Friday, March 6, 2015

Alignments and Tendencies in Swords & Wizardry

An optional approach to the Swords & Wizardry alignment system

Not every official publication contains official rules, and this is such a case. I’m about to outline something I’m doing in our future Lost Lands setting as a tool for that setting, not as a change or even an addition to the Swords & Wizardry rules themselves. What follows is something I use myself, and it’s solidly grounded in the very late period of 0e, both in Judges Guild and TSR products. My own interpretation of it might or might not be on target, of course, but this is my take on the parenthetical alignment notations describing good and evil “tendencies” as a modifier for Law, Neutrality, and Chaos.

Why am I writing this? I’m not trying to tinker with the game itself. I’m writing this because in the Lost Lands setting I realized that the three-point alignment system wasn’t very predictive for some of the major figures in the campaign. The actions and plans of an adventure-scenario villain are almost always quite clear; they are integral to the module itself. For the ruler of a province, in a campaign setting, however, things are much more open-ended. An alignment on the three-alignment system, without respect to human morality, doesn’t always give you enough to grab hold of as a Referee in terms of how the ruler or significant NPC might react to things, or what their rulership might look like in actual practice.

So, as was done in several of the 0e and early 1e products, in the Lost Lands Campaign I’m planning to add a parenthetical notation at the end of peoples’ alignment designation, for “good” and “evil” tendencies. Significantly, these aren’t part of the actual alignment in game terms. They indicate a moral tendency that has nothing to do with the person’s actual place in the true cosmic struggle of Law and Chaos. The best illustration of this is that spells (at least the ones in the book) cannot detect or affect a person’s moral tendency. Moral tendencies don’t rule out any sort of action, they are just a general description of a person’s internal moral compass.

Personal Morality vs. Cosmic Alignment

The Law-Neutrality-Chaos alignment system describes a battle between cosmic and divine forces, in which human values such as “good” and “evil” are either just synonyms for Law and Chaos, or else play no significant role at all in terms of the game’s rules.

The word “alignment,” to my mind, has to do with one’s position in a conflict of forces that are entirely beyond the human scope, possibly beyond the scope of the gods themselves. Humans are no more than pawns, and the gods are probably just higher-ranking chess pieces, to extend the analogy. Alignment is a matter of whose pawn you are. There is an element of destiny in that alignment, as well as the element of personal choice. Magical forces can detect whether you are one of the black chess pieces or one of the white ones, because the mark is dyed into your very spiritual essence, even though you can change sides, or perhaps commit the lesser sin of being an unreliable pawn.

A moral tendency, on the other hand, is entirely a matter of personal choice, and often has nothing to do with your standing in the eternal war of Law and Chaos. Morality is a human construct, and one that is shared by many of the gods, but it is irrelevant to Law and Chaos, which are amoral forces of preservation and ruin. That’s an important point, because it shows where I’m getting at something different than the 9-point alignment system of first edition, where things like “Lawful Good,” “Neutral Good,” and “Chaotic Good” are all different supernatural, cosmic forces. A character’s alignment can click around on that circular dial of 9 alignments based on actions and beliefs. Adding a tendency toward Good or Evil doesn’t turn the Swords & Wizardry alignment system into such a circular dial. Rather, it creates two completely separate gauges, one of which is on a scale from Law to Chaos, and one of which is on a scale from Good to Evil. The gauges have nothing to do with one another. The Law-Chaos gauge is supernatural and cosmic, indicating which side you’re on, and possibly that you’re under the risk of destinies and fates. The Good-Evil gauge isn’t magical at all, other than the fact it might make you prefer one Lawful god over another, and make them prefer you, too. It might create a faint aura, based on your past actions, and it can be used to guess how a person would react under certain circumstances, but that Good-Evil gauge is your role in human-scale morality, not your role in the cosmic battle. Indeed, it is often the reason why many of the pawns of Law and Chaos can be “unreliable,” since they skitter off on moral issues. Many players have observed that the forces of Law and Chaos are both somewhat genocidal, and I think this is a good way of portraying cosmic struggles both in swords & sorcery pulp fiction and in a game that depends on lots of excitement and combat. On the other hand, it misses the subtler sort of issues that add depth to the game (and specifically in this case, to a campaign setting). Perhaps a paladin actually has no particular tendency toward good; interesting, that’s Solomon Kane. Druids can suddenly be meaningfully divided among the ones who burn people in wicker baskets and the ones who offer kindly advice to strangers from their roadside flower gardens. All of these distinctions are still possible within the Law-Neutrality-Chaos continuum, but they become easier to handle in game terms (especially for the Referee) if there’s a label and some vocabulary to stick on that moral element of behavior.

Where it Leads a Campaign
This all highlights an interesting world-view of the swords & sorcery authors who first latched onto the portrayal of the universe on a law-chaos axis instead of a good-evil one. It means that humankind lives in a cosmos that is ultimately and essentially alien, distant, heartless, and amoral. Both sides of the cosmic struggle are relentless, and neither side is unambiguously always “right” from the perspective of the pawns. Humanity’s destiny and alignment clearly lies with Law, in the end; but individual humans can choose sides, or even decide that a personal morality requires rejection of many of the dictates of cosmic Law. Proponents of Good may know that their cause is ultimately doomed, as a final cosmic principle, but they can certainly choose to go down fighting.

I look at it this way, with the intention and assumption that you’ll take or leave it in your own game, as a matter of individual preference. In the game, I see the social organization of humans as being a muscle in the “body” of the forces of Law, a muscle that pushes at the wheel of destiny, trying to shift it toward Law rather than Chaos. It’s the organization of that muscle which gives it power, not whether the muscle provides mercy or benefits to its component pieces, the little humans. Thus, a tyrant who keeps order will in some cases be preferable, from the standpoint of the cosmos, to a kind king whose realm is disorganized. This isn’t to say (again, the way I play) that tyrants are the best servants of Law; I assume that civilized, productive realms are the long-term play for Law, because they are stable. I also see the arts and sciences as part of the social fabric that provides strength to this metaphorical muscle I’m describing. However, I can see a tyranny as one of Law’s stopgap measures, or the sort of thing that the forces of Law might resort to in a desperate rearguard action for a world poised on the brink of chaos, possibly fighting a delaying action until some hero or other plan can be used to stave off utter ruin.

Here’s another interesting thought. First edition introduced a split between “devils” and “demons,” to reflect that each point on the nine-point alignment wheel is a separate cosmic force. Thus, if you’ve got a couple of evil alignments you need the infernal-demonic monsters for those forces to be different from each other. If you create that same distinction between demons and devils in Swords & Wizardry, though, you suddenly have these horrible devils who are actually on the side of Law in the cosmic battle. How interesting is that? You could also have some really nice, kindly angelic types battling on the side of ultimate cosmic ruin because they will not abandon their conviction in mercy and kindness. This really throws the universe into a morally ambiguous setting, one that’s definitely NOT standard fantasy.

A final point, since I mentioned that the gods are chess pieces like humans, albeit more powerful ones. I see many gods, although not all, as having moral tendencies as humans do, although with a longer time horizon and less passion for the details. From the Referee’s standpoint, this makes for a much larger slate of deities, and more variety, which I think is a good thing in terms of adding depth to a campaign world.

Anyway, that’s the thought for the day, and the little warning that there will be some Swords & Wizardry products coming out that have at least some mention of good and evil in them. Don’t panic, it’s not a rules change, just a campaign tool.

Good Gaming!