Alignment as Religion

 

 

This is something that has been kicking around in my head for a while, so read this as nothing more than me tossing around a few ideas.

When alignment first reared its soon-to-be controversial head, it was in the form of factions for war gaming. There was Law and Chaos – they opposed one another – and then Neutrality. The neutrals would fight for either side, and thus neither favored Law or Chaos. The terms “Law” and “Chaos” came from either Michael Moorcock or Poul Anderson – I’ve heard both get credit, and haven’t researched it enough to have my own opinion on the matter. They may have already had the good vs. evil vibe, but I think the main point was in building fantasy army lists, not modeling ethics and morality in a fantasy game.

With the addition of the Lawful cleric (and later paladin), and the Chaotic anti-cleric,  alignment seemed to become a stand-in for religion. Instead of treading on the dangerous ground of Christians vs. Satan, they used Law vs. Chaos.

Eventually, alignment was expanded from the original three factions (or two factions plus neutrals) to five alignments and then to nine. Once you get to nine alignments, with sometimes vague divisions between them, the alignment as religion scheme starts to fall apart. Is Chaotic Good more aligned with Chaos or Good? Is it player’s choice, or does one override the other?

The Notion

What if you stick to three main religious/philosophical factions – Law, Chaos, Neutrality (or Good, Evil, Neutrality to be more precise) – and use the smaller divisions as sects within those three great factions.

For example, Lawful Good and Chaotic Good may argue and fuss with one another – they might even come to blows on rare occasions – but they’re still ostensibly on the same side, and will always rally to one another when Chaos comes marching over the hill. Both are part of the Good faith, they just differ on the details.

So, how might we characterize these alignment sects?

First and foremost, let’s assume that the main divide is Good vs. Evil. Why focus on the good/evil divide? Because I think it’s more pronounced and contentious than the law/chaos divide. Oscar and Felix managed to live together without killing one another. Superman and Lex Luthor … just not going to see eye to eye (you don’t believe me? Click HERE. You just can’t trust the guy).

I’m pretty sure they inspired Moorcock’s Law vs. Chaos

Good supports virtuous action, self-discipline (i.e. telling yourself “no”), kindness, justice and law – not tyranny, but rather the idea of “natural law” or God’s law – no murder, no theft, etc. The basics without which people cannot live in relative peace and tranquility.

Evil, on the other hand, scoffs at these ideas. It is interested in power for the sake of power. It might work within a system of law, but will always seek to distort and manipulate the system for its own benefit. Evil loves technicalities. Evil doesn’t think of itself as “good” – it knows it is not, and it doesn’t care, but it also doesn’t see itself as wrong. Evil is okay, because the universe rewards it. Everyone is evil at heart. Good is naive. Good is nonsense. Good is a chicken waiting to be plucked. You good guys can deny yourselves pleasure and wealth and all the rest if you want to, but don’t try to force me to deny those pleasures and power.

Simplify, man!

Neutrality is somewhere in between. Maybe pragmatic, maybe a dogmatic resistance to pick sides, maybe it just doesn’t think much about it. For druids who actually need a functioning philosophy, perhaps it is something akin to Taoism. We probably need to separate True Neutral (the philosophy) from Neutral (a cow chewing cud in a field). On the other hand, maybe druid’s just serve the immediate, practical needs of their parishioners OR nature without worrying about whether what they do is good or evil. Perhaps they have an ideal held higher than moral and ethical concerns.

You can play with those definitions, but I think they make enough sense to inform the way a character behaves in a fantasy game environment.

Now, let’s examine how the alignment sects might work.

Within the Good alignment faction, we have Lawful Good, Neutral Good and Chaotic Good. I can see Lawful Good as being something like the Catholic Church or similar religious organizations. It believes in virtue and civilization, and believes that the only way to preserve virtue and civilization is through hierarchical organizations and institutions. Its members also believe that the institutions are only legitimate, be they religious or political, if they uphold virtue. They hold their institutions to a high standard, and though they will rarely destroy an institution outright, they will work against its leadership to put a more virtuous person in charge when the institution appears to have lost its way. They believe in reformation rather than rebellion.

Chaotic Good is not so big on institutions. Human freedom and liberty are the key to maintaining virtue and civilization. Institutions are about power, and power corrupts. Give a Lawful Good institution enough time, and it will become Lawful Neutral or even Lawful Evil. The individual must not be run over by the institutions. They would probably prefer a republic over a monarchy, and would be loathe to join with others except on a temporary basis.

Neutral Good

Neutral Good can, like most neutrals, see both sides of the argument. There is value in institutions – they can do things individuals cannot, things that must be done. On the other hand, they can also lose their way, and thus must not be depended on overmuch. A thriving civilization needs institutions, but it also needs freedom and dynamism. Neutral Good also makes me think about some of the Christian sects that wanted to go back to a more “primitive” faith. They were often nudists, trying to recreate Eden, and not entirely unlike the original hippies. Neutral Good hippies could be fun in a campaign, annoying Lawful Good and Chaotic Good alike.

The divisions might be similar on the Evil side. The Lawful Evils worship the devils and imitate their evil hierarchy. The Chaotic Evils worship demons and believe that no creature in the cosmos is more important than themselves – you might call them psychopaths. Neutral Evil seeks to forward itself on the backs of Lawful and Chaotic Evil – maybe they see themselves as the true faith, the puppet masters of the other sects, using and abusing them as events merit.

Neutrality is a little tougher. I would think Lawful Neutrality is conservative, while Chaotic Neutrality is radical. Both favor a balance – either locally among personalities or cosmically between factions – but Lawful Neutral thinks that change might throw things out of balance, so one should be wary of change. Chaotic Neutrality likes change for the sake of change. It rushes here and there, always looking for something new. By spinning the top, it balances. If the top is left at rest, it does not. Neither Lawful Neutral nor Chaotic Neutral want to be enmeshed in a wider struggle between Good and Evil. One faction is too preachy, the other is too scary, and why don’t they just leave us the heck alone?

Yes, Evil can work together … for a while

To recap – Europe’s Catholics and Protestants were at odds, often at war, but would have likely joined forces against the Ottoman Turks had they launched a major invasion. Likewise, the Joker, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman hate one another, but they’ll form the United Underworld if they think they can get rid of Batman and Robin.

One More Lame Alignment Idea Before I’m Done

I also thought about characterizing alignments in a string, rather than a square. One is permitted a certain number of vices at each alignment “level”. The good alignments are permitted vices that hurt themselves but not others, while the other alignments permit more active vices.

The breakout could be something like:

Lawful Good: 0 vices (the toughest alignment to adhere to)
Neutral Good: 1 vice
Chaotic Good: 2 vices

Lawful Neutral: 3 vices (but only personal vices, as with the good alignments)
True Neutral: 3 vices
Chaotic Neutral: 4 vices

Lawful Evil: 5 vices
Neutral Evil: 6 vices
Chaotic Evil: 7 vices

So Chaotic Evil is permitted to glory in all seven deadly sins, while Lawful Good has to be perfect all the time. If a Lawful Good character sins, but only hurts herself, she becomes Neutral Good. If she does something sinful that hurts another, she drops all the way down to True Neutral (at best), and can feel free to dabble in a couple other sins as well. Reformation might come one level at a time, as the character swears off of different vices and proves their virtue by keeping away from that vice for some period of time set by the GM or through some other meaningful way.

This is what the planes should look like, right?

5 thoughts on “Alignment as Religion

  1. The Protestant and Catholic churches notably very much failed to come together in the face of major Ottoman invasions – Protestant factions even allying with the Turks on occasion – and the original Islamic conquests were in large part facilitated by Christian factions deciding they'd rather live under the Caliphate than the Eastern Orthodox Church.

    All of that is to say that collisions between different versions of alignment religions and the way their enemies approach it would all be interesting fodder for for a game 😀

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  2. My own approach these days is that religion (and, secondarily, national allegiance) is alignment. Either way, it returns alignment to faction instead of moral or personality outline, the latter of which has proven to be a problem so much of the time.

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  3. One of the fundamental challenges of the nine-fold AD&D alignment grid is clearly delineating the difference between, say, true neutral and chaotic evil. A conscious being who acts like a wild predator (murdering other sentients for food or fun) would be considered CE, while an animal who did so would probably be N. I'm not sure your description of “evil” above explains the difference. Personally I'm inclined to think of Good and Evil as factions driven by an urge to change the world, while neutrals are focused on immediate goals (comfort, family, community). Animals and most people are neutral, and they are the ones who keep the world running. Both good and evil are socially destabilizing, and communities try to rid themselves of such elements where possible. Within neutrality, you have the lawful lawful rules-followers and the chaotic free spirits, but most people fall in the middle. Only the real weirdos are driven by an ambition to change the world by righting wrongs or subjugating others to their will.

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