Thursday 17 June 2010

The Virtue of Alignment

Alignment systems in role-playing games are interesting things. They are often little more than a way of dividing the world into Goodies and Baddies, into White Hats and Black Hats. Sometimes they are a little more detailed, with a greater range of divisions, sub-divisions, and combinations, allowing them to serve as shorthand for characterization, offering simple role-play guidelines to players and GMs. And sometimes, they can tell you a lot about the ideas that underpin a whole game world.

But side-issues first; what on Oerth (or Mystara even) are alignment languages? I have never used alignment languages. The idea that characters and creatures of distinct species and distant cultures would be able to speak a non-learnable ‘secret’ ‘language’ by virtue of their ethical outlook seems ridiculous. More than that, it is an idea that makes keeping alignments secret impossible. ‘So, how to check whether this new recruit to our gang of slavers is really an infiltrator? I know – I will greet this new recruit in ‘Chaotic’. I would be grateful if anyone can think of a reason to use alignment languages – other than Gary says so – or can provide an example from a published adventure where alignment languages are used in an anyway interesting manner.

Back to the main discussion; both Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play (WFRP) and Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) use superficially similar alignment systems. These systems assign every intelligent creature in their fantasy universes to a category that summarises its moral outlook. And both the WFRP and D&D alignment systems use the juxtaposition of Law and Chaos as their central feature, appearing to have arrived at this moral cosmology by way of Michael Moorcock. D&D got there first, of course, and WFRP cannot be anything but influenced the use of a Law-Chaos alignment system in the daddy of all role-playing games. Nevertheless, it appears that it is WFRP that takes seriously the idea of a universe arranged around a conflict between Law and Chaos.

D&D has the more simple alignment system. Characters and monsters are Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. In the D&D Basic Set Players Manual (1983), alignment is discussed in detail on page 55. Putting Neutrality aside for a moment, a Lawful alignment is described as being about a belief in order, in following rules, in sacrificing individual freedoms to benefit the group. Chaotic is defined as ‘the opposite of law’, and is summarized as ‘the belief that life is random, and that chance and luck rule the world’. Chaotic characters are described as telling the truth or telling lies as it suits them, as acting on sudden whims, as having unpredictable behavior. So far so interesting. Those descriptions appear to fit nicely with a commonsense interpretation of what a Lawful or Chaotic person might be like. And yet, the final line of each summary is a statement that these alignments are usually the same as ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

The treatment of Law and Chaos as essentially the same thing as good and evil has never rung true for me. Not when I first played D&D, and not when I have returned to D&D after more than a decade without role-playing in earnest. But treating Law and Chaos synonyms for good and evil is exactly what most early D&D adventures did. This strips away the most interesting aspects of this alignment system. For as long as the D&D alignment system suggests that central moral distinction in the D&D world is not that of good vs evil but Law vs Chaos, we have the provocative idea that Sir Galant, a knight who lives by a strict code of chivalry, has significant similarities with the Magistrate Tyrant of Zagor. One good and one evil, perhaps, but both Lawful. By the time the D&D Cyclopedia (1991) was published, the claim for the idea that Chaos ≈ evil had been watered down, with a provision that ‘Each individual player must determine if his Chaotic character is closer to a mean, selfish “evil” personality or merely a happy-go-lucky unpredictable personality’ (p. 11). Still little room for the Fantasy Fascist in the description of Law – Law is still described as usually the same as ‘good’ – but at least Chaos has expanded to find space for the heroic outlaw and the virtuous prankster.

In practice, and with half an eye towards the two-dimensional alignment system in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), I try to strip the alignments of Law and Chaos of their connections with good and evil. I do my best to stress that these categories are something quite different. Believing that that it is virtuous to follow the rules, to stand for order, is independent of good or evil.

WFRP uses a system of five alignments; Law, Good, Neutral, Evil, and Chaos. Though it is suggested that the alignments are arranged in a linear order, the alignments are distinct. In the players section of the Hogshead 1st Edition rulebook, the alignments are described as ‘mostly self-explanatory – evil characters are basically evil and good characters are basically good. Chaos represents constant destruction and renewal, whereas Law represents a stasis of perfection in which nothing ever changes in the slightest degree, leaving Neutral characters as fairly free-minded and liberal beings, uncommitted to a particular frame of mind’ (p. 15). In the section for the Gamesmaster, these alignments are described in greater detail, with sets of ideas and attitudes that people of each alignment are ‘For’ and ‘Against’. Law, for example, is ‘for’ ‘rigid social hierarchy’, while Chaos is ‘against’ ‘permanence and tradition’. Here there is room for the Fantasy Fascist – indeed, one of the sister games of WFRP, Warhammer 40,000, is pretty much built on an idea of Space Fantasy Fascists vs The Universe – and this is complicated, and given further colour, by the fact that in the world of WFRP, Law and Chaos are ‘real’ things.

Law vs Chaos85

Law vs Chaos?

Unlike the D&D system, in which there is no ‘Big Bad’ built into the game, the drama of the Warhammer World is organised around the battle against Chaos. In the earliest WFRP material, it is clear that in the battle against Chaos, a victory for Law would be equally disastrous – it would be a victory for stasis, for the end of change, of progress, of invention, and imagination. But the victory of Chaos is inevitable – it is the entropic heat death of the Universe given demonic personality in the Chaos Gods of Tzeentch, Slaanesh, Nurgle, and Khorne [and Malal?]. Chaos is an essential feature of all change and progress in the Warhammer World, of all magic and invention, of pleasure, of ambition. And that is why it is so seductive. Evil is pretty petty and mundane – ordinary wickedness that does will neither undo the world nor be seen for other than what it is. But Chaos – change, progress, experimentation – is the world unwinding Big Bad, an essential feature of Human societies and their undoing. And it will, eventually, inevitably, unwind the world.

This ambivalent approach to alignment, and the fact that the concepts underpinning this system are integral, inseparable parts of the narrative of the game world, is what gives WFRP its distinctive colour. The colour of the D&D world – the Known World – comes despite a deliberately generic game system – from an exhaustive but piecemeal collection of supplements. Without the invention of the GM, those monsters in the sewers of Specularum are more often than not just another bunch of monsters. By contrast, those mutants in the sewers of Altdorf are, necessarily, the pitiable personification of the inevitable end of Humanity. And the witch-hunter who burns deformed babies? In the Black Eagle Barony he is a villainous agent of a tyrant. In the villages of the Reik he is fighting a battle against Chaos. Nobody said that Law was synonymous with goodness, or mercy. Indeed, the [impossible] triumph of Law, of stasis over entropy, would be as certain a defeat of Humanity as the victory of Chaos.

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