Friday, February 10, 2012

Alignment: Why Bother?

I'm going to risk nullifying Wednesday's post today, by asking whether alignment serves any useful purpose. What does alignment really do, at the point where the dice hit the table? Most of D&D's attempts to explain alignment are marred by vagueness that hints at "we've always had this tool, but we're not sure why. See what you can do with it."

In OD&D's Men & Magic, alignment is discussed very briefly. It's implied that alignment is not a sliding scale; i.e., you can't be Lawful with Neutral leanings. You're Lawful, period. Neutral is stands on equal footing with Law and Chaos, not merely as the zero point between them. In practical terms, alignment seems to determine little more than which creatures you'll fight alongside when the armies draw up for ideological battle (an event that probably was more likely in OD&D than in later editions). That, and it might prevent you from using aligned magic items or put you at odds with an intelligent item.

In B/X, AD&D, and 3E, alignment became a "broad ethos of thinking" (1E DMG), a "guide to ... basic ethical and moral attitudes" (2E PHB), and a "general moral and personal attitude" (3.5 PHB). 2nd Edition is alone in all of the editions of D&D to give alignment a (short) chapter of its own rather than making it part of a larger discussion on fleshing out your character's personality. 

4E takes a half-step toward resurrecting the older concept of alignment as cosmic force: "Alignments are tied to universal forces bigger than deities or any other allegiance you might have" (4E PHB). It also takes a half-step away from alignment altogether by making it optional.

I was glad to see the first change in 4E and ambivalent about the second. Making alignment optional wasn't as big a change as some people perceived it to be. Players always could duck alignment complications by choosing Neutrality or "Neutral Good leaning toward Neutral." That's aside from DMs who insisted players select an alignment but then ignored it in play.

What about DMs who didn't ignore alignment? What purpose did alignment serve in their games?

The first is to be a behavioral label and nothing more. Alignment acts as an aspect of personality, only slightly more important than "happy-go-lucky" or "compulsively tidy." If this is all it amounts to--and that probably was the case in most campaigns--then alignment could easily be jettisoned, and probably should be. Let players come up with their own personality labels.

The second effect of alignment is similar to the first, with the addition that it can double as a club for the DM to thwack the players with when they step out of line. This use for alignment mainly causes friction between the DM and the players without adding much to the game's enjoyment. It licenses the DM to close off certain actions from players by saying, "your character wouldn't do that." In its worst form, a DM strips away a cleric's or paladin's class powers because they've "violated their alignment." No player ever agrees with that judgment, and it's easy to foresee the arguments it will trigger.

The most hands-on use for alignment involves spells and magic items that have different effects depending on the user's or target's alignment. Interestingly, when alignment is used to create these types of mechanical interactions, it implies that alignment has a cosmic connection beyond the character's personality. 

This, IMO, is where alignment has value--reflecting a reality larger than the character's philosophy. Maybe that's just my fondness for Michael Moorcock's tales of Elric and Corum showing through, but I think it goes beyond that. Tremendous storytelling doors open when Law, Chaos, Good, Evil, and Neutrality have real existential weight in your campaign. Epic tales about the struggle between good and evil have more impact when Good and Evil are cosmic forces, not just attitudes. Whether they're aspects of gods, greater or smaller than gods, or make gods irrelevant is a choice for individual DMs. 

If alignment is nothing but shorthand for personality, then it should be dropped. Instead, encourage players to define their own philosophy of life. If alignment is to be a real choice for players, then it ought to be a real force in the world. 


P.S. Several comments below suggest that alignment can or should be setting-dependent, and that's a valid notion. Good/Evil and Chaos/Law are just two possibilities. But no matter what the labels are, they don't change the point I'm trying to express here--that alignments need to represent something real about the game's cosmos. You can use D&D's stock labels or create and define your own, as long as they have weight.


  1. I guess my problem is that if alignment is to be a real force in the world you are tying it closely to the religion of the game, as the Moorcock alignments are how the cosmology works. This if fine if you are running that style of game, but I am not convinced it is as universal a feature of the game as that. It is a setting specific feature rather than a core feature.

    1. I don't see cosmos-based alignments as necessarily religious. Law and Chaos could simply be part of the "background radiation" of the universe; Good and Evil alternate names for (eg) the light and dark sides of the Force. No doubt some people will turn that into a religion, but that's quite different from it arising from a deity.

  2. For years I've thought that alignment should be optional, and that alignments should fit the setting. Law/Chaos is one possibility, but others include Shadow/anti-Shadow (as in FFG's Midnight setting), the five MtG colors, two rival pantheons, and the four Ars Magica realms (Divine, Infernal, Magic, and Faerie). Allegiances in d20 Modern and their namesakes in Basic Roleplaying prove much more flexible.

    Good/Evil has always been problematic for me. A simplistic interpretation reminds me too much of religious persecution, imperialism, jingoism, and propaganda from our world. Furthermore, if evil deeds align characters toward Evil, why are there courts when a wandering paladin can Detect Evil and consign the bad apples to death or perpetual imprisonment? Conversely, if Evil is a supernatural force from the Lower Planes, then only demons, devils, dark gods, and those who associate with them bear its mark ... including a tiefling infant who has yet to DO evil. Is the child doomed to serve evil, or can it as a thinking being choose otherwise? And will it still "radiate" Evil because of its heritage, or will its actions -- or the rites of a benevolent god -- remove that stain? (For comparison, some legends say Merlin was a child of a/the devil, but a quick-thinking midwife baptized him.) Is Evil like radiation, picked up through proximity? Any answers are fraught with ethical and metaphysical difficulties, sure to violate some real-world theology. Better to ignore "real" morality -- whatever that is -- and consider only the demands of gods and cosmic forces.

  3. I don't think alignment has every really been a shorthand for personality. It hasn't been in my games, and I don't think you can see that in the texts. Alignment has most often been a guide for behavior (as you also mention), which is different. For example, you can have the most unpleasant personality in the world and still follow all the ten commandments (and thus keep you paladinhood or whatever). Alignment is a way for a character to decide what is right or wrong. How is that personality?

    I would also disagree with this as an absolute statement:

    In its worst form, a DM strips away a cleric's or paladin's class powers because they've "violated their alignment." No player ever agrees with that judgment, and it's easy to foresee the arguments it will trigger.

    Certainly, if a DM says "that action you did violates your alignment, lose powers sucker" the player is not going to agree and will argue (either because they honestly thought it was in line with the behavior code or because they were hoping to pull a fast one).

    However, there is a better way to do this, which involves telling the player beforehand what the consequences will entail. Thus, if you burn that temple with both hostiles and innocents inside, your alignment will change (or whatever). Are you sure you want to do that? Then, the consequence is on the player and there is no gotcha. Of course, they player may still try to negotiate, but that just part of the standard back and forth about how reality works.


    That is true, but there is a lot of implied setting in most (all?) editions of D&D. All of these aspects have always been optional to some degree.

  4. @semiprometheus

    Any answers are fraught with ethical and metaphysical difficulties, sure to violate some real-world theology. Better to ignore "real" morality -- whatever that is -- and consider only the demands of gods and cosmic forces.

    That's very well put.

  5. Steve, I'm glad you followed up with this post so quickly after Wednesdays. I was wondering where you were going with the last post, and I think today's is the more significant post. I largely agree with your point.

    Don't tell my AD&D players, but I essentially ignore their chosen alignment ... for most PCs. (Though really, I don't care if they find out.) Some of my players use it as a tool to help guide their PCs' action, but I don't hold them to what's written on their sheet. Regardless of what's written down, their *actions* tell me where they happen to fall amongst possible allegiances cosmic forces, and the result can be felt by them in terms of how the world interacts back with them.

    Where this matters most is for character archetypes that have strong ties to cosmic powers: Clerics, druids, paladins, and (to a lesser degree) rangers. They're the ones mostly likely to the feel painful results of straying from their allegiances. And when a player rolls stats that happen to qualify for a paladin, I remind them that it's not a matter of *whether* they can maintain their paladinhood -- it's nearly inevitable that they *will* lose their paladinhood, so it's simply a matter of *when* they lose it. (Or whether the PC dies first.)

    Currently I use the standard AD&D 9-way alignment, but for some future campaign I'm probably going to use an allegiance model, where you can (optionally) align to *one* cosmic force: Law, Chaos, Balance, Good, Evil, or potentially others. They all have their pros and cons. I won't even tell the players; they'll pick standard AD&D alignments as usual (though I'll tell them that there aren't such things as alignment languages), and they can find out the effects of true allegiances through play. (Mundane effects of a true allegiance would happen to include something akin to alignment language.)

    1. "it's not a matter of *whether* they can maintain their paladinhood -- it's nearly inevitable that they *will* lose their paladinhood, so it's simply a matter of *when* they lose it."

      I love this. It assumes that paladinhood is essentially a tragic calling, and D&D doesn't have enough of those. I've argued on occasion that 4E needs a "Doomed Hero" epic destiny to represent the archetypal character who attains his destiny only by dying.

  6. The observation that alignment can vary from setting to setting is on target. I think, however, that it doesnt change my premise. Ive added a postscript to that affect. Thanks for bringing it up.

  7. Alignment as both personal philosophy and cosmic force was a central idea in Planescape, but it's not clear it's ever really helped out D&D anywhere else.

    If as we are told, the Next game is to be modular, alignment seems to be perfectly suited to being a modular element.

  8. I have found that alignment isn't useful to me as a DM. You can point at many real world arguments, like Roe v. Wade, where both sides of that coin believe they are on the side of the right and just. Wars are routinely fought where both sides claim the upper moral hand and propagandize to that effect.

    To me who is right and wrong, good and evil, lawful and chaotic are matters of perspective determined by the individual, and in a larger sense, by the community that individual is in. So I don't worry about alignment, I just ensure that player actions have consequences (good or bad) that fit in with the values of the community they find themselves in. If you kill another member of your pirate crew on the high seas in a "fair" fight, nobody probably cares. If you kill a random citizen in broad daylight on a city street in front of witnesses, odds are you will find yourself a wanted man.

    As for Gods and Alignment, I have been leaning towards the ideas of tenets, rather than alignment restrictions. Gods tend to give mortals a list of things to do or not do, like don't eat pork, don't drink, treat others like you would like to be treated, etc. Crom, for instance, would probably put a high value on personal combat and valor and look dimly on backstabbing, poisons and traps - the work of cowards. It's the kind of thing that I, as a DM, can use to put the character in the balance and see if they are conforming or not.

    1. One of the really interesting aspects of the law versus chaos dichotomy to me is that it need not represent good and evil. Example: Nazis, lawful; American Revolutionaries, chaotic.

      That being said, I think it's pretty clear that the original conception of law and chaos in D&D was civilization and wilderness/barbarism.

      The most interesting post I have read on alignment so far is this one:

      Check it out.