I have one of the planet’s most specific pet peeves: Displays of information which rely on two independent axes bother me greatly. Political compasses, personality tests, many of the “we promise we’re not implying causation” graphs you see in bad posts. They never can promise that their variables are actually separate from one another, only a certain agnosticism toward their relationship. The biaxial alignment system which has remained with D&D since 1977, then, is naturally going to irk me. By my nature I cannot ever be happy with it. I’ve lived with it, off and on, and in most cases it does little damage, but more often than not it sloughs from the flesh of the campaign and is forgotten. I readily admit that this one is on me. I’m sure that for most people, a system of two axes which create nine possible alignments is fine and probably doesn’t need significant overhaul, unless you disagree with the concept of alignment in the first place (such as its resistance to change or circumstance, its claim at being innate).
But here’s the other thing. Good and evil are concepts that actively resist fun. They require a sort of hall-monitor moral policing that does nothing for anybody, because they suddenly assert that your character is the type that would never do the evil thing. Or the good thing. Whatever. And if your party is of mixed alignments, are you supposed to performatively disagree over whether to slow-roast the village children with barbecue sauce? I understand the basic purpose of good and evil alignments– it’s to pre-emptively absolve the party of any pangs of guilt they might feel after using the flammable organics of 1.5 tons of bat guano to incinerate a small society of goblins that had lived in the cave network1. But I think we can aspire to more.
I know. My last post set upon the gates of Truth with torch and pitchfork; now I’m trying to go beyond good and evil. I promise I didn’t plan it this way.
Of course, prior to Good and Evil, the alignment system for OD&D was simply: Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic. Back then, Good and Evil were sort of rolled into these– selfishness was rolled into Chaos, selflessness into Law. Some creatures of nature, like dryads and fae, were Neutral, implying that even in this simplistic format, there was a hint of the later druidic justification of Neutrality actively seeking a balance between the alignments, rather than it simply being a lack of one.
It just can’t decide how normative it wants to be about all of this. Law is kind of the good guys, Chaos is definitely the bad guys. Law ultimately represents a very judeo-christian standard, because of the Cleric’s existence, and Chaos by virtue of its partnership with Law in the binary myth, has little choice but to be a teensy bit satanic. Neutrality is somehow kinda pagan.
In a game of medieval fantasy, where you’re likely to end up involved with Churchlike entities, you likely will have Evil (or Evil) enemies, and the roping-in of mythology and Tolkien necessitates a treatment of Celtic paganism, it does well to have something like* Alignment. Alignment languages are ultimately a cool idea, it just doesn’t add up if the alignments are poorly-defined (the language of neutrality stands out as especially hilarious). I’m not ready to roll the whole thing up and put it in the garbage.
Neutrality is split between a few categories. You have the nature-beings that seem to believe in some Neutral Positivism. You have things which are basically incapable of being aligned with anything, like animals. You also have things which are categorized elsewhere but are also allowed into neutrality to show that they’re not all good/bad. And you have humans (and lycanthropes), which can be whatever they want to be.
Chaos in OD&D was basically just all the evil stuff. But if we rope in the later post-hoc Chaos, it becomes split between things which have a sort of Chaotic Positivism, and stuff that just can’t really exist elsewhere.
Law, by contrast, is easy. It’s civilized medieval Christian Europe and the things it likes.
Toward A New Alignment
My play here is to split the chart in three: Law, Nature, and Death. You could keep Chaos instead of Death, but frankly, Chaos was only ever defined as an antipode to Law, and I don’t want Nature to be a third wheel, here. They should all be orthogonal to one another. Independent things that creatures might worship or align with.
Nature takes the pagan thematic of the dryad side of Neutrality and makes it explicit. Law vs. Nature is an awesome conflict, and doesn’t even do a terrible job when it’s painted onto the actual church conflicts with European paganism. It takes the most interesting positive aspects of the Neutral alignment, and gets to amplify them because they’re no longer lashed to a middle-fence between two opposites.
Death gets to do all of the evil stuff of Chaos, and of Evil itself, because it’s Death. But unlike Evil, it has a point: You are going to die, death is what provides life with meaning, death unites all things. You can imagine worshippers who might have a healthy relationship with death. Animal sacrifices, grim but florid poetry. I also find it easier to define and imagine than Chaos, which is such an abstract concept that it becomes difficult to imagine yourself worshipping it2. As a bonus, it has precedent in Caverns of Thracia, where death-worship is used beautifully. And, just as important as the above: Death is metal.
Finally, Law remains Law: authoritarian, civilized, colonial. Of the three, to me, it represents perhaps a purer villain than Death! But it retains a certain necessity, and not just a necessity for some law: a necessity for some of those who obsess with law and with authority.
These three feel as if they do all of the same things as Law-Neutral-Chaos, but by making the system trinary, they’re able to cover more ground in addition.
Since alignment is no longer a placement along a single axis (or two axes), it becomes possible to consider more than one selection. You could have, for example, a primary and a secondary, with the third acting as an ‘opposition’. I might characterize stereotypical Christianity as being Law primary, Nature secondary, and against Death. You’d probably note this as L(n). This would turn it into a bit more of a Fantasy Horoscope, which I think is fun, but probably not for me– I don’t prefer to think of these things in degrees so much as in directions.
Not that it can’t get tedious relitigating the “don’t you feel guilty for genociding the orcs” discussion at the table– that’s quite another matter. But I do believe it’s helpful to get out ahead of these things by asserting that everything they touch is of normal moral significance, and no meat-grinder is ontologically guaranteed to be ethical. All the ‘chaotic evil’ safety-valve does is it eliminates the stakes of your in-play decisions, and that’s boring.↩︎
Chaos feels like such a 20th century way of referring to inevitability, doesn’t it? To fantasy cultists, it should be effectively the same thing as death– entropy is a denial of eternality. Else you end up referring to Chaos in the manner of Jordan Peterson, which is ultimately nonsense. A manufactured opposite to Law, built for the express purpose of exalting and justifying Law. I get enough of that on the news!↩︎