Friday, February 14, 2020

Alternate Alignments: Down with the Law/Chaos!

In June of 2012, Michael Prescott wrote a little stub post over on his blog called, 'Alignment in Allegiance.' It was an off-the-cuff post pointing out that the traditional alignment axes really reflected the core themes of the game; in the earliest editions, Law vs Chaos, with Good vs Evil thrown in after.

He argued that in other settings with other themes, those axes just just as easily be replaced. In a game set in Revolutionary America, for example, you could replace one of the axes, say, law/chaos, with Royalist/Republican. So you'd have Republican Neutral, and Royalist Evil etc.

I've heard similar points made before, but this time it really clicked for me. I wonder if we haven't been going about it wrong all these years. The early D&D Law/Chaos dynamic was clearly inspired by appendix N literature (Elric being the chief culprit) and made sense when Law and Chaos are Capital-Letter forces of the universe.

But if you don't have those forces in your world, the whole dynamic falls flat. Then you get arguments about what it means to be Lawful or Chaotic or Neutral among the players, because there's no unifying understanding anymore.

The Law/Chaos axis is the most easily replaced, since Good/Evil is much less grounded in a particular setting, and players generally agree on what Good and Evil are. Still, it wouldn't be beyond the pale to exchange it, or exchange both.

Single or Double Axes

A question which pops into my mind, especially after rereading my previous post on alignment, is whether to use a single, thematic axis, or to use two, by default adding Good/Evil on top. The benefits of the former are to leave the field open; people are characterized by their place in a particular struggle/controversy/disagreement, and morality is incidental. Being good or evil is unrelated to alignment. The latter is more familiar to many people. I'm obviously not giving the two an equal representation, since I greatly prefer the single axis, but do let me know if you prefer the double axis and why.

Here are a few alternate Alignments you can use in various games:

Eugène Delacroix - Le 28 Juillet. La Liberté guidant le peuple.jpg


Let's flesh out Prescott's original suggestion. We can use this axis, replacing Law/Chaos, in games set in historical moments of revolution against a monarchy, or in fictional settings patterned after them. Revolutionary America and France are obvious examples. Royalists are characterized by a desire to maintain the power of the crown, and are associated with tradition, a conservative ethos, etc. Republicans are characterized by a desire to get rid of monarchy, install a new form of government based on a humanistic ethos, etc.

There's room for disagreement within the alignments here. Republicans may be split on whether to use a violent overthrow or to use social and political pressure. Royalists may be split on how to deal with the would-be revolutionaries; try to maintain power here, or move to friendlier climes and maintain the aristocracy elsewhere? Likewise, there is room for good and evil people. It's a political and ideological divide, not a moral one.

Image result for morrowind tribunal art


This one is from my Elder Scrolls Morrowind Campaign. The Septim Empire is a colonial force in Morrowind seeking to enforce its laws and customs on the native Dunmer and acquire the continent's immense natural resources. Imperials are associated with military occupation, evangelism of the Imperial Cult, the abolition of slavery and the exploitation of natural resources. The Tribunal is a trio of living gods whose Temple is the dominant form of worship in Morrowind, and around whom Morrowind's government has been organized for centuries. Tribunals are associated with traditional faith and culture, the promulgation of slavery, and Dunmer supremacy.

I'm considering dropping this into my current game once my players get to level 2 (should be quite soon, they've been patient) and letting them choose between Imperial, Neutral or Tribunal. I expect the choice to be interesting, since the party are escapees from an Imperial prison camp, they are being actively hunted by the Empire, and one of the characters has converted to one of the Tribunal saint cults. However, the party is vehemently opposed to slavery and Dunmer supremacy, and have tangled with slavers before (two players and one hireling are beast-people, looked down on in traditional Dunmer society).

Image result for west indies pirate art


For games based on the 1700s West Indies. By which I mean pirate games. The Navy wants to keep the law and order of the sea, regardless of whether or not it is just, catch and punish pirates, and please the officials back home. Pirates want to carve out their own lives, acquire wealth and influence through whatever means available, and escape the navy.

This is very similar to Law/Chaos, but we define it more strongly by associating those forces with specific, grounded factions and interests. While pirate games tend to assume players will take the piratical route, I like the idea of letting them interact with both the pirates and the navy, giving them some incentives for both before they inevitably choose piracy. Because PIRATES.

Image result for lovecraft


The world is a placid isle of ignorance in the black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. In a world that totally defies comprehension, people tend to cluster in one of two camps. The Ignorant keep themselves at arm's length from the secrets of the universe, cast books of cosmic importance into bonfires, and would destroy all of modern science and return us to a new Dark Age given half a chance. The Mad dive headfirst into the unknowable, seek out mind-warping secrets, and deal with entities from beyond the veil. They are this close to just becoming cultists.

This alignment is, obviously, for cosmic horror games, and builds on the choice of 'go mad from the revelation for potentially cool shit' or 'play it safe and destroy anything supernatural with extreme prejudice.' The vast majority of people would be Unaligned in this case.

Image result for greek barbarian


'But wait!' you cry. 'This is just Law/Chaos again, you utter hack!' Ah, dear reader, but it isn't. The distinction between civilization and barbarism isn't about one following rules, the other doing whatever they want. It's about the organization of society. Civilized people organize themselves into the polis, the state, and have a strong focus on agriculture, sedentary settlement and central authority. Barbarians organize themselves into smaller, decentralized structures, disdain sedentary agriculture in favor of a ranging, hunting, nomadic lifestyle. Barbarians may well have strong laws, traditions, and authority figures, but the structure they exist in is very different.

I would use this for a campaign set in ancient times; classical Mediterranean civilization, or earlier. If you dig into the history of early city states, especially those first in the Fertile Crescent, you find that the warring between them was in large part a bid to capture slaves for the city's workforce. This wasn't just to expand labor, but because lots of people, including full citizens, would often flee the city to join the barbarians. The walls of Uruk were as much for keeping people in as out, as early urban dwellers didn't especially like being forced to work the soil for others.

Alignment Languages

The big mechanical bit from my last post was reworking alignment languages to serve as a common culture or religion; not a different tongue only people of that alignment can use, but a set of assumptions, body language, in-group references and knowledge that lubricate social interactions between members of the same alignment, and make interactions between people from different alignments more difficult.

This translates over quite well from Law/Chaos to other domains. Royalists know how to properly genuflect, how to properly address a person from every class and rank, and how to make hierarchies work for them. A republican will reject that hierarchy, and will be right at home rabble-rousing, giving impassioned speeches on individual liberty, whether on a stool in a dingy bar or on the floor of Congress.

I've though more about the system since the last post, and I've settled on the second variation of the rule: you only add your positive Charisma modifier to morale and reaction rolls when dealing with members of the same alignment, and only subtract a negative modifier when dealing with members of the opposite alignment. Unaligned and Neutral parties attach their Charisma modifier regardless.

Much Ado About Neutrality

Given all the above, it's worth revisiting Neutrality. In my previous post on alignment, I distinguished Neutral from Unaligned: The former refers to people who consciously choose a sort of moderation or 'middle path,' while the latter includes entities that exist outside of alignment on this issue; animals and non-thinking monsters, but also druids and others that deliberately reject society.

How do we reinterpret Neutrality in terms of these new conflicts? There are obviously people who are neutral in a struggle, but what role do they play? Does it take a Neutral party to serve as negotiator between the two sides? Does it take a Neutral shopkeeper to hold together a community racked by division? The Neutral position is potentially interesting, but not well fleshed out at his time.

Still, there's a small issue there. If the player has a negative score, they'll want to associate with one alignment and stick with them, to dull the disadvantages. But if they have a positive score, they'll want to remain Neutral to use it as much as possible. So what are the benefits to keeping an alignment?

Certainly, being Neutral can be safer, but there's a whole lot less opportunity. Neutral factions don't really hold much water; most factions, at least those with substantial power and reason to join, are going to align with one side or the other.

Choosing an Alignment

Depending on the exact setup, the PCs need not choose their alignment at character creation (and I don't just say that because I'm making up the system two months into a campaign). If the PCs are natives of the area/culture that the alignments are built around, then they should have opinions and standings from the beginning. But if they're travelers, or rubes, or otherwise not involved, learning about the conflict along with the players, then they should spend some time Unaligned before choosing their alignment.

Maybe when they first level up (which my players should do quite soon), or after they've gotten to know each side (probably from tangling with them), the players look back on how their character has interacted with the world around them, how the character is informed by it, and what they pledge their allegiance to.


  1. This is a really good article. I have played since I was a young boy, I'm 50 now, and I've not used alignments since I started DMing when I was in the military. I apologise for being "that guy", axes means you have more than one axe, axis describes the points on a plane, like the points on a compass or the axis of good & evil or law and chaos. I am not trying to be rude or hurtful in any way, I only want to make your article better, because it really is a good article.

    1. Axes is the correct plural form of axis, and axe of course.

    2. Thanks! It's always great to get feedback from older gamers, since I'm very young, both as a DM and a blogger. GLOG and the OSR were my first real exposures. Given feedback, I think I'm going to rework the mechanics to cut out Neutral, and come up with a less punitive system for Charisma.

      (And I will insist that axes is the right plural. Axe->Axes(ack-sehs) vs Axis->Axes(Ack-sees).)