I’ve been keeping tabs on the state of our peculiar little hobby for over three decades, and I have to say that I’ve never seen anything like the explosion of the last three years. Groups on various social media outlets are forming right and left, full of new and returning table-top gamers, ready to roll dice and make history… but a few of the gaming concepts many of us take for granted seem to be a little hard for new players to wrap their heads around.
One common thread I’ve noticed among the new generation concerns the classical two-axis alignment system: Lawful versus Chaotic and Good versus Evil. It seems to be a hang-up for a lot of new players who are trying to juggle a ton of new concepts in character creation. Maybe they like the idea of the Drow, but don’t want the evil baggage that comes with playing them, or they want to play a character with an edgy, possible treacherous back-story. An assassin, but with a heart of gold. Perhaps most common is the idea that they can play Chaotic Neutral, and just do whatever the hell they want.
Us old timers groan a little at some of these questions on the forums and group posts, but a little history would serve us well. Before we were know-it-alls, we had the same questions, but we played enough to get a practical feel for alignment and how it plays out in-game. We read enough R.A. Salvatore books to comfortably play good-hearted Drow without breaking immersion. But is all this hand-wringing and hand-waving really necessary? Is alignment better consigned to the past, along with THAC0 and Elf-as-a-class? As with anything else, alignment, in a strict ‘as-written’ sense, is a mixed bag.
1 - Do You Really Want to Torture That Kobold?
At its most basic, alignment is a guide to roleplaying your character. In that sense, alignment serves an important purpose for the player and GM in keeping a character’s actions consistent. It can be easy to half-ass roleplay a character, especially coming from a video-game
background where your character is the classic murder-hobo / loot-machine: if it’s in front of me, it’s bad, it needs to die, and it probably has loot commensurate with how hard it is to kill. In this case, a strict adherence to alignment can nudge players and GM’s into a more nuanced story, forcing them to find options other than violence and mayhem. Nobody is going to remember another night of kicking in doors and killing everything inside. But kicking in the door and finding the kobold nursery, with hatchlings playing who start screaming at the sight of the players, possible alerting the guards next door... that’s a wicket that gets really sticky when you’re trying to play something other than pure evil, and alignment can keep players on the right track. You don’t have to be a paladin to object to killing adorable little lizard-babies.
Of course, the flip-side to this problem is the player who wants a Chaotic Neutral character, and then uses their alignment as an excuse to wreak havoc on the game. When a player is standing over another player’s character, bloody knife in hand, and says, “I’m just playing my alignment”, well, that’s a problem with the player, not their alignment. ‘Chaotic Neutral’ doesn’t mean ‘Pure Psycho’, no matter how you parse it out, and alignment is never an excuse to make the game miserable for other players (including the GM).
2 - Uh, Yeah...Maybe I Do
But eventually you might hit a situation where alignment can be a constraint. It’s easy to look at alignment as a rigid code of conduct, and, for new players, maybe that’s a good thing. But as players get a feel for what’s possible in a table-top game, they might want to push some boundaries. In that case, sometimes it’s better to let strict alignment fall by the wayside. Sometimes good people have to do bad things. Sometimes, good people want to do bad things.
These are the cases that really define a character as more than a set of stats and loot, where cardboard cut-outs become fleshed out characters. In situations where a character’s stated morals are put to the test, it would be a shame if the player or GM put a hard limit on the story based on what’s on a character record sheet. What does a Lawful character do when they come up against unjust laws? Whether they obey or disobey and, more importantly, how they justify their actions, should transcend words on a character sheet.
3- Straight Talk
At its most basic level, alignment is a label. It makes everybody aware of how your character is going to fit in. And if you walk in with any alignment with the word evil in it, you are making a character decision that dramatically affects everyone else at the table.
Honestly, we can talk all day about what works for a specific group or player and how there are no bad ideas in tabletop RPG’s. But, generally speaking, running a standard game with an evil-aligned player character is a recipe for disaster. Can it be done? Absolutely. Is it really hard work? Absolutely. Is it worth all that hard work? Eh, maybe. But that’s where the nuanced approach to alignment works best. Your character can have some maladaptive tendencies without resorting to the ‘back-stabbing bastard’ extreme. Maybe they struggle to fit in. Maybe they find redemption in fellowship. That’s your story to tell. But don’t use alignment as an excuse to be an ass.
So, like every other aspect of gaming, alignment really comes down to what works best at your table, with your group. However you implement it, remember one last nugget of Straight Talk that you won’t find on Facebook:
Most every RPG adventuring party ends up, for all intents and purposes, Neutral Good.
One player might stick hard along one axis or another, but, in aggregate, you’re generally heroes. You might not be avatars of righteousness, but you’re mostly trying to right wrongs, punish evil, and help people. You might stray between lawful and chaotic means to get there, but, in the end, you’re the Good Guys. As long as everybody’s on board with that basic fact, maybe ‘alignment as written’ should stay more a suggestion than a commandment.
Jack Benner is the head bottle-washer and sole roustabout at Stick in the Mud Press http://stickinthemudgames.blogspot.com/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.