Debates about the D&D alignment system have been going on for decades. My upcoming game, Five Moons RPG, won’t have alignments, and here are a few reasons why.
(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)
The Batman Problem
If you do a Google search for “Batman alignment” you get a lot of hits on various websites, with polls, pages of discussion, and even some nine-alignment memes, all of which are trying to prove what’s Batman’s alignment in D&D terms. This issue is best summed up by user DoPo on The Escapist forums: “Never mix D&D alignments with something that’s not D&D. It doesn’t work by definition.”
In other words, Batman is a complex character who wasn’t created with the idea of D&D alignments in mind, and even if he were, there have been so many authors writing Batman stories over the years that you’re not going to get a consistent presentation of the character. Adam West’s Batman is different than Michael Keaton’s Batman is different than Frank Miller’s Batman is different than Christian Bale’s Batman. (Yes, that’s mixing authors and actors, but it’s easier to identify them like that.)
Players are going to cite story X as the reason why they think Batman is alignment A, and say, “my character is alignment A, and it’s okay for Batman to do this, so my character should be okay to do this.” Another player replaces the example from story X with an example from story Y and says that Batman and their character is alignment B. And so on. There are enough conflicting stories (and corner cases) that you can use Batman to justify almost any alignment as “appropriate for this character.” And if you can do that for Batman (who has literally thousands of pages of detailed history, dialogue, and thoughts) you can do it for a character than only exists in your mind and is mostly mathematical stats on a character sheet.
Alignment Definitions Has Changed
What a particular alignment actually means is really hard to define. All versions of D&D (including Pathfinder as a “version of D&D”) have different definitions for each of the alignments. The descriptions of a particular alignment may overlap from edition to edition, but it is a complex idea, and each game’s designer has tried to convey their impression of what the alignments mean, updating these definitions to reflect their personal impressions and the ethics of the decade.
Which means 3E alignments aren’t exactly what 1E alignments are. So if you created your character using the 1E rules, and then convert to 2E, 3E, or PF, should you update your character’s alignment, or stick with the original alignment definition even if the new game shifted that alignment out from under you?
Philosophy students have been debating what “good” and “evil” are for millennia, with no agreement. Yet here we have very literate, very talented game designers trying to sum up aspects of good and evil in a paragraph or two (and no more than that, because there are other things the game rules needs to explain, like how combat works). That’s an unenviable task, especially when individual GMs (and players) involved in a campaign are going to disagree with each other and the book’s definition.
And despite these definitions, there are still questions. If you’re days from town and you capture the bandits who have been stealing from caravans, is it evil to kill them, or do you have to take them back to town for a trial? Does the answer change if the town mayor sent you to deal with the bandits and she doesn’t care whether you kill or arrest them? What if the bandits are orcs instead of humans? What if the orcs had orc children with them? Are orcs inherently evil? Does that mean that orc babies are inherently evil? Does that mean that some races are inherently good? If a creature is inherently evil or good, what does that say about free will?
Alignment Doesn’t Matter (Mechanically) to Most PCs
If you’re a fighter or a rogue, it really doesn’t matter if (frex) you’re lawful neutral or lawful good. You as a player (not your alignment) decide if you’re going to work for the king and participate in the adventure/quest/campaign. You might argue with other players about in-character actions, but 99% of the time, your alignment has no effect on game mechanics. Your alignment doesn’t make you more or less able to swing your sword, or wear your armor, or solve a riddle. Your alignment doesn’t prevent you from eating a corpse, or killing a person, or stealing. Even if the GM decides your actions require a change in your alignment, you aren’t mechanically penalized for the alignment change.*
Alignment really only starts to matter if you have magic. And that’s only for some magical characters.
The cleric spell list includes spells that have additional or different effects against creatures with specific alignments, like dispel evil and holy smite. There are also spells that protect against creatures or attacks with a specific alignment, like holy aura and protection from evil. Because you need to know if a creature or effect is evil in order to know whether or not these alignment-specific effects trigger, the existence of these spells in the game requires the designer (or the GM) to decide what the alignments of all the creatures in the game are. Or, looking at it the opposite way: by putting hard-coded alignments in the game, it creates a “design space” for the existence of effects that specifically target alignment.
(In either case described in the previous paragraph, the game is solving a problem that it created for itself: Without alignments, the game wouldn’t need alignment-specific effects; without alignment-specific effects, the game wouldn’t need alignments.)
If you’re a good cleric (or worship a good deity), you can’t cast [evil] spells, and vice versa… the game says you can’t do it. Most other divine spellcasting classes have this restriction, too. But if you’re a non-good cleric (or worship a non-good deity), there’s no game mechanic preventing you from using evil spells every single day. The GM just has to wing it if they feel your character is using evil spells “too often,” which would justify a change to evil alignment.
But arcane spellcasters don’t have this opposite-alignment restriction at all… they’re permanently in “GM wing it territory.” These characters might have to care about alignment a little bit, like if they’re trying to use protection from evil against a non-evil creature, but it’s usually not an issue.
“But wait,” you say, “rangers can have stuff like ‘favored enemy (evil outsider),’ so that’s a type of martial character that cares about alignment!” True. But you could just as easily give demons and devils the “fiend” subtype, and replace that ranger option with “favored enemy (fiend),” and it would have the exact same game effect without the alignment requirement. And it would be no less weird than the idea of “all evil outsiders have certain anatomical and behavior quirks in common that a mortal can study and exploit in the exact same way.”
Even items like a holy weapon are just an aspect of the “only some magical characters care about it” issue; it means the non-magical character is, in effect, a magical character for the purpose of using that weapon, and suddenly has to care about whether or not a creature has an evil alignment… but only so long as they’re wielding the holy weapon. Your character (regardless of alignment) can use a holy weapon to murder innocent townsfolk… and if that means your alignment changes to evil, you can still use the holy weapon to murder more innocent people (you just have 1 negative level while you’re carrying it). Alignment matters to the weapon, it doesn’t matter to your character.
The D&D/PF cosmology assumes that there are alignment absolutes in the game–there are some places where the very physical matter of the air, water, and earth is permeated with an alignment (such as the aligned outer planes). Likewise, there are actions that are Chaotic, Good, Evil, Lawful, with a capital letter. For example, casting animate dead is always Evil; even if the corpses you are animate are a group of good-aligned heroes who specifically gave you permission to animate them as skeletons to defend a holy site, you casting that spell is a capital-E Evil act, because the spell has the [evil] tag, which defines it as being evil.
So, despite alignment being hard-coded into the game (for creatures, magic items, or spells), most characters can ignore alignment. Which is a reason you can consider dropping alignment from the game entirely.**
Alignment is Based on Elric
Gygax was obviously a fan of Michael Moorcock’s novels featuring the albino sorcerer Elric of Melniboné. Not only does the original law/chaos D&D alignment system parallel Moorcock’s novels, the 1E DMG lists Moorcock’s novels in Appendix N: Inspirational reading. And heck, the 1E Deities and Demigods includes D&D game stats for heroes and gods from those novels.
And Moorcock’s focus on Law vs. Chaos was influenced by Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions (which is also listed in the DMG’s Appendix N).
But if your campaign isn’t based on those stories or those world, how much of an impact should they have on your campaign? If your campaign is more like The Lord of the Rings (good vs. evil, or nature vs. technology) than the Elric novels, should the Law vs. Chaos paradigm (and the game mechanics associated with it) really be a factor in your campaign at all? Something to think about.
Alignment Is an Excuse For Jerk Behavior
How often have you heard the excuse, “I’m acting this way because of my alignment”?
Perhaps it’s a neutral or chaotic neutral rogue stealing from another PC during second watch. “Don’t get mad at me, I’m just playing my alignment.”
Or perhaps it’s a lawful evil wizard casting charm person on the other PCs so they’re all under the wizard’s control. “Because of my alignment, I believe in order, and it is in our best interests that you obey me.”
Perhaps it’s a goody-goody lawful good paladin preventing the other characters from knocking out a city guard so they can get on with the current mission. “Sorry, my alignment won’t let you do that, because this guard is just trying to do his job in accordance with the law.” (Or the reverse: “I detect that the innkeeper is evil, I attack him because I’m lawful good!”)
All of this is jerk behavior, justified by two letters on a character sheet.
But what if the character sheet didn’t have those two letters on it?
The rogue would be stealing from another PC because the rogue is a jerk, not because of the rogue’s alignment.
The wizard would be mind-controlling another PC because the wizard is a jerk, not because of the wizard’s alignment.
The paladin… well, the paladin might do the same sorts of things, but the justification would be, “because I’m a paladin” instead of “because I’m lawful good.” Without alignments, perhaps we could redefine paladins without an alignment straightjacket.
Why do you really need an alignment on your character sheet, anyway? It’s your character. You know how your character is going to act. You know your character’s history, goals, loves, and hates. Does having that two-letter code make a difference about any of those things for your character? Perhaps your character (or your memory, or your roleplaying) would be better served by an “Ethics” line on the character sheet, where you could write something like “arrogant, cruel, honorable”? Or “temperamental, friendly, boastful”?
If you were the creator of Batman, and you were playing Batman in a game, and you wanted to sum up your character’s beliefs and personality, would it be better to say, “protector, hates crime, won’t kill,” or merely “LG”?
All the complicated personalities in the world don’t fit into one of nine convenient boxes. People are more complex than that.****
If you’re a GM, alignment can be a handy way to categorize a monster. Frex, orcs are CE, therefore they don’t respect others’ property rights and have a lot of tribal infighting. Hobgoblins are LE, therefore they are domineering, organized, and respect authority. But as with characters, there’s a lot of broad generalizations in those nine alignment categories. Wouldn’t it be more informative if the orc entry in the monster book had an Ethics or Personality line that said, “bloodthirsty and disorganized,” and the hobgoblin entry said “aggressive and militaristic”
But GMs can be straightjacketed by alignment, too. If orcs are listed as CE in the monster book, some players will use that as an excuse to murder them, even orc infants. “Orcs are CE. The little ones will just grow up to be evil adults!” It’s a convenient way to avoid complicated moral issues.*** And it makes it harder to justify individual monsters of a particular race that have a different alignment than the norm, like a lone orc or group of orcs that are neutral instead of evil.
Alignment is a tool, and to use the old adage, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” The game–and gaming–has changed a lot in 40 years. We’ve invented new tools, new moving parts, and new machines. It’s okay to set aside one tool and use another, especially if the new machine isn’t built for that old tool. (Hammers are useful… I used one to pull up a lot of nails this morning… but I wouldn’t use a hammer to repair my computer…)
To sum up, in Five Moons RPG, there are no alignments. If you want to put labels on your character, you can. And there will be useful labels the GM can put on monsters (like “bloodthirsty,” or “demon,” or “militaristic”) and some of those labels may have game mechanics. But no D&D-style alignments.
* Okay, sure, if you’re using the more detailed alignment rules from Ultimate Campaign (a section that I co-wrote and developed), changing your alignment gets you a –1 penalty on attacks, saves, and checks… for one week. Then you’re back to normal.
** Very much like one of my earlier blogs that points out if you don’t have anti-magic field in the game, it doesn’t matter if an effect is extraordinary or supernatural, because they work the same 99% of the time, and if it doesn’t matter 99% of the time, maybe you should just drop the distinction entirely because it’s an almost-useless complication.
*** Complicated moral issues such as, “these monsters are as intelligent as humans, or nearly so, which means they’re people, so I need to think of an excuse for why I should be able to kill them without feeling guilty about it, especially when I go through their pockets afterward.”
**** And gods are usually as complex as people, or even more so. Let me point out that the 1E D&D alignment system classifies the Greek gods as “good” even though most of them are pretty capricious and/or cruel to their own worshippers, and most of the male Greek deities are also rapists. Also, the introduction to the Central American Mythos chapter of Deities & Demigods points out that these deities “are not moved by anything resembling human thoughts and feelings,” and has specific comments like “there are times where [lawful neutral god Quetzalcoatl] works in chaotic or evil ways (making it very hard to align him).” So alignment isn’t as useful as it pretends to be.
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