On Unearthed Arcana: Variant Rules

After I spent all that time gushing about the variant alignment systems for Pathfinder, it’s only fair to point out when Wizards does something similar. The latest Unearthed Arcana (not to be confused with Unearthed Arcana or Unearthed Arcana) dropped, and it includes an alignment system that’s different but still really neat.

There are other rules in the preview, but we’re going to ignore the “players roll all the dice” options that’s exactly the same as every other system for the same thing but with more confusing language. We’re also going to leave alone the variant hit point system that drastically increases on-the-fly math during play, adds more bookkeeping to every character and monster, creates more precarious combats, and exacerbates the problem it purports to solve. Not that there’s nothing to say there, but I feel I’ve already beaten that horse.

Instead we’re looking at “custom alignments”. What’s interesting about this is that it’s exactly the same alignment system D&D already has. We’re not throwing out the three-by-three (-by-three, if you’re in my campaigns) alignment grid. We’re just changing the labels. Instead of good/evil and law/chaos, this system create new dichotomies specific to the campaign and world.

For example, imagine a campaign setting where an ecological crisis engineered by a cabal of necromancers threatens to transform the world into a dead wasteland. Forming one alignment path are the opposing forces of life and death. Like the choice of good or evil, this conflict defines the setting, and you would expect most player characters to be aligned to life or at least neutral with respect to their support for the necromancers’ plans.

Dear person at Wizards who creates these rules documents: you put tabs between every word. Last time you put newlines between every word. This is not how text happens. Is this because you are using Microsoft Word’s function for converting a file to PDF? Do you need help with text formatting? Please call me.

Now, this alignment system does specifically say “create one axis where all players are on one side and all enemies are on another, and another axis with some freedom.” The story of 5E is that there are bad guys and there are good guys, and all good guys are good and all bad guys are bad and there is no room for bad guys who are sometimes good or vice versa. If we ignore that and jump straight to the “gritty” variant, we can make two alignment axes where players can fall anywhere within them.

What we’re doing is changing one of D&Ds fundamental metrics (and no matter how much the designers say alignment is a “handy label” or “quick summary”, as long as the rules leverage it we have to treat it like any other stat) to something specific to us. The world isn’t about good versus evil, it’s about Montague versus Capulet, or Britain versus France, or orcs versus elves, and neither side is objectively the heroes. It could be that good and evil aren’t tangible character traits, or that they’re too mutable and subjective to work as they do in normal D&D, or that we simply don’t care whether somebody is good or evil because that’s not as important as the side they’re taking in the central conflict.

But this gets really neat when we do acknowledge that D&D has rules for alignment. We don’t have detect evil any more, we have detect Capulet. We don’t have angels (or if we do they’re on both sides), we have monsters or characters with the orc subtype. If a paladin fails to act in the manner dictated by her oath to France, she loses all the magical powers she had as an emissary of the country. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds awesome.

This also brings us out of the Saturday morning cartoon alignment trap. We have two opposing sides. Both regard the other as a moral enemy, both see the world in terms of their fight, both are convinced their side is noble and righteous and destined to win because the other side is evil, and both are probably very wrong. With this we can tell a deeper story, as the players double down on their cause and fight on, see the errors in their own side and either resolve them from within or join the enemy, or acknowledge both sides have faults and seek a middle ground. It’s exactly the sort of story the current alignment system avoids.

Again, this is what I want out of Unearthed Arcana (the web series). I want rules, options, variants, and features that add to the game. The “rename good and evil, but otherwise leave everything alone” variant doesn’t mean anything because it’s just a reskin. Calling a scimitar a khopesh is well and good, but we don’t need a book for that. We can do it on our own. But seeing Wizards acknowledge the possibility that there are players, campaigns, and characters left out of the current rules and working to correct it isn’t just encouraging, it’s the point of publishing new material at all.

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