Tabletop RP: Alignment Woes

Okay, I give up on my local libraries and am trying to find a friend who owns a copy of Cold Days that I can borrow. Cross your fingers! (It’s trickier than you think, most of my friends prefer audio books…) And since nothing comes to mind for forum RP, I thought I would discuss an element of tabletop that is a lot murkier and troublesome than people give it credit for: alignment.

For those who haven’t dabbled in the DnD waters, Paizo is the wonderful company who gave us the two axis alignment system. What that means is that a character can be Good, Evil, or in between at Neutral, but they are also Lawful, Chaotic, or again, possibly Neutral between the two. This gives nine different alignments to play with, and some have multiple interpretations to go off of. Here are my very brief descriptions, but for more in depth ones, I suggest wiki walking through TV Tropes.Org. I am barely touching on them here. So, by the law-chaos line…

Lawful types are rigid and rule bound. Despite the name, the actual laws of the kingdom may not be the rules a lawful character follows. It could be vows made to a religious order, or a strict personal code. Good characters usually incorporate the more common laws into their personal code if they go that route, while Evil types tend to enjoy exploiting their own loopholes.

Chaotic types re the polar opposites of Lawful, and yet, they can be close cousins. For these characters, either the Id of their psyches or their pride makes them scorn rules (and sometimes morals). To some, the law is the enemy while to others, they just want the freedom of choice. Good characters are more willing to accept or take frowned-upon actions, such as sniping and thievery, while Evil types usually take every opportunity they can to flout the rules. Unlike Lawful, who can’t break their code, Chaos types can obey rules…if it suits their own purposes at the time.

The Neutrals are where everything gets fuzzy. At what point do you cross the line and become straight evil or good? How often do you follow the rules before you are considered lawful? What are your motivations for not being one extreme or the other?

Because things get so fuzzy, Paizo introduced a numeric scale within their two axis system in Pathfinder. 1-3 is Good and Lawful, respectively, with 1 being supremely good/lawful. Neutrals are 4-6, and Evil and Chaos are 7-9, with 0 being supremely evil/chaotic.. It is meant to help DMs judge where their players are at in alignments. For example, if a character is Chaotic Good, but only has a 3 in Good and a 9 in Chaos, they know that the character isn’t always going to take the good action if the chaotic one makes more sense.

Now that I’m done rambling about the basics, here’s the part that I think causes problems. Some DMs consider general tone of actions. For example, when I was playing my Half-Elven Deep Wood Sniper, Bevan,who was Chaotic Good, I was allowed to snipe and shoot an unarmed, asleep man. Why? Because most of the time I wasn’t that chaotic in my choices and I tended to side with the Lawful Good knight. The occasional act of mayhem helped me keep my alignment because it fit the overall tone. I feel the same way when I DM, not worried about each individual action, but about the overall playing style.

But recently, my group had a huge blow up. Part of it was because of a very frustrating dungeon that was accidentally set at Death Trap levels and our DM didn’t check to see if we could survive it (answer: we couldn’t with our party set up), trusting the generator. He ended up nerfing multiple monsters and all the traps, since we were level 1 and it was impossible for us to make them or defeat the monsters. And then afterward the dungeon when dealing with the one who created it, it became a discussion of what did and did not constitute good when he tried to push an alignment shift on another character because of one, singular action. Two didn’t care, but three other players, including myself and the player who was being forced to take the shift, were rather incensed.

Now, neither side was in the right here. The DM should have cut the discussion off and talked to us privately about it rather than let it continue to escalate. I think not getting us set up to have mounting feelings of frustration by throwing us in that dungeon at level 1 goes without saying. But this is where the players should have shut up–it was the DM’s decision. Once he makes his ruling, we should have respected it and talked privately about it later. His style is very much by the book, you break the alignment once, you take a hit, and now that we know that, we as players are really going to have to adjust how we play to reflect that.

So my suggestion? Before you start a campaign, make sure as DM and players that you understand how strict the alignment is going to be and make sure that any hits are intentional hits rather than punishments (as much as the idea of the DM doing any punishing irks the tar out of me).

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About Rebecca M. Horner

A spinner of yarns (of the story sort, though I do crochet...and sew, and learning to make armor...) View all posts by Rebecca M. Horner

6 responses to “Tabletop RP: Alignment Woes

  • danielwalldammit

    I always thought part of the problem with D&D alignment is the all-or nothing nature of the system. DMs can punish a character by changing them. I prefer minor x.p. penalties (and conversely rewards for getting things right).

    • Rebecca M. Horner

      Right, which is why I like looking at the general tone of actions. The problem with XP penalties and rewards, or so I’ve found, is it’s hard for the DM to stay unbiased enough that one player doesn’t get wildly ahead of the rest of the party (which is just annoying for CR purposes).

  • Beardly

    Have you considered chucking alignments entirely? Historically, I’ve treated them as labels on the character sheet and ignored them entirely during gameplay. More recently, I’ve decided to scrap them entirely because the alignment system adds nothing to the game for me, and it does a poor job reflecting moral positions like it seems to be intended to. People are generally more moral or less depending in the situation. I see no need to penalize a character for acting out of alignment any more than I feel the need to penalize a character for acting like a different class. (interestingly, Gygax suggested just that in the original version of D&D) The world judges actions, XP shouldn’t.

    • Rebecca M. Horner

      That’s definitely an interesting take! For the most part, one of our group DMs does that unless you keep acting radically out of alignment. I don’t know about completely taking them out, since there are classes and spells (not to mention deities) that require alignments in order to figure out who they affect and how. For example, how would Detect Good or Evil work or would those spells not be options and thus give the party a level of blindness? What about Favored Souls and their many different aspects that are based on their or their deity’s alignment? Any ideas on how to solve that problem?

      • Beardly

        As far as the detection spells go, I’ve replaced them with a single spell called Detect Malevolence which determines whether subjects are intending to take deluberate action against you or yours. For the favored soul question, I have no problem assigning alignment to a deity since they tend to define that sort of thing if you’ve got a wide pantheon. For my world, the gods are few and vying for position under a supreme creator god. They do this in a rather standoffish way though, and as long as a cleric doesn’t act directly against the church or for a different god they will keep their power.

      • Rebecca M. Horner

        I know we’ve used Detection spells before in rather unconventional fashions (because one member of our group is the king of improving his way out of situations), so I’m not sure that would work for this group… BUT I think it’s a brilliant idea to maybe use with another group and see how it would work. Our pantheons tend to be overly structured, so it ends up being a big deal for us about deity alignments. I think your religion idea sounds interesting, but the logistics of it give me the heebie jeebies. Maybe because one of my characters is currently a deity pawn in a game we don’t know all the details about yet…

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