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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Cosmic Struggle: Alignment, the Wright Way

Where is this coming from?

The rules for Alignment in Pathfinder, and most editions of Dungeons and Dragons before it, have been a long standing source of frustration for myself and most of my players. Things were usually fine until someone decided to play a Paladin (the only Class with a specific Code of Conduct). In a closely related issue, I have never been satisfied with the treatment of Clerics.

The issues eventually got bad enough that when I brought my campaign to an apocalyptic end, I did away with all gods, and I was ready to eliminate Alignment from the game altogether. This was a lot of work. Many spells, a few Races and many Magic Items, Monsters and Classes were affected, and the changes needed to be defined.

Then I read Dungeon Crawl Classics. If I gain nothing else from it, I value what I learned about Alignment by seeing how it can be done well. It also manages Clerics the way I always wished it would be treated.

The result is that I have decided to embrace Alignment as a powerful story telling tool.

This means that things will be different. Disclaimer follows:

  • Where the Wright Way differs from the rules as published, the Wright Way will take precedence.
  • While there will be some differences from the rules as written, most of the differences are “fluff’. They affect the fiction of the game more than anything else, and it is hoped that players will step up to the challenge and direct their characters’ actions and words accordingly. 
  • Most importantly, the Wright Way Alignment rules will be enforced in play by the GM. This will be the biggest difference from how my games have been conducted for the past 30+ years.
  • This House Rule represents a refining process. I expect to alter things as we play, to get the best fit. I will welcome feedback with an open mind, while I maintain a clear vision of how I want Alignment to be handled in the Wright Territory.

I will begin with some definitions.

What Alignment is not

Alignment is not a way to define a character’s personality traits. It is not a style of play or a way to “meta-game” to gain an advantage for a character. It is not a casual preference of behavior for certain situations.
In the past, all of these have been done. For example:

  • I don’t like being judged or told what to do, so my character is Chaotic.
  • This adventure has a lot of Demons, who are susceptible to Lawful attacks and spells. So my Cleric is Lawful.
  • My character doesn’t steal or kick puppies, so I’m Good! Now let’s slit these Orcs’ throats while they’re asleep before the Sleep spell wears off!"

Alignment is

A character’s Alignment is a big deal. It is a choice each character makes for themselves, and which guides their fate to a large degree from that point on. A Character is not required to take any Alignment.

From a character’s perspective, more than anything else, Alignment determines what happens to them in the Afterlife. Good characters go to Heaven. Evil characters go to Hell.

More than that, choosing an Alignment is an investment in the bigger picture behind the scenes of the fiction of the game. It is a commitment to a faction of The Cosmic Struggle.

Most of all, Alignment is an opportunity for a deeper role playing game experience.

The Cosmic Struggle

In the Wright Territory, the Gods are real. They exist. This cannot be denied. They walk the Earth. Their champions perform miracles, call fire from the sky and raise people from the dead. This makes for a VERY different world from our own.
The Gods have an agenda. They all have an Alignment, which represents a faction of The Cosmic Struggle. The Cosmic Struggle has always been, and always will be. It is at the foundation of the cosmology of the Wright Territory, and that will never change. The Gods are the most powerful beings engaging in it on Earth, but they are not the only ones.
The Cosmos is all of Creation, and it is a battleground between four Factions. Those factions are Chaos, Law, Good and Evil. These forces represent abstract ideas, and exist beyond any cultural ethics or social morality. Some brief definitions follow, in descending order of scale and abstraction.
  • ·         Chaos is the Primal origin from which Creation sprang. It is the Abyss, it is survival of the fittest. Chaos resists any establishment of anything. It wants to return to the roiling ocean of life’s origins, the Primal Chaos which existed before The Creator spoke and created the Cosmos. Chaos is emotion and passion without reason. It is the Law of the Jungle. It is Tiamat. It is Azathoth.
  • ·         Law opposes Chaos. Law represents order out of Chaos. It is civilization and community. It is duty and discipline. It is logic’s triumph over emotion. Law represents the rise of intelligent beings from the Chaos, who established homes and communities, and who sought to understand things, and to unlock secrets.
  • ·         Good is Life. It is the beauty of creation. Good is compassion and charity. Good is Spirit. Good can be Lawful or Chaotic or neither, but not both. Good respects others, and seeks to heal wounds. Good sees the value and beauty in all things.
  • ·         Evil opposes Good. Evil is murder and destruction. Evil is deception. Evil considers all others as enemies, and dehumanizes them to the point of non-personhood. Evil is greed, and can never steal, kill or destroy enough to ever satisfy its hatred. Life is not meaningless to Evil, it is an affront; something to be hated and extinguished if not corrupted, exploited and dominated.

In Pathfinder and its predecessors, there is a ninth Alignment, called Neutral. I have done away with this, and have separated it into the three things it is usually meant to represent. The first is the most abstract and of the broadest scale of all Alignments.
  • ·         The Balance is the perspective of the Cosmos as a whole. It is a holistic consideration of all things. It is the Big Picture. It is Time, Fate and Truth. It is the Cycle: Birth-Death-Rebirth. Balance is extremely abstract and most mortals do not have the ability to fully grasp its scale and perspective. Balance looks on as puppies are kicked and as babies are born. It does not judge. When one of the four Axis Alignments above gains too much advantage over the others (on the Cosmic Scale- not necessarily locally), Balance steps in to tip the scales toward the center. Balance opposes excess and abhors a vacuum.

The last two Alignments are the narrowest of perspective but of highest appeal to individual mortals without a clear vision of The Cosmic Struggle.
  • ·         The Atheist does not argue the existence of the Gods, only their merits. The Gods exist, as any fool knows. The Atheist denies participation in The Cosmic Struggle. Atheism denies the worthiness of the Gods to be worshiped by mortals. Atheists may see the Divine as something in themselves, and are determined to find their own destiny in the world. Atheists are individualistic free spirits who resent the idea that they are not in control of their own fate.

By far the most popular Alignment is no Alignment at all.
  • ·         Most mortals live out their short lives Unaligned. Many see the merits of the Axis Alignments and cannot choose to commit to only one faction. Others take no care for The Cosmic Struggle, their time and attention being consumed with the struggles of day to day life. The vast majority of the population has never heard of The Cosmic Struggle and has no idea that there was ever a choice to be made at all.

Why choose any Alignment?

Choosing an Alignment is not required of any character (except a few Classes). The Alignments represent, at their core, very high-minded abstract ideals which are beyond the scope of most adventurers’ lives. So why bother?
If a character is required to take an Alignment (Paladins, Monks and Clerics), what does that mean?

A character’s Alignment has several game affects.

  • ·         Characters gain a Hero Point when an Alignment is chosen. They will continue to gain Hero Points whenever they pass a Test of Faith- a quandary wherein they are presented with a choice of actions, some of which may be more convenient but compromise the character’s commitment to their Alignment.
For example: The party wins a battle against a group of Orcs who ambushed them on a lonely forest road. Many of the fallen Orcs are not dead yet. Some are dying, others are Unconscious but stable. Some of the characters begin finishing the Orcs off by beheading the fallen. Less Orcs to trouble others, right? A Good character stops this from happening, facing a heated argument from the others, ending in a schism that causes half the party to split off from the Good character and his friends. The Good character and his allies remain with the Orcs to insure the others do not return to murder them. The campaign is fractured and the players must decide whether to continue with half the players making new characters or to stop playing altogether. If the campaign continues, and the Good character remains, he gains a Hero Point (possibly two) for standing his ground.

  • Aligned characters gain in-game support and benefits from allies and followers of their Alignment.
 For example, a Good character can expect respectful treatment by any Good character or creature he encounters, no matter the circumstances. Good NPCs will support him, with hospitality, healing, moral support and possibly money, goods or combat reinforcements.

  • Aligned characters also gain the enemies and hardships of their Alignment.
Good characters are sought out and marked for death by all Evil creatures. If captured by Evil enemies, a Good character can expect gruesome torture and mockery before being cruelly slain.

Most adventuring groups will not work with Good characters, because of scenarios like those above.

  • An Aligned character is held to a standard, and will be judged constantly.
In the above scenario, the Good character, instead of standing his ground, looks the other way. His companions murder their enemies, but he does not participate. The Good character then immediately loses all Hero Points, and will gain none until he atones for his sin. If he is a Cleric of a Good God, he immediately loses all his Supernatural abilities and Spells until he atones for his sin. The character will also receive no experience points for the entire encounter, and will not gain any at all as long as he travels with these companions. Seem harsh?  There’s a reason Good is called the “straight and narrow path”. If it were easy, everyone would do it. If you are afraid to fail, then don’t commit. The Cosmic Struggle is no place for the lukewarm.

The examples above (especially the last), should show how seriously I plan to take a character’s choice of Alignment. Players are encouraged to take it just as seriously, especially if the character is a Cleric.

If you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice

Alignment is now a big deal. As can be seen above, the consequences for failure can be harsh. It is enough to discourage a player from choosing any Alignment at all. That is fine. Alignment is an opportunity for a deeper role playing game experience, engaging the meta-plot in the fiction of a rich setting. That’s not for everyone.

As illustrated in the examples above, playing an Aligned character affects the other players as well. This is why most adventurers don’t want a Goody-Good Paladin in the party. We must be sure that all players involved are okay with an Aligned character if we are to avoid possible game-breaking scenarios as shown above. This has happened every time a player has ever played a Paladin in any of my games. Those games were the closest thing to what things will be like using Alignment the Wright Way. That’s a big risk, for myself no less than all players participating.

Unaligned, The middle of the Road

So, most characters will likely be Unaligned. What does this mean in-game?

At lower levels, not much. Alignment matters more as characters gain power (i.e., levels), and doesn't matter much at all until a character is powerful enough to be of use (or a threat) to the power groups associated with the factions of The Cosmic Struggle in the fiction of the game. This usually happens around 9th level, when characters gain the ability to raise the dead and have become too powerful for normal authorities like watchmen and garrison soldiers to manage. At this point, characters enter into the field of The Cosmic Struggle. Power groups like The Druids, the Celestial Hebdomad and the Dukes of Hell begin to hear the characters’ names and take notice. Some may begin to court the characters or seek to destroy them.

Being Unaligned at low levels affects no one but the characters and their party, if at all. At higher levels, as the characters gain power, the factions of The Great Struggle will begin to see them as either potential recruits or as potential enemies. At some point, the characters will be powerful enough that it becomes dangerous to remain Unaligned. Many factions will not take the chance of the characters choosing their opponents’ factions, or abhor having uncontrolled wild cards floating around. Either way, most factions consider Unaligned characters to be a nuisance at best. If the powerful Unaligned character has resisted all attempts at recruitment, then he has made himself the enemy of all factions. This is no place for anyone to be. No one lasts long in this precarious position. This is why every single Immortal and God is Aligned. They would not have survived to attain their lofty position without the support of their faction. At high levels, that is the way it is.

That sounds like I don’t really have a choice

Some things are true whether you want them to be or not. Gravity and electromagnetism exist, and follow certain rules. We are all mammals living on planet Earth. Life feeds on life. I like that. It puts things in perspective. It helps mitigate mankind’s seemingly limitless capacity for arrogance.

The Wright territory is my creation, my intellectual property, if you will, and while it has changed and grown over the years like a living thing, it also has rules, pretenses and deceits inherent to it. In order to maintain the sense of verisimilitude and suspension of disbelief that makes the enjoyment of using it possible, these things must be kept consistent. And so, whether or not players or characters like it, there exists a Cosmic Struggle. The Cosmic Struggle, along with the other rules, pretenses and deceits inherent in the Wright Territory, is objective. I don’t like the fact that I cannot defy gravity and fly around like Superman, but it is the way it is. Gravity is real and objective and it doesn't matter whether or not I believe in it or like it.

That doesn't mean I can’t enjoy life. And it doesn't mean we can’t have fun game experiences with characters in the Wright Territory. In fact, I believe our game experiences will be made more meaningful, more rich and more memorable by using Alignment the way it was always intended (by the original authors of the first role playing games). By making Alignment meaningful and taking it seriously, we allow our characters to have more meaning, within the fiction of the game as well as in our own memories. Characters’ deaths will have meaning. Playing a Cleric will have meaning. Character’s choices have meaning.

Isn't that what every player wants? Isn't that what every person wants?

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to many hours of exciting, enjoyable and memorable games!