The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Character Alignment in the Game

15 Mar

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Character Alignment in the Game

In most games, the characters and other sentient beings have what is called an Alignment. I like to think of Alignment as the basic ethical and worldview framework of the character. Some people think of Alignment as limiting. I feel that if properly understood and used, Alignment can enhance play.

The OD&D take on Alignment was simple, or under-developed, depending upon one’s take of it:
Character Alignment, Including Various Monsters and Creatures:
Before the game begins it is not only necessary to select a role,but it is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take – Law, Neutrality, or Chaos.” (Men & Magic, 9)

So, we see here that only the 2 poles of Law and Chaos and Neutrality in the middle are choices. It was assumed that Chaotic creatures were generally evil and that Lawful ones were generally good. This reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, where the cosmic struggle of Chaos vs Law was the over-arching one, which eventually enveloped the entire Universe. Warhammer Roleplay is another system that also reflected that particular type of cosmic battle.

The Holmes Basic Dungeons & Dragons set included Neutrality, Good and Evil along with Chaos, Law axis’. The entire original paragraph and a chart (with example creatures) regarding Alignment follows:

Characters may be lawful (good or evil), neutral or chaotic (good or evil). Lawful characters always act ac- cording to a highly regulated code of behavior, whether for good or evil. Chaotic characters are quite unpredictable and can not be depended upon to do anything except the unexpected — they are often, but not always, evil. Neutral characters, such as all thieves, are motivated by self interest and may steal from their companions or betray them if it is in their own best interest. Players may choose any alignment they want and need not reveal it to others. Note that the code of lawful good characters insures that they would tell everyone that they are lawful. There are some magical items that can be used only by one alignment of characters. If the Dungeon Master feels that a character has begun to behave in a manner inconsistent with his declared alignment he may rule that he or she has changed alignment and penalize the character with a loss of experience points. An example of such behavior would be a “good” character who kills or tortures a prisoner.” (Holmes, 9)

Alignment was later defined as:
A creature’s general moral and personal attitudes are represented by its alignment…
Alignment is a tool for developing your character’s identity. It is not a straitjacket for restricting your character. Each alignment represents a broad range of personality types or personal philosophies, so two characters of the same alignment can still be quite different from each other. In addition, few people are completely consistent.

[From the SRD (System Reference Document) at the Dungeons & Dragons Wiki]

We see here that by 1e (Advanced Dungeon & Dragons 1st edition) there developed a common acceptance of what became generally known as the 9 Alignment Types.

No matter which form of Classic Game one wishes to play or mixture thereof, I feel it is important for the Gamemaster to consider what factors Alignment will or won’t have in their campaign. Some will prefer to disregard Alignment altogether. This does not need to reduce the sense of epic struggle or diminish the game in any way whatsoever. Some will go with the 9 types – or even modify them, as the Arduin system did, adding in odd “Amoral” and “Insane” as well as others to this integral Character personality trait. In a Lovecraftian flavored campaign, Insane may well be the Alignment of many!

As a Gamemaster, I reward players that play their Alignment well with XP (experience points) and also with other challenges or rewards based upon Alignment during campaign play. I do not let Alignment limit, but rather enhance my own Player Character experiences.

My first long-surviving character was a Lawful Evil Wizard. His methodic and ruthless actions according to his Alignment are probably a huge factor I can credit to his survival. Another long-standing character I had was a Ninja. His Alignment was Neutral, but he also adhered to a Lawfully leaning, Bushido-like Ninja Code of Honor. I remember in one adventure another player character asked mine to kill an NPC. My character refused, because he had no contract for assassination of the NPC and figured that any dispute between the PC and the NPC was none of his business! This was a scenario that allowed me to play my character’s Alignment to exacting standards, but it did not limit my actions. On the contrary, it made for enhanced and enjoyable play, as I was true to the persona of my character.

These days, my own real life Alignment has shied me away from taking an evilly aligned character in others games or allowing evil characters in my own. The “Big Bad Villain and their minions, whether evil, chaotic or both dominates the overall story of my campaigns somehow, if only in a shadow form at first. As the campaign progresses, Alignment and the concerns and behaviors it produces can be one of the motivating factors in moving the game to epic proportions! The players can be brought to the place where their characters personas are highly refined. Instead of the game continually being just a hunt for loot in dank, smelly dungeons, they have become heroes that fight for and against larger causes!

There is no one correct way to approach Alignment in the game, but the Old School Renaissance gives us another chance to rethinking this question and perhaps to experiment again with what we prefer in our own campaign experiences.

“DM Retro”


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