Tuesday, November 3, 2009

NO MORE ALIGNMENT (“Shades of Grey” Redux)

I may not have been entirely coherent when I was writing earlier. I was actually considering re-defining/re-naming B/X alignments ENTIRELY.

When I’ve introduced B/X to new players, the most difficult thing for them to grasp is the idea of ALIGNMENT. Hell, it’s the 2nd most difficult thing for them to choose (the MOST difficult thing generally being a “name”).

Let’s face it…the non-gamer 1st being introduced to an RPG probably has a bit of a culture shock anyway, trying to create a “character” (unless they come from an acting/theater background). The idea of rolling one’s ability scores is pretty simple…figure out what you’re good at. Class choice is generally “what type of adventurer appeals to you?” (since B/X has such loose ability score requirements compared to AD&D). And shopping for equipment? Well, everyone understands shopping!

But then ask the newbie role-player what alignment they want to be, and it’s like “Huh? What?” Most Americans think you’re talking about your car if you ask them about their alignment…it’s just such a weird idea…and not an especially straight-forward one.

I’m not sure of the original PURPOSE of alignment in a game, although I’m guessing it was included for one or more of several distinct reasons:

POSSIBILITY #1: Providing motivation. In true war-gaming style, D&D pts the players in an “Us Versus Them” mentality (player characters against the dungeon/DM). The Law-Neutrality-Chaos axis is simply taken from the fantasy writings of Moorecock, and slapped down to give players a reason for their expedition (“your party is avenging the civilized lands of order on the forces of chaos”). This reason for alignment is pretty much obsolete at this point, as the average party of adventurers will contain characters of several different alignments all working towards a common goal. The goal/mission objective is what provides the impetus for the adventure (the possibility of reward, the threat of evil, whatever), and what unites the party.

POSSIBILITY #2: Choosing sides. In the earliest D&D campaigns it is known that Gygax and others ran several competing groups of players through the same dungeons, sometimes simultaneously. This would be standard practice for an “evolved wargame:” opposing sides have similar objectives while a referee adjudicates the conflict and throws neutral (un-allied) monsters and traps into the mix. In reading the original edition of Rogue Trader, this is how Warhammer 40,000 was originally meant to be played (it was only with the 2nd edition that the referee was removed and play simply became one-off battles between two opponents). In this situation, the party’s alignment determines which side of the conflict you support.

This reason, too, is obsolete when one considers the general way the game is played these days. Gaming groups are rarely large enough to support multiple adventuring parties, and the rules of later editions have become far too complicated for one DM to over-see two simultaneous parties. Lack of interest and lack of simplicity has killed this particular use of alignment.

POSSIBILITY #3: Behavioral constraint. It is debatable whether or not this was an original intention of the alignment system, but this has become the main effect over time (and generally the only effect for Old School players). Player character actions are held “in check” based on the constraints of their alignment. The DM is able to govern PC actions by saying, “your character wouldn’t do such-and-such” and players themselves have parameters within which to function.

I find it difficult to believe that this was one of the original motivations for including “alignment” in the game. After all, from the text of the LBBs it appears that each alignment simply includes a laundry list of “who’s on the side” (much as Middle Earth might have been divided up into dwarves, elves, and men of Westernesse versus orcs, trolls, and Easterlings). But perhaps alignment as “behavior control” EVOLVED within play as players freed from restraint performed dastardly deeds.

FOR EXAMPLE: I sit down to the table to play a new game. I’m told that I can do “anything I like” within the game as long as I am limiting my actions to those performed by my character in the game world described by the DM. What’s to keep me from avoiding fighting the dragon/rescuing the princess and instead plotting to kill the king that hired me and steal HIS gold? What is it that forces me to release prisoners found in the dungeon…especially poor prisoners who can offer no reward and who will simply slow me down and probably get me killed by wandering monsters?

Alignment dictates action. This is how it is used in most every D&D game. In some games alignment carries magical consequences (for example: detect good versus detect evil, wielding intelligent swords, and clerical use of reversed spells). But even in games where these magical consequences are missing, alignment remains as a behavioral constraint.

However, it is a constraint without teeth…well, except for DM fiat of penalizing XP gain…and how is THAT justified in game terms? I can understand losing experience points if a magic-user decides to fight with a poleaxe instead of spells, or if a thief decides to don plate armor, or a cleric goes against the tenets of his religion. After all, the character should not gain "experience" while adventuring if she is operating outside her normal career path and thus not practicing her profession.

But to lose points for not behaving correctly as regard to alignment? Nonsensical.

By the way, only possibilities #1 and #2 are justifications for “alignment language.” If players are all members of “one side” (i.e. one alignment) in a wargame, it makes sense that they would come up with certain code words and secret hand gestures for their own use (like a football team’s use of “audibles”). It doesn’t make any sense that someone grows up and says “oh, I want to join the Chaotic Neutrals” and then finds a teacher that teaches him the secret handshake. That’s retarded.

[AND if the character just “picked it up” over time, wouldn’t he have picked up other alignment language “phrases” as well? After all, the character probably grew up in a town or village filled with a large variety of alignments, not just “Neutral Good Town”]

So back to my original post. From now on, I’m not going to bother describing alignment at all to players. In fact, I’m simply going to ask them what their character’s PERSONALITY is: Are they HEROIC, SELFISH, of PSYCHOTIC? Since “selfish” is such a pejorative term, maybe I’ll say "mercenary" instead (though I’ll explain that being a mercenary does NOT mean one has a “code of honor” or some bullshit like you see in certain video games: you’re either a heroic individual or you're self-interested).

Heroic individuals may certainly act selfishly at times, and Selfish individuals may have their moments of heroism; personality should stand as a base description not a constraint. Most player characters should NOT be Psychotic…if they’re interested in personal freedom, then they should be Selfish. If they’re interested in maintaining the “cosmic balance” than they should either be Heroic (in the Moorecock sense of the term) or Psychotic (if they use the end as justification for committing unspeakable acts; c.f. evil druids).

Yep, let’s leave “alignment” out of the game entirely…instead we’ll give the characters Personality.

And doesn’t a Helm of Personality Change sound more evocative anyway?
; )


  1. I like alignments but certainly think the game could work fine with personalities instead.

    How about adding Greedy? Sure it's close to selfish but different in that it is motivation for acquiring wealth over other concerns.


    See, that's what I keep thinking that I should do and keep not doing. I was really thinking about changing Alignment to a one-word statement of what is most important to the character: Food, Gold, Sex, Death. And that woudl tell you what the character would do if subject to fear or something.

    And yet, I ended up with Alignment again. :)

  3. What about Heroic, Self-interested, and Psychotic?

  4. As a GM, I've always liked Alignments for NPCs as a kind of 'shorthand' as to how they'll react various situations. For PCs it has never mattered much to me—except for those playing true extremes (the Paladin comes to mind here, or clerics who are supposed to be representing/supporting a particular dogma). In most cases, I figure that it is up to a player to say how their character will react—and that character may alter through the course of play and the player's own inclinations (like say.. a Toad Cleric who gets delusions of heroism).

  5. Selfless, Selfish, and Sociopathic?

    Also: Possibility #4: The Game Mechanics Needs, that is, just the need to divide NPCs/PCs/Creatures for purposes of magic effects.

  6. Ah, but I see you touched upon that briefly as well. Man, don't get me started on alignment. And alignment languages! *&#@ that *@&(!

  7. Heck, if you're going to toss alignment (and I'm not opposed to that suggestion in the least), then why even ask what their character's personality is at the outset? I mean, why not let that "gel" as they play?

    I find that sometimes, when I come up with a character idea, that it's the situation that defines my PC's actions and therefore his "personality". Sure, there are some traits that might be written in stone, but for the most part, I think that characters develop over the course of adventuring.

  8. How alignment languages were meant to stay "secret" (except of course to assassins), I never quite got either. Unless it's a magical thing that changes as you change alignment, suddenly forgetting all the beautific phrases of Neutral Good for the sinister sibilants of Lawful Evil, or whatever. Didn't the Know Alignment spell actually reveal a tell-tale sigil on or about the subject? It actually sounds like an interesting wrinkle to add to a specialized game world.

    In the end, however, I also explain B/X Alignment to new players as how relatively selfish you are.

  9. I never have my players pick an alignment, or a personality for that matter. I observe their actions in play and the character of their character, so to speak, becomes apparent. For the rare spell or effect that depends on alignment I make a judgement call based on the actions of the character up to that point, then ask the player of that character if he feels that is a fair assessment. I have not gotten any arguments so far...

  10. @ David: I like "self-interested" but prefer selfish as a convenient short hand. Likewise (@ ZB) I believe sociopath and psychopath are interchangeable definition-wise...but I like that the latter can be abbreviated "psycho."

    @ Everyone: I think a quick personality trait is a nice "base/foundation" for developing a character for one's Character. We have a tendency to humanize any "monster" that is above animal intelligence, and thus could apply any of these base personalities to any creature, depending on how one wants to run the monsters in their campaigns (thus monsters would generally fall into a SELFISH, PSYCHOPATH, or ANIMAL personality, with only the very rare "good" monster having a HEROIC personality. Even gold dragons might be "selfish" having a love of treasure and the subdual weakness).

    @ ZB: some of the mechanical rules (especially swords and "alignment detection") would require modification if switching over to the personality paradigm. But I don't think it would be too hard (detect evil could still detect evil intentions or supernatural psychopathy)...and I think the end result would be well-worth the trouble (in making the game more coherent),

    But that's just my opinion.