Hello students. Welcome to the final article about alignment in this series. We’ve covered a lot of information in these past few weeks. After discussing what alignment is, how it’s changed through the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, and its mechanical impact on the game, today we’ll be talking about ways to change alignment.
One of the easiest things to do is simply throw it out. At its best, alignment is a restrictive system that is a crutch for lazy role playing. In your session zero, include the subject of morality as you decide what kind of game you want to play. Use this opportunity to create a social contract about your characters, their motivations, and their goals. Remember that alignment is intended to be fluid. No-one is entirely Good or Evil, and actions must be judged in the context of their situation.
Of course, this method has its own problems. Eliminating alignment completely changes or negates some spells and class abilities. This would require some re-writing so to not destroy the balance of the game. It also requires an increased awareness of choices and consequences in the game. And ultimately, it might not be the right choice for all players.
Another method is to change alignment into something with a direct mechanical impact on the game. There are, of course, many ways to attempt this. Here are a few that I thought up.
One option would be to have Good and Evil become “background stats” of the game. The GM would need to keep track of the impact player choices have on the overall nature of Good and Evil in the game world. This would also require defining actions as either Good or Evil and assigning them a quantifiable value. The results of this method would be seen with changes in the game world. There could be obvious changes, such as with the type and frequency of encounters. Or the changes could be very subtle, such as with how NPCs react to PCs. This could be tracked for the entire game world or for specific areas.
Another option would be to create actual Good and Evil stats for the PCs. Other games have done this successfully (specifically, a game set in a galaxy far far away). It would probably work better with names that have a larger scope and application than simply Good and Evil. These stats would fluctuate during the game based on actions taken. Again, this would require assigning value and judgement to specific actions. These stats would dictate the abilities available to the PCs and what path options are possible during character advancement. They would also impact how PCs interact with the game world.
Yet another option with be to make Good and Evil (again, with better names) into resources the players can manage. PCs would earn Good or Evil points based on actions (requiring the same value assignment as before) and then be able to spend these points on various class abilities. This would require a complete rewrite of the rules to incorporate such mechanics. This also requires a greater emphasis on alignment in the game world and in class features. As a simple example, a divine spell caster would use these points to cast spells that match the alignment of his or her patron deity. Or, unique class abilities are all directly based on the relationship to patrons of specific alignments and these alignment resources are used to access them.
These options, along with anything else that is created along the same lines, are all valid alternatives to the alignment rules as they exist now. Their usefulness is based on your game, players, and desired outcome. However, they all share a few significant problems.
First, they require a defined system of moral judgment. Yes, that already exists in alignment as it is currently defined, but these options need much more detail. They need to assign a value to moral choices. This is not easy, primarily because it blurs the line between game and reality. Second, they put a far heavier workload on the GM. Beyond keeping the game moving forward, now the GM has to track the moral impact on the game world and change how it reacts to the players. Third, these options draw heavily on video game concepts which are near-impossible to replicate at a tabletop game. Alignment as a resource or something that has a direct observable impact on the world has been used in many video games. In this context, it works because the game operates on a series of if/then clauses. One specific example is Dishonored. Meeting or failing certain goals raises or lowers the chaos rating of the world. This rating changes everything from enemies to fight to the ending of the game. But since this is a pre-programmed game and not one that is being created in real time at the game table, it’s possible to accomplish this. Lastly, these changes to alignment change the focus of the game itself. The game is now about chasing resources or finding the right event to trigger a desired result. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it is a very different type of game and game play.
In an attempt to conclude this series, all I can say is that alignment is weird. It’s easy to ignore. It’s just as easy to incorporate into every part of the game. It can be restrictive and limit roleplay. But I can also provide a wealth of opportunity for deep story telling. It’s one of the aspects of the game that is closest to reality, but it also requires a larger suspension of disbelief than other game features.
Personally, I don’t think alignment is important to Dungeons and Dragons. But this is based on my experiences. Every game is different. If alignment is important to you and your players, then use it. Just like every part of a tabletop game, you have the freedom to do whatever you want or need. I hope that in these articles you’ve found something to use in your home game. If nothing else, I hope the discussion has helped you consider the debate behind an often controversial subject and come to a conclusion that you are confident to support.
Thanks for reading!