Today I'm going to join the rest of the blogosphere and talk about morality, ethics and good and evil. Compared to the mainline D&D faithful I'm a heretic, so don your asbestos suit! This might be considered by some as a rant or a flame. Here we go!
For as long as I've known about Dungeons & Dragons I've known about alignment. At day one I thought it was one of the must stupid things in a very stupid game. These days I've changed my attitude a bit, become older and knows a lot more about how a game system support a style or play or not. But, I still hate alignment. It causes brain damage.
I have heard, as have probably everyone who have played D&D, the phrase “You can't do that, you're lawful!” This is just plain ridiculous. How come everyone but me knows what my character feels, thinks and wants?
There are many problems with this phenomenon. First off is the problem that it limits player creativity and enjoyment. One of the great strengths of face to face roleplaying is that it totally open ended. Playing a computer game or a family board game you can only do what the designer thought of. In a RPG you should be able to explore and stretch your legs. It's the biggest strengths that roleplaying games have.
A second problem is that it causes rigidity of thought, and turns mental powerhouses into vegetables. It causes brain damage. Since there are rules for what can't be done, there's no room for common sense. Suddenly you have sensible human beings who might be loving, caring friends and parents in their normal existence but now have become bloodthirsty murderers and amoral robots. Find a tribe of orcs, with females and kids? Suddenly one of the brain dead will say that they must be killed, “because they are evil” or “because they are chaotic”! I have seen it happen and every time I see it, it disgusts me.
So, if someone say that the Rules say it is right to kill sentient beings because they are Evil, what does that say about those who act upon that command? From my point of view it tells me that those who argues that RPGs should be banned because they teach the kids satanism could very well have a solid cause for banning, if they argued that they taught intolerance. Just the kind of intolerance that makes you want ban stuff, incidentally. I'd say it's perfectly fine to play a game where the player characters are, say, hired by the secret police in a totalitarian state in our world. What is cause for concern is what the players do with the responsibility. Having alignment to fall back to absolve the player from morals, and cause an "I only followed orders” mentality. I'd say it's flat out dangerous behaviour.
Now, maybe you object that it's just guidelines for roleplaying, and a starting point to ground the actions of your character. If it is “just a help”, why are there rules for punishing someone who acts out of line? If a rulebook tells me what is right and wrong in life I object (even if I agree!!), since I don't like to have someone elses morals forced down my throat, thank you very much! An observation from experience also tells me that those who claim it's just guidelines probably will be the ones shouting and arguing when someone acts against alignment later on in the session. Bad players are one objection to that observation, but I claim it's the aforementioned brain damage, since they seem to be just fine players as long as the "A" word is not mentioned.
If that wasn't enough there are more things which makes me rage about alignment. How does it work with spells like Known Alignment? Game mechanics have broken down the wall between player and character and suddenly the world knows about the rules of AD&D! The same thing applies to the concept of Evil or Good artifacts of detection spells. The only way to make that work out is for Good and Evil to be relative to the individual. If a cleric of a sun god encounters a warhammer sanctified to the good of darkness it will probably feel evil.
Since some people feel very strongly that moral relativism is more dangerous than HIV, I'd like to add that there's nothing saying that acts and ideals in the game has to be floating free in a sea of post-modernism just because of what I just said. You as a player probably have a set of moral values, an idea of right and wrong. Use those ideas in your game! It's not as if the game will degenerate into an unruly mess just becuase you don't have the crutch of alignment rules. A game about moral issues, where the choices made by the players come from their own convictions, have a much higher chance of being moving and engaging for real. Take a game like Dogs in the Vineyard. In that game your character have the power to define doctrine, and to meter out justice on the spot. You can overturn it all. But, when I've played it, it has every time been a question of us as players asking ourselves how far we really feel comfortable taking that power! Playing a game like that teaches understanding, not intolerance. Probably it will also give you some idea about what evil actually is.
That was a bit long, and rantish. But, I feel quite strongly about this. Alignment is not just a badly designed rule, it has social consequences that I feel are worth fighting. Feel free to disagree, but read what I wrote one more time and try to get what it is I'm trying to say.