Thursday, July 8, 2010
Alignment in the Sword & Sorcery Realm
I've been pondering the question of alignment for the last few days. The AD&D-style alignment system (LG, LN, LE, etc) is very much related to morals and values. Under this system, the player selects a moral code, such as Chaotic Good, and is expected to adhere by the tenets of that code or suffer various penalties, such as losing levels or certain class-based abilities. This is so far removed from the realm of "adventurous behavior" exhibited in Sword & Sorcery literature, that I marvel that the concept was included in D&D at all (more about that below).
The typical Sword & Sorcery protagonist ("hero" doesn't really seem to fit), exhibits behavioral and moral examples of all alignments. Revenge, greed, passion, honor, mercy, anger, pity, murderous rage, melancholy, curiosity, mischief, and so on and so on. In fact, it would be fair to say each Sword & Sorcery protagonist often has their own unique alignment. That moral ambiguity is often part of their attraction - they are wholly unpredictable, capable of great deeds of kindness one day and of shocking violence the next. Anything is possible. Does the Sword & Sorcery protagonist rescue the maiden from the arms of the ravisher to protect her honor, or because he wants her for himself? You have to finish the story to find out.
As to its inclusion in D&D, I suspect there was quite a bit of evolution involved. First there was Law and Chaos, and Neutrality. Given that the roots of these alignments are in Moorcock's works of the Eternal Champion, these "alignments" would have been more aptly termed "allegiances" or "obligations". As presented in Moorcock's world, Law and Chaos were forces you served, and in return your patrons gave you favors (if they were feeling whimsical or bored enough). Yet in D&D, Law and Chaos would come to mean Good and Evil, respectively. Elric of Melnibone, as a highly favored servant of Chaos, could no more have been considered wholly good or wholly evil than Conan or the Gray Mouser.
In a sense, the alignment system seems doomed to failure when applied to a Sword & Sorcery setting (and quite possibly other fantasy genres as well). It is an attempt to impose absolutes on an environment where anything should be possible. The ability for an adventurer to be capable of great charity one moment and great treachery the next should be celebrated, not penalized. As the character develops, so too does their own unique moral code. If there are obligations to be honored in return for power, such as those of the cleric or paladin, focusing on a generic alignment rather than a unique code of ethics seems to be a great waste of potential. Can one not obey the specifics of chivalry and still be twisted and resentful inside? Imagine the possibilities when the DM or player is free to disregard the restrictions of an arbitrary alignment system when developing a cleric's set of holy tenets!
To better reflect what I think "alignment" should be, in my future campaigns all characters would start as "Neutral" (or, perhaps more appropriately, "unaligned") with the possibility of taking on allegiances to Law and Chaos as the character develops (such as when that cleric gets their first spell at level 2, or the magic user gets that imp familiar). Whether there is an obligation to a higher power or not (with the accompanying risk of retribution for perceived offense), players will be encouraged to forge their own codes of ethics, just as they forge their own destinies.