Heat, light, and alignment

June 1, 2008 at 10:12 am
filed under Roleplaying

Oh, alignment. You are so — you are so something. If you ever want to start a D&D-related argument, a great way to do this is to talk about alignment. In rare cases, that’s not enough, which means you’ll need to bring out the big guns. Ask as sincerely as possible: what alignment is Batman?

In my opinion, alignment would be perfect if we could use the heat generated by every argument about it and harness it for something good. Alas, this is not to be, and so alignment continues to be somewhat misunderstood, extremely controversial, and, all in all, a mechanic I would not be sad to heavily revised in, if not mostly gone from, 4th Edition.

I say alignment is misunderstood based on my personal observations. There’s a non-trivial group of people that consider alignment a straitjacket when it’s sort of like Nature and Demeanor in White Wolf’s old World of Darkness. It’s not an attempt to describe the sum total of a given character’s actions, nor even his consciously held beliefs. There are many different ways to be Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil, and picking one or the other doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally kick puppies or break the rules out of the scant goodness in your heart.

Yet this is another situation where you have to look at the theory of the design and how it’s “supposed” to be played and compare it with the reality. D&D’s been around long enough that there’s plenty of data about how people view and use alignment, and plenty of people do view alignment as describing the sum total of a character’s beliefs and actions. Whether or not it’s misunderstood becomes a moot point if DMs are telling paladins they can’t be Lawful Good anymore because they told a lie.

For my own part, while I do think alignment gets just a bit of a bad rap, that’s not really enough to justify a lot of the baggage it carries. The Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic axis is, in my opinion, the biggest problem. In Planescape, it’s a bit clearer: Law and Chaos are tangible forces in the universe. Perhaps I’m somewhat more forgiving of the alignment system because I like the Planescape setting so much.

Good and Evil, by contrast, are fairly easy to define broadly without any sort of rigorous definition. I’d say the default D&D definition works fine, here: Good is an inclination towards selflessness and Evil is an inclination towards selfishness. Alignment describes behavior in aggregate, meaning that as described above, Good people can still perform selfish acts. A man who fights people that insults him can still be Good and someone who’s Evil can buy flowers for his mother and treat his wife with love and respect.

Neutral is a nice in-between, a catch-all for people who don’t have particularly strong assumptions or opinions about orderly societies versus societies with more individual freedoms. I particularly like that, based on what we’ve seen about alignment in 4e, that this is enshrined in the fact that someone can be Unaligned; not everyone in the world makes a conscious decision to fight for good or evil. Plenty of people are good in aggregate, but if they don’t make furthering Good in the world a priority, it seems fair not to afford them a special distinction.

4e seems to be going with this assumption, at least in part. There are five alignments. I have no idea what sort of axis there is here, if there is even any, so this order could be relevant or completely misleading: Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, Chaotic Evil.

I’m really not sure what to make of Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil. There are some pretty good guesses I’ve seen out there. For posterity, I’ll summarize. One of them is that Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil are somehow more good or evil than merely Good or Evil, as they espouse something fundamental about the way society or the cosmos should operate. Or something. The other interpretation is that Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil are almost subsets of Good and Evil, in that they get hung up on the particulars. (Personally, I favor the former explanation.)

The trouble is that despite the similarities and apparent differences, there are still more differences between 3.5 and 4e’s respective alignment systems. I have no idea what those are.

As a post-script, the “what alignment is Batman?” question is pretty terrible. I don’t really want to guess and I am personally not committed to any particular view. I’m not terribly familiar with the huge body of work about the character. But I can’t help speculating and what the hell is a blog for except to waste everyone’s time? To that end, I’ll point out a couple of things.

Batman’s willing to act outside the law. He also thinks that law is important. If you categorize his beliefs, he’s probably Neutral. If you categorize his behavior, I suspect he’s also Neutral; he doesn’t disobey the law for its own sake. He’s willing to act completely outside the law in order to strengthen it.

Morality-wise, I have another non-answer. To some extent, he’s motivated by revenge. Revenge is, in general, evil. He’s willing to hurt people and be fairly ruthless, another hallmark of evil. But in terms of his actions, I would say that in aggregate they are motivated by good and result in good. The strongest counter-argument I’ve heard has to do with the Joker, in that if Batman were really good, he’d off the guy and prevent a lot of future harm.

So depending on how you look at it, he could be Lawful Neutral (enforcer of the law regardless of morality), Neutral Good (working outside the law to strengthen society), or even Neutral (acts according to his own agenda which usually maps to the law and good but not always).

Or, as in my case, you could just say “Rocks fall! You all die!”

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