Hi everyone, recently, I got in an interesting discussion with one of my D&D groups about alignments. The conversation started with us assigning alignments to our personas in the group, apparently I am Neutral Good :).
This then led to some analysis of what exactly each alignment meant, and trying to assign it to characters. There are a ton of pictures online of various characters and people assigned alignments, here is one I think does a great job.
Alignments are a staple of the D&D system; however, alignment is also often very vague and left to interpretation. How do you define what is good and what is bad? Can someone do both good and bad things? Should players be penalized for doing things out of alignment?
A few examples of alignment discussions I have had pop up over the years.
- One player, my father, insisted that the use of poison was always an Evil act. He is a bit of a this is wrong that is right D&D player, and so this flat always Evil perception works for him. Another player, my mother, in the same discussion, insisted that the use of poison itself was not Evil. If used, for example to kill a tyrant while avoiding a war, a player would save a ton of people, and free a nation, seemingly a good act.
- The players have just finished slaying an warren of orc warriors; however, all the noncombatants have surrendered. One player insist on slaying them all, stating they are Evil and so must be killed. Another states they are defenseless, pose no threat, and wants to free them. Both have relevant points, is one Good while the other Evil?
There is no correct answer with alignments in D&D; however, over my years of playing, I have come up with a few thoughts and guidelines I personally use in my game.
The first is to try to vaguely establish what each alignment “stands” for. Evil doesn’t always have to be a psychopath slaying everyone in sight, just as Lawful doesn’t necessarily mean following every law.
This pie graph does an interesting job showing some of the alignments in comparison.
I personally do not think you need to define each alignment, but rather discuss with players the difference between Lawful and Chaotic alignments, and Good and Evil. I define Lawful as a tendency towards tradition, law, and order, someone who has a code and sticks to it. Neutral will have more wiggle room, veering off from the tradition and order from time to time. While Chaotic characters pay less attention to tradition and order, they may follow laws, but if a law impedes them they may also break it.
Good is personal sacrifice for the betterment of another being or society. In the example I gave above, freeing the surrendered orcs is certainly a good act, as the character is risking danger in the future, to give a fellow creature a chance at life. Neutral characters may sacrifice for close friends and family; however, they may not go to extreme lengths to help others. An Evil character is concerned with their own personal power and gain, and potentially the power and gain of close friends. They will eliminate barriers to their goals without second thought.
I do not think actions out of alignment is something that should be penalized. I like to pose difficult moral decisions and moments to characters, as I think these decisions are great chances to define a character and foster character development. Since I am trying to encourage character development, it makes sense that player’s may potentially shift and change alignment as the game goes on. Maybe the naive optimist becomes bitter and angry after several party members are repeatedly slain, this creates an interesting story and a memorable character.
With this noted, I do not think alignment shifts should be sudden, instead, it should be a gradual shift. You don’t want to have players having the Anakin Skywalker problem, switching rapidly from Good to Evil seemingly out of no where. A sliding scale with alignment I think is the best way to accomplish this.
In this method, players don’t only decide on a basic alignment, but they think of their place on this chart. Are they potentially more Good then Chaotic, or vice versa. Could the Lawful Good Paladin emphasize tradition and order, but when push comes to shove they choose to save people over following rules, if so they would be closer to Neutral on the Law vs Chaos scale.
With this scale method, as players do actions I feel stand out, I keep tally, after about 3 tally marks one way or the other, I will tell my players they have shifted along the scale on position. There are some exceptions for particularly noteworthy actions. On this graph, a player can be within three lines of the ends and still count as those alignments. This is a great way to track character development, while also providing feedback to players on their gameplay, before forcing a alignment switch.
While this does leave potential for players to do things that seem out of alignment, merely for a quick reward, say stealing when they are Lawful, I haven’t had this problem. D&D is about establishing a social contract for a fun game, so my players and I have an understanding that actions shouldn’t be thought of only in immediate mechanical benefits, but rather for the overall story arc. Discussions with them during and after the game assures this is the continued spirit of the game.
With alignments, there will never be a perfect answer or method, the above image is a great example. I love the use of The Hobbit Cartoon stuff; however, I think the placement is off.
Personally I think Bilbo is Neutral Good, as he is continually trying to help people and even risks the dwarve’s wrath to stop a battle. Gandalf should be Chaotic Good, as he is stirring up the whole quest, pops around quite a bit, and his actions at times seem erratic, while always for the betterment of everyone. Thorin should be True Neutral, as he really doesn’t care about anyone other then the dwarves. The eagles I would argue are True Neutral, while Gollum is clearly Chaotic Evil.
One important thing to note, one persons Lawful Good can look very different from someone else also playing Lawful Good. This isn’t a problem, there are many forms of the same alignment.
As with all things D&D, the real key to doing alignment right, as a DM, or a player, is to know your group. Some groups love moral problems, others prefer to make black and white rulings on what is within alignment. Know the audience you are playing with, and play accordingly.
As one last piece of parting advice, I think Chaotic Neutral is an extremely difficult alignment to play. I find many players gravitate towards it early in their careers, as it seems like a free pass to do what ever you want; however, I often find this means they just jump between Chaotic Good and Chaotic Evil acts, without ever really being Neutral. I would warn off new players from this alignment. Some structure and rules can create an easier sounding board for roleplaying, so often a good or lawful alignment can provide that structure.
Well, I hope you have enjoyed my thoughts on alignment. I would love to hear some of your thoughts in the comments below. Have you run into problems with alignment? Have any of your sessions contained moments where players debate morals and what is Evil? What do you think of my guidelines and methods?