When is Alignment Irrelevant?

When it has no mechanical weight.

Alignment can be a touchy issue for gamers. Some people insist that it’s a great way to inform roleplaying, a starting point for your character. Others think it’s an unrealistic straight jacket, that nobody’s always good all of the time or wholly and irredeemably evil. It could be either of these things but most of the time it seems like an afterthought, a vestigial rule that lacks meaning for modern gamers.

Why does it lack meaning? Are the concepts of good and evil no longer relevant in a society of moral grays? Is it unrealistic to think that a character can be a shining beacon of his or her beliefs, an example to others? I kind of doubt that this is the case; I think these ideas are just as relevant now as they always were, and may actually be appealing to many because of their simplicity, their black and white nature. The problem, I think, is with implementation.

Let’s look at the current incarnation of D&D as an example. Alignment exists but it has very little effect on the game. Yes, your cleric has to be of an alignment compatible with his or her god, but what does being Good or Lawful Good or whatever actually mean? It can inform roleplay in the right hands but there’s no incentive to let it do so. I think a lot of people probably forget that it’s even on their character sheet; I certainly had to remind the paladin in my group that he’d find torture repugnant on more than one occasion.

Past editions gave it some weight: your alignment could be detected, certain weapons would respond well (or not so well) to certain alignments, and violating your alignment came with some sort of penalty. But even this isn’t a great way to incentivize alignment. It’s like working at a job you don’t care about: the threat of being fired will keep you working just well enough to not get fired, but you’re unlikely to do anything beyond that.

The solution (my solution at least) is incentive. Reward. I talk about incentives an awful lot for a reason: mechanical incentives are how you encourage the behavior you want in your games. If you want the Lawful Good paladin to uphold the law and oppose evil, you need to provide an incentive to do so that’s more attractive than the alternative. This could be as simple as providing bonuses to skill checks, attack rolls, damage, and so forth whenever the spirit of the alignment is being actively pursued. It could involve bonus XP. It could involve earning some sort of points or tokens that can be cashed in for benefits later. The exact incentive doesn’t really matter.

The important thing is that, if alignment is an important part of your game and the characters within your game, there needs to be a reason to pay attention to it. Punishment will help but will only get you so far; players will work a lot harder for rewards, things that make them better.

Alignment without mechanical weight, without incentive, fails to fulfil its purpose in the game. It might as well not even be there.

4 thoughts on “When is Alignment Irrelevant?

  1. Jeremy Morgan

    Agreed. I dislike some of the mechanical weight given in earlier edition (alignment languages, anyone?) but I think 4E went a little too far in removing all mechanical benefits.

    I like the idea of incentives, as alignment is something that interests me greatly. I must say I’d need to see some examples, as I’m starting to move away from alignment-based mechanics into something more motivation-based. I’d love to have my cake and eat it too, though.
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  2. Brian

    Quick-and-dirty example: You’re Lawful Good. Whenever you do something that is in service to the Law or to Good, you get a +1 to the roll. If you do something that is opposed to either, you take a -1.

    This could be expanded to be more of a reward mechanic: the +1 (or -1) lasts until your next rest, for example.

  3. RJ

    Sometime back when 3E came out, I read an article or something (or maybe it was in the PHB) which made the distinction between alignment being a “straightjacket” vs. alignment being a “tool.” I forget what it said but the comparison always stuck with me, because it’s how I learned to solve all those problems we come up with when talking about alignment, like, “Is it ever OK for a LG character to do x?”

    Alignment is basically the WHY of the character. A PC kills someone, or rescues a bunch of orphans from a burning building, or sneaks into the villa under the cover of night to liberate the priceless macguffin from the clutches of the local aristocracy, and their alignment helps you figure out why they do it. It’s like the only aspect of the ruleset that serves as the link between the character’s internal motivation and their external actions, and it becomes useful when you start using it that way because it leads to all sorts of inspiration, allowing your players to settle into their roles, discouraging metagaming & encouraging everyone to bear witness to the world you’ve created for them through the eyes of their characters.

    So I guess it depends on what you mean by “irrelevant.” I do miss the emphasis that was given to alignment in previous editions, & I’ve always felt that they dialed it way down for 4E because so many players & DMs insisted on looking at it like, “Well this character is XY so they would never do z!” Sure they would, and alignment helps you figure out exactly why.

  4. Brian

    I think using it as the “why” is fine, but might lead to somewhat shallow characters. If your answer to “Why is my paladin helping the orphans?” “Because he’s Good” . . . well, that’s kind of an unsatisfying answer. Being good (or evil) isn’t a motivation. Being good (or evil) is the result of how you are perceived, which is the result of things that are important to your character. If we’re going to have something that gives us the “why” of things, I’d rather it be something more personal to the character. Nobody is Good for Goodness sake, or Evil for the sake of being Evil. Such characters are flat and one-dimensional in fiction, and the same is true of roleplay. You can be perceived as Good because of your actions, but the actions don’t arise simply because you’re Good; they arise because you’re doing things that are important to you for some deeper reason.

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