- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

D&D Burgoo (3.5): Turning the dial on alignment

Our party’s young female fighter — who was clearly coddled in her upbringing — has yet to reap the financial rewards of the adventuring life. Yet, she has been steadfastly lawfully good — certainly she’s more idealistic than the rest of the party.

On a good day, she is lucky to have two silver pieces to rub together, and that includes any pay she’s received from the toil of her day job as a tanner.

In contrast to the other party members, she’s really struggling to scrape by. Our spellcaster professes to be devout in the faith, and has benefited from this close association with his church. As for the bard and the rogue, they are true scoundrels, living fast and free — and despite being penniless too, always seem to fast-talk their way into a free meal, a bed for the night, and a little spending money.

So it’s not too big of a stretch to believe that those freshly minted coins they found in a chest proved to be so tempting. She’d suspected that the rogue had slipped more than a few treasures into his own pocket, I suppose, and in her desperation, rationalized that she could do the same.

She just didn’t reckon on the bard’s Spot check and his own Sleight of Hand skill. The bard called her on it — then did a curious thing.

“Alignment change!” he said, out of character.

DM’s dilemma

Not so fast, I thought. And from this was born the DM’s dilemma: Does a single transgression require me to consider a PC’s outlook to be changed? Does the fact the fighter later returned the coin and confessed her failing to the party count for something? Was the offense mitigated by these other circumstances? And even had there had been no contrition,  would it have necessarily required such a change?

Boy, a lot of questions for a lousy two gold pieces, heh?

I mean, I have no crystal ball. I don’t know what will happen to these PCs in the future. I can envision a day when these heroes look back after years of adventuring, and despite the fighter’s virtue, is continually chided by the others for that moment of weakness long ago.

Or perhaps this is a turning point. Hunger and want have convinced our young fighter that surviving in this mean, medieval world requires a mercenary attitude. Years from now she may be a queen of her own making, a warlord, living off the riches gained from a life of plunder.

(Of course, this is D&D. She could also die from a 3d6 points of damage from falling down three flights of stairs. Who knows?)

A single misdeed

My inclination is not to let a single misdeed (murder and self-sacrifice being the exceptions) dictate alignment. Great and terrible deeds can’t be ignored, after all. But still, a pattern of behavior over a long period is the best indication of alignment.

While I understand the reasoning behind the following analogy is debatable, I think it applies: In modern day, a lot of people who would consider themselves law-abiding, do violate the speed limit. Does breaking the speed limit shift people from lawful to neutral?

I would say no. Other factors be considered to make that shift complete, such as whether the driving is reckless or it causes a fatal accident or it needlessly inconveniences others.

The Hallowed Might subsystem

Monte Cook’s “The Book of Hallowed Might” offers an optional alignment subsystem that is worth looking at. Basically, all alignments are on a sliding scale from 0 to 9, sliding up the scale from the most moderate to the more intense. In the case of law, 0 is for a person who tries to keep their word and generally follows the rules, while 9 is reserved for the paragon of order, who refuses to deviate from the law, even if it means their undoing.

The advantage of this sliding scale is that it attempts to precisely define where a character’s alignment stands. Under this subsystem, a character who is Lawful 2, Good 7, is a much different sort of hero than one who is Lawful 8, Good 2.

In an intense roleplaying experience, these distinctions could be useful in crafting scenarios that pit players of similar — but not exacting — outlooks against one another’s interests.

For example, Commissioner Gordon and Batman certainly have a similar outlook toward criminals. But Batman, as a vigilante, will cross lines Gordon won’t. In the comic books and movies, these lines have been used to create dramatic tension between the two.

Likewise, the 0 to 9 sliding scale can be used to put your party’s PCs in opposition to one another for a time.

Three strikes and you’re out

As a practical matter, I, as the DM, don’t need precision of that magnitude. However, chopping up the alignment pie into fourths does appeal to me. Thinking of a PC as one-quarter lawful, or three-quarters good, gives me a good starting place when I’m re-evaluating a player’s alignment. And it’s sufficiently simple enough to fit even into a beer’n’pretzel environment.

Under such a system, three instances of behavior of a contrary or adjacent alignment is usually sufficient to at least suggest a change in outlook.

So when our fighter swipes her two gold pieces, I’ve got someplace to go — and she’s still got an opportunity to redeem herself.

Other alternate alignment systems?

So, I’m interested in hearing other solutions to the alignment dilemma. What approach do you take toward alignment? Please, feel free to share.

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "D&D Burgoo (3.5): Turning the dial on alignment"

#1 Comment By granger44 On March 24, 2009 @ 6:51 am

I don’t remember the source, but I recall reading an alignment system that was similar to the Hallowed Might system you mentioned, but went from 0 to 100 on both a Good-Evil axis and a Law-Chaos axis. This made it much more granular. A small misdeed might slide you 1 point up or down the appropriate scale, while murder or other serious mayhem might move you 10 points or more.

I’ve never used it, but it seemed like an interesting idea.

#2 Comment By Mike Kenyon On March 24, 2009 @ 8:20 am

Neverwinter Nights used that system. It’s great when you have a computer running the game, but as the article said, I don’t think I could rationalize all that. I’d have to analyze the PCs’ every action, and that would detract from the game significantly.

Whenever the PCs cause me to sit back from the game filled with awe, I consider changing their alignment. The first time or two isn’t usually sufficient, but if it’s a consistent recurrence (I guess like your three strikes rule), then I’ll announce it.

Ironically, this usually means my players shift towards Law and Good, rather than towards Chaos or Evil.

#3 Comment By Starvosk On March 24, 2009 @ 8:42 am

I doubt it. Your players (And..I guess since you are writing a whole article) are making a lot of fuss about nothing. A single incident doesn’t impact a person’s character in the real world, nor should it in the fantasy.

Best to go the way of pretty much every other RPG out there (Including 4e) and let the alignment/morality dogs lie where they will. Let characters do what they want and have the consequences follow.

Mechanical effects for moral decisions is really the wrong way to go about things.

#4 Comment By kenmarable On March 24, 2009 @ 9:29 am

Personally, I’m much more of a storyteller when it comes to issues like alignment. With something like that, I’d talk to the fighter’s player and see if they want to play it as either:

A) No big deal, it was just a lapse
B) Something the PC will regret for a long time
C) Possibly an open door to start sliding into “Well, I really do need this, and I’m protecting the town anyway…”

B & C both have very good, but very different story potential, and I think the choice between them is 100% the player’s decision. (It most certainly is not another player’s matter to call.) In gaming, these can be great sources of roleplaying situations, and I love it when a player wants to follow up on it.

As for alignment systems, I’ve been tempted to use the Hallowed Might one (either 10 point scale, or a 3 point least/lesser/greater scale), but probably only in something like Planescape where I could create real tangible effects of alignment. Otherwise, I see alignment as just a rough approximation and that a particular PC’s alignment at any given moment probably floats around within a range.

#5 Comment By deadlytoque On March 24, 2009 @ 9:33 am

[1] – Ditto everything Stavorsk said. With two exceptions:

-Exception 1-: sometimes in games where characters regularly wield magical forces, it can be appropriate to let their morality give a cosmetic effect (and occasional bonus/penalty) to the magic flavour.

Example: In Mage (any incarnation) it can be appropriate for a ruthless and cruel mage to have black striations in his magical effects and dark shadows that follow him everywhere, and have his power take a physical toll on his body (a la the Emperor in Star Wars). Lots of magical-themed games already have this as a built-in mechanic (the “sigil” of Ars Magica).

-Exception 2-: games that are about morality.

Example: Vampire has a morality mechanic — and I’d argue it actually doesn’t go far enough in how centrally the mechanic is portrayed. Pendragon’s traits also have a very strong mechanic of morality, since decisions based on Faith or Valour are core to the Arthurian Mythic experience the game is meant to portray.

#6 Comment By deadlytoque On March 24, 2009 @ 9:34 am

Oh, also: I would actually -reward- the player of the (presumably lawful good) character for roleplaying the guilt of the theft. Good people are often forced into tough situations, and it’s that conscience-fueled reaction that distinguishes true goodness, IMO.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 24, 2009 @ 9:42 am

My question is, does the bard make a spot check every time the other PCs touch treasure? If so, fine. If not, sounds like metagaming on that player’s part (“Oh the Lawful Good PC is trying to steal? I want to catch them and make a big deal of it!”). Now having the Lawful Good PC make a thievery check or whatever is appropriate and having her caught upon failing it would have been fine, but something about the scene just doesn’t sound right to me. Like one player was trying to create this conundrum of an alignment change.

And one small act against one’s alignment may be noted, but that does not justify an alignment change. That’s just silly. Does a small act of normalcy or kindness require non-Lawful Good characters to change their alignment? People always use this crap against the Lawful Good characters, but I have yet to hear someone say “Your Neutral Good ranger is now Lawful Good, because he obeyed the law that one time.”

Alignment is pretty much a role playing tool anyhow. It should not have consequences in the mechanics. It should help give the character challenges to face in the story, such as being poor and surrounded by temptation.

#8 Comment By BryanB On March 24, 2009 @ 9:54 am

A single minor incident altering alignment sounds pretty harsh, especially considering the incident described. But what if the LG player decided to burn down a whole village, and ended up killing everyone inside of it. Then we can talk about alignment change.

Minor incidents shouldn’t change it much at all, but multiple minor incidents might bring up a discussion between GM and player about considering an alignment change. A single catastrophic event, like the burning of a village, might be enough for the GM to require immediate alignment change.

How does one handle this mechanically? That can be cumbersome to deal with. GMs have enough to track information without alignment tracking. A simple method might be one that I saw in an AD&D product back in 2nd Edition days. It had two bars with Good – Neutral – Evil on one bar and Lawful – Neutral – Chaotic on the other. Each alignment had ten sub-bars inside of it. When the GM felt a PC was straying from alignment, he could have the player draw a pencil line where they were at on each bar of the scale. The PC kept track of his alignment bars and recorded any changes the GM felt were appropriate.

I’m pretty easy going about alignment, viewing it as a tool instead of a straightjacket. I’m sure the mileage varies on this issue…

#9 Comment By Volcarthe On March 24, 2009 @ 10:26 am

Unless you’re a Monk or Paladin(and those are more extreme cases), think of Alignment more like the Pirate’s Code: “more what you call “guidelines” than actual rules.” It provides character direction and in some instances works with game mechanics, but don’t let it be the overwhelming mechanic.

Over at RPGLife, we were having a similar debate on alignment ( [2]), it’s always kind of a hot topic.

and that bard? he’s being a jackass and should cut it out.

#10 Comment By HappyFunNorm On March 24, 2009 @ 10:57 am

Alignment in D&D is not a morality scale to move around on, but represents, instead, the character’s outlook. Does the PC consider the action stealing or just taking her share before the others can rip her off, something she can be reasonably sure of. If the party has an internal contract requiring equitable distribution of the treasure, and the others are steeling, taking treasure out of turn may, in fact, be a more lawful thing in this case by enforcing their contracts instead of knowingly allowing them to be violated.

Even if it is a momentary lapse (I just want more money) unless it represents a change in the overal moral outlook of the PC, there’s no reason to change it.

#11 Comment By valadil On March 24, 2009 @ 11:21 am

I’ve made a couple posts about alignment in my own blog:

Here’s a summary:

First of all, I don’t like static characters. They’re supposed to adapt and change over the course of the story. While this won’t always take the form of an alignment change, showing the dynamic alignment can be worthwhile. For instance, LN -> LE would show a truely lawful character starting to slip as temptation gets to him. He’s not actively evil yet, but has the potential to fall in that direction.

My other idea is a little more complicated. Each aspect of alignment can be active or passive. Paladins are actively lawful and actively good. Your average peasant on the other hand is lawful out of convenience. This is represented with capital and lowercase letters for alignment – paladins are LG and peasants are lg.

Where this idea gets more fun is with evil. I’ve always disliked that novice players try to make their characters as evil as possible when confronted with the possibility. People of the evil alignment shouldn’t realize that what they do is evil. They should justify it. And even if they are aware, it’s in their best interest not to be so flamboyantly evil. Anyway, where this applies to my idea is that over the top, orphanage burning characters would be evil with a capital E. Self interested characters can settle for lowercase e. What I like about this is that it helps solve the no evil characters problem. Passive lowercase evil is welcome in my games. Active evil is not (usually) because it’s too disruptive.

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On March 24, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

Alignment rarely comes up in my games– basically, I’m not going to debate what your character’s alignment is. It’s on your sheet, it’s up to you to pick it.

Now, as Volcarthe mentions, some classes do depend on alignment. In those cases, I’d prefer that the player have a code written down, something they can be held to. I don’t want to debate “is killing inherently evil children a good act” in D&D. At other times and in other situations, those moral problems are the heart of the whole game. Just not in D&D as I play it.

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On March 24, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

Hey guys, go easy on my players.

Sometimes brief descriptions in print of extended roleplay sessions don’t come across the way you intend. If someone comes across looking bad, that’s my fault as a writer. It was a gaming moment — and the roleplay at my table can get intense — the players oftimes roleplay their characters against their own personality type.

But no one was misbehaving or out of line at my table this time. OK? Believe me, there was humor and mirth in the moment when the “alignment change” observation was made.

I’m sharing episodes from my table as discussion starters only. My hope was to share so you can get a glimpse into the fighter’s roleplaying moment. And I stress roleplaying.

So let’s not subscribe motives to folks, OK? And be encouraging. Thanks for listening.

And thanks for the comments.

Starvosk: Just so you know, my players haven’t made a big deal out of this. If anyone’s magnifying the incident, it’s me, because, like it’s thought-provoking and I am expected to contribute to the Stew Pot. 🙂

Kenmarble: A, B, and C are all excellent roleplaying opportunities. As things have played out, I think B is the path the PC has chosen.

Deadlytoque: Excellent point.

Patrick: Ooh, I’ll have to use that NG line some time. “How dare you do a good deed!! The great druid tree will never take you back now. Go live in a city and attend a church, why don’t you?” 🙂

Volcarthe: I like the Pirate’s Code suggestion. Very good.

Valadil: Thanks for the blog links. And you make a good point. Static players are not as interesting as those who make a moral journey as well as make an adventurous one.

#14 Comment By Taellosse On March 24, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

Y’know, it’s sort of amusing that this would come up now. I’m starting up a new D&D 4th edition game right now, and I was just asking my players the other day how they felt about using the older alignment scheme instead of the simplified version 4th edition uses.

The thing is, I haven’t played D&D, as such, since 2nd edition–I largely skipped 3 and 3.5, spending my RPG time on other systems. My only real exposure to D&D during that time was Neverwinter Nights, which uses a version of that Hallowed Might subsystem you describe (their scale is measured with 100 points, not 10, but otherwise fairly similar), and I had always assumed, therefore, that was a part of the default system for 3rd edition. Knowing now that it isn’t, I’ll need to revise a couple of the things I said to my group, since one of them is a veteran player, and knows 3rd edition better than I do, so he probably assumed I was talking about the default, static system.

I don’t care for the idea of a set of discrete alignments, whether there are 2, 6, 9, or 20–a spectrum makes much more sense to me, precisely for the reason of situations like the one you describe–no single act should transform a person’s alignment completely, even something as dramatic as murder: a strongly good character that commits murder would still feel a great deal of guilt about their act at first, even if they begin to rationalize it in their own minds. The idea of assigning certain acts a point value on a scale, and allowing that to determine where someone stands on the two axes makes a lot of sense to me. I can see how simplifying it into a few discrete segments along each axis might streamline things for the GM without oversimplifying, too.

#15 Comment By Mike Kenyon On March 24, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

[5] – You’ll be pleased to know that there are dramatically fewer game mechanics in 4e that rely on alignment, and I consider it to be largely a cosmetic descriptor, like height and weight. My 4e players know what their characters are comfortable with and not, and they let their characters guide their actions.

#16 Comment By ScottG On March 24, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

A lot of good responses already, so I’ll just chime in agreeing with several above.

I don’t think alignment can or should be mechanized to rules, points, rolls, whatever, if you are truly running a role-playing game (not a roll-playing game). I think of alignment as a general trend in the character’s actions – a way for the player to be guided when decisions need to be made about actions.

If nothing else, think about it from the paperwork aspect. If one (or even a couple, widely-spread) action is sufficient to drop one from being lawful good to, say, neutral good, at what stage can the PC turn back to lawful good? Six months without slipping? A year? Never? Three Hail Bahamuts?

Better to let her be internally torn over her actions (assuming she hadn’t been caught). She might have chosen to confess anyway and take punishment, preserving her lawfulness. Or perhaps she might get a thrill from the success and try it again and again. After a couple times, you privately warn her that she is risking an alignment shift (along with any negatives that brings) and give her the opportunity to mend her ways (or choose to continue).

On the other hand, someone professed as being lawful good shouldn’t be permitted to even consider something like random murder – it is just too alien to that character’s psyche (barring a triggering event). The player would have to gradually move the character from lawful good to something closer to evil by steps until it reached a point of likelihood.

#17 Comment By Rafe On March 24, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

This article is a good illustration of why I’m against using alignments. That the player has always played her character as good and then, after this instance, portrayed her character as feeling remorse is enough. After all, it’s a roleplaying game, not a slide-ruler alignment game.

You have to ask yourself(ves): So what if her alignment changes? Does it alter gameplay? Does it alter what she did? Does it alter how she’ll act in the future? I don’t see the answer to any of those questions as being “yes.” She swiped 2 gold and is feeling remorse. Perhaps she’ll portray her character as slowly sliding down the slippery slope of rationalized morality… or perhaps she’ll be extra righteous and seek to redeem what the player sees as a shameful act for her character. Perhaps the other players will use their characters to tempt her further or seek to help her redemption. Awesome!

Alignment X or Y doesn’t really matter. How the player has fun with it and how the game flows from it is what matters.

#18 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 24, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

I only enforce alignment when the class is dependent on it, and in those cases, I use a “code of conduct” that the player and I come up with.

So… Does that help?

#19 Comment By LesInk On March 24, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

I think I have to do a big shrug. The question I bring up: If the character suddenly was changed to an evil alignment, so what? It rarely does anything anyway unless you are using “Protection from Evil” spells and the like — the characters tend to go on their merry way.

Okay, okay, I guess there is still a few things to consider. In general, as a GM, I tend to treat all characters as generally neutral with tendencies as listed on their character sheet which is a role playing effect. The special powers/defenses/etc. only really kick in when someone is obviously good (Paladin swearing an oath to the Angelic Kingdom) or evil (Necromancer summoning demons to kill people for mayhem and power). So, in a sense, for the spells really to matter, the players have to be ‘touched’ by the forces of evil, good, law, chaos, etc. Trust me, when I have a player using ancient demonic devices, they’ll know when they’ve a member of the dark side. Until then, its all meaningless shades of grey.

One other thing — if the player stole the money AND got away with AND kept stealing in the future, the player has changed and their role playing alignment changed itself — all without of the need of the GM to do, well, anything.

#20 Comment By Taellosse On March 24, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

[6] – As far as I can tell, the only possible consequence for an alignment shift is if one is playing a Paladin, since a paladin’s alignment must match his/her deity’s. But other divine sourced classes have no such restriction (though I tend to think Bahamut, say, wouldn’t be too keen on having a cleric who is chaotic evil) in the rules.

Of course, off the top of my head, I can’t think of another class that had similar alignment restrictions. I have a vague thought that maybe the Druid used to require the character to be neutral on the law/chaos scale, but I’m not sure I’m right.

#21 Comment By Alan De Smet On March 24, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

Keep in mind that 3.5 and earlier D&D’s alignment system exists to simulate elements of some fantasy stories where a holy man might speak a word that blinds anyone who is truly evil, or a foul enchanted sword would burn a do-gooder who picked it up. If you want to play such a game, having the rules actually support you instead of GM fiat can be a good thing.

Of course, if that’s not what you want, yeah, 3.5 and earlier’s alignment system is a frustrating obstacle. And if you just jettison it, you also lose a chunk of spells (making clerics and wizards less powerful) and magical items (making PCs less powerful).

If you do want to keep an alignment system, you probably need to discuss the general scope of things up front. What makes someone good versus evil? What makes someone chaotic versus lawful? What might cause an enforced alignment change? The interpretations of the rules are so varied that the likelihood for misunderstanding is high.

#22 Comment By xero On March 24, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

Put me firmly in the “alignment should strictly be cosmetic” camp. Nothing flattens roleplaying depth like having to define your character’s morals and values on a two-dimensional graph and forcing them to stick with their definition or face mechanical consequences.

If something of this type has to be tracked, I’d prefer it to be reputation, not alignment. Alignment is implied to be observed and measured by an infallible, omniscient source… and real people and characters don’t conform to alignments in any way that is easily tracked by an x-y graph. Reputation, on the other hand, is only affected by what a character is observed doing, and then only depending on how the observer views the action. Average that out over the general population, and account for rumors and word of mouth, and you’ve got an uncomplicated metric that can believably be defined by a series of two-dimensional points.

#23 Comment By Alnakar On March 24, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

I should probably start with an evil grin at the fact that alignment has been brought up again. I honestly can’t think of anything that I enjoy discussing more in D&D (or any role-playing game, really) than issues surrounding alignment. I think I might have a touch of sadist in me.

[7] – I think your point that evil characters shouldn’t necessarily realize that they’re evil is an excellent one, and one that doesn’t get made nearly frequently enough. As somebody who sees the alignment system as a rough approximation of people’s actual moral codes, and not as the determining factor of every one of a character’s actions, I tire very quickly of seeing people making decisions that are the moral equivalent of burning down an orphanage with the excuse of: “I’m evil”.

I actually recently threw a scale system for alignments into my game, to throw a little bit more customization into things — and hopefully get players a little bit more into the mindset that an alignment is something that you pick to briefly describe your character’s moral code, not something that you pick to determine your character’s moral code.

I’d like to weigh in on the idea of a sliding scale, though. I absolutely agree that a character’s alignment is something that should be free to shift as the game progresses, but I think that the idea of assigning point values to specific acts is coming at the issue from the wrong side. If a character suddenly steals 2 gold from the party (or lets an innocent bystander get killed in order to defeat a greater for, or whatever), that’s not a sign that their alignment should suddenly change on that scale. That’s a sign that their alignment has been shifting for a while. I tend to think that it’s not so much the average of a character’s actions that determines their alignment. A person who occasionally likes to go out and , but otherwise is a pretty good guy would still be “evil”. Those are the sorts of people that parents warn their kids about. I think on a more precise alignment scale (say, 3 to 18) the fighter’s alignment would have changed slightly (from 16 to 15, perhaps), but probably not enough to be noticed on a Lawful / Neutral / Chaotic scale — but I don’t think it’s the act of stealing the gold that would have changed her alignment; the years of poverty were what changed her. That being said, the player might not necessarily be aware that there was that attitude shift until the event happened, in which case you’re back to having to look at things at the time of the incident. I still think, though, that it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not the act of stealing itself that determines alignment: it’s a willingness to steal.

With this outlook, perhaps the character’s ethical limits had begun to shift without her knowledge, and finding that she had succumbed to a temptation that she would’ve been able to walk away from years earlier is what brings her attention to that fact (or perhaps it’s something that she’s been aware of for a while). I definitely agree that the final call on motives should come from the player, though. If the player wants to play her character as feeling remorse for the act, there’s no reason that the act can’t serve as nothing more than a warning to the character that she’s begun to lose some of her values, and needs to be more strict with herself.

In the end, though, it should primarily be left to the player to decide what their alignment is, and when it’s changing. Some players will need more help with this than others, but unless the player shows an unwillingness to look at their character’s alignment subjectively, I don’t really see any reason to make it more than just advice. Obviously no two people at the table will ever fully agree on alignment issues (which is probably because no two people around any given table have exactly the same alignment themselves), but that’s what makes it so much fun.

#24 Comment By Starvosk On March 25, 2009 @ 8:02 am


I for one will be happy when alignment goes the way of the dodo. I seem to recall a lot of people grumbling about various alignment related shifts from 2e to 3e as well.

4e thankfully makes alignment talk about as relevant as your character’s name, just something you put on a sheet. Given a few years when 3.5 finally starts to fade out, only the grognards will need to worry about it.

#25 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On March 25, 2009 @ 10:33 am

[8] – As much as I see the appeal of 4E for its alignment lite approach, let’s wait and see what happens with the upcoming divine powers sourcebook. It will be interesting to see if the game’s designers will continue to reduce the influence of alignment in a rules supplement devoted to gods and powers.

#26 Comment By GiacomoArt On May 15, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

Little dilemmas like yours underscore the truth that alignment is a relic of our hobby’s war-gaming roots. It provides a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all excuse for team A to kill the members of team B without having to ask any sticky moral questions, but it makes for a lazy sort of storytelling that falls apart the moment you do start asking any of those questions.

By the time a game master is mature enough to ask such questions, he’s mature enough to discard the alignment crutch and play a more nuanced game, filled with characters driven by complex and interesting motives, where no one is pure good, and evil is a description rather than a motivation.

And believe it or not, when I was a kid, I actually _was_ called out by the DM once for a simple act of kindness as a druidic “alignment violation”. That was the day I started hating alignment systems.

#27 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

Your alignment is not a straitjacket. It is not a reason for your DM to say “Your character wouldn’t do that”.

So you can do whatever you want. What are the consequences? D&D has none. You could be excomunicated by your deity or by some guildmaster for not following doctrine, but that’s hardly alignment. The only penalty for not following your alignment is that it might change. And that you wouldn’t like being of the new alignment because of the way alignments and magic interact. Your best magical goodies require you to be good, and good people who you can trust won’t deal with someone who pings as Chaotic Evil.

I use the “Multiply it by a Thousand” rule for a lot of stuff. What happens when you multiply the effect of something by a thousand? What if the player casts this spell ten times a day? Etc.

In this case, if a breach of trust and theft of 2 GP would cause an alignment change, then stealing 20 GP should put a saint straight to hell. And that’s just ridiculous.

So let’s use the example of a murder. A True Neutral PC kills some bum in town. Most of you might be apalled and demand some penalty. But what about when that same character kills a pickpocket trying to steal from him? Is that somehow less evil?

If an assassin (a man paid to kill) is evil, why is a soldier (a man paid to kill) any different? Is killing for personal pleasure better or worse?

We’ve probably all heard the argument of two Good or two Evil nations fighting. England vs. France, anyone? I think that’s a bit more complicated and it’s not possible to say that one side is more righteous than the other.

The D&D alignment system doesn’t work because even the simplified environment of the fantasy game is more complex than that. If you let alignment boil down to “Good is us and everything else in our way is Evil” then you’re left with a valueless rule.

The alignment system appears to have been taken from the works of Poul Anderson, where the Chaotic side represented inhumanity and the Faerie, and paganism and magic and the Old Ways. The Lawful side was taken by humanity, Christianity, and a dispersal of the veil of Faerie. In that regard alignment was less a personal choice as an inherent nature – something that would be impossible to change. You either are a Troll or you are a Human.

But again, that reduces alignment to “we are good and they are evil, let’s kill them all and take their stuff” and “if they live in a town they’re off-limits but if they live underground we can kill them”. These are not logical ethical positions, they’re unthinking dogma.

#28 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 21, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

[9] – I’m going to have to disagree with most of your statements, but I’ll be polite about it. 🙂

It’s not the theft of 2 GP that turns the fighter’s alignment in the example; it’s the betrayal of a trust or a vow. (I think they were referring to her Lawful alignment, not her Good alignment.) And I think Troy made the right call about a ‘pattern of behavior’ vs. a single act, but this is why these things should be talked about before the game starts.

Killing someone trying to steal from you is a world away from killing a random bum on a street corner (which is why it’s legal to shoot an intruder in your house in most states).

A soldier typically engages military targets; an assassin typically engages political or civilian targets (he says, having worn a uniform). Aside from that, the “evil” of an assassin is a value judgment, not an absolute. If an assassin punched Hitler’s ticket in 1942, would that be evil?

Alignment was borrowed from a number of sources; Michael Moorcock’s books in particular had law and chaos themes (and are the source for the [10]).

When it comes to alignment, the mistake I see gamers make over and over is to use “evil” to describe “different”. There’s a big difference between the “us and them” of the real world and the “objective evil” of D&D. Native Americans might be considered evil by pioneers (and vice-versa), but both would agree that the demon who tears the skin off of women and children just to hear their screams, is Evil. And if you read through the various editions of the game, that’s what they’re talking about.

Alignment in D&D can be a pain, if you let it. It should be a standard of measurement, nothing more. It definitely should not be a blunt object with which to beat your players (or, as in the example, to allow them to beat each other with). If you are going to use some kind of alignment system in your game, talk about it before you do, so you can avoid these nasty surprises.