While looking through some old files, I found the following essay. It’s at least two years old, probably several more. Unfortunately, I changed version control systems several times, so I have no idea when I wrote it.
“Alignment and Allegiance” refers to the Allegiance system on pp 315-318 of Basic Roleplaying As stated later in the essay, a percentile “allegiance” score measures a player character’s relationship with a divine being, cosmic principle, or moral philosophy. Acting in accordiance with that being or belief system’s principles raises the score. The rules as written suggest raising a diametrically opposed score for actions violating those principles, but back in the day some BRP sourcebooks simply lowered the Allegiance. For example, in Dragon Lines, loosely based on East Asian magic and religion, some violent and destructive actions violated Daoism, Confucianism, and most of the other philosophies.
The part near the end presents the same “temporal alignment” system as in “Alignment: Heresy and a Reformation”. It’s possible I was rewriting it for another forum, like Google+.
Alignment and Allegiance
I. Alignment Condemned
Alignment, as used in most of D&D, is, shall we say, problematic. (I almost said “broken”, but to forestall some commenter wagging his e-finger at me, I won’t.) It’s usually presented as a guide to how a character should/will behave, but as such it straight-jackets behavior into nine boxes (or less) while dodging some thorny ethical and metaphysical issues and vastly oversimplifying others. E.g. Why do D&D worlds have courts? Just hire paladins to point out the evil people. (h/t Gary McBride of Fire Mountain Games)
Other systems do this better:
King Arthur Pendragon has long integrated a system of opposed traits (Chaste/Lustful, Humble/Proud, etc.) where each pair totals to 20. In some circumstances a knight must test one of his traits (e.g. Lustful when spying a young maiden; if the result of a d20 is less than or equal to the trait the knight succumbs, and that trait may increase (decreasing its opposite).
Stormbringer (and Basic Roleplaying’s Big Gold Book) have percentile Allegiance scores to Law, Balance, and Chaos. (Magic World changes this to Light, Balance, and Shadow). They increase independently, reflecting both services done directly to the Lords of Law or Chaos but moral/immoral actions which empower one side or the other. The Big Gold Book generalizes this mechanic to any ethos, religion, country, etc. Renaissance takes this one step further with full-blown Faction rules.
In an indie game called Paladin, the GM and players come up with three Greater Rules they must never break and three Lesser Rules they can bend if circumstances demand. As in D&D, breaking rules leads to a loss of power and the need for atonement.
II. Alignment Redefined
On the other hand, if we regard Law and Chaos as Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series did, and as Lamentations of the Flame Princess does, the concept makes more sense. Consider the following definitions, paraphrased from LotFP:
Chaotic: You’ve seen terrible things, unnatural things. You know that the Cosmos is not made for mankind, far from it. Forces just outside this little bubble of safety we call reality could smash our world in an instant. Do what you like; we’re all doomed.
Lawful: You have felt the touch of the divine. You know that a Higher Power is guiding us. Despite the seeming randomness of life this Power has a Plan for you, and it’s up to you to follow it. You’ll be part of it one way or another.
Unaligned: You don’t know from Cosmic Forces or Higher Powers. You’re just trying to live in a world that’s alternately cruel and kind, horrible and beautiful.
While the descriptions center on a character’s beliefs, they tie him to greater cosmic forces, either the “divine plan” of Law or the howling madness of Chaos. While I’m loath to posit absolute Good and Evil, even in a game, we could posit the following definitions:
Good: You believe that human (and human-like) life – all life – has intrinsic meaning and value. Ours is an imperfect world, so taking life is sometimes regrettably necessary when all other solutions fail. But if your death would save more lives, you’d gladly give it.
Evil: The only thing that matters to you is yourself. Cruelty or kindness, order or disorder: if it doesn’t give you money, power, or pleasure in the end it’s not worth doing. You’d sacrifice anyone and anything, everyone and everything if you end up richer, more powerful, or happier.
Note these are extreme ethical positions, much like the Cosmicism of Chaos or the absolute belief in Law. Few people are absolute saints or absolute monsters; the vast majority (thankfully) fall somewhere in between. One could also define Evil as a hatred of life or a desire to destroy everything; philosophers have been trying to define Evil for literal ages. I went with a motive most people would understand taken to terrible extremes, simply because Evil For The Sake Of Being Evil is one of my least favorite tropes.
The one thing I liked about D&D 4th Edition is its treatment of alignment. For one thing it was totally disconnected from game mechanics, and therefore optional. Another, though, was the idea that someone had to work at maintaining an alignment, and that the default was Unaligned. If you called yourself Good you had to do good deeds on a regular basis, and avoid selfish or destructive acts; if you were Lawful Good you had to uphold Truth, Justice, and the Pelorian Way. (Other gods are available.)
If Law or Chaos sinks its hooks into your character early and never let go, then “true” Good or Evil are ingrained in the character’s very being. If your character doesn’t spend every waking moment (and many dreams) trying to make the world a better place, they’re not capital-g Good. If your character doesn’t spend every waking moment working solely for his own personal benefit (or planning the destruction of humanity, as you prefer), they’re not capital-e Evil.
III. Alignment Explored
Various versions of D&D have defined different alignment schemes:
Original & Basic D&D:  Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic
AD&D, 3.x, 5th, etc:  (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic) x (Good, Neutral, Evil), with “Neutral Neutral” renamed “True Neutral”
D&D 4e: Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, Chaotic Evil
Some TSR-era version or variation I heard of kept only five: Lawful, Good, Neutral, Evil, Chaotic. I can’t find the source, though. Imagine, though, a world where Law and Chaos had no time for Good and Evil, and vice versa. One pair is battling over the nature of reality, the other over the welfare of humans.
One could propose other dualities or even monopolar Alignments. The GM and
players would have to define what cosmic force each Alignment represents, and
what actions (if any) increase or decrease its hold on a character.
Mechanically, one could implement them using BRP’s Allegiance mechanic, cited
above, or as a D&D alignment tied to a particular class, type of magic, etc.
Corruption: Found often in “grimdark” games where there’s no antithesis to ubiquitous evil, “Corruption” as an Allegiance measures one’s entanglement with the Forces of Evil. As befitting an unjust universe, Corruption may have nothing to do with the Corrupted’s moral qualities. Maybe they were born from an unholy union. Maybe they dwelled too long in an area of Corruption. To the paladins, witch hunters, and mutant-hating populace, that doesn’t matter.
Light & Shadow: In Chaosium’s recent Magic World (essentially Stormbringer without the Moorcock references) the three Allegiances are Light, Balance, and Shadow. Each increases monotonically and independently. I’ve decided that Light is something like Lawful Good, as if you rotated the D&D alignment chart onto one corner. Light, however, isn’t as “good” as it thinks it is; often agents of Light choose principle over compassion. Shadow is the absence of Light; by their reckoning, Shadow corrupts the world through sorcery and antisocial acts. Most followers of Shadow do perform despicable acts to please a demonic master. But Shadow also shelters those cast out of the Light: the imperfect, the pragmatic, the good witches, and those forced to choose the lesser evil.
Nature: The implicit alignment of all druids, Nature rejects the arts of men and gods alike.
More half-baked examples I’m fiddling with:
Anthropic1, Primal, Chthonic: A weaker version of Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic, this trio describes gods and cults that humans follow. The Anthropic Gods support the arts and sciences that benefit mankind: law, architecture, agriculture, music, travel, writing, etc. The Primal Gods are the gods of the natural world which mankind ignores or exploits at its own peril. The Chthonic Gods represent the uncivilized and unpleasant urges of mankind like lust, fury, madness, sorcery, revenge; often they’re “shadow” versions of some other cults. The Anthropic and Chthonic principles resemble the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy, or reason vs. passion. Neither is “good” or “evil”.
Entropy: Chaos may simply value ceaseless change, or want to impose their will upon matter. Entropy, on the other hand, wants to end change, end life, end variety; their goal is a cold, dark universe with inert matter expanding into the void. Sure, it’s the Universe’s end state, but the forces of Entropy want it now. “Give up,” they say. “Stop struggling. All is useless.” The cult of Akrasia, goddess of wasted time, most exemplify Entropy; they’d be a threat if that wasn’t so much work. More dangerous are the many nihilists who destroy things simply to tear down the “old order”. Building a New Order is someone else’s job. (Inspired by Mage: the Ascension’s Euthanatos, Akrasia: Thief of Time from Eden Studios, and nihilists everywhere.)
Flux: Law craves eternal order; Chaos desires eternal change. The mysterious forces of Flux defy and transcend both. Some describe Flux as order punctuated by change, or change for a higher purpose. Those who have experienced Flux scoff at both descriptions. They describe Flux as an Eternal Now, or as a state of frenetic grace, or as the pursuit of a singular goal despite unpredictable shifts in the nature of reality. (Inspired by John Wick’s meta-game of the same name and the “flow” state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.)
History: Especially in a time-travelling campaign, certain beings – maybe the PCs themselves – ensure that events happen according to an established history … or at least that they appear to follow history. Less powerful minions eliminate evidence of alternate pasts and when necessary manufacture artifacts matching the official record. More powerful minions track down time travellers, unorthodox archaeologists, would-be rescuers of the Fated, and other ne’er-do-wells to undo their damage and put them where they’ll never threaten consensus reality again. (Inspired by the History Monks of Discworld, Dark City, the Technocracy of Mage: the Ascension, various “time patrol” stories and games, and the premise of The Adjustment Bureau, as well as the Time Thief and Time Warden classes from Rogue Genius Games.)
Note that History, Flux, and Entropy correspond to Past, Present, Future. This is not accidental. Historicists hate how the Flux wrecks causality and the illusion of continuity, and the notion of progress or purpose is anathema to Entropists. Historicists also don’t want Entropists wrecking their meticulous chronicles; meanwhile, things happening just makes more things Entropists have to destroy.
I’m looking for a better term. ↩︎