Drifting Sands, Drifting Souls
Alignment has always been a sticky subject in the D&D family of games. In the first few editions of Dungeons and Dragons, a character’s alignment was a hard rule. A Lawful Good character would always obey any law and would always be good to people regardless of consequences. This left little room for interpretation. What if a law is inherently bad for someone? For instance, a law indicating that the wealthiest of citizens are given free magical healing, whereas the poor citizens are given free healing from a physician is unfair and somewhat unethical. It panders to the rich and prevents the poor from receiving the same benefits as their wealthy counterparts, even though both forms of healing are free.
To take that example further, a Paladin was generally considered to be a knightly sort that served a temple. However, history shows us in real life that religious military orders (the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller, the Teutonic Knights and so on) engaged in some pretty heinous acts of violence against other people. And these folks, especially the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Order, are arguably the very basis upon which the Paladin class was created.
An example that was brought up in this regard is the following: a town is plagued by goblins and asks the heroes for help. The Paladin, Cleric, Wizard, and Rogue all head to the goblin camp. They begin to simply slaughter the goblins, and most players wouldn’t bat an eye at this. Goblins are, after all, causing problems for the town. But why are these goblins causing problems for the town? Do they need food? Are they being pushed out of their homes by someone or something stronger than them? The Paladin, of all of the characters, should be raising these questions if alignment was meant to be a hard and fast rule.
In the Drifting Sands campaign setting, a character’s alignment is what she most closely follows. Alignment is fluid and can change depending on a character’s actions and motivations, and while some classes have strict alignment restrictions (like the Paladin or Barbarian), typically alignment rarely comes up save for in role playing situations, or certain combat situations where a spell or ability (like Smite Evil or Detect Alignment) will display it.
Because alignment can be fluid and can change, it is less a moral imperative for a person and more a general guideline or set of ethics and morality that the person tries their best to follow. Just like real people, characters can slip and make mistakes. If the Paladin accidentally slips to temptation and spends a night drinking and whoring after almost being killed in a horrible dungeon, this doesn’t immediately remove the character’s alignment and change him to Chaotic because he’s not following the laws of the land. He slipped. He’ll likely feel awful about it for a good while, he might try to atone – though mechanically he does not need to – and eventually he’ll get over it with the strength of will to know he won’t do it again.
Like people in the real world.
Organizations are similar. If one were to be true to the term, an organization would be lawful in nature. This would include assassin’s guilds, thieves’ guilds, all nations, and even barbarian tribes. They follow laws and codes, right? Of course — how else are they going to ensure that the organization remains intact? But many of these groups fly in the face of the Lawful ideal. A lawful thieves’ guild makes no sense. A lawful barbarian tribe is mechanically impossible.
These organizations work because Chaotic things (and people) tend to have codes to which they aspire. A Chaotic Neutral person may have a code of honor that indicates that they will not harm or cheat their friends, they will not harm children, they’ll only steal from the rich, and they will not commit an act of sexual violence against someone. Anyone (and anything) else might be fair game, certainly. If the aforementioned rich person refuses to give up his coin purse, our Chaotic Neutral hero may kill him to gain it. And in a direct turn, then donate the money to help feed the poor in a local slum. But this does not make him Chaotic Good or Chaotic Evil – nor does it make him Lawful. He has his personal code. Killing and stealing from the rich is generally against the law, while not harming children and not committing more heinous acts are usually in line with the law. Why does the character feel this way? That’s up to the player. Maybe it’s part of his or her background. Perhaps it’s because he or she simply considers it to be “wrong.”
On the same token, a Chaotic Good character will likely do everything in her power to provide good works to people, and will often work against the law to do it. However, if a law indicates that something is good for someone – for instance, if the law states that all citizens receive free food – and she comes across a weakened man dying of hunger, she will follow that law, get some food and give it to the man. Because she’s following the law doesn’t immediately make her Lawful. She’s still chaotic – this particular law simply appealed to her sensibilities of what’s right.
The same works for organizations. A local thieves’ guild may avoid a specific area. Or perhaps they do not engage in running prostitution rackets or get involved in the local narcotics trade. Maybe they are thieves in the strictest sense — they break into houses, steal goods and fence them, or pick pockets. Despite having a code of honor against the other actions that the guild simple does not do, they are not a Lawful organization. They’re Chaotic, but certain things do not appeal to their sensibilities of what they believe is the right or wrong thing to do. This may even be so simple as being unprofitable in areas where drug use isn’t common or prostitution would be difficult to get away with. This would be a very classic example of Chaotic Neutrality. If the leader and members of the guild simple feels that the exploitation and sexual slavery of others, and getting people addicted to drugs is absolutely reprehensible, the organization could be considered Chaotic Good. Same general ideas, different outlook on how to approach them. Nonetheless, if the winds change and people decide that it’s time to get involved in the drug trade, will they do it? Maybe. It depends on what it will do to them as an organization — the cohesion of which is their primary goal in being members.
Here is a real-world example: the American mafia had no qualms against murder, prostitution, drug- and gun-running and liquor smuggling during prohibition. They ensured that anyone who was not part of the lifestyle (and did not attempt to become part of their lifestyle through favors or asking for help) would be injured; most stories insist that they made sure that women were treated with respect, even if only in regards to their members’ wives and daughters. They had a code of silence that prevented them from talking about their activities to outsiders.
American street gangs still have that code of silence since snitches get killed, but gang members don’t care who they harm or kill, really. Instead of more calculated hits against their enemies, they’ll drive by and spray bullets at them, and whoever else gets hit ends up getting hit. It doesn’t really matter to them. Both groups like it when people get hooked on their products, but gangs will often sell inferior products in order to cut their own overhead and make more money off of less. Most gangs are not able to sit down with other gangs and come up with a mutual non-aggression pact, whereas the Five Families in New York City did just that for almost fifty years. Most gangs are pretty much perpetually at war with their enemies, and damn the costs of it. See all of the gang violence that’s cropped up over the last twenty years, primarily attributed to illegal narcotics.
A gang as described above would be a Chaotic Evil organization, whereas a mafia syndicate as described above would be Chaotic Neutral. Both do similar things. They both pimp women, sell drugs, run protection rackets and murder to get their way. However, the differences are in how they approach these things, and also how they treat outsiders.
Similarly, a charity service in the real world may acquire food and money for the disenfranchise and poor of other countries, or may attempt to provide housing and shelter to people caught without it. Most of these organizations are groups that, given the alignment descriptions, we would likely consider to be Lawful or Neutral Good. However, if a group was unable to get into a country to deliver their food, medical supplies and building supplies to a needy group of people, they may attempt to subvert the law to gain access to it — or look for loopholes. This is a Chaotic act, but they did not set out with that as a rule of their organization. Those particular people are just very needy, and the organization absolutely must get their supplies to them. They aren’t suddenly going to start ignoring all other laws because of this one shift in general paradigm.
Alignment is just a general guideline and a quick description of how a character or group tends to act. While alignment still plays a part in the worship of deities for Clerics, the ability to remain a Paladin, Bard, or Barbarian, one does not always have to conform to their alignment at all times. Sometimes people do things that are very different from the norm. It is rare, but occasionally people will break out of their shell in extraordinary situations. Sometimes these situations last for an instant — sometimes these situations last for several years. People change, but their beliefs, ethics, and morals may not.
Keep this in mind.