Chad Perrin: SOB

9 October 2008

Alignment Considerations in RPGs

Filed under: RPG — Tags: , , , , — apotheon @ 10:34

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

After reading DnD 4th Ed Alignments over at tenletter, I felt inspired to comment a bit on my own experience and opinion of alignments and related concepts in RPGs:

What I’m Doing with Alignments:

Right now, I’m running a D&D 3.5 game (plus house rules) with standard two-axis alignments. When you make a character, you choose one from Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic, and one from Good/Neutral/Evil. I just went with the traditional choice that has existed since the dawn of Advanced Dungeons in Dragons in the late ’70s.

I think, in my next campaign world, I’m going back to having the single-axis Law/Chaos alignment system that existed in the original D&D before AD&D came up. Good and evil are choices, and not defining characteristics, for members of PC races. Law and Chaos, on the other hand, will be the only alignment deities and supernatural beings really have, and PCs can subscribe to one or the other. Most members of PC races would either be neutral in the “unaligned” sense or choose either Law or Chaos because they equate one or the other with Good, but the truth is that both contribute to Good and Evil pretty much equally.

I don’t think a character should be locked into Good or Evil, ever. Law and Chaos, on the other hand, could be literal alignments — you choose to dedicate, to align, yourself with one or the other for some reason. Thus, you might have anarchists versus totalitarians, with both sides holding to their ideals for “the good of the world”. Meanwhile, you could have two Lawful gods that are allied against Chaos, one disapproves of the other’s methods even if their ends are the same, while the other disapproves of the first one’s squeamishness and unwillingness to do what needs to be done to assure victory over the forces of Chaos. The same might exist in reverse on the Chaos side of things, of course.

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is that there is a mystical, metaphysical True Law and True Chaos, while Good and Evil are defined more by what you do in any given moment, and are a matter of choice rather than absolutes.

Then again, in another campaign world at a later time, I might try using only the Good/Evil axis. We’ll see.

Other Games and the Alignment Issue:

Rifts and other Palladium Books games have an interesting alignment system, which doesn’t specifically rely on any particular axes. Instead, each alignment is simply its own description of underlying, somewhat archetypal motivations, including options like Scrupulous, Unprincipled, and Miscreant. It works well.

Old-school Vampire: the Masquerade, meanwhile, was more personality-oriented; you’d choose a couple of personality descriptors that do things for you like define circumstances under which your character might regain Willpower points for successfully pursuing personal core motivations, and different types of vampire character would have different moralities, each with their own virtues and sins defined for them. The implication in V:tM was that one could easily create a new moral system like the others just for one’s own character, suggesting a very relative nature to morality. Other World of Darkness games didn’t have the same codified systems of morality, however — that was a uniquely Vampire-oriented thing, and tied in with the vampire character’s fight against the complete takeover of the Beast within (or the attempt to reconcile oneself with that Beast, to make peace with it, in some cases). I don’t really know what’s happening on the “alignment” front in the rebooted World of Darkness, and don’t particularly care, having chosen to boycott White Wolf years ago.

Star Wars games have had an interesting time trying to work with the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force, since it’s all part of a canon created outside the realm of roleplaying games, George Lucas isn’t involved in RPG design (probably a Good Thing), and nobody really seems to want to agree on what the Light and Dark Sides of the Force actually represent. While the prequel trilogy sucked in too many ways to count, they did introduce some good, interesting new ideas, including a weird kind of sense that the Light Side is basically just Law and Community, while the Dark Side is Chaos and Individuality. The fact that the representatives of the Dark Side are, for the most part, bad people seems in some respects to be more of an accident than any intrinsic characteristic of the Dark Side itself. Remember, Darth Vader was the realization of a prophecy that Anakin would “bring balance to the Force”, implying that the ascendancy of the Jedi order, and its domination of all things Force-related, was in some respects a sickness.

There are, naturally, games that eschew the concept of alignments entirely, for whatever reason. The Price of Freedom and Cyberpunk come to mind.

My Opinions on Alignments:

I don’t know that there’s any such thing as a One True Alignment System. Different worlds can benefit from different alignment systems, even within the same game. Alignment systems affect the flavor of the game so strongly that limiting oneself to the specific alignment system presented in a Player’s Handbook in all its particulars, with no willingness to alter it to suit your particular campaign setting, strikes me as foolish and unimaginative. Some games are better off with no alignment system equivalent at all, of course — like The Price of Freedom or Cyberpunk.

What I do know is that I find the bizarre limitations of the 4th Ed alignment system, complete with its very authoritarian worldview that implies a strictly Lawful philosophy is Extra Good, and the less dedicated you are to Law and Order the more Evil you must be, pretty damned ridiculous.

As for the problem of multiple interpretations of different alignments, I don’t see a problem with that. Several people can be Good People in the real world and yet have incompatible moral codes. Let the interpretation of the alignment depend on the individual, rather than expecting everybody in the world to have the same exact notion of what an alignment means. If you want your Lawful Evil character to be a power-hungry would-be dictator, while someone else wants his Lawful Evil character to be a petty bureaucrat who delights in meting out punishments to those who disturb the order and tranquility of her life, I don’t see why that has to mean someone’s “wrong” in his or her interpretation of what Lawful Evil means.


  1. “Rifts and other Palladium Books games have an interesting alignment system, which doesn’t specifically rely on any particular axes.”

    If you look closer, each of Palladium’s 7 alignments maps exactly to 7 out of the 9 alignments from D&D. The only ones they are missing are True Neutral and Lawful Neutral.

    Principled (Lawful Good) Scrupulous (Neutral Good) Unprincipled (Chaotic Good) Anarchist (Chaotic Neutral) Aberrant (Lawful Evil) Miscreant (Neutral Evil) Diabolic (Chaotic Evil)

    Personally, I like the Allegiance system introduced in d20 Modern. Each character can choose 1-3 allegiances which can by just about anything… from an organization, a belief system, family members, a country, etc. You list these in order of importance. When interacting with another character, anytime you share an allegiance that is identified, you gain a bonus to social skills.

    Comment by rekres — 9 October 2008 @ 09:28

  2. Referring to your closing paragraph:

    In most systems, I’m quite happy with multiple interpretations of differing ‘alignments’ (like interpretations of the virtues and vices of WoD). However, in DnD 3.x, where alignment plays an integral part in game mechanics (smite evil; chaos x and law y), I found that most players wanted a shared understanding of the different alignments (for prepping spells, choice of weapon etc.). Unfortunately, this meant that the agreed interpretations were generally uncreative and quite restricting, because they were easier to agree upon.

    Comment by jatori — 9 October 2008 @ 11:51

  3. I think I have to agree with you… In the current 4th Ed system… Good / Evil is the AXIS, whilst actually Chaos/Law should be the AXIS, and Good vs Evil will be determined as per action…

    Good / Evil also depends on where you’re coming from.

    Is killing 10,000 goblins who is infected with a deadly contagious disease (even if they may continue to live still quite a while) good or evil? If you answered evil… Is moving those 10,000 goblins to a quarantined place good or evil?

    Now change it to humans, in the real world…

    Comment by rolery — 10 October 2008 @ 01:49

  4. Thanks to all for your comments.


    Yes, I’ve noticed that they do map quite well onto 7 of 9 alignments from D&D — but they don’t map perfectly well onto the two-axis system of D&D, anyway.

    I haven’t had an opportunity to look at d20 Modern at all, so I’m not familiar with the Allegiance system. Your description of it sounds interesting, though, and makes me think it’s probably an excellent alternative to an absolutist alignment system when running certain types of campaigns. In fact, it sounds like a great idea for a very politically oriented fantasy setting, and I may end up using something like that in the future.


    I tend to solve that problem by altering the way the alignments fit into the game mechanics. It’s my party, I can cry if I want to — err, I mean, it’s my game, I can change the rules if I want to.

    By the same token, I could surely change all the rules in 4E that I dislike as changes from 3E, replacing them with their 3E equivalents, including alignment rules — but then I should just stick with 3E in the first place.


    I don’t tend to make ethical decisions as easy for the PCs in my games as easy as the books imply. As far as I’m concerned, anything with something approaching free will has the potential to adopt any alignment, which means that members of the usual “evil humanoid” races are not necessarily Evil. I tend to find it a lot more interesting to let my players struggle with figuring out how to deal with ethical quandaries the hard way than to eliminate such quandaries. The kill-vs.-quarantine idea sounds like a great one, and I’ll have to see if there’s an opportunity to introduce a plague like that into a game at some point in the future.

    Comment by apotheon — 10 October 2008 @ 09:34

  5. so when do we get to play test your new RPG?

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 11 October 2008 @ 06:53

  6. Umm . . . some day? Right now, I’m working on some stuff for the next session of the D&D game I’m running — and I need to write quite a few articles in the near future, to get well ahead of my schedule, so that I won’t have to worry about writing so many during the month of November (since my article-writing time might be scarce next month). I don’t really foresee getting very far on game development in the next couple months.

    Speaking of game development, I also need to work on some D&D-to-PRPG conversion stuff at some point, and that’ll compete with my original game development work too.

    Comment by apotheon — 11 October 2008 @ 08:57

  7. I was sort of being facetious; I know that never comes across clear in just a one liner.

    You’re putting an awful lot of work into this, I just at least one group of someones like it enough to start playing it once you’re done with 1E.

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 11 October 2008 @ 10:53

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