And here I thought I had nothing more to say…
Let’s assume we’re building an RPG from scratch. We don’t know the exact details of the setting – probably something with mid- to high-levels of magic. Enough to make it fairly common but not so common that “magic stores” are a thing. And we don’t know the exact details of the game’s mechanics – though it’ll probably be loosely based on D&D. Of course, as game designers, we’re comfortable with making changes to anything and everything so long as the change ultimately helps the final product fit the vision we set forth.
What is that vision? In this case, it’s a game where alignment is real. Where the forces of good and evil, order and chaos are constantly vying for control. Where ancient gods and great monsters walk among us, their very thoughts shaping the land around them. Maybe it’s something like Planescape, where the players have the potential to dictate some elements of the setting; where the multiverse is defined by these belief systems; where we can change the nature of entire worlds by influencing how people think and act.
The first thing we need to understand is a basic definition: what is alignment?
Once again, we go to Wikipedia:
From here, the article breaks down the different alignments. I trust the reader is familiar with these concepts and how they’ve evolved through the game’s history. What concerns us for our theoretical game is this one small detail: “alignment is a categorization of the ethical and moral perspective of player characters…”
See, we’re looking to make a game where alignment is more than just “perspective.” We want a game where having an alignment and acting accordingly contributes in a meaningful way. Because, let’s face it, alignment is largely useless in D&D. Aside from a handful of spells and magic items, there is nothing about the rules that is affected by the absence of alignment.
There is something that’s affected by its presence, however: experience.
If alignment is to have any meaning, beyond being just a couple words written in the corner of a character sheet and immediately forgotten because, seriously, I’m not letting the DM tell me how to play my character, fuck that shit… if alignment is going to have meaning, it has to prescribe character behavior.
Let’s pause a quick moment to address a quandary: which comes first, the behavior or the belief? This is something that psychologists and philosophers have been studying for centuries and, although we’ve made some significant strides in understanding how the mind works, I’m not convinced we have an answer. I bring it up because it’s relevant to our game. Alignment guides behavior but there’s nothing in the rules that forces a player to stick by his alignment. If we want to achieve our vision – a game world where beliefs can literally shape reality – we need to adjust our thinking: alignment can’t guide behavior, it must all but dictate it. Yet that would mean, to some degree, denying a certain amount of player freedom – the freedom to oppose their alignment – and we certainly want to encourage players to follow their characters’ alignments but I can’t imagine why we’d want to punish them for changing. That would be, oddly enough, antithetical to our goal. Yet this is what we’d have to do if we tried to answer that chicken-or-egg question. So we won’t answer it, though we must be cognizant of it.
Alignment has to prescribe behavior – we’re not dictating or restricting player actions, we’re simply attempting to guide them. Which puts us back where we started. Instead, let’s look at how we can reward player character for following their alignments. That’s something that the current alignment system doesn’t do.
But… it is something the current experience system does.
What actions result in experience rewards? According to most versions of the game, it’s fighting and killing things. Sure, there are “optional” experience awards for stuff like defeating traps or achieving “story goals.” Regardless, each of these reward systems guide player character behavior. Which means, if we’re going to use alignment in a meaningful, game relevant way, we have to ditch the experience awards.
Go ahead. Take a moment to wrap your head around that one. While you’re doing that, you might be interested in this video:
I apologize, I don’t know exactly where in the video the speaker makes the following point (it’s fairly close to the beginning), but it can be summarized as this: a game needs to be clear about what the player(s) can and cannot do. Rym is talking about board games but the rationale applies to all games: ambiguity of the rules is a terrible thing. Indeed, it’s part of the reason for alignment debates because no published version of D&D has ever clearly and consistently defined alignment.
It has been very clear about experience. Sure, the “official” versions have had really shitty experience systems, but they’ve been clear about how and when to award experience. Which means players can accurately predict how and when they will receive experience.
The difference between D&D experience and our hypothetical alignment system, of course, is that the experience system does not prescribe behavior. At least, that’s not the intent. But you’ll note that Rym talks about how good game rules are written to be explicit: they tell you how to play the game. They don’t have to say anything about the consequences of playing the game. And a consequence of D&D’s experience system is the players will try to kill anything and everything. (Indeed, it’s expected that the DM will give them things to kill, and a DM who fails to follow through on this has clearly failed to live up to her end of the bargain.)
If you want alignment in your game and you want it to be more than just lip-service, you need to adjust your rules to take into account the way it really works: as a means of guiding player character behavior. Change the experience system; design some new abilities; find a better way to reward players for conforming to their alignment and give them a real option to change alignment if the situation requires it. But you can’t have two competing reward mechanisms; if you do, the players are just going to follow the one that’s easier to use.