Saturday, September 20, 2008

Why alignment in 4E sucks

It's not exactly a state secret that I'm lukewarm on 4th Edition D&D. I played it at Gen Con and my team even placed at the Open (though we got boned in the semifinals), and I think it's a perfectly harmless set of miniatures rules, but not really something I'd like to campaign in long-term. But something in the new edition really does irk me, and that's the change to alignment rules. Since 1st Edition D&D characters have chosen their alignment on two intermeshed axes: Lawful to Chaotic, and Good to Evil, with Neutral as a uncommitted option for both. Law and Chaos were not cast as necessarily good or bad things, but one's response to authority and the dictates of society; similarly, Good and Evil denoted a person's inherent selflessness or selfishness. The result is a system with nine permutations: Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, Chaotic Evil, Neutral Good, Neutral Evil, True Neutral.

As far as personality systems go, this ain't bad for a game played with funny dice -- Myers-Briggs, for example, has 16 personality types. And the best part of D&D alignment is that it could be applied not just to people but to societies as well, or even entire planes of existence. I've always found alignment to be both a clever and a useful mechanic, but this hallmark of classic D&D has had its enemies since Day One. From players who found the restrictions of playing their alignment too onerous to would-be game designers who found the Gygaxian ethical system lacking as an adequate description of RPG reality, there has always been a contingent of naysayers whose first question upon hearing about a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons has been: "Did they finally get rid of alignment?"

Well, the haters finally got thrown a bone this time around with 4E's simplification of alignment rules. Forget the interlocking wheels of Law and Chaos, Good and Evil - in Fourth Edition the grid of alignments has been pared down to a line. Now you progress from Chaotic Evil to Evil, then to Unaligned, and on to Good, then Lawful Good, creating a continuum whereby "Chaotic" and "Lawful" in this contest mean little more than "very". So who cares, right? Doesn't this make D&D simpler, more heroic? Doesn't it harken back to the old school days before AD&D muddled the issues or right and wrong with its relativistic wheel of cosmology where devils could be law-abiding and heroes could be antisocial?

On a fundamental level edition wars are a religious argument, and if it's already a given that I'm not too fond of the rest of 4E can I really be trusted to evaluate how well the new alignment system works or doesn't work? Well, the truth of the matter is that I can't. But that's okay: despite my animus towards the new product, my critique hinges less on my own loyalties to previous editions of D&D than it does upon my own experience in the real world. Just today I was reading the opinion section in my local newspaper -- a dangerous prospect, to be sure, as our community is a notorious collection of cranks who seem to have little else to do than compose their next angry tirade for the paper -- when I came upon a regular contributor who equated secularists with Marxist collectivism and God-fearing Christians such as himself with rugged American-style individualism.

Say what? Since when did secular humanism automatically make one a socialist? And how could anyone argue with a straight face that devotion to religion directly correlated to being an individual (in fact, isn't it the other way around? But I digress). This is when I realized that the problem was that the letter-writer was trying to use 4E alignment rules to understand his world, as so many people frequently do. Never mind that Religion-Secularism and Collectivism-Individualism are operate in most people on independent axes, whereby it's just as easy to find Religious Collectivists and Secular Individualists as it is vice versa -- this guy had created a continuum where those who agree with him are by their very nature Lawful Good and those opposed can only be Chaotic Evil. For you see, in this oversimplified conception Lawfulness is a manifestation of Good, and Chaos is what proceeds from Evil.

And this is why 4E alignment sucks-- not because it's new or different, but because it inflicts a false and quasi-moralistic duality onto the game world. Although alignment had previously suffused Dungeons and Dragons from the micro to the macro level, it aspired to be an objective determination of a character's/polity's/plane's ethical orientation. Alignment in the Fourth Edition on the other hand forces you to subscribe to the morality of this oversimplified universe in which good is Good (insert angelic choirs here) and evil is EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL! Gone is the legalistic menace of Lawful Evil, the Robin Hood-like healthy disregard for authority in Chaotic Good, the absolute madness of Chaotic Neutral, and the cold, sharklike self-interest that embodies Neutral Evil. It was always this last alignment combination that frightened me much, much more than Lawful or Chaotic Evil. Give me a mafia don or a serial killer any day over someone who is so dedicated to himself that nothing else matters.

Alas, these alignments no longer exist. I've always said that every generation gets the D&D that it deserves, and maybe this is more true than I had originally thought. As a child of the Cold War my childhood was a Manichean nightmare of light versus darkness, so the shades of gray suggested by the fantasy worlds to which I escaped seemed like nothing less than a revelation. These days however we are sufficiently through the looking glass where the kids of today only wish for a world as simple as the defining conflicts of the 20th century seemed to them. After 9/11, we wanted so much to identify civilization as a manifestation of the Good and barbarism the consequence of Evil such that even when we knew deep down that the pieces really didn't fit together that way it only hardened our resolve to make it so. Moral simplicity is the escapist fantasy of the 21st century, so I suppose it only makes sense that 4E should embrace this Zeitgeist with its take on alignment.

But I still don't like it.


JudgeX said...

Yes. I agree with you completely...

I was trying to give 4E a second chance this weekend, pouring over the books again, and I did a quick google search for "4e is awesome" and "4e sucks".

I was most compelled to nod my head by articles like yours here, about alignment... and, D&D old style alignment is something my friends and I frequently discuss at work and online...

I firmly believe that simplification of the alignment system is a step backwards.

I know this because it's impossible to make myself a character in 4E, but I can be represented in 3E very easily.

I'm clearly Chaotic (I hate unnecessary rules, social circles, and customs) Good (I like animals, innocent people, and dislike injustice and evil), stepping into Chaotic Neutral (1 step) frequently. Is there any reason I can't be a hero? No. Thus, 4E fails.

Yours was an interesting read... I'm glad there are still thinkers out there.

I believe that 3E or a system like it will rise again... that many years of solid role-playing success can't be destroyed by 1 over-capitalized and made-sour edition of dungeons and dragons... the role-playing art is not dead... it's just hiding.

Tom said...

Thanks for the comment! You make an excellent point about not being able to make yourself in 4E, a criticism that could be applied to not just the alignment system but several other features of character generation. Of all these things, though, it's the "fixing" of alignment that galls me the most because it was a time-honored, battle-tested feature of D&D that was elegant and simple but somehow managed to capture reality perfectly.

(Never mind that by changing alignment they totally borked the Outer Planes in the process! But that's another rant.)

But you're absolutely right. Role-playing is by no means dead, and if anything the glaring flaws of 4E are making those of us who do care about these things care all the more.