Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Out of Alignment

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 17, 2011

A lot of hate has been directed at the D&D alignment system since… well, since the beginning. The two-axis graph mapping someone’s personality with respect to good vs. evil and law vs. chaos has been a source of confusion, concern, and venom for over three decades now.

Personally, I think part of it is because some people get mad because they find their own personality traits described as “evil.” 🙂

(And I’m only mostly joking on that. While they are thankfully not the norm, I’ve met a few gamers in my time – especially back in the high school days – with a lack of social skills or empathy that bordered on sociopathy.)

Any system that you use to try and categorize behavior is going to have some broad flaws, tons of corner-cases, and outright exceptions. People are just not that easy to lump into boxes. They are wonderfully, quirkily complex. Almost nobody fits perfectly in a single category: Chaotic good, conservative, liberal, “blue,” INTP, “Type A,” Socializer, Achiever, etc.  Sometimes people will deliberately modify their behavior to “fit in” with a particular label that they prefer, and tend to project a black-and-white strict categorization upon others, but I think most people have some sort of a blend of most if not all aspects of any categorization in their personality.

Yes, even Chaotic Evil. I’m not sure it’s possible to drive in traffic without feeling a hint of temptation for what you’d do if you could use the dark side of the force.

Me, I always liked the alignment system in D&D. I felt it provided as adequate a framework as any, if treated in a flexible manner. And even in high school, I enjoyed playing with (and twisting) the stereotypes. While I admit I showed a bit more favoritism towards “Good,” I was fascinated by some of the source materials that described NPCs and communities as being evil which were not listed as antagonists. What did this mean? How did this work? If anything, these little ideas helped encourage me to flesh out more interesting characters in my adventures.

How does a “chaotic evil” community work? If you read some of the stories of some of the towns in the “Wild West” of U.S. history in the late 1800s, you may get an idea. They weren’t necessarily a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” like Moss Eisley Spaceport, and they weren’t necessarily even “lawless.” But the law and legal proceedings could be capricious, and fear of consequences only barely kept the baser of human instincts in check… and often not even then. While most members of the community might not be evil and might be quite law-abiding, the nastier elements had control over the local culture, if not political power. Chaotic Evil? I don’t know if you’d call them that, but it wouldn’t take much to tweak that model for fictional purposes.

So I had fun with the alignment system. Sure, I had plenty of evil villains who fit the evil villain stereotype. But I also had the players a little dumbfounded when they discovered that the funny, fun-to-be-around NPC was really pretty dang Chaotic Evil. If you were on his good side – easy enough to do – he was great to be around. But he thought nothing of doing terrible things to those on his bad side.

And lawful evil – that’s plenty of fun to play with as well. Like the pretty-boy “dark lord” who was polite and soft-spoken, had plans and dreams that could actually be somewhat tempting to anyone, but who adhered to a philosophy that the ends justified the means, and his ends weren’t particularly altruistic and virtuous in the first place. This didn’t make the players hesitate for a second (to my recollection) trying to defeat him, as he was still quite clearly The Big Bad, but putting a human (and almost likeable) face on the Foozle made for a much more interesting story.

Likewise, the paladin who is clearly not “lawful stupid” nor blind to reality, who does his best (but occasional fails) to adhere to a higher law out of principle even though he knows the short-term consequences may not be favorable (or even unjust) can be a fascinating character.

Anyway, the point is – I always considered the D&D alignment system to be a valuable tool, while I guess some folks saw it more as a straitjacket.  As a DM, I’ve always been pretty flexible with letting players play their own interpretation of alignment, only rarely stepping in to warn about serious deviations. And even that is more often a call for the player to roleplay an appropriate justification.

But does this apply to computer games? Particularly single-player RPGs – is it of any value to designate a player-character’s personality along an alignment system? Does it work at all?

I think it can. I’m just not fond of how it’s usually implemented. The Bioware approach doesn’t appeal to me very much, where a few actions get ‘flagged’ as being automatically good or evil (or lawful vs. chaotic) and sliding your character’s path in that direction. I’m not sure what’s more annoying – getting dinged evil for doing something that (from my vantage point) seemed perfectly justifiable if you have a slightly different interpretation of the events than the scenario designer, or NOT getting awarded appropriate “points” for going out of your way to do something heroically (or anti-heroically) good / evil. The arbitrariness of both the timing and type of reward gets frustrating.

In Ultima IV, however, I thought it worked well.  Far from perfect, but well enough. In that game the awards were pretty consistent for common actions, and there was generally an understanding (if you checked with Hawkmoon often enough, but certainly implied from the initial character generation questions) that most actions had a give-and-take among the virtues. There was rarely (if ever?) a single “virtuous” path versus a “non-virtuous” path.  It was predictable, controllable, and the power was in the hands of the player to strike the right balance or decide where to focus their efforts. While still obviously mechanical (and felt incorrect in some spots), it seemed to represent the nuances of the real world better than some of the more recent efforts.

So is there still a place for alignment (or something like it) in single-player RPGs? I think so. If done right, I think it could provide a much richer game experience.  But handled poorly, or as an afterthought, it still sucks.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    I agree that I like the system. It gives me a good understanding of what my character is willing to do and why?

    The big complaint I always hear is that the Good/Evil portion of the scale. “But some countries believe that killing a cheating wife is noble… and therefor the whole Good evil scale is worthless!”

    I find it funny… nearly all societies have stories about their noble hero who protected the weak and helped improve the world… Nearly all societies have stories about the unjust people who are willing to hurt anyone for personal gain… yet some people still believe their is no way to tell good from evil.

    I’m not saying it’s a perfect system… but I am saying that I find it to work fine.

    Anyways… I do have one major issue with the Bioware alignment system… because it’s not about a character or choices. It’s about paths and numbers.

    You gain benefits for being all evil or all good. But a character who has a grey moral code gains no benefits. In the end… the only real choice is to play a Paragon run or a Renegade run.

    Even worse… the bioware method rarely gives any real choice. “Will you help me?”

    – “Of course I will help you, it is my duty as a hero!”
    – “Meh…”
    – “Begging people is for losers.” … *Kicks Questgiver in the balls* … “But I’m gonna help anyways to pad the length of the game”

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    You know, Chaotic Good describes me so well it’s not even funny. So the D&D alignment system works perfectly for me. As for others that don’t work as well, the Hogwarts way of sorting students for example is explicitly said to be fuzzy. E.g. if you get sorted into Hufflepuff, it doesn’t mean you’re that and nothing else; it’s just that you fit better there than elsewhere. That’s perfectly reasonable.

    The problem starts when you take an alignment system designed for fiction or tabletop roleplaying and try to shoehorn it into a computer game — a notoriously inflexible kind of beast. You can make it work decently (essentially, you design a personality test), but it takes skill, and it’s tightly interwoven with pretty much every other game mechanic. So in a modern game it’s no wonder this part gets treated simplistically.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Okay, yeah, I go on a bit here. Lots of alignment-related thoughts. 🙂

    I’ll preface this by saying that I, too, like the D&D alignments. But, I see them as mostly guidelines rather than strict instructions on how to play the character. (Except in some cases, where a typical Paladin is expected to be Lawful Good, the shining example of their deity of choice. Deviation too far off the path brings the ire of a deity.)

    I think one problem is that the words used for alignments tend to be overloaded with connotations and cultural assumptions. I don’t remember the origin of the examples, but I’ve always thought this was a good guideline:

    Good – Evil = describes how altruistic or selfish someone is. A good individual believes “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Whereas evil individuals tend to be more self-centered.

    Law – Chaos = describes how much confidence the individual has on the force of law. Lawful characters who see problems in a society would try to fix the problems from within the structure, whereas chaotic characters would take any means they view as necessary.

    So, a Lawful Good character would believe that nobody should suffer and that the laws should reflect this. If the law causes someone to suffer, an LG character would try to work from within the system to change it.

    On the other hand, the Chaotic Good character believes that others shouldn’t suffer and one should help others regardless of the rules. If the law causes others to suffer, then a CG character would do whatever they could to remedy the situation, even including “distasteful” options like rebellion, assassination, etc.

    Lawful Evil characters are mostly looking out for themselves, and see the law as a way to use force to protect themselves. If the law were to cause them to suffer, they would work to change the laws from within the power structure. (Or try to endure the suffering and then inflict it on others to protect themselves.)

    Chaotic Evil is all about doing whatever you can to help yourself. Anything that causes you to suffer must be stopped by any means possible.

    The Neutrals become a bit wishy-washy, though. Neutral on the good/evil axis means that you value others about the same as yourself. Too much suffering caused to others or yourself requires change. Neutrality on the Law/Chaos portion means that you’ll generally follow laws, but you’re willing to work outside the existing structures when you’ve exhausted readily available lawful possibilities.

    One of my favorite 2nd edition characters was an “evil paladin”, who was LE. It’s a very different mindset than I hold; most of my characters tend to be CG, so it was pretty much diametrically opposed to my usual characters. He wasn’t mustache-twirling evil; he sounded a lot like Jay’s soft-spoken, polite guy. But, when someone in command told him to kill another party member, he did it without hesitation, even stepping through a firewall to get to the person (who escaped with a Ring of Teleportation and then the player rolled a new character). Of course, he demanded compensation for taking heavy wounds in the performance of his duty and was awarded a mithril sword. 🙂

    Paladins in particular are interesting in alignments. There was an article somewhere (I thought maybe the Complete Paladin’s Handbook, but I just checked and it wasn’t there; perhaps a Dragon article?) about Paladins for each alignment. The typical Paladin is LG, but what about a CG paladin? As I said above, I think it’s interesting to have a “paragon” type that does stick to an alignment and becomes the shining example. Not that you need to become “lawful stupid” when playing a Paladin, but you are expected to hold yourself to a higher standard than others.

    There’s some thoughts that hopefully entertained someone out there. 🙂

  • Maklak said,

    Personally I usually go for true neutral, and don’t worry about alignment restrictions.

    Anyway, here are some articles on the subject:



  • ThreeEyedCrow said,

    I always found the D&D paladins to kind of bigoted

  • Modran said,

    @Psychochild: Yup, that was a Dragon article.

    In another issue of Dragon, I remember a novel about a ranger and a paladin helping refugees, where the two of them finally came to blows.
    Why? Because the Paladin was more on the Lawful side of things (one the refugee had stolen bread from another, and the paladin wanted to cut off his hand, as that was the usual punishment), and the ranger more on the Good side of things.
    It was a really interesting divergence from the Holy-Goody-Two-shoe paladin trope…

  • Groboclown said,

    I thought the Planescape CRPG did a good job of dealing with alignment. Different actions moved you in different directions on the D&D alignment axes.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    In my mind, the Lawful Good category (and yes, that included paladins) was about principles and ideals taking precedence over circumstances, and about the good of the many outweighing the good of the one. While the cutting-off-the-hand example may be extreme from the story (which I never read), the paladin could very well be “right” from the perspective of the good of the refugees – otherwise the rest of the camp, taking cues from the one example – could descend into chaos, violence, and eventually starvation.

    Whereas Chaotic Good is something I always saw as having a focus on individual liberty – focusing on the good of the individual in hopes that the rest of society will follow suit.

    And yeah, that division – with both sides attempting to do “good” – is a source of constant conflict in the real world, too.