Monday, May 27, 2013

Some Thoughts about Alignment

I was talking with +Adam Muszkiewicz and the rest of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad crew the other night, and talk drifted to the notion of alignment. We were trying to figure out, using DCC's Turn Unholy rules, whether or not a particular creature could be sent packing by one of our clerics. As it turned out, it could, but the roll was not successful. So, of course they just killed it the old-fashioned way.

Here's the thing: I've never really liked alignment. It's stupid. (Oh, look, now I'm reduced to calling it names like an 8 year old. What does that say about my alignment?) Here's why. We human beings have certain things about ourselves that we like to think of as permanent, intrinsic, and essential elements of our being. One just is a kind person. He just is a fucking bastard. Those things that one does are the things that one is. But that ain't really how it works.

We are what we are... for now. We have elements of personality that are relatively enduring, certainly, but those things don't much matter until they come into relationship with other things that exist in the world, independently of ourselves. So, one's "kindness" isn't something that one is. It's something that becomes consequential because of one's affiliation and interaction with someone else. One is kind to children and animals, for example, but a complete shit to... creatures that are not animals and children. He is a complete bastard, because he loves money more than he loves you.

So, Item the First: Alignment is a process and involves interactions with other people and things. It is about one's dispositions and motivations toward those people and things.

Also, when we speak of alignment (and this is explicit in the cleric and paladin classes), we're talking about culture. My culture. Your culture. That other guy's culture. I love my culture and wish to celebrate and preserve its awesomeness (lawful). I hate your culture and want to see it destroyed (chaotic). I'm not sure about that other guy's culture, but largely don't give a shit (neutral). Cultural belonging comes along with affiliations with other people, groups, and ideologies, taken as a package. It is filled with contradictions and nonsense, ludicrous ideologies asserted to be the bedrock of The Truth of Things.

Item the Second: Alignment is about affiliations with natural groups and ad hoc collections of people, artifacts, ideologies and other various manifestations of Culture.

Very importantly, culture has a past, a present, and pretensions toward a future. Consider that word, "pretensions." Something is poised, waiting, ready to tend toward some particular outcome. Alignment is about pretensions, expressed and/or internalized, that become the stuff of one's motivations. Motivations about the world and the people therein. Motivations concerning groups and people near and distant in geography and time. Motivations concerning one's place in the world, and whether or not that place is desirable and if it might be changed by some agent or agency. For example, if I am oppressed in some way, I am on some level cognizant of that whether as a well-measured and expressible manifesto or as a less expressible sense of well-being or outrage. It's a measure of one's desire to navigate the world, to act in ways that make sense to us and bring us closer to what we seek, for our own purposes.

Item the Third: Alignment is about one's motivations and how they are manifested toward particular ends, over some period of time.

Given that the motivations I reference above may result in words, deeds, or some other happenings in the world, they have the potential to have effects on oneself and on the world itself. Also, the expressions of our motivations tend to put us into relationships with various others in our worlds. What we do will come back to haunt us, for good or for ill or simply by chance. Others will do the same. The result of our actions is culture, as I've said, but it's also a very, very chaotic system, and natually productive of change and transformation. The world doesn't sit still, because we won't let it do so. We're constantly mucking about with it, and with each other, our actions causing waves or ripples or sinking without trace.

Item the Fourth: Alignment is changeable and is affected by things outside of oneself over one's life, to a greater or lesser extent. Much of this is outside of one's direct control.

Finally, alignment means that we are making moral judgments about the world. That thing is good, and that one bad. This makes my happy, and that makes me sad. Because we are positing a set of relationships between ourselves, each other, and the things (philosopical and material) that exist the world, we impose a moral framwork on those people, things, and happenings (and/or our beliefs about them). We work toward particular ends, sometimes with or against others. But we do so in a way that pursues whatever we consider to just, right, correct, or otherwise in sync with our particular outlook and idiom. We seek to express that outlook/idiom upon the world around us in ways that are thought to "improve" it.

Item the Fifth: Alignment concerns the righteous use of power.

Now, I guess it remains to figure out a way to express this as a mechanic. I'm not certain that needs to happen, however. Again, I will, as that's how I'm aligned, put this into the frame of narrative. This is the story of a particular character and his or her relationship to all of that stuff I just said. So, I'll drag one of my favorite theorists into this: Kenneth Burke, and American scholar of language and power. He developed something called the Pentad to unpack various linguistic expressions of what he called "motivations." His project filled several books, and has been subtle and or vague and/or contradictory in its genius to be more philosophy of approach than actual core, mechanical description of how language or psychology work. In the end, I'm not even sure if Burke "finished" that work. Nonetheless, it's useful here.

Burke's Pentad

Act: What happened.
Scene: The situation
Agent: Who did it.
Agency: How it was done.
Purpose: Why it was done.

Burke called this system, "dramatism," and for him it was an attempt to create connection between what was in the mind and how that was expressed in the world. It was his attempt to see how, in some sense, people turn their lives into stories and make sense of the world in the ways that language allows (i.e., by expressing a narrative of some kind with actors, scenes, agents, agencies, and purposes), in ways that are centered on the things that we care about (good or bad): The Neverending Story of the Eternal I.

A teacher of mine, Michael Calvin McGee, once told me that Burke's dramatism, indeed his whole approach to language, was his attempt to reconcile the works of Marx (political economy) and Freud (subjectivity), an intriguing notion and a daunting task. In any case, he did his best to think about how we are consciously/unconsciously motivated to do and express things in the world, and how we do so and think about doing so in ways prefigured by how we use language. Our use of language provides a more or less narrative structure to our understanding of lives and life-worlds.

Witness, for example, tabloid magazines or reality television. They take everyday activities and subject them to scrutiny, unpacking and examining the acts, circumstances, people, means, and purposes of everything from celebrity actors to child-prodigies of incredible redneckery to trophy wife/hosebeasts. Notice, however, these sorts of media not only "document the atrocities," if you will, but also frame them in ways that provoke us to adopt an attitude toward them. Honey Boo-Boo (I want to punch myself in the face for having typed that) is a child-prodigy of incredible redneckery. This is a facsimile of a  person who exists in the world in particular ways. These ways may be similar or dissimilar to my own (Reveal: Not very similar). They may or may not provoke a reaction from me (Vague disgust and desire to become a Canadian citizen instead of living in Georgia). In any case, the depiction of this child (and it's a carefully edited and selective depiction of this child and her particular milieu), provokes a reaction in a lot of people. It may be disgust and anger, or maybe it's a sense of identification with the kid and her family. More importantly, it tells a story. That story provides a moral lesson, the current version of the medieval morality play, forcing each of use to pick a position, even if that position is "I don't give a shit. This stuff is stupid" (an expression of neutral alignment).

Also, it's important to notice how each one of us makes sense of his/her actions and their effects on the world. For example, many people tend to react to everything in the world as if it was specifically targeted at the person in question. That guy cut ME off in traffic! What a dick! Or, maybe we wonder why the weather would ruin OUR plans. Shit doesn't just happen. It happens to me. To make me happy or cause me grief. To afflict my enemies and aid my friends (or vice versa). It's about me, me, me, me, ME!

But how else is a person to view the world. We're all trapped in this awkward meatsacks, separated from each other, longing for connection, and we can only achieve such connection through the intercession of messy, imprecise, and inherently dangerous means of symbolic communication. So we simplify. We cut corners. We narrate order to the world, holding back the uncertainty with hardened ideology and pithy catchphrases, with fashion choices and iconic jargon, with friends and traditions, with all of those things that symbolize US and not THEM.

So, yeah, I think alignment is a bit more complicated than what we usually do with it. I don't have a hard and fast way to put your PCs in their boxes. I don't want one. I'd rather just keep a list. Start with a few things on that list that describe the character and his/her motivations, affiliations and enmities, and so forth. Then let the story make those more or less consequential as they come into play, or get pursued in some way. Keep track of that stuff. It will tell you how your character is aligned.

Oh, and about "alignment language"... *sigh* This makes very clear what I mean when I separate ontological "alignment" from narrative "alignment." Oh, I speak Chaotic Evil. What the fuck is that? Every person of a particular alignment just speaks this language because... what? That doesn't work. I have language because of culture, and subculture affects its particularity of application. For serious, an example: I don't speak with my droogies because of what I am, in terms of alignment. I govreet with these chellovecks because of the particular instance of nadsat culture we are part of. We like to crast pretty polly and engage in a bit of ultraviolence. Cross me, and the red, red kroovy will flow. There's your alignment language. Notice, though, that it's not about belong to an alignment group, but about aligning oneself with a set of particular others, with people, cultural trends, etc. That's what dynamic alignment is.


  1. I usually play and DM old school games where the alignment focus is on Law and Chaos. Law emphasizing WE and chaos more concerned with ME. Good and Evil are merely a measure of how much of a dick you are about it. The only purpose is to establish a character's motivation. Alignment language isn't a language per se, but a way to determine if a person is on the same page as you based on how they speak and what topics they seem to be most interest in when they do speak. Haven't you ever talked to someone and within thirty seconds just knew you would not be hanging out with them?

  2. I can see your point about alignment language, but I think my sense of culture and alignment would make that sort of thing work better in campaign with a media-rich environment, on productive of subcultures of various kinds. That could work really well for a modern/futurist campaign, but I don't see it being as useful for a fantasy campaign. I could see something like a thieves' cant or a mercenary bands use of sign language (a la The Black Company), for sure, but simply using alignment language as such still doesn't make as much sense to me. Regional dialects could probably work, too.