Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 02, 2014
New player guide to role-playing: Alignment

When I asked for ideas for this column, I got several replies on the subject of alignment. So I'll talk about that in this post. First of all it has to be remarked that alignment is not system neutral, it is very much a Dungeons & Dragons concept. And curiously it is the earlier editions of D&D that have a very game-centric alignment system: Your alignment can be changed by magic or by acting against it, and that can have consequences on the powers of your character.

What you need to keep in mind here is that D&D and many other systems are playing in the fantasy genre, where story-telling often revolves around a strong conflict between good and evil. You don't just fight against somebody attacking your region, you fight against an evil necromancer and his undead army attacking your region. If the players are the heroes of good, you don't need a lot of effort to motivate them to fight against an evil menace.

The downside of such a simple black vs. white conflict is that it leads to lazy role-playing. The lawful good paladin of D&D is sometimes known as "lawful stupid", because it is easy to always opt for the obviously "good" choice without regards for consequences. That can be fun in one campaign, but then quickly gets old. Believable characters have a much more complex web of motivations and personality quirks than just being the lawful good fighter against evil.

Ultimately the question in a role-playing game is always what kind of story you want to tell. If you want to tell a simple good vs. evil story, an alignment system can help to keep the players sticking to the good role. But if you want to deal with complex moral dilemmas, any rules-based approach is bound to come up short. You can replace an alignment system with a better character creation process, where you ask each player for his motivations (including secret ones). Many other role-playing systems work just fine without a strict alignment systems. A story with difficult decisions should be interesting to play, and not serve as a threat to take powers away from the characters for breaching their alignment.

In my opinion, D&D alignment works best if you restrict the mechanical effects to Supernatural Good vs Supernatural Evil. Then all the spells (Smite Evil, Detect Evil, Protection from Evil, etc.) work properly as they should from fantasy literature.

Treat the nine alignments as a personality guide, and you can substitute any other personality trait system in its place.
The only good thing about the alignment system were the Planes. They were inflexible, arbitrary and mostly a crutch. Especially with alignment detection magic.
And when Arcana Unearthed came out, I didn't miss them one bit.
Excellent point, Rohan.

I actually like the alignment system as a role-play guide even if it means that your 'evil' character has to come up with some other motivation for destroying the bad guys than saving the village. Such as taking out a rival or trying to usurp the power he has...

If the real player's personality is such that he likes to do things on the whim, then just encourage him to play one of the chaotic alignments.

I also don't think you hold players too tightly to the alignments. A normally lawful person can have moments of insanity. They might look back at those moments with abhorrence, but living with regret is something that's closer to reality.

A lawful good paladin who did something he abhors may be the defining reason why he is so vigilant about always doing the right thing. He's afraid it might be within him to do it again. And maybe it is!
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