Is there a single topic in gaming that generates more discussion, anger, opinion and friction than that of alignment? Nope. Many gamers hate it, “I don’t bother with it!”, “It’s good that Wizards have removed most alignment mechanics from the game!”, “Why should my character be forced to do something because of the alignment I chose?”. These are all pretty common statements I see in online discussions. True, it can be seen as a way of limiting options in play, but is that really the case?
Alignment is an underused source of inspiration, a guiding hand, and something that can be of great help when portraying a consistently believable character. What is most important though is that it is used in a descriptive way, not a proscriptive one. When creating a character, (or an NPC), consider how you would want them to behave in certain situations, and THEN choose the alignment that best describes that behaviour. Try to be consistent. “I am really nice to peasants 95% of the time, I give food away. I am free with my money, but every so often, when I feel like it, I’ll murder a few just because I can, take my money back, then give it away again to more peasants.”… A DM should answer this with something like, “What causes the rage? Are there any specific triggers? Is there a motive to it? Anything in your past that might have brought this about?” If the player can come up with something that logically justifies such behaviour then fine, it can provide interesting storylines, generate consequences, and maybe result in a character trying to come to terms with the urges. That’s great. The character is Chaotic Evil, often a red flag to many games, but there’s logic there, potential plot hooks, and maybe a chance of redemption. But if the player’s response to the questions is “Dunno, lol, ‘cos I feel like it” – that’s crap, that’s being a dick, that’s Chaotic Evil too, and that’s precisely the sort of play that causes DMs to create rules such as ‘no evil characters’ and thereby make alignment proscriptive.
We all have different ideas of what each alignment means, thus discussion is important. Players need to talk to their DMs beforehand and ask them how they picture the various world views. Define Lawful, define Chaotic, what is considered Good, etc. A player should never simply write an alignment down, then come to the table and argue the point of whether a certain action is Good or not with the DM. That’s disruptive to the game, and should be avoided where possible. I recently had a player of a Neutral Good character try to justify torturing a child by claiming “My character has low Wisdom and Charisma”, it derailed a session, and generated a lot of ill feeling towards that player from the rest of the group.
So think about the character’s personality, their purpose, what drives them and their opinions on justice, life, law, etc, then choose an alignment – with the help of the DM, and play it consistently, according to the agreed ideals of that alignment.
But… isn’t that limiting player choice at the table?
No, that’s called ‘Being fair to the DM and the other players.” You see, RPG games are a group activity. While everyone has freedom, we also have social expectations. If the PCs are erratic, murdering peasants one session, saving them the next, all on a whim with no real rhyme or reason to it, then how can a DM seriously be expected to create a cohesive story. “Create consequences!” is the usual answer – yes, that’s good advice, but only to a point, as if it keeps happening then it becomes clear that the player(s) simply are not learning. They are ignoring the social contract of sitting down and playing a group game together. Also they are not being fair to the DM. I, as a DM, like the concept of alignment. If the player puts real thought into the personality, and then plays it consistently then games are better.
Sure, in my current 1E game I’ve not done much with it mechanically. We’re playing 1E modules in a mostly fixed game world with 4 players, the adventures are usually designed for larger party sizes, each player has 2 characters, thus the game has been more about the adventures themselves than the characters. I’m working however on a 2E game in a homemade world in which I will be changing that style. Players will have multiple PCs to choose from if they wish, but will only play one in each session, so we will be able to focus more on individual motives. Alignment play will be a factor. Reactions with NPCs will have more of a lasting impact, and the plan is for the world to evolve organically – this will require the players to portray their PCs in a consistent manner as indiscretions will be noted. Crucially though, I will not use alignment as a proscriptive stick – “You wouldn’t do that, you’re Good” will not be in my vocabulary - but “Please erase the ‘Good’ part of your alignment” could easily be.
I’m looking forward to it.