The following article represents the opinions of the author, which are, of course, probably right (unless they disagree with Mr. Sharp). Now, with that out of the way…
Let me tell you a tale of once upon a yesteryear, when role-playing was still in swaddling clothes and Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were making sure it fit into a little white box. It was crude by today’s standards, but still reasonably comprehensive for a little white box, and one of the pamphlets inside of that box had a few lines (humorous today when one considers their brevity) about alignment. This was the beginning folks, the place where principles of character conduct were boiled down into definite categories.
So, what did this beginning entail…well, not much (and a lot), but it laid the foundation of the alignment system with the creation of three categories: Law (for the good and upright), Neutral (for the…neutral), and Chaos (for the evil and destructive). Now, for anyone familiar with the evolution of D&D beyond the white box you know that alignment in the original Dungeons and Dragons is not the same as that in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, which is a totally different beast, with a collection of nine alignments (except for 4th edition D&D, which I’ll get to later) ranging from chaotic good, all the way to lawful evil. But in the beginning there were but three alignments and these categories dictated not only conduct in regard to character actions, but also what magic items characters could use, what spells, and in some way, what class one could choose.
The rules of original D&D were not hard-line rules, in fact, it was made quite clear that they were merely guidelines and should be augmented at the discretion of the Dungeon Master. It should be noted that Gary Gygax did his best to standardize AD&D and discouraged rule variation and augmentation in the later game. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately depending on your opinion, the damage had already been done and trying to take control away from role-players once they get a taste of freedom and variation…well good luck (that goes out to you 4th edition, you bastard child spawned from the fresh steaming turd of some unknown hell beast…but I’ll get to that later).
The Nine Steps
So, variation became the name of the game and 1st edition brought with it the nine alignments. They each had there own little description, seeming to give the players more options for their characters. However, understand that while the white box D&D only had three alignments it was encouraged to be creative and deviate from the rules when necessary. This was not the case in 1st edition. The alignments were to be worn much like straight-jackets, with little room for variation. While this did limit AD&D from a role-playing perspective it allowed the mechanics of the game to step forward. The new alignment system played a part in the description and viability of new creatures, magic items, spells, even the core races of the book used alignment to describe how they interacted in the world. Don’t forget, that as far as the D&D universe is concerned concepts of good, evil, chaos, and law are objective; meaning, that these ideas are tangible entities in the universe (at least during 1st edition anyway). This revolutionized the RPG field, though really it just put it in a bigger more expansive box.
The real interest, for alignment and for me, comes with the 2nd edition of AD&D. Unlike its earlier sibling 2nd edition goes so far as to begin waxing philosophic on the subject of alignment. It is also, to my understanding, the first place where “absolute values” go out the window for a more subjective description of how the AD&D universe functions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this particular change is a little much, especially when you consider that the whole point of AD&D is a struggle between what can be described as absolute values: good and evil, law and chaos, neutral and…I don’t know, mustaches, the point being, this change is in and of itself confusing in a universe where there are planes of existence tailor made to represent the platonic view of ideal forms. Simply put, AD&D functions on certain conducts being inherently good or evil, inherently lawful or chaotic and if you can rationalize any in-game action as the way that you believe it should be then what’s the point of having alignments at all.
In editions 3 and 3.5 of D&D (the A for “advanced” finally being dropped) alignment changes again and thoroughly contradicts 2nd edition, stating clearly, and this is a direct quote from the players handbook of both editions: “Good and evil are not philosophical concepts in the D&D game. They are the forces that define the cosmos”. So, the creators try do their best to mitigate the fallout of previous editions by stating outright that the D&D universe is predicated on there being absolute values. Nice cover, but all too late for those frustrated with a wishy-washy subjective playing field pared with game mechanics build for clear and bold alignment restrictions. Personally, I didn’t so much mind the wishy-washy subjective playing field. I feel that it enhanced role-playing experiences and brought a level of complexity needed for deep and meaningful character interactions. The problem comes when game mechanics can’t back up subjective decisions.
4th Edition Alignment and Why I Hate It
Earlier in this post I’ve thrown a lot of venom 4th editions way, but in all honesty, I only dislike 4th edition because it calls itself a role-playing game. I hate 4th edition because in every way that a role-playing game should be bold it is unquestioningly vanilla, that includes the alignment system. I am of the firm opinion that alignment should be used as a loose (and I mean very loose, like Lindsey Lohan loose) description of what a character might do, but this is just ridiculous. For me, the role-playing gold happens in the vast gray areas of the alignment chart and instead of expanding or evolving the alignment system of previous editions it was decided, one assumes after illicit drug use and copious amount of alcohol, to dumb the system down to make it more accessible to a wider audience.
The alignment system of 4th edition has only five designations: Good (Freedom and kindness), Lawful Good (Civilization and order), Evil (Tyranny and hatred), Chaotic Evil (Entropy and destruction) and finally, and this is the best part, Unaligned (Having no alignment; not taking a stand). So, in my humble opinion, the alignment system in 4th edition is just flaccid and otherwise unappealing to players who have gotten used to the guidance provided by previous editions. I mean, if you’re going to take the time to name an alignment choice Unaligned then why even bother with alignment in the first place. Not only that, but anyone familiar with MMoRPGs probably have the sneaking suspicion that 4th edition is really just a tabletop adaptation of WoW. All in all, 4th edition D&D was a failed experiment, one I hope the creators take to heart before they do that shit again
You have probably noticed (and if you haven’t that’s just too damn bad) that a couple of times in this post I’ve questioned and wondered, in relation to some of the older editions, what exactly is the point of keeping alignment. Now you have to understand that I’m a fan of the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game, which has an alignment setup identical in almost every way to the 3.0 and 3.5 editions of D&D. I am a fan of the nine alignments, I think they help inexperienced players develop a footing in an unfamiliar situation, but at the end of the day alignment is just too bulky and awkward to play with. So, what I suggest is not restructuring, or creating, or piggybacking off of any established alignment system. No, what I want to happen is for alignments to be thrown out all together.
Why, you may be asking yourself? Why something so radical as completely chucking the system? Well, for that answer I introduce you to Alzrius at the blog Intelligence Check. The ideas here are, without question, brilliant! Alzrius not only makes the removal of alignment possible, but gives you step by step guides on how to do it.
So, what’s next? I think soon we’ll see an alignment system without compromise or boundaries, a system that allows all types of people to play all types of characters with all types of personalities. I think this will happen because the thing we have called alignment for all these years is going to wither and die and disappear.