When The Moral Compass Goes Haywire


When I first began playing Dungeons & Dragons at the tender age of eight, I was fascinated by the alignment chart in the blue Basic Set rulebook. I did not understand it. I asked my father to explain it to me, but not being a gamer, he was unable to shed much illumination on the subject. Now, a little over twenty-four years later, I find I still have not received an explanation of the D&D alignment system to entirely satisfy my curiosity.

The Trouble With D&D Alignments

When I first began playing Dungeons & Dragons at the tender age of eight, I was fascinated by the alignment chart in the blue Basic Set rulebook. I did not understand it. I asked my father to explain it to me, but not being a gamer, he was unable to shed much illumination on the subject. Now, a little over twenty-four years later, I find I still have not received an explanation of the D&D alignment system to entirely satisfy my curiosity.

I have spoken to many people and have had many discussions and arguments on the subject. What frustrates me most about the D&D alignment system is that experienced gamers seem to have no better handle on it than the greenest newbies.

I read Scorpio's "Alignment Refinement" article, and I found myself shaking my head in disagreement. The same thing happened when I read the alignment archetypes in Aeon Michaels' "Which Star Wars Character Do You Role-Play?" article. Now, both of these guys have been playing D&D about as long as I have. They both seem to be intelligent and educated individuals. Is it possible the three of us have come to three different conclusions about the nature of D&D alignments because we're forcing misguided interpretations on the source material? Is the problem they're both wrong somehow and I've got the "most legitimate" interpretation of the system? Or that one of them is right and the other two of us are wildly off base? I don't think any of these interpretations is accurate. I think the problem is that the source material is fundamentally flawed.

I hate the D&D alignment system. I don't think it works very well, and I'm amazed it has survived with relatively few changes through edition after edition of D&D. It is maddeningly ambiguous, and is conducive to certain very mindless forms of role-play. The d20 system managed to streamline D&D's saving throws, classes, spells, and initiative rolls. These are important mechanics, and they should be interpretable in the same way by different observers, so two people who have never met before might sit down at a table and play an enjoyable game with the same understanding of the rules. That I have yet to meet two D&D gamers with exactly the same perception of a mechanic as fundamental as character alignment says to me that the system has a serious problem.

The Rules Understate The Importance Of Alignment

Part of the problem seems to be the 3rd Edition designers undervalued the importance of alignment as a core mechanic. Both the 3rd Edition and 3.5 Player's Handbooks contain the following passage: "Alignment is a tool for developing your character's identity. It is not a straitjacket for restricting your character."

This attitude is short-sighted, and the statement is misleading. Barbarians, Bards, Clerics, Druids, Monks, and Paladins all suffer some kind of penalty for switching to prohibited alignments. That's over half the classes in the game! In some cases, such as the Cleric and the Paladin, alignment changes can result in the loss of all class-related skills. Clearly, alignment as a game mechanic is more important than just "a tool for developing your character's identity." In a very explicit sense, your character's alignment determines what he can or cannot do.

The creators of AD&D acknowledged this. The AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide penalized alignment-changing characters with the loss of a full level of experience. In addition, involuntary alignment changes required massive atonements to rectify, whereas the negative effects of voluntary alignment changes could not be mitigated at all. Gygax writes, "Although it is possible for a character to allow himself or herself to be blown by the winds as far as alignment is concerned, he or she will pay a penalty which will effectively damn the character to oblivion."

That's strong language. Even though the d20 rules have toned down the penalties associated with switching alignment, such penalties still exist for the majority of all character classes. Strangely, the two-page description of alignment in the most recent versions of the Player's Handbook makes no mention of these penalties at all, nor does the passage on changing alignments in the most recent Dungeon Master's Guides.

Furthermore, there are a slew of alignment-specific spells and magic items that target specific alignments. Powerful spells such as Shield of Law and Dictum can make a player's choice of alignment very significant indeed. Being told alignment is not a straitjacket is cold comfort when your character could be killed without a saving throw.

Alignment is not a minor mechanic to be shunted to the Description chapter with eye-color and favored food. No matter what your choice of alignment, the decision is likely to affect your character in some important way.

Alignments Aren't Tied to Specific Behaviors

In the section titled "Changing Alignment," both of the recent (3rd Edition and 3.5) versions of the Dungeon Master's Guide contain this passage: "If a player says, 'My neutral good character becomes chaotic good,' the appropriate answer is 'prove it.'" In my opinion, the appropriate player response to such a question is, "how?" There are no hard and fast guidelines for D&D alignments.

This is the crux of the problem with D&D alignments: the system gives us insufficient data with regard to what behaviors are associated with specific alignments. "Good," the Player's Handbook tells us, "implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others." But it doesn't tell us what kind of sacrifices, or how often they should be made. Where does a DM draw the line between a good character and a neutral one? The choice is arbitrary.

On the other hand, "Evil implies hurting, oppressing, and killing others." But good characters can certainly hurt, oppress, and kill evil ones. Or can they? Perhaps the difference is, as the Player's Handbook continues, that "Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms. . . others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some evil deity or master." But when you consider a paladin is often expected to kill evil creatures out of duty to some good deity or master, the moral lines start to become muddied. How far can a holy warrior's holy war go? A paladin cannot resort to evil means, or she will no longer be a paladin. We need a strict definition of what makes evil creatures evil, and we just don't have one.

To cite an example that has plagued me in numerous D&D campaigns, can good creatures torture evil ones? The Player's Handbook is ominously silent on this matter. Or let's say a paladin slays the warriors of an evil tribe of goblins guarding an unholy shrine, and then discovers the goblin women and children cowering behind a tapestry. These creatures detect evil (because the Monster Manual says they do!), but are unarmed and helpless. What does the paladin do in this situation? Does he slaughter them all because they're evil, or must he let them go because they're helpless non-combatants? D&D has led us into the Bermuda Triangle of moral behavior, and our compass has gone haywire.

Furthermore, the Player's Handbook tells us neutral characters have compunctions against the killing of innocents. Leaving the problematic definition of "an innocent" to one side, what about harming innocents? The Player's Handbook doesn't say anything about that. How often, and how severely, can a neutral character harm innocents before she becomes evil?

In AD&D, only evil characters were allowed to use poison. Though 3rd Edition has dropped this prohibition, it illustrates my point: what one observer sees as evil by definition may not be evil at all to another. Though I wonder why AD&D forbade good and neutral characters to use poison (it's ok to hack someone to death with a sword but not ok to poison him?), I am not amused that 3rd Edition removed one of the only specific definitions of evil behavior from the game and did not bother to replace it.

In the movie Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's character William Munny walks into a saloon where his dead friend Ned Logan lies on display outside the door. Munny asks to know the owner of the bar. When Skinny, the proprietor, identifies himself, Munny shoots him dead. Gene Hackman's character, the Sheriff Little Bill, calls Munny a coward and observes, "You've just shot an unarmed man." Munny replies: "He should've armed himself if he's gonna go decorating his saloon with my friend." Here's a question for all you DMs out there: was Munny's action evil (Skinny was arguably an 'innocent' because he had no weapon and never harmed anyone directly), neutral (Munny is avenging the desecration of his friend's body), or even good (Skinny treats the prostitutes who work for him as his property, and arguably represents the forces of corruption in the town that led to the un-avenged disfigurement of one of the prostitutes and the death by torture of Ned Logan)? My crystal ball tells me different DMs will judge the same action in different ways.

The designers' double use of the word "implies" is significant. The D&D alignment system relies so heavily on implicit information that the arbiter of alignment change can only be the DM. Players have no chance of governing this change unless they know exactly what the DM's interpretation of each alignment is. If the players have merely read the rules, and have never discussed alignment with their DM, they're likely to encounter a difference of opinion when it comes time to judge their characters on the basis of their actions. In any such difference of opinion, it's usually the DM whose interpretation prevails.

Ambiguity Causes Confusion and Dissent

As a player, the ambiguity of the alignment system can be maddening. If one DM allows good characters to torture evil creatures for information and another DM interprets the act of torture as evil enough to cause a change in alignment, players moving between the two are bound to feel frustrated and confused.

In an example from my recent experience, I have a player who prefers to play Chaotic Neutrals. I told her a Chaotic Neutral character was pretty much free to do as she chose. She asked me, "Can I attack other party members if they annoy me?" I said, "Yes, but don't make a habit of it. If you kill another party member without a good reason, I'll shift you over to Chaotic Evil." She accepted this interpretation and played with the group without any disruptive incidents, excepting one time when she threw a fireball at a highly fire-resistant character because he was annoying her. He took no damage, and everybody laughed about it and moved on. Recently, this player and I have joined another campaign as players. The DM has told her flat-out his interpretation of Chaotic Neutral does not allow her to attack another party member under any but the most justified of circumstances (they're under enemy control, they attack her first, etc). The consequence is that she thinks his interpretation of alignment is limp-wristed, and she feels she is not being allowed to play the character she wants to play.

I've encountered similar problems myself. As a DM with a very strict interpretation of what constitutes Good behavior, I take good alignments very seriously when I am a player. Once I joined a game of hack'n'slashers as a Chaotic Good rogue. When I constantly wanted to rescue the prisoners we found and nearly came to blows with a "neutral good" character over whether or not to torture a captive goblin for information, the other players accused me of being more of a goody-two-shoes than the party paladin. The sad thing is that they were right: my rogue was by far the most scrupulous member of the group. Their DM was used to letting them get away with murder (literally!), so they couldn't understand my character's motivations at all.

When Detected Alignment Replaces Moral Choice

In the comments section of my own "How Typical is Stereotypical?" article, Memehunter reminded me of a very annoying and silly phenomenon that arises from the D&D alignment system: the "radar gamer." In her example, good-aligned characters used the Detect Evil spell and paladin ability as a moral litmus test. Whenever an NPC tested positive for evil, they killed him on the spot.

This is the worst kind of systemic exploitation I can imagine, and I'm sad to say it is quite common in my experience. Rather than think about how their characters should behave, many players default to character powers and alignment preconceptions to do their thinking for them.

Does every evil person deserve to die? Clearly, our society doesn't think so, or the concepts of criminal rehabilitation and "not guilty by reason of insanity" would not exist. Moreover, is the honorable but ruthless assassin of the slayer's guild deserving of the same fate as the psychopathic, serial killer priest of the god of murder? D&D characters don't tend to think in these terms. We can attribute part of their mentality to the quasi-medieval setting of high fantasy, but the Player's Handbook must share the blame. I quote from the description of Lawful Good: "A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Alhandra, a paladin who fights evil without mercy and who protects the innocent without hesitation, is lawful good." When players read phrases such as "hates to see the guilty go unpunished" and "fights evil without mercy," what are they supposed to think? The Player's Handbook doesn't supply any specifics or clarification of these phrases, so many players feel quite justified in pursuing a high fantasy brand of instant justice.

What Can Be Done?

If you agree the D&D alignment system is too ambiguous to be useful, you need not despair. After all, the concept of fantasy role-play as made popular by D&D has brought many hours of entertainment to me and countless others over the decades. There are a number of possible solutions to the problem.

Use a different system. This is a painful thing for me to suggest, and many fans of d20 and dyed-in-the-wool D&D players will not seriously consider it. But if D&D is all you know, I encourage you to explore systems that describe behavior in different ways. Some systems, such as the admittedly flawed Palladium system, attempt to solve the problem by providing specific guidelines for each alignment. Other systems, such as GURPS and Call of Cthulhu, ignore the question of player character alignment entirely. GURPS compensates by using character disadvantages that can be assembled in many ways to represent such diverse human characteristics such as truthfulness, codes of honor, intolerance, sadism, and insanity.

Abolish alignments. Why not? If alignment is truly a tool for developing character identity, and not a straitjacket, as the Player's Handbook claims, then it is not necessary to enjoyment of the game. If you abolish alignments, however, you will need to revise the spell and magic items lists and do a little preparation for paladins and clerics. For paladins, take fifteen minutes to write out a "paladin's oath" that specifically outlines the behavioral requirements of the class. For clerics, you must communicate to any cleric PC what her sect expects of her. Where the spell list is concerned, you can simply remove all alignment-specific spells. However, you might want to modify certain spells such as Protection from Evil to become Protection from Outsiders, so they will still function against demons and the like. Alignment-specific magic items can similarly be altered to "bane"-type items affecting specific races or classes.

Use a different alignment system or associate alignments with specific behavior. I have always preferred the Palladium alignment system to the D&D alignment system, for the simple reason that Palladium explicitly states what kinds of behavior are appropriate to each alignment. Though it is not entirely consistent, the Palladium system at least seems headed in the right direction, and is far less prone to abuse and disparate interpretation. To provide a basis of comparison, let me quote the entirety of the Lawful Good entry from the Player's Handbook as well as the Principled alignment from Palladium. These two alignments are more or less equivalent in spirit, but have different applications to actual game mechanics because one is vague and the other specific.

D&D: "Lawful Good, 'Crusader': A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. She combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. She tells the truth, keeps her word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Alhandra, a paladin who fights evil without mercy and who protects the innocent without hesitation, is lawful good. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion."

Palladium: "Principled (good). Principled characters are generally the strong moral character[s]. Superman is of a principled alignment with the highest regard for others' lives, well being, truth, and honor. Principled characters will...
1. Always keep [their] word.
2. Avoid lies.
3. Never kill or attack an unarmed foe.
4. Never harm an innocent.
5. Never torture for any reason.
6. Never kill for pleasure.
7. Always help others.
8. Work well in a group.
9. Respect authority, law, self-discipline, and honor.
10. Never betray a friend."

If you don't want to adopt another alignment system wholesale (possibly because of the changes you might have to make to the spell and magic items lists), try using the Palladium example to draw up specific lists of behavior for each of the nine D&D alignments. It would only take an hour or two all told, and would be a small investment to keep your campaign free of ambiguity and frustration.

Limit the use of alignment detection. If your campaign is plagued by "radar gamers" who are using player powers in conjunction with alignment archetypes instead of using their brains, you can interdict the player powers in several ways. First, try increasing the number of alignment concealing devices used by NPCs. There are several items in the Dungeon Master's Guide to suit this purpose, and the Spymaster prestige class actually specializes in it. Second, try having detection-happy players encounter overwhelming signals. For example, if the paladin in your group is driving you mad by detecting evil every sixty feet, have him detect evil so strongly that he becomes ill. If his own power renders him incapacitated a time or two, he won't be so prone to abusing it. Third, enforce the law. The chances are good that the characters are inflicting frontier justice on inhabitants of civilized realms. As a GURPS supplement points out, the King may not understand why you killed the Necromancer in his basement if the Necromancer was a loyal, tax-paying subject. Clap your PCs in irons, and see if that doesn't inform them not everyone shares their interpretation of "justice."

In conclusion, I realize not everyone will share my perspectives on D&D alignments. However, I believe a reduction in the ambiguity level of the Player's Handbook can only have the result of improving the quality of your games and the moods of your players.

Yes, it is subjective. The article is predicated on my point of view, and among other things is characterized as a "rant." When I say alignment "adds nothing to the game," I think the qualifier "in my opinion" is understood. That the best roleplayers of my personal acquaintance happen to share this opinion, and that 4e has decided to ditch it almost wholesale are significant facts to me; whether or not they are significant to you is a matter of your personal judgment. I am not an evangelist; my article does not say, "since alignment serves no legitimate function" but rather "if you agree the D&D alignment system is too ambiguous to be useful, you need not despair." One of my proposed solutions is merely "limit the use of alignment detection," which - correct me if I am wrong - is something you yourself have also suggested.

When I say "you have not demonstrated" that alignment adds to the game, I mean not only "in my opinion," but in terms of "that a character's backstory cannot do as well or better." In particular I do not feel you have adequately addressed the issue of spells such as Holy Word and Dictum, but again that is only my opinion...and since I have more or less abandoned D&D, my opinion is of dubious utility (at best) to those who have not.

Thanks again for your comments. I don't want this discussion to devolve to "yes it is" vs. "no it isn't," so I'll try to stay on the sidelines once more.

"A 1st-level fighter isn't just making one swing at his enemy every six seconds, the attack roll represents the one swing that has a chance of hitting and dealing damage."

So ... one "effective" attack every six seconds.

That's the problem. There is a disconnect between the rules and the narrative. If what you say is true - do fighters riding past each other on horseback get an attack at each other? They only pass it other for the fraction of a second. (Rhetorical Question)

I've got no problem with numbers that represent something. The problem is that there are a lot of very fuzzy rules that lead to rules that have indefinate application. Check out these chimeras:

1 Hit point: A measure of a character's physical resilience and luck. A character that has one hit point left has either run out of his/her luck but may also be wounded in some ambiguous way.

+1 AC: A measure of damage reduction that functions by reducing the number of times that you are hit. Hunh? Armor makes you less likely to be hit "effectively". Oooh I love it when we have to bail out the game designers with this word "effective." Didn't we use that somewhere else?

1 XP: A measure of how much treasure you have captured or creatures you have defeated. These points add to your skills and can be traded for abilities you have never practiced in game.

1 Attack: Six seconds of combat openings distilled into a single roll? What if the opponent isn't fighting back. Can I only hit him once in six seconds?

Alignment: read above... Go ahead and take a gander to see if anyone really knows what this rule is all about.

Nobody knows what the *@#$#$@ any of these rule mean. How can we live in the story if the rules are either unclear or are an amalgam of disparate concepts. Try these ones on for size:

Job Stature: Job stature is a numeric representation of my employment experience and my height. As studies have linked height to salary and job experience to salary I have decided to mash them together in this single stat. Characters with a high Job Stature score can expect a better salary roll. The fact that I can use this number to resolve height-related events and job experience events in game doesn't demonstrate that this is a good rule. It breaks down when you try to isolate the two concepts that I have lumped together.

So again, I have no problem measuring something. I just want the measurements to be clear enough that they don't get in the way of the game.

Alignment is particularily egregious because it doesn't need to be there.

"I felt the need to balance an article about ditching alignment with advice on how to make it work"

Thanks for sparking things up around here.

Measurable criticism --

Alignment uses two words out of five to describe a character. Not using alignment can use any number of words from 995,115 (if we stick to English language). Alignment has nine permutations while the English language has damn near infinite permutations.

Using Alignment forces DM's to accept the world where every character has either "Good" energy or "Evil" energy. Not using Alignment allows for this possibility, but also allows for other options -- in fact any ethical cosmology can be incorporated into an unaligned game.

If I can do everything that Alignment can do, and do things that Alignment cannot do is that not preferable? Even if you don't want to do the things that alignment can't? Perhaps you will encounter a situation in the game where alignment will let you down. Not having alignment can't ever let you down.

Here's the problem. You want the rules to have an ethical system. I want my game world to have an ethical context.

Alignment gives the players and the DM a rule that superimposes itself over the game world. I don't like that because it warps the game world.

Not having alignment allows for freedom or description and action. You don't like that because a player is no longer morally "safe" if they adhere to some predifined rules.

You need to play Rolemaster ;)

I am curious, do you see 4E as being an improvement overall?

Lets take what you have said (and I certainly agree with you on a lot of it), and look at the big picture....

What is the alternative? The more precise or realistic we are, the more factors we take into consideration in order to reduce its "fuzziness", the more complicated and time consuming it becomes to manage and use.

Personally I have no problem with the use of a computer to eliminate all of this complexity and "churning", in fact I think the natural evolution of role playing is to the computer environment so that people can concentrate on their characters, not on proper calculation of circumstance bonuses etc, etc (but that is another story).

When playing pen and paper however you don't have this luxury, nor do you have the time or cognative comprehension to try and take everything in to be more realistic. Thus the only thing you are left with is an abstraction or an approximation.

At some point you have to either accept the abstraction or find another system.

I have had the "scratchings" of my own RPG system which I treat like a kind of mental hobby, going over it every couple of years just to refine it a bit more. The thing is a complex beast, but I think it is far more realistic. It would be totally unplayable without the aid of a computer but it does capture all of those things which are missing in these "abstractions".

None of it needs to be there, we could eliminate XP and let the DM decide when the player "deserves" to gain a level, we could eliminate HP and let the DM decide when the player starts to suffer, we could even eliminate AC and let the DM decide when a hit strikes. You really can't say alignment doesn't need to be there when it is an abstraction just the same as everything else. Just because the topic doesn't have the same structure of "mechanics" as the rest does isn't reason enough to eliminate it in my opinion. Obviously your opinion is different.

Wow, I guess I really stirred the pot there.

"'I parried the ogre's attacks until my sword broke' is a much more entertaining story than 'the ogre flailed at me for rounds and rounds, but couldn't hit my AC of 25.'"

I completely agree there, Cocytus, but your example does leave something to be desired. You've constructed it a way that isn't really a fair assesment of either system. Look, I can reverse the situation, making it so the D&D version is more narrative:

GURPS: "The combat with the ogre went on for rounds and rounds, because his attack roll could never beat my parry roll. Eventually, he rolled enough damage to break my sword, and I couldn't use the parry skill any more. I lost lots of hit points, but luckily Fred put lots of points into his Medicine skill."

D&D: "We fought the ogre ferociously for what seemed hours, but I was able to escape unscathed due to the swordsmanship I learned from my father and the blessing that cleric of Torm placed upon my armor."

Really, it's all about what the individual people around the game table make of it.

I'll be the first to agree that D&D is really a tactical fantasy wargame with a RPG poorly tacked onto the side. It does sacrifice expediency and narration in order to create a tactically interesting game. If you're not a fan of the tactical aspect, then you won't be a fan of D&D. It's that simple.

Weirdly enough, though, I can't stand tactical wargaming unless it's within the context of an RPG. I like the fact that "calculated risk" in RPGs can lead to your friends' death, rather than simply losing several plastic minatures out of your army.

Also, is ERPG actually available, or is it just a project in the works?


Sorry, I dont think that is measurable critisism. I see that as being purposely bias towards your own personal belief, and I will state why.

Firstly you use the word "describe", as if the entire character is summed up with those words and those words alone. For that premise to hold true it would mean that no other definition is possibly valid BUT those words and this is a false assumption.

But I will use your lovely example of 995,115 words as a means of utilizing the SIX words that are used in alignment (Morally Neutral is completely different to Ethically neutral and should in reality be considered a seperate word).

Lets take the good old "Lawful Good".

Ok, by your statement I have now "described" my character, set him in stone and limited and restricted him to just two words. To disprove your theory I will now use several of the 995,115 words from the english dictionary to give you alternative versions of the "Lawful Good" character. How could I possibly do this unless alignment was simply a "guide" that tells you the sum of their character as a whole, rather than being a restrictive label that forces their hand?

Paladin: Law-abiding, Festidious, Paragon, Hero, Saviour
Monk: Respectful, Organised, Caring, Disciplined
Fighter: Focused, Loyal, Upstanding, Anti-Hero
Cleric: Kind natured, Jovial, Obsessive Compulsive, Stalwart

In all of these cases the character is Lawful Good, and yet they are all completely differnet characters who are described using words outside of the 6 used for alignment but still remain true to those alignments.

The Paladin is the paragon of Lawful Good, while the monk believes in a structured life but not necessarily in the laws of the land but respects life, the fighter is a moody grudging anti-hero who constantly moans about how stupid people are and yet when push comes to shove he is there fighting to save them, and the cleric is a nutty but funny priest who simply cannot pass through a doorway without going through the ritual of tracing the door frame twice!

In all of them there are varying levels of good (thus dispelling your statement of "forcing the DM to accept Good or Evil energy). The fighter may only just be keeping his head above water with a lawful good alignment. He may be constantly taking actions that are selfish and self-serving, maybe even downright mean at times and yet the good things he does far outweigh the bad, the priest may be stretching the bounds of being Lawful sometimes, but his obsessive belief in the order of things and how everything in the universe has a place and a purpose maintains this Lawful moniker.

But all of that aside, your main argument is that you can do everything with alignment and more, and thus alignment should be eliminated as a result. I take it you would also eliminate aligned weapons and spells? Would you also allow barbarians to join the royal guard or assassins to help little old ladies across the street? Maybe the worst murderer in the world will be allowed to become a paladin?

What you propose cannot do everything that alignment can, because the more you vary the moral and ethical stand point through your use of 995,115 words the harder you make it to provide guidelines for stereotypical archetypes and muddy the waters which confuses people. Do I now have a "Detect Procrastination" spell instead? Or how about a "Detect Stubbournness"?

That is the inherant problem with expanding the choice of words, the english language is woefully poor when it comes to categorization and thus you have several words that can all describe exactly the same thing and yet without that overarching umbrella they become completely unmanagable.

What you end up doing is simply opening up every faced of the game world for anyone to use. A good character using poison because they find several "words" they can use to prove to you somehow its justified in their mind, an evil character who can "lay on hands" because even though they are evil they truely believe they are doing the right thing....

Essentially without this black and white you make everything gray. In essence you achieve the exact opposite of what you set out to do... You lose ethical context in the game because you no longer have absolute white and absolute black by which to measure against... now everything is shades of grey with everybody believing whatever they want because they are mixing and changing words they use to describe their character, in some contexts completely contradicting themselves by doing so.

This isn't the case with the 6 alignment words. At their extremes everybody understands exactly what the words mean. The only grey comes in when you get close to the borders... Your suggestion is nothing but borders with no balancing extremes

I'm going to answer your rhetorical question, Gilgamesh, so that I can defend the term "effective."

"...do fighters riding past each other on horseback get an attack at each other? They only pass it other for the fraction of a second."

Well, that depends on the context. If the fighters are not in a combat situation, I, as a GM, wouldn't let characters that are simply riding past one another to make attacks. It wouldn't make any sort of logical sense. Similarly, if they were in some sort of physical conflict, and happen to ride past one another, but are not actually aiming to attack each other, I wouldn't allow an attack either.

Now, what about knights jousting? Yes, they only pass one another for a "fraction of a second," but they are spending a good amount of time focused on that singel fraction of a second, preparing to strike within that small window. Yes, they can attack one another.

I could respond to most of your rules statements, but it it really wouldn't be useful to the conversation. I understand your frustration and the point you're making (at least, I think I do :P), but my point here is that yes, every single rule ever invented for a game has some element of silliness to it, if you want to dissect it. Why should I pay you because my lead top hat landed on Boardwalk? I didn't choose to stay in your hotel, the dice made me. The fact that I have to pay you everything I own because of my bad luck with the dice is, when you get right down to it, fundamentally bogus, but we accept that because it's an assumption we make when we sit down to play Monopoly. If you don't like that assumption, you can either play a different game or change the rules of the game to make it one you enjoy.

Coming full circle back to Alignment, no, it really doesn't need to be in the game. In fact, it only exists in 4E as a sidenote, which should relieve most of us here. However, I've never really run into problems with it, mostly because the people I play with aren't inclined to abuse a rule like that (thank goodness). It's actually kind of interesting to explore what a world would be like if good and evil were tangible forces like gravity.

But, as I've said, any rule that takes away from the fun of the game should be ignored, revised, or replaced. It's your game, play it how you like.

Not sure to whom you addressed this question, but for my part: yes, I do. But it's not enough to keep me in the system. Classes and levels are great fun in CRPGs, but at the tabletop, I simply find them irritating.

Sorry, can't resist:

Paladin: Law-abiding, Festidious, Paragon, Hero, Saviour

Fastidious is stretching the meaning of the word to its limit, in my opinion, and I say this as a player who, in games of D&D, defaulted to Paladin 5 times in 10.

The fighter may only just be keeping his head above water with a lawful good alignment. He may be constantly taking actions that are selfish and self-serving, maybe even downright mean at times and yet the good things he does far outweigh the bad

With respect, your conception of the meaning of the word 'antihero' is at such variance from mine as to deprive the term of its meaning in conversation between the two of us. An antihero, as defined, is someone lacking traditional heroic qualities. Don Quixote is an antihero; Tom Jones is an antihero; William Munny is an antihero; in Fantasy literature, Thomas Covenant the rapist leper is an antihero, as is Elric of Melniboné, albino wielder of the soul-devouring Stormbringer. Grumpy but ultimately good-natured good guys (Gimli, Thorin, Boromir, etc) are not antiheroes, but heroes with some unlikable qualities, and I submit to you that there is a vast difference between the two concepts.

I would never, ever let a player choose the LG tag to describe your fighter: I would want to call such a character NG with decidedly neutral (selfish) tendencies. And herein lies the problem, as my standards for "good" behavior are very narrow, compared to those of the powergaming GMs I know...so any player unfortunate enough to pass from your table (or theirs) to mine is going to find him/herself redefining the context and meaning of the whole alignment system all over again, whereas this is emphatically not the case with any other rules mechanic. If, however, the player presents us with a backstory, we can both make the character fit into our respective paradigms.

To conclude, imagine a sword that can be wielded only by the "pure of heart," or a chair like the Siege Perilous that will kill anyone who does not suit its exacting standards. Will you allow a character with no distinctive traits other than the LG tag to use it? My guess is that you will not: you will consider the PC's actions as you have experienced them firsthand, and you will make a judgment call. I don't see why you need alignment to do that... and I don't even see that it helps you make the decision.

Forgot a few things in my zeal.
I take it you would also eliminate aligned weapons
For the most part, yes. Is Orcrist a "good" blade, or was it simply forged to kill goblins? But see my example above.
and spells?
Absolutely. No need for them.
Would you also allow barbarians to join the royal guard
Great Scott, of course I would: barbarians make some of the best royal guardsmen in the business of guarding royals. Take a look at the bodyguards of the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome. Seriously.
or assassins to help little old ladies across the street?
Why not? Leon the Professional doesn't hate little old ladies; he doesn't feel strongly about anyone at all. He only kills when he is paid to do so, and he does it dispassionately. So... because his player picked an assassin, he can't ever do a good deed? You seem to be contradicting your antihero argument here; that, or your view of character archetypes is very narrow indeed.
Maybe the worst murderer in the world will be allowed to become a paladin?
Define "worst" - ah! But then you are starting to give specific examples of what is "good," and that is precisely what I want you to do. If the "worst" is someone whose behavior is qualifiable in any definite context, the Palladium alignment "Principled" is much, much better than the nebulous "Lawful Good," whose definition is quoted verbatim, in its entirety, in this article. Hates to see the guilty go unpunished... hm. So torture is ok? When? Under what circumstances? Look, just give me back that Holy Avenger. You're a fighter. :)
What you propose cannot do everything that alignment can, because the more you vary the moral and ethical stand point through your use of 995,115 words the harder you make it to provide guidelines for stereotypical archetypes and muddy the waters which confuses people.
"Stereotypical" being the operative word, as distinct from archetypal. Yes: I want stereotypes out of my games, period. Archetypes are welcome.

What alignment is Herakles? Odysseus? Theseus? Think carefully before you answer, as each of these archetypal heroes did some very, very immoral things. Some might even call them, oh, I don't know... contradictory. How would Emerson have put it? "So I contradict myself. A foolish consistency..."
Do I now have a "Detect Procrastination" spell instead? Or how about a "Detect Stubbournness"?
This is a straw man and you know it, my friend. A mechanic in D&D itself already exists to cover these contingencies - the latter is easily revealed with a judicious use of the Sense Motive skill, and a solid case can be made that the same skill will reveal the former, given observation and time. Failing that, several mind-reading spells and psi powers exist to cover the contingency.
What you end up doing is simply opening up every faced of the game world for anyone to use. A good character using poison because they find several "words" they can use to prove to you somehow its justified in their mind, an evil character who can "lay on hands" because even though they are evil they truely believe they are doing the right thing....
To repeat the article, using poison is immoral but hacking someone to death with a sword is somehow more humane? Here in the 'States, we call it "death by lethal injection." The poison is accepted (by many) to be the more humane alternative to hanging.

What about healing is inherently good? Can a person, in an emergency or for purely selfish reasons, not heal someone capable of fighting that person's enemies or saving that person's skin in some other capacity?
now everything is shades of grey with everybody believing whatever they want because they are mixing and changing words they use to describe their character, in some contexts completely contradicting themselves by doing so.
There are too many highly controversial real-life examples to investigate here, of which torture is merely one of the most obvious. The point is simple: I believe, and I think Gil does, too, that players should be allowed to build their own characters and decide, sometimes on the spur of the moment and without explanation, how those characters will behave.

Some have pointed out in this thread that many players of high Fantasy games want the opposite of that: they want the artificial moral certainty. Well, again, you or they or anyone else who wants such certainty can have it. I don't want it. I'd rather explore nuanced shades of ethics, virtue, and heroism, and to ask the question that is also asked by the very myths these games attempt to simulate: how shall we behave? Those who believe they know the answer are busy shouting invective and at worst, causing the deaths of innocents. The rest of us are still looking, not only at work, not only in parenting and love and friendship, but even at play. Join us, if you like.

So he could drown in tables? :-P

Gil, seriously, how's EFRP going? I'm hearing such good things about it, but there's no way to try it out...and it's been a while, now.

BTW, Enigmatic, I mean you no disrespect whatsoever and do not mean to imply you are a powergaming GM in any way.

"The difference however is that in what I propose, the players are told upfront the general philosophy that is being used to make these judgements, how certain actions are viewed and how they will be weighed."

This is the essence of where we differ. Everything else hinges on this.

I don't want a moral viewpoint to exist outside of the game world. The ethics and beliefs will exist in-game. This way, players are not forced to share my philosophy. I can create characters who believe different things than me. Players can interact with these characters, lauding them or despising them. I am constantly surprised by the characters with whom they resonate and those they shun. Because we don't have good guy / bad guy they are free to do this.

more later... my wife calls.

Actually the essence of where we differ is in the assumption that any philosophy is being forced or that it exists outside of the game.

Regardless what you may think, as a DM you will pass judgement on the players actions. As the DM (who is not actually in the game), you will more than likely use your own set of values in order to judge them. A player runs around killing innocents, and you will judge them to be committing an evil act because that is your philosophy on what that act means.

The difference is that I prefer to tell players up front how they will be judged. That doesn't "force" them to do or accept anything, it lets them know the bus is coming before it gets there. Based on what you have said, you would rather the bus remains a surprise until they turn around and realise they have already been run over.

But I have to ask... how is this any different to the author of a book who builds the choice of morality into the books that are written? Do they not "force" the reader to share their philosophy for exactly the same reasons?

"The difference is that I prefer to tell players up front how they will be judged."

I don't judge them. Each NPC judges them differently. Sure I run the NPC's. I make a point of having them believe different things.

"But I have to ask... how is this any different to the author of a book who builds the choice of morality into the books that are written?"

A book is written from a perspective or voice. It is through this voice that the story unfolds. Similar or not, the reader responds to that voice.

You seem to think that the story belongs to the DM. I am in complete disagreement. The story belongs to the players. The moral "voice" of the game belongs to them. They respond to the world and the stories of others. It is their game, not yours.

I know it doesn't feel like that when you spend hours crafting scenarios that will precipitate action. However the players choose where to go, what to do, and how to perceive the events around them. Perhaps they should be telling the DM what the difference between Good and Evil is and how the NPC's will be judged?


Going well thanks. I have a couple of test-plays under my belt and am working hard on source material -- that's where the hang-up has been. Without source material people are lost.
The lease for my martial arts school is up in August and I'll be restructuring come then ( I may even buy-out early because summer is typically slow). There is going to be a lot of time to devote to EFRP after that. I may put the engine out sooner under a different banner and then publish EFRP as a game that uses the engine.

Thanks for asking.

I haven't played it yet. I'll let you know.

"A book is written from a perspective or voice. It is through this voice that the story unfolds. Similar or not, the reader responds to that voice."

I like that, Gil. A lot.

This reminds of of an online incident I had the other day. I've recently discovered The Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher, and I stumbled across a negative review of them online that really torked me off. The Dresden Files, for those not in the know, is a series of novels about Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard and police consultant on all things magical. They're basically a really fun mix of dark fantasy, horror, and noir in a modern setting. There's also an RPG for the setting in production, which I'm really excited for.

Anyway, this review I read of the first Dresden Files book, Storm Front, was completely negative because the reviewer felt that the novel has chauvinist themes. What really frustrated me about this was that there are several strong female characters, and the supposed chauvinist bias comes from the fact that Harry has a somewhat old-fashioned view of women, and that the book is told from his perspective. It's interesting that this reviewer was offended by this, and I found it to be a cool moment of character consistency.

Anyway, to bring this back into the discussion, I think the reason you guys are butting heads is becasue you have two different styles of play. There is one group that I GM for that totally wants and expects me to create the story and give it to them, while another like to take the story and make it their own. If I were to try to force-feed my story to the latter group, they would hate the game, whereas if I were to attempt to let the former group completely create their own story, the game would stagnate. It's just a different way of playing, neither of which is "wrong."

You don't have to take alignment that seriously, just use them as a bit of a guideline on what your character thinks is right or wrong, and how they act it moral issues.

Don't worry. In 4th idiotition their only going to have 3 alignments,
so roleplaying you character will be extremely boring and shallow, just like character cutomization!

Gazgurk: you're really starting to edge into "annoying troll" territory. I've let it go on a bit *too* much, but you're spewing the same message over article after article, and it's starting to get a bit annoying. Perhaps you could write an article for Gamegrene, in time for the launch of D&D 4E, that expounds in reasoned detail, what is so bad about a system that you've only read first or second-hand comments about? Then you can let the matter rest, and contribute a little more constructively to the site.

Nor do I feel as if you have implied it... if anything people would often say I err on the side of more simplicity, less power and more character.

Curiously though I would not have called any of those you mentioned anti-heroes. To me the anti-hero is someone who doesn't want or seek to be a hero and yet "something" always means they end up doing the right thing. More so than that, they actually DO very bad things, and have absolutely no problem in doing them, but any bad things they do are outweighed by the good.

The story belongs to both. If it completely belonged to the player then there would be no need for a DM at all, thus it becomes a symbiotic relationship where each feed from the other. The players defer the final say to the DM, while the DM tries to follow what the players will enjoy.

To say it belongs strictly to one or the other is incorrect.

You ask "Perhaps they should be telling the DM what teh difference between Good and Evil is"... and that is exactly what I mean when I say these things should be discussed up front. If the discussion starts with the DM saying "I see it like this" and the players say "We see it like that", then you have dialog, you have a debate and ultimtely you end up somewhere that you agree.

I think I did.

The Barbarian and Monk are more poster children of misinterpretation of what Law and Chaos mean than good examples of the alignment system in action. Chaos in D&D doesn't mean totally random and Chaotic can have "purpose, a structure, a way of life" as much as Lawfuls can. Also thanks largely to anime RPGers now have a host of sword and sorcery worlds that would be impossible by D&D alignments to draw inspiration from. In these anime you have Barbarians who have high codes of personal honor, are totally trustworthy, and reliable to a fault and yet can still berserk. Then you have Monks who are selfserving recklessness authority can go stuff its head in a bucket types. The Alignment system was having problems with things like Lodoss, Rune Explorers, and Slayers and now adays falls apart like a cheap suit.

Alignment is a mechanic and one that has outlived its usefulness. Traits such those used in GURPS give both the players and DM a better idea of what a character's behavior might be. In GURPS terms Vlad Tepes Dracula had Bloodlust (Turks, Boyars, 'Criminals'); Code of Honor (Pirate); Honesty; Intolerance, Turks; Sadism (9); Sense of Duty (to 'honest' people of Walachia); Vow (Uphold the faith/protect Walachia). Doesn't that give you a much better picture of how to handle him than simply saying CE or perhaps LE?

The D&D game itself states for the Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil suptypes "Any effect that depends on alignment affects a creature with this subtype as if the creature has an (Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil) alignment, no matter what its alignment actually is." Also the committing of an evil act removes Paladin status but does not change alignment. Again we go back to Roger Moore's "It's not easy being good" (Dragon #51) with its female and child survivors of a take out the werewolves problem mission. Now lycanthropy in D&D isbasiclly you have somebody with MPD as seen in the wolfman pictures ie Talbot going ' Please lock me up or kill me before I turn into a rampaging monster again and kill somebody.' The Paladin knowing that there was no way to cure the poor wretchs and come next full moon they would terrorize the countryside had them painlessly executed at which point he got hosed by the alignment system because since it was daylight he had kill 'innocent' women and children.

Your example of the Paladin cutting down the man with the evil ring in his pocket is much the same. ALignment system as a club to mess you over.

When I said "belong" I was referring to the perspective within the story. Certainly the GM is involved in the plot, symbols, and themes that are present at the gaming table, but the story is not told from her perspective. It is told from the perspective of the players -- hence, the story belongs to them.

"GURPS: The combat with the ogre went on for rounds and rounds, because his attack roll could never beat my parry roll.'

Sorry but this counter example is so wrong it is not funny.

1) AC in D&D is more akin to Dodge than Parry and it is very hard to get a GURPS character's Dodge to where he is unhittable. GURPS 4e has made it even harder.

2) Since the GURPS deals with each attack the Orge has options he doesn't in D&D: Feint, Entangle, Shield slam, and All out attack for a very short list. Never mind skills like Body Language which allow one to predict parries and therefore avoid them.

A GURPS combat would more likely go "Well then I tried to parry a blow that didn't come (Feint) from the Orge who then threw his cloak around my weapon (Entangle). While trying to free my weapon the Orge charged me with that blasted spiked shield of his (Shield slam) and then started hitting me every other swing (All out attack). My that time I was screaming at the Wizard to do something anything." Sighs "Forgot the guy just LOVED fires. Burnt me, the orge, the party, and set the stuff in the room ablaze. Finally killed the blasted Orge though. Hear the wizard will be up and back to semi-normal in month."

My advice would be to find out how the GURPS combat system actually works.

Maximara, my advice would be to find out how the D&D combat system actually works...
Feinting (via the bluff skill), disarming and shield slamming all exist in D&D; so does tripping. In addition there is the full-round attack and the standard action attack. the tumble skill can also be useful in some situations.
This is all without using any special maneuvers added by various feats.

Actually both the Barbarian and the Monk are perfect examples of alignment.... though not the alignment you are talking about.

A monk, as a believer in Lawfulness holds the belief that it is through order and structure that benefits are gained, which is why he embodies it in his every day life. They believe that it is the organised structure of the philosophy they follow that they reach their ultimate goal. This is proved right by the fact that in discipline, order and structure they gain perfection in their craft.

The barbarian, as a believer of Chaos holds the belief that it is through personal endeavour, and in the freedom and individuality of actions that benefits are gained... which is why he also embodies it in his every day life. In the same way (but from a totally different perspective), the barbarian achieves perfection in his craft but from the complete opposite angle. Instead of following structure and discipline, the barbarian attains the peak of his abilities by letting go, by freeing himself of any and all limitations and restrictions and embraces the raw and unadulterated energy within.

Of course none of this restricts either the monk from being an individual, or the barbarian from following a code... The monk can still "go it alone" and the barbarian can be completely trustworthy.... They simply hold different points of view as to what gives people the greatest opportunity to excel and advance. To the monk advancement comes from doctrination and discipline, while to the barbarian advancement comes from throwing off the shackles of discipline and completely freeing yourself.

Why are these concepts so hard to understand? Is it because we have been fooled for too long by the misuse of the word "Law" and "Chaos"? Would all of these confusions be ended if we simply picked different names for them?

Good to see you back Enigmatic.

4th Edition alignment excerpt:


EDIT: ok, I've just read this. It doesn't say much about the reduced impact of alignment in the game and it seems they've renamed Chaotic Good to Good, Lawful Evil to Evil and folded the three Neutrals to Unaligned.

At first glance, the renaming seems a bit silly to me, but I like the Unaligned part, allowing people not to be strongly (for a lack of a better word) aligned with any point of view.

I have more thoughts oon the Neutrals, but no time right now.

"Feinting (via the bluff skill), disarming and shield slamming all exist in D&D; so does tripping. In addition there is the full-round attack and the standard action attack. the tumble skill can also be useful in some situations."
Sure they exist but they are kludges; after the fact boilerplates. GURPS started out as a semi-realistic combat system called Man to Man and when from there. D&D started evolved from miniatures rules and has kind of limped along form there.

Here is a hypothetical situation: Let's say that instead of different sentient species you've just got a lot of humans, only they come in groups of different colors. They worship various different gods, and everyone believes that all of the other gods are evil except for their own.

So it would automatically be a good act to kill anyone a different color than yourself, or anyone who worships a different god. Good and Evil have no meaning when they are used only to label group who want to kill each other.

The webcomics Goblins deals with this problem in D&D, from the monster's point of view. What exactly makes a goblin evil? A lack of respect for other's life? Humans don't respect the goblin's life.

Sure it might be fun to just hack at monsters and get treasure, with no thought to role-playing or realism. So go play Diablo. It has everything you're looking for.

Read some of the early comic and the reasoning the Dwarf give to offing the kid (http://goblinscomic.com/d/20050917.html) sounds like Paladins I have read about. The 'you are with evil beings so you must be evil now hold still I want to make this as painless as possible--after all I AM LG' stick. ;-P

*looks at dates*, a little late, but you come up high on google. I agree, I typically make my character Neutral Evil, but to me Evil is just being selfish and not feeling compelled to be "moral". I make decisions based on if they will help me in the future, not for a good deed. In other words, I build up owed favors by other characters so that later they are in my debt and I can get what I want. Too many times in Neverwinter Nights PC games my alignment was shifted more "toward good" for doing things that are considered good, but nobody ever took into account > what if I'm putting on a front just to get closer to a certain goal of mine, not truly caring for the welfare of others, but i KNOW they will aid me no matter what my cause because I've saved their wife/husband/children/town/etc. I'm evil in that I will kill innocents who argue with me if I feel that they will be of no use to me in the future, and nobody will really notice that *I* did it, and I get their loot.

A good example is, if I'm sent off by the city watch to investigate some thief boss or some cult, and I'm only supposed to negotiate or something... I'll just go ahead and kill them all, and come back and say "heh, I didn't have a choice, they attacked me." But despite these things I'm constantly shifted further toward good and I lose my ability to wear certain armors or I become weak to certain effects vs. good, etc.

To me it seems like (at least with the PC games that are supposed to be following these particular rules very closely) evil means kill everyone, don't care about companions even if they could help you accomplish more killing or evil things, you just want everyone away from you and dead; that's it.
Whereas Good is a goodie-goodie fairy who can't use harsh language in front of sensitive people (even if it's the truth), and must always be enthusiastic about your care and/or pension for doing "the right thing". Sometimes in PC games I'm given a choice of the extremes, and I'm like.... WTF, neither, none of my choices are acceptable.