The Alignment Argument

I know it’s Dungeons & Dragons related, but I’ve been doing more with 5th Ed than The Writer’s System, as of late.
If the discussion of religion and politics produced a child, the bastard hell-spawn would be the debates about alignment in Dungeons & Dragons. There are probably more opinions on this subject than there are gamers. At least it seems that way. The alignment system boils down the complexity of human morality, right and wrong, and behavior into a page or two of text. That leaves it open to a vast amount of interpretation. There are two major points that always seem to be missed, whenever this debate raises its ugly head.

Alignment Is a Narrative Tool
Alignment in D&D, or any other game that uses a similar mechanic, helps define the role that good and evil play in the game’s setting. Roleplaying games are still fiction, and fictional universes have their laws. Star Wars has a well-defined theme of good versus evil. Even the gray areas are divided into light grays and dark grays. These lines are clearer and more defined than in the real world. The narrative laws of the fictional universe also includes a few guarantees, from a story standpoint. A high fantasy game, where heroes are paragons of virtue and honor will (or should) be written in a way where players can act that way, without having to worry about real world consequence from such actions. Let’s say that there is a lawful good paladin in a setting like this, and she captures a prisoner of war; however, the nice paladin can’t take the prisoner with her. The laws of this narrative universe would allow her to let her prisoner go, without any seriously detrimental consequences. The story might even hinge on this released prisoner being the one who saves the life of the brave paladin. And it’s all because she did the right thing, and showed mercy. It’s also how superhero comics used to work, back in the Silver Age.
Actions have consequences, and in real life, those consequences might come back to bite you in the ass – even if it is the right thing to do. I think that we can agree that killing an unarmed prisoner, who has surrendered, to be, at least, a bad thing. However, this is something that US troops often had to do in World War II. Most of them didn’t want to, and if you watch interviews with the vets, you can see how much it haunts them. They had no choice. Their options were to kill the enemy POW or let them go. If the POW was let go, he would return to his lines and continue fighting i.e. trying to kill the American and his buddies.

Alignment Isn’t a Reflection of Real Life
A fictional universe allows for more moral absolutes between right and wrong, than the real world. There are very few people who would be truly good or truly evil, in the context of D&D alignments. It goes back to my first point. Look at Bill Gates. He has given more money to deserving charities that are measurably making the world a better place than any other person in history. He is literally the most generous person ever to live. That is a “good” act. How Gates acted in business matters is another matter, entirely. Cutthroat and ruthless are two common ways to describe Gates’s approach to running Microsoft. That’s a duality that can’t exist with alignment, rules-as-written. Before you say “alignment shift,” remember that this is real life and Gates has always been generous with good causes while relentlessly crushing anything and anyone that stood in Microsoft’s way. It could be argued that he keeping Microsoft strong was the right and moral thing to do, in regards to employees and shareholders, but this real life dynamic goes deeper into the philosophical aspects of good and evil/right and wrong than the rules on alignment.
Whatever book we read or movie we see, we experience it through the veil of our own life experience. This includes seeing fictional ideals of good and evil through our own sense of morality, ethics, and basic right and wrong. Usually, it’s no big deal. We see the main character in a movie or book do something, and either agree or think she/we would have done things different. This dynamic gets turned upside down with tabletop RPG’s. We are these characters. That means our own real world views come through, in the game. Like I said above, human morality is much more complex that can be covered in a few paragraphs of text. A player might not see a specific act as good, evil, neutral, chaotic, or lawful, but another player or DM might. This goes back to alignment being a narrative tool. Just like the 2000 years’ worth of history condensed into a few seasons of Hercules & Xena shouldn’t be confused with historical fact, the condensed version of the sum of human morality, ethics, and sense of right and wrong called alignment shouldn’t be held up to how such things play out in real life. And vice versa

How to Handle Alignment
The debate and arguments on alignment will never go away, mostly because we gamers like to argue over nonsense. It’s also interesting to talk about and hear other people’s thoughts on the idea. That said, a different opinion or interpretation of a rule should ever grind a game to a halt.

For Dungeon Masters
Start off by making sure everyone at the table knows how you use alignment, in the game. Having everyone on the same page is always a good idea. We gamers are a smart and creative lot, who sometimes forget that smart and reasonable people can come to different conclusions on a matter. Also avoid the alignment catch-22. Railroading the players into a no win corner, where they have to violate their alignment, isn’t clever storytelling and it’s rarely any fun.

For Players
Make sure you know what your DM’s views on alignment are, if they don’t go into it first. The earlier the better. Don’t judge another player on how they are playing their character’s alignment. That’s for the DM to worry about. Relax, and have fun. The DM’s view on alignment is the only opinion that matters, at least during the game. Don’t argue about alignment with the DM or with the other players, during the game. Save the debate for 2AM at IHOP.