Alignment and Disposition
After my deep dive into alignment and what it came from, and how it got multi-purposed into D&D possibly in ways that it was never intended to work, I started thinking about one of those functions, most notably the disposition of beings that you might run into in an encounter.
Way back in the shrouded days of early D&D, you might get multiple monsters on a single page. There was a stat block and maybe a paragraph, and that’s all you knew about the monster. In order to make the most of this real-estate, alignment had to do some of the heavy lifting of explaining how the creature would interact with player characters when encountered.
If you consider that part of alignment’s function was to help people determine how an encounter should unfold, what if you could just define the “tenor” of an encounter just as quickly as you summarize an alignment?
Let’s look at some possible quick summaries of the overall mood of creatures when encountered:
The beings in this encounter are hostile and will attack the player characters unless intimidated or convinced that their own welfare is at stake in such an attack.
The beings in this encounter are ready to attack, but they won’t make the first move. They can be reasoned with, but their reaction to any false step will be to attack.
The beings in this encounter are not disposed to help or harm the PCs, but a failed interaction might make them willing to do something minor to hamper the PCs, and a positive interaction may make them willing to do something minor to help the PCs.
The beings in this encounter are predisposed to helping the PCs, unless the PCs prove they have negative intentions in mind. Even then, the creatures are more likely to leave an encounter than to engage with the PCs.
Now, once you have those levels of initial interaction set up, it helps to color the individual encounter. It’s not impossible to get out of a hostile encounter without a fight, and if you really want to attack the flumphs offering you food and shelter, you can totally be a horrible person and do that.
Let’s look at an orc encounter. Forget alignment, let’s just say that the orcs in this encounter will be assumed to be hostile. The orcs have never had particularly good interactions with humans, so they are inclined to drive them off or get rid of them whenever they cross paths. They don’t have a history of raiding nearby humans, just being a danger to humans that travel through their territory.
The PCs run into the orcs. The orcs are hostile, but nobody is surprised in this encounter. The first PC to act decides to try and intimidate the orcs. The orcs outnumber the PCs two to one, so the DM decides that the PC has disadvantage on the roll. If they roll high enough, the orcs decide these humans are a little too dangerous to fight, and they retreat.
The PCs run into a pack of hungry wolves. The wolves are an aggressive encounter. They won’t attack first, but it won’t take much for this to turn into a combat. The party ranger makes a survival check and determines that one of the wolves in the pack is about to give birth, and the other wolves don’t like anyone near their territory while she is vulnerable, so the PCs retreat to another clearing, and the wolves keep to the immediate area of their den.
The PCs run into a sprite in the woods. The sprite is naturally gregarious, but it doesn’t really care one way or the other about the PCs, other than as a potential source of conversation or amusement. If the PCs annoy the sprite, it may later sneak into their camp and steal something interesting. If the PCs spend some time to amusing the sprite, it might give them a blossom that acts as a potion of healing that it happened to find the other day.
The PCs run into a procession of pilgrims on their way to a holy site. The clerics in the caravan specifically look to perform services for those then encounter. They offer blessings, food, and healing to anyone that needs them, while their provisions last. If not attacked or insulted, the pilgrims will help the PCs with the wounds they picked up from various fights from their encounters in the nearby dungeon they have just left.
Standardized elements have a lot of power. The system detailed above is a hybrid of what alignment and reaction rolls accomplished in early D&D. But the description of alignment doesn’t specifically deal with how characters will react face to face, so it require extrapolation, and reaction rolls, even today, are things that tend to exist somewhere in the middle of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and even then, it almost always feels like the explanation for how they work is a little fuzzy.
There are cases where alignment doesn’t perfectly line up with the intent and disposition of a character in an encounter. A band of hobgoblins might be more than willing to kill any humans they run into, but if they are used to working as mercenaries, they are probably more properly aggressive than hostile–it’s hard to make money from fighting if you kill all your potential employers. Additionally, a powerful celestial is probably neutral towards the PCs unless they are already working towards an shared goal, they are also engaged in pushing forward. Why waste time with simple mortal beings unless they are furthering the greater good?
The State of the Game
There seems to come a time in many recent editions of D&D where people start to discuss players killing everything they meet versus other means of resolving encounters. Much of this seems to come from a lack of expressed intentionality–why is this encounter happening? What is the mindset of everyone in this encounter?
In many cases, alignment becomes a clumsy answer. “These orcs are here to do chaos and evil!”
Well, how are they doing that? What does that mean? Do they really want chaos and evil above all other things, right now, in this moment?
While many adventures over the years have given much more detailed descriptions of how creatures will react to player characters and the purpose of a given encounter, would it have made it clearer to have a single, defined term serving as a keyword for the encounter? Standardization can have a lot of power.