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One Die Short: Alignment can be a four-letter word

Written by One Die Short - Published on June 10, 2011
Greetings! My name is Matt Forcella, and I am an artist, writer, and most importantly, a Dungeon Master of over 17 years.  I’ve run D&D, Star Wars, and have devised a couple of new roleplaying systems for my group.  This will be the first in a bi-monthly column called One Die Short, about the trials and tribulations of Dungeon Mastering based on my webcomic of the same name.  It follows a group of D&D players through love, life and roleplaying.  This time, we take a look at Alignment.
Alignment is one aspect of D&D that has been a source of contention to many a DM and player.  It frequently causes OOG (out of game) conflict over what in game actions are acceptable.  One player might preemptively attack an evil-seeming NPC with little or no provocation, and arguments ensue.  As a positive feature it serves as a quick roleplaying guide, which can be especially useful for newer gamers.  Or, if you’re simply not comfortable donning a persona and hamming it up, understanding how your character would likely respond in a given situation can be helpful.  But the best way to make alignment work in your game is to make an approach to resolving alignment that works best for your group.
The Book of Exalted Deeds says unprovoked attacking  is both a Chaotic and an Evil action.  Lets take a step back from the rules though and think about roleplaying (since we are in a roleplaying game).  The player who assaulted the potentially evil NPC might have genuinely thought he was upholding the Law and protecting innocents.  Is a character’s perception of a situation more important than the reality of the situation?  Plenty of crazy people think they’re doing good, and in certain life-threatening situations, being ‘good’ arguably IS crazy.  In fact, a touched Lawful Good character is bound to be more interesting than your stereotypical crusader for justice.  But how could this ‘Don Quixote’ figure be represented?  The PC would be more Chaotic than Lawful (at least in action), and therein lies the problem I see with Alignment as officially presented: it’s rigid, and rigidity stifles creativity.

Fortunately there are various other methods  for Alignment, and most allow for additional flexibility.  They recognize that personality isn’t an unbending entity that can be summed up with two words. One version that I like features Tracking with a concrete system of 0-100 points which can be used to determine precisely when an Alignment shift occurs.  This also provides for PCs to commit actions contrary their Alignment from time to time.  The nice Alignment Tendency Table, helps us roleplay people who aren’t so black and white.  Speaking from personal experience, just because we may respect the Law doesn’t mean we won’t bend it now and again.

For a long time I played without Alignment entirely since I was DMing for experienced players, and found the PHB rules to be a hindrance.  When I reintroduced it, I tried using different recordkeeping techniques, including the above Tracking.  While they offered extra detail, I found them to be a bit TOO detailed, so I did what many other DMs and developed something new.  At the same time, I also turned Alignment into a direct game mechanic with immediate consequences.  I found that these reactions (which I will go over in a moment), encouraged the players to stick to their Alignment more than they might have otherwise.  It gave them motivation to roleplay really well, instead of just trying to avoid possible penalties from an Alignment change.
The way my system works is that each player begins the game with 2 Alignment Points (APs), one for each Alignment category (or 2 in the case of True Neutral).  As the game progresses, the DM awards more APs for actions that exemplify each part of an Alignment.  So while a Lawful character paying a fine won’t gain them an AP, helping track down a criminal would, and taking it upon himself to destroy an entire criminal syndicate might gain him 2 or 3 points.  Each day a character gains at least 2 APs, they may add a +10 bonus to any Skill Check or Attack roll.  They must use it within 24 hours, and must declare its use before they roll.  You may wish to reduce this bonus in your own campaign (even as low as +2 or +3), as I give out APs sparingly, and tend to ignore minor Alignment actions.  The basic idea behind this bonus is that when a character engages in actions that further their inner resolve because they’re doing exactly what they want to do, that contentment shows itself as an extra boost in confidence.
Every time a character engages in actions against his or her Alignment, they will also gain APs.  Whenever this occurs they receive -2 to all of their Skill Checks and Attack rolls for 24 hours, due to extreme depression and an existential crisis.  Again, this can be lowered or ignored if you’re a more lenient DM than me, but it’s effective to see players face the aftermath of their behavior .  Or misbehavior.  When opposing APs are equal to a PC’s chosen APs, or if they number at least 4 (whichever is lower), a Will Save DC 18 .must be made.  The DC increases by 2 for every opposing AP gained above 4.  Failure causes an Alignment shift.  I also offer a +1 bonus to the Will Save for each AP in their chosen Alignment above their opposing AP total.  I’ve found this method to greatly increase players enjoyment of the Alignment system, and while it introduces a new argument (“I should have totally got an Alignment Point for that!”), it reduces others.
Recordkeeping aside, something that bothers me even more is Alignment restriction.  For religious classes it makes sense to a point, but for others the reasoning is weaker.  A Barbarian for example, is just a person with limited technology.  They should be able to be any Alignment, so long as it makes sense culturally.  Alignment restriction limits the creativity of a player when designing a character and background.  And since creativity is  one of the reasons we all enjoy roleplaying, let’s get creative, and stop playing cliches just because of the published rules.  The Chaotic Neutral Monk referenced in my comic was based on an actual PC.  The campaign would not have been nearly as interesting if he had been forced to play a Lawful monk.  His CN monk often randomly punched through walls because he could, tossed gnomes for fun, and added a great deal of unpredictability (and humor) to the campaign.  Now, this non-legal monk still followed a believable spiritual path.  It mainly centered around drinking, but he took his drinking VERY seriously.
Some rules were meant to be bent, others broken.  If you’re a DM, I’m sure you know this well.  If you’re a player, ignore that last sentence. (Your DM ALWAYS follows the rules, and never, ever, ever fudges a roll.  There’s nothing interesting going on behind the screen, I swear).  So let’s recognize when the parts of the game are working against us, and either use other house rules or make up our own to get those parts of the game back to working for us.  In this instance, reward creativity instead of revering character archetypes.
Thanks for reading and please be sure to check out the rest of One Die Short, and my personal Roleplaying advice blog, Ask the Dungeon Master.

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Written by One Die Short

I’m a long-time Dungeon Master and roleplayer and will bring my dice to the grave with me. I write a webcomic entitled One Die Short. It’s a story of love, life, nerds and roleplaying. Both the adventures and “real-life” segements are based on my own roleplaying experiences as a DM of over fifteen years.

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4 Responses to “One Die Short: Alignment can be a four-letter word”
  1. Firesickle says:

    Nice article! Thanks for posting. I have some differing ideas on alignments and class alignment restrictions. I enforce it pretty strictly in my games. I took up using an alignment chart that is in an old AD&D 2e dragon lance book. In that system, when you reach the edge of your alignment, you come to be in a state of inner conflict and take a couple negatives, this warns you that you are about to change alignments. I don’t apply the negatives the book suggests, but I explain to my players how they feel and if they head down the same path I will change their alignments. To be fair, I do this for everyone even those who are not under restrictions. I like the think it adds some structure to whats going on, and my players seem to be fine with it (no complaints yet).
    Cheers,
    Sean

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for reading! Everyone seems to have a different take on alignment, and I think the key for any good roleplaying session is to just do what works. I reintroduced Alignment into my campaigns only because I got new group of players that had never played before, and I thought they would benefit from it. Before then I never used it, because my players didn’t want it. The best we can do as good DMs is keep our players (and ourselves) happy. As long as we’re doing that, we’re doing a great job!

  3. DeificDesign says:

    Sean is referring to ideas out of ‘DragonLance Adventures’ {TSR c1987} which has the penalties (Attack, Defense, Wizard Spells, Cleric Spells) for being in the “grey area” listed on page 13. As expected, Clerics get especially hit for changing Alignment: they become ‘lost’ & “immediately lose two levels and all their spell-casting abilities until they either repent or find a new god to serve.”

    The ‘Character Alignment Tracking Chart’ is at the very top of 114. It looks like a ruler but only covers Good/Transition/Neutral/Transition/Evil, so you’d have to make a Law/Transition/Neutral/Transition/Chaos version.

    Each of the alignment sections has 20 boxes while the 2 Transitions have 10. Actions “contrary to the character’s professed alignment shift the character’s position (1-4 boxes) on this chart in the appropriate direction.”

  4. One of the things that bothers me is the idea that religious folk should be hit harder, and penalized more under the Alignment system. It makes some sense that you’re Deity might smite you down, but from a personal, more introspective point of view, I don’t think it would be any harder on a person. I mean, anyone who undergoes a major shift in their belief system is going to be in crisis mode. It’s not an easy thing to do. Just because you don’t have a coherent system of spirituality, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be penalized equally. And as for Deities smiting you, it seems like certain Deities probably wouldn’t care as much if we really want to get into the details of it. Maybe another Deity might even try to seduce you with new and exciting powers? That could potentially be interesting.

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