The Best In Old School Roleplaying

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Thoughts On Alignment In Swords & Wizardry and OD&D: Part 1

This week during the commute to work I was listening to the Glowburn Podcast #3 in which +Forrest Aguirre and +Bill Hamilton discuss alignment as it stands in D&D and Gamma World's Cryptic Alliances.  This got me to thinking about the origins of alignment, it's meaning and how it is looked at in various incarnations of "the game."

Classic Alignments

The Arrow of Law
The origins of alignment can be found within Appendix N. The two primary sources being Poul Anderson's "Three Hearts and Three Lions" and Michael Moorcock's "Eternal Champion" series. In fact, Moorcock's view of these seems to have been influenced directly by Anderson's works. Moorcock wrote that Law and Chaos are as opposed forces in the multiverse. Each of these has deities aligned to it in the Appendix N tales. Consequently, Clerics in D&D and S&W may not be Neutral.
In the Original game (and thus S&W) only these alignments existed. Law, Chaos and Neutrality (the balance.) One was either aligned with the creative, unifying powers of Law, the destructive and ever changing power of Chaos or else unaligned. Alignment did not dictate behavior in the same way that it later would. It was simple alignment was more alignment by definition. I have a few issues with the term alignment as it is used in later editions of the game.
The Scales of Balance

Later in the life of OD&D, prior to AD&D there was a change in the way that alignment was viewed. This was instigated by Steve Marsh. The same Steve Marsh that would later be partially responsible for the Expert edition of D&D. Steve Marsh discusses his views on alignment in a guest post on +Richard LeBlanc's Save Vs. Dragon blog.

In the post Marsh states, "Eventually, Gary agreed with me and migrated the game world to a 2-axis system where the law/chaos axis crossed with good/evil axis. It allowed for things to be feral without them being necessarily evil (old school “chaos”). It also allowed for characters to distinguish between the amoral (where being without morals = neutral) and the immoral (where those who are doing wrong = evil)."
The Arrows of Chaos

This change was first brought forth in an article by Gary Gygax in The Strategic Review. It would be made more "official" when it became adopted as the 5 point alignment system in the Holmes edition of D&D. In this time the waters of alignment begin to muddy a bit, and became muddier still as editions of the game progressed. With the advent of the 9 point system in AD&D we start to see alignment change into a system of morals and behavior more than an actual system of alignment. So, what is alignment then, and what should we strive to make it?

The Strategic Review Alignment Chart
Defining Alignment

 The Oxford Living Dictionaries define alignment thus:


  • 1 [mass noun] Arrangement in a straight line or in correct relative positions:
    ‘the tiles had slipped out of alignment’
  • 1.1 [count noun] The route or course of a railway or road:
    ‘four railways, all on different alignments’
    ‘present-day road alignments’

  • 1.2  Archaeology [count noun] A linear arrangement of stones:
    ‘there were originally at least four massive stone alignments running from west to east’
  • 2   A position of agreement or alliance:
    ‘the uncertain nature of political alignments’
Clearly the intent of alignment in Swords & Wizardry and OD&D is the second definition: "A position of agreement or alliance." It is also clear that if this is the definition of alignment in early gaming that the term and usage fell away with the addition of a second axis. I have come to dislike the 2 axis system, as it serves more to push a restrictive set of morals (or lack there of) onto the characters rather than serving as true alignment. Likewise, I enjoy the freedom of the linear 3 point alignment system. However, I believe that there is more that can be done with alignment than just this, things which can aid in roleplaying and add depth to both character and campaign! I was inspired by Gamma World's Crytic Alliances when reminded of these in the aforementioned podcast. If you are unfamiliar with this system of "alignment, see the link above. Clearly we can apply more than just a broad cosmic alignment to a character or creature in a game, in the same way that Gamma World did.
Broadening Alignment
 I do not propose that we remove the original 3 point alignment system. Swords & Wizardry and OD&D are based around this system, after all. Additionally the system originates within Appendix N literature, and I like to move the game closer to the original inspiration, not away from it. Therefore, this remains as the core alignment system. Let's call this "cosmic alignment." Next, let's look to religion, as many games tend to have a polytheistic worldview, this is not an issue. Third, we can look at the culture of the character. This is also easy. Is your human fighter from a pseudo medieval culture and from a noble family or perhaps a Nordic inspired culture and she was previously a shield maiden. These two pieces of background information already add a plethora of depth to the character. Or is your elf a high elf? Wood elf? This could make for very different roleplaying and decision making on the part of the player. Lastly, we can add an Organizational alignment, this being the most like Gamma World's Cryptic Alliances. Is the character a member of a thieves guild? Perhaps that character above from the noble family is part of a knightly order? Are they part of a town militia? Remember as well that a character could potentially have many Organizational Alignments. Certainly all of these things could just be background, but when given as alignments, rulings could be made more easily by the referee, especially if the referee is looking closely at the decisions being made by a player for their character.

So, we now have four alignment types to assign to a character:

-Alignment (Cosmic Alignment)
-Religion (Religious Alignment)
-Culture (Cultural Alignment)
-Organization (Organizational Alignment)

All of these things can add to the character and to the game in a broader sense. We'll look at an example in the next post.