The Hidden Game

I’m not going to address this topic any more than necessary. It’s been beaten to death; there are many sources available for the reader to peruse; and if you haven’t decided by now that alignment needs to be thrown out of your game, then I suggest you stop reading and move on to something that’s more appealing to your paradigm. For the rest of you – for those who believe, rightly, that alignment has always been a baneful, spiteful and divisive element of the game, such that you have discarded it with other nonsensical cows like level limits and party leaders – for you all, consider this: alignment is useful and has a place in the game, just not in front of the players.

I’ll say that again for those in the back: alignment is not a player rule. It is a DM tool.

Poorly conceived slogans aside…

Consider this thought experiment: how many souls are in hell? Not, like, actual Hell, because this is not a philosophical or religious blog – despite all evidence to the contrary – but whatever passes for the underworld in your game; how many souls have lived and died in your world, and how many of them have ended up in hell? Why does this matter, you ask? Because you’re an idiot, that’s why!

Okay… yes, I know, my readers are not idiots, but let’s slow down for a moment and consider a basic paradigm of game design: the seemingly insignificant, behind-the-scene details always matter. Consider a trade system so robust that we can know the economic impact of a war started by the players. Or a weather system that makes sense and gives the DM information in advance of the players’ questions, such that logical and consistent answers can be provided (which gives the players options during their adventures). Or a political system that helps the DM track social influence in a dynamic environment. Each of these rules sets assumes that the details of the world, the ones that are hidden from the players’ view, make a difference in how the world operates, and thus in how the DM presents the world to the players.

So… how many souls are in hell? We can start by asking how many people have lived and died in this world, then making a few assumptions for a fantasy world. First, we should assume that our world takes place in an era that matches with some similar period from Earth. Let’s assume a Renaissance world which puts our estimation for dead souls at about 10 billion. Our next consideration is the presence of intelligent races – let’s limit ourselves to humanoids for the time being, such as dwarves, elves, orcs and goblins. There are others, but if we keep it simple with five races – humans included – we can assume an even distribution, bringing us to 12.5 billion dead souls (2.5 billion for each intelligence race). (A more robust distribution will require additional assumptions or variables, but I’ll leave it to the reader to determine which are appropriate for his/her world.)

If we assume that each race is predisposed toward a certain alignment – humans are generally neutral, elves are chaotic good, dwarves are lawful good, orcs are lawful evil and goblins are chaotic evil – and I must stress the key term, “generally” – then we can assume that, over time, following the law of averages, the number of humans who lived neutral lives is… some fraction of the total number of humans who lived, of course, but the specific fraction depends on whichever number set suits your world. For myself… well, let’s look at these numbers:

Alignment Distribution Stats

I assume the racial alignment is a tendency toward a particular (broad) moral and ethical worldview. Therefore, as humans are neutral, they tend toward neutral alignment about 31.373% of the time. Dwarves are lawful good about 44.138% of the time. (I trust the reader can sort out my methodology here.)

If, in our sample world, 2.5 billion orcs lived and died before the start of our game, and orcs are generally lawful evil, then we can say that close to 1.7069 billion orcs ended up in hell. Accounting for elves, humans and dwarves, we get a total of 2,578,725 souls in hell. Of course, this doesn’t include the neutral souls, which may end up in heaven or hell, or perhaps in another place altogether. (And we would need a method for deciding which way they’ll go upon death, but let’s leave that for another time.)

There may be no need to know these numbers; this is a thought experiment that assumes you have a use for them. If you’re running a game with a heavy emphasis on demonic corruption and influence, or one where it’s important to know how strong the demonic forces are, then these numbers help; other games, less so. Let’s apply alignment to something more immediately practical: determining an NPC’s personality. I’ll leave it to the reader to look through this document (NPC Personality Charts), but the basic concept is simple: with a list of possible personality traits, we can adjust the likelihood of an NPC possessing a given trait by associating that trait with an alignment and creating a cross reference chart to the NPC’s alignment. Therefore, evil characters are more likely to possess certain traits; but since the list I’ve used here is as large as it is, and the numbers I’ve chosen are small relative to the total list, the overall impact is lessened.

I feel I’m failing to get this concept across, so let’s look at it another way: the PCs encounter some travelling merchants. Two humans and a dwarf; their alignments and personalities are:

  • Human (LN), purposeful (dominant trait) and incurious (subdued trait), with a desire to raise children and motivated by eating
  • Human (LE), ungrateful (dominant) and fanciful (subdued), with a desire for order and motivated by the social contract
  • Dwarf (LG), weak (dominant) and bland (subdued), with a desire for exercise and motivated by the social contract

That took seconds to generate. And these NPCs will likely get a few seconds of screen-time with the players. The work behind the tables is the result of several days of research, to be sure, but once in place, the benefits are countless because you can use these tables again, and again, and again, and again… And I’m not talking about the benefits of using random tables (which should be obvious). I’m talking about how you can use alignment as a means to organize your random tables, to generate meaningful results and to build a world that makes sense.

See, these aren’t the only NPCs you’re going to run in the game. They are a drop in the bucket. There are millions of people in your game world, possibly billions, and the number of interactions the PCs will have can easily climb into the thousands. Over time, certain patterns will emerge. Some of these will be based on poorly understood bias and preconceived notions, but some of your players will, rightly, recognize that dwarves tend toward certain traits which we can call “lawful” and “good.” In other words, dwarves will be different in a way that is meaningful and dynamic, instead of static and clichéd.

But none of this requires informing the players. They don’t need to know how you make the world work. All that matters is that it works, that you’re consistent and it makes sense, even if only to you.

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