12 January 2013

Dual Threefold Alignment System

As much as I enjoy Dungeons & Dragons in its various old school incarnations, one concept I never fully understood nor embraced was that of alignments. I understand it in terms of the fantasy novels of Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock, wherein the struggle between the forces of Law and Chaos are an important part of the setting, but the way it was presented in D&D, as a philosophical guide to personal conduct, has always seemed to me to be a poor fit. In the absence of an overarching cosmic war in one's campaign world, concerns of Law and Chaos seem even less plausible. In other words, I always felt that alignment rules were better suited to a game with a specific setting (such as Stormbringer) rather than an all-purpose fantasy game (such as D&D), especially if the latter emphasizes materialistic rather than mythic goals.

Perhaps it would be easier for me to accept alignments in the latter case if their names were less awe-inspiring and more descriptive of actual behavior. In terms of the threefold alignment system, perhaps the following would serve better:

Law-Abiding: Those of a Law-Abiding alignment tend to obey laws and promote orderly societies. When they disagree with a law, they prefer to change it from within the system if possible, or, if impossible, choose to organize resistance or migration.

Apathetic: Those of an Apathetic alignment are unconcerned about laws or the lack thereof. If laws exist, they will abide by them as long as it is convenient to do so. If they disagree with a law, they will ignore it if they can or abide by it if they must.

Criminal: Those of a Criminal alignment tend to disobey laws and promote disorderly societies. They will actively exploit, twist, or violate any law to achieve their personal goals. They disagree with laws in principle and perceive them as obstacles to their happiness.

Note that this alignment system is likely to be less static than the traditional Law-Neutrality-Chaos model. It is not uncommon for the Law-Abiding to grow Apathetic and it is not unknown for the Criminal to reform. There are no consequences for such alignment shifts other than the way a character is perceived by others.

It is possible for both alignment systems to exist in the same setting, of course, without resorting to the ninefold system. In a dual threefold system, all characters will be Law-Abiding, Apathetic, or Criminal in a social context, but only some will have a secondary alignment of Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic in a metaphysical context. The secondary alignment only manifests if it is inherent (in the case of certain supernatural beings, for instance), professed as a faith (or an aspect of a faith), and/or pledged as an allegiance to a being representing that alignment. Thus the alignment options would be Law-Abiding, Apathetic, Criminal, Law-Abiding/Lawful, Apathetic/Neutral, and Criminal/Chaotic. Whereas the first three alignments would be fluid depending on the desires and behavior of a character, the last three alignments are as static as the traditional threefold system. Declaring Law, Neutrality, or Chaos has deep implications, and betraying that bond may result in loss of levels, loss of class abilities, and/or other severe penalties.

I'm not sure if I'll use this system, but it certainly makes it easier for me to understand and implement alignments.


  1. I've had this thought, but used 'Law-upholding', 'Law-abiding', and 'Law-breaking' to better guide PC/NPC action. The first group are like paladins, actively enforcing the law, the second group largely follows it without feeling the need to promulgate it, while the last have no qualms about breaking society's rules for their own purpose or just for fun. I would argue that 'apathetic' might be a poor fit with a game of action.

    I've also replaced the 'Good/Neutral/Evil' tripod with 'Heroic/Average/Villainous' to better describe character action than the nebulous terms 'good' or 'evil'.

    It's funny how type of minor rebranding can have such major effects on how we understand a game and play it.

    1. "Heroic" and "Villainous" could be as nebulous as "Good" and "Evil" if you consider that one person's act of heroism could be another person's act of villainy. It all depends on the point of view. The same could be said of my Law-Abiding versus Criminal, of course. If the laws being abided are evil (slavery prior to the American Civil War, for instance), then criminal activity in opposition to those laws (such as operating the Underground Railroad) would be considered good. That's why I dislike alignments so much. As with almost every other role-playing game created since D&D (there are a few exceptions), I think it's generally better to let actions dictate how one is regarded, rather than letting alignments dictate actions. I like your system of Law-upholding, Law-abiding, and Law-breaking, though.

  2. Touche, in a general, real world sense. But I think in terms of emulating source material (fantasy literature), these terms are clear enough and, more importantly, more playable. The point is that a heroic society wouldn't have slavery in its laws, while a villainous would. Muddying the waters with historical antecedents and/or anti-heroic examples detracts from my objective - to recast the alignment framework in a light that is more intuitive and supportive of roleplaying. Each person's mileage varies, however, and so the terms and connotations I ascribe may be meaningless to others. At the end of the day, we're playing games with funny dice and graph paper, so what works for you should be kept, and anything else modified or scrapped.

    Good discussion though.

    1. That's what led me to stop worrying and love the bomb, which is to say, I'll probably continue to use Law/Neutrality/Chaos, but I'll interpret them as described here -- http://appliedphantasticality.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-good-bad-etc.html -- and use alignment strictly as a meta-rule governing behavior and reactions rather than a cosmic force that brands one permanently. I'd prefer to let players wonder about the metaphysics of their universe than have all the answers anyway.

    2. Then again, maybe I'll just let alignment govern behavior and cosmic allegiance. Full circle. But unlike some schools of thought, I'll just let Law equal Good and Chaos equal Evil. I want to keep it as simple as possible. (Personal preferences for societal laws and whether they are upheld or flouted will be immaterial. Alignment will pertain to following one's conscience.)