn't necessarily illicit for PCs in AD&D until 2nd edition focused more on the heroic. In Dortherdoreft where I stole the show with derro fetal savants, the players felt bad about killing them but knew that in-character that was the thing they needed to do. Because the things looked young and innocent but were powerful and malevolent.

I recently encountered this repeatedly in my game here. One huge issue with my Princes of the Apocalypse campaign is the DM opted for the morally grey interpretation.  Then when he used DM fiat to say one of the prophets had converted to good (it was one of his favorite NPCs he had planned to use and we just wouldn't let him), he literally had to bring celestial beings and the gods of good into it to try to say "Guys, it's obvious that she's repented and is now good".  It was extremely unsatisfying. We caught a group of bandits and brought them to our supposedly good allies (a group of Order of the Gauntlet paladins) who immediately decided to put the bandits to death. This caused more friction all because of the underlying assumptions about the game: is there an absolute good? I thought we were playing shades of grey. There was another incident where we spent half the night debating how to take out only the evil knights in a tower and not killing innocents when eventually the DM just said "Oh, you know to be one of these knights you have to murder someone," and that was that. Which made my character extremely leery about the group since he was a notorious pirate and I thought we were playing a shades of grey game where not every orc was irredeemably evil. Well, turns out we ended up playing it that the cultists were basically irredeemably evil, despite the fact that one of them was obviously redeemed, and we kept rehashing the same discussion about whether or not we should take prisoners. It was really relevant because, as a fey warlock, I had lots of spells in the sleep and hypnotic pattern realm where I could take a few out of the fight but they weren't dead. We had to deal with them. And I had initially decided to play an evil character bound by superstition to be a party-friendly guy (can't harm widows and orphans or people who have surrendered, cause that's how you get cursed), so I tried to get someone else to kill the captives whenever I could since we were doing morally grey.

And here's where the wishy-washy alignment gets rough: there is nothing truly good in the world, so tactics like assassination and take-no-prisoners hold, despite being thoroughly unheroic and murderhobo-ish. Because its true: anyone you let escape might tell of your presence or come back as a foe again later when they're rested and have gathered more allies. So one clear solution to this problem is to re-assert the cosmic nature of alignments, despite the Antagonizer not being a fan of that when its rare (i.e. with unaligned in the mix). But it can also be common: goblins are evil and must be eradicated without exception. Undead are evil too. The gods of good fight tooth and nail against the gods of evil. Or do it with the old-school Moorcockian system where Law/Civilization opposes Chaos/Destruction. Because a lot of people don't want to play Authoritarian/Lawful characters when Individualistic/Chaotic is much more fun and in line with many flavors of American culture. I think that's why the alignment restriction of the paladin has softened: when good and evil aren't absolute, playing the honorable or lawful good paladin who loses his powers if he makes a wrong choice is really hard and totally dependent on the DM's fiat power.

I recently read the Dragonlance comic books and finally found a statement interpreting why there are gods that are neutral with respect to good and evil, which I've previously dismissed as ridiculous. There was a time when good was triumphant in the setting, and it resulted in hubris and thus the cataclysm. So even the gods of good accept that there must be balance between good and evil, despite fighting tooth-and-nail against evil. The more I read about Dragonlance, the more I keep thinking they did some shit totally right: the setting fits with the rules quite nicely, even if the rules were a bit wonky at the time.

A real problem with 5e alignment is perhaps that if it feels tacked on or like some legacy element, it is! Almost nothing in the rules refers to it. But if the rules and your story were properly wedded, there would be mechanical options for playing heroic characters. I've been really tempted to write up some of these options as a sort of Heroes of Mercy option and throw it on the DMs Guild, but in the original Oriental Adventures the Shukenja had a few options to sort of make their enemies into noncombatants. These are things like charm person or the geas spell but there's a few more. I feel like I've seen this sort of sentiment in a few different anime series, where the villain is defeated and then goes to pursue their dream of being a farmer or some such. It doesn't have to be ridiculous, but if the cleric had a cantrip to ensure an escaping mook wouldn't be a threat again it might allow players to be more heroic. Its been hard trying to put the idea into mechanics, however. I feel like it could be tied to an honor system, but the 5e DMG honor system is really just some wishy-washy half-baked nonsense that I don't understand how you'd use at the table. Basically, the rules don't support that kind of heroic play and players might be happy to take that option to play a heroic paladin rather than a cavalier one.

So I currently suspect that a useable alignment system has a few options:

  1. Discuss the group/party dynamics before people make characters. You already are likely to know who the problem players are and maybe you can channel their boredom/"chaotic neutral" nature into a better relationship with one of the other PCs. You could also go with some cheesy random table of party relationships where each player rolls one and that's their relationship to the character on their left. But I had trouble coming up with a lot of generic good options for this. I think the party alignment concept is definitely worthwhile if you are using alignment at all.
  2. Use alignments as cosmic truths (and allow wholly good beings in the planes): then you have permission to kill all the goblins and the game makes sense as long as you're opposing evil (or chaos). 
  3. Give the players the means to really play their alignment. Mechanically, that is. The rules need to support the player choices.
  4. Replace the useless ideals or flaws with alignment, straight up. If you do something good/heroic, lawful/authoritarian, or chaotic/individualistic you're up for inspiration. Or focus alignment on the ideals players select or roll. 
  5. Replace alignment with some other roleplaying tool. Drives from Gumshoe or Nature/Demeanor from the World of Darkness games might be suitable. The Dortherdoreft dwarf personality traits were wonderful, and you might give inspiration based on other players guessing someone's nature/demeanor at the table.
  6. Why bother with it at all? There's only a few places in the rules where it matters, mostly magic items. I don't think there's even a spell that really needs it as "good and evil" have been relegated mostly to extra-planar creatures. This kinda fits with the replace-it option.
Because I'm a pretty strong proponent of matching the rules and the story, I'm keenest with options 1 (discuss it with the players), 4 (use alignment in lieu of crappy background options), and 5 (create a means so players can play their alignments well) at the moment, but open to counter arguments. 

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