Shadings in the Boxes: Playing it Slant

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Since its introduction in the late 70s in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax’s two-axis alignment system has been a staple of that game line for more than thirty years, culminating in its continued use in the d20/OGL third-party products still in print.  Despite this longevity, the concept of nine alignments with their strict interpretations as described in the rulebooks seems to be the only way in which characters can be played.  The rules aren’t immutable.  They are termed guidelines by the games’ authors.  If the rules are considered as such, doesn’t that mean one should consider that the same applies to the alignment definitions?  Most gamers don’t seem to take this view if one looks at the number of complaints and arguments across the Internet on this subject.  How does one account for the venerable seventeen-plane Great Ring cosmology that accompanied Gygax’s introduction of this system?  As such, there must be shadings within the alignments if that cosmology is any indication.  These questions are the impetus of this inquiry and whether or not it is possible to interpret what alignments truly describe.

A few things need to be deconstructed in order to not only establish the ground rules for the project as a whole, but also as a way to examine variations on alignments without being a complete departure from their core values.  Rather, these variations express something that is contrary to these very values on a superficial level.  This gives a sense of standing apart in an erstwhile sea of sameness without running completely outside the group.  Thus, these slight deviations are referred to as “shadings” given their take “colors” the perception of an alignment.

It is important to note that there is no attempt to undermine the system that exists, but rather to promote the idea that the good/evil and law/chaos axes are a system of coordinates within which there is room to maneuver.  The hope here is that players will take more leeway with interpreting alignments in their games, have a better understanding of someone’s interpretation, or shadings of what already exists.

The series is structured by examining what is written about each alignment and then following it up with a series of sample interpretations for each.  The examination of the alignments starts by questioning and deconstructing their descriptions and if they are fair assessments of adherents of the alignments they profess.  Through deconstructing the concepts in each, it becomes easier to identify what concepts must remain intact and which are negotiable.  From there, the variations in the shadings can be constructed and still remain true to their parent’s description.  Thus, good will remain good, even if its honor is shredded a bit.

In writing terms, this is known as playing it slant.  It’s the angle one takes to tell a story or portray a character.  Actors do this to find a character’s motivation for the behavior exhibited.  The entire point of this work, then, is to spur players to explore and mine their characters’ back stories for all they’re worth.  Or, in other words, how a character’s personality shapes his alignment.

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