I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I am a table-top role-playing game nerd. As with many veterans of multiple campaigns, I found myself running the game as a game master more often than I played. During those years, I read extensively about the art and craft of GMing, and stumbled across the most thorough and thought-provoking discussion of morality disguised as nerdery on the internet.
For the uninitiated, many TTRPG’s use the concept of alignment as a shorthand for a character’s morality and personality. In the granddaddy of them all, Dungeons and Dragons, and its little brother Pathfinder, characters fall somewhere along two axes: good-and-evil, and law-and-chaos. You’ve probably seen this in meme form somewhere or another.
Brace yourself for this one, you’re going to be shocked. Taken as a group, we nerds love to debate about and overanalyze the things we love. Alignment is a hot topic on some forums. Love it or hate it, you can’t avoid having some kind of opinion about it.
Detect Alignment feels like sitting up late with college buddies in your same discipline, talking about your senior theses. It gets heavy, it gets deep, but it’s still an entertaining back-and-forth. The author does a great job of laying out both sides of every argument and then some. Bill Cameron has a PhD in ethics, and it shows.
What does this have to do with writing?
Character development and worldbuilding.
RPG’s feature characters, settings, and plots. If that sounds a lot like a book, you’re not far off. Both are mediums for storytelling. Every character has a moral compass and a personality. Detect Alignment is fertile soil for planting seeds that may help you think about your character’s motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and habits in a new way. When it comes to settings, it can be helpful to think about societies as one large, faceless character.
Because of the source material, these essays are most directly applicable to fantasy and science fiction, but characters from all genres could benefit from an Alignment deep-dive.
Some curated recommendations:
Start here to…
… jump in from the beginning.
…research for a setting where good and evil are literal cosmic forces.
…explore the differences between goodness and the will of the gods.
…compare the discussion around good and evil with that of order vs freedom.
…debate whether ‘good’ characters must be rule-followers.
…walk the line between individual freedom and selfishness.
…parse the difference between a code and morality.
…explore the ethics of undeath for your next zombie thriller.
Happy reading, and happy writing. I hope this resource is useful to you, reader, even if only to add a little depth to your world or characters.