Written by Jeremy Morgan, tabletop games editor, gamer, and software developer.
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Planescape 4E - On Alignment

29 August 2011

So last post, I introduced a framework to help me with my thoughts moving forward.

Disclaimer #1: I realized after beginning to dig through the material that there is more here than I expected. This may require a spiral development of ideas, which is fine by me. I may revisit topics, and the pace may be a bit meandering. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the journey with me.

Disclaimer #2: I’m not sure how long of a series this will be. It will probably be an ongoing one that may or may not end. I’ll have to see.

Now to the topic for this post: alignment.

I said the following last time:

The first major problem is definitely the new alignment system. The Planescape cosmology depends very heavily on the older 9-alignment system. This is actually not a large problem as I see it. I’m unaware of any crunch (the mechanics or rules) that require certain alignments. Gone are the days of alignment languages, detect alignment, and the like.

I’ve had a small amount of time to think about this, but there’s an elephant lurking behind this issue.

The Elephant in the Room

In Planescape, belief determines reality. The planes are formed and continue to exist because of belief. Law vs Chaos, Good vs Evil, Neutral in-between. These aren’t just abstract concepts, they are part and parcel of how (and why) things are. I need more time to think of all the ramifications here, but I think dropping in the older alignment system doesn’t do justice to the original source material. We need a better way, and I’m not sure what direction that should take right now.

The 4E concept of the eons-long battle of gods vs primordials doesn’t fit here without some modifications, either. The world-axis cosmology (the 4E conception of the planes) pits the gods of the Astral Sea against the primordials of the Elemental Chaos. I think we need more variation: evil gods, evil primordials, good gods, good primordials (?). We also need to bring law vs chaos back into the mix, and add neutral to balance it all out.

A Possible Solution

Can we simply add keywords? Can they do all the heavy lifting? My gut says no, but we can definitely get some mileage out of it. What if we had the following keywords: Good, Evil, Neutral, Law, and Chaos? What if we said that a character’s alignment added these particular keywords to every power they cast?

I hear some of you crying foul at this. ”Healing is innately good, isn’t it? Shouldn’t all powers with the Healing keyword be Good as well?” That’s one approach, but I think my approach allows for more flexibility.

I certainly don’t think I’ve pinned down all of the issues with this, but hopefully this can serve as a jumping-off point for discussion. What do you think? Throw something against the wall, and we’ll discuss whether it sticks.


the Ubbergeek said:

Now, is the problem more like redoing the original Planescape?

Maybe you would be better at the end to remake a 2,0 Planescape, kinda like Dark Sun got.

Keep what work, take the opportunity to change problemnatic things, take good ideas from 4th ed…

Settings are not holy things that should not be changed, sorry if I hurt peoples. Reboots and rebuilts are ok.

TriskalJM said:

That’s kind of what I’m going for here, Ubbergeek. Try and retain the flavor and feel of the original Planescape material by expressing it in 4th edition. Check out a few of the other posts to see what I mean.

All I can remember from the original Dark Sun material was that psionics were everywhere. I remember the Armblade being one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. I agree that they did a great job with the 4e Dark Sun material.

chad said:

IMHO, you shouldn’t feel beholden to any of the default mythology, including the PH gods, history, cosmology, or alignment. Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, and Dark Sun all changed these things to fit the setting - as did the original Planescape.

Using the nine-fold alignment system in 4e is really, really easy. Arguably the best thing that 4e did with alignment was to get rid of the alignment `spells’ (detect evil, blasphemy, etc). Arguably the worst thing that 4e did was to remove 4 of the alignments. Using the nine-fold alignments in 4e is just a matter of keeping the best and removing the worst. If you really miss something from the alignment spells, put it back in when/where it seems appropriate (a level-0 class ability is not that place. :-)

I don’t personally see what adding keywords to everything gets you, unless you want to invent new rules items to go with them. To be clear, I strongly suggest that you only invent alignment-based rules items in response to a need, not simply to maintain parity with the 90’s.

Likewise with the planes: the great wheel is a fine cosmology for 4e. Really, the only question you want to consider is `Move, remove, or leave the Feywild?‘. Once you’ve decided that, treat your 2e Planescape Planes of Law/Chaos/Conflict/Inner/Outer/etc books/box sets like the veins of pure RPG gold that they are, and mine them for everything you like.

The gods are probably the easiest, because Planescape is so stuffed full of pantheons anyway. If your designer muscles don’t twitch at the idea of inventing new gods, then either use the 2e deities or the 4e deities, and be done - the Powers are always changing anyway, and if someone wants to figure out what happened to God X, you’ve got a plot waiting to be run. :)

Good Luck!

chad said:

One more thing: healing is not innately good, and quite a few of the healer’s arts (both real-world and fantasy archetypes) involve explicit destruction, damage, and pain. I’ve seen a few games where healing was explicitly necromantic in nature.

At it’s heart, Planescape is about dealing with Law versus Chaos, rather than (or perhaps in addition to) Good versus Evil. Neutrality is not indecision.

TriskalJM said:

chad, thanks for the good comments. Yeah, I’ve progressed in my thinking a bit, so I agree that adding the keywords probably isn’t necessary. I’m planning on getting into the planes after I finish the races (which will be this week), so your comment about the Feywild will come rushing to meet me soon.

Simon T. Vesper said:

My take on the order and organization of the planes is this: what if there’s more than one truth? According to one culture, the ‘verse is structured around a “world tree” concept. According to one race, the world was born from the dreams of a sleeping god. According to one religion, there is one river that runs through every plane of existence, but passage along that river is one-way only. If there can be many different explanations, maybe there can be more than one truth.

This might play out as follows: many greybeards refer to the planes as the Great Wheel. They talk about how Gehenna borders the Gray Wastes, which borders Carceri, and how the river Styx runs through the lower planes. Lately, though, a few of the younger sages have started talking about the planes as islands amidst a vast sea. They liken Pandemonium to a lone mountain, filled with tunnels, that floats through the expanse of the Elemental Chaos. Both of these views are correct, which means there are many paths between Gehenna and the Gray Wastes, and Styx is a well known path that many can travel. (Of course, that means it’s also watched by various factions and powers.) Since Pandemonium is in the Elemental Chaos, that means there are paths, portals and borders that allow travel to other Chaos planes, like Limbo, Carceri or the Beastlands.

In other words, if belief is a real, physical force in the Planescape setting, then the belief in a cosmology other than the Great Wheel would automatically reshape the planes. I envision a setting where the planes are cast about in a seemingly random assortment, rather like a child’s toybox tossed on the floor. There are rules for getting from one place to another, which are based on the various beliefs that people hold about the ‘verse. This way, you wouldn’t have to give up any of the flavor of 4th Edition; you could add to it by bringing in those beliefs you like.

TriskalJM said:

An interesting thought, and one I’ll have to consider. Although belief shapes reality, there is an unspoken understanding that there are limits to this. Rules that supersede it: the Rule-of-Three for example. My default way of thinking is to allow the other viewpoints, but design with one “correct” viewpoint in mind. That would be the Great Wheel cosmology for me.


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