Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Alignment and Character Morality

Brendan at Untimately has written an interesting analysis on alignment (and in passing mentions one of my many musings here). He does something that I think very much needs to be done in any discussion of the alignment system, which is narrow it down to the mechanical and practical reasons within the game system. He mentions two:

  • Spells like Detect Evil and Protection from Evil
  • Ethos classes such as assassins, druids, monks, paladins and rangers.

He goes on to illustrate how LotFP and Carcosa handle the first in heuristic way — every action can be clearly understood as being in or out of a particular alignment. For my own purposes, this can be simply stated as (Christian) Civilization vs. (Demonic) Wilderness. Or, to put it more bluntly: are you in or out of the Church? I say this in context of the pre-Reformation world where being Christian and Christianity was inseparable from being part of the Church.

The second is where D&D has historically ran into trouble. The five- and nine- alignment systems do not lend themselves well to an heuristic approach. In addition, they are so ambiguous in their moral/ethical distinctions as to be indistinguishable — True Neutral, Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Evil might as well be the same. This confusion is only exacerbated by our modern relativistic inability to define good and evil.

Even so, such definitions are not necessarily useful in terms of determining whether or not a particular class is adhering to the class ethos and therefore is qualified to retain or lose all class abilities. Take, for example, this Christian understanding of good and evil:

  • Good = God (and therefore, the presence of God)
  • Evil = the absence of God

Thus, any act that moves us toward God and being like Him is good. Any act that takes us away from Him and His likeness is evil.

Given this criteria, the killing of any human being for any reason is evil because it is a willful destruction of God’s image and likeness. Thus, every time a paladin or a ranger killed an evil human, they would lose their class abilities. This only gets messier when dealing with demi-humans — are they or are they not made in the image and likeness of God? Why? In the end, this approach will most likely place the vast majority of PCs in the evil camp and make it virtually impossible for either the paladin or ranger to be played at all.

I suppose that if one was willing to limit the image and likeness to humans and if evil human opponents were used in moderation, one could have a simple means by which a paladin or ranger could be reinstated (such as confession). If handled correctly, this could introduce some interesting moral choices into the game; however, this is a very narrow interpretation of the game that severely limits the utility of these classes. Even in campaigns, such as my own, which strive to equate the Wilderness with the monstrous and demonic, this line gets fuzzy when players interact with and humanize monsters. There are currently at least five henchmen NPCs in my current campaign that started out as monsters.

The ugly reality is that PCs represent that morally ambiguous part of civilization that has to do dark and nasty things so that everybody else doesn’t have to. Thus, having a mechanical consequence that punishes players for doing the morally ambiguous things that the game (in essence) requires that they do is inherently unfair (and one of the reasons we’ve been arguing about how to implement the paladin since its inception).

When I did the meditation on alignment that Brendan cites in his post, I was purposely sidestepping the moral issue for exactly this reason. From a practical point of view, determining “sides” in a manner akin to the wargaming roots of the game makes much more sense than the moral/cosmic adherence implied by the traditional D&D alignment system. Brendan, by the way, was ultimately critical of this approach because he not only sees a need for the moral/cosmic, but sees the dynamism implied by my approach as a problem. I tend to see it as a feature — changing alignments is more akin to changing political parties than changing religion and is therefore less dramatic or earth shattering. Indeed, depending upon the mechanics a particular campaign ties to those alignments, it could even be good strategy.

However, I recently made reference to a speed bump that the Pathfinder campaign I’ve been participating in ran into. This is in part due to an absence of the moral/cosmic alignment system, despite the fact that we had no real ethos classes. Some of our more inexperiences players — lacking a moral/cosmic basis by which to weigh their decisions — did a few things that some of the more experienced players found to be rather heinous and offensive.

This has reminded me that there is one more practical way that alignments are used in games:

  • A basis which aids a player in deciding how their character should act in certain situations.

Given that a cosmic alignment doesn’t necessarily imply a moral/ethical code (see the heuristic approaches of LotFP and Carcosa above) and that a more traditional (Christian) definition of good and evil is not very useful in context of the average adventuring party, there has to be a different criteria by which to aid players in making moral decisions for their characters.

Given my recent experience, I am going to propose this schema:

  • Evil = selfishness
  • Good = service to others

This does several things:

  • It anathematizes selfish play (and all of the various vices that unfold from this kind of play). 
  • It nicely plugs into the cosmic schema of Civilization vs. Wilderness while allowing for the kind of moral ambiguity that adventuring requires while also being applicable to the more diverse alignment system that I proposed here.
  • Finally, it gives characters of diverse backgrounds a means of negotiating cool reasons to work toward a common goal. Take, for instance, a thief who is loyal to one of the local crime families and a fighter who is loyal to the local city guard. In a normal schema, these two would not work together. However, when serving others is understood to be the moral center of a character, it is possible to understand the taking down of a rival family’s smuggling operation as mutually beneficial. Ultimately, it gives players of wildly different characters a means by which justify the kind of trust necessary for really good games.


  1. Evil = selfishness
    Good = service to others

    I don't think that's a bad approach, but there is some tension with the kill monsters and take their stuff basis of most D&D. It's hard to see how that is not at least partly selfish, even if all the monsters are legitimately demonic. Unless perhaps all PCs are tithing excess loot to the church.

    Regarding your recent Pathfinder campaign problem, I try to approach this sort of thing by having, as much as possible, real consequences for actions. Thus, if PCs brutally massacre a goblin village, that will probably come back to haunt them in the future. This is compounded by the fact that my players tend to be quite bad about making sure enemies don't escape. (Evil grin.)

    That being said, the tone of that speed bump post makes it sound like there might be some interpersonal conflict going on as well. If other PCs are engaging in actions that make you uncomfortable, it seems like the only way to really approach that is to discuss the issue with them out of game.

    By the way, thanks for this thoughtful response.

    1. I have found that one of the best ways to alleviate the tension of killing monsters and looting their stuff is to move from the gp=xp model to the gp spent=xp model. This incentivizes capital investment in the communities that the PCs interact with. Not mention the fact that players very quickly figure out that tithing to the church is one of the easiest ways to convert all that cash into xp. ;)

      The speed bump was indeed dealt with out of game, because of the relative inexperience of the players. Fortunately, folks have settled down and we all agreed that the main purpose for being at the table was to have fun (and that doing what everyone did to get to that speed bump was not fun).

      By the way, thanks for this thoughtful response.
      Thanks for giving me the heads-up in the first place.

  2. Much as I appreciate your reflections here, I think the reduction to selfishness is problematic. To me, a commitment to evil means a commitment to wrecking things, to disorder and the infliction of pain that goes beyond mere selfishness. In my campaign, the genuinely evil figure are not only cruel, but they are just as focused on their larger agenda, and just as selflessly committed to it, as any of the more "lawful" types.

    I wonder if you've ever looked at the latter Judges Guild ideas of a "third" repressed kind of alignment - a motive that the character in question is being pulled towards and is struggling with. I think it's a noteworthy idea.


    1. Speaking from a Christian perspective, "a commitment to wrecking things, to disorder and the infliction of pain" is selfishness. All sin is selfishness at its root. In this case, one dedicated to destruction, disorder and pain is selfishly taking judgement away from God and trying to replace God with themselves.

    2. There are plenty of very selfish people who like order and stability simply because this allows them to pursue their selfish agendas in peace.

      Many Nazis and communists did evil things, but believed that Nazism wand communism was all about self sacrifice and altruism. Were they lawful or chaotic?


    3. Both Communism and Nazism are extremely selfish. Yes, they do talk about sacrifice and altruism — but these are always cast in collective terms. When it comes to the folks who actually have to do the sacrifice, it is always someone else — the Jews, the bourgeouis, etc.

      In context of my own use of Law (Christian civilization) vs. Chaos (demonic wilderness), both the Nazis and the Communists qualify as chaotic.

  3. Been enjoying your posts on the Civilization vs. Wilderness tack, which inspired a couple of posts on my blog as well.

    Just as an aside, my own early AD&D gaming saw me playing a Neutral Good character in a party of mostly Evil PCs. There was little conflict when united by a single purpose. There was a lot of conflict and party fragmentation when individual agendas and disagreements over methodology.

    I also got a lot of funny looks when I chose my alignment. Didn't get near as many raised eyebrows as the Paladin (who was required to be Lawful Good).

  4. Alignment is a terrible system that makes intelligent beings act like idiots (not thinking and just referring to their alignment as some sort of universal solvent) or spend stupid amounts of time trying to out think the system in order to have it make sense.

    Alignment causes brain damage.

    I have seen worse cases of brain damage, though...