Alignment Systems Lack Nuance

I’ve been thinking about alignment in tabletop RPGs a lot lately. It came up because the game that I’ve been playing lately, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, has an incredibly clunky alignment system that pushes characters towards lawfulness and goodness (on a 9-alignment system of good vs evil and lawful vs chaotic with neutral separating each alignment from the others) because the basic assumption is that a decent person is “neutral good.” Anything that is a little orderly is lawful, anything even a bit self-oriented or anti-established norms is chaotic, anything other than being decent is neutral, and anything absolutely reprehensible is evil. I disagree on so many levels it is difficult to find a place to start other than the very basic assumption: I think most people, even allowing them to be decent human beings, is “true neutral” or unaligned.

I can (and have, several times now, though all of that has been deleted) write at length about the nature of good and evil, what makes a person a good person, and so on, but that’s not really what I’m here to do. I just want to start with the assumption that most people are neutral because neutrality requires little effort, no self-sacrifice, and no need to actively hurt others. It is a state of being at rest or silent.

A lot of TTRPGs can be frustrating because they decide this default, bare-minimum behavior is “good” and that means things like self-sacrifice and freedom need to be expressed through a different axis. Which means you can’t just do something that is “Lawful” or “Good” or “Chaotic,” it has to decide on a moral value for each action and then assign an order vs disorder value to determine where else it falls. Which means that something like offering to sacrifice yourself to stop a world-destroying terror is “lawful good,” which has the same moral value as deciding to put a criminal to death because they killed citizens of your country.

The latter shouldn’t be “good,” it should just be “lawful.” The former should just be “good,” too, because it only favors order in that it wants to allow existence to continue. By saying that this decision is “lawful,” it implies that allowing the universe to end, or hurrying entropy along, is “chaotic” so telling someone to do whatever they want when deciding whether or not to sacrifice themselves to stop a world-destroying monster is has “chaotic good” value, which is the same value assigned to freeing slaves from a terrible neighboring kingdom.

If you don’t see the issue I’m outlining above, feel free to leave this post now since you’re probably part of the problem. Otherwise, I hope you can see why I don’t really push alignments in any of the games I run. I don’t even suggest people pick one to help frame how their character acts or views the world. I use a questionnaire I’ve developed for that instead. I’m glad it has been de-emphasized in recent versions of D&D and that they’re continuing to work to remove default alignments from all thinking, feeling creatures in the game. I think the whole system should be done away with.

There are more interesting ways to provide consequences or show repercussions than alignment. Oaths and powers granted or taken away works for Paladins in Dungeons and Dragons 5e, and lending a certain amount of sentience and willpower to magic items that only want to be used in certain ways handles most other potential situations. Doing evil and good should be such notable tasks and achievements that people take notice. They should reflect in the way people talk about or view the person who did the thing.

Doing something good should be just as monumental as doing something evil. The acts of everyday good and evil, the unaligned actions of a society that operates with enlightened self-interest, those aren’t really good or evil. They’re just people being people. No one is ever actually at rest, no one is truly still, but most peoples’ good and bad washes out in the great ocean of civilization. People doing “good” should fill us with awe and inspiration just as people doing “evil” should fill us with disgust and revulsion.

I kinda want to avoid the basic morality question because it requires assigning values to what people do and trying to either praise or fault people on behavior that, as a whole, we mostly do as a result of societal pressures and expectations rather than out of a desire to work toward the betterment of our species. I also acknowledge here that I’m making a value judgment in having this conversation at all, since I’m making statements about what is good or bad. It’s a hard conversation to have and probably the reason I’ve spent so much time writing and erasing this post so it makes some kind of sense and I don’t spend the whole thing qualifying each statement.

Really, I just want to be able to be a decent person in my video game without being shoved into a “lawful good” alignment because it makes me lose my ability to say things like “fuck your laws, that shit is whack, we do what we want here on a case-by-case basis since adhering to the letter of the law in every situation denies the nuance of existence” when it really matters.

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