In my opinion, alignment is one of the most polarizing topics within the RPG hobby, and specifically within Dungeons and Dragons. It is fundamental to the nature of the game, yet it is subject to constant debate. As it applies to games, alignment is both mechanical and philosophical, which only adds to the confusion. This is not an easy subject to discuss, and like many things on The RPG Academy, there is not a clear answer. Over the course of a few articles, I plan on discussing alignment and hopefully providing some useful advice for your own understanding of the topic that will apply to your games.
To start things off, let’s talk about what alignment actually is. Long-time players probably have a clear idea of alignment and have made up their minds about what it means. But newer players might not share that understanding as the concept has evolved through the editions.
In the most simple terms possible, alignment defines a character or monster in Dungeons and Dragons as good or evil. It is not a stat on a character sheet or in a monster block. Instead, it is a clear identifier in the form of a definitive statement. Depending on the edition of the game, there may be further qualifiers, including the concepts of neutrality, law, and chaos. Of course, this is only how D&D functions. Many other games have a similar concept and they each have their own type of identifiers. Still other games do not include the concept as a core factor of a character, even if the concepts of good and evil are addressed within the games themselves.
At first glance, it would seem that a concept like alignment would very simply serve to identify heroes and villains, and provide clear lines of right and wrong. However, most editions of Dungeons and Dragons are world simulation systems, and we know that in the real world, there are no clear lines of good and evil. Other games that include an alignment concept use it differently, but for this first article, let us focus exclusively on D&D. A character might strive to be good or evil, but individual actions, thoughts, and decisions may fluctuate between these extremes. Outside influences might influence a character towards one or the other as well. Consider how many plots of books and movies have been focused on a character changing his or her alignment. And since D&D is at its core a way to tell stories, why is this aspect so rigidly defined at character generation, which is effectively a character’s birth?
Applying such terms to monsters is somewhat easier, but it is still not completely correct. A devil or demon is easy to state absolutely evil. But can you think of a story about a vampire seeking redemption? I can think of at least one. On the other hand, angels might be good, but according to at least one mythology, they fell and changed to evil. Various creatures are found in the wild, and adventuring parties encounter them frequently. Some are seen as always evil and usually can be found attacking a poor defenseless town or hoarding treasure in the mountains. Others are simply wild animals that attack the party or otherwise engage them. But again, there are countless stories that question the nature of this arbitrary concept of alignment when it comes to these monsters.
In short, alignment is messy. In my opinion, the way that it currently exists within D&D is problematic and should be drastically altered. However, everyone has their own thoughts about alignment. In the rest of this series, I will talk about how alignment has evolved through through D&D mechanically and what this means for the philosophy of the game, what the concept of morality means to the RPG hobby, and how I think alignment can be improved in D&D specifically. As always, what I share here is my opinion and I am alway open to discuss this topic.
In conclusion today, I would like to share some thoughts on alignment from friend of the show Jacob Smith, creator of Edgeland Games. Jacob brings up some interesting points and I will discuss them in the next article.
Alignment makes the world go ‘round
Alignment is the actual driving force of almost any RPG, especially any based on the d20 system. Yet it is often the first thing to be dismissed or forgotten when the game begins. But it will come up again once someone needs a protection from this spell or when a bane weapon against lawful comes available. I have played one other system that had an “alignment” part of character creation, Vampire: The Masquerade. It uses a system called Nature and Demeanor. Your Nature is who you were at your core while Demeanor is how you presented yourself to the world. These concepts are very important to the game, while alignment as defined in d20 is hardly even mentioned. I believe I have finally figured out why.
Nature and Demeanor have a direct statistical effect on the game. Alignment can be dismissed, by simply saying “Hey if you keep murdering people you are gonna shift to evil, probably.” In Whitewolf games, however, you have an ability called Willpower. Using Willpower grants you automatic successes on rolls and is required to use certain abilities. The only way to regain Willpower is through proper role-playing of your character’s true nature. It is the equivalent of telling a Lawful Good cleric, that he could only get new spells through proper good deeds and atonement after an act such as looting a long-dead adventurer found in a crypt.
On a grander scale, alignment is what separates the heroes from the monsters. The tarrasque is a terrifying force to reckon with, but that is only because it’s alignment compels it to rampage across the countryside. If its alignment was Neutral Good, it would be regarded as a benevolent guardian, welcomed to any community that it came across. Even dragons are divided by alignment. These ancient creatures are wise, intelligent, and far more charismatic than any normal adventurer. Yet the main difference between a gold dragon and a red dragon is the simple case of alignment.
Until the d20 systems begin to treat alignment like any other stat, the system will continue to crank out a series of “Murderhobos” that don’t engage in role-play and only look to build characters that get higher bonuses or the best feat trees. What if instead, there were feats only accessible to good, neutral, or evil characters? Or what about a mechanic that would impose penalties good-aligned creatures because they decided to torture an NPC for information?
Your character’s alignment is what drives him or her into the darkest dungeons to explore ancient ruins, to the front of the battlelines to demonstrate valor, or into the deepest of shadows to commit unscrupulous acts. As a player, you owe it to your character and to your GM to adhere to this guideline, not only when convenient, but also when it makes role playing difficult.