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Alignment as Cosmic Force

I’ve been listening to Ken & Robin Talk About Alignment, which has made some thoughts resurface—namely, that I find alignment a potentially interesting character creation (or rather, a branch of questions) and a potentially interesting mechanical theme, but man I do not care for them together.

If I were to do something with alignment today, it would be playing with the mechanical side of things as we as a culture have the character creation part down pretty well, I think. It starts with this idea: having people say “I use my smite evil ability” in your game says a lot about your game’s cosmology. So let’s run with that. I’ll unfold my idea in roughly the same process that it came to me.

To be clear, this idea isn’t a replacement for all concepts of alignment. I’m taking an idea and riffing on it, while trying to show you how I riffed on it for whatever use that could be to you.

Let’s start by asserting explicitly an implied truth about Gygaxian alignment: it’s a cosmic thing like The Force in Star Wars, not an expression of personal viewpoint. You can’t say “I’m lawful because I’m following laws from my distant land, which are totally not the same laws as where I am but whatever, there’s no law against burning people where I’m from so it’s cool” and claim to be Lawful. (Granted, that’s one of the two contradictory implied truths of Gygaxian alignment, so I’m intentionally saying “just this part, thanks.”)

Next, let’s build in a simplification: very few mortals/mortal-scale things (whatever that means in the world) have any alignment, even “true neutral.” If alignment is a cosmic force and if we’re not using it as a character creation or character drive element, then we don’t need to throw it on every Tom, Dick, and Frodo. To use the science fiction analog, we don’t care what Han or Lando’s attunement to is either side of The Force, but we do Luke & Vader’s.

That opens up a new question: who/what has alignment? The gods are expressions of cosmic force, so definitely them. Those who do divine magic would also have an alignment, which is one of the ways that mortals can get an alignment. Maybe also those affected by profound divine magic—in other words, those resurrected have an alignment akin to the cleric that did the resurrection. Awesome artifacts could also have an alignment, and so might their wielders, either temporary while holding or permanently with enough time possessing the idea.

That’s all good, but what does having alignment mean? It has to be a magical force interface, which it already is with spells like “detect magic” and abilities like “smite good.” It’s simple to restrict spells by alignment type, which many games already do. It’s also simple to have spells only affect (or better affect) beings of a given alignment, which again many games already do. That could be good enough, but I want to go a bit further with this idea, in part because I like the idea that you can die and then be afflicted with an alignment contrary to your disposition. Here’s the next guiding principle: Having alignment means that you have the attention of cosmic forces. They’re always watching, and that’s certainly no good if you didn’t sign up for it.

To model this, I’d use either the aspect/compel system from Fate or the advantage/disadvantage/inspiration system from D&D 5/e. The specifics of implementation are a pretty dependent on the system, but I don’t want anything that’s complicated, and I certainly don’t want any mechanics that work to dictate alignment shift based on behavior. Want to change your alignment? Die and have a cleric of a different alignment resurrect you. Unfortunately, there’s never going back to a non-alignment state, because once the cosmos takes notice of you, it never forgets.

This also suggests that having no alignment is in a sense being invisible to the cosmos. This could have some interesting juice, such as a group of clerics finding some non-aligned people to join their posse so they have some people who aren’t affected by an anti-good field or whatever.

The thought exercise is over at this point. The fantasy settings I’ve been toying with for years—Mythender’s Mythic Norden and the Halfling Nations—don’t have a place where alignment fits, even an alignment idea drifted as far as this one. But maybe if I did something that riffed on the Dragon Age series, I could use alignment as a way to represent taint of darkspawn and perhaps of a grand opposing force.

– Ryan

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3 Responses to Alignment as Cosmic Force

  1. blackcoat says:

    The contradictory terms you’re thinking of (“The place where I come from it’s okay to set people on fire”) is actually the *other* axis of Alignment, which is why hobgoblins are Lawful.

    On the other hand, I like your riff. It allows for little-a alignment between pc’s and the larger cosmos, and makes Alignment restrictions for certain classes (in games that have classes) make a little more sense. It’s not that you have to be Lawful Good in order to be a Paladin, it’s that by virtue of what you go through to *become* a Paladin, you *become* LG.

    I’m actually tempted to riff on the 5e Paladin with this a little, in that they don’t take their Oath’s until 3rd. You can make one of the things that each oath gives you some Alignment restrictions (I’m thinking LG for mercy, must be good for nature, must not be lawful for vengence, but)

  2. Carl Klutzke says:

    I like where you’re going with this. But I’d also like a re-examination of what alignments exist. Gygaxian alignments are a terrible representation of the values of real-life people, and perpetuating them is at best cliched and at worst damaging to society. Research indicates that real humans don’t come into conflict because they are “good” or “evil”, they come into conflict because, even though they largely value the same things (fairness, freedom, loyalty, holiness etc.), they put different emphasis on which of those values have the highest priority. It could be interesting to have a fantasy setting with alignments drawn from Jonathan Haidt’s _The Righteous Mind_ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Righteous_Mind), manifested as cosmic forces such as you describe, and embodied in divine beings.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Word. That sort of rethinking is done in 13th Age, where alignment is more about how you interface with specific high-concept forces than abstract notions.