Friday, July 27, 2012

On alignment in the D&D game

Am I insane? No - but I will address insanity in this essay. Haven't I had enough of alignment debates throughout the past thirty years? Yes, I have. This is not a debate. This is a treatment of alignment, and ethos, in my own campaign setting.

Let's establish the outline and tone right from the start: I do not believe in character alignment. I define alignment as orientation - an agreement to pursue a common cause. To me, alignment is a group concept. Organizations have alignment. Religions have alignment. Nations have alignment. Individuals, in my opinion, do not. I believe we must fall back on ethos at that point. Practices and principles make more sense to me than monolithic good or evil.

During the history of the D&D game, alignment has been treated differently almost from one edition to the next. In the beginning (brown booklet), we had Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. These absolute alignments equated to Good, Balance, and Evil. Very Moorcock-ian. Very abstract. Possibly, too abstract. Maybe it was just the names that gave me fits. Nazi Germany was all about Law. Most people would deny that it was Good. Robin Hood broke the laws of the land to benefit the common people. Few would call him Evil for doing so. Neutrality, back then, seemed to be a catch-all for everything in between. Chronologically, the D&D game then progressed into Good and Evil to expand the absolutes of Law and Chaos. Now, Law implied order and Chaos was about individuality. Neutrality still sat quietly in the middle. This was alignment in the Holmes book. With the Basic Set, alignment went back to Law, Neutrality, and Chaos for Good, Vanilla, and Evil. For the scope of this essay, I choose not to stray further into AD&D or later editions. For the most part, they all subscribed to the full Law-Chaos and Good-Evil ranges...until 4e.

Like many DMs, I have experienced the frustration of players who use alignment as an excuse to be abusive and/or obnoxious in-game. I have also encountered players that absolutely cannot play any alignment except for Neutral Good, regardless of class, race, or actual character alignment. Sometimes, Chaotic Good. For a long time, I asked myself why the game even included rules for alignment.

I mean, who just rides down a city street blasting innocent bystanders for no good reason --- oh...right.

Why alignment? For role-playing purposes. That is one answer. To help the hapless player run his/her character in the "proper" fashion. If that is the case, then alignment is definitely an outmoded concept as we all seem to have a decent handle on good and evil in a typical fantasy setting. Personally, I prefer to let race and class inform my role-playing. In fact, in my current campaign, it is assumed you are running a heroic adventurer. This means you are risking life and limb for more than just treasure and fame - you are also up for noble quests and rescuing damsels in distress. In short, you try to do "the right thing." You will become famous someday - not infamous.

This is an important distinction in my game.

Under the presumption that the player characters are heroes, the basics of alignment are well established from the start. Obviously and absolutely, the characters are not evil. Period. Simple. Note, this does not mean they are necessarily "good." As a DM, I want the players and characters to act and react according to the circumstances of the campaign, not by the artificial tenets of some abstract code of conduct. Alignment is a metagaming concept - that is to say, a device for encouraging the player to consider the rule before the role. I want a player to be gaming as much in-character as possible. I don't want them to be skimming the rulebook or relying upon a die roll for every little thing.

Remember when I mentioned insanity at the beginning of this essay? Someone that is always Lawful Good or always Chaotic Evil is probably out of their mind. Of course, this applies mostly to human beings. I do not believe very much in human nature and suspect that there are precious few people in our mundane world who are truly "good" at all times. I feel we all have good intentions - but these can be thrown right over if the temptation or gain are great enough. We have laws to keep people in line, right? I think it would be more accurate to say we have laws to inform those who might want to do something "wrong" just what the consequences are of their actions. Laws become a deterrent more than a guideline. We choose not to commit crimes because we fear the punishments.

But, this is a fantasy world. We have true mustache-twirling villains. We have gods of good and bad. We have dragons. We have knights in shining armor on white horses. We have demons. We have angels. There is good and evil because these concepts serve to define the genre. The heroes are free to hack and slay the monsters and bad guys because the heroes are GOOD and the bad guys are EVIL. Stomp on the gas and have at it. But, for my money, drama and pathos can also come from those gray areas in between. Pathos? No, that's not a Musketeer. That is the quality of a story that encourages you to feel actual emotion for a character. Why do they bother giving Ensign Jerry a name when they are just going to kill him the minute the away team sets foot on the alien planet? Why bother mentioning he has a little sister back home? What is the point of making him the captain's childhood friend? So you feel a little lump in your throat when he dies in some senseless way to show how evil the villain really is.

What about the stuff that falls in the shadows? What about the thief that steals the relic that is the only way to save the village from a terrible plague, only to sell the thing without realizing the true value or importance of the item he swiped? Is this thief evil? Not really, no. He is opportunistic and dishonest. He stole the relic for profit - not out of spite. He doesn't even know about the plague, he just wants a score. Would he have stolen the relic had he known? Maybe. Maybe not. That is the appeal of the gray. Suddenly, the "villain" of the adventure becomes more three-dimensional than a monolithic evil mastermind who throws innocent people to the sharks just to show what an evil mastermind he is. The thief becomes someone with motivations and possibilities. He becomes a person that might not be so easily slain on sight - because he deserves punishment instead of execution. He might even become an ally if the player characters can convince him of the error of his ways. Maybe he has a mother in the plague-ridden village. Maybe he'd want to save her. You have to interact with him to find out - and not with a sword.

This brings us to ethos. Ethos begins where alignment fails. Lawful Good? All the time? If you happen to be a paladin, maybe. If you've sworn an oath, we can believe a little easier. But, does the paladin uphold her oath because she believes it is right - or because she risks losing all her nifty powers? Faith or fear? This is ethos.

I believe in ethos. Not WHAT you do, but WHY you do it. Are you not breaking the law because it is the right thing to do? Are you doing it because you've never had a good reason to do otherwise? Because everyone else is doing it and you want to belong to the majority? Because you fear the consequences of doing otherwise? What will you do when presented with the "hard choice?" What will you risk your freedom or life for? Where do you draw the line? That is your ethos - not your alignment. Alignment can be an adequate tool to guide you along the way, but ethos is what you have when you reach the edge and have to decide whether to jump or hesitate. This is where my interest lies. This suits my preference in engaging the PLAYER as much as the CHARACTER.

Is there monolithic Good and Evil in the D&D game? Of course there is. Any game with alignment-oriented planes of existence and afterlives can claim such. Any game with angels, devas, demons, and devils is going to have extremes of light and dark. Magic items and artifacts can certainly be dedicated to Good or Evil. And so on. Are such extremes of alignment suitable for player characters or ordinary monsters? Should they serve as absolute reminders of how we should be running our characters during the game? Are they really necessary? I don't think so.


  1. I think the best, most dramatic moments in role playing come when the DM sets up a choice for platers that make them choose between their characters doing what is for the best, and what they 'should' do according to their alignment.

  2. This was a great post and I don't want to cheapen it with a "short" comment. It doesn't do it justice. My only addition would be that I have a "soft spot" for alignment because of my roots and love or original D&D. As a more mature gamer, DM and game builder, I have to say that alignment as a fill in the blank "stat" is wrong. Stats are necessary in a roleplaying system but have only a small impact on actual roleplaying itself (in that an 18/99 strength warrior might carry himself like a complete hard ass...or he might be very soft-spoken and unassuming...).