A lot of people despise alignment. I think the distaste for it comes from the idea that alignment as a mechanical character attribute impedes your ability to roleplay. However, I’m not in the group of GMs that insist characters play their selected alignment so I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten that complaint from any of the players in my game. In my view human beings (and I suppose, by extension the other playable races) aren’t consistent, and certainly characters of the disposition of adventurers may not always be consistent in their internal philosophies. I’ve rarely said, “are you sure?” to a player’s actions for reasons of alignment. Even so, I’m perfectly willing to adjust a player’s alignment if they either perform acts contrary to their alignment (over time), or are willing to perform significant actions contrary to their alignment (immediately). I will almost never do this without thoroughly discussing with the player, outside of the game and away from the other players, whether they have the same view of their actions and their alignment shift. Only in the most extreme circumstances would I change a character’s alignment without the agreement of the player. I think it’s only happened once, and not since the players of my game hit puberty. I think the most hated arguments I’ve witnessed related to alignment were players debating with other players, which can sometimes, for a short while, be an interesting debate to have at the table. It can elevate the game to a level of self-analysis that surpasses simply slaying the gremlins of the world. I also like to include plenty of morally grey choices, although my group is pretty sophisticated in understanding the moral issues involved and they try to interpret how their individual characters would respond.
But, why have heated alignment debates at all? We could have just as deep, if not deeper, characters and decisions if we didn’t have 9 alignment responses. What does alignment give us that we couldn’t do a better job if we either described it differently (with character aspects, perhaps) or didn’t describe it at all (allowing players to roleplay without worrying about a preselected alignment). I think alignment really gives you two things:
- A game mechanic to hinge game effects (ex. Protection from Evil, class prerequisites, etc.)
- A roleplaying guide for players who are on the fence about how to respond with their character to a choice
Alignment as a Game Mechanic
I suppose it’s obvious since I’m exploring the topic, but I’m on the fence about whether Lost Worlds should have game mechanics that key off of alignment. On one hand, you could get around most of them with changes such as “detect malice” instead of “detect evil” which would work equally well for characters of any “alignment.” You could also “detect non-believer” to know whether a person did, or did not, worship the god granting the divination. Protection from Good or Evil could be changed as well, to either instead protect against cosmic level good/evil (angels/demons) or to protect against gods of opposing viewpoints. You could do all of this and avoid having the need to “type” characters by whether they are good or evil.
On the other hand, there’s something that appeals to me about having good and evil as character types, even for non-cosmic level beings. In my game, players are generally limited to alignments of neutral or good. I don’t mind the occasional evil character, but I don’t think I’d enjoy a long-running game where the players committed acts of infamy rather than acts of heroism. I would also find it pretty frustrating to GM for a group that always had a mix of evil, neutral, and good characters – let alone try to understand why they continue to travel together. It’s a conceit of the game that all the players are going to want to work together towards a goal, otherwise the game breaks down, or requires a much better GM than I to manage. So, assuming the characters in our playing group are either neutral or good, with good predominating and neutral being the shadier heroic types, will players really mind whether they are “typed?” I suppose if they want to commit selfish acts but have powers attuned to a specific alignment, such as for a Paladin, they might care. Still, I feel that if a player is playing a Paladin, they’re doing it because they want to roleplay that bastion of un-wavering good. In my game, if you’re alignment is evil, you’re soon to becoming an NPC, and that comes with a lot of conversation.
So I think the Good vs Evil axis makes some sense to preserve for thematic purposes. We’re starting to tread into the purview of campaign setting here over core rules. To make this more apparent, let’s talk about the first three alignments for Dungeons & Dragons: Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. These original three alignments don’t really do much for me, and I think I’m perfectly happy allowing them to be handled by character traits instead of a formal alignment. Original Dungeons & Dragons though has a default setting where the gods of law war against the gods of chaos, and a character’s affiliation, while normally neutral, could be a very clear statement about what side of this war you are on. I understand that it’s inspired by the works of Michael Moorcock. I haven’t read the novels yet, and none of my players have either, and maybe that’s why the law vs chaos alignment conceit doesn’t really speak to me. I think it’s unique to a very specific campaign setting. Understanding the origins of Dungeons & Dragons alignment as tied into the Moorcock mythos is important to understanding how they were combined with the good and evil axis to produce the nine standard alignments.
Alignment as Roleplay Guide
I’ve given alignment some credit for its use as a thematic game mechanic for a game that focuses a great deal on good and evil. I think when it comes to a roleplay guide, we can easily do much better. FATE uses a system of aspects to tie character themes into the story line.
I think Lost Worlds will use something similar, at least as a thematic guide to the character, both for that character’s player and the other players at the table. I am not sure what, if any, mechanical impact these aspects will have quite yet. I think though that aspects will free the system from using alignment to stick characters into the 9-pt grid. I think it’ll also help me get away with removing the law/chaos access from alignment. You can still play someone who is rigidly lawful, but that would be expressed as a character trait or aspect instead of through alignment. My thought is that, since my default campaign setting does not have a war between gods of chaos and gods of law, there’s no need to identify a keyword for game mechanics that interact with law or chaos. It’s gone as a cosmic concept, but nuances between good and evil can still play out through the use of aspects – which can be a lot more varied and interesting than a generic lawful/chaotic flag on a character – and far more useful for roleplaying.
I think I may do away with alignment and instead give characters a “keyword” for mechanic purposes. My thought is that most characters will be unaligned (not have a Good or Evil keyword) at their creation. I’ll likely do away with the entire Law and Chaos axis, since the nuances there don’t concern me very much. Certain classes may have access to a Good/Evil keyword based on their theme (such as Clerics and Paladins). In addition, the Good or Evil keyword might be a quest reward for certain quests, allowing a player to, optionally, gain the particular keyword if they so desire. This means that a lot of mechanics that might work on Good or Evil will have no impact on a vast majority of your average people. Detect Evil no longer works as a complete radar, since it would only really detect the Evil keyword, something only the most nefarious would have gained.
I’m leaning against calling this alignment because I might want to hang quite a few other things on this keyword mechanic. I may try to tie it into the aspect/trait system, and make it a bonus trait or aspect. This might allow players who aren’t in a particular class to get the Good/Evil keyword on character creation if they want to spend an aspect on it. I also think I’m going to end up with a lot of variety in magic that does key off of Good or Evil, such as Detect Malice as a spell instead of Detect Evil.
And all of this is assuming a pretty cosmic idea of Good and Evil. In actual play, this can get pretty muddy. In the end, Good and Evil almost have to be built into the campaign setting and communicated to the players at the outset. For example, let’s say you’re a Chaotic Good Viking using the old alignment system (or are you a Chaotic Evil Viking?):
I’m a Viking. I have several wives, and lots of children, but only a little farmland with rocky soil and a short growing season. So I do the only “Good” thing I can to feed my family – I go a-viking. We set sail for Gaul, and we raid several Blackcloak monasteries We kill many of our mortal enemies, the death cultists that call themselves Christians. We perform a powerful act of defiling their chapel by performing a human sacrifice to Odin on the alter in their chapel.
Then we take as many of their nuns as we can carry back with us to liberate them from the oppressive life they are forced to lead in Gaul. Once home, we will marry those women off to eligible bachelors, but probably a few of the more attractive ones will be claimed by those that paid for this raid, and married into a wealthy lord’s household. The woman will be better treated, and have more rights then they did in Gaul.
After several months, the long ships return home. So, I’ve looted enough money to feed my family for another few years. I’ve also helped free over twenty women from an unnatural life of enforced celibacy and given them the ability to have children. I’ve killed numerous death cultists, and helped to weaken their unnatural hold on lands that were once friendly to my people. Since the death cultists have forbidden trade with my people, we simply take what we need. I have also procured a wife for my eldest son, who is nearly 25 and still unmarried. I have done very, very good, and I can feel very proud of myself. Praise be to Thor.