Alignment holds a special place as one of the distinguishing features of D&D since the very beginnings of its play. So it is with some trepidation that I assault this time-worn fixture, and try to show that its uses are limited at best and that, at worst, it impedes good gameplay. I believe that the alignment system is an artificial way to instill your character with personality. For a system as detailed as D20, alignment looks awfully terse. It more often than not serves to disconnect the player from the character and leads to formulaic situations. Behind these accusations is a belief that D&D is a game that can host plot-driven, immersive gameplay and not just hack 'n slash. There are numerous formulas in the system that may seem as much an offender as alignment. But as it is the most closely associated with actual character personality/habit/belief, I think it should be the one to go so that character personality can take center stage. Also, unlike something like character class (also a formula), little is lost if alignment is dropped, and much can be gained. I intend to show that alignment is a weakness in D20, meant to formalize the one thing that should be beyond formulas: character. (For reference, page 103 of the PHB (v3.5) begins a discussion of alignment.)
Alignment is supposed to encourage players to flesh out their characters, and it does, at least a little bit. As much as it's a tool to help people play more than a cardboard cut-out, it can limit your character if you take alignment seriously. It's a great tool to the new player because it gives them a starting point. But like all crutches, it can only take you so far, and to really flesh out your character in a unique way, you have to leave alignment behind. In the end, to make your character an individual, you have to be willing to see him/her outside of any categories they may fall into. Individuals rarely identify themselves as a member of a personality type for long before they go back to just being themselves. And being yourself often implies a host of nuances and contradictions that alignment can't account for.
You really only have nine different characters to play if you don't consider the differences that come from race and class. When you factor in those combinations, you get 693 possibilities (from the basic list in PHB). But is that kind of combination really how a person's character is developed? There are a lot of times I look at my character sheet and think "what would a chaotic neutral half-elf druid do in this situation?" But that's not how real decisions are made, even literary/theatrical decisions. It's sometimes helpful to remember these things when it's relevant: "Oh yeah, I wouldn't really like Orcs, now would I?" But just as often it leaves me removed from my character or stymied as what to do. Even worse, I'll resort to a typical action for my alignment/race/class. That will give the appearance of realism for a while, but it gets old fast, not to mention that it isn't an authentic way to experience immersion in your character. It's like studying your character from a distance, not role-playing.
Alignment inclines you to think about your character's loyalties, morality, and actions in very general terms. But in reality, most loyalties, moral decisions and actions are based on specifics. Instead of asking yourself how good or respectful of others you are as a general rule, you would usually consider your specific situations, or your specific moral beliefs, or your habits of action. The most natural answer to the question of alignment would be where your alignment lies - with your family, your nation, yourself. And secondly: what means do you use to achieve your goals. Re-interpreting and re-asking the questions that alignment glances over gives a fuller picture of a character. You can still answer those questions exactly how any particular alignment would; but now you have the option to answer them in a different way.
There's a pretty big problem with "good and evil," especially in how diverse the opinions have been on what constitutes the implementation of the moral or ethical principles (let alone what they are themselves). I'm not advocating moral relativity, but it would be blind to ignore the tensions that exist between even slight changes in the definition of a good action. Alignment assumes that everybody knows what's good and bad, and while that's generally true, why rob the gaming experience of the possibilities of moral growth and dilemmas? Such topics have been the staple of other literary genres and for role-playing to be taken seriously as an art form (as well as a pastime), it must be able to display the depth of moral issues that have made great books, films, speeches and fables.
Decisions that are based on specifics create more of a plot/character-driven game. These types of decisions are not only more realistic, they make for more dramatic tension. Sometimes, you're only looking for a smackdown on evil and thrilling encounters with the vile that yield up treasure. That's fine, of course. Then, the shortcut of alignment is a great way to briefly deal with the issues of characterization. But if you're looking for more story depth, ignoring alignment is your best bet.
To touch on the problem above about how decisions are made again, I would like to briefly state that choices are based strongly on personal history, past decisions, upbringing and childhood experiences. Of course no one is forcing you to think it through so deeply, but sometimes even a quick delve into the psychological side can flesh out your character and make role-playing more enjoyable. But, with the alignment sitting right there below your player name, it's easy to just give a pat response when a little effort could make for a better experience.
This next point isn't so strong, but I'll state it anyway: There aren't enough alignments. Again, it's a great way to briefly touch on where your character stands, but once you look at it longer than a glance, you realize that there a number of important qualities that have been left out. Some that quickly come to mind are the Briggs-Meyers personality distinctions. (Introvert-Extrovert, Intuitive-Sensing, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving) These questions seem to fill in some of the missing pieces of a complete picture of personality. I don't recommend you go this far, since, for most players, it is the same kind of artificial path to creating a character. All I'm trying to point out is that in addition to being stifling to character immersion, alignment is also an incomplete picture of your character's identity. It takes too little into account to be a good tool for character identity, especially if it's the only tool suggested by the PHB for personality.
These next few points are almost purely academic, but I feel compelled to include them. I assert that the chaos-law axis is nowhere near as fundamental as the good-evil axis. The two axes aren't even of the same type of being. The good-evil axis encompasses the move from being to non-being and the law-chaos axis is more like a function or subset of the other axis. Law is an attempt to formalize and structure good. The idea of law as utterly distinct from good is without philosophical, historical or cultural precedent. Law is at the service of the Good; it is an attempt to capture the Good and preserve/enforce it. Chaos is a term that ranges in the game from an excuse for randomness to a genuine attempt to preserve freedom. It should be noted that freedom is a good, and that law can actively support freedoms and liberty. This shows that law and chaos can be understood as functions of the Good, and that law and chaos are not quite the opposites that they are portrayed to be. Now, Chaos considered as an excuse for randomness is just poor psychology. If the character is to have any meaning beyond a context for adventure, some reason should be present behind actions. My last scholarly point is to assert that good and evil are misnamed in the game. "Good" should be called "altruistic" and "evil," "selfish." That is how the terms are used frequently (even though the game does often trade on the ambiguity of the terms). Besides, selfish/altruistic sound more like personality traits and are going to get you on the path of better character immersion.
Maybe right now, you're not in the mood to go and rescue someone- does that make you less lawful good? Yeah, probably. But the real question is: Does it take you out of what your character would do? Again, that's so much more important than making sure you match your alignment. There's a hidden idea that if you change your alignment too much or even at all, you're just being difficult and not sticking to your character. Perhaps people will think you made a mistake when you made your character in the beginning. But you should be able to express a fluidity of temperament if that matches your role-player's instincts or plans without worrying that you're betraying some rule.
I assert that alignment is largely a fictional construct that doesn't match even fictional standards of characterization. So let it go! It's easy to assert that (most of) these objections I have raised are based on abuses of the alignment system and not problems with it inherently. I would respond to that by saying: firstly, the system lends itself to these abuses; secondly, it doesn't match real psychology or good fictional character development/immersion; and, it's a superficial aid that ends up being a stumbling block to character-driven gaming. Yes, Wizards of the Coast has provided answers to many of these problems right off the bat (see the alignment section in the PHB). But that's because it tends to lead to these problems pretty easily. It's tough to believe that you have room to play with your alignment when you just might annoy the DM. And if real, story-driven character development is cool with your playgroup, why limit it to those few basic moves that you can make between the nine alignments? Is that as complicated as development gets? Aren't there many, many possibilities for significant character change? Yeah, I know it's easy to say that you don't have to be pinned down to those few that alignment allows, but when the system is there, it's going to swallow a lot of the creative possibilities into the standard structure of the nine alignments.
I know that there are benefits to the alignment system. But they are corrective and introductory benefits. New players are given a voice to speak for their first characters. Problem players are kept in line and have a standard of behavior that others can hold them to. But the benefits of dropping alignment entirely are substantial. You should find yourself discovering your character more deeply, enjoying a more natural interaction in the game world, and developing more complex characters. Besides, how many real people fit into alignment boxes? How many great fictional characters fall into only one square of the nine alignment possibilities? For each one that does, there are numerous examples of those that transcend the whole perspective of alignment. Great characters are not general; they are specific, and dynamic. They don't fit stereotypes; they break them. They cause us to question the ready-made answers about people that the alignment paradigm is so quick to provide. In short, gaming without alignment puts the character in the hands of the experienced player and the player in the perspective of a complex character.
I agree with most of your points on a character driven story standpoint, but alignment also greatly affects game mechanics, too. If no one was good or evil, what point would there be to Protection from Good and/or Evil spells? Detect spells? Smites? All of these are dependent on a character's quasi-mystical alignment. How would one deal with these sorts of spells if alignment were thrown out all together? Would you simply ignore those spells, or would they become relative to the user? Also, what about game balances between classes? There're some fundamental things you don't see like Barbarian/Paladins. True, there are roleplay reasons since they're fundamentally different beasts, but if you were to toss alignment completely you'd open the pathways for characters that can play class combinations that would be more powerful that would normally be curtailed by alignment.
Don't think I'm trying to say that Mechanics should choke-hold you into using alignment, moreso, I'm trying to figure what you would do in such a situation.
I want to start off by saying that I don't necessarily disagree with anything that you said in your well thought out and lengthy post. Yes, alignment is, for some, a bit of a crutch that can cause as many to stumble as it supports. Yet, I feel, and strongly so, that alignment is a solid system and one that can't merely be done away with.
As far as it hinders character development, I really don't see that. It helps less experienced players focus and is more of a background trait for those with many years of play under their belts. In my wealth of experience I have yet to admonish a seasoned player for not portraying his alignment. This isn't to say that they always adhere to some fundamental reading of the description and never vary in response or temper. The great thing about alignment is that it isn't immutable. Just like any other belief system you don't change it on a whim but after reflection or great experience. A man doesn't grow up hating orcs and change his mind just because one joins the party. Something has to change his perception, and it can, to cause that hatred to disappear. Alignment shouldn't be seen as static or unchangeable but as a part of a whole that makes a character fuller for being there. I certainly know people that I would say "she is a good person" or "he does his own thing". That doesn't mean that the good person doesn't have a bad day once in a while or that Mr. Free-spirit doesn't follow the group from time to time. It is just a useful way to generalize things.
It sounds like it is merely for flavor though, right? Well, that is definitely not the case. Alignment helps out mechanically as well. Class abilities like Smite, weapon traits like Holy and spells like Dictum and Chaos Hammer all use alignment as a construct to determine whom they affect. Yes, in the "real world" such considerations would be much harder to determine but this is fantasy. Gods exist, they embody certain absolutes. The world may not be completely black and white but the shades of gray are certainly less stark by comparison. Without alignment things like the outer planes would be much hard to conceptualize, in there current incarnation anyway.
Don't look at alignment as it affects one being's possible growth or the lack thereof. Look at it from a universal perspective. I see it functioning fine and would think that only those too fettered with their own perceptions of the mechanism of persona would have any difficulty using it as a base from which the individual grows.
You have fallen into the same mistake that so many others have fallen into. Alignment is a thermometer, not a straightjacket.
You should *NEVER* define how your character acts based off their alignment. You should define your alignment based off of how your character acts. It does not restrict you any more than a thermometer restricts the temperature. The thermometer says it is hot because of the air temperature, the air temperature does not change because the thermometer does.
To be perfectly honest, if you are in a game where alignment is an issue (and there isn't someone with an alignment based character, like a Paladin), the chances are you aren't using alignments correctly. You play your character however you want, then pick the alignment that comes closest to how the character acts, never the other way around.
Alignment is first and foremost a game mechanic that is used to validate certain "themed" game functions such as detect x and smite x.
I notice you point out a lot of problems, but as to providing solutions for the mechanical failures that taking alignment out the game will entail--there are none. Oh, well you did say it would be easier than removing classes. Mutants and masterminds removes classes and alignment, but there are no paladins and clerics. Maybe if you renamed the alignments you would feel better about using them?
An excellent and well-reasoned post, wamyc. You make your case quite convincingly.
The only part I have a problem with (though I'm probably not the best person to judge it) is the following portion, on the nature of Law:
wamyc]I assert that the chaos-law axis is nowhere near as fundamental as the good-evil axis. The two axes aren't even of the same type of being. The good-evil axis encompasses the move from being to non-being and the law-chaos axis is more like a function or subset of the other axis. Law is an attempt to formalize and structure good. The idea of law as utterly distinct from good is without philosophical, historical or cultural precedent. Law is at the service of the Good wrote:
I assert that the chaos-law axis is nowhere near as fundamental as the good-evil axis. The two axes aren't even of the same type of being. The good-evil axis encompasses the move from being to non-being and the law-chaos axis is more like a function or subset of the other axis. Law is an attempt to formalize and structure good. The idea of law as utterly distinct from good is without philosophical, historical or cultural precedent. Law is at the service of the Good; it is an attempt to capture the Good and preserve/enforce it.
Law is not an attempt to formalize and structure good so much as an attempt to formalize and structure, period. Law as distinct from good does indeed have precedent; witness any sort of militaristic dictatorship, where the laws are made not to enforce any sort of "good", but to keep in power those already in power and allow them the exercise of that power. (Orwell's 1984 is an excellent depiction of an extreme example of this situation.)
Chaos, incidentally, can also be the disruption of Law purely for its own sake.
And so people say to me, "How do I know if a word is real?" You know, anyone who's read a children's book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it! That makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction; it doesn't make the word any more real than any other word. If you love a word, it becomes real. --Erin McKean, Redefining the Dictionary
As much as I disagree with you, I must say that your paper (an appropriate term I would think) is probably one of the best anti-alignment threads I've read. And the first one I've considered worth my time to respond to (okay, so I'm a bit vain today.)
I find that alignment works just fine, provided that the characters have absolutely no idea what their alignments are (save if they use the spells). I change their alignments at my whim, and don't tell them. I find this allows them to role-play naturally, and for the alignment dependant spells to work. Obviously it has some flaws, if one of my players were ever to overcome their horrible aversion to paladins, I would need to scrap that idea.
The main reason I like the alignment system, is that I find that it adds to the flavor of my game. Without it, you can't have the holy cleric raise his holy symbol and shout feel 's rath, and then smite his enemies. The only other way for this to work is to allow for subjective alignments. Which create I find are much more prone to abuse then the normal alignment system. The subjective system allows for abuses such as "I can smite them because they are sinners" even if the religion has a very strict definition of how NOT to sin.
Well that concludes my response to your excellent thread. If only I could work up the energy to do something comparable (though probably contradictory to) your work.
A very well-written article, but, sadly, it's wrong on multiple assertions. For starters, the fact that you think
What would a chaotic neutral half-elf druid do in this situation?"
is a clear indication that you consider alignment to somehow be a static, never-changing status on your character sheet. And yet, there's nothing else for a character that never changes. Your stats can go up and down as you play, your race could change through magic, your age progresses (and sometimes even regresses), you might even change gender. So why would your alignment be static?
Your alignment as you define it when you create your character is a measure of how the character has acted up to that point. Create your character. Define his personality and past actions. And then tally up the karmic impact of that. Has the character been more altruistic or selfish? Is he organised, or spontaneous? That's his alignment. Alignment doesn’t dictate actions, actions dictate alignment.
Once you've done that, just keep playing. Your DM will take care of your alignment issues. Don't think "what would a chaotic neutral half-elf druid do in this situation?", think "what would my character do in this situation?". If it so happens that whatever you're doing is aligned with other forces than the ones you've been aligned with in the past, well, you might start changing alignment, then. There's nothing wrong with that. Alignment change can be a slow, gradual thing, instead of a violent, sudden epiphany. Maybe by the time you're level 10, you've acquired more structured habits, and you're not Chaotic Neutral anymore, you're True Neutral. Maybe eventually, you'll be given responsibilities, and you'll go all the way to Lawful Neutral, as life forces you to get organised. Why is that a problem?
The only time you have to think "what would a chaotic neutral half-elf druid do in this situation?" is when you're playing a character that would have to think that. If I'm playing a paladin, my paladin is the one thinking "What must I do to remain true to Goodness and Law?" not me as a player thinking "What would a lawful good person do?"
Play your character, and let the alignment sort itself out. That's your DM's job.
wamyc]It's easy to assert that (most of) these objections I have raised are based on abuses of the alignment system and not problems with it inherently. I would respond to that by saying: firstly, the system lends itself to these abuses wrote:
It's easy to assert that (most of) these objections I have raised are based on abuses of the alignment system and not problems with it inherently. I would respond to that by saying: firstly, the system lends itself to these abuses; secondly, it doesn't match real psychology or good fictional character development/immersion; and, it's a superficial aid that ends up being a stumbling block to character-driven gaming. Yes, Wizards of the Coast has provided answers to many of these problems right off the bat (see the alignment section in the PHB). But that's because it tends to lead to these problems pretty easily. It's tough to believe that you have room to play with your alignment when you just might annoy the DM.
Without this, I would have verbally ripped the post to a dozen pieces, while agreeing with you. So, you are correct. Alignment is not a good tool for encouraging roleplay. It is a "kill this"-label at most. Mechanics such as White Wolf's nature and demeanor, TROS's spiritual attributes, etc. reward certain RP and do facilitate it (or else...). In TROS, they are mutable, which is a Good Thing.