"Evil means I can do what I want! No limits, no scruples, free free FREE!"
"Evil is subtle, powerful, crafty; inconspicuous, urbane, witty. Evil has
These are two of the endless opinions one hears in discussions about alignment in role playing games. I'll admit that I have a bit more sympathy for the second sketch than the first, but the relevance of both is, to me, deeply questionable.
I just don't think any ORPG implementation of good/evil/neutral that I've seen really works. They all come off as contrived, simplistic, shallow, and poorly conceived. So let's just throw out all this alignment nonsense altogether!
Some Problems with Alignment
The list of problems, inconsistencies, and downright idiocies with the implementation of alignment systems in ORPGs is long and easily formulated. A few that I'll describe briefly are: Good and evil acts are virtually identical (killing); good must kill other good characters or monsters to gain equipment they want; good and evil are impermanent, highly malleable qualities, changeable pretty much at will (1); and having such a system is likely to provoke endless needless debate about exactly what is good or evil.
Both good and evil do almost exactly the same thing to excel: kill. True, killing seems to be virtually the only profitable act in most ORPGs anyway, and likely that shouldn't be so. But that's for another article. So evil players become evil, or more evil by killing things that are good. Good players 'excel' by killing things that are evil.
But then how does a good-aligned player gain more powerful equipment? Well, only good-aligned monsters or players have it, so I guess you've got to kill your fellow good-aligned types. Great!
Good and evil alignments are often expressed as a sort of scale on which all your good or evil acts (usually just kills) are balanced. If killing good beings is a dark act and killing evil beings is a light act, then just load all the dark acts on one side of the scale and all the light acts on the other. Whichever side is heavier prevails. You are good as long as your good acts outnumber your evil ones.
Got a problem with current alignment? No worries -- atonement is simple, complete, and automatic -- just go kill a few more of the right kind of thing and you'll do just fine. Need to be evil today, good tomorrow, and switch back to the depths of depravity by evening? Go for it! You can change pretty much at will, and go back and forth as often as is convenient to your goals.
Another problem: very few people, even among those generally accepted by modern society as evil, actually view themselves as evil (or will admit it). And there is a great deal of disagreement about what is evil and good. Entering into endless debates about exactly what good and evil is may be something the frequent posters in rec.games.mud.admin love to do, but I, for one, find it counterproductive!
Nearly everyone today condemns the Nazi party of WWII Germany. But even they didn't run around crowing about how evil they were. One of my favorite quotes was from a Nazi general towards the end of the war when things were looking a bit bleak for Germany, "Sometimes I wonder if God is really on our side." This was a serious question to him.
The African National Congress refuses to admit that their acts of murder and mayhem in resistance of South Africa's apartheid policies were anything less than the fully-justified acts of a legitimate resistance against an illegitimate regime. Or, as someone else has recently observed, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
About good and evil: I am not one to argue that good and evil don't exist, or that they are just too difficult to define. It may well be that they are too difficult to define in ORPG terms that work. But I figure we can use other, more useful systems and avoid the whole good/evil controversy altogether!
Some Attempts to Fix Alignment Problems
One system I saw had an interesting angle on alignment -- getting to be more evil was easy: kill pretty much whatever and whoever you want. Getting away from evil was a problem. If you wanted to move towards good, you had to kill things more evil than yourself. Once you are the baddest (so to speak) you really can't get back up towards good again: there's nobody more evil than you to kill. You're stuck!
Some systems make alignment change a slower process and add an element of human intervention into the mix. Certain acts can affect alignment upwards, and other acts generally move alignment downwards. But the moves are slow and small (perhaps a bit faster down than up). Larger jumps can be made only with administrator/immortal/wizard intervention.
Adding immortal intervention is probably an improvement, but it still leaves the whole good/evil topic untouched, still leaking all around the edges. And having another thing for administrators to do is usually not a good thing either.
Aside about alignment detection: one game I enjoyed immensely added an interesting feature I found appealing. The act of detecting someone's alignment was itself considered an aggressive act, akin to attacking someone. It could be done with the permission of the recipient, but was otherwise an evil act.
Some ORPGs use the good/evil thing as more of a shorthand for a way to describe what races are on what side in a global, two-sided struggle or race war. So good and evil are reduced more to the level of 'shirts' and 'skins' in a pickup game of basketball: it's how you tell the teams apart. I understand that some dispense with the terms good and evil and just use whitie and darkie or something similar. Sounds good to me, and certainly avoids some of the quirky features noted earlier.
What Benefits are Derived from Alignment Systems?
Alignment systems are purported to, among other things, help give behavior guidelines to players for their characters. Alignment systems also give us clear indications of who the bad guys are -- they are the ones that aren't our alignment! Alignment systems also provide yet another way to divide up equipment and make for more variety in player out fittings (e.g. the 'best stuff' for an evil mage might be vastly different from the best stuff for a good mage, or a neutral thief, or whatever).
Why else have alignment? I suppose because it was present in Dungeons and Dragons (with lawful/neutral/chaotic as a second scale of measurement as well), and because it's nice to have a shorthand indicator of who the good guys and bad guys are. Since they don't generally wear 10-gallon cowboy hats (in black or white only!) in most fantasy role playing games, an alignment system is a reasonable substitute!
One final reason for alignment systems is that they provide, or should provide, a source of tension and conflict. And tension and conflict are the essence of creating interest, both in games and story telling. Alignment systems can spice up a game (though they often don't).
Possibilities for Change in Alignment Systems
What might be done that is better?
It's my idea that a more convenient and workable system would endow groups with conflicting goals, dreams, aspirations, etc, while avoiding the good/evil designations altogether. Perhaps even add in some benefits or debilitations based on the accomplishment of these goals. Add players, mix thoroughly, then stand back and watch the fun!
Make the mountain people interested in preserving mineral resources for use as decoration, jewelry, and the like (definitely not weapons or armor), preserving the life of animals of all kinds, expanding their empire to include all mountainous regions everywhere, and bringing the tree-dwelling peoples into subjugation.
Make the plains-dwellers interested in using mineral resources for weapons and armor, domesticating animals for their milk (but not for eating them), and using trees freely for building.
Make the tree-dwellers protective of their trees, more or less ignorant of mineral resources excepting gems, and quite willing to slaughter animals for food and hides.
This could work on the individual level as well, with players choosing motivations much as the GURPS system has them choosing quirks and disadvantages. There would be plenty of interesting motivations and values to adopt, with the result being all kinds of conflicts ready to break out of control between individual characters. Heh!
Then institute the pluses and minuses. If you are accomplishing your goals, or fulfilling your dreams, this should result in tangible benefits. Conversely, major setbacks should result in tangible difficulties. Maybe learning becomes more difficult, or social status suffers. Perhaps constitution/health/resistance is weakened when your goals are thwarted. Maybe luck rolls (or even all skill rolls) have a negative modifier applied. The possibilities are endless.
Alternatively, just throw out alignment altogether. Players tend to form very strong opinions about other players anyway, and seem perfectly willing to praise or condemn each other at the drop of a hat, with or without alignment to guide them. Perhaps that is enough. We can live without another flag (e.g. anti-evil or !neutral) on equipment that means someone can't wear it!
Alignment systems may not be the biggest problems with ORPGs today, but they are definitely in need of replacement if not complete abandonment. Imagine a happy gaming life where arguments about alignment are never heard, because good/evil alignments don't even exist! Group motivations can provide us with the conflicts we need, and can be written with all kinds of interesting rewards/punishments to make them really matter to the players.
Think of it: we have a chance to end the interminable blabbering about alignment once and for all. Quiet! Harmony! World Peace! An end to sickness, disease, and nose-picking! (Okay, maybe not the last part.)
Note 1: I am well aware that some efforts have been made to limit changes in alignment somewhat. Some games replace the term with another, such as ethos, some make alignment permanent, and so forth.
December 2001 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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