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An Easy Alignment Alternative: The 4, 3, 2, 1 System

Written by Paul Rehac - Published on December 17, 2013

There’s a long-stemming debate that’s been the source of many arguments around gaming tables. I have bravely decided to “throw my hat into the ring” to question the validity, necessity, and functionality of our age-old alignment system. From Lawful Stupid to Chaotic Jerk, Core Rules have cookie-cutter alignments. I’ll give my perspective on a few issues with our official alignment system, and my two cents on how to fix it.

The list of grievances is as follows:

  1. “I’m just playing my alignment” is a phrase too often used as a defense mechanism, or crutch for those who are unable or unwilling to truly roleplay their character.

  2. A static alignment system as limited as the Lawful-Chaotic, Good-Evil scale doesn’t properly demonstrate the neverending nuances of morality.

  3. Some class limitations just don’t make sense: For instance, why can’t my player be a lawful barbarian, or a monk who follows a philosophy of entropy and chaos?

  4. Possibly the biggest grievance I have: The use of alignments as a punishment.

Let’s pretend there’s a minotaur mob boss living in the underground of a diverse city who has been extorting a local shopkeep. Your players volunteer to hunt him down and put a stop to his evil ways (some, requesting a modest fee). On the way a fighter mistakenly gives his name, thinking that the encounter is going to be a breeze. A minion escapes and now the mob boss knows. The next day, the fighter’s wife has gone missing. Now that’s a juicy bit of character development, and it can make a character go to all kinds of extremes. Suddenly the fighter, trying to roleplay, decides that he’s going to do whatever it takes to get his wife back. The Lawful Good leader of the party takes a minion into a secluded area for a bit of “interrogation.”

According to the alignment system, torture is a decidedly evil act, like assassination. Why is it that a character should be forced to change their alignment (which, even when it has no real consequences can often feel like a punishment) for simply doing what he knows his character would or needs to do? It always seemed silly to me. Here is my solution:

First, have the characters choose an alignment. This is purely for the sake of alignment-based spells and abilities, and no other purpose. If the player thinks his character is more lawful than chaotic, but he wants to be a barbarian, or if he really want’s to be a neutral good paladin (of course, to play a good-aligned divine class one should probably be good, but that’s up to the player and the dm), then why not let them play it?

Second, and most importantly, tell the players to ignore the alignments they chose. No one is to “play their alignment” and no punishments are to be dealt, unless there is an obvious and entirely necessary switch that would cause a player to become technically “Evil.” Again, this is purely for the effects of spells that are determined with alignment.

Third, it’s time for character development! You will have your players each write up what will effectively act as their new alignment. On that sheet the player must write down:

  • 4 beliefs that their character has
  • 3 basic morals or codes that they live by
  • 2 situations in which they feel they could forsake those morals
  • 1 ultimate goal that the character has

This system can provide a more detail, more interest, and more flexibility because it focuses on the reality of morality. It allows the player to play a believable character, not just a static alignment.

If you have any thoughts on the subject, or suggestions for alternatives you’ve tried in your own games, leave comments! A healthy discussion is the best way to find a solution to a tricky problem.

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Written by Paul Rehac

Paul Rehac

Hey! Paul here. I’m a writer and a gamer — have been for almost ten years now! As a dungeonmaster I focus primarily on storytelling and immersion, and do my best to make every game as captivating as possible. As a player I’m all about the character and the roleplay, and I’m more than content to never roll a die.

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4 Responses to “An Easy Alignment Alternative: The 4, 3, 2, 1 System”
  1. Royal F. says:

    Alignments can be fun to work with in longer campaigns, and with older players. That’s when it became a more interesting element.

    I’ve always hated the cartoon definitions of evil in the game. They don’t exist in real life. It really is shoe-horning in Christian Mythology and very little else. It demonstrates that the designers are influenced by Christianity first and foremost. There are devilish creatures looking to destroy the world and hate all life. Fundamentally, Death and it’s associations are “evil”. I never considered the Greek God of Hades to be evil, but in the hands of Christian storytellers he takes on devilish features from depictions of Christian icons of evil. Hades rules a dominion, the same as Zeus or Poseidon. Greek Mythology assigned no evil labels to him.

    Alignments were oversimplification for the sakes of saying who is a bad guy–and whole races are singular alignments. (Racist much? LOL) The idea that alignments form some sort of cosmic team was just silly. As if the competing gods of different pantheons would team up like the Lawful Neutral SuperFriends is the stuff of South Park. But when the game goes to great lengths to create Asmodeus, Balzeebul and other Christian “devils”, then you’ve bought into the Us vs Them simplicity that underlines those personalities. And isn’t that how the world works? LOL

    For characters bound to a god (cleric, paladin, etc), there should be a code of conduct specific to that god. It is that simple. You aren’t Good, Lawful, Chaotic or Evil–you are a worshipper and you follow whatever rules, no matter how extreme or contradictory they may be of that god. And what happens when they violate that conduct too easily or extremely? Loose a level? Does the divinity refuse them their parer, perhaps at a key point of the DMs choosing? Imagine a cleric who has strayed uses a prayer that turns the tide or heals a key player who fell in the middle of a battle. Imagine the effect of the DM saying, “well you would have saved him, but a vision of your god appears before you and says you have failed them, and now your transgressions fails those around you.” Your prayer is unanswered, you’ve dropped to your knees and are stunned for the next round. Now we have some interesting role play.

    Everyone else, well, no one in real life proclaims an alignment, unless they are working the room with their propaganda. And very often it means they are lying. I do believe if people change in their behaviors there should be consequences. There certainly are in life. How the DM makes that happens is left in a giant fog.

    The idea of a numeric range from Chaotic to Lawful-something that the DM can move the needle on over time to provide feedback would be good. Lawful societies build laws and bureaucracy-essential to larger societies. Chaotic societies are roaming, lawless–and often result in questionable morals. Is Neutral a middle ground or another definition? Neutral is often associated with elemental or natural laws. Hippy tree hugging crap, as Cartman would say. Nature is a vastly complex population of checks and balances and interdependent systems. Nature may take thousands of years to balance, but that is natures way. Nature doesn’t see sentient as any more valuable than a worm in the dirt. Nature is absolutely chaotic if you understand it. So for me Neutral is just a middling ground, half and half, navigating between what the word throws at them.

    Good vs Evil doesn’t do anything for me, because they have no definitions in real life. Good is people who respect life–but only certain types of life, certain races, certain nationalities, etc. So Good people are Evil people to others. For me there needs to be something else. Evil is opposition–those against me are my “evil.” Another scale for the value you place on life would make sense. Do you shoo ants out of your home because you don’t want to end their life-force? What about a bigger animal? We eat meat, but since they aren’t sentient, it’s okay to breed and slaughter. What about all the sentient creatures we kill in D&D? We need an excuse to kill them and take their stuff. Calling them evil is that excuse… and I guess that’s why we need “evil” in the game. Otherwise there would be too many questions.

    I think there is nothing evil about assassinations or killing. Hitler’s assassination would be an evil act? Soldiers kill–that doesn’t make them evil. Interrogations are not evil but real world torture has produced less value than people attribute to it. And like a parent who slaps their child again and again in anger… it may have nothing to doing with accomplishing something constructive and more about someone geting their rocks off or working out their anger or sociopathy on someone who is weaker and defenseless. That’s where the line is crossed.

    For me everyone is True Neutral. Not a tree hugger. But a waffler.

    Some 30 years ago I ran a AD&D module for some people I hadn’t played with before. They brought their own ridiculously overpowered characters. It was a one-off, two hour play and was actually quite boring for me. However this Chaotic Neutral character was throwing fireballs down hallways. The blasts filled rooms and killed most of the smaller troops. However, he showed no concern if their was any innocent life in that blast radius. It was, not merely chaotic (freedom, unrestricted), it was evil (wanton destruction to life without regard). If it was part of a longer play I would have to take action against such an obvious transgression. I would have modified the module and placed prison cells of innocents to be fried by his actions, retroactively. As a DM, the story was the most important part of the play. Anything could be altered at any time. I would have to introduce a child being carted off for them to save and to re-unite the child with their parents they would have to go back to the burnt area and confront what they did. But we never played again.

    Those are where I think alignment can and does have interesting points within play.

  2. Nuntius Gris says:

    I don’t dislike the alingment system in particullar, though I have come to the realization that it is very open to interpretation. Two characters with the same alignment can be extremely different. And that should be emphasized to both players and DMs, as “cookie-cutter alignments” can easily give the impression of well defined character personalities.
    As an example: both the Joker (from The Dark Knight) and Petyr Baelish (from Game of Thrones) could be considered as Chaotic-Evil. They both show a complete disregard for law (one being an anarchist, the other one breaking it and using it as an instrument only as long as it suits him), and both are definitely evil (both showing pleasure in the suffering of others, using or provoking torture, etc). And yet, they are two almost opposite characters regarding attitude, personality, objectives and ways in witch they get things done.

    Regarding alternatives: Mouse Guard proposes a very similar option to yours, making you state a belief (a moral maxim), a fear, and an instinct (an action your characters does automatically in a certain situation) during character creation. It’s EXCELLENT to induce roleplaying and very easily added to any game system.

  3. Max301 says:

    I haven’t ever really liked the original system and as a DM (novice DM) I really have permitted everything in my opinion was acceptable for the character to do.
    So instead of using my own opinion in a tyrannic way of choosing I’m gonna try this system.
    Sorry for the short answer but I have no time for a detailed one :P

    Thanks for all your hard work and sorry for the lame english :D

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