Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Making Alignments a Meaningful Part of the Game

The School of Athens by Raphael
In order to make alignments a meaningful part of any role-playing game there has to be a real consequence to the actions that the players choose during the course of play that goes beyond the immediate reaction of the non-player characters close at hand. If a player decides to have the character be an awful mess of murder and predation on weak non-player characters then the world should react to her as such. But how do we avoid blanket responses that end up feeling like all evil characters are treated this way, while neutral characters are treated this way, and good characters treated yet another?

Nuanced reactions within the game world are generally not hard to accomplish over the short term as both the player and Game Master can easily keep in mind what has recently been done in the free city of Kimber but there is a mythologizing that occurs as time goes on around the characters previous actions. They become larger than life, so to speak, with the character's acts taking on a life of their own that often becomes far worse or better than what actually happened. For example, over time the story about killing of a town's sheriff expands to include his deputies and perhaps a few innocent bystanders.

Stopping the process of exaggeration within the average game (i.e. one not filmed or recorded) appears to be impossible. In truth it probably shouldn't be attempted as there is a natural enlargement of individual deeds through rumor and the retelling. Still, your non-player characters shouldn't know every misdemeanor and off-color joke the player's character has told in their lifetime; nor should they know every cleverly hidden away theft and undiscovered murder. How then do we keep the players' characters accurately assessed while still providing the room for rumor and exaggeration to take effect?

There is an additional problem that occurs to me at this point: how do we account for the differences between individual characters of the same alignment but who act in vastly different manners? For example, two characters of the chaotic evil alignment are being played. The first is a psychopathic killer who delights in acting out the worst aspects of human nature. By contrast the second player selfishly acts out her whims, often at the expense of everyone else at the table, but in general acts in a reasonable manner. Both characters are clearly chaotic in their actions and evil in their intent but there is a marked difference between them. How do we account for this difference in play?

In my experience such differences are hand waved with a look at a character's alignment and a dismissal of the actions as appropriate under that heading. Then the game goes on without any substantive difference in how the two characters are treated by the surrounding world (though that clearly isn't the case within the group). This sort of dismissal is a by product of the false equivalency produced by both characters being labeled as "chaotic evil." In our minds we equate all the vile actions of these players because of that descriptor with the end result being that all actions are treated as equals. The murder of a gigolo and the theft of a gambler's winnings are treated as the same even though they have very different consequences for all involved.

The problem of a false moral equivalent has been bothering me for a while when it comes to my own games. To help alleviate the discomfort I feel I have created a barometer to distinguish between the levels of evil and how others would perceive them in my game worlds.

This is the simplified version of the one I use in my home games. At the ends of the spectrum you have the Angelic and Diabolic ideals. These extremes represent the absolutes; the most extreme examples of good and evil that I can imagine. In between those two extremes there are four levels that I use to break up the levels of moral actions my players make. At the center of the barometer is the Neely Position which is the position of true neutrality on the moral scale. 

I've left the four positions between the end and the Neely Position blank for you guys to ascribe your own actions for each step. This should make it easier for people who want to use the scale to customize it for the morality of their game worlds with each position representing the actions of increasing magnitude (for example, in my games petty theft would be at the first position while genocide would be at the fourth position on the evil side of the barometer). This should make it easier to distinguish between characters of a similar alignment disposition without making the life of the game master into one of spreadsheets and hate.


  1. Make them meaningful by making them matter more. Magic swords that zap a member of the opposite alignment are a cliche but how about a sword staying a meager +1 unless being wielded by someone of the proper alignment? Healing potions tied to alignment, not the right alignments you only get 1/2 the healing, if opposite you might have to save or take damage. All magic doo-dads can be tuned to alignment and if alignment is part of the cosmic forces in the multiverse why wouldn't they be?

  2. So what do you propose to actually make alignments meaningful to the game? The title of the post seemed to indicate you had some ideas. What I take away from the article is another way to track alignment, but no concrete way to tie alignment back into the game. Really all alignment is is a role-playing guide for newer players who need a bit of help deciding how a character should act, not some great mechanic for doing... Well I can't think of what it might do. The fact that the mechanics don't exist in the raw rules should be a pretty clear indicator of that.

    1. There are bits in the earliest rules for alignment being more significant. Magic swords zapping folks of opposite alignments, Anti-Clerics being the only ones who had ready access to "The Finger of Death" and reversible cleric spells only being reversible by evil clerics.

    2. The title was "A few thoughts on making alignments a meaningful part of the game," not, "I have everything figured out and you cats should play exactly like I do."

      Also, what JD said.

  3. Well, Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos are all "natural forces" like gravity, magnetism, and nuclear force. Why shouldn't there be immediate and obvious consequences for the commission of Good or Chaotic acts?

    Maybe the NPCs are just biding their time while the PCs grow confident?


    1. They are always biding their time in my games waiting for the right moment to strike.

  4. I don't use alignments even though my wife has a good grasp of them. She often comments on the alignment of characters in movies. For instance, she can identify that most of John Wayne's characters are chaotic good but that a lot of the behavior of his character in Red River is lawful evil. If I were to use an alignment system, I would probably steal Palladium's but that doesn't really address your post which is about the consequences of player actions. I would track that at both the party level and the individual level so that actions of individual PCs would impact public perception of the group and the public perception could still see the group as generally "good' but "That one guy" is an ass that deserves everything thing coming to him whether it is a mark up at the general store, spit in his beer or hassle from the local watch. At present, I have the advantage of running a one-on-one game which makes tracking that sort of stuff easier than if I had a whole party of a-holes to keep track of. One consequence I threw at my wife's character was when a battle mage who accompanied her on one of her missions had gotten killed (The second NPC to die a horrible death under her command.). The mage's wife went around town talking smack about how my wife's PC had "seduced" her husband ("The elf-whore!") and gotten him killed ("with children to feed!"). The end result was her PC couldn't recruit new henchmen in the city. She had to resort to recruiting from the 0-level inhabitants (i.e. DCC-style funnel characters) from a nearby village who are all mutated by the wizardly experiments and/or the demonic orgies (I used the tables from The Metamorphica) of the village's former lord who, along with his wife, was burned at the stake for conspiracy against the empire. I prefer those types of consequences to magic swords paralyzing people of the opposite alignment because they are more messy & require more thought to resolve ... or at least recover from.


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