Alignment – Mechanics and Magic

Servant girl kneeling by the Nile

Image by vintagedept via Flickr

Here we have the last of Alzrius’s current questions…

Given that alignment is determined by planar forces (as laid out in The Practical Enchanter for the rational discussion and change alignment spells, could there be a spell to stop you from changing alignments when you normally would?

I like to call such a spell morality shield, since it would presumably not only protect you from having your alignment changed by using spells/magic items with an alignment descriptor different from your alignment (e.g. you can be a good spellcaster using spells and magic items with the [Evil] descriptor and not become evil over time), but also from actions that would change your alignment, whether immediately or gradually (e.g. betraying your friends, burning down an orphanage, etc.). Is such a spell possible? What effect would it have on spells that relied on alignment to determine their effects (e.g. blasphemy)?

Alignment is one of those areas where d20 universes – in fact, most game universes – often bear very little relationship to the real world. It’s also perhaps the single most contentious feature of many games. Ergo, before I can cover spells like that, I’ll have to take a look at how “alignment” actually works first.

In the real world people make all kinds of decisions without the benefit of planar forces – and with very little consistency. Normal people can be loving to one child and cruel to another for quite trivial – and often unapparent – reasons. They may be boundlessly loyal to their tribe or nation and utterly treacherous with outsiders. They may commit horrific atrocities in the pursuit of high ideals – and be tenaciously opposed by proponents of those same ideals. Real people tend to behave in ways that are, at least at a glance, wildly self-contradictory.

A lot of that inconsistency is rooted in the conflicts between four elements.

  • Basic survival behaviors (“my genes first!”).
  • Kinship behaviors that promote the survival and well-being of offspring and close relations (“some of my genes are in them too!”).
  • Social behaviors that support the well-being of a large, and possibly unrelated group (“cooperation promotes the survival of the ENTIRE group!”).
  • And – at least in humans, who are our only currently known example of a species in which memes demonstrably govern behavior almost (or possibly more) than instincts – learned behaviors that tend to promote their own survival, rather than those of the genes of the host.

What people will do in a given situation, and why, is a topic that’s provoked thousands of years of study and few (if any) reliable answers. A lot of the high-end social behaviors get labeled “good” in the real world, simply because they’re generally useful to the people around the individual in question.

For a simplified example from an old campaign…

Swollen with refugees from warring neighboring countries, the city of Cisnaud was stretched to it’s limits. Food was in short supply, and could barely be brought in quickly enough. Crime was running rampant, orphaned children filled the streets, and one or another crisis came up daily.

  • The guard commander knew that later historians would consider him a monster, and the decisions he made tore at his conscience – but he maintained order with an iron hand, brutally executed the occasional inconvenient innocent, and turned a blind eye to a great deal of suffering. His resources were limited. If the city collapsed, many more would die, the society which held his loyalty would fall in fire and upheaval, and it would be his fault for not doing what was required to maintain it. He saw no other way.
  • An idealistic young guard recruit did his best to assist in any situation which came before him, and would NOT allow the punishment of someone innocent of wrongdoing – which often brought him into conflict with his good friend the Guard Commander. He knew that the mere physical survival of Cisnaud and it’s people meant nothing if they sacrificed their principles and the soul of their society with them.
  • A middle-aged guard sergeant knew that his loyalty to his family and children came first – yet for them to prosper, the city had to continue to function. Thus he followed his commander, did his duty, and protected the innocent when he could. He also extorted valuables from the refugees when he could. After all, it was their fault that food was scarce – and how could he deny his children when they cried for a morsel of bread?
  • The guard-lieutenant, loyal to the people of his city, and knowing the suffering being imposed upon them by the masses of foolish foreigners who could not manage their own affairs, took every opportunity to get rid of the refugees who were not pulling their own weight. That was his clear duty – and allowing them all in would only prolong their suffering until his city inevitably collapsed under the strain, dooming everyone. Getting rid of some of them, and inspiring more to leave for other places where they might have a chance, was the greatest aid he could offer them – and his commander was foolish not to see it!

Will that sort of “alignment” work in your campaigns?

Maybe. Most campaigns simply don’t run long enough to explore NPC motivations in depth, or focus too much on combat for them to matter (who cares about the motivations of that corpse?). Others have players who don’t care about detailed NPC motives and don’t want to spend time that they could be spending on exciting adventures on character drama.

Still other players feel that games that do not  include complex NPC motivations are superficial and unsatisfying, and will want to take the time.

Most games need some sort of shorthand for describing complex social relationships and character motivations. Sure, any individual kid in that crowd trying to sell you a probably-phony treasure map is probably a unique and complex individual – but for the most part the player characters will never deal with them again (or know it if they do). All they’ll ever know about them is that “a dozen poorly-dressed youngsters tried to sell them a treasure map”.

On the other hand, they may take an interest in any random one of them – which will require the game master to come up with a bunch of stuff on the fly. No one can pre-detail everyone in a world.

An individual game system may call its shorthand labels loyalties, natures, motivations, traits, intimacies, alignments, or any of a hundred other things, but they’re all ways of sparing everyone from coming up with a detailed personality profile for every character – and of tagging opponents for easy recognition.

The basic d20 alignment system is one of the really simple ones. It fits the entire universe into only nine slots – a relic of “old school gaming”.

  • In an old-school system it worked pretty well. After all, in the basic book and first edition characters died a lot. Most of them quite permanently. New characters were constantly being introduced to the party to replace them – and nobody wanted to spend a lot of game time on the characters getting to know each other and coming to trust each other. Simple alignments covered that? You were good? Your motivations were compatible and you were reasonably trustworthy. You were in. You were neutral? You were tolerably trustworthy as long as prospects looked good, and – after a bit – you could be presumed to develop personal loyalties. You were evil? You couldn’t be trusted and would be – at most – an ally of convenience. With a few “know alignment” spells you could have a party assembled, mostly trusting each other, and ready to go in minutes.
  • You could sort out which NPC’s were reasonably trustworthy fairly quickly. Was that a bit unrealistic? Why yes! Yes it was! On the other hand, most game masters are not great actors, and can’t supply the hours worth of social interactions, behavioral cues, rumors and reputation, and other information you’d use to make a judgment about whether to trust someone in the real world. Is a spell that tells you “This guy is generally trustworthy”, “this guy could be up to something”, or “You can’t trust this guy” any better or worse as a form of shorthand than saying “I have Sense Motive at +18, does this guy seem to be on the up-and-up?”.
  • Your targets were clearly labeled. There wasn’t any “Well, I don’t like his social policies, and his campaign against the frontier tribes is more ruthless than it needs to be, but he is maintaining the stability of the realm; is trying to overthrow him really justified?”. If the king was evil, you knew that it would be a good thing to overthrow him and replace him with a good – or at least neutral – ruler. Let the rebellion begin!

It worked for The Lord of the Rings and for Star Wars: A New Hope didn’t it?

Now, the nine-slot system works quite well for a quick fantasy shorthand, but – of course – it breaks down as soon as people start trying to import real-world morality or complexities into it. Otherwise it wouldn’t provoke all those endless debates.

  • Coral Polyps live in armed, hostile, racially-exclusive colonies that reject all outsiders, attempt to kill anything that comes too close, and devour anything small enough to eat.
  • Wolves are loyal to their packmates, care tenderly for their children, live in a highly organized society, and usually kill only to survive.

I could go on indefinitely, yet – in basic d20 – all animals are true neutral. In d20, pragmatism, social survival mechanisms, group loyalty, and most of the usual motives, are all unaligned behavior – and those animals are simply behaving sensibly. The rules try to get around this by noting that animals are true neutral because they “lack moral sense” – but then provide us with true neutral sapient beings and nonsapient inanimate objects with alignments.

In basic d20, alignment – like “principles” in politics – usually only comes into play to explain bad decisions.

  • Why did the evil overlord fix the irrigation system, defend the cities against a vicious monster, or help stop the plague? Because ruling a prosperous, tax-paying, empire is in his or her best interests. Those decisions were neither good nor evil; they’re just sensible.
  • Why did the evil overlord provoke a rebellion by publicly roasting the babies from a dozen villages or kill off his or her hostages while they’re still needed? Because he or she is Evil – often to the point of being quite psychotic.
  • On the good side, why doesn’t the paladin shrug and say “well, I saved most of the kids, and going back in for that last one is almost certainly going to get me killed – and he’ll die anyway. If let myself die, I’ll be abandoning everyone I could save in the future” when it seems hopeless? In reality, there does come a point when the firemen won’t go back into the burning building even if they think that there might be someone left inside. They balance the risks against the benefits – and there comes a time to give up. The more extreme fantasy heroes NEVER give up.

Why is that?

It’s because their alignment is causing them to make bad decisions. If they get extreme enough in their alignments, they may – and SHOULD – lose all pretense of sanity, just as they might with any lesser obsession or delusion. Sane decisions are generally pragmatic, sensible, and essentially neutral – but basic d20 alignments cause characters to behave in a consistent fashion even when it’s dumb. Why do you see articles and debates on “Lawful Stupid”, “Chaotic Stupid”, and every other possible combination? It’s because, when you come right down to it, that’s what the rules are telling us.

Why – in the setting – do alignments make people make poor decisions? There really isn’t a good explanation in the rules other than “this is a quick shorthand method of pigeonholing everyone so we can get on with the combat!”.

For a reason we’ll have to turn to deduction.

  • We know that spells, inanimate objects, and other mindless things can be “good” or “evil”.
  • Using them will make YOU “good” or “evil” – and make you do stupid things.
  • Why would a bunch of apparently-clever spell designers use forces in their spells that can make their user’s act like idiots? Why do Paladins, Blackguards, and other “holy champions” get extra powers from belonging to extreme alignments?

(“Belonging to” is quite literal by the way.)

The simplest explanation is because the energies of the outer planes offer their user’s special benefits via one of the oldest of all supernatural bargains – you get the goodies now, they get your soul later. You get access to easy power, a clear-and-simple lens to interpret the world through (permitting people to exist with a blissful lack of thought), and promises of a tailored afterlife – all because those planes want you as a new recruit to the legions of celestial/infernal/whatever spirits. Why should those forces care if using their power inclines you to do stupid things? If you die sooner, they get paid sooner!

Now, I could cook up other explanations, but they’re all far more complicated, have a harder time explaining the existing rules, and lead into the endless morass of arguments you can find all over the internet. How can inanimate objects be evil? How can a Helm of Opposite Alignment work if alignments are based on voluntary decisions? How do the powers of good justify slaughtering creatures who are commonly – but not always – evil? Why not teach them to be good and strengthen themselves? How do we justify infant damnation, even if we add the word “orc” to it? (Theologians have spent CENTURIES debating that one; I doubt that I’ll find a good argument that they’ve all missed in a lousy set of game rules).

Even worse, once people start arguing and justifying things, thousands of years of human history have pretty throughly established that – with enough words – any principle can be used to justify anything you want to do. You want to murder ten thousand delightfully good little kids in cold blood? Well, that ensures their eternal bliss in heaven – whereas if you allow them to grow up, some souls will inevitably be lost to the fires of hell, sentencing them to eternal torment because you refused to do your clear duty. That’s “Paragon of Virtue” to “Mass Murderer of Children” in forty words – and saying “that’s ridiculous!” won’t refute the logic, or the fact that history is full of actions carried out with even thinner rationales. Trying to tie your game rules to actual moral values or principles is asking for endless argument.

This explanation avoids all that – and tells us why it’s not worth trying to convert some species; the amount of power it takes to overcome their natural tendencies is more than they’re worth, and morality has nothing to do with it.

It also explains the “militant true neutral” – the character who feels that the balance of the outer planes must be actively maintained. In that case, they’re not – like animals – inherently insensitive to the energies of the outer planes; they’re actively seeking to maintain complete independence from them by precisely balancing their energies, both in themselves and in the wider world.

Nine pigeonholes (or ten if you count “true neutral by choice” separately from “true neutral by being outside the system) is pretty limited though. That’s why Eclipse includes three expanded “alignment” systems

  • One simply supplements the existing system by providing some rules on motivations and rewards for following up on them.
  • One based on a characters position on a series of ethical questions. That’s far more flexible and somewhat more complicated – but offers a set of firm guidelines on what your character thinks is acceptable and how that fits into society.
  • One based on personality traits. That one’s extremely flexible, but requiring tracking character behavior with some numbers to see if they qualify for using “aligned” effects or gaining special powers.

Now that we have some idea of how those “planar energies” might work, we can talk about spells that change their effects.

  • The Change Alignment spell in The Practical Enchanter simply infuses the victim with an enormous amount of planar energy, forcibly changing their planar attunements. The result is just as permanent – and no more permanent – than any other way of adopting an extreme alignment position and, incidentally, comes with the same revelatory feeling, lift in mood, and realization of just how foolish you’ve been all your life up to now as any other extreme conversion does.
    • A much weaker version of this spell can simply keep reinforcing an existing alignment, shielding it against effects which would change it – such as using inappropriately-aligned spells. The user would have to save against the spell to act against their alignment – but if they succeed in doing so, their actions (whatever they are) will not impact their reinforced alignment; the energy shift will just be shifted back.
    • A slightly weaker version can change an alignment temporarily, flooding the victim with enough outer-planar energies to override their normal tendencies. While the victims are forced to behave in accordance with the temporary alignment, actions carried out while under the influence of such a spell are not truly voluntary – and will have no effect on the victims alignment after the effects wear off.
  • The Rational Discussion spell in The Practical Enchanter blocks the flow of alignment energies into the affected area – making everyone there effectively true neutral for the duration. That doesn’t prevent them from doing anything they feel necessary, including casting aligned spells – they’re focused enough to penetrate such a weak block – but the energies will find no purchase on the mind of the caster, and so will not affect his or her alignment when it does come back.

In any case, spells that target alignments have effects based on the current balance of energies within their targets; it doesn’t matter if they’re currently of a particular alignment

Some spells – those with alignment descriptors – draw on alignment energies. There are a couple of ways to make those work without affecting the user’s alignment.

  • You can use the Elemental Manipulation Metamagic, or a secondary spell effect, to add enough of an opposing force to the spell to keep the power you’re drawing on from affecting you. That’s pretty simple, and hence is only +1 spell level – but doing things that way will eventually attract the attention of representatives of the alignment forces, who will want the user to make a choice.
  • You can design a spell to accomplish the same thing as an aligned spell without drawing on alignment forces – or to bypass the effects of tapping into the outer planes by externalizing the effects – at +2 levels.

A spell that stabilizes a character’s outer-plane attunement is possible, and rather low-level (ten minutes per level at level two). Unfortunately, taking away the option to shift the balance of energies that you’re drawing on – however briefly – makes it impossible for the user to act out of alignment for the duration of the spell. That will also prevent the user from casting spells with an inappropriate alignment descriptor.

This, of course, opens up an alternative way of playing a Paladin or similar character; they’re so closely attuned to a particular force – the one that grants them their powers – that they’re unable to act against it’s dictates. It’s not that they will lose their powers if they act against their alignment, it’s that the only way they can violate the strictures of their alignment is to have already lost their powers – and the game master should simply overrule any attempt by the player to have their character act otherwise. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be tricked, but nothing short of total mental domination – in which case they’re no longer in control – can force them to violate their alignment – and it has to be knowingly to count.

An effect which shields the recipients mind against unwanted alignment energy-influxes, and thus would allow the user to cast aligned spells and use aligned items without some of the consequences is about level three – or possibly higher in worlds where the alignment forces are especially powerful or fundamental. If you want it to protect you against alignment-based attacks, such as Blasphemy, add three levels.

Finally, an epic spell which feeds alignment energies into someone, and allows them to channel them into active alignment-based powers even if they’re not properly attuned to them is possible – but it will only work on characters who already know how to channel such energies. This does offer the interesting possibility of giving your favorite paladin or blackguard both sets of powers for awhile.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too. Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion.

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