Sunday, August 29, 2021

Some Thoughts on Alignment in RPGs

Some Thoughts on Alignment in RPGs
(Special Note: I'm going to assume that my ramblings will come off as a product pitch, at least to someone, but said product is a PWYW item at DTRPG, so if you're interested just get it for free and we'll be good.)

Lately I've been thinking about the concept of alignment in RPGs, and my opinion is quickly coming to the conclusion that the concept generally sucks. Nothing is going to truly work because it is not just an abstraction, but an abstraction that doesn't necessarily fit in well with not just other abstractions, but also the motivations (and mechanizations) of the players sitting around the table.

In general.....I don't think alignment matters too much to the average player or PC, and the more generic things are, the easier it is to incorporate, which is just common sense. The gambit of RPG alignment systems run from the simple duality of Law vs. Chaos to the more complex nine-position matrix of Law/Chaos and Goodness/Neutrality/Evil. In a lot of games, at least from my experience, a PC's alignment doesn't matter much unless you happen to find an intelligent weapon of opposing alignment or you want to play a Paladin, or the like.

I have also played (I know, bear with me) games of HackMaster where alignment needed to be "accurately" played or there would be penalties. In HackMaster 4th edition there was a huge, rather crunchy, chart of actions and bonuses/penalties (experience IIRC) based on alignments. In the games I participated in (played, ran, watched) that chart did help bring alignment as a driving force for some in-game actions. Problem was that these "actions" tended to just become Standard Operating Procedures for HackMaster PCs.

Now the newer version of HackMaster is a little simpler, and honestly I dig it.....but clearly I'm biased. As part of the Honor mechanic the GM gets to essentially rate the PC's adherence to alignment, without specifically listing actions that reinforce alignments. It's a judgement call from the GM, which might be an issue in and of itself.

My biggest problem with alignment is that just about ANY system is inherently flawed because I think the primary axis of alignment is one of order/selflessness and chaos/selfishness, and while you could argue that some "chaotic or evil" PCs only align with a party to further their own agenda, I also think that's pretty much bullshit. The simple fact that in-game we assemble as a group to "adventure" or "murderhobo" tends to skew everything towards the order/law/selflessness side of things.

"Well what about orcs? They're chaotic but they still organize...are you saying they are now lawful or selfless?"

Yes. In BX they are Chaotic and in later editions Lawful Evil, so that fits. I wouldn't really think of orcs as selfless, but in order to have any type of society there has to be a level of order & selflessness.

No, the real problem with alignments, as I see it, is that we naturally conclude that we are able to deduce a PC's alignments from the actions of said PCs, which is a judgement call to begin with, when really the alignment should be a motivation for actions, which is not only another judgment call, but an internalized one (to the player). So what we end up with is one judgment call on top of another. That is the recipe for problems. I really don't want to have to have a motivations discussion at the table.

I don't expect you readers to remember, but there was this time a while back where my Lawful Magic-User cold-cocked one of the party thieves in the face and almost killed him. On the surface it could easily have been seen as a Chaotic/Evil/Selfish act. I'd argue it was the exact opposite as it not only seemed like a logical thing to do, if unexpected...but the unexpectedness was an important factor, but actually a Good act and definitely Selfless since the penalty for failure could well have been my PCs death. The thing is I sure AF didn't want to have a long debate at the game table about motivations, so I posted about it here instead....

So wtf do we do about alignments?

From a role-playing perspective I do think there is a place for alignments and I think it is important, but how important....that is open for debate. You'd think that for PCs like Paladins alignment is über-important, but I'm starting to be of the opinion of not really. I still think Paladins should be "good" but what really matters is how they adhere to their deity's desires & spheres of influence.

As a (well, it has been a while) GM I just don't get too worked up about PC's alignments. One thing I do not do is make a player decide their PCs alignment for at least their 1st level. Let them play the PC for a level and then see what fits based on how they internalized that PC's. Now if the character's class requires a specific alignment I'll give the player a bit of a pass for the first level and guide a bit here & there as to my interpretation of their interpretation, based on the PCs actions.

I'm also going to assume that all PCs are generally good-lawful aligned and that chaotic or evil PCs are "relatively" chaotic or evil. Instead of a hard and fast interpretation to some moral absolutes, it's a relative position to a societal norm. Hell, if you came from a society where back-stabbing and buddy-fucking to get ahead was the expected norm and you were selfless and caring, wouldn't any "good" actions be relatively "evil"? Just a thought to stick with you there.....

Now personally, when I play NPCs as a GM I use a d30 Personality Generator that I created. I don't really have to think too hard about it, just try to use these personality traits as the motivating factors on how to run the NPC. I haven't tried to use this for running my PC...yet.

My d30 table is really just a partial answer, for me at least, to the underlying alignment problem. I think that the real answer is largely dropping alignment altogether. Keep it as a thing, I guess, but deemphasize it to something that only matters to the player. For those things that matter, like the Paladin, make it applicable to adherence to societal norms or specific behaviors, like a defined code. Drop the judgement call on top of judgement call and reduce it to a selection of desired actions, not too unlike how HackMaster 4th edition did things.....but only for these rare PCs. I don't find it terrible, or even unexpected, if a Paladin follows some specific role-playing guidance to the point where it seems more like a SOP.

The only other alignment-based consideration I can think of is the aligned intelligent weapons, or loot that changes alignment. In those cases, just assign some of the aforementioned personality traits. Instead of (assuming your RPG system makes this a thing) having a diametrically opposed alignment weapon do damage when held, have it strike out against the wielder the first time the PC wielding/carrying it performs an action opposed to its personality.  A "Lawful Good" PC wielding a "Friendly, Witty & Cerebral" Longsword says something crude, mean, and low-brow to someone else....oh yeah, he's getting a smack from that sword, or a magical shock for 1d6...something to show displeasure.

Just my 2 cp.


  1. Here is what I have decided to give to players as part of a game handout at conventions: Alignment: A designation representing which side an individual will align himself with in the military conflict taking place between two invisible cosmic forces: Law and Chaos. All magic swords and some magic items are aligned. These items will have an affect upon an individual's ability to fight on either side of the conflict. It's pretty clear that D&D appropriated "alignment" directly from the Fantasy Supplement in the Miniature War Game: "Chainmail 3d edition". Some say that the Fantasy Supplement's Alignment Chart came from ideas published by Poul Anderson in a couple of his novels. Whether or not any of this is true, alignment will not play much of a role in this convention game.

  2. How I have decided to define "evil" for convention players: "Evil" is loosely defined as intentionally harming other people for narcissistic reasons.

  3. In my convention handout, mentioned in an earlier comment, I use a house rule for Clerics: House rule: Clerics who align with Chaos can eventually learn to use edged weapons. They can also use reversed versions of many spells, such as the much feared "Finger of Death". Clerics of Chaos forego the power to Turn & Destroy Undead. Rather, they side with the Undead and, under special circumstances, can control the Undead to do things.

  4. As far as OD&D, B/X, BECMI are concerned, you really have to look at alignment as a real and tangible manifestation of divine will. The Law-Neutral-Chaos paradigm is a result of an almost Zoroasteristic or Melbournian cosmic balance occuring during a war between the forces of Law and Chaos.

    Law represents civilization and the natural order. Chaos represents destruction, undeath, and a perversion of the natural order. Neutral is just trying to make a copper and survive.

    Law can be good (and may usually be). But the Roman Empire would also be considered lawful - in promoting civilization over barbarism - but it still enslaved people and crucified dissidents. Chaos is usually considered evil, or nihilistic, which isn't really much different.

    Most people are neutral - self serving, or trying to preserve their little slice of the world at most. They don't take part in the cosmic struggle. They may be good, they may be evil.

    Lawful people actively promote the expansion of civilization and push back against chaos. They may be good or they may be evil.

    Chaotic people and monsters actively attempt to tear down civilization, destroy the natural order, etc.

    That is why every sentient being speaks an alignment language. It is gifted to them by their repsective forces (force of Law or force of Chaos). Should their alignment change, they forget the old language and speak the new one perfectly.

    It may not fit in to everyone's game world style, but it is the default setting of OD&D, B/X, and BECMI based on the rules.

  5. I think alignment works best if we all take it a bit less serious and realize it's just a team choice. The (B/X) world has two big teams, and you can participate in this bigger "game" or be neutral. And that's about it.

    The choice is, do you want, on top of the dungeoneering game, to work for the goals of the Goodies or the Baddies team in the game?

  6. I think alignment would be better if it was more concrete and answered practical questions:
    * Would kill innocents/prisoners for profit
    * Would kill innocents/prisoners to save themself
    * Would screw over allies for profit
    * Would screw over allies to save themselves.

    And the opposites of course. Map that kind of question to the nine-point alignment and you'll get something that people can follow without weaseling.


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