Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dark Sun: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Alignment?

Ah, Alignment! One of the most controversial artifacts of Ye Auld Game, whether in the three-fold variety of OD&D, the unique five-fold presentation of Holmes, or the baroque nine-fold model from AD&D. Like many others of my generation, I went from passive acceptance of Alignment to an intellectual disdain: Alignment was artificial, simultaneously constrictive and useless, and what the hell was an Alignment Language anyway?

Since my adult return to gaming, I've softened that stance quite a bit. I've seen some wonderful explanations of Alignment Languages and have found the Andersonian/Moorcockian three-fold model of Law-Neutral-Chaos works very well for most of my fantasy games. I'm quite happy to have Order and Entropy as the great Powers That Be, eternally struggling for cosmic supremacy, with Neutrality as either a third force (The Cosmic Balance! (which, when you put an exclamation point on it, becomes a very Kirbyesque concept)) or the more mundane refusal to play the game. I've done this in my current Onderland Campaign and I'm quite pleased.

And yet.

And yet, I'm not entirely comfortable with using the concept in Old-School Dark Sun (do you like that name? Catchy, eh? I just made that up). I can see where it could work, of course. In some sense, Athas is a world dominated by the Power of Chaos; it's green and pleasant days of Order slashed and burned leaving a seething, mutated wasteland with one weird geographical feature after another. Chaos Ascendant! (actually, put an exclamation point after almost anything and it sounds Kirbyesque. Or maybe I've been reading too many Kamandi comics as I work on this). Those who are Lawful are in some way dedicated to restoring Athas or, at least, fighting the entropy and madness. Neutrals would be those who don't care for one reason or another and Chaotics are those who revel in, and maybe spread, the destruction, such as the Sorcerer-Kings. One could even naturally tie in the Dark Sun concepts of Defilers and Preservers as agents (consciously or not) of Chaos and Law. Pretty neat and tidy.

And yet.

I'm still uncomfortable. First off, grand cosmic conceptions of Chaos and Order seem a bit alien to my vision of Athas. This is an intellectually impoverished world where people are mostly just trying to not die from dehydration, falling into silt lakes, or being eaten by Halflings...er...Wild Men. Then there's the sticking point that I have dropped the Preservers and largely removed the ecological component of Defiling. There are no Alignment-specific psionics; no Protection from Evil spells; magic swords are made by psychic ghosts and don't have Alignment (I didn't tell you that yet? Just wait); and so on. I'm having trouble seeing what function Alignment would have. I should just drop it.

And yet.

Totally eliminating the idea seems somehow wrong. Here's an alternate idea that I had: Allegiance. Allegiance is the elemental idea that dominates the character's life; the the thing he will always turn to in the end. It could be mundane (Food, Safety), metaphysical (Truth, Brotherhood), or anything else that can be represented in one word. Allegiance has no mechanical effects; it would be a short-hand way to represent what a character is about in a more down-to-earth, concrete way than the cosmically-descriptive Alignment.


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