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Realignment

Last week, Andy dove into one of the most "D&D" of all topics, Alignment, to ponder (if you'll pardon the expression) the role it can  play in our modern tabletop experiences. As editor, of my (self-assigned) roles (I swear I'm not doing this on purpose) is to add links wherever possible to back background information, support claims, and, if it's a topic where I have interest, but little experience, act as bookmarks for further research on my own. The links in "Misalignment" largely fell into that last category. I am something of a Dungeons & Dragons outsider - ironic for a person who co-founded a gaming blog, as the game/system is largely synonymous with tabletop roleplaying as a whole. Aside from sitting in on a few games and haphazardly reading the handful of TSR books (spread across multiple editions, naturally), my D&D experience comes from media attached to the franchise: several generations of gamebooks, the original Dragonlance novels, a few cool art books, and electronic games that were either officially licensed or simply lifted the AD&D ruleset. As a result of this mishmash of proximate exposure, I'm fascinated by the history of the game and its evolution without having an allegiance or nostalgia for any particular incarnation - barring a fondness for the art of 1980s D&D, rich in color and detail, if not anatomical plausibility. And for a (hopefully) impartial scholar, Alignment is the perfect topic for a deep dive: unique to the franchise and inexorably incorporated into its inner workings, yet taking different forms at different times, and representing some very distinct concepts and philosophies. So let's take a look at where Alignment comes from, what it means (or has meant), and why that matters for the stories you want to tell... not to mention how you tell them.

Has anything else from from Dungeons & Dragons crossed into the mainstream as the concept of "Alignment?" Maybe the idea of a "critical hit" (even the contraction "crit" has long been part of accepted language) or the concept of "leveling up," but both these are prevalent in other games, especially in the electronic gaming space. "Alignment," though, is unique to D&D and games that are trying to recreate some aspect of the D&D experience ("retroclones," generally). And yet... how many "alignment charts" have you seen in the wild that specifically reference the classic nine-point D&D alignment system? Just today? Name the fictional property, historical group, hobby, or food type and you'll find dozens of nine-space charts following the "Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic" and "Good/Neutral/Evil" axes. (I'm rather partial to the one where Batman fits every Alignment.) People who have never seen a character sheet in their life, let alone a Player's Handbook can describe their favorite characters as "Lawful" or "Chaotic."

For such a widespread influence, this iteration of Alignment (two axes referring to a character's personality and worldview) was a fairly late addition, and it was a long, complicated journey to get to this point. (I am forever indebted to a few dedicated D&D historians for a crash course in the history of Alignment.) Since the specifics are so well-covered in those links, I won't reiterate them here, but will acknowledge the inherent tension about what Alignment is for - it's not "Temperament" or "Personality," after all, even if that's the popular interpretation. The term predates D&D, going back to the "Fantasy" supplement of the larger-scale wargame Chainmail and referring to whether a particular character or group were aligned with the forces of Law or the forces of Chaos - consistent with many fantasy works popular at the time. (There's a lot to talk about in the relationship between Dungeons & Dragons, the works that influenced it, and the works the followed its codification of the "Sword & Sorcery" genre... but that's beyond the scope of this particular post.) Even as the scale shifted to the individual-focused "Fantasy" supplement and the Dungeons & Dragons game that sprung from it, Alignment still largely referred to a sense of organized allegiance - hence we get things like "Alignment languages" and Gary Gygax's insistence that "Neutral" referred to a specific belief system based around a careful balance between the forces of Law and those of Chaos. The modern interpretation of "Neutral" as someone without an interest in overarching systems or beliefs simply wasn't an option.

In a dungeon crawl, though, the eternal struggle between primal forces isn't particularly relevant. Where they do help, though, is as roleplaying aids, giving players a shorthand for how their characters might speak or behave. But now, despite some efforts to shoehorn "Law" and "Chaos" into "Good" and Evil" (the "D&D Basic" rules even describe them as such), the strict delineations become less helpful. In a single axis system, where would one place a character like Robin Hood or Emperor Palpatine? And since Dungeons & Dragons was still set in a universe where entire cultures and systems of magic are based around absolutes, we get the second axis of "Good" and "Evil" with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, giving us the nine-point Alignment system we still love today... and the tension that I find so interesting. "Good" and "Evil" are terms of moral and ethical philosophy, of the religious quandaries that have always perplexed humanity - regardless of any in-game meaning, these concepts will affect how we envision and play our characters. But they are still tangible forces and associations within the D&D universe, with visible and concrete effects in the world. Players and DMs have been able to wrap their heads around this dichotomy for decades now, but it still exists... with cracks finally beginning to show as people rebel against concepts like Alignment-limited races. (Even if Orcish culture tends towards allegiance with the very real forces of Evil, why should that restrict the range of moralities held by individual Orcs? As Andy reminded us last week, the tones and themes of a particular narrative by a particular group of people should always take primacy.

As someone who considers game mechanics an element of storytelling, there's one approach that appeals to me - retrofitting the universe. If a mechanic like Alignment is hard-coded into the system, we can adjust the details around it so that it fits with the world we're building. For my part, I'm partial to J.R.R. Tolkien's conception of magic (the infusion of an individual's will or identity with a place or object) over Jack Nance's (an organized system of spells from which a magic user can memorize a limited number). Nance's magic forms the basis of D&D's, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for a little of Tolkien's as well, and that's where I see Alignment fitting in. In my mind, every spell or enchanted object carries a touch of its original creator and only responds to those who are similar enough to that creator. In practice, this takes the form of Alignment as we know it. To be fair, I generally work in systems allowing for a unique, different world to be created with each table and group - my Alpha Complex is mine and my players, it doesn't need to match with anyone else's, published or not. I also know D&D to be something of a different beast, where familiarity is shared across players and groups and there is an accepted "canon" of reality. But, in the circumstance where I'm running something that uses Alignment, no one needs to know about my little "headcanon," at least until it comes up. And the players are free to develop their own. Even if the details are as unique as the participants, the rules and mechanics are agreed upon.

That's the principle I choose to run games around, and Alignment, whether or not I ever actually engage with it, offered an opportunity to delve into it. There's something (for the last time, I swear I'm not doing this on purpose) magical when a group of people get together to tell a story together that's unique to the participants and that time. It's at the very heart of this odd little hobby of ours, and I'll take every opportunity to celebrate it.

- B

Send questions, comments, and your favorite headcanon rules explanations to neversaydice20@gmail.com or Tweet us @nevesaydice2


 

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