Thursday, June 29, 2017

"But My Character Wouldn't Do That..."

All right...time to revisit alignment and its value to the D&D game.

I know some folks excised alignment from their table games long ago, for a number of reasons. Waaaay back in 2009, I was considering this myself, though I never did. For one thing, I found that (in play) the explanation of alignment was never an issue (i.e. it was a concept easily grasped by players, even new ones), and for another, I found it a useful shorthand descriptive, helpful to both myself and the players.

Of course, I use B/X as my base edition these days, so I only deal with the original three alignments: Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. And I do not use "alignment language" (though that's more a product of the subject never coming up in play, rather than a literal proscription). Even so, I've been reading through the anti-alignment posts of the rule's detractors, and I've taken the time to consider it carefully and I have a few thoughts on the perspective having "matured" a bit from where it was nearly a decade past.

First, I considered where the idea of alignment comes from and, as do many of the original game's ideas, we find the whole "lawful, neutral, chaotic" thing showing up in Chainmail. Chainmail was a set of tabletop wargaming rules for ancient and medieval (and late medieval) warfare. The main game (which attended to conflict resolution among historic armies) did not make use of or mention alignment at all; presumably, players would know or could research what types of forces were available to each side when recreating the Battle of Hastings or similar. However, it is in the later "Fantasy Supplement" section of Chainmail that we find a "general line-up" ordering the various fantasy forces into categories of LAW, NEUTRAL, and CHAOS. Again, as this is a game to be played with rules, I take this as part of the standard rule procedure: the side playing LAW is restricted to forces from that section (including halflings, gnomes, treants, and heroes) while the side playing CHAOS is likewise restricted (to goblins, ogres, dragons, and similar).

Interesting that NEUTRAL forces must "be diced for to determine on which side they will fight, with ties meaning they remain neutral." So you and your opponent would roll D6 to see who gets the pixies (for example), with a tie result meaning the pixies abstaining from the battle completely!

When alignment first appears in Dungeons & Dragons, it is in Book 1 (Men & Magic) of the original books, and includes the following directive:
Before the game begins it is not only necessary to select a role, but is is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take -- Law, Neutrality, or Chaos.
What follows are three lists that are near exact copies of the ones found in Chainmail (the difference being the addition of some OD&D monsters that aren't found in Chainmail...minotaurs and manticore, for example). Interesting that the book states also that "character types are limited as follows by this alignment," appearing to indicate that humans may be of any stance, while elves are restricted to law and neutrality, and both dwarves and halflings are restricted to law only.

[though clearly Gygax did not follow these restrictions himself, as we can observe from the chaotic dwarf Obmi found in module G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King]

There are two main things to note on the evolution of the concept from "ordering of fantasy battle forces" to a required "stance" for a PC in a role-playing game:

  1. Nowhere in the text can I find any admonition that a player must suit their character's behavior to alignment, nor even any direction of what might be expected of a character of a particular alignment (though you can probably infer somewhat from the types of creature on each respective list). Neither are there any stated penalties or punishments to be handed out for failing to play one's alignment correctly.
  2. With a single exception, the choice of alignment has real mechanical benefits (and penalties) for each of the original seven character classes in the game. These are aside from "alignment language" (which first appears in OD&D) and they have nothing to do with player character behavior.

Since I'm sure some are curious, here's the effects:

Clerics of 7th level (or greater) are either of Law or Chaos. Lawful clerics (and ONLY lawful clerics), have the ability to turn undead. Chaotic clerics ("anti-clerics") automatically reverse a number of spells on the clerical spell list. Also, while it appears that normal clerics (i.e. NOT "anti-clerics"), do not receive reverse spells, it is explicit in the text that they may use a finger of death (reversed raise dead spell) in "a life-or-death situation" with misuse immediately conferring "anti-cleric" status.

[please note: there are no other mechanical effects of alignment on clerics in the OD&D rules. Even the "help from above" when it comes to building a stronghold, or the legions of "faithful" soldiers that appear are not alignment dependent...hell, there's no text stating the cleric has to be particularly devout. Those benefits are simply a product of being the cleric class. Devotion, I guess, is presumed]

For fighter types (including dwarves, elves, and halflings), alignment has a direct effect on the character's ability to use magical swords. ALL magic swords in OD&D (even unintelligent ones) possess an alignment, and will inflict damage (to varying degree) on users that attempt to wield a blade of non-conforming alignment. As swords are the most commonly discovered magic weapon in the game (and magic weapons are highly sought after, not only for their combat bonuses but their granted ability to damage enchanted monsters), choice of alignment has a great effect on fighting-men (and -women, and -dwarves, etc.) and their ability to progress and develop in-game effectiveness.

[a lawful character that draws a chaotic blade (or vice versa) suffers two dice of damage...the same as being struck by an ogre. That's enough to kill plenty of 2nd level warriors (even at full health!) and really cripple mid-level characters, who might be deep underground and far from healing sources]

There are no other effects of alignment, and no alignment effects at all for magic-users (who do not use magic swords) aside from providing them with a common "alignment" language. Magic-users, being who (and what) they are, can move through all stances with impunity. Even in Chainmail, wizards may be found on any sides of a conflict (they appear in both the Law and Chaos lists).

These then, to me, are an acceptable and desirable reason to include the mechanic of alignment in the D&D game: it has some minor effect (as described) yet carries no penalties for "improper behavior" on the part of the player...the reason most detractors give for cutting the concept from their campaigns. And yet, there is an additional reason I would cite for including alignment in an OD&D game: as a shorthand descriptor to help distinguish one character from another. Most folks have a tendency to create mental images based on word association, and the idea of a "lawful fighter," certainly conjures a different image in my mind from a "neutral fighter," or (especially) a "chaotic fighter." Yes, it's a lazy stereotype, but it helps create distinction in an edition of a game where such distinctions aren't as readily available.

[even a character with a strength of 15 is little different (mechanically) from one with a strength of 8 in OD&D, unless the characters are both fighters and thus subject to XP adjustments. Otherwise, it's just so much description]

The main problem here for me...and one others might identify that I don't play OD&D. I play a later edition of the game (B/X), and in my edition the mechanical aspects of alignment...the rules that go with the rule...have failed to keep up with the updates to the game. And in place of objective rules that are easily and readily enforced by a competent DM, we have an arbitrary directive  to assign "punishment or penalty" when a player "is not keeping to a character's chosen alignment."

As with others, that doesn't sit well with me. As a DM, I don't want to tell players how to behave any more than they do...I have more important things to worry about in the game. BUT (and this is where I part ways with some folks) I don't think that means alignment is wholly useless to the players, even in an edition of D&D where characters are readily distinguished from each other by their combination of race-class, proficiencies, feats, ability modifiers, etc. Hell, it doesn't even need to be rewritten to be mechanically effective (and thus have mechanical relevance), though that would be nice (and not all that hard to do). It's just needing to be removed from this concept of DM-enforced-behavior-policing and allowed to function as a guide for the play of a character.

[here's an example]

Yes, I know. Some very intelligent people don't agree with my rather narrow definition of "role-playing" and are of the opinion that the game provides motivation enough (what with treasure and kill gathering) without the need to take on a different persona. They are also quick to point out that the quickest way for assholes to show up at one's game table is allowing a person to play in character: "Hey, I'm just acting like a chaotic thief, picking the other player's pockets" (for instance). And I know-know-know that I will be (figuratively at least) bludgeoned about the head-and-shoulders for taking the position that it's acceptable or helpful or (Lord knows) desirable to allow this kind of play at one's game table because of all the trouble it leads to...but...


But, I've seen it work in actual play. I guess that's where part of the difference in perspective comes from: I've seen it work to increase the enjoyment for players at the game table. To increase their ability to enjoy the escapist fantasy of play and lose themselves in the virtual world. Some DMs create incredibly rich, detailed worlds for exploration, worlds one can't help but be drawn into through play. I haven't done that, at least not at any great level I'd hold up to other World Builders out there (and, yes, that is certainly a knock on me and my proficiency and commitment as a DM). What I have done is given players the space to explore the fantasy environment in the shoes of someone other than them the means to be a holier-than-thou paladin, or a thousand-year old elf, or a chaotic evil priest of Lloth (yes, I had one of those in an old AD&D campaign...many years ago). The player isn't simply Joe Normal with (imagined) pointy ears and the ability to cast spells and feeling the adrenaline rush that comes from the (game) situation at hand.

I don't want to enforce player behavior based on alignment; I don't enforce player behavior. I want players to enforce their own behavior. I don't want to say, your character wouldn't do that because... I want the player to say, "I wouldn't do that because..."

When that happens, when players abide by the conventions of the game (and alignment...mechanically bereft though it is in later still a game convention and trope), it's a sign to me that the players are losing themselves in play and (as a result) having a stronger, more profound game experience. When a player acts in a manner based on their interpretation of their character's alignment...well, it can be marvelous.

And if it's NOT, if it's detrimental to the other players at the table, then it's the responsibility of the DM to act as referee.

I suppose therein lies the rub: there are boundaries and limits to what you can do in a fantasy adventure game, even one billed as being "only limited by your imagination!" That's why there're rules. I've never really subscribed to the motto rules were meant to be broken. No. Rules are meant to be enforced, that's why they're rules. Change them if you need to (or change the game), but once they're set, live by them.

I can live with alignment. For me, the benefit outweighs the headache.

[just by the way, I have more to say, specifically with regard to paladins, but (as this post is already long and probably hated) I'll save that for another time]


  1. Alignment is good and fun. It helps you imagine. It's a good descriptor and a way to divide good from evil.

  2. I feel gnoring alignment robs a camapign of a little bit of what fanatsy tales are often about. Being part of something larger than yourself and cosmic struggles are pretty simple to define with alignment. Compelling player behavior with alignment is just bad form however, players should be rewarded for playing to their alignment in a constructive fashion.
    I've seen DMs stop a player who was Lawful Good from murdering an adversarry and thatks wrong a Lawful Good character can commit murder but should follow it up with guilt, anguish, and repentance. If the player follows up the murder by confessing their crime and throwing themselves onto the mercy of their lord they should get a few extra exp for paying their alignment.

    I do think d&D dropped the ball by not widening th direct and immediate impact of alignment particularly when it interacts with magic. I've tied the poteency of clerical healing to alignment and it's worked pretty well. would you trust a Chaotic healing potion if you were lawful?

    1. @ JD: I've really been thinking long and hard lately about tying clerical magic (and its function) to religion, specifically that of both the healer and the healed. Are they compatible? Should they be?

      Alignment can certainly be a shorthand for religion if only used in the "cosmic" sense.

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  4. Aw, come on. I solved alignment six years ago. :P

    Although Dyson took my flippant tone and actually did something productive with it (although probably not to your taste)

    Keep on bloggin'. My blog is dead but I still read all my old favorites.

    1. @ DMW:

      Glad to read that YOU aren't dead.
      : )

    2. After the year I had, I'm kind of surprised I'm not. Really though, I've been reading the entire time.

    3. Even when I'm not blogging, I tend to continue reading, too.

      Hope the coming year isn't as rough!
      : )

  5. Although I have been souring on the inclusion of alignment in my stalled AD&D (2nd Edition) campaign, considering my players don't pay any attention to it, I do think it has a place in oD&D and B/X. Law vs. Chaos is very easy to articulate, as long as it's kept at the level of "this is what side you're on". True, there can be lawful characters who are amoral and nefarious, and there can be compassionate chaotic characters... but to me, those don't need to be articulated with mechanical differences. I also like that the description for Protection from Evil in the Basic Rulebook specifically defines "evil" as "some alignment other than the cleric's alignment".

    I've also been looking at Basic Fantasy once more, and its omission of alignment is no great loss. Granted, my players might be outliers in playing everyone as chaotic neutral. :D

    1. Chaotic neutral was pretty much the default alignment, back when I was a kid playing AD&D.
      ; )

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  7. Ah, how this evoked memories. I did start in OD&D, after all.

    I don't think there's much to add. The comments section, and your conclusion, JB, produced the same result as always happens: people admit that alignment isn't perfect or has problems, but ultimately for reasons, they want to keep alignment in their game, so they will.

    It will ever be thus.

  8. I have not only come to having a grudging respect for the alignment system over the years, but I now insist on it in my games. I find it most useful when it heavily borrows from its Chainmail and OD&D roots and expresses a cultural association: Civilization (Law) vs. Wilderness (Chaos).

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  10. "...alignment...mechanically bereft though it is in later still a game convention and trope..."

    We might call this a sacred cow.

    "'s a sign to me that the players are losing themselves in play..."

    Is that the only reason they're achieving immersion? If you remove alignment entirely, do the players reach that same level of immersion? If they do, why do you need alignment?

    I'm intrigued by the mechanical benefits you cited. I think I've read about them somewhere before but, as I've never used them, I forgot they existed.

    Even so... I think the end result can only ever be a system that cannot work if only because it will not achieve its actual purpose.

    1. @ Ozy:

      While alignment may not be the ONLY reason, it certainly AIDS in immersion. And I prefer to use whatever I can to help/aid the gaming experience.

      I have to say I'm not grokking your final paragraph (what is alignment's "actual purpose" that it cannot hope to achieve?).

    2. Every rule aids in immersion. The fact that my character has a Strength score, which tells me how much he can lift, aids in immersion because it gives me a point of reference: I know how much I can lift in real life and I can imagine what it might be like to be able to lift more.

      Alignment is a morality system. It's a set of rules that state, very simply, "If you behave this way, these effects happen." The problem is that it leads to playing the system. If there are clear benefits and penalties to certain actions, I'm going to make choices in the game that take advantage of those benefits and penalties. I'm not going to make choices in the game based on the complex situation; I could give two farts about option A because option B gives me the mechanical benefit I want. The system ends up obfuscating the full array of choices; the player loses site of the range of subtleties within human interactions and social situations.

  11. I've never really had a problem with alignment, other than enforcing it, which never went well. I like the alignment of OD&D. It's simple, reasonable, and very easy to incorporate in almost any game. Great post!

  12. The way you started out I thought I'd vehemently disagree with you on almost all your points and rage-quiting, but I finished reading and ended up agreeing with all your points. Ain't that a kick.

    1. I'm glad it wasn't a terrible waste of your time.

      However, I'm considering a follow-up post which may REALLY give you a chance to vent your spleen. Stay tuned!
      ; )

  13. Hi! And Hmm! Much food for thought here. For example, one could move from the "order of battle" model towards a "setting/reputation" model without ever obliging the player to take a "stance."... or obliging any NPC to do so, either. I think that'd be a hoot -- cast "detect alignment" to discover THIS orc is Lawful.