Friday 11 December 2020

Alignment I: It's A Relationship

A decade ago I dedicated a number of posts to thrashing through alignment in the D&D family of games. A few complicated half-baked systems emerged in these pages. But in the actual play of games I've run since then, I've never had players write down their alignment. Let me show you how it works instead, from my online game this year.

The atmospheric "burning bridge" from Dragon Age -- looks well burnt!

The adventurers, seeking a prophecy at a Dervish shrine, had to cross a magic bridge. The span gave protection from fire through black ashes that floated up from the chasm below and stuck to the person on the bridge. The amount of ashes was in proportion to the virtue of the person. This was relevant to the next magic bridge, which roasted its passengers with flames.

Judging this strange place was uncontroversial. Everyone remembered the characteristics that had emerged over by then six months of weekly play. Some characters had shown benevolence and moral prudence, attracting a full coating. Others had shown the deficient magnetism of their moral compass by constantly urging mayhem, torture, and murder. Sparse were their ashes indeed! 

And this discrepancy set up one of the more touching moments of the campaign. A virtuous lizardman sun-priest embraced a questionable armadillo-folk* entertainer, and this act of compassion transferred half of his protection to the sinner, allowing both to pass scorched but alive.

Indirectly, my example illustrates the first and most useful point about alignment. It is not a rule, but a relationship.  I treated the rewards of virtue as judgement from an implied spirit of the bridge. The spirit had total access to past deeds, and its own concept of sin and virtue. Would a different spirit have decided differently? Possibly!

Do you, the GM or designer, sometimes need to make benefits or malisons depend upon player behavior? You can avoid the many pitfalls of a universal rule by stepping into the role of a supernatural judge with its own agenda. For example, if you feel the powers of a paladin need a limitation on behavior, you can make level advancement conditional on a "performance review" with an angelic tutor. Play it out as you would for any other non-player character in a mentor role.

Alignment in the environment is another story. You can have spells that detect, defend, and attack the forces of good, evil, law, and chaos. But only by becoming a lich or a saint can a player-character register in this world of essences.

This brings me to two ideas from my earlier musings on alignment. They have endured in my game-running, not as rules, but as principles, lurking in the background. I'll cover them in the next two posts.

Alignment is inconsistent - but so is morality

Neutrality is everyday morality


  1. This post got me to reading through all your previous posts on alignment - which I had previously missed - and I'd just like to say that I've always believed in the alignments-as-teams approach and that from your writings I found a great deal of things to think about, and to agree with.

    Well done.

  2. I like this post. I also like your other posts, especially in relation to this post, since its much easier to be a mystical judge when you have a law system. I'd be interested if you have any more thoughts?