Monday, October 23, 2017

Much Maligned Alignments I: Breakin' the the Law(ful)

In the numerous discussions I have been privy to regarding roleplaying games, no small number of them have been about the nature of alignments. In fact, I would go so far as to state that some of the most heated arguments revolve around this surprisingly sensitive topic.

 In this series, I will pontificate on each aspect of the nine alignment system. In part one, I will explore a core component of the nine alignment system; Law and what it means to be Lawful in the context of the game (my POV stems mainly from AD&D 1E/2E). 

So fill your flagon, sharpen your axe, and hold on to your toe-hairs! This might be a tricky one.

What is Law? Is it meant to be actual legislation of the realm? Some people seem to think so. Or is it a personal philosophy that governs a character's individual decisions and habits? I certainly think so. Might it also be a literal cosmic force? Maybe. Personally, I believe that it is a combination of these three things.

A Lawful person is likely to obey laws that have been written by the governing body of the land he finds himself in. However, lawful should not be confused with law-abiding in every case. An individual might also have his own personal set of morals that supersede the law of the land. There may be societal laws that he finds horribly opposed to his morals. What is to be done in a case such as this? Should the character betray his personal beliefs to follow laws that he finds detestable? Which law should he follow? Which law should he break? Can he find any middle ground that does not compromise his alignment? Now we begin to see the complexities of the matter.

Does breaking a disagreeable law mean that the character in question is suddenly chaotic? I don't think so. In my view, being lawful means the character subscribes to the philosophy that order is more desirable than chaos. Discipline is preferable to disorganization. This does not mean that he will blindly follow just any method for bringing law and order to the world. 

The concept of Law as a force has its roots mostly in the works of Poul Anderson, and by adoption, Michael Moorcock. It is the work of Moorcock, in fact, that is most commonly associated with this cosmic struggle between the forces of Law and Chaos. This idea of Law as a cosmic force is not necessarily synonymous with positivity, however. In Moorcock's "To Rescue Tanelorn", for example, a plane of pure Law is described as a barren wasteland, containing nothing. Taken to its logical extreme, Law becomes as destructive as Chaos. Considering this, it is certainly plausible that a character could be Lawful in alignment, yet scorn mundane"laws" as meaningless in the face of bringing pure order to the world. 

When asking ourselves and each other about the nature of Law, there are numerous correct answers, it seems. Much of this is subjective. The accuracy of one view does not preclude the accuracy of another. 

I would encourage everyone to explore the beginnings of Law as a force or alignment in games, by all means, but most especially the literary origins that laid the foundation for its inclusion in the first place. I feel that there is much to be added to one's understanding of alignments and therefore one's game by doing so.

So good luck, good reading, and more to the point, good gaming!