Alignment or Allegiance?

Dungeons & Dragons has long had the concept of alignment, though the definition has changed over time. This post will explore some of the options available to me, looking for a best fit for my Seekers of Lore campaign.

Nine-Fold Alignment Model

No Alignment

My background is primarily with Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and Pathfinder, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons before that (and before that, Mentzer B/X). I’ve worked with the Nine-Fold Alignment Model for somewhat more than twenty-five years, in each of its iterations, from the “comply or else” of AD&D through D&D 3.x and Pathfinder’s “purely descriptive” model (which, of the two, I prefer).

Seekers of Lore, though, isn’t about heroes, but about finding what has been lost, recovering it, and making use of it. Yes, there will be good guys and bad guys (Indiana Jones might be Good and René Emile Belloq is Neutral, say, and the Nazis Evil) but that isn’t the focus of the game. It likely affects (or more accurately in the D&D 3.x model, is derived from) the goals of each character, and the means they are willing to use to achieve them, but I think is not a good fit for the style of campaign I’m planning.

Mechanical Considerations

Depending on the edition, the Nine-Fold Alignment Model can have various mechanical considerations… but they generally aren’t very interesting ones. Some characters can be penalized or lose access to their class abilities if they do not conform to certain behaviors. From the Pathfinder Reference Document core classes alone:

  • a paladin who ceases to be Lawful Good or performs evil acts lose all paladin spells and class features and cannot progress further as a paladin;
  • a monk who becomes nonlawful cannot gain new levels as a monk; and
  • a barbarian who becomes lawful loses the ability to rage and cannot gain new levels as a barbarian.

Clerics also turn (if Good) or rebuke/control (if Evil) undead, with Neutral clerics choosing one or the other at character creation. Kind of boring, really.

Also, spell casters can only cast spells with alignment descriptors if their alignment matches. Many of these spells exist in flavors for each alignment axis and orientation (Law, Good, Chaos, Evil) but tend to be pretty much the same, basically “bonus for my team and/or penalty for the other team, with bystanders either helped a little or hurt a little, or ignored”. Pretty boring stuff.

There is a semi-mechanical element in that Lawful Good characters are generally expected to cooperate with each other, Good characters with other Good characters (though they can differ in preferred strategies), Lawful characters with other Lawful characters (unless there is a Good-Evil conflict… but sometimes even then), and…

Bah.

Three-Fold Alignment Model

The classic, pre-Advanced Dungeons & Dragons alignment model actually could be considered a better fit. Leave aside questions of good and evil as irrelevant, the campaign focuses on finding what was lost and restoring it to order. Go into the crazy (chaotic) places, recover the lost knowledge and artifacts; reestablish veneration of a lost god; or recapture a lost fortress, then settle and civilize the region around and make it safe… these all would be suitable activities for Lawful characters, and those who would try to prevent this could be Chaotic.

Or unaligned, just trying to live their days out in safety from marauding dangers such as wild beasts and… Lawful adventurers.

And what if the folk discovered by the adventurers are doing the same thing? Building out from a central authority, exploring and pacifying the land, doing exactly the same thing as the player characters, just headed in a different direction? Do they team up, since they clearly have similar goals? Do they oppose each other, since they each want what the other has? Neither of these suits me, so perhaps something else?

Eh, too hard. Superficially this could be a good fit, but I want something better. I’ll keep this as a fallback plan.

Mechanical Considerations

Not many, even less than for the Nine-Fold Alignment Model. Depending on edition Chaotic clerics may (or tend to) use the reverse forms of some spells, and they rebuke (control) undead rather than turning or destroying them. There are no core classes in B/X that have any alignment requirements, though BECMI added some higher-level classes (paladin and avenger, the druid, and as I recall, the mystic) that have some alignment leanings and requirements. However, overall there is little mechanical effect, and it’s basically a team jersey for all the roleplaying impact it has.

Allegiance

Both FantasyCraft and d20 Modern have the concept of almost arbitrary alignment. In FantasyCraft this is still called ‘alignment’, since you are aligning your goals and activities with a greater power, in d20 Modern this is called ‘allegiance’. I’ll use the d20 Modern term here to differentiate it from the alignments described above, and (since I’m working from memory; all my relevant books are currently in boxes in the garage because we’re moving in a few weeks) I’ll blend them together a bit.

A character may have an allegiance to a powerful figure. Despite my use of the expression ‘greater power’ this is not necessarily a god, even a small one, but may be a powerful figure in the world (something similar to 13th Age’s Icons, even). This gives the character goals (in support of the liege power) and obligations (to the liege power), but also benefits (from the liege power; allegiance is a two-way exchange). These can vary from relationship to relationship. It also gives the character built-in opponents.

Mechanical Considerations

Perhaps surprisingly, this model actually lends itself well to improving some mechanics, and using others.

First, many people are unaligned. This fits the Seekers of Lore campaign quite well — most non-adventurers just go about their daily business, obeying the rules as needed but investing no particular effort on the behalf of, or gaining reward from, those more powerful than them. Similarly, most animals and other creatures are unaligned.

Second, it is quite easy to pick sides. I think Belgarath put it best:

“I like nice, simple situations and nice, easy solutions,” said Belgarath.

“Good and Evil?” Durnik suggested.

“That’s a difficult one, Durnik. I prefer ‘them and us.’ That clears away all the excess baggage and allows you to get right down to cases.”

“Them and us” works pretty well for me. I can get rid of the distinction between ‘divine’ and ‘profane’ bonuses. If someone shares allegiance with you he counts as ‘good’, and if has allegiance with your enemies he is ‘evil’. It’s also easy to include ‘allies’ in this (your liege’s allies, or even your own… or on the other side, the allies of your enemy’s liege, or your enemy’s allies). Everyone and everything else is unaligned and can be considered ‘neutral’.

This does mean both sides in an encounter might cast exactly the same spell for contrary effect (i.e. “who gets affected and how” changes), and that’s fine.

Third, this gets rid of a lot of debate about ‘alignment definitions’. ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ (and even more, ‘Lawful’ and ‘Chaotic’) can be very difficult to reach consensus on; just about every group I have played in over the last thirty years has at some point or another ended up debating it. It drops the idea of abstract alignment entirely. Some lieges (and their vassals) will have commendable goals, others won’t, and the definition of ‘commendable’ can vary by observer… fairly simply and without much ambiguity.

Fourth, by making the relationships explicit, it becomes easily possible to attach other mechanical effects to them. By meeting the obligations of your allegiance (from either end, as vassal or as liege) you can gain certain benefits. The obligations can be similarly explicit.

A god grants access to spell casting, domain powers, and other abilities in exchange for proper service (worship, if appropriate, evangelism, quests, and other service); in exchange the influence of the god spreads and more disciples are found to serve. A king grants you land and stands behind you, lending you the weight of his law, in exchange for your meeting your feudal obligations and working toward his best interests; in exchange he can better rule his kingdom. A mercenary company backs you, providing you training and a safe place to live; in exchange it gains a reliable soldier and field agent.

Aspects

A further consideration, mechanically, is that this model lends itself remarkably well to adopting Fate ‘Aspects’. The abstract alignments, not so much, but this model has clear guidelines as to when each allegiance applies and what it might mean. Each form of allegiance likely has positive and negative elements to it, and can be used to predict what a character might do (be invoked or compelled for effect). Any allegiance this does not apply to should probably be carefully examined.

This is also true for the other alignment models, but being abstract it is somewhat harder to apply them in this fashion. ‘Lawful’ is a little hard to nail down; ‘Sworn Defender of the Nine Swords’ (allegiance to a particular group, probably something martial or royal) is specific enough to be usable.

Closing Comments

I’m definitely leaning toward the ‘Allegiance’ model. It gets me away from abstractions I honestly don’t really care about for this campaign, while leaving room for me to incorporate relevant bits. I like that while there are groups that are considered ‘generally commendable’ or ‘generally despicable’ they can each have contrary elements to them without distracting from their primary ‘alignment’. This can be done with the abstract alignment model but often runs into difficulty because the contrary elements tend to distract people.

That is, a group that does mostly commendable things but has a few shady dealings isn’t “mostly good, but leaning toward neutral” (as might be seen in D&D 3.x). You might say instead “we like them, except for this”, or “they’re a hindrance that is too inconvenient to destroy so we’ll work around them… and might be able to subvert them to our cause, add that to the ‘long plan'”.

Explicitly declaring sides, without abstraction, makes it much easier to adjudicate, and ‘easy to adjudicate’ is something I look for.

I suppose I’ll have to delve into specific examples another time….

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14 Comments

  1. David Lamb

    Hmm. People sometimes accused the 9-fold alignment model as just giving “team jersey” effects, since the Alignments didn’t match their ideas of what the words ought to mean. So it looks like you’ve solved the problem by explicitly making Allegiance a team jersey, but allowing teams to mean whatever the players and DM want them to mean. I think it’s basically a good idea, but…

    What if people have multiple small-A allegiances. A classical feudal knight has allegiances both to his lord and his church, and history has many examples of those allegiances conflicting. How would you handle that sort of situation?

    • The Nine-Fold Alignment Model is accused, I think, of being Cosmic Team Jersey play. The alignments apparently mean something, but not a lot, and nobody is quite certain exactly what.

      You’re right, the allegiance model makes it explicitly Team Jersey play, but it’s not Cosmic Team Jersey, and it’s explicitly defined. And you’re allowed to play independent if you want, without any allegiances — you don’t get anything, but it doesn’t cost anything, so in some senses it’s ‘more free’.

      As far as conflicting loyalties are concerned, I’m inclined to do as GreyKnight says: let them conflict.

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  5. Frendle

    In my E6 sandbox campaign I’ve blended the concept of Alignment and Factions.

    I use Alignment as a quick and dirty reference point for an NPC or Faction, boiling down the overall effect of the faction on the game world.

    For Alignment I use the terms:

    Order: To build, develop, sustain.
    Entropy: To tear down, destroy, anarchy.
    Balance: Consideration of the value of one thing versus another, contentment.
    Weal (Tip of the hat to GG): The welfare of the community; the general good.
    Oppression: The exercise of power via cruelty, malice, moral wrong.

    Balanced Order might be one who considers progress as the best pursuit while considering building consensus as a useful tool to this end.

    Entropic Weal might be a troop of Orc hunters who consider their mission to destroy Orc communities wherever found as supporting the general good.

    Oppressive Order might be the Demon king who builds his army and cities to support his war machine as he marches across the lands making slaves of all he conquers.

    Balanced Weal might be a community where all are content with their position in life and where a master craftsman and a stable hand might sit down for drinks and discuss the possible marriage of their son and daughter.

    Balance may be added to any of the other descriptors, but as should be obvious the combining of Order and Entropy, Weal and Oppression would be excluded by definition.

    I think the benefit of using these descriptors of alignment is that they are specific enough to usefully describe a faction’s worldview while being flexible enough to allow wide variation in the implementation.

    For example: Consider the Paladin (Alignment’s whipping boy) I have spent many nights arguing the possibility of two paladins being on either side of a conflict and yet both being able to justify their actions as holding to the Paladin ideal. In this system a Paladin could be expected to adhere to some version of Ordered Weal.

    Now, consider the Entropic Weal Orc hunters from above. Let us suppose that there is a human settlement, Balanced Weal, which has found it beneficial to have a treaty with a nearby Orc community in which both agree not to bring war to each other’s homes, but if they happen on each other in the wilds, then Katy bar the door.

    Now of course our Orc Hunters are not going to consider this arrangement to be satisfactory, and one night they plan to raid the Orc village causing much death and destruction.

    Might it not be possible to envision that two paladins, one supporting the local town who’s welfare would be threatened and one supporting the Orc hunters who’s destruction of the Orc village ends a proven evil, who would contend (Perhaps even fight) with each other to uphold their view of Ordered Weal?

    Factions:

    Then I define various Factions who’s “mission statements” are described by the above alignments.

    I create a table which I use to track each character as they interact with each of the factions, knowingly or unknowingly. I assign a point value to these interactions and apply the totals to some preset values for “Hated by”, “Leary of”, “Indifferent to”….. etc.

    This gives me an objective measure of the actions a player takes and the consequences of those actions.

    I can apply this to Factions as varied as Gods to competing craftsmen.

    • I think your choice of labels is better than the standard, especially since it removes the association between order and ‘law’ that trips so many people up. However, it does seem that ‘Balance’ is a conscious decision, but I see case for ‘neither’ for those cases where a creature is not interested in balance but is not actually ‘content’. In fact, I would suggest that most people would fall into this category.

      I do still tend to categorize factions by the classic alignments, but I usually don’t share the classification. I notice that in many cases they can still be somewhat subjective.

      Weal for whom? The Orc Hunters could be reasonably identified as ‘Wealful’ for non-orcs, but orcs would likely find them Oppressive and their Weal comes from fighting them.

  6. Frendle

    Yes, balance is a decision. It is internalized action in a sense. The other alignments are manifest actions from the personal subjective point of view. i.e. How the faction sees its own purpose.

    Maybe my explanation of it could be better. “Consideration of the value of one thing versus another” is meant to express Pragmatism without all the baggage that word can bring with it.

    Contentment I see here as a state of mind, neither striving for better nor shirking, no hell below me above me only sky. All that John Lennon stuff. 

    I see your point on “weal for whom” when weal is meant to describe an objective truth like good or evil where an action or person can be defined objectively as one or the other.

    Here, weal is meant to define purpose.

    So the purpose of the Orc hunters is to destroy Orc’s and their communities to remove a known evil from the lands. Hence they are Entropic weal. Their mission statement is destruction of evil for the greater good.

    The Orcs are ordered oppression since they have developed a community and even gone so far as to make a treaty which sustains that community. But they are still murderous bastards.

    That the Orcs might consider the Orc hunters to be entropic oppression doesn’t matter. The Orc hunters don’t define their purpose based on what the Orcs think of them.

    Remember also that I don’t separate Faction from Alignment in this scheme. (I need to replace that word. Alignment = Purpose? Clumsy, have a suggestion?)

    So in my example we have 5 factions. The human settlement (BW), the Orc settlement (OO), the Orc hunters (EW), Paladin Charly (Orc hunters) (OW) and Fred’s God (OW)

    So let’s assume Fred is the PC here, and he won the day and stopped the Orc hunters.

    After the meeting paperwork yields…..

    Fred: Purpose – Ordered Weal. He maintained the order negotiated by the two communities which, in this narrow scope at least, promoted the general good, the safety of the Human community. (The Orc hunters might have lost after all in an E6 world.) Therefore his God is happy enough with him. (Maybe that last kidney shot to Charly was excessive.)

    Faction point delta: 1 – 4 absolute. Based on how much Fred’s actions thwarted or promoted the faction’s Purpose.

    Orc Hunters: -3 Points – Dude, WTF
    Human Community: +2 points – Yay, no orc reprisals. Boo, he beat up that other paladin.
    Charly: -4 points (See here!)
    Orcs: +1 point – He did act to maintain a valued treaty for them, but he is, after all, a Paladin.

    If this had happened in my game, I would likely have scored it this way in my faction tables, and so I would now have a concrete assessment of Fred’s actions as viewed by each faction and can judge what might the consequences of those actions down the road simply by consulting his Faction chart the next time he runs into those Orc hunters. (Which might be 6 months later in real time.)

    • It’s starting to sound, then, like you’re redefining the alignments (Lawful -> Ordered), changing the words to hopefully avoid confusion… but there is still the class alignment underpinnings.

      It does give something of an objective measure, but I’m not convinced it is a measure that needs to be measured. Or I am missing something here (possible, it’s been a long week).

      • Frendle

        From the perspective of the GM, I have always considered that the utility of alignments is to provide a framework for judging the consequences of a player’s actions, but it always seemed that the consequences were from “On high.”

        Since what I really want is for the player’s actions to have consequences “On the ground” I wanted a way to define those which wasn’t subject to my own take on how a character ought to be role-played which I freely admit I am prone to do.
        (Or not subject to my forgetting what the crafty suckers had done from one week to the next.)

        So what I’ll do as I set up a major NPC or group or god is to give them an alignment (Of course) and then a brief purpose/mission statement and if appropriate an opposing faction.

        For example, a listing from my game for the group’s home base city:
        Viscount Stevens: (Wererat, Sorcerer) Ordered oppression. Expand and maintain his influence in the city of Jonsport through murder, blackmail and abduction. Opposed by Town Magistrate Collins.

        Then whenever a player’s actions either promote or impede that mission statement, and the faction is aware of it, I record a value for that action and later I can refer to it to give a starting point for future interactions.

        It sounds complicated I suppose, but really it’s not. I award these points at the same time I am totaling exp, which works well because I am already assessing what happened in the play session to award bonus exp.

        I find this helps me in maintaining the role of neutral observer and facilitator of the group’s meeting. After all sandbox’s belong to the players.

        • As with all things, if it works for you that is a great thing.

          For myself, I think the alignment-based distinctions are not as important. I am satisfied to know that helping or hindering one side or the other can have consequence from the other. That most people would rather see Town Magistrate Collins come out on top and defeat Viscount Stevens (ordered oppression vs. TMC’s alignment) is interesting, but not as important to me (and would be indicated by factions within the town being aligned with TMC — helping TMC crosses Viscount Stevens but the other factions are happy with you).

          I suppose if I were to view the alignments as being a general “everyone else” faction it fits better to me. Helping Viscount Stevens is likely to make everyone not Ordered Oppressive a little less happy with you, regardless of what other factions they fit. It falls down, though, when you run into people uninterested in Viscount Steven’s corner of the world.

          I can see utility here, but I’m not convinced it’s for me.

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