Screw Pantheons

In the Church of the Poison Mind

I'm re-reading Moldvay Basic and finding a lot of material that I had either ignored or misunderstood when I first played D&D, back in the heady days of 1982. One aspect that always perplexed me was Moldvay's interpretation of Alignment: Having been deeply steeped in the Good vs. Evil brew, it was hard to understand the Law/Chaos axis.

But having rolled it around for just shy of three decades, I realised it's (yet another) facet of Moldvay's genius, and it has more to do with your campaign's religions than each PC's behaviour.

Alignment as Belief

Everyone in your campaign world--and I do mean everyone--has one overriding, high-level goal: To avoid suffering. It's a vague yet powerful notion, because suffering is relative, and people tolerate it to varying degrees. But whatever it means to a given individual, that guy wants to avoid it.

Belief systems--whether moral, spiritual, religious, or otherwise--are designed to assuage suffering, either by advising coping mechanisms for use while living, or by revealing a path to a pain-free afterlife. To desire to avoid suffering is ethically ambivalent--it is in the methods used to avoid suffering that moral choices are made. To pull old Bill out of context, nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so. And that's where alignment enters the picture.

Think of alignment as a guideline to avoid suffering. In this respect, the objective Law/Chaos axis has more relevance than the subjective Good/Evil dichotomy. While these aren't Moldvay's words, I believe they follow from his descriptions:

  • Lawful: Primary loyalty is to others; capable of self-serving acts, but not at the expense of other people (especially those in need).
  • Neutral: Primary loyalty is to affiliated groups (e.g., family, faction, religion, race); capable of self-serving acts, but not at the expense of affiliated groups.
  • Chaotic: Primary loyalty is to self; capable of serving others, but only to further their personal agenda.

Alignment is about loyalty--not good or evil--and how it influences one's choices. Each alignment provides a path, based on interactions with others, toward a suffer-free life. The Lawful man is devoted to others, and he purges his own suffering by addressing the needs of those around him. He believes that his example can lead to the end of suffering, one person at a time. The Lawful approach is, by default, ordered and consistent: no matter what form your charity takes, altruism requires compassion, which tends to have the same outcome wherever and however it's applied.

The Neutral man is devoted to certain others, and he addresses suffering by strengthening and supporting people and organisations he believes have the best shot of eradicating it--a community, a charity, a political party, an activist group, whatever. The Neutral guy isn't necessarily out for himself, but neither is he objective about how to end suffering: He asserts his conviction in a very specific set of solutions to the problem of suffering. Neither universally compassionate nor wholly self-centred, Neutrality is a targeted approach, with a not-surprisingly varied record of success.

The Chaotic man is devoted to himself, and he addresses suffering by eradicating it from his own life first, maybe a few select others second, and everyone else a distant third. He believes that people must tend their own backyards, either because he values personal responsibility or because he's unwilling to expend effort (or time or money) on others. This is a necessarily selfish outlook that promotes disorder: Remember that everyone has their own definition and tolerance for suffering, so Chaotic folk adopt an variety of self-serving and universally incompatible measures to assure their own happiness--everyone else can solve their own damn problems.

Alignment as Religion

There are a couple of mentions (explicit and otherwise) in the B/X canon of the so-called "Church of Law." It was a convenient organisation to sponsor Lawful clerics and appropriately implied to be a goodly force against the depredations of Chaos (like that untrustworthy priest in the Keep on the Borderlands or the Shrine of Chaos in the nearby caves). Yet "Church of Law" smacks of generic, and my early D&D mind assumed it was a rulebook placeholder for something more specific in an actual campaign.

But I'm no longer so sure. Given the possibilities of alignment as a belief system, there's no reason the Church of Law couldn't be an actual church...of Law. Adherents would be dedicated to the aid of others, and see the best means of providing that aid through compassionate teachings and charitable actions. In a religious context, it's a way of life founded on the Golden Rule, which is stated (fundamentally) in every major religion of the world.

What this means is that the Busy GM doesn't have to create a host of different Lawful gods in his campaign. One basic religion--The Church of Law--whose trappings might be different across cultures and races, but whose message is essentially the same: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In this religion, Lawful clerics--fighting holy warriors--are probably more akin to paladins than to priests.[1] Proper priests would not exist as characters, since they have too many non-secular duties to go adventuring (that's what clerics are for).

On the other end of the spectrum, there is no Church of Chaos. Instead, there are myriad Chaos Cults--disparate covens each dedicated to a single demon, devil, or unfathomable Cthuloid who accepts unholy worship, blood sacrifice, or mortal souls in exchange for worldly succor from suffering (of course, there's plenty of time for that in the congregant's tortured afterlife). Chaotic clerics are warlocks and satanists, spreading the teachings of their immortal patrons as the solution to life's misery, be it in the form of wealth, power, prestige, or domination over the weak.

Neutral churches are trickier--the Neutral belief system advocates an almost surgical approach to excising suffering, and most religious organisations mandate a more dedicated, "all-or-nothing" level of commitment. Thus most groups dedicated to Neutrality are secular--social activists, educational systems, civic organisations, and government instruments come to mind.

However, Neutrality is a good candidate for spiritual movements--something more specific than the broad-scoped Lawfuls, but less selfish than the egomaniacal Chaotics. For instance, Nature worship, which upholds Nature as the example of harmony (e.g., If you dig Nature, you accept that you are part of it, and therefore part of the larger world, which contains suffering. As a result, you are suffering, and with that slice of wisdom, you can better modulate the effect of suffering on your life.).

Final Words

The goal here (obscure as it may be) is to reduce the work required to prepare your campaign's religions (and, from experience, I confess that this can take up a lot of time you won't get back). Consider your campaign's alignments as the starting point--after all, if they guide behaviour, they must be rooted in (or give rise to) a belief system. Since most belief systems eventually find their way into the worshipful tendencies of mortals, why not consider your campaign's religions as extensions of alignment?

  • Law: Don't be a dick, help people out, done.
  • Chaos: Need some bad guys or weird cultists? Make them worship some demon or an alien or a lobster-headed fish-woman--it doesn't matter as long as they're doing it because they believe it makes their lives better.
  • Neutral: think spiritually instead of religiously, and ensure that the practitioners have a lesson that neither hurts the student nor sends his soul to the fire.

So, feedback time--how closely does alignment define religion in your campaign?

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  1. Aside from lower hit dice and slower "to-hit" progression, the cleric is a ready fighter: he can wear any armour, and the restriction of "non-edged" weapons only makes a difference if you use the optional variable damage rules--given that, why not give your Lawful cleric a sword and call him a paladin? He casts (non-reversible) spells and turns undead, which make up for the lack of Fighter Combat Options at higher levels. Conversely, make all Chaotic clerics warlocks, change turn undead to control undead, and allow access to reverse forms of clerical spells. Presto: goatee'd satanist!
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