Monday, September 11, 2017

Alignment is Performative

Have you ever heard the phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"? Sure you have. It's an old proverb whose interpretation is, more or less, that if you focus on what you meant to do, then you lose sight of the results of what you actually did. For instance, you didn't intend to get so drunk you lost track of time, and couldn't sober up before your shift started. That doesn't magically mean you're not fired when you're a no-call no-show, though. You probably started a conversation on a controversial subject with the best of intentions, but you still got so worked up that you ended up screaming at your grandmother and leaving the old woman in tears.

What you meant to do doesn't matter. All that matters is what you actually did.

And that's our segue into talking about alignment. Again.

Alignment Is Performative (And Here's Why)

As I've said in the past, there are few topics more contentious in RPGs than talking about alignment. Some players love it, some players hate it, and for some people it's never really an issue until they get stuck with an alignment restriction that limits their viable actions. However, there are a few things about alignment that I would say lead to arguments, so I'd like to straighten them out here for the purposes of following my logic.

First is that alignment is a broad box that's used to describe characters that fit certain types. Your lawful good is not necessarily the same as my lawful good, but as long as we're both within the same general box, we both have the same alignment descriptor. As an example of what I'm talking about, take the fighter who believes in righteous punishment for any and all crimes committed, and the cleric who believes in repentance and reformation. Both of them have the same dedication to good, and to their codes and ideals, but they may often find themselves with differences of opinion as to what is truly the right course of action in a given scenario.

Almost like in real life!
The second is that your alignment is a meta-concept. While there are some spells and class features that allow a character to detect the presence of a certain alignment, most characters don't go around thinking of themselves as lawful, chaotic, neutral, good, or evil. And even if they think of themselves as good, that might just be entirely their opinion, as no one sane thinks that they're the bad guys, and that what they're doing is wrong. Everyone is the hero in their own mind, even if they're wearing jackboots and slaughtering entire settlements.

This brings us to the point of this particular post. Alignment is something that's meant to judge how a character acts, not how they think, or what they feel on the inside. Because we don't have a metric for judging thoughts, feelings, or intentions; what we have is a metric for judging actions.

Look at all the things that will make your alignment shift; every one of them is an action that you take, rather than a thought you have, or a belief you hold. If you cast an evil spell, that action starts shifting your alignment toward evil. It doesn't matter if you raised a skeletal champion to fight a demon lord, or to slaughter a town; it is the act itself that was evil. The same goes for participating in evil rituals, especially those which have the sacrifice of a sentient creature to an evil entity. Because a character might be of the opinion that sacrificing one child to a dark god is preferable to losing thousands, or hundreds of thousands of lives in a battle, but that "needs of the many over the needs of the few" belief doesn't change the fact that the character is committing an evil act by willingly participating. The sort of evil act that the rules list as a do not pass Go, do not collect $200, go straight to an evil alignment sort of offense.

It goes the other way, too. If you're an evil spellcaster, but you cast Celestial Healing on yourself, the sheer goodness of that magic will flow through you, and alter your alignment. Willingly accepting an Atonement spell will shift you to the alignment of the caster because you willingly took an action that altered your spiritual makeup.

A Change in Alignment Does Not Alter Your Past Deeds

One of the most commonly made points regarding alignment debates is, "Oh, so your genocidal madman casts a few good-aligned spells on himself, and presto, now he's good? What about all the bad stuff he did?"

He still did it. Your alignment isn't your criminal record. Just because you suddenly go good, that doesn't mean that all the wickedness you committed stops existing, or that you can't be taken to task for it. Just like how it doesn't mean the paladin who fell from grace in his one moment of weakness no longer has a long and illustrious record of great deeds behind him. And just as the paladin's predicament will elicit sympathy from those who want to help them rise back to where they were, so too your redeemed villain will be met with hostility and mistrust. Because even if you have changed your alignment, and the actions you are willing to take now, that doesn't scrub out everything you did then. Not only that, but you also have to act in accordance with your new alignment if you want to keep it.

So, a shift in alignment is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It simply reflects the actions you have taken, and the change those actions has wrought on your character. And if you have not taken big, sweeping, typically magic actions that affect your alignment, the change is often going to be rather slow.

More importantly, though, it doesn't matter if your fighter thinks he's a good person if he's regularly committing atrocities (murder of the innocent/helpless, cannibalism, torture, etc.). Because we're not judging what's in his heart, or what he believes. We're stacking his actions up against a chart, and seeing how many check marks he gets one way or the other. Because you might not lose sleep over pulling out someone's fingernails for the greater good, but you will sure as hell feel an alignment shift as a result.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully it helps folks see a different facet of alignment than they usually do, and it provides some insights into why there are so many disagreements on a single issue. If you'd like more content from me, check out my Gamers archive. I'll be trying to add at least one new post a week. To stay on top of my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 per month to make a difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you!

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