The Rule of Threes


Why Planescape Doesn't Need Alignment

When I convert Planescape to another system such as GURPS or Fudge, the first objection many make is that you have to also convert over Alignment, since Planescape depends on alignment. My view is that alignment is an D&D mechanic. I will happily use it and play with it when playing an D&D game (as, for instance, I am currently with my Pathfinder plane-hopping campaign). Alignment is not, however, a part of the GURPS or Fudge mechanics, and as such is not necessary in those games- not even for a GURPS Planescape or Fudge Planescape game! This page is my extensive arguments as to why I think alignment is unnecessary when playing Planescape under a system other than D&D.


Introduction: What I'm Trying to Accomplish

When I advocate not importing some sort of alignment mechanic into rules systems other than AD&D, I am often accused of gutting the Planescape setting. I am removing what makes it Planescape, the argument goes, by eschewing alignment. What I want to do here is attempt to make two points:

  1. Planescape survives intact, and keeps its verve and uniqueness, even in the absence of alignment labels as described under the AD&D mechanics, and
  2. If I can convince you of that, then I want to argue that alignment is a terribly limiting and confining thing, without which Planescape is actually enhanced.

If I can just convince one or two people of (1), that I'm not utterly missing the point of Planescape by rejecting alignment, I will be happy. I recognize that most AD&D and Planescape players will think that I'm just off my rocker.

Why Discuss Alignment in the First Place

For most game worlds, if you aren't playing AD&D, you don't have to deal with any of the artifacts of the AD&D rules system, including alignment. Planescape, however, appears to be built on the foundation of alignment. It is all about ethics and philosophy, and the familiar old two-dimensional alignment graph is the time-worn (if not time-honored) foundation of philosophy in AD&D. Alignments appear not only in the description of characters, but in the description of the very outer planes themselves. It seems that you can't get away from using some sort of alignment statistic if you want to play Planescape.

I, respectfully, disagree. The way I see it, alignment is another AD&D statistic just like class, THAC0, hit dice, etc. These other statistics appear in Planescape material. I don't use them. When I convert a character over to GURPS or Fudge, I create the statistics for that character in my system. I try to keep his abilities and nature more or less intact, but I use my system's statistics, not those of the AD&D system. It should be clear, then, that I will do exactly the same thing with the game statistics that describe the character's ethos and philosophy. I take the alignment, along with whatever text description there is of the character's nature and values, and turn that into a combination of advantages, disadvantages, quirks, gifts, and faults (depending on the system I'm using), along with a text description. End of alignment. Not necessary.

An Ethical Mechanic

You may reject my arguments in the previous section, saying that alignment is not just like class, but is more than that. I will ceed this point, though I still think there may be some value in the comparison. Class and level describes how powerful a character is, and what he is capable of. GURPS, Fudge, and other rules sets have their own mechanics for such things. Alignment, on the other hand, describes the broad ethical forces, which are real tangible primal forces in a fantasy world such as Planescape. Quirks and disadvantages in GURPS, or faults in Fudge, may provide more and better tools for describing a character's beliefs and ethos than simple alignment labels, and in this sense you may agree that what I say in the previous section makes sense. However, these GURPS and Fudge game mechanics do not represet any sort of primal ethical forces. Since philosophical and ethical forces are at the core of Planescape, it would seem, that we are back to requiring alignment to keep Planescape as Planescape.

I disagree. I do not think you need to have a specific game mechanic to model ethical forces. There are any number of components of the stories and settings that go into good roleplaying games, which are crucial to the story or setting, for which there are no specific game mechanics. Plots, character evolution, affilitations, remembered grudges, temporary alliances, friendships, foreshadowing, a sense of forboding, rivalries, powerful kingdoms, powerful political parties... all of these things are at times key elements of some settings and some stories, yet most of them frequently make appearances in games without any specific rules mechanic other than good roleplaying. I see the ethical conflicts and your ethical associations as something which is much better left to the roleplaying and story creation aspects of the game, rather than something which should be simplified and cheapened by a two-dimensional mechanic. The primal ethical forces are still there. Even the Powers are still, in some ways, subservient to these primal ethical forces. I can still understand this, and still keep this key element of Planescape intact, without the crutch of alignment as an ethical mechanic.

What Makes Planescape Planescape?

Planescape is already a pretty cool setting as just "a bunch of interesting places." However, that isn't the sum total of Planescape. It is more than that. There is a unifying character, verve, and uniqueness that helps make Planescape such an interesting setting. That verve comes largely from the "philosophers with clubs" aspect of the setting, that philosophy becomes a tangible and potentally intrinsically powerful thing, and from the sweeping multiversal conflicts of primal ethical forces like Law and Chaos.

Given this, I have seen it argued that alignment itself is the foundation of Planescape, that which gives it its structure and its ethical underpinnings. This, I think, is a sadly narrow view of this grand setting. In my view, it isn't that old tired two-dimensional alignment graph that gives Planescape it's verve. It is the conflict of broad, ethical forces, and the tangbility of philosophy. The AD&D alignment graph is, in my opinion, a simplistic way of modeling the relationships between the ethical forces of the universe. I prefer something with more flexibility. I prefer allowing ethical forces that may be asymmetric subdivisions of the AD&D alignemnts, or that may be off of the alignment graph altogether in an orthogonal direction.

Describing Characters and Planes Without Alignment

So you ditch alignment. Does Planescape then collapse in upon itself, because (for instance) Elysium has lost all its identity now that you no longer describe it and its petitioners as Neutral Good? Absolutely not! The planes are all well described, interesting places. They have ethics and philosophies. Take them as they are, and don't worry about the missing alignment mechanic, any more than you worry about the "missing" THAC0 mechanic. Yes, it's clear that all the planes on the Law side of the Great Ring share some affinity for that which you could call Law, and all the planes on the Chaos side of the Great Ring share some affinity for one or another form of Chaos (although there is great variation on how "Chaos" is interpreted by each plane). You can evan have primal forces of Law and Chaos, concepts of Good and Evil, without having to label every plane and every character.

With regards to characters, a GM who shows a fiend to be evil by his actions, words, and beliefs, is doing a lot better than the GM who merely writes down "chaotic evil" and leaves it at that. The PCs actually have to think and judge the good and bad qualities of each NPC they meet, rather than just casting "know alignment" for a quick judgement (which is rather unsatisfying from a roleplaying point of view).

There are also game mechanics in other systems to capture some of the limitations that an AD&D alignment would have placed upon a character. In GURPS, consider some of the disadvantages: Bloodlust, Sadism, Honesty, Code of Honor, and others. All of these (and many more) can be used to represent some facets of what would have been their alignment under AD&D, and they have real game effects on the character. But they are both much more flexible (in their variety) and much more meaningful (in their specificity) than a simple broad alignment label.

That addresses a character's personal beliefs. How do you describe the relationships between characters and the primal ethical forces of the universe, how the character is "aligned" with them, without an alignment mechanic? The answer is short, but many will alas find it unsatisfying: use your brain.

For example, when a character goes to Arcadia, how do you know if he suffers the movement penalties for Chaotic characters if you aren't using alignments? Here, assuredly, are the effects of conflicting primal ethical forces upon that character. My answer is that the GM should make a judgement call about how the Powers of the plane would probably view that character, based on the character's history and actions, and how the character is roleplayed. The GM must ask, in each place, to what degree would this character have an affinty for this plane? And, to do it right, don't just compare alignment labels, but consider the other things that the relm, layer, or plane stands for, and whether or not the character is antithetical to these things.

Doubtless, somebody will complain that without a rules mechanic to guide this, it's subject to huge abuse from an arbitrary GM. I counter that if you are playing with alignments intelligently and really roleplaying, the GM must be just as arbitrary. For he must judge the character to find whether or not he has stayed within or strayed from the alignment that the player wrote down on his character sheet. Since, if it's done intelligently, GM judgement is going to be involved, why chain yourself to the AD&D alignment system? Why not consider everything? Bravery and honor are valued on the first layer of Ysgard; nothing in the "Chaotic Good" or "Chaotic Neutral" alignment label necessarily says anything about this. So consider it all. Look outside the box. The Primal Forces of the universe do assuredly include Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil, but you do not have to limit yourself to just them in a simplistic two-dimensional relationship... if you are willing to ditch alignments.


The Problems with Alignment

Up to now, while I've fired a few shots at alignment, I've mostly tried to convince you that one can still keep Planescape Planescape, and that I am not missing its point nor am I gutting the setting by eschewing alignment. Next, I want to try to argue that alignment actually hurts Planescape, and that you've got a more interesting setting without that mechanic from AD&D. (Before you bristle, if I ever play in one of your Planescape games, and you are using AD&D as your rules set, I will happily use alignment as part of the mechanics of that game. I may sound a little like I'm frothing at the mouth here, and if that irritates you, I apologize in advance.)

Think about the outer planes. Each is a complex, place, distinct from the others but full of diversity within itself. Each plane is way more than a simple alignment label. By simply saying "Chaotic Evil Neutral," do you know what Pandemonium is? No. Insanity is assuredly a fundamental component of Pandemonium, yet it is trivial to come up with an example of somebody who might be described as somewhere between "chaotic neutral" and "chaotic evil" who isn't at all insane, and doesn't have much philosophical similarity to Pandemonium.

This points out the two glaring and seemingly contradictory faults of alignment. Please read on; most people see me leveling what look like contradictory complaints against alignment, dismiss the argument as making no sense, and figure that I'm trying to rationalize my groundless position. However, if you really pay attention to what I'm saying, it's not as nonsensical as it may seem upon first glance.

(1) Alignment is too broad. In my mind, they're only useful as very generally descriptive terms, which only tell you a very small amount about the character or affiliations of an individual. Too many different things can fall under a single alignment label for that label to be given the weight that it's given in AD&D.

(2) Alignment is too restrictive. It sounds contradictory, but it actually goes hand-in-hand with being too broad. By requiring that characters fit within one of a finite number of broad ethical archetypes, you are eliminating some complex sets of beliefs and ethics that still should be imaginable within a sane fictional character.

The analogy I draw is to political parties in the United States. Assume you want to describe everybody's political affiliations on a single axis :


You allow variations within the broad categories (e.g. left-wing or moderate Democrats). Where then do you put, for example, a Libertarian? Some Libertarians would be happy plopping a point somewhere on this line and saying "there, I fit there." Many, however, aren't going to want to choose a position at all on this line; they see themselves off in another direction, and not describable as being somewhere along this one-dimensional axis. You're trying to restrict people to being somewhere along a simplistic system of very broad terms. I see alignment as having the same problem. It's a two-dimensional system, a set of broad and vague terms, the use of which restricts the creation of a character's ethical beliefs.

Planes as Archetypical Representatives of Alignment

If you take the outer planes as representing the primal forces of Chaotic Good or Neutral Evil or the other alignments, then those alignments are defined by the nature of the outer planes in question. "Chaotic Evil Neutral" then, by it's very nature, must include an element of insanity and paranoia, for those elements are part of the foundation upon which Pandemonium is built. What happens, then, to the perfectly sane individual who values his own independence, is rather greedy, bends and breaks laws when he thinks that he won't get caught and can rationalize it away to himself, is perhaps somewhat cavalier about the rights and well-being of others, but most of the time leaves everybody else alone? Though neither paranoid nor insane, this person is probably best described as "chaotic evil neutral". Yet if "Chaotic Evil Neutral" is that represented by Pandemonium, this person cannot have that alignment! There are a finite number of alignments... and it's possible to make it so that no one of the broad alignment terms typified by one of the outer planes apply to a given character. Yet, using that mechanic, you have to create a character with that alignment, so you're stuck. Alignments are too arbitrary.

Personally, I don't like having the AD&D alignment graph as describing "how the planes are." I like the uniqueness and color, and underpinning ethical natures, that the planes have as they are described in Planescape products. Reducing them to being an alignment described in two or three words cheapens them, no matter how many exciting details you provide with additional verbiage. Similarly, requiring that everybody with a given ethical bent have an affiliation with a given plane is trying to shoehorn in alliances where perhaps none should exist.

Freedoms Gained by Ditching Alignment

The most obvious freedom is that you may now create a player character with a code (or lack) of ethics and beliefs as you desire, without having to find where to hang it on the AD&D alignment graph.

There are other freedoms that come up as well. No longer do you have to spend any time rationalizing Loki's presence on Ysgard, even though he's "evil". While, even if you've ditched alignment, you may describe Ysgard as being more good than evil, you no longer have to make it toe its line on the alignment graph. Consider the Greek god Hades. He does not have to be evil. He could merely just have received the worst assignment when he and his brothers (Zeus and Poseidon) were dividing up domains. Maybe most of the denizens of the Grey Waste are evil, and maybe the Grey Waste represents the primal force of Evil, but Hades, a major power of the plane, need not be evil himself.

Many times I have heard this argument that alignment is a necessary foundation of Planescape: "Look at the outer planes! They're laid out right on the AD&D alignment graph!" Aha, but look outside the box. You could turn this into an adventure seed! Suppose the layout of the Great Ring is in fact a Guvner plot. The Guvners want everybody to believe that the universe is orderly and laid out according to simple laws. In this case, they want everybody to believe that the Great Ring is structured according to a very orderly ethical system (i.e. the alignment graph). And, they've convinced enough people that the weight of belief has started to affect the very geometry of the multiverse, and so we see the Great Ring with its order of the planes. But what if they aren't really that way? What if once upon a time the primary pathways between the planes were more tangled? You could postulate a campaign where the PCs start to discover that the Great Ring perhaps isn't the fundamental geometry that everybody thought it was... and these players could start to see some perhaps sinister undertones of Guvner manipulation behind it all.

As a less grandiose example, suppose, as a climax of an epic campaign, a GM wanted to have a "new" outer plane squeeze its way on to the great ring between two existing outer planes. Everything about the Planescape setting suggests that this might be possible. But consider the mess that this would cause for the AD&D player. What is the alignment of its new plane? How now does the Great Ring match up along the alignment graph? (Sound of hair tearing.) If, on the other hand, you've ditched alignment, you've got no problem. Tuck the new plane in where it fits best philosophically, and now you've got a Great Ring that is one plane bigger. The Powers of the outer planes might take great umbrage at the new plane, and doubtless many are going to become concerned about the balance between Law and Chaos, Good and Evil. This is all in-game, and can make for plot points. But the GM does not now have a mucked up game mechanic with planes that don't nicely fit on an alignment graph... because there is no alignment graph to worry about.

Last modified 2012-11-22 by Omar.