Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Alignment As Moral Shorthand...

Character alignments are surprisingly controversial in some corners of the hobby, although hardly a universal complaint. I've come to the conclusion that they're pretty much essential for a certain kind of fantasy to operate, and for reasons obvious and sometimes obscure: 

I know; there's the usual stuff about good and evil being palpable forces. I know this because I've used it to defend the idea of alignment in the past - and because having your magical longsword dedicated to (and exclusively useable by) good seems altogether appropriate to a world of actual gods and working magic. It really depends on what kind of campaign you're running. Ditching alignment is fine; but you're not getting anything like the above, and maybe that's your point. But if you do, it has an ease of use it seldom gets credit for... 

Alignment is a convenient shorthand. Each one or two-word descriptor stands for a range of moral behaviors and motivations, clumsy to describe without them. You could spend a bloated paragraph explaining how Thorvin is compassionate and oathbound - or you could just write lawful good (LG or lawful, system dependent) instead. I agree that major NPCs deserve a well-written entry; but LG is elegant and immediately translatable into meaningful information. Think of it as a condensed profile, just add water and a little creativity.

Now the naysayers insist that alignment's limiting. Really? So characters are all over the place, becoming cruel enforcers at the drop of a hat and returning whole to kindly altruism in the name of personal freedom? Fine; but there's already an alignment for that guy: chaotic neutral depending on how far they go down the rabbit hole in a pinch. But most are far more consistent; and each falls somewhere on the line. Again, it depends on the campaign; but every good concept maps to some designation even when they aren't used...

And I'll dispense with the notion that alignments are inordinately (or even necessarily) limiting. When your player hands you their ten-page backstory and it screams chaotic evil, they've limited themselves well in advance. Concepts are limiting. Form too, even while welcoming new possibilities. Good characters can be petty and vengeful. They just have a noisy conscience that pumps the breaks, averting disaster. Evil characters can show love and compassion, albeit for selfish reasons. Anyway, plenty of variety within alignments. 

Now I can hear some scribbling their ALIGNMENT HAS TO GO essays already. Just bear in mind that most our projects outright reject the concept, and for reasons the most diehard contrarian would doubtless agree with. This isn't about being wrong. I could write a heartfelt defense for the opposing position - and probably will someday. If the world's governed by moral imperatives radiating from the mind of god(s), alignment works. Otherwise, naturalistic free will has its place, and let none say you're wrong if you choose that path...

Historically, people have been good to their own and horrendous to those they deemed outsiders, so I understand a certain strain of realistic fantasy. But voices calling for an end to moral labels insist that some ideas shouldn't be explored, which feels, well, immoral.*

*Hyperbole; no one's Hitler for disagreeing with me. Have a nice day dear reader...  


  1. I agree with most of what you say. My main concern about Alignments is that they are in the middle of "freeform" and "rules-impacting". Players often choose an alignment and then during the game their actions seem to point otherwise. And either you give them their "lawful good" sword or clerical powers anyways, or you have to delve into specyfing moralities and "what can good persons do or not do".

    I want to fix it all someday, somehow, by making alignments depend about what you do IN GAME, or something. I've written a lot of contradictory essays on this hahaha

    nice day to you too

    1. Yeah, the struggle is real. Hold 'em to the fire, friend...

  2. I've used alignment in the past, and it has its uses. I don't use it now, but I don't fault folks for sticking with it. That is, I'm not going to call folks out for choosing to retain alignment in their *works* with the game as written so long as everyone's willing to play within the spirit of the rules.

    [such is not always the case]

    I do think that its a bit simplistic and living, even (or especially) with regard to being a "behavioral shorthand." Much better as a "cosmic faction" indicator. And in the latter category I prefer the three-tier system of B/X and OD&D to other 5-point and 9-point alignment trees. Too many cooks in the kitchen otherwise.

    1. Hmmm...that should have said "a bit simplistic and LIMITING" not "living." Sorry.

    2. I've always like the idea of factions as well...

  3. I've changed my way of looking at alignment. Instead of it describing a character's conduct (how am I aligned), it describes the side the character is on in the cosmic struggle (with whom am I aligned),

    Society within the campaign world may dictate morals and codes of behavior. Alignment has more to do with choosing a side between order (gods of men and civilized society), chaos (internals and those seeking societal downfall) and everyone else ( nature and I just want to live).

    Don't know if it's better, but it does allow exploration of motive, morals, choices and consequences.