Role-Playing

There are no atheists at game tables…

Dude, I know you saw that blast of holy light. C'mon! It's real!

Pardon my wizardly musing, but I have noticed trend growing in my game group. Atheism. Not their atheism, (I could care less about their personal worldview), but character atheism.  I have to ask: Does that make any sense?

What is atheism? Put simply, it is the denial of the existence of a higher power. It is not skepticism as to the truth of a divine being. It is the acceptance, as true, the following proposition: “God does not exist.” How does one come to that conclusion? Well, again to keep it simple, by examining the evidence, or lack thereof, and reasoning one’s way to that conclusion.

Again, I am not about to comment on a player’s personal position on that proposition.  My focus is on the player’s character at the game table.  That is why I have been generally perplexed by the atheist PC.  I have to ask: why doesn’t your character believe in the gods? Seriously.  Given the evidence (in the game world), good and evil priests are wielding divine magic and hurling it at each other, raising undead armies and using very powerful blessings to accomplish various tasks.

Isn’t that enough evidence to prove the existence of very powerful deities influencing the world? Sometimes, especially on Aber-Torril and Krynn, the gods themselves walk the land.  Does it make any sense for a PC to not believe in the gods?

To be sure, I have no problem with a PC who, for whatever reason, hates the gods and does not worship them. That is completely different.  But outright rejection of the divine?  It makes no sense to me.

Perhaps I should develop an atheist theme wherein you don’t benefit at all from divine magic, nor are they harmed by it. I could base it off of the “NegaPsychic” character class from Paladium’s “Beyond the Supernatural” (a great game, by the way).

Or, I could tell them that there are no atheists at the game table.

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Dark Sun Campaign: Second Session

Art courtesy of Luis Royo

The session began with the PCs sleeping through their first night in the desert.  They had only the supplies they had stolen from the slave caravan and not much else.  The PCs slept through the night with only a meager fire to keep them warm, (Arak was using the patchwork quilt that doubled as the defiler/concubine’s spellbook to help keep him warm).  All but Arak, the goliath barbarian and Kirith Blackhand, the human warrior, failed their endurance check to withstand the cold temperatures of the night.  As such, those that failed began play with one less healing surge. 

They took turns watching the dark desert around them.  Their unlikely companion, Polinius, captain of the guard, was not trusting of the PCs and refused to sleep the night.  The moons, Ral and Guthay, cast a silvery light upon the desert giving the rolling sand dunes a soft incandescent glow.  With the crackling of the fire (and the snoring of the goliath) as the only sounds the PCs heard that night, their first night of freedom went without incident.

The next morning the PCs (at the equivalent of 6am when the sun was already baking the land at a cool 78 degrees) had to figure out where they were located on the map they had found in the slaver’s quarters before they had escaped.  I provided the players with a cloth map that came with the Dark Sun 2ed. box set volume 2 (a wonderful role-playing aid).  The skill challenge required them to use whatever skills they felt would help them locate where they were.  Polinius, believing he was a prisoner of the ex-slaves refused to help them.  The PCs discovered they were just west of the northern road leading out of Nibenay.  To the east was the Black Sands region and the Silver Spring Oasis.  They surmised (correctly) that the half-elf woman from the day before was showing the caravan a short cut to the Silver Spring Oasis when she led the caravan into a trap.

The PCs, with the urging of Arcott, decided to head to Nibenay in order to get to civilization as soon as possible.  Arcott revealed that he is the son of a Nibanese noble, a wealthy merchant.  He said that his father would reward the PCs for helping him escape captivity.  When pressed as to why he was placed into captivity, Arcott couldn’t remember. 

Polinius tried to convince the players to take the main road to Nibenay in hopes that the party would come upon another slave caravan or a Nibanese patrol.  Kirith and Akais quickly saw through Polinius’ ruse and challenged him on it.  Polinius again refused to help the party as they were nothing more than slaves.  At this point, Kurrix and Arak decided they had enough.  Before anyone else in the party could react, Arak delivered a critical blow to Polinius, cutting open his abdomen and knocking him to the ground.  As Polinius attempted to keep his guts from spilling on the warming sands at his feet, he was quickly finished off by the rest of the party.  Akais, the psion/wizard, cynically noted that meant there was more water for the party.  Arak joyously noted that he now owns two axes, one an executioner’s axe, the other a battle-axe.

The PCs decided to head south to the mountain range that bordered the Crescent Forest and then turn east toward Nibenay.  Because they no longer had Polinius to drive the wagon, they had to do the “Learning to Drive” skill challenge.  For each failure the jostling of the wagon would spill approximately 10 gallons of water over the course of an hour. They failed three times before rolling the four successes they needed.  By the end of the day, they had gone from 47 gallons of water to 17.

The second day of travel toward the mountains brought a fierce Tyr Storm upon the PCs.  The party found a rock outcropping to help shield them from the stinging sands that were blowing around them.  They also decided to flip the cart on its side to help shield them from the weather.  The storm was fierce and the excited kank nearly broke loose from its bonds as both Arak and Kirith tried to hold on.  The rest of the party struggled to breathe as sand swirled around the party, thunder crashed deafening the party members.  Arcott and Kurrix were targeted by a lightning strikes as well. 

As the PCs skirted the foothills, Kurrix decided to scout ahead.  Kurrix discovered an old man with a herd of goats pleading with a hill giant.  The hill giant was sun-baked and was wearing dirty and smelly rags, in both hands it had two goats.  The old man pleaded with the hill giant not to take more than two.  “Please mighty G’Gax! No more than two!”  Kurrix, the shadowy thief, shot the hill giant in the shoulder with an arrow.  Leaping from his hiding place Kurrix got the attention of the hill giant.  Kurrix ran back to where the party was located, hill giant in tow.

The battle between the party and the hill giant (lvl 8), took place on the slopes of the mountain side.  It was very steep and required the PCs to make athletics checks vs. DC 20 in order to make a full move, otherwise they could only move at half speed.  As they approached, the hill giant threw rocks at them.  The combat included two rock slide traps and a cave system that allowed the PCs to “teleport” to the other side of the battlefield.  The PCs, especially Arak and Kirith, rolled well with regard to the Athletics checks and closed the gap quickly to engage the hill giant.  The hill giant was soon dispatched.

The old man, Olki’in, thanked the party and invited them to his mud hut.  He led them through the mountains along a goat path to where he and his goats resided.  Inside he fed them goat meat and fermented goat’s milk.  He told them that G’Gax was plaguing the mountain side for some time and that A’exa Rae, Wife of Nibenay, couldn’t defeat the hill giant.  Upon further inquiry, the PCs learned that A’exa Rae was a low ranking Nibanese Templar that managed a logging camp a half a day’s journey from Olki’in’s hut.  Olki’in and the other goat herders provided food for the loggers and the guards.  Olki’in also informed the PCs that, because they were ex-slaves, he would have to tell A’exa about them.

The group, using various methods of persuasion, convinced Olki’in not to reveal too much when they spoke with the templar.  (Arak tried to scare the old man, Akais, Kurrix and Arcott tried to reason with him, and Kirrith used his Mark of the Free to show the old man that he was not a slave and would not submit to anyone.)  The following day, the PCs went to the logging camp.

The camp was located at the base of the mountain range within the Crescent Forest, a vast and dense jungle.  The camp itself was surrounded by a wooden palisade and constantly patrolled by guardsmen.  Inside, the PCs saw wooden and mud structures that were used to house the guards, the slaves and the supplies.  They noticed two clay structures.  One was being used to store something covered by cloth that they couldn’t identify and the other was A’exa Rae’s palace.

A’exa Rae wore a white gown made of kestrekel feathers and sat on her throne, rather smugly and bored, while a small obsidian sphere floated over her open palm.  She was surrounded by four goliath guards bearing shields with her mark.  Within five feet of her was her thrall who carried a magical shield that the party identified (via history checks) as the Earth Shield.  (They didn’t figure out its powers).  A’exa spoke with them via telepathy.  The PCs, given their brash natures, were extraordinarily polite and reverent.  Arcott, spoke the truth to A’exa and she was not pleased to discover escaped slaves in her palace, but, upon mind probing Arcott, discovered he was telling the truth regarding his capture and station as nobility. 

As a condition for sending a runner to Nibenay looking for Arcott’s father, (and for not being put to work as slaves), A’exa “requested” (read: ordered) that the PCs look into something that has been hunting some of her foresters deep within the jungle.  The party agreed and headed out into the jungle, led by two guardsmen.

Within a few hours, the party was surprised by a group of halfling cannibals. The guardsmen were hit by poisoned darts and taken out quickly.  The party was then quickly surrounded by the halflings.  Akais and a halfling wilder engaged in a psychic duel as they blasted each other with their powers, while the rest of the party engaged the halflings.  Within a few rounds, it was clear to the would-be halfling chefs were not going to get to eat humanoid for dinner and attempted to escape.  Kurrix and Arak wouldn’t allow that to happen.  Kurrix used his bow with deadly effect and Arak charged head first into the brush and cleaved one of the halflings in two with a mighty swing of his executioner’s axe.  Through out this battle, Arcott issued orders and inspiring words to maximize the party’s effectiveness.  At the end of the battle, one of the guardsmen was revived and informed the party that up until recently, halflings were not common in the jungle.  He has no idea where they come from.

The next session will bring the party to the logging camp and the start of their first minor quest: “Hunting the Hunters.”


Dark Sun Campaign: First Session

This past Sunday was the first session of my Dark Sun campaign (and the first time I’ve DMed in over three years) and I have to say, I think it was a success.  It was a success in so far as everyone had fun and I the fear of surviving Dark Sun was sufficiently placed upon the players.  The group consists of five players.  They include: Akais, a human wizard/psion hybrid (a classic Dark Sun character!); Kurixx, a human shadowy rogue; Arcott Landier, a human Nibenese warlord; Arrak, a goliath barbarian and Kirith Blackhand, a human Urikite fighter (gladiator theme).  I asked my buddies to make simple backgrounds that could be developed as the campaign progresses.  I want to put as much “power” of campaign direction in their hands as possible because, for my gaming group, I’m the only one who has ever explored the Dark Sun setting.  So, I want them to go and explore wherever they want.  Their backgrounds will come into play as they push the campaign in those directions.  I started the group out as slaves (no equipment) being transported across the sandy wastes.  As background music for this opening scene I used a youtube.com video “an arabic prayer for divine mercy”.  It was perfect to set the tone.

The PCs began their Dark Sun experience bound within the bowels of a great slave caravan wagon slowly making its way through the sandy wastes of Athas.  The sun, at its zenith, beat down upon the caravan at temperatures reaching 140 degrees.   As there was no breeze, the heat was particularly oppressive.  Baking the PCs, they all failed an endurance check (DC 22) and began the adventure with one less healing surge.  Adding to their misery was a refuse pile and their fellow slaves, hanging lifeless from their bonds, baking in the sun.  As they looked through the cracks between the wooden planks of the caravan into the desert beyond they saw no signs of civilization.  They were in the middle of nowhere with no hope of escape.  When suddenly, the caravan came to a halt. 

Peering through the cracks between the wooden planks of the caravan, the PCs saw the slaver, the captain of the guard and a half-elf woman (accompanied by a large lion) arguing.  The half-elf woman was tall, tanned and stoic in the face of the tongue lashing she was receiving by both men.  The PCs navigated their way through a skill challenge where they reasoned their way to what was going on: the half-elf woman was hired as a guide and she intentionally led the caravan into a potential trap.  As a result the caravan guards were going to lighten their load by killing the slaves and escaping on smaller wagons with the water supply.  Kurixx used his wild talent “mental tools” to create a small scalpel and began to cut his way out of his bonds.  The goliath used his brute strength to break the bonds.  When the PCs were freed, a warning shout was heard by guardsmen on top of the great covered wagon: “Raiders!”.

Cresting a great sand dune was a great horde of gith, their obsidian tipped spears gleaming in the sun.  The half-elf woman knocked the captain of the guard to the ground and ran off with her lion pet into the desert.  As arrows were shot at the oncoming horde, the PCs heard the captain of the guard bark the following orders: “Get the water! Kill the slaves!”  As the guards from the upper floors of the great wagon made their way to the slave pens, Kirith pulled a plank of wood from the wall to use as a makeshift club.  The Arak tore the leg from a dead slave to wield as a makeshift flail.  Kurixx picked the lock on the wooden door and the three guards sent to slit the throats of the slaves were surprised to see a desperate group of slaves ready for a fight. 

Their first fight included Akais using his psionic abilities to throw guardsmen across the lower deck of the wagon, an enraged barbarian beating opponents with a bluddy stump and Kirith losing his hand due to a critical hit from a bone-axe wielding guardsmen.  (I, as the DM, rolled many critical hits this session and was terrified of inadvertently killing all of the PCs, but they had some good crits as well).  While the group battled the guardsmen, Kurixx snuck past the melee in search of a weapon.  What he found among the cargo were three vials of healing salve.  After dispatching the guardsmen, Kirith used the salve to stop the bleeding from his severed hand. 

The PCs searched the cargo room and found some gems, a handful of ceramic pieces, a vial of poison, a small shield and the equipment from the guardsmen which included 3 suits of leather armor, a short bow, a stone mace, a bone long sword and a bone axe.  Now with some equipment, the PCs freed the other slaves and climbed the ladder to the caravan wagon’s mid-deck in search of water and a map of the Tyr region they had over heard the slaver talking about.  Peeking their head up through the floor of the mid-deck, they saw three more guardsmen on the far end of the massive wagon doing some looting of their own.  The group snuck past them to the top floor of the wagon to where the slaver resided.  There the group saw an opulent two room floor lined with potted flowers and silk pillows.  As they approached the door to the slaver’s room, they heard a shout and a loud thump.  Opening the door they saw the slaver’s harem surrounding the body of the slaver, a knife in his back. 

The harem consisted of twelve women of various races led by a dwarven woman named Brela.  When the PCs barged in, Brela was rummaging through a bureau and she was not happy to see them.  Brela and “her girls” were not interested in escaping with a bunch of men.  Akais initially negotiated with Brela to allow him to take the slaver’s map, but, because he was concerned with sharing water with a potential enemy, he and Arak tried to bar the door and lock the harem in the wagon.  This infuriated Brela and the PCs began to hear chanting coming through the door.  Along with the chanting, the PCs noticed the potted plants begin to whither, blacken and turn to ash.  With a thunderous explosion, the door burst open.  The group was unharmed, but they now had to deal with an angry harem led by a defiler.  In addition, the guardsmen below them decided to make their way to the top deck to investigate the explosion. 

At this point, the group became divided between the defiler (level 5) and her twelve minions (level 1) and the three guardsmen (level 3).  Arak and Kirith Blackhand cut a swath through the minions (with the help of Akais’ static charge) and engaged Brela.  However, Brela zapped Arak with a critical hit to the chest knocking him to below 0 hit points and Kirith was soon bloodied by her magical onslaught.  In the other room, Arcott, still unarmed but using his mastery of war history to aid the party with extra attacks and inspiring word, was being chased around the room by a guard wielding a stone mace.  The guardsmen would break his mace upon Arcott’s shoulder, pull a plank from the wall and break that on Arcott as well before he was finally killed by Kurixx’ arrows.  Akais was eventually overwhelmed (critical hit: stunned) and was almost instantly killed by a massive blow by another guard (another critical hit).  Brela would eventually be killed by Kirith and Arak would be healed. (He had failed his death saving throw twice…he was very close to the edge).  During this entire fight, Kurixx was hiding among the harem’s pillows and picking off opponents with the short bow he had previously lifted from a guard.  When the PCs defeated this double encounter, they found what Brela was looking for: an ornate quilt that doubled as her spell book.

The PCs exited the wagon to find the slave caravan overrun by gith raiders.  One wagon was burning and another was swarming with gith.  The PCs could hear the screams of the dying guards and the gurgling glee of the gith.  The PCs, looking past the carnage filled melee, saw the desert beyond and their freedom.  The goal of this encounter was to cross the battlefield before they are swarmed by gith savages.  To make matters more interesting (or worse if you are a PC), a mekilott (level 10) was let loose and was crossing the battlefield (thanks to Kurixx).  Akais used his static charge to slow the mikellot down enough to allow the PCs to skirt the battlefield and avoid any additional combat.  As the PCs lamented their lack of water, they noticed a smaller wagon being surrounded by gith.  It was defended by the captain of the guard and they noticed a lone barrel of water on the wagon.  The PCs charged into the fray hoping for some water.  The gith were accompanied by a small group of baazrags that had latched onto the captain of the guard.  The PCs cut through the enemies rather swiftly and offered the captain a simple choice, let them ride on the wagon or be killed.  The captain acquiesced without protest.  The captain of the guard, named Polinius, took the reins and ordered the kank soldier to pull the wagon forward.  The PCs then left the burning slave caravan behind. 

Because the PCs didn’t kill Polinius, they avoided the skill challenge “learning to drive”.  If they had to accomplish this skill challenge, they would’ve lost 10 gallons of water for every skill check failure due to the tumultuous journey through the desert.  The session ended with the group making camp for the night.   The PCs never had a chance to take a 5 minute rest and they didn’t even ask as the players were absorbed into the fast paced nature of the session.  The next session will involve the PCs trying to figure out where they are on the map and surviving the desert trek to civilization.

I rewarded Kirith with the first legendary boon of the campaign, a battle scar titled “Mark of the Free”.  (I felt bad for cutting off his hand…but then again, this is Dark Sun, its gonna be brutal.)

“Mark of the Free”
“Many freed slaves bear the marks of their former captivity, whether it is in the form of crisscrossing scars made from a slaver’s whip or the haunted look of a mind tortured by the cruelty of the noble class.  You, however, bear the mark of a slave who has no master. One who is determined to survive, no matter the costs.  Stories of how you won your freedom will vary widely, but all will know you by the scars you display and the fierceness of your demeanor.”
Power: (Utility, Daily) When interacting with slaves or ex-slaves, you may add a +5 to your diplomacy checks for the duration of the encounter as the members of these casts look upon you with awe.  When interacting with nobles, templars, merchants, etc. you may add a +5 to intimidate checks for the duration of the encounter as the members of these casts know you are not one to take kindly to orders.  This power will not work on creatures without a social hierarchy.


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.


Alignment: What is Alignment and Why it is Important, Part One

Hail to the King, Baby.

This may be the first post in a series of discussions on the topic of alignment in the Dungeon and Dragons game.  Indeed, if my musings are successful, it may have application in other games.  As the title suggests this will be a philosophical examination of “alignment” and its role in gaming.  Those who have been in my gaming groups know that I take alignment fairly seriously, albeit, in an indirect way.  Considering my serious approach to alignment, I thought it would be a good idea to place these thoughts on the internet for all to examine, think about and comment upon.

So, what is alignment?  Within the Dungeon and Dragon’s context, the 1st edition Advanced Dungeon and Dragon’s Player’s Handbook (hereinafter “First Handbook”), doesn’t provide much guidance as to what it is.  Gary Gygax writes that “after generating the abilities of your character. . .it is necessary to determine the alignment of the character.” (emphasis added).  After a brief description of the classic nine alignments, under a sub-heading, “Changing Alignment” in the First Handbook, Mr. Gygax explains that, while involuntary change is possible (presumably through magical means), “it is very difficult for a character to voluntarily switch from one to another.”  In fact, he suggests that changing alignment is near impossible and would require an in-game story line that takes the form of a quest to make the change.  So, it is clear from Mr. Gygax’s perspective that alignment is important, but we don’t know what it is on its face.  We can only infer from the nine classic alignments that it has something to do with a character’s moral worldview.

Fast forward thirty years and the 4E Player’s Handbook spends some considerable time discussing alignment compared to what the First Handbook provided players.  Indeed, the 4E Handbook has provided a definition of alignment, namely, it is a character’s dedication to a set of moral principles.  However, it doesn’t seem to be giving alignment the same emphasis as Mr. Gygax.  For, 4E prefaces its discussion of alignment with a conditional statement: “If you choose an alignment, you’re indicating your character’s dedication to a set of moral principles.”  It logically follows from this conditional statement, that “alignment” is not necessary for the development of a character, i.e. a set of moral principles.  I find this incredibly odd, but perfectly foreseeable by a cursory glance at the historical evolution (devolution?) of the alignment system.

In 2ed Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the standard nine-alignments were presented, but altering one’s alignment was significantly easier.  It was merely a matter of acting a different way for a period of time and suffering an experience point loss.  Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 made it even easier as a player could simply choose to be a different alignment without any penalty.  This suggests that the subsequent authors of the game do not think alignment is an important corner stone to a character’s development or personality.  This attitude, of course, is fully realized in the 4th Edition of the game.

To be fair, a cursory look at the Dungeons and Dragons game as a whole will show that the 4E incarnation has sacrificed realism for a more streamlined and efficient game.  Perhaps, from the game-designers view, imposing such an obligation upon a player to pick an alignment was seen as too distracting from the goals of the game.  I mean, after all, this is a game about killing monsters and getting “mad loot”, right?

Well, it could be.  If that is what you and your players are interested in doing, then alignment isn’t all that necessary.  However, if story-telling is part of the fun of Dungeons and Dragons, or any role-playing game for that matter, then alignment should be a necessary component to character generation, a component that ought to be taken seriously.  So what is alignment?

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines alignment thusly:

“(1) the act of aligning or state of being aligned; especially: the proper positioning or state of adjustment of parts (as of a mechanical or electronic device) in relation to each other . . . (4) an arrangement of groups or forces in relation to one another.”

Wikipedia defines alignment as

 “the adjustment of an object in relation with other objects, or a static orientation of some object or set of objects in relations to others.”

Alignment, generally speaking, is the ordering of objects based upon a relation of some kind.  The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary qualifies the ordering as the “proper positioning” of the object in relation to other objects.  If an object is not properly positioned, then it is not in alignment. 

When alignment is placed in the moral and ethical realm, an alignment requires the exercise of volition.  This exercise of volition is important, as it requires the character to discern the order to which they are aligning themselves.  Choice is necessary for morality and ethics.  Without choice, there cannot be any responsibility and morality is a set of beliefs concerning responsibility and how one self-legislates.  Ergo, a character’s alignment is the conscious arrangement of a character’s actions (object) into a proper positioning with a higher moral order. 

When a character acts, as the definition suggests, they are affirming their worldview by aligning the action in conformity with a set of moral principles.  Therefore, when on a Chaotic Evil character acts, he is affirming his commitment to “entropy” and “self-serving desires” and his ultimate rejection of any strict moral hierarchy, the makings of a very compelling villain.  Conversely, a lawful good player will act, always, to promote the law and the good (generally speaking).  Certainly, humans are fallible (and I suspect so are dwarves and elves), and mistakes will be made.  These mistakes can make for a compelling story.  The classic example is the tragedy of a paladin’s voluntary/involuntary misalignment to the Law and the Good.  It is a tragic tale, and the paladin’s subsequent redemption is an inspirational story.  Without alignment, these compelling characters cannot be made and their compelling stories cannot be told. 

But the definition of alignment is a relational one.  I will explore this aspect in a future post.