Once More Unto the Breach (of Alignment)
Okay, I promise, I’m almost done with my whole ponderings on alignment, but the reason it’s a compelling subject isn’t because it is something terrible that should have never been explored. It’s a problem because it’s a tool for definition that was applied for the wrong aspects of the game. It is the metaphysical equivalent of basing alignment on atomic bonds.
Hey, what if ionic people want to have friends and share, so they are good, and covalent people are more likely to mix their bonded elements in an even sharing structure, so they are neutral, and metallic people are based on mutual loss, so they are evil? Right? Okay, that’s probably a little strained, but honestly, so is applying cosmic forces to everyday mortal motivations.
Warning, I’m going to go deep Star Wars nerd here for a moment.
There was a huge uproar in the Star Wars world when the New Jedi Order books played with the idea that there isn’t really a Dark Side, that people are just people, and they can do good and evil, but the Force is just the Force. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but I never quite felt like it rang true for the universe presented in most of the Star Wars products.
Looking at the very last of the Expanded Universe novels, Crucible, has a lot going on. But for our purposes here, we’re just going to look at what Luke “discovers” in the novel. Luke finally has a feeling that he has reconciled what Jacen felt about the Force and the traditional views on it when he realizes that the Dark Side exists, but it isn’t evil. It is predatory and dangerous, but those as aspects of life. However, a mortal being trying “live” in the Dark Side and draw power from it is not balanced or healthy. They become predatory and dangerous because that’s what they are drawing upon.
Even in the current canon, in the Dark Disciple novel, Asajj Ventriss shares some thoughts on the Nightsisters’ view on the Force with Quinlan Vos. Essentially, they are willing to use the Dark Side, but only in limited circumstances, because, once again, it is framed as a predatory thing. It’s dangerous and powerful and can overwhelm a user. The Nightsisters understood the concept of being wary of the Dark Side and considered the Sith to be dangerous fools for thinking that they controlled the Dark Side, seeing them as people that have given themselves over to the drives of a wild predatory beast, and being arrogant enough to think the power didn’t affect them.
In other words, the Dark Side is tied to forces in the universe that may be natural, but a mortal being trying to harness that power can easily be overwhelmed by it, and become needlessly dangerous, cruel, and predatory. So, how does this all play into alignment?
Well, maybe to put things back to “cosmic order,” we need to zoom out and see things in a more cosmic manner. It may be corrupting and dangerous to follow some gods, for example, but as cosmic beings, they may just be creatures that embody a big concept without any real concern for nuance.
So how can we reframe the alignment scheme and not dismantle the D&D multiverse? Well, let’s start with the pillars.
Replace good with rapprochement. Replace evil with strife. Replace law with order. Chaos gets to keep being chaos because chaos does what it wants. Replace neutrality with accord.
Cosmic scale beings embody a pillar of metaphysical truth. A being that lives in Rapprochement only wants beings to get along and experience joy. They don’t care that sometimes, learning limits is important for growth. On the other hand, beings that live in Strife only want to introduce impediments to others. Pain, suffering, and challenges exist for their own purposes, without regard to the strengths that might be gained from overcoming those elements, or the lessons learned from them.
Order is clear. You want quantifiable, easily measured results. An orderly being that is one with Rapprochement will carefully hand out an equal measure of joy and friendship to everyone, even if that means it takes an eternity to get to some, and they may not fully appreciate it. But they will have a system for determining where they start. An orderly being that lives in strife will make sure suffering is calculated and occurs on a schedule.
Chaos, again, is clear. No schedule, no reason or forethought. Chaotic Rapprochement means you try to make the first being you see happy. Chaotic strife means whoever is closest probably gets the brunt of your wrath.
Beings that live in accord “get” a wider range of viewpoints and may realize how and why you can use the other elements to achieve goals. This means that many neutral cosmic beings might be more relatable to mortal beings, and neutral gods may be gods of more nuanced concepts.
To put this in broader terms, this means that the Nine Hells would have the cosmic “keywords” of Order and Strife, while the Abyss has Chaos and Strife. Hades may only have the metaphysical quality of Strife, without Order or Chaos.
There are a few consequences to reframing the argument in this manner. It’s a little more palatable to say that strife is meant to be part of creation than evil, and that strife, when out of balance, feels much like unbearable evil, because it no longer serves a specific purpose.
This likely doesn’t change how most interactions with demons, devils, or angels will go, but it does reframe the idea that, as cosmic beings, they may literally be the embodiment of strife or Rapprochement, so they just can’t understand more nuanced views of the cosmos. That’s something left for minds that are more tethered to the mortal realm.
Essentially, just like how elementals are literally beings of fire, water, earth, or air, beings from the outer planes may essentially be metaphysical elementals of strife, order, chaos, or Rapprochement. Characters that get divine spells may be mortal and not subject to these alignment qualities, but they may be partially infused with raw metaphysical elements (and maybe that’s part of the leveling up process–conditioning a mortal form to store larger amounts of raw alignment energy, which would also explain why a cleric of a certain level is valuable to a different god when they switch deities).
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sheev Palpatine?
If you remove alignment as something mortals have, and change it to something they might hold as a philosophy, and reserve it for powerful planar beings, do you need to change “good and evil” to something else? Probably not, but at the same time, I like the concept as a reminder that these are cosmic forces way beyond what any mortal is going to ever embody.
Additionally, it strikes me that even if you remove alignment from mortal beings, it may still be easy to see followers of “evil” gods as still being “close enough” to being evil that they can be written off as a guilt free murder target. Returning at least a little bit of the concept that gods may not be “good and evil” so much as cosmic forces that are in or out of balance might also make it a little easier to not assume that someone that got caught up in the local temple of Bane is completely irredeemable.
The point isn’t to remove villains that may be dealt with through violence, but to remember that you probably should have a few Darth Vader’s in your game for every Palpatine, and that Han was Imperial military before he took a very circuitous path towards the light. If you’ll pardon my introduction of a bit of Star Wars into my D&D philosophical meanderings.