Anybody who has participated in alignment discussions probably knows my position on the subject: I don’t like it. I am not saying it was useless, or that people who do like it are retrogrades. It’s simply not my cup of tea.
But there was one use of alignment that particularly irks me because I feel it was not only relatively useless at the time (and now), but it is actively interfering with a better system: monstrous motivations.
Since the very first orc was described as “Chaotic” (before alignment developed a good-evil axis), alignment was used to describe the behavior of monsters. It did so and continues to do so, in my opinion, badly. Alignment, as a short-hand for monstrous motivation, is simply unhelpful.
Alignment is too broad. The category of “neutral” or “unaligned”, for example, covers many creatures with different motivations, from a brown bear defending her cubs, to a bounty hunter sent to capture the heroes, to a marut inevitable charged with punishing oathbreakers at any cost. Knowing what a creature’s alignment is does not serve well as a shorthand for how it behaves.
While some might propose eliminating a one-line description of monstrous motivation, I think that would be going too far. Knowing at a glance what a developer sees as a creature’s primary motivation is a useful tool. It’s good to know that the developers were thinking that a bullette usually attacks because it is hungry, while a dryad is defending its grove, and a pixie is a mischievous spirit.
These motivations are important because they should affect an encounter’s “Victory Conditions”. The present version of D&D presumes that NPCs all fight to the death. This is convenient in most cases, because carrying prisoners around can drag a game down, and allowing someone who tried to kill you to remain free always seems like a bad idea that PCs do their best to prevent. Nevertheless, knowing, as you design an encounter, that a given creature was built with a different Victory Condition in mind -- say, escape, or surrender – can be very useful and is a tool presently missing from the game.
In that spirit, I present to you proposed Motivations. These are designed to be used in conjunction with a character’s Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, to determine a generic creature’s strategies. It is not intended to replace narrative descriptions of a creature, however. Those will always be useful. This is only designed to be useful at a glance.
Peaceable: The rarest of categories, the peaceable creature has no intention of fighting the PCs. Most beneficial NPCs, shopkeeps, and other PCs intending to interact socially with the PCs, will be peaceable. Peaceable will fight if they have no other reasonable choice.
Pliant: This creature has free will, but usually attacks under the orders of another or in the furtherance of an ideal or concept. A guard dog, a Cyclops minion, and a cultic follower would all fall under this category, as would town guards. Pliant creatures might fight to the death depending on their commitment, training, and orders, or might abandon their ideals when the going gets tough. If a pliant creature has a specific master, who is killed, the pliant creature may be convinced (through the use of Diplomacy or Intimidate) to surrender.
Plotting: A plotting creature only attacks if they believe it will bring them gain. Master devils are archetypal plotting creatures. Plotting creatures rarely fight to the death if they feel there is a better option. They often have escapes prepared if the combat goes poorly, and will even surrender if it means a possibility of survival.
Plural: This creature cannot be properly classified as their motivations are too varied. Most generic playable races have plural motivations, though specific categories should be assigned more appropriate ones. For instance, while a generic “Human rabble” would have plural motivations, “human guard” would be pliant, “human thief” would be predatory, and “human druid” might be protective.
Prankish: This creature interacts with the PCs for its own personal entertainment. Whether it does so to teach the PCs a lesson, or to pester them with a riddle, or only to see how far they can be pushed, prankish creatures can be cruel or fanciful. Many fey are prankish, as well as other magical beasts, like sphinxes. Prankish creatures will generally have an escape plan, such as invisibility, teleportation, or even fleeing. Some prankish creatures, however, may be so magical that even death seems like an adventure.
Predatory: A predatory creature wants something from the PCs (or as a result of attacking the PCs, such as payment from a third-party), and attacks with the intent of taking it. Ravenous wolves are predatory, as are vampires, and even sneaky thieves or hired mercenaries. Predatory creatures will often flee before they die, once they realize their prey is not as easy a target as they thought. The heroes can also get rid of them, sometimes, by giving them what they want (assuming that is something the heroes would be willing to do).
Programmed: A programmed creature has limited or no free will of its own, attacking because it was programmed to do so. Most constructs and mindless undead will fall into this category, as will summoned creatures. Programmed creatures will fight to the death if so programmed.
Protective: A protective creature fights to protect something, usually territory or its young. Grizzly bears are protective, as are most plant creatures, druids, and even dragons. If the PCs are able to show the creature that it is not seeking to take the thing the creature is guarding – say, by fleeing the scene immediately, or parleying with it – they may avoid the combat. One combat begins, however, the protective creature will see any attempt to end the combat as a lie or a feint. Protective creatures will fight even to the death to protect their wards.
Psychotic: A psychotic creature fights for no reason other than a love of combat and carnage. They do not act in a rational manner and, once combat begins, it will usually end with the death of their foes or themselves. Orcs are psychotic, as are most lycanthropes and demons, and a variety of other marauding beasts.