Building A Better Alignment System

In Petals and Thorns, I have a knights and priests faction that’s all about law and order, a carnival-themed faction called “the Lunatic Court” who believe in independence, a rangers and druids faction that wants to preserve the peace between the factions instead of going to war, and a vampires faction that’s purely self-interested. Given this, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people eventually started using that adventure or setting in general as an example of how to do alignment well, provided my whole endeavor doesn’t collapse and fade into obscurity before my reach ever expands past a couple hundred readers. Setting aside the pessimistic scenario for now, I want to head off the whole “how to do alignment well” argument off at the pass as much as possible by getting it on record in advance that I don’t think D&D’s 3×3 alignment grid is particularly good for anything but memes. People like to make excuses for alignment, but the fact is everything the existing system does could be done better by another.

Let’s start by looking at the two main factions of Petals and Thorns, that being the Lunatic Court and the Order of the Lion (the knights and priests faction). I anticipate some people will view this as a “Law vs. Chaos” conflict. These people are going to be disappointed by the sequel I’m writing. The Lunatic Court’s disorganized nature is not tied to their ideology of independence and self-governance at all. The Lunatic Court is disorganized because they’re war orphans who grew into criminals who grew into a guerilla army, and their leadership is still mostly making it up as they go along. They have no established traditions not out of opposition to the very concept but because they’re the first generation of their organization and there are no preceding leaders to draw traditions from. Their leader’s title is the Lunatic Queen, and while that was bestowed upon her from below rather than being self-appointed, it signifies that the Lunatic Court is perfectly happy to take orders from an absolute ruler.

Indeed, a major point of the sequel is that Harlequin has extensive control over a large group of violent people and no clear precedent for what the rules are for staying in her faction’s good graces. She can establish whatever traditions and laws she wants (modulo the political maneuvering of intra-faction rivals), and if the party puts in the effort to win her trust, they can have significant input into that. Sure, the Lunatic Court’s current situation is chaotic, but that’s not because they’re opposed to order, it’s because they’re bad at imposing order. It’s a weakness, not a principle, of their faction.

The Order of the Wyrd are the rangers and druids faction, and their primary motivation is to prevent war between the different factions. The buzzwords they use to describe this are “balance” and “harmony.” This is similar enough to a certain interpretation of True Neutral that I anticipate some people might try to use it as an example of that. The interpretation of True Neutral in question, however, is that of maintaining a “balance” between Good and Evil. The Order of the Wyrd does not care about maintaining a balance of power between cosmic forces or grand ideologies. The Order of the Wyrd just doesn’t want a war. They want balance between the factions that exist such that none of them is ever certain enough of victory to risk attacking any of the others. If a war does break out, then the Order of the Wyrd picks whichever side they think is less likely to start another war if they’re victorious, and then seeks the total annihilation of the opposing side. They would never even consider switching sides to help the losers to “maintain the balance,” but would instead seek to defeat them so thoroughly that they will never rise up to make war again.

The vampires are pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll mention that no, they weren’t meant to be any particular flavor of “Evil,” they were just meant to be a fairly murderhobo-friendly faction without being philosophically bankrupt because I like to support as wide a variety of playstyles and perspectives as possible without resorting to the kinds of dumb excuses that actual murderhobos usually resort to.

And while I’m at it, note that the Order of the Third Eye does not really fit into any particular alignment bin. They’re an order of wizards who believe that knowledge is power and that seeking out greater understanding of the universe is the greatest good, and that from there, all problems will be solved. Pretty intuitive philosophy for a wizard faction to have, but it’s not at all clear where on the alignment grid it’s supposed to fall.

Which brings us to the main problem with alignment: It groups very different philosophies together while some other philosophies don’t fit cleanly into any part of the grid, to the point where people from the same faction who get along just fine could be defined as opposite ends of the alignment grid. What’s a Chaotic Good person’s perspective on stealing? Robin Hood is the archetypal Chaotic Good character and believes in stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but Elan from Order of the Stick is probably the most popular and well-known character of all time who is ever explicitly given the alignment of Chaotic Good, and he feels really bad about stealing and won’t do it except as a last resort. If Elan’s not the most popular character explicitly stated to be Chaotic Good, then it’s gotta be Drizz’t, and while I haven’t read all his books, so far as I can tell he considers stealing acceptable when the targets are Evil and not acceptable when they’re not.

A Chaotic Good person’s opinion on an ethical issue as simple as “is it okay to steal” can be anything from “stealing from tyrants to give to the poor is not just permitted, but heroic” to “stealing is conditionally acceptable depending on circumstances, but usually not” to “stealing is wrong and you shouldn’t do it unless it’s really, really important.” I’ve talked before about how the Chaotic Good djinni are stated by 5e to own slaves. Sure, there’s some lip service about how they’re real nice about it, but if owning slaves isn’t antithetical to being Chaotic Good, then Chaotic Good does not meaningfully describe someone’s ideology or behavior in any way.

When people think that alignments are firmly defined, pretty much ubiquitously what that really means is that they think of some specific ideals when they hear phrases like “Lawful Neutral” or “Chaotic Good,” but will then admit that radically different ideologies also count. So the ideologies aren’t actually firmly defined, they’re just evocative. This is what makes them good for memes. You don’t need to find nine characters from your favorite anime who follow specific moral ideologies, you just need to find nine characters that evoke a certain mood.

But if alignment is to serve as a roleplaying prompt or as a method of identifying who gets along with who (if not between alignments, then at least within them, i.e. maybe the Orange alignment has no consistent alliance or enmity with the Purple alignment, but the Orange aligned characters are at least consistently allied to each other), then it needs to reliably specify which ideals a character believes in. Specific factions serve this purpose much better than the vague alignments. I stand by the Petals and Thorns factions as good examples to base a new set off of, but they weren’t designed to be roleplay prompts and suffer a major flaw in that regard: They’re very, very local. The Lunatic Court breaks down as a faction if you try to expand their scope past Vintaria, and you shouldn’t try it. There’s an additional major flaw, which is that if these are player options, then the Order of the Lion and the Lunatic Court can’t be on the verge of or actually at open war with one another, because characters from each of those alignments might end up in the same party.

So, I’m not suggesting anyone actually use those five specific factions as alignments, but I do stand by those factions as a prototype of factions you could include in your game that would serve as much better roleplaying prompts than the 3×3 alignment grid. Some people are going to think that putting my own ideas forward in place of something so famous is really arrogant, but I’m not putting forward those ideas because they’re the best but just because they’re the most ready example. The alignment grid isn’t some masterpiece of design, it’s just the best idea that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax could come up with in time for publication and then nobody bothered to update it for forty years. With that much hindsight, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that random bloggers can improve on it while spitballing for a Tuesday article.

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