How to Make Alignment Work

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:

In the Dungeons & Dragons (D&Dfantasy role-playing game, alignment is a categorization of the ethical and moral perspective of player charactersnon-player characters, and creatures.

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.

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10 thoughts on “How to Make Alignment Work

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  1. You lose me a bit with imprecision. Precision isn’t particularly critical to blogging, but it is useful in making an argument.

    If you’re making an RPG from scratch, there is no particular reason to follow D&D. In fact, if you want a morality system or alignment tracker or cosmologically constant truths in a game (each of those three being very very different and very very imprecise already), then making the best game you can should start from that as a premise, and not these other things about setting or D&D-based rulesets.

    Also, I’m not certain your portrayal of Planescape meshes with what actually happens in play. Granted, you probably have more experience than me playing in Planescape. But I’d venture a guess and say Planescape is about allowing low-level players to participate in large-scale conflicts, and I’d further venture a guess and say that most Planescape campaigns were fairly gonzo and crazy and about changing up the expectations, not so much truly enforcing some sort of moral quandary or internal reflection about the nature of good and evil due to how a particular plane in the Great Wheel acts. Using the Three Hearts and Three Lions universe would also not be quite right, but it seems closer to the mark.

    Most of your chicken-and-the-egg argument confuses me too. You make assertions which must be clear in your head, but are unclear to me as a reader. Because alignment (as prescribed in a D&D-like system) is placed first on a character sheet, it answers the question of “what comes first” for a player, simply because chronologically the player placed it there first. The end result of a player being confused can of course be blamed on the player’s lack of thoughtfulness, but the way alignment is used does bias players towards that conclusion.

    I think the biggest reason that I end up feeling confused and unsatisfied is that you keep saying you need to use alignment to guide player behavior, but you don’t show how this might be done. You discuss the background, you discuss the importance of incentives, you advocate being careful and cognizant…but at the end of the post you are still talking about a hypothetical alignment system. You’ve not presented the internal workings.

    That said, still a good starter. I pushed me to think about something new; that’s generally a good sign. It just seems that the post title and the post content don’t quite, pardon the pun, align with each other.

    1. Mostly because I don’t believe it can or should be done. I take your observations as further proof of the fact: D&D alignment fails at it’s purpose, has failed from the beginning, and will continue to fail because it is a flawed concept.

      1. Yeah take it as proof of that PLEASE! LOL.

        No joke – you could take the most abrasive elements of the OSR community, the storygaming community, the “roleplaying is narrative” community, and all the tabletop RPG pundits on Youtube, and put them in the same room, right? The most combative and exasperated and tired personalities.

        They’d eviscerate each other for sure.

        But you could put a pause on that evisceration if you mentioned alignment, because for a few seconds the nearly anyone who has spent time writing or examining gaming, regardless of their philosophies or biases, would all take time out of their day to trash it together.

        (There are arguments, sure, for it being a GM tool or being descriptive not prescriptive. I don’t want to shortchange those arguments cuz people put good effort into them, but I still roll my eyes a bit.)

      2. by the way. you mentioned you wanted to see more OSR-type play being represented since all these youtubers all come from the storygaming school of thought.

        i do too, and i haven’t seen any good examples. the closest i’ve seen is matt colville, which is a sad thing since he’s kind of the “moderate” in this spectrum.

        if you EVER see a good stream representative of the sort of play you and other folks in your circles like, please do share it with me and i’ll share it too. visibility promotes awareness, and that promotes conversation/conversion.

  2. Frankly, I don’t see any value in this construction, as the human mind and body already exist in a form that creates restrictions on our behavior as players and a “characters,” in a manner that would continue to be there even if the game created another layer of alignment on top of it. In fact, the reason that alignment has never been made to work is because, hormonally and experientially, we chafe against things we won’t or can’t understand, even when the rule exists to guide us.

    However, portions of the video are profound, though it is a pity that the two fellows are tremendously annoying as they feel the need to jokingly snark at each others’ statements in a reflexive way, like game players who can’t stop quoting from films while role-playing. I want to take a piece out of the above as a quote, however, and write a post about it.

    1. I think the “banter” comes off a bit forced, as though it’s not something they normally do; they’re doing it because it’s expected by their audience, or something like that. If they could deliver on the snark as though it were the most natural thing in the world, then maybe it’d work as a rhetorical technique.

  3. I think Dungeon World twisted traditional D&D alignment to a more useful thing (from what I’ve seen, at least). Basically, every class has a kind of side goal for each alignment it has, and if you fulfill your alignment’s goal you get experience (I think a neutral fighter has “defeat a worthy foe”, for example). Though this is not the only way to gain exp, so it’s not an alignment-centric game in that way.du Just something I remembered.

    1. There are other games that have made attempts at something similar. My personal favorite is the World of Darkness, which gives characters a Morality score and lists specific actions that can improve or degrade it. Where they dropped the ball is in applying mechanical modifications as a result of a given Morality. In other words, if my morality drops from 5 to 4, how does that change the game? And this sort of thing is, to my mind, the heart of any morality system: how does my “alignment” actually impact the game? If Dungeon World assigns goals based on class and alignment, well then that’s just fine – although they’re kind of taking away player agency by doing so, but whatever – but how does my goal impact my game? It affects my decisions based only on the fact that I have a goal I’m trying to achieve and that’s really, really broad.

      1. The Morality thing is very interesting. I did something similar once, with the idea that Morality would be your charisma stat or base for reaction rolls. Not that all “good” people automatically elict positive responses, or vice versa, but it was a good mechanical abstraction. I never really finished that, sadly, but I’d like to revisit it sometime.

        On the dungeon world alignments, I feel they at least do one thing right in that they encourage you to take active part in your alignment’s way instead of being just rules that restrict options. The “goal” (more like one action that is rewarded) that each alignment have might not be the best way to do this, but it’s, at least, a way.

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