Monday, April 2, 2012

Lendrick's Musings on Alignment

This post is adapted from a comment I posted on Reddit, in response to a discussion on whether or not alignment is actually useful.  It includes a few reasons that alignment can be helpful in a game like Pathfinder, and (more importantly) a summary of how I rule on alignment, which allows for a more complicated Grey and Grey (warning: tvtropes) morality system while still allowing people to use alignment to resolve spell effects and such.

Here is why alignment is useful:
  • Certain classes, like Paladins, are somewhat more powerful than other classes. Forcing them to act a certain way or lose their powers is a good way to balance that out.
  • Reigning in terrible roleplaying. Since D&D has nothing in the way of real world consequences, there's nothing stopping an (ostensibly) good D&D character from suddenly deciding to murder everyone in town for no reason at all. Alignment allows the DM to impose a consequence for that by docking experience, which is particularly relevant if the character is so powerful that no one in the game world is able to do anything about it.
  • Determining spell outcomes in a somewhat predictable way.
Now, before someone else points it out, I'll happily admit outright that it's not, strictly speaking, necessary in any of these cases. In the case of the second example, it's entirely possible that a character has been evil all along and is just pretending to be good, but it's also quite possible that the player in question is just a terrible roleplayer who needs to be reigned in so they don't ruin the enjoyment of the game for the other players.
All that being said, for experienced roleplayers it can be pretty constricting, so here's how I prefer to handle alignment in my games:
  • Alignment is malleable, and doesn't require a great ordeal to change. I don't see the point of docking experience points for people who are just playing their characters. If an alignment change is believable, I have no problem with it, even in the middle of a session (I don't think I would like people changing their alignment every session, but I've never had anyone try that).
  • The good/evil axis is about willingness to take risks or make sacrifices for the good of people you don't know (good), versus willingness to harm innocents for your benefit (evil). Most people believe themselves to be "good people", but are in fact neutral. A neutral character may want to be the sort of person who puts themselves at risk to defend people they don't know, but can't bring themselves to do it most of the time. Taking risks and making sacrifices to help your loved ones is a neutral act -- it doesn't affect alignment one way or another. Even evil people can care about other people.
  • The law/chaos is about adherence to a meaningful personal code or obedience to authority, or lack thereof. This code can often include obeying the law of the land, but it doesn't have to. To be meaningful, the code has to involve some sort of "sacrifice" on the part of the character. For instance, when a lawful character is faced with a difficult choice about whether to follow their code of honor (or a lawful order from a superior), they choose to do so, even if not doing so would be the easier path. A chaotic character, on the other hand, has no qualms about fighting dirty in order to achieve their goals and has a problem with authority in general (this of course doesn't preclude them from being good -- they're just more likely to stab the villain in the back rather than taking them on face-to-face). Neutrality on the law/chaos axis is again the path of least resistance. Neutral characters obey the law (or their personal code) most of the time and don't have a particular problem with the concept of authority in general, but will break the law to further their goals if the benefits outweigh the consequences.
Running alignment like this allows for more complexity in a story. Good people aren't all automatically on the same team; there are cases where both sides of a conflict can have good people, and sometimes those good people kill each other. The point being, it's possible to use alignment as a tool for resolving spell effects and such while still allowing for stories that are perhaps more tragic and complicated that the typical good-versus-evil teen fantasy fare. This also prevents the old "I'm good and goblins are all evil, so I'm morally obligated to kill every goblin I see" style of gaming, which drives me crazy.

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