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Friday 1 May 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: Alignment Systems: Irredeemable?

You may notice that most new RPGs (that is, ones not burdened by past influences) tend not to use any kind of alignment system. Really, it's only D&D and those games that were directly influenced by D&D that have ever used it.

Does the concept suck, is it irredeemable?

Not exactly. It's just not done too smartly as it stands.

(in the  last decade, it also led to the rising of the Alignment Chart Meme, and its various abuses)

To me, one of the central aides to good roleplay is for you to have a strong driving philosophy for your characters. Without defining a driving motivational philosophy, all characters tend to end up blending into the same kind of generic mercenary model. 

Now, most good roleplayers will already do this kind of "alignment" selection, even if they don't realize they're doing it. And for modern-setting games, where we all pretty much know what a communist or a nihilist or an environmental activist or a devout Hindu means, at least in the sense of defaults (it would be assumed that, if you don't want your PC to be a two-dimensional mockup of a personality, you will mitigate his chosen philosophy with his other character traits to create something more complex than a mere stereotype).

In fantasy or futuristic settings, however, making a set of clearly defined philosophical alignments, and having your characters choose from among them, can be a very powerful tool in the DM's hands to add realism to his setting.
The alignments of choice can be the classic Elric Law-Balance-Chaos alignments, where you can also keep track of the measure of devotion each character has to those forces, and whether the gods or beings tied to those forces are disposed to reward you for it.

Or you can choose to go with something more elaborate, a set of philosophical allegiances more closely tied to your settings. Each with their own set of complex moral and ethical guidelines... for added realism, make sure that you don't create systems that are totally consistent or without a few strange taboos, since total consistency is something that exists in the theoretical, but most "applied alignments" include their share of contradictions, superstitions, tribal traditions, holdovers from earlier philosophies, and wingnut ideas of their founders. For example, the "Sons of Pythagoras" believe that all gods and religious symbols are only aspects of a single symbolic philosophy, and the man who can attain the understanding of that philosophy will transcend all human limitations. They also believe that its absolutely crucial not to eat any grains.

See? Crazy shit like that.

In a way, the critical error that D&D made with its alignments was expanding the axis from Law-chaos to the mix with Good-evil. Unlike Law and Chaos, which are pretty straightforward concepts, good and evil are not definable except by cultural or religious context, and tend to vary wildly from society to society. The Egyptians didn't consider incest particularly evil. The Romans did, and they considered the murder of a child to be evil, but not exposing the child at birth if you were the head of the family. Our modern culture sees all of these as evils.

Alignment must be more tightly defined: as adherence or non-adherence to certain philosophies, which must then be defined within the context of the setting. These "alignment lists" can thus delineate what is considered the "norm" within your fantasy society, and explain what seem to us to be strange cultural inconsistencies, like how a society could codify governing principles that posit Freedom as an absolute and central human value, and yet be based on a slave-driven economy.
Individual character's own personality details would then express how they "tweak" these core "alignment lists" with their own personal eccentricities. Want your PC to believe in the equality of women in a medieval society? That's acceptable, but then its very clear that your character is a real nutjob by that culture's standards.

One of the key uses of alignment, virtually ignored by D&D and therefore by most systems, is its potential in creating a sense of realism in settings where the cultures are assumed to be foreign in values from our own. Most fantasy settings these days tend, unfortunately, to be full of magic and medieval cultural memes but where everyone living in the setting basically considers 20th/21st century north american values the norm for "good" behaviour.
A good alignment system can help pcs understand the ways in which a thoughtful fantasy setting will have values different from modernity's, and what will or won't be considered both "good" and "normal" by that society.


(originally posted dec 1 2005)

Currently Smoking: Italian Redbark + Image Latakia


  1. I see no need for alignments. They do nothing that a decent role player isn't already going to do. It's just another of the many flaws of D&D and its progeny.

  2. I've always felt that alignment is best when it means "allegiance" - Law/Chaos, Allies/Axis, Rebellion/Empire, etc.

    That takes the weird moral implications out of it, and turns it into something that helps to define a character without causing stupid things like arguments about what a "Lawful Good" character would or wouldn't do.

  3. For me D&D alignment system was always about projection into modern American values - which makes it even more limiting.
    Also, significant majority of people consider themselves "good". There's always a good excuse to bad acts. So apart from a couple of sociopaths, everyone should be considered " good ", just not adhering.
    Finally, how many people have a clear and consistent set of values?
    All in all, off with alignments. Answer yourself a couple of questions about your character and that should be it.

  4. I think part of the backlash against alignment is that there is a growing acceptance of the idea that there is no objective good or evil. Whereas before, the argument was about where the line is, the current argument (promoted, interestingly enough, by the pseudoactivists we all know and loathe) is that there is no line to be concerned with and that the distinction is as relevant as which baseball team you play for.

  5. don't forget alignment languages, one of th goofiest things ever dreamt up

  6. As far as I can tell, DnD wasn't about moral relativism, it is about moral objetivism, by that I mean, there is a plane of Pure evil(Hades), Pure Good (Elysium), Pure Law(Mechanus) and Pure Caos(Limbo) in its cosmology, They have aligment languages because, that is what they speak on those planes, As for why aligments don't work? because we are entering into an era where just killing the orc and taking their money doesn't seem as heroic as it was before, putting questions into our actions and as such if we want to play a game where morality is relativistic, aligments don't really work and the cosmology kinda falls apart but anyways I don't know a lot of people that use it anyways.

  7. There are absolute truths. Good, to me, is defined as trying to pursue those truths.