A post on my good buddy Dan’s RPG blog inspired me to sort out my own thoughts on the subject of alignment in roleplaying games.
These days, I’m a game/dungeon master (DM) more than a player, so the below will likely skew in the that direction. Hopefully there will be something for everyone.
In his post on alignment in the Pathfinder roleplaying game, Dan dissects issues with alignment both fundamental and system-specific. I agree with his balanced conclusions and would like to explore some of the questions posed.
In this post I will aim to explore the consequences of alignment in a real-world gaming scenario, and consider what inspiration players and DMs can take from Alignment Classic™.
Alignment is one of several useful jumping-off points when drafting a roleplaying game character (PC).
Nine options, while limiting when compared to myriad real-world moralities, philosophies etc,, are plenty. Particularly when you’ve got a million other decisions to make and the character sheet is still practically empty and the rest of the table are glowering at you, pretending to make small talk.
Simple choices are usually good choice when it comes to game design. So your wizard is Evil, but is she precise and manipulative, or a bloody psychopath. The simple choice of alignment can be a frame to weave a much more nuanced character, without ever having to colour outside the lines.
Alignment choices are never so restrictive that a PC will have no “alignment-authentic” choices available to them in any given situation. When choices that are true to a character feel limited, and the player is faced with difficult decisions, roleplaying gets really interesting.
As a player, I relish tackling the question “What the hell would my PC do now?”.
Alignment in the wild
…which brings me to the question “What should the game/DM do when a player does not play their PC’s alignment?”.
I’m not splitting hairs here. Let’s ignore minor violations of alignment. What should happen when a player acts in a way that significantly violates their PC’s alignment?
Some players choose an alignment solely for the crunchy benefits, to access a spell, trait etc. I’m not passing judgement on these monsters, but I don’t think they warrant special treatment or punishment.
I think the topic of alignment violation could be part of a bigger discussion about broader violations of character. E.g. the ascetic barbarian orc who is miraculously familiar with the inner workings of human religious sects.
I have sympathy with players and DMs who crave an authentic roleplaying experience. I can also sympathise with those who just want to have fun, character be damned.
Whatever your preference, seeing alignment as part of the problem is part of the problem.
Alignment can and should be a relatively straightforward mechanism to reward and challenge both groups. Constraints, after all, provoke creativity.
So your Lawful Good ranger just murdered that village
I’m not a fan of XP rewards for playing in character, and certainly not in favour of XP penalties. That said, I refuse to accept that, in matters of a PC’s emotional state or reasoning, the player is always right.
Let’s look at this another way. Should the game world reward a character for being true to themselves? Should the world punish characters that violate their natures?
NPCs would perhaps be more willing to do business with a less mercurial personality. NPCs would be less likely to press charges against a PC involved in a crime if they have a “good reputation”.
Evil cultists may be more likely to trust a character who wears his murderous skin comfortably.
These examples are pretty obvious, but in practice how should a DM track all the various interrelationships between PCs and NPCs as the world develops? Plot points are easy to track, but underlying emotional states less so. It is the illusion of an authentic/consistent interplay between history, emotion and interpersonal relations that can make an RPG world really fly.
As a useful shorthand, the relative alignments of two characters indicates how they might interact. That doesn’t need to imply simple interactions, but it can help a DM map out interpersonal dynamics on the fly. Characters on opposing sides of a conflict may be more likely to hit it off if they share an alignment.
With skill checks, Bluff etc, PCs can, of course, resolve the challenges posed by NPC interactions. But the challenges can be easier or harder, and certainly richer roleplaying experiences, in a context where alignment means something in the game world, even if it is never expressed as a simple 3×3 grid.
What would Lathander do?
Do the gods of your game world care about the alignments of mortals? Their values or value structures?
In game worlds where deities act as the well-spring of alignments, reifying them, the gods do care about alignments. But the actions of a Lawful Good god may be incomprehensible to a Lawful Good mortal.
The Book of Job opens with a wager between God and Satan. Satan argues that Job is pious only because he favoured by God. God inflicts a series of trials and catastrophes on Job to demonstrate that Satan is wrong.
Job’s confrontation with God resolves with Job accepting, but not understanding, God’s actions. In this game world, there is perhaps a disconnect between the rules regarding alignment as applied to mortals and those applicable to a deity.
Futhermore, in many religions, enlightenment or omnipotence requires transcendence beyond morality. Ideas of balance and neutrality are encompassed even within the simple grid of nine alignments, providing a framework to translate this transcendence into something comprehensible by the game world and ruleset. True Neutral can mean “beyond alignment” just as much as it implies “tree-hugging druids and that”.
“The gods move in mysterious ways”
The above is not intended to invite DMs to have gods behave in whatever convenient way suits the story or situation.
Rather, I am arguing that the interaction between a PC’s alignment, that of the deities of the world, and that of the game world/ruleset itself, is not as simple as a 3×3 grid implies. These interactions offer an opportunity to explore alignment (law, chaos, good, evil) in a more tangible fashion than is possible when alignment is removed from the mortal sphere of a game world entirely.
Let’s talk about Detect Evil.
In d20/Pathfinder, the much-maligned spell Detect Evil does not empower PCs to identify every evil NPC they meet. A treacherously Neutral Evil courtier will not be unmasked using this spell.
Clerics of Evil gods will possess an evil aura, but in many cases their spells, garb or holy symbol would reveal their nature anyway.
Even where a NPC, cloaked or otherwise, possesses an Evil aura, that alone does not give the PCs a licence to kill them. More importantly, an Evil aura does not mean that the NPC has anything to do with that gnoll attack or those murders in the poor quarter.
Outsiders et al present more of a problem plot-wise, particularly when they are disguised. There are, however, plenty of spells and abilities to account for this in game, without a hint of fudge.
In any case, these are challenges that the DM should rise to. What happens if the PCs uncover the ogre mage in the opening scene? Creativity and fun, hopefully.
Redemption and Corruption
If a player’s character does significantly violate their alignment, the DM could inform them of this out of game. Alternatively, this breach could be communicated in-game by a change in the way NPCs interact with the PC.
Following the killing of an ambiguously-guilty NPC, perhaps the townsfolk are more wary of the PC, less inclined to join them for a drink. A cleric may sense a diminishing in the divine presence.
These changes are particularly effective if alignment has an impact in NPC interactions generally, from the game’s start, as discussed above.
If the breach is significant or repeated, the DM could inform the player that their PC’s alignment has changed. Time to update that character sheet.
And why not? A player whose PC warrants such a change, if they believe their choice of alignment to be sacrosanct, should have that belief challenged just as any other element of a PC can be challenged.
In a world where characters can transform into dire badgers, lose their minds, and even become gods, PC should not feel any aspect of their beloved character is permanently warded against the winds of change.
But what about indie RPGs?
But for serious, I prefer a diet of both crunch and fluff, and have not played enough indie RPGs to explore in any depth how they treat alignment.
Indie RPGs are generally simpler in mechanical terms. Due to a fashion for more “realistic”, less restrictive choices in both big RPGs and indies, alignment is frequently dropped in indies altogether.
I would argue that whether dropping alignment is a valid decision or not depends on the nature and purpose of the game.
Given how significant that ethics and morality have been for much of human history, alignment as a focus for an indie RPG seems an obvious choice, not a weak mechanic to be sidelined.
Hopefully this article provokes a reconsideration of alignment in roleplaying games. In writing it, I have certainly developed a few thoughts I’d like to develop in my game sessions.
In many cases, simplification is a matter of necessity. As stated above, simple choices are also frequently better ones. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the reasons for making a choice, for making a cut.
Try reintroducing alignment into your game, even Alignment Classic™.
Properly implemented, I think alignment can make for a richer, more consistent game world, deeper interactions and, ultimately, more fun.
Huzzah! It’s Free RPG Day!