Point-Counterpoint: Why Alignment Systems Are Too Limiting

Have you ever played a dark hero? Maybe someone who throws dead bodies down stairs to see if they set off any traps? What alignment is he? That might be chaotic, or even evil. What if he squeezes every copper from a mercenary contract? Technically that’s pretty lawful. But then, what if he sets aside about a quarter of his own personal wealth for refugees to establish themselves in a new town? That would be good right? So what alignment is the character? Is he “morally ambiguous”? The rules probably demand he pick one of the nine alignments. Which one does he choose? None really fit. But is it unbelievable that a character exists who does not subscribe to one of the alignments? Of course it isn’t. In fact such characters are even more believable.

This is one of the problems I have always found with the alignment compass of the first three editions. It is still iconic, of course, and I dont have a problem with it theoretically — except it seems to fully eschew grey areas. Even “true neutral” is not a grey, lack-of-moral-compass type of area. It is a specific ethos dedicated towards maintaining a balance between good and evil, law and chaos.

Frankly that is fine as a mechanic and an interesting ethos, but the rules required a character to pick an alignment. You cannot select “morally ambiguous with good tendencies.” By the same token, “good” and “evil” particularly in D&D are based primarily on 20th century moral and ethical thought. So if a barbarian is constantly raiding a foreign kingdom (looting and killing at will) and those people are generally good, does that mean he’s evil? What if he’s actually a very good, loving father who is very charitable towards his own people and no one suffers any want within his own lands. Is he still evil? Or can that make him good? Does it push him into the middle and make him neutral? Is he really striving to maintain the balance? Probably not.

Of course alignment was justifiably important for classes like the paladin. And in that context it made sense for the ethos of Lawful Good to be specifically followed. But the rules demanded that all individuals follow a specific ethos, and that was quite unsatisfying.

I also recognize that eschewing moral ambiguity may be very important to justify the wholesale slaughter of enemies, which D&D is largely predicated upon. I’m OK with that generally, but I’m also not 14 anymore. I like morally ambiguous questions. How do you navigate a moral catch-22? Can you think your way out of it? That’s entertaining to me. I can handle morally ambiguous questions and I think many of my fellow gamers can as well. If they don’t want to, that’s fine too. It is a question of taste. I wouldn’t want moral dilemmas in every gaming session and some people might never want them.

But the point for this topic is: if you are subjected to a moral dilemma what happens if you choose something “outside” your alignment? Specific example: Corporal Opham (or Upham?) in Saving Private Ryan, on the stairs outside the room where Mellish and a German soldier are struggling for their lives. Presumably Opham is good. His friend (presumably also good) is fighting for his life against a German soldier. His alignment is effectively irrelevant, but for the sake of argument we’ll call him evil. Opham knows something bad is going on in that room and what does he do? Nothing. He whimpers on the stairs. His mere presence would almost certainly have changed the outcome of that struggle (finishing off someone with a knife when his buddy has a rifle aimed at you is usually not a good idea). Opham suffered a failure of physical courage and let a good man die. Was that evil? If so is he now evil? When Opham shoots his former prisoner does that redeem him or make him more evil? What alignment is he? Could he have been as believable a character if he was forced into the nine-point-system?

So from a role-playing stand point applying the nine-point-system to these examples is really the application of a straight jacket (justifiable in some circumstances, but uncomfortable or downright painful in others). But in addition, there are the game mechanics, usually magical ones. Detect evil: how do either of these examples show up? What about Raistlin? When did he start “detecting” as evil? When he donned the black? Before?

One mechanical correction to this is making detect evil only work on “very evil” creatures like devils and demons. That makes some sense. But what is a very evil creature? Is a vampire evil? Always? What about Jeffrey Dahmer? Would he detect as evil? Hitler? Would he trigger the spell? If there’s a line, where is it? Another option is detecting as evil only if the target at the time of the detection has evil intent. I’ve used that one a lot.

What about holy damage from 3e? Or holy swords from earlier editions? They work against evil (or a specific subset) and cause serious harm to “evil.” So with the same examples, would the corpse chucker suffer holy damage? What about the barbarian? Raistlin? Dahmer? Hitler? Which of these would be subject to holy damage? Would any of them? Would they only suffer if they currently have evil intent? That’s not very satisfying.

But on the other hand, I really want evil to suffer holy damage and be detectable from demons and devils. I think most of us do, so that means getting rid of the alignment dependant game mechanics is out. So what’s the fix?

While I am in general not a fan of the proliferation of descriptors in 4e, I tend to think it might be necessary here. The “evil” descriptor would fit the bill. Demons and devils could just have that descriptor on their stat block. A bunch of human thugs probably would not. If the DM had a Dahmer or a Hitler type of villain, he could assign the evil descriptor if he thought it appropriate for his campaign. And maybe, like falling to the dark side, if a morally ambiguous character commits too many evil acts, he gains the evil descriptor. Maybe that’s what happened to Raistlin

So all in all I don’t want the nine alignments gotten rid of, but I’d like them to be less confining. Perhaps characters who strictly adhere to an ethos actually gain some sort of boon (except of course chaotic stupid).

6 Responses to Point-Counterpoint: Why Alignment Systems Are Too Limiting

  1. I think that Alignments have their place as a tool for paladins and new roleplayers, and work well within the mechanics of D&D. The issues with the holy blade I mitigate by ruling that it’s evil undead and Outsiders barring some human that is ritually tainted. My parties tend to skew anarchic, though. So chaotic is a really common and often well applied alignment. I wouldn’t put an alignment system in any other game, unless it was a modular morality like Shadowrun’s pacscifist quality, or the codes of honor traits found in quite a few things. I also wouldn’t remove the alignment system from D&D. It’s a part of the game, it’s a mechanic, and it’s got to stay.

  2. There are loads of games that offer the kind of morally grey roleplaying you’re interested in; pretty much everything published by White Wolf, for example. But D&D’s roots are in heroic escapism. Not many people would play a character who would act like Corporal Opham in D&D; even the morale rules of early editions wouldn’t apply in such a situation. At its core it’s a game about heroes doing old-school heroic things: it’s cowboys with swords, black hats vs white hats, people killing monsters.

    You can subvert that and make it interesting, of course, but I think the alignment system is frankly only a small part of what makes D&D about good vs evil.

    As for your humans vs demons comment, that’s how I already used the existing alignment system. You can’t detect that a human is “evil”, unless they’ve made some kind of magical pact binding themselves to the cosmic force of evil that exists as part of the alignment system. Same goes for any mortal creature and any of the cosmic forces of good, law and chaos.

  3. @ guybrush Its true there are lots of other games that have moral ambiguity as their center. However D&D was first and will likely ever be my favorite. I have played many of the others and they just don’t do it for me. I have run many of the same house rules as you it seems. I think what we are discussing here is the pros and cons of the alignment system as core v. modular in the new edition.

    Billy I also wouldn’t remove the alignment system. I think Ed asked me to write the counter point because he frequently asks of the party (what’s your alignment) when we are doing or contemplating something off the beaten path (so to speak). And when he asks I frequently have one or two alignments with a question mark because I never really decided, and, not being a paladin i didn’t really care.

    As an aside, I don’t think I’m usually the one being too evil . . . pointed look at dwarf wizard. Though I may have been a bit enabling during a plan to deal with a certain tribe of Kobolds.

    of course in the white hat/black hat morality that means I can kill goblins and kobolds and orcs with impunity and even blessing all the time . . . and we already had a big discussion on that . . .

  4. I don’t think Crackers, the previously acknowledged chaotic evil dwarf wizard, did a single evil thing during the adventure. Smart things, yes. Evil things, not so much. He didn’t know that his actions would wipe out an entire tribe of kobolds. He is simply a victim of Murphy’s law. He was hoping that his actions would lead to the kobolds wiping out an entire tribe of goblins. Goblins who, I might add, had viciously slaughtered our young thief. I’m sure the thief wasn’t actually going to hurt that goblin baby he grabbed. Probably.

    And whose idea was it to trick the orcs into attacking the hobgoblins who were really the ones responsible for the destruction of the kobolds? I don’t remember, but I’m going to guess it was Crackers. It was also Crackers who wanted to altruistically free the captured gnoll, but noooooo he wasn’t allowed. Instead the poor creature was gagged and knocked unconscious.

    Crackers is the victim here! And someone had to go and write “CE” on his character sheet.

  5. Also, I like alignments because the level-draining demon children populating my campaign world get bonuses against “good” PCs. Especially lawful good ones.

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