Thursday, September 15, 2011

DnD: Anti-Alignment Argument or Walking the Walk vs. Talking the Talk

What Is Alignment?

Alignment, as described in the two Essentials Player Handbooks*, describes a moral stance. It is a dedication to a set of moral principles, a universal force ‘bigger than deities or any other allegiance that a character might have.’ Further, ‘picking and adhering to an alignment represents a distinct choice.’ In game-play terms, if you have declared an Alignment, your PC is always going to make choices in a certain manner … or else.

The Problem

Or else what? The handbooks don’t say. There are also no guidelines on how DM’s should treat behavior that goes ‘against’ a PC’s declared Alignment. When I was playing a little (and a I mean very little) 3rd edition in college, ‘or else’ was being threatened with negative levels for wanting to cast sleep on a stable owner so I could steal a horse that he refused to sell me - despite the rest of my party rapidly outpacing me in pursuit of some critical mission element or other. Apparently, a neutral good character would “never do anything like that.”

That example illustrates one problem (of many) with dedicated Alignments. Unless everyone agrees beforehand on the exact definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the context of the game, they are subjective. When you have a defined element in a game system, you need also to have defined mechanics relating to that element - not so with Alignment. It simply is. How it actually affects a game - if it truly does at all - is anyone’s guess. However, the DM seems to have the most pull, by the sole virtue of his role. Besides, who else is going to enforce the proper Alignment-appropriate behavior?

Here’s another problem: what if a player wants to switch Alignments? What is required for that to happen? What forms get filled out and who processes them? What, if any, should be the penalties for Alignment-shifting? What about characters whose powers are derived from deities who themselves are aligned - Clerics for example? It seems like they would be most at risk for behavior that goes against their Alignment. Rogues, on the other hand, would be masochistic or just plain crazy to declare themselves ‘Lawful Good.’

Fixing Alignment

I see two solutions to the problem outlined above, neither of which are mutually exclusive:

First, if you are using declared Alignments in your game, when a PC makes a choice that goes against her declared Alignment - and sooner or later they will** - let them do it. Furthermore, let them get away with it. If you are going to have consequences, make them realistic. Negative levels and lost healing surges are not realistic. Getting chased by the City Watch because you stole something and end up going to prison is realistic. So are a Cleric’s prayers falling on deaf ears until he makes up for whatever it was she did to piss off her patron deity.

The second approach is more to my liking: Before the game even starts, establish with your players that Alignment is not something chosen beforehand, but develops throughout the course of the game as a result of their actions. Someone might claim to be good, and talk like a ‘good’ character - but do their actions bear that out? Do they ‘walk the walk?’

The Cleric may declare to be a follower of Bahamut, but do the decisions they make keep in line with the precepts of the order? If so, his powers should work (provided the rolling allows for it); if not, any faith-based skill checks might turn out to be harder than they thought they’d be. Maybe one (or all) of their prayers ceases to work at all. Of most interest, will the player figure out why this is happening to them - assuming you didn’t just up and tell them why.

What about the Warlock who willingly makes pacts with devils and demons, but ends up saving the kingdom from the powers of darkness? How might the source of his power be affected by acts of sacrifice and altruism? He might need to do some fast talking with his dark patrons to stay in their good*** graces.

What I like about this approach is that the players are a moral blank slate when the game starts. They are not tied down by a bunch of made-up backstory that often has little-to-nothing to do with the game and everyone is allowed to experience a path of self-discovery as both individuals and as a group.

What if …?

A potential obstacle to the “no Alignment ‘till you earn it”**** approach involves the PC’s finding themselves in a situation that requires them to be clearly identified as being good or evil. This will likely not be an issue later in the game, but if the party has just started out, it is quite likely that they have not done anything to push themselves in either direction along the moral spectrum.

If such a case arises, I would have no problem telling the PC’s (via NPC’s, mystical means, etc.) that they need to prove themselves to continue.

Boom, side quest.

It then falls to the PC’s to decide for themselves if the effort needed to become good or evil is really worth it. Canny***** players may prevail with reasoning that their desire to complete the quest is itself proof of their Alignment.

Granted, if you like to run your campaign on rails, this might be more frustrating than not, and you should feel free to dispense with it.


A PC is not ‘good’ or ‘evil’ simply because they declare themselves as such; a PC is ‘good’ or ‘evil’ because that is how they act over the course of the campaign.

It can be quite exciting (and perversely exhilarating) to discover that the PC who thought he was a paragon of virtue actually turned out to be a greedy opportunist and fame whore - not because they had to act like that due to their predetermined Alignment, but because they chose to act that way.

* page 43 or 44, depending on which one you’re looking at.
** Especially if, like me, you enjoy throwing them into morally grey conundrums
*** Evil?
**** I really need a better name for it.
***** Or extremely lucky, depending on how their Diplomacy/Bluff check rolls out.