Did I play my alignment or did my alignment play me?

The recent dust-up among some bloggers about whether PCs should be “heroes” or “not heroes” has produced (as usual, I am tempted to say) a great deal of heat and very little light.  I think this is partly people talking past each other and partly because it really boils down to the “alignment problem.”

Talking past each other: One strand seems to focus on the notion that a couple of games which are more deeply embedded in the “pulp swords & sorcery” tradition (LotFP and Dungeon Crawl Classics) say they are “not for heroes” or something like that.  A lot of bloggers take this to mean: PCs in those games have to be evil bastards (unheroic, anti-heroes, scoundrels).  My impression was that it actually means: PCs in those games are not Sir Lancelot, Aragorn, or Conan (i.e., really badass); they are more like Cugel The Clever, Samwise Gamgee, or otherwise low-level, low-powered, above-average-but-not-superheroes.  Because being a hero can mean showing courage/integrity/morality or it can mean being the “action hero.”  The action-hero vs. ordinary guy PC is a tired argument which is nothing but a difference in play styles and there is no “winning” that one.  People should play how they want. 

The “alignment problem” is stickier.  I don’t see anything in LotFP that imposes and particular moral compass on the PCs.  I haven’t read DCC yet so maybe I am missing something there.  If DCC really says player characters should be “evil”/only in it for the loot, that is kind of stupid.  There is room in any kind of game for any kind of PC, as far as I can tell.  I think the real issue is that some people are just offended by the notion of a game allowing “evil” PCs.

I have played in an “evil” campaign or two and they were not much fun.  After one or two sessions of flaunting all rules of decency, the game becomes pretty boring.  But an “evil” campaign is based on the same stupid premise that a lot of “good guy” campaigns are based on: alignment is destiny. 

Alignment in D&D, especially the versions that include a good/evil axis, is too often used as a club to beat interesting roleplaying out of the game.  As written, and as played, too often alignment is seen as something to be strictly adhered to and roleplayed.  As if, as the proverb goes, “Evil men have no songs.”  I call bullshit on that.  Alignment should not be a straight jacket.  Real people have multiple, often conflicting motivations, and are not completely predictable. 

I guess some people like “alignment is destiny” because it gives a clear criterion for “good” or “poor” roleplaying (Did I play my alignment?).  Some people might like it because it provides moral clarity in the game.  My brother, for example, prefers to know that his character should just kill goblinoids on sight, even goblin babies, because they’ll just grow up to be baby-eating monsters.  The frog and the scorpion kind of thing.  I get that although I think it makes the game a little more boring, at least from the DM’s side of the screen, because that kind of absolutism makes negotiation with monsters unwise at best and complicit in evil at worst.*  I would even go so far to say that it is a crutch gamers use to avoid dealing with issues of morality.  Maybe ethical dilemmas are “not fun” and can derail games.  I guess it depends on the players. 

I’m very tempted to remove alignments entirely from my current campaign and would certainly not use them in the future.  I really don’t see any benefit to keeping them.  I can adjudicate who is affected or not by “protection from evil” etc. in a three-alignment system (Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic) and dropping alignments will have the additional benefit of reducing the strength of the “Nuremburg defense” in RPGs  (“It’s what my character would do!”).

Screw that. Alignment should be descriptive.  I can see certain classes needing to adhere to codes of honor/morality (clerics, paladins, etc.) but otherwise I’d much rather see alignment be something you do/earn, not what you already are.

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*The often self-contradictory AD&D PHB tells players in the front of the book that laignment must be adhered to strictly and then in the back of the book says says players should alsways consider negotiating because it gives the DM a chance to be more actively involved in the game and can avoid unnecessary/resource depelting conflict — the example given being negotiation with an ogre, the archetypal baby-eating monster!

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Published in: on June 10, 2011 at 9:39 am  Comments (6)  
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  1. I jettisoned alignment long ago. Characters have to live with consequences of how they act. Paladins and Clerics have specific codes that reflect the nature of the religion they are part of. Other classes may part of organizations that have laws or codes that the characters are expected to adhere.

    Since I spell out everything to the players beforehand it works better than the vague alignments of the original game.

  2. Oh gosh, in the last game I played the GM hammered a player for a minor alignment violation. It was so minor as to be offensive when we was called out. meanwhile, a neutral character stole from the party and that just fine. Alignment is such an awkward thing. I’m not really sure why it remains when there are so many interesting alternatives.

  3. I’ve seen one game where alignment was dictated by the players actions with a sliding track. Like this it means that players can do as they feel, but may pay for it the eyes of their fellows and the local (NPC) populace. I can’t remember the game, but I am sure it is buried in my collection somewhere.

    • I’ve thought about that and my brother even proposed a system to do it. I’d like to see a system that is easier than say Fantasy Wargaming (where you could account for every sin from impure thoughts to human sacrifice, and every good act from attending a sermon to building a cathedral, but it was too much accounting. Maybe a little dial or spinner where you go one point toward good/evil after a significant thing…

  4. It thought I was offended by “characterizing my characters kill all goblin attitude” as boring. If you think so OK, but I think baby goblins as a moral question is boring also.

    I think a lot of my attitude comes from thinking of alignment more than the others in the group. After all I DMed you guys when you were literally raping dead goblins.

    I am sure that D&D was works better with a black and white morality. Actually thinking about this I think that this is would be a better conversation than a written conversation.

    In short if you want to play out morality plays Alignment with strict enforcement is the way to go. If not drop it. If you want to a game where people battle evil that’s cool, if you want a game where we have to interview monsters and produce evidence before killing them, that isn’t D&D. I don’t think I would be interested in that game, on the same hand I am not interested in a game that entails raping dead goblins either.

    I hope this is not coming off as hostile, I just saying that looking back on thirty years of DMing I really suggest “interesting moral dilemmas” should be carefully referee or outright avoided. They are defiantly a town thing rather than a dungeon thing too.

    • Tom, I didn’t mean to single you out or criticize your take on alignment. Mentioning “ethical dilemmas” was probably the wrong way to put it. I just meant sometimes negotiating should be considered an option, along side “attack” and “flee.” I honestly never meant to suggest you needed a warrant to kick in a dungeon door or a judge’s order to kill goblins. But I have to say, your character’s decision to kill a harmless goblin baby that was actually being raised by another PC with the intention to tame/train it was an evil act. Not enough to change your alignment away from Lawful, but evil.

      I agree that throwing a kobold nursery school into a dungeon as a ‘moral dilemma’ is kind of old hat and will just start an argument that two or three players will enjoy and leave everyone else wandering off to play video games.

      I also agree that alignment is something best discussed in person because othewise it’s too easy to go off on a completely different track and end up arguing with straw men.


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