My first DM at my first game ever handed me a character sheet and told me to fill out every part of it save for one line: Alignment. He said, “after a few sessions I’ll tell you what your alignment is.” At the time it seemed odd, as I had read the rule book which told me I could pick an alignment, and I actually felt as if creativity was being taken away from me. Looking back on it, I was wrong; if anything I was being set free from from the bonds of proscriptive alignment and free to explore a personality until it became clear who this character actually was. I also think it accomplished a secondary task. It kept me from developing early career alignment disorder. Without experience to fall back on I very well could have (and later did) end up playing a character who suffered from an alignment disorder.
What is an alignment disorder?
Well I’m glad someone asked (he says as he writes his own question). To explain what I mean let me use a reasonably simple definition of real world personality disorder: “a deeply ingrained and maladaptive pattern of behavior of a specified kind... causing long-term difficulties in personal relationships or in functioning in society.”
Have you seen this before? In game I mean. A character so defined by their maladaptive behaviour that you start to question the intelligence of the person playing them? It’s possible that the player is really just wanting to play a screw-up. But maybe they too are suffering, suffering from an undiagnosed alignment disorder. Below I list four alignment disorders common to the Lawful vs Chaotic, Good vs Evil system found in many games and popularized by Dungeons and Dragons.
1. Rigid Alignment Disorder: The Lawful Idiot
Lawful is a great alignment. I would hope most real people fall into this category to some degree. The disorder in this alignment extreme can most easily be seen via the rigidity of the codes that the character will hold themselves and others to. Think of movies where a central part of the plot involves an otherwise okay person who is either an antagonist to some degree or a failed hero. The story ends with the character forced to see the flaw in their rigid system. Judge Dredd learns that good is as important as codes and becomes a better officer for it, while Inspector Javert (Les Misérables) decided his own death is the only way to avoid the implications of a superior moral code. To a smaller degree we see Professor McGonagall sometimes helping and sometimes hindering Harry Potter and friends depending on what side of the rules they fall on, never mind that they’re trying to defeat the Dark Lord. Rigid uncompromising characters can be great, that is until their behaviour starts to hinder the party and their legalistic code becomes more a burden than the other characters are willing to bear.
2. Reckless Alignment Disorder - The Chaotic Dunce
There is so much interesting character to explore in a person unwilling to be bound by the system and committed to being free of the rules. Then there is the character who wishes only to do what they want, when they want, and to hell with the consequences. Problems start when a chaotic alignment goes from “I will not be forced to follow your ways” to “I shall do whatever I please.” A mildly-chaotic character will normally adjust well to a lawful environment (when in Rome do as the Romans do). Han Solo entered the story as law breaking scoundrel but joined the rebel alliance and became a general. Still Chaotic at heart he was able (for a time) to work within the authority structure of an organized and disciplined military. Meanwhile Tony Montana’s (Scarface) increasing erratic behavior and unwillingness to curb his urges eventually lead him to murder a good friend, destroy his family, and ultimately create so many enemies while pushing away all friends that his empire comes crashing down. It wasn’t evil that brought down Tony Montana, but rather his unchecked chaotic nature (well, and snorting a mountains of cocaine; that didn’t help either).
3. Evil Alignment Disorder - The Ruthless Imbecile
Evil does not start with true cold hearted wickedness. Rather the lesser evils manifest in the form of selfishness. Always caring about yourself more than others and lacking in charity or mercy begin one down the evil alignment path. The transition from greedy to diabolical though happens when you move from not caring much about others to wishing only ill on those around you. Role-playing tables have plenty of space for evil characters; a selfish, greedy, and rude person who can play well with others and can contribute to furthering shared goals can be a very manageable and playable character. Let’s compare George Costanza (Seinfeld) with Emperor Commodus (Gladiator). George is a lustful, selfish, arrogant fellow who leaves a path of angry ex-girlfriends and co-workers in his wake. Commodus is a lustful, selfish, arrogant fellow who murders those who have what he wants and causes those closest to him to live in terror of of his arrogance, selfishness, and lust. George is a bastard but also a reasonably functional character. Commodus is wicked and demonstrates the downfalls of unchecked ruthlessness.
4. True Neutral - The Balancing Buffoon.
A Neutral alignment allows tons of room to explore a fascinating and interesting personality, partly because it can seem so inhuman (or at least immature) to be so unaligned, but also because it allows one a chance to defy the conventional black or white lines of the alignment system. However, the concept of True Neutral as an ideal, that is, being actively against evil and goodness, law and freedom, it -can- be possible. An old Dungeons and Dragons source book makes reference to the True Neutral Druid who would help save a village from monsters only to switch sides in the fight to keep the monsters from being eradicated entirely by the village. Striving for balance in all things is all well and good until you strive to balance the lives of innocents with the deaths of innocents. As a note, True Neutral was abandoned as a concept in the 3rd edition in favour of an undecided or uncommitted character. I guess the idea of True Neutral was so difficult to play that the very idea of it qualifies by my definition as an Alignment Disorder.
Overall my conclusion here is that alignments are more likely to be become disorderly when they are taken to inflexible extremes. Certainly a skilled role-player can make a functional character out of any predetermined alignment description. Extremity itself is not a problem. Indeed when it comes to alignment (as with many things) it’s only a problem if it’s a problem.
Anthony is lifelong dreamer and hobbyist who approaches role-playing as one part storyteller and one part rules lawyer. Role-playing interests include world building, back stories, character accents and voices, and trying to keep his inner simulationist in check.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.