While discussing the creation of characters for a sword & sanity game the morality of the game world and how it relates back to the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system was discussed briefly. This article is a continuation of that discussion.
The game mechanics discussed can be used for any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but are specifically written for Castles & Crusades. As with most game materials I will present, this article is considered Open Game License (OGL).
Good and Evil
As stated before, almost all characters in the sword & sorcery (S&S) genre are morally ambiguous. The heroes of these tales are thieves and slayers, and their actions are not always “heroic”. They simply do not concern themselves with “the greater good” on their hero’s journey. Even when placed in a situation where there is an evil that needs to be battled. Usually, there is another agenda at play that gets the hero involved in the first place. Revenge and fortune are always a great motivating forces in S&S tales.
Right and Wrong
So how do you approach Alignment in a S&S style game? Doing away with the Alignment rules altogether would be the best way to go. Taking this approach should introduce a sense of freedom to the players, as they will not be penalized for their actions, at least in game terms. Of course the local authorities might argue with this when they decide to have their characters ride roughshod through town trampling women and children along the way.
Even though you as a game master have decided to nix the alignment system from the game the players will still be held accountable for the decisions they make when playing their characters. Eliminating a moral awareness of good and evil does not mean that there still isn’t a sense of right and wrong. Of course the storyline and the setting you present will regulate this for you. There is no need for a game mechanic to do that work when the story itself can. When designing your game setting make sure you establish what the laws of the land are, and hold the characters accountable to those laws.
Law and Chaos
A more traditional way (at least in Gygaxian D&D terms) of approaching Alignment in a S&S setting is through the introduction of the metaphysical concepts of Law and Chaos on a cosmic level, best illustrated by the Elric series of stories. In this approach there is a war that rages where the powers that be are attempting to sway the Cosmic Balance towards Law or Chaos, and the gods themselves manipulate humanity to that end.
The Alignment system as presented in D&D represents this approach very well. Little or no adjustments need to be made. How will this effect gameplay? It depends on how interactive the extra-planar beings are with the people of the world, and how aggressive they are when involving the characters in their cosmic dealings. Obviously, this could be a great way to take high level characters and transition them from a realm-based game and into a planar level campaign where they become agents for Law or Chaos.
Living by a Code
Sometimes it is the characters themselves in a S&S story that regulate Alignment, and they do this by a code that they have for whatever reason decided to live by. Robert Howard liked the idea of having his heroes live by certain codes of conduct.
Conan lived by a "barbaric code", which instilled in him a hatred of civilized “law”, but also gave him a deep level of integrity and honor. Despite being a man who could kill and pillage without a second thought, he was also a man of his word and a person who could become a true friend to those he respected.
Solomon Kane lived by his Puritan worldview, which makes his code much more straight forward than Conan’s. Kane was a pious man in a world of immorality and decadence, and it was his duty to God to punish that which was immoral. Despite this drive to destroy evil, Kane had a savageness that always boiled below the surface, which made him a stone cold killer when he had to be. Obviously, Kane would be a great model for anyone attempting to play a Paladin in a S&S campaign.
So what would the Old Gent of Providence say about all of this? Obviously, he would scoff at the notion of a Cosmic Balance. One of the main philosophical tenets in Lovecraft’s stories is that the universe is devoid of a higher power or a higher sense of morality, and humans are trapped in an unending existential abyss.
It was only through the efforts of August Derleth that the Mythos took a more Christianized flavor, and the Old Ones were presented more akin to demons than monstrous aliens. The cosmic forces of “good” were the Elder Gods, who opposed the "evil" Great Old Ones at every turn, but at the same time they could care less for the wellbeing of mankind. This cosmology flies in the face of what Lovecraft had established in his stories, but it makes for damn good S&S story elements. This approach is very similar to the one discussed involving Law and Chaos, and should be approached as such.