Alignment: The Moral Order, The Dungeon Master and the Unaligned Character

Last week I started bloviating on alignment and its importance.  Admittedly, the original post was a little off the beaten path.  But in my defense, I wanted to start there to put into context my perspective when approaching alignment in role-playing games.  In this second post I want to address the issue of precisely “to what” a character is aligning themselves.  I said in the last post, when a character acts it is affirming a set of beliefs but they are also properly positioning themselves in alignment with a higher moral order.  What is that moral order?  What is the object to which the characters align themselves?  Is it a set of principles that an individual character accepts? Or, is this moral order in existence outside the realm of the character’s own mind? 

The “object” to which a character aligns, could be the actions of other characters.  This is certainly an easy way to distinguish a character of good alignment and a character of evil alignment.  But if the moral order is defined in this way, it is merely saying what your character is not.  This provides no guidance to defining the actions of the character and provides no real or meaningful distinctions between characters.

Furthermore, if the moral order is defined by the character’s perspective and it’s relation to the actions and motives of other characters, the moral order becomes relative and there is no order.  A character can claim that what he is doing is really the lawful good action because he likes acting that way.  If everyone becomes lawful good, then there is no lawful good.  Every character has adopted a set of “principles” because these characters think that these principles are the right ones to choose.  Just because these characters “think” or “believe” it is the right choice, doesn’t make it so.  How many have made the mistake of believing the chaotic evil character happily telling you that he’s the lawful good one (as he slides the knife into your back)?  Defining the moral order this way provides no guidance and undermines the alignment system completely.  No, the “object” to which the character aligns is a singular moral order that binds every other character.  And it is the character’s choice to properly position themselves to this order that determines their over-all alignment.

Think of it as a continuum where Lawful Good is at the top and Chaotic Evil is at the bottom.  A lawful good character is fully committed to the moral order and as the characters slide down the continuum, they are less aligned to the moral order than the lawful good character.  And it follows that the chaotic evil character is the least aligned to the moral order.  From a character’s perspective the lack of alignment may be justifiable.  In fact, justifying why the character is not aligned with the order can generate motivations and backgrounds that create very compelling characters and stories.  However, perspective is still important

Perspective is still important on a meta-game level.  It is the Dungeon Master’s responsibility to enforce this moral order.  Otherwise, the alignment system will devolve to a relativistic system where the player characters can define what is moral.  If this happens, alignment means nothing.  I don’t know about you, but I have had serious conversations with former paladin players who think that slaughtering goblin children is ok because goblins are evil.  Perhaps you, as the Dungeon Master, think that is ok.  Then that is how you, the Dungeon Master, define Lawful Good.   As I will explain in a later post on the Lawful Good alignment, I do not believe so.  (And yes, I threatened to take away his powers if he did what he said he was going to do.)

So what does this mean?  The moral order (in game) is a strict system that defines a character’s actions based the character’s conscious choice to properly position themselves with the moral order.  On a meta-game level, the moral order resides in the Dungeon Master and must be defined and enforced.  I would caution the Dungeon Master from being too free and loose in defining the alignments, but the alignment system is meaningless if it is not enforced with consistency.  But, as always, it depends on what you are doing at the gaming table every night.

Of course, my philosophical outline will be leaving you gamers with an obvious question: “So…what about the ‘unaligned’ character?”   My answer is simple.  The “unaligned” character is not “unaligned” in the sense that they do not have a commitment.  They are unaligned in the sense that they are not in alignment to the higher moral order.

By being the one who “chooses not to choose,” the character is taking a position on law and on good.   This character has chosen not to be aligned to a set of moral beliefs.  To be clear, this character isn’t necessarily “neutral”.  The description of this character is one that will do what it thinks is right or do that which benefits their own interests.  Isn’t this what a lawful good or a chaotic evil character already does when they act?  Going back to the discussion on perspective, all characters already function this way.  What determines their alignment is whether or not they have chosen to align themselves to the higher moral order.  Clearly, the unaligned character has chosen something.

In effect, the unaligned character is trying to be described as one that is “beyond good and evil.”  (Who knew Friedrich Nietzsche would influence the game-designers at Wizards of the Coast?)  Is this character truly the over-man come down from the mountaintop to enlighten the misguided moralists in the <insert church of a deity here>?  No.  The unaligned alignment captures a variety of non-committal and selfish alignments.  The unaligned character could be as random as a chaotic neutral character or as dogmatic as a lawful neutral character.  It could be as conflicted as a neutral good character or as selfish as neutral evil character. They are not “unaligned” they are just in the middle of the continuum.

To be fair, the unaligned character is useful as a game-design choice to provide “an out” for those who aren’t interested in role-playing as much as they are interested in just playing the game.  This is fine.  I am not denigrating such an attitude.  But, if you prefer to role-play, using the original alignment system designed by Gary Gygax may be preferable.  It is more complete and explains, rather nicely, the moral order.  In my future posts, I am going to explore this moral order and the character types that have consciously chosen to properly position themselves with this moral order.

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