Tobold's Blog
Sunday, May 31, 2015
Dungeons & Dragons without alignment

My Dungeons & Dragons campaign is currently on hold due to various personal things preventing all players to be available at the same time. And this is Europe, with many people going for 3 weeks or more on long summer holidays, so we'll only start the campaign after that. However we did the introductory session and are now building characters, and this is promising to become interesting.

Dungeons & Dragons has always used a very simplistic good vs. evil system of character alignment to chart characters' beliefs. That gives a nice justification for the players' murder hobo behavior. Because it is obviously totally okay to break into a castle or cave, kill all the inhabitants, and steal all the loot if those inhabitants are like evil, man! That might be a good enough system to give basic motivation for a group of teenagers, but for adult players it quickly becomes too simple, and can actually get into the way of telling certain stories with investigative aspects. In some editions you could find an assassin in a group of civilians by casting a detect evil spell! 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons already toned down the alignment system considerably, there are nearly no powers that use alignment. So for my new campaign I decided to simple remove the alignment system altogether.

That doesn't prevent characters from believing in good and evil. A paladin can still see himself as a fighter for good. But others might see him more like a Templar, whose participation in a crusade isn't quite as morally lily white as he might believe. And without alignment on a good vs. evil, lawful vs. chaotic scale there is now room for more different philosophical differences. Which is what the Zeitgeist campaign is all about. If there is for example a conflict between an old faith and a new faith it is far better to not label those with simplistic good or evil tags.

Looking at the characters my players have created, I can see good possibilities for role-playing. In a country torn between traditionalist and progressive forces, the players seem destined to be on the progressive side: Their religious members are all of the new faith (that is divine powers, not primal); their themes chosen mostly paint them as modern, ambitious, young men and women, kind of like early yuppies. Half of them have chosen classes whose main ability score is charisma, with skills like diplomacy and insight being very prominent. And with them being members of the Royal Homeland Constabulary they aren't murder hobos, but servants of the state. The stipend system of the campaign even allows me to get away from the "we murder monsters for treasure" aspect of D&D. Several characters are pretty clearly motivated by a career.

I do think this will work very well in the context of the Zeitgeist campaign. I don't know yet how it will play out in detail, but the campaign is designed to leave room for philosophical differences and personal development. I won't need the crutch of an alignment system to give players a motivation, they can decide for themselves what is right and wrong.


I would expect that it depends on the pre existing conditions that were in place before the adventurers showed up in town.

I can see how the pre existing condition of "This town is a bunch of religious wacks that just hate that other town." enough to welcome your group of murderhobos in open arms is a hard sell now-a-days.

It seems to me the standard go-to trope would be "That other town keeps sending raiding parties over to steal our kids and gold." Thus painting them as the embodiment of evil. But you can't just keep doing that.

And the ever popular "scry evil" where the bad guy is spontaneously compelled to attack you, thus committing "Suicide by cop" is a little iffy by today's standards of evidence.

I think my favorite, and it always made me uncomfortable, was the single player game, "Final Fantasy VII". An awesome game, but whenever you went into someone's house, you were basically expected to just search the place for loot. No asking, no warrant, just search through their personal space and take their shit.
Your new prospective campaign sounds very interesting. Interestingly it got me thinking once more about the "style vs. mechanics" problem of RPGs. If I ran a game like you've got going, for example, I'd be very tempted to use GURPS or some other similar system with a huge amount of granularity and flavor aimed at the non=combat elements of role-playing--I mean, you can do this with almost any RPG, including 4E, but some systems give you a lot of depth in areas other than killing stuff and so seem more suited to this style of campaign.
This is something I wish video games would look at. The "moral choice" in video games tends to be rescue the children from the burning orphanage, or board up the windows to make sure they all die. There is no real choice here, no ethical dilemma worth pondering.

I don't want the sob story of the innocent, hard working father who was scammed out of his business by the local crime boss. I want the story of the lazy alcoholic that lost his business because of his gambling problem. Do you help that guy? Obviously he did it to himself, but he still has a family he needs to take care of and he swears he has learned his lesson!
Sometimes alignment can be a handy tool to keep your players on track. I found that with one group (teenagers) that they'd all be neutral greedy (Munchkin) if they could get away with it. That got annoying real quick. No, the paladin and monk don't kill the Mayor and his household so they can loot his place, unless they want to be reclassed as fighter and thief. :)
"That might be a good enough system to give basic motivation for a group of teenagers, but for adult players it quickly becomes too simple, and can actually get into the way of telling certain stories with investigative aspects."

I'll say it again; you're slowly coming around to the same conclusions many others did with regard to 4E. It's pretty good tactical combat, but the system doesn't truly support much beyond that. If your idea of an RPG is to kick in doors and fight a goblin in room 1 all the way through to an vampire lord in room 13 much like you would in say, a WoW instance, then 4E is the system for you.

If you're looking for a system that provides some structure and a little "roll" to balance out the non-combat "role" playing, then other systems are much better.
Huh? 4E is a much better system to houserule alignment away. The other editions were much more heavily reliant on alignment, because they had so many spells and classes depending on it. I *much* prefer 4E for my current campaign, because the 4E rules only cover combat, and not all that non-combat stuff the other editions do.
In a game where nearly all of the rules detail combat, it's natural for gameplay to devolve into murderhobo ad nauseum. Houseruling alignment doesn't fix the fact that a typical 4E adventure is, at its core, a series of tactical combats interspersed with a few role-playing cutscenes - much like a typical CRPG or theme park MMO.

Just the opposite: If the rules only talk about combat, the DM has unlimited freedom to shape the out-of-combat game. The older editions are full of rules and spells like Detect Evil that mess with what stories you can tell. It is far easier to create a city adventure in 4E than in previous editions.

If a DM reads the rules and only ever plays whatever the rules say, and thus only ever plays combat, then the DM is a moron. That isn't the fault of the rules.
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