Check for Traps
All About Alignment

Alexander Macris | 30 Nov 2010 17:00
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In the dark under-city below the caverns of Celadon, desperation gripped the hearts of heroes. "If we don't find the Black Balm of Beelzebub by dawn, the City of Falcondale will be destroyed!" exclaimed Ariel.

"We'll do what must be done, then," the paladin replied, his voice like steel. He slammed his warhammer down, shattering like walnuts the fingers of his hapless Drow captive. "There's more where that came from," the grim knight said. "Now tell me where the Balm is!"

For a moment, there was nothing but agonized wailing in the air, but it stopped suddenly, and the Drow looked thoughtful. "You know, actually, you can't do this, Bob." The dark elf's Midwestern accent was out of place in the catacombs. "See, you're Lawful Good, and Lawful Good people don't torture. In fact, I think you just lost your Paladin status for doing an evil deed. Let me check the Player's Handbook."

"What? That's ridiculous. What would be evil would be for me to let hundreds of thousands of people die for the sake of a few mashed fingers that a Heal spell will take care of in 6 seconds," the paladin snorted.

"Well, I disagree. Torture is always evil, and it doesn't matter if you heal the wounds. I mean, in Gitmo, those guys they were water-boarding didn't drown, but it was still torture."

"What are you talking about? Water-boarding wasn't torture. And even if it was, that doesn't make it evil..."

Ah, alignment. Has any rule in Dungeons & Dragons caused more arguments? Ever since Gary Gygax first decided to make paladins the most powerful fighters in the game provided they followed a strict alignment code, the problems of alignment have bedeviled players and gamemasters alike. In this column, we're going to tackle the thorny issue of alignment and try to make sense of it all.

There Really Is an Axis of Evil

For those of you unfamiliar with the D&D alignment system, it divides moral behavior into two axes: The Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic axis and the Good/Neutral/Evil axis. A character's alignment is composed of one element from each axis, creating combinations such as "Lawful Good" and "Neutral Evil". According to the d20 rules, these encompass "a broad range of personal philosophies" that are "a tool for developing your character's identity." The dual axis system remains widely popular, with a whole line of t-shirts and homages in everything from Warhammer to Fable II's dual morality and purity axes.

That sounds well and good; yet most gamers, having not studied moral philosophy, simply lack the vocabulary to assess what good or evil means, let alone law or chaos. Even the simplest assessments often lead to long arguments: If a Lawful Good hero tells a lie in order to save someone's life, has he violated his alignment? If Luke Skywalker really did restore order to the galaxy along with Darth, would that have been Evil? Is Highlander's Kurgan being Chaotic when he madly drives down the wrong side of the road in New York City, or is he just being an idiot? Confusion is nowadays so great that TV Tropes has pages documenting and ridiculing the problems of Lawful Anal and Chaotic Stupid characters. To avoid the Stupid, some modern gamers eschew alignment altogether, consigning it to the trash bin of game design.

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