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?)

Walt Ciechanowski

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.



25 Responses to Hot Button: A Question of Alignment

  1. I think alignment should be used as a general guide principle just as it was intended, and if a player acts completely against that principle he should explain the behavior sufficiently well or suffer an alignment adjustment.

    I do enjoy alignments in my games. I think it helps the players define their characters and it helps the GM when judging their character’s behavior.

    Answering the bonus question: I have never ran a game without alignment myself, but I am currently playing one without it.

  2. I dispensed with alignment in 4e. It’s unnecessary and no powers or items are alignment-dependent. I made it known when I started up my campaign that I wanted people to be “Good” but “Unaligned with Good intentions” was fine. The signifier just isn’t needed any longer. Besides, I feel it’s better to let players dabble with morality in roleplaying terms instead of via mechanics.

  3. To me, alignment in a vacuum serves no purpose. I prefer to take my in-game morality alongside a similarly strong story element, like L5R’s samurai codes. In that game, each character subscribes to a particular clan’s ethos, which helps guide the player’s behavior AND determines how the rest of the world relates to him/her. This approach is strongly rooted in the story and serves as much more than simply an adjective/adjective identifier.

    Barring that, alignment should arise through player actions and be manifested on the fly by the GM, through the NPCs and settings the particular player encounters. Or, to put it another way: Having a player CHOOSE his alignment is precisely the wrong way to to go about implementing this mechanic. He chooses his actions; the story chooses his alignment.,

  4. Walt Ciechanowski

    Patrickwr – Now there’s an interesting approach for D&D…having the DM secretly assign alignments based on what he sees at the table, and never telling the player what that alignment is (unless aura reads or detect alignment spells are used). Sure, the Paladin player thinks she’s lawful good, but she’s never sure unless she tries to use a paladin ability…

  5. Sorry, but you are creating a false dichotomy.

    The question should be Alignments: good or bad. It should be, “What are the best uses of alignments?”

    You make a few good arguments one way or the other. I’m not sure I could add anything to that. My point would be what about making it optional? For a player who wants to play a character of intense moral focus, up to and including mechanical consequences in the game, alignment is perfect. But that doesn’t make it perfect for someone who wants to explore the ambiguity of a loose moral structure in the same game.

    To shoehorn everyone into an alignment system tends to create the feeling that all characters are cardboard cutouts. Likewise the total absence of alignment means that there is no penalty-reward system for someone who wants to make morality central to their character. The reason nothing ever comes of this kind of argument is that rarely do both types of players share a game. So it works for those who use it and won’t for those who don’t.

    As a game designer myself, I’ve approached this problem by ensuring a morality system that can be chosen at character generation and works well in mixed groups.

    Fang Langford
    Playtest my new game, Scattershot

  6. I’m one of those who’s gotten burned by a GM who says, “You can’t/must do that, your alignment forbids/requires it.” So my opinion is going to be entirely biased.

    Personally, I think it’s too simplistic. My favourite characters have always been impossible to classify as one alignment or another.

    I also don’t see the need for alignment as a way to punish/reward morality. The world runs on ethos, not ethics. If the society you’re living in is against your behavior, you’ll be punished, whether that’s being chaotic in a lawful society or good in an evil one.

    I also don’t like alignments limiting spell choice. If your “good” cleric has a spell like Inflict Wounds, then it’s a personal moral choice whether or not that spell is appropriate for any given situation. Likewise, why shouldn’t evil characters be able to heal and protect? They have friends, too.

    If you want to take away spells from characters who don’t do as their gods command, well.. what does that god command? Is that character doing it? Codes of conduct are nearly impossible to boil down to a set of two adjectives, anyway.

    As for paladins, I’ve run into too many Lawful Jerk paladins to have an opinion on them that’s worth sharing.

  7. I tend to keep alignment around as a stopgap against munchkinism. Many times it is the only characterization that munchkin types feel compelled to give. Additionally it lets me wield a mechanical stick over novice players who just decide to go postal over some intra-party dispute.

    On the flip side other than the occasional holy weapon that can only gain its full benefit in the hands of a good character I don’t do much with alignment. As an added incentive for role playing my players know that I will allow them to change alignment without penalty if they explain why and role play it out for 3 to 5 sessions.

    The social contract would read something like: Feel free to change your alignment for character/plot reasons without penalty at any time. However, if the GM catches you acting out of alignment several times without good reason he will apply a penalty.

  8. I find that alignment is handy as a guide to how I want to play my character – it lays out some parameters that I can always use to guide someone who doesn’t act the way I do. But then, I tend to select different alignments for different characters. I know some people who always, always write down Chaotic Good no matter what they intend to do.

    I remember an old game system (Arduin) which also had an alignment called ‘Amoral’ which basically meant that the character had no care for law/chaos or good/evil – only their own self interest was important. I think a lot of players basically fall in there.

    As a DM, I don’t hold people in their alignment like a vise. Good people usually do mean things occasionally and everyone follows or ignore some rules. (Just ask me about my speeding tickets!) But if they seem to always be making decisions outside the guidelines, I’ll have a chat with them.

    With 4th edition, I’ve made it clear that people will treat you much more on how you act because there’s nothing else to go on now (no detection spells, etc.).

  9. Alignment in RPGs is very useful if you’re 12 years old. If you’re grown up (as I suspect most readers of this blog are), it’s really dumb, irritating, and in the way. It’s also 100% integral to D&D’s style.

  10. I don’t agree with that TODDBRADLEY. It definitely can be in the way if it is misused but it is just one more thing to define a character by. The issue becomes when it limits character choices unreasonably. Previous versions of DND have used it to give GMs the ability to say “Your character wouldn’t do that”, which is definitely limiting, but it can also be a way to provide extra reward for roleplaying. It can also show the line that a character shouldn’t cross and give them playing options when they do. I.e. a paladin going through a forced alignment change and the subsequent redemption.

    I like whitewolf’s nature and demeanor system better because it allows a multitude of options, but in the end it is the same type of thing.

  11. I’ve always disliked alignments. I especially disliked alignment’s interaction with the game rules and the consequences of said interactions. It discourages any sort of shades-of-grey morality.

    To start with the seemingly most innocuous of the aligned spells, Detect Evil, in many of its incarnations has often been a problem for me, both in its ability to direct the PC’s towards that bad guys and in it’s often overzealous application by… well mostly by misplayed paladins.

    As a player, I once got in a fight with one of those paladins over a nice magic weapon one of my lawful-neutral characters had, because it happened to have a daily use power of “Detect Good”. Apparently the weapon had a faint aura of evil about it. Fun.

    As a DM, it’s always been the bane of my existence. From the thrice cursed detection spells, to the darned overpowered higher level aligned spells every cleric worth her salt always loaded up on, they’ve always been trouble. During the past few years, I’ve taken great pains to remove or replace any trace of alignment or alignment based spells from my game. Alignment has always been intertwined with the rules and while the effort of removal was worth it, it’s always a thorn in my side.

    I like the 4e implementation of alignment. Mostly what I like is that it’s off in its own little section that can easily be ignored completely without having to cut off tendrils creeping into all parts of the game.

    The first part of http://deviousplot.blogspot.com/2008/08/five-of-my-house-rules-that-4e.html is my praise for 4e’s alignment rules. Not that I think the 5 is better than 9.

  12. I don’t mind describing things with alignment, but I’m not a fan of what they tend to do. In high school, I required the PCs to be good for at least five levels (in part to keep them together, make it easier to plot, etc.)– and they chomped at the bit to finally fireball villages and randomly destroy things.

    I have seen a number of alignment like systems that do work. Pendragon’s Virtues and Personality Traits do an excellent job of constraining roleplay in a positive way, reminding you that knights [and citizens] have a different morality than today. Straight White Wolf morality (humanity) can work well for telling the tales they intend– but Paths just encourage shopping for the least restrictive constraints. Similarly, Nature and Demeanor give solid guidelines for roleplaying consistency and hint at more than surface motivations.

    The big problem with Alignment is that it’s too many things. Is it a secret society, with a language (like 1e)? Is it a way to build intra-party conflict like White Wolf’s clans (so a Paladin questioning the assassin is intended)? Is it to ensure that only “good” heroes can wield holy weapons? Or to give the GM another excuse for throwing out experience point penalties and trying to drag the players to his ideal version of roleplaying?

    Most systems, once they figure out what they’re trying to do, find a more tailored tool than alignment. Blue Rose’s conviction, Taint (shadowlands or Wheel of Time versions), Madness (DRYH or CoC versions), codes of conduct, etc. A game that does a good job of investigating conflicting moral codes is paladin.

  13. I think it comes down to context.

    In games like Shadowrun or the World of Darkness games, alignment would hamper the game. These are games that explore a “grittier” world where morality is subjective and everyone’s behavior falls into some shade of grey.

    However, in a high fantasy game like D&D, Good and Evil are real, quantifiable things that have definite impact on the world the players inhabit. In this context alignment is almost a necessity.

    This is not to suggest that alignment, even in D&D, should ever be used like a mental prison for the players. A good character can certainly, in a moment of fear or anger, commit an evil act, or an evil character can save the life of an innocent or donate to charity without having to immediately shift alignments.

  14. I’m now strongly pondering telling my players – and revising my base house rules to match – that alignment, in general, is unneeded. You *CAN* have an alignment, and if you do, I’ll hold you to it, but if you don’t want one, you don’t need it. Just don’t be evil – AKA, a teamkilling F***tard.

  15. @FarFromUnique: You know, replacing “Chaotic Evil” with “Teamkilling Fucktard” would actually be a big timesaver. ;)

  16. I dropped alignment for my D&D games some time ago for many of the reason noted above. Now there are somethings (like demon) that are Evil by definition, but they are of a different quality of evil than a person can (usually) be. They are a manifestation of the metaphysical concept of Evil, they have earned it. Mostly though, I just expect character to act in a manner consistent with how they have been played.

  17. grahamd0 – Well said. I don’t care if a game has an alignment mechanic or not, but when they do I expect myself and others to apply commonsense to how that mechanic is applied.

  18. So, I played AE for 4-5 years, which is alignment-less. Loved the system, had a blast, yee-haw. Then we switched to a mixed Ptolus/AE campaign. So now, alignment is optional.

    Essentially, if you really do believe in an ethos so strongly that it’s burned into your soul, and you’d even make counter-intuitive decisions because your alignment pushes you a different direction, take the alignment. Doing so gives you access to WotC/SRD material, including spells and some classes. If you *don’t* have such beliefs, you’re in the AE system of magic, classes, etc…

    It would probably be an unpublishable mess if I ever tried to document the thing fully, but with good understanding between all involved, and a willingness to house rule on the fly for anything I didn’t think of in advance, it’s been a lot of fun so far.

    If I ever had to pick pure alignments or pure no-alignments, I’d drop them in a second.

    ~ John

  19. I have only ever played 1e where alignment was “compulsory”, have never found a real need to enforce it; save that I find if you try, players tend to make their characters either/or Neutral Chaotic, so that they can get away with anything, or think they can? Failing that they will go for Evil! Simply because the beginning player tends to go for Action Man, the bad-ass loner “Dirty Harry”! They want to be able to wreck things, kill things and steal their treasure, beat up on prisoners etc, and grab every advantage, and think that will help! Basically I find it a case of a lot of understanding! If you have to enforce Alignment I think it should be a case of, like the Paladin, losing something if they commit an Evil act or knowingly allow one to happen? Or perhaps having to Atone for something, donate (Heavily!) to the Church, perhaps build/rebuild a Temple to regain what they lost, Magic or Powers? Perhaps a mighty weapon refuses to perform for the Evildoer (or Good Doer if he’s one of the Black Hats?) There isn’t much point in a hard-and-fast system except the point that “Heroes”, which the PCs are supposed to be, should act morally, or they become villains? (Now there is a thought, what about another party hunting THEM as the arch-villains, I wonder what a PC would feel if he realised that to someone else, HE was the Big Bad Guy?!
    Ian

  20. In my campaigns, I treat alignment as a stat that must be filled out in order to complete your character. However, unless you take a class, feat, spell, or magic item with an alignment requirement, it is generally regarded as a dump stat. If a situation arises where your alignment pertains to what is happening, I make a judgement call whether your character has generally lived in line with the alignment written on the sheet.

  21. Sounds about right for me too, Scorpio, it is only really enforceable if you accept something which depends on it! I have had good results handing out some of those magic items, the ones that do electrical damage to an Evil type, or simply refuse to perform for the wrong alignmet/ or rather anyone who acts in an unbecoming manner! One poor bloke acquired a Magic sword that leapt into his hand and dragged him bodily into fights! But that was Personality rather than alignment?
    The only time I have really seen the idea used was when some Cleric or Wizard tries Alignment Detection to decide whether an NPC was planning treachery, etc? Though most MUs don’t like to waste Spell slots on something that specialised!?
    Ian

  22. I have never been a big fan of the alignment system, but ironically, I ended up creating a game world where the eight alignments represent the 8 different gods in the world (true neutral, the 9th, are the undecided). The different creatures that are strongly aligned (devils/demons/angels) then are servants of those alignments.

    Players then pick their patron god and they must be one step from that alignment (Neutral Evil god means you are Lawful Evil or Chaotic Evil).

    It actually works well, but only because I forced the issue. Personally, I don’t care for it much. Mostly I don’t care about 3rd editions extensive use of spells and items that require alignment. I would rather have holy weapons of X instead of holy weapons of Good.

    4th edition D&D at least goes with a more keyword concept and that should help keep the alignments more in check.

    In short, I would say ignore alignment unless you have powers related to it — then declare it based on past character performance. I especially like the above comments that the GM chooses the alignment of his players.

  23. I agree with Grahamd0: in D&D good, evil, and the rest are real, tangible forces, embodied in the forms of exemplars (demons, slaadi, etc). And I’m running a Planescape game, so I kinda have to deal with those. So I’ve got alignment in the campaign.

    But alignment is not a straitjacket for PCs (or anybody else) – it’s a reflection of their beliefs and their deeds. I don’t say “Bob is good; why is he kicking those puppies?” I say “Bob is kicking those puppies, so he might be evil.”

    One of my players argues that good and evil are the same thing wearing different masks (slaying tons of orcs is OK, slaying tons of humans is not), but my view, as far as the game is concerned, is that this happens because the two different cosmic forces are being interpreted by the same divine and mortal beings.

    The Books of Vile Darkness and Exalted Deeds do a pretty good job of laying out what acts constitute evil and which are good in D&D, and it’s quite useful in game terms, so I just roll with that.

  1. The Seven-Sided Die » Blog Archive » What’s wrong with alignment

    […] at the excellent Gnome Stew, Walt Ciechanowski writes of alignment that “[it] only seems universally acceptable in games where it is an explicit part of the […]

  2. Around the blogs…

    […] “Hot Button: A Question of Alignment” @ Gnomestew, with 24 comments […]

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply