St. Columba raising the cross. William Hole, 1899

Why a Celestial/Infernal Alignment instead of Good/Evil Alignment?

In response to yesterday’s post about adapting the original D&D alignment-as-allegiance to FASERIP games set in our Ascension Epoch universe, Judd Goswick writes:

In the AE, wouldn’t the Good vs Evil battle be the axis that mattered?

Law and Chaos are just stand ins for Good and Evil in the Western canon. What leads to greater order is good, what leads to greater chaos is bad. The hero myth is about confronting your own chaos to use it as a tool for the greater good.

What planes other than Heaven and Hell do you picture in the AE?

My answer:

Yes and no. The Good/Evil axis is identical with the Heaven/Hell axis. However, the part I want to emphasize in-game is allegiance and influence rather than a PC’s behavior. Often, this devolves into a thorny dispute between player and GM over different interpretations of ‘good.’ So I prioritize alignment-as-allegiance for religious and philosophical reasons as well as literary ones.

From the angle of Christian moral philosophy, this is because human nature is fallen. Thus, even when people try to do good on their own, they will fall short or even make things worse. For good to really be accomplished, it requires grace — or, in game terms, the aid of God, sometimes mediated through his angels and saints. Hagiographies spend considerable time talking about the massive and repeated sins of saints, some of whom strike even the modern reader as people who would have merited eternal damnation, but were nevertheless able to overcome their sinfulness with supernatural grace. In our books, all the characters fail — and by that I mean morally, not just failing to defeat the enemy. I expect the game world to mirror that. I want it to be possible, even likely, that Heaven can support and ultimately redeem bad men, the adventurer equivalents of, say, Christopher, Moses the Black, or Columba.

St. Columba raising the cross. William Hole, 1899
Columba, a violent and disputatious man responsible for many deaths and exiled from his home, yet still of Holy Alignment. Perhaps it was his resulting Karma boost that allowed him to defeat the Loch Ness Monster in single combat.

From the literary angle, I’m trying to emulate both C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and the framing story in Arthur Machen’s The White People.

In the former, Ransom is a weak and fearful man, though basically good, who becomes courageous and mighty but also holy over the course of his adventures on Malacandra and Perelandra, until by the third book he becomes the Pendragon. And in That Hideous Strength, you also have the example of the extremely flawed Mark and Jane Studdock who are eventually restored through the patronage of heavenly powers.

In Perelandra, Ransom witnesses deep-levels of Infernal alignment as well, and marks it as something well beyond even fallen man’s normal capacity for evil.

It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence.

In Machen’s story, there’s a discussion of the nature of true good and evil as something sublime and almost unreachable by mortal men without supernatural aid, rather than the pedestrian and basically relativist idea that “Good is what makes me healthy and happy and evil is what makes me frightened and hurt.”

The White People is a horror story, but it nevertheless repeats something of the true Christian understanding. After all, Christ does not promise a happy ending or good times on earth to his followers, quite the opposite, he promises them suffering and persecution.

The examples of true evil in The White People mirrors Ransom’s encounter with the Satanically-consumed Weston as requiring something beyond natural human effort:

‘It appears to me that it is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner. You can understand why it is so rare. There are few, indeed, who wish to penetrate into other spheres, higher or lower, in ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius, who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes; on the whole, it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint.’

‘There is something profoundly unnatural about Sin? Is that what you mean?’

‘Exactly. Holiness requires as great, or almost as great, an effort; but holiness works on lines that were natural once; it is an effort to recover the ecstasy that was before the Fall. But sin is an effort to gain the ecstasy and the knowledge that pertain alone to angels and in making this effort man becomes a demon. I told you that the mere murderer is not therefore a sinner; that is true, but the sinner is sometimes a murderer. Gilles de Raiz is an instance. So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is—to man the social, civilized being—evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall.’

And now that I think about these examples, I realize there’s also a third thing I’m trying to emulate. In the existing FASERIP rules, characters are already rewarded for good behavior. But in real life, because of the fallen nature of the world, people are often punished for good behavior and rewarded for bad, and not just in the sense of wealth or approval of others. This is the wisdom of the old proverb: “No good deed goes unpunished.” Making Karma primarily come from supernatural patrons who are trying to push you over hurdles so that you can can achieve their goals thus has verisimilitude.

Finally, an answer to what other alignments there might be: The Heaven/Hell (or Celestial/Infernal, if you prefer) is dominant, but beneath those, and perhaps a bit off to the side, you could be under the patronage of liminal entities like the Fey, the old pagan ‘gods’ (Exalted merged with human egregores to become Olympians, in AE terms), or even powerful Tulpas. Take Dart (Caius Martius) and his Plumbatarii brethren, for instance: they were aligned with Roma (a Tulpa or Genius Loci) and Mars (an Olympian), and received special powers and protections from them. All Incarnates (like Cyclone Ranger from Population of Loss, or Kali from After Dark) are directly aligned with the Egregore that they manifest

3 thoughts on “Why a Celestial/Infernal Alignment instead of Good/Evil Alignment?

  1. Have you ever thought of having Honor vs Law as an aspect of alignment? Both can be evil or good… I never liked the Law vs Choas alignment in D&D, Im not sure why. Maybe because no one is ever truly choatic.
    Anyways, I read this article some time ago an really enjoyed the concept, which brings me to something else I have been thinking about.

    I also liked the Dauntless opening with the Magic being disavowed by the Church, and, how you mentioned in one of your videos that Gandalf almost never overtly used magic.
    I watch a lot of old Kung Fu movies and have often tried to conceptualize how to do similar stories, but instead with western knights and Christianity. Magic though is kind of a touchy subject and I dont know how to address in a way I would feel right about and still find interesting… Maybe have most magic users as not good or outright evil, because most people dont know how to use magic in a good way… which, I guess, would be to hardly ever use it in the first place.
    Now that I think about it that does seem very Gandalf.
    Or maybe it should be more like Dune, where science, where it depends on computers, has been completely halted by the religious order because of the evils it brought on mankind…

    • Evan, Between law and chaos, humans are certainly more closely aligned with the former. While I think that outside the realm of extraordinary PCs, you’re not that likely to find truly Law-aligned characters, you are more likely to do so than Chaos-aligned characters. I have never thought of the Honor vs Law dichotomy, and I can almost see it, except that it would seem to reduce ‘Law’ to the purely political definition since Honor, with its rigid rules and codes, would otherwise seem to me a subset of Law in the broader sense. How do you see it working?

      The lines we posted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church with regard to magic addresses a few different concerns about magic. The first, obviously, is magic that involves consorting with evil supernatural powers. The second involves hubris and a desire to dominate other people and reshape reality, even if not drawing on boons from demons. This comes from a somewhat modern (post-Enlightenment) view that clearly and implicitly distinguishes ‘magic’ from other supernatural effects like miracles or natural philosophy/science, but this view was not always held. The Church was always against making pacts with demons, rituals designed to curse and harm to be sure, but many medieval monks were astrologers and alchemists, including, perhaps, Albertus Magus a Doctor of the Church. Today we would call this magic or fortune telling (or quackery), but that line was not so clear in their view. Were they sinning in doing so, trespassing in areas that Man Was Not Meant to Know? I suppose you can ask the same question about genetic engineering and nuclear research today.

      Put a different way, “magic” means something different to us than it did to them. Magic could be synonymous with natural philosophy or ‘science.’ It could be a level of craftsmanship and skill so exquisite that it rises above the mundane. This was basically how Tolkien viewed magic in the Middle Earth stories: the Elves did not really understand what humans meant by “magic”. To them, it was just a deep craft. Gandalf and Sauron were angels, and both had powers native to their kind and knew secrets of nature that allowed them to do magic, one for good, and one for evil. The explicitly Christian Arthurian legends have notable magical allies as well as enemies, like Merlin and the Lady of the Lake. They are perhaps pagan residuals, or liminal entities between the world as laid out by God and the world enthrall to the Devil; they are always perilous, but not inherently evil. In D&D, clerics and wizards both “do magic” yet one kind of magic is obviously different from the other in source and invocation.

      I hope you find these comments useful. Thanks for the conversation!

      • Thanks for the reply. I have been meaning to respond since Spring.
        For the Honor vs Law alignment I guess I was thinking of them in their social/political meaning. I thought the idea might go somewhere but nothing ever came to me. At the time I was thinking that people are on a spectrum of wanting laws to force others to act a certain way vs the other end of the spectrum (honor) which might seem choatic, but it has its own codes and ethos, they just are not as firm or universal. Then I thought, this is just Order vs Choas with a different name lol, so I dropped it.

        I really liked your comments on magic, I made a record to think more on it in the future.

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