|September 3, 2008||Posted by Walt Ciechanowski|
Those of us that have grown up with the various incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons have dealt with alignment, a statistic that measures a character’s ethics and morality. While the number of alignments have changed over the years, it has never been removed. Every edition has had alignment. This has spread to other games as well, such as the Palladium Megaverse and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Alignment has even creeped into the Star Wars roleplaying games, where turning to the dark side could have serious consequences. Similarly, Call of Cthulhu has the PCs slowly turning to chaos as they play.
That said, I’ve heard a lot of arguments over the years to dispense with alignment. When discussing an upcoming edition of D&D with gamer friends one of the first questions posed is always “did they finally get rid of alignment?” Many OGL variants of D&D and other fantasy games make a point of excluding alignment, sometimes with a healthy dose of snark. Alignment only seems universally acceptable in games where it is an explicit part of the genre (e.g. jedi knights and occult professors reading things that they shouldn’t).
There are certainly good arguments to have alignment in a fantasy game. Gods expect a certain code of behavior from their worshippers, and that code needs to have teeth. In the real world, getting up for church on Sunday can be a real chore after a hard workweek, but in fantasy that is easily handwaved. The same goes for dietary restrictions or chastity. However, having one act according to her alignment can be a very real pain in the butt in adventuring situations. Alignment can also be a good shorthand for how various gods, religions, and peoples get along with each other. Finally, alignment helps to tell the story of good kings that descend into evil or rotten Dukes that have a change of heart and turn their backs on the demons they formerly worshipped.
There are also good arguments to dispense with alignment. Why is the world limited to a handful of behaviors? Shouldn’t one be able to roleplay her character (and deal with the consequences) as she chooses? Alignment is an antiquated device used in place of roleplay, and now that the hobby has shifted to allow for more roleplaying situations, hasn’t it outlived its usefulness? Isn’t alignment only really relevant to priests and (un)holy warriors anyway (and perhaps better modeled with a Star Wars-like morality)? Doesn’t alignment act as a straitjacket, encouraging players to play lawful stupid or chaotic crazy?
What say you? Do you enjoy having alignment in your games, or is striking alignment one of your first house rules? (Bonus question: have you ever added alignment to a game that had none?)
About Walt Ciechanowski
Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.