The idea of alignment – a mishmash of ethics, morality and game play – is probably familiar to most role playing gamers of the D&D persuasion – I’m not sure how (or if) the newer versions of the game use it. Whether its Law vs. Chaos (which was always really Good vs. Evil by another name) or the nine-alignment schmeer, alignment was much more integral to the earlier versions of the game than to the later.
In Chainmail, Law – Neutrality – Chaos was a fantasy version of the army lists you would see in many wargames. For those unfamiliar, an army based on the Normans would be chosen from a list of the kinds of soldiers common to a Norman army. For a fantasy game, lists based on Law and Chaos, with Neutrals serving in either army, made sense. This is the earliest version of alignment.
When the wargame became a role playing game, alignment was retained but became a bit more than just a cosmic allegiance, although it would still have had that role to play for characters who were building strongholds and armies for the endgame that was assumed/intended for older editions. Hey folks – that’s what all that dang treasure was for – building a stronghold and recruiting an army so you could play Chainmail!
Alignment now governed how your character behaved. This was just a simple description in Moldvay/Cook, but in AD&D it also governed access to certain tactics – i.e. evil can use poison, good cannot – and helped determined how expensive it was to gain a new level. Again, for those who do not know how AD&D worked, to reach a higher level you required training, and the cost of that training was more expensive if you had acted outside your alignment while earning your experience points.
Later editions took a path more like “good guys are supposed to be good, evil are supposed to be evil … but then what is evil really?” Sort of like “alignment relatavism”.
What if evil simply corrupts a character and ruins his or her plans? I don’t mean a supernatural corruption here – like the taint of Chaos in Warhammer. I mean, by committing an evil act, a character begins a chain of events that eventually overtakes and destroys them unless they find their way back to the path of good. Here, you don’t really even need a character to have an alignment, you just have to know what is good and what is evil, and no that by accomplishing goals with evil methods, that evil is going
to come back to haunt you eventually. We find this theme in many stories, especially the folktales, fables and fairy tales that form part of the foundation of D&D.
I just recently watched Majin: The Monster of Terror (or Daimajin in its original title), and its one representation of this concept. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t seen it – and I do heartily recommend it – but if you watch it you will see how the bad guy ultimately screws himself. You can create a tragic and powerful storyline as characters find success by employing evil tactics and then gradually find themselves corrupted, choosing evil over good to get out of bad situations they have precipitated, until all seems lost.
“So we used poison to kill the orc king – so what? The orcs are evil, so what’s the big deal?”
How might that act come back to haunt the adventurers?
Well, where did they get the poison – perhaps some evil organization or creature who will become a bigger threat than the orcs. Maybe the use of poison negates the protection provided by a good entity to a kingdom – the short cut in fighting evil then ushers in more sorrows for the kingdom, and gradually the king and his people find out who is responsible. Maybe the orcs had friends who would have accepted their defeat in combat as fair, but figure poisoning requires vengeance. You destroy 100 orcs only to raise the ire of 10,000 orcs living deeper underground. There’s also the issue of trust. Can the player characters trust one another when they’ll use any means to get what they want?
Can the adventurers find their way back to the path of good? Role playing of this variety can add another dimension to a game about adventuring, fighting and treasure hunting, and reveal the philosophies behind “alignment” in a way that arbitrary rules about who can use poison and how much gold it takes it get to 5th level do not.