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Why I don't like alignment in fantasy RPGs


This thread is a response to something that came up on this thread. I've started a new thread to avoid the possibility of derailing that one.

In response to the one individual earlier (or anyone else) responding to "be looser about player alignments". I call B.S.


alignments, and more specifically, alignment restrictions, are about limiting choices...and forcing players to make the hard choice (or lose their powers).

So I ask you all, given these in game restrictions, meant in part to reinforce roleplaying, but also to put some limitations on powerful feats, would you, if playing, prefer:

1. Your DM reminds you your chosen action might cause you to irrevocably lose a major part of your character's abilities?

2. You are allowed to do what you want to try, and then (GASP!) suddenly, from seemingly out of the blue (to you) you lose a major part of your character's abilites.
As the individual in question, I thought I might explain my alternative views on these issues.

I'm all for presenting players with hard choices. Make the player of a paladin choose between saving a family member and honouring an oath to a lord or a god (eg maybe the only way to rescue the family member from debt bondage is to rescue them from a powerful patron of the church). Make a monk choose whether or not to help a fellow PC in getting revenge on an enemy, even though the desire for revenge is very obviously motivated by an excessive concern for worldly status.

But alignment doesn't force this sort of hard choice.

Rather, it forces the player to choose between playing his/her own conception of a LG/exalted/self-disciplined/etc PC, and playing the GM's version of the same character. This is because, at least in my experience, alignment is enforced by the GM against players, based on the GM's conception of what is permissible and what not. Hence my description of it as a recipe for player/GM conflict. There's no surer route to conflict, at an RPG table, then for person A to tell person B, "Hey, your conception of how a heroic protagonist would act, well actually that's pretty unheroic - and evil into the bargain!" That's a pretty insulting thing to say to a person, going as it does to the calibre of both their aesthetic and their moral judgements.

The further hard choice alignment forces, when it is a prerequisite for character abilities and when the player and GM have different evaluative opinions, is between playing the PC as the player envisages him/her, but losing the abilities that are central to the character as a mechanical vehicle in the game, or keeping the mechanical abilities but following the GM's line on PC personality.

This is just a recipe for more conflict at the game table. Even more so if, as in the traditional game, the situations in respect of which the player's choices are triggering the alignment questions are situations that have been presented to the players by the GM. This is (in my view) one of the most dysfunctional forms of railroading.

I don't object to balancing powerful abilities with limitations - even, perhaps, certain sorts of personality disadvantages - but doing it via the mechanism of "you lose if the GM doesn't share your conception of your character's moral life" is (in my view) not the way to do it.

A Paladin is supposed to be both Lawful and Good. Its actually very important to how the class/profession is supposed to behave. If you throw the whole concept out of the window-then what governs the paladins's behavior?
What governs the paladin's behaviour is the player's conception of what is lawful and good. Not the GM's. If you assume that your players can't be trusted in this respect - that they have no interest in actually playing an honourable holy warrior - then (in my opinion) you have problems at your game table which alignment rules won't solve.

(An exception to this might arise in a hardcore gamist game, where players are expected to milk every last tactical and operational advantage out of their PCs, even if this means bending the spirit of the most natural ingame interpretation of their PCs' abilities. But in that sort of game, I suggest that using personality-type disadvantages at all as a balancing mechanicsm is a recipe for disaster. For more evidence on this point, consider the points-buy horror stories that come out of a certain approach to GURPS, HERO etc.)

Again, they are supposed to uphold a CODE of conduct. If they can just act any way they want, any time they want there is no code.
Objecting to alignment isn't saying that a paladin or a monk shouldn't act a certain way. It is putting control over the interpretation of that requirement into the player's rather than the GM's hands.

A Paladin's deity (IF he has one, he doesnt have to), or the dieties/forces of good DICTATE what they expect. The DM is effectively those forces. If paladin cannot uphold whatever those standards are, he risks having his divine pally powers taken away, and being a fallen paladin.
And this is the crux of it. In my view, if divine PCs' powers are in part to be dependent on the good graces of their gods, then the GM ought not to be the sole arbiter of what counts as behaviour acceptable to the gods. Some of that player needs to be given to the relevant players(s). Otherwise the game table conflict I have referred to above is just a real life evaluative disagreement away.

But some acts are clearly evil and in the event a player develops a pattern of behavior that is clearly evil the DM should say "Change Your Alignment". A paladin is held to the utmost standards, the highest standards, the highest degree of Good and Law. BEFORE the game begins, a DM should define what these highest standards are when a player wants to take the class.
Obviously I disagree strongly with the last sentence here. I think that the player should be allowed to explore what good and evil mean as part of playing the game. And if it becomes obvious that the player in fact has no sincere interest in playing a paladin (or monk or . . .) then this is a metagame issue that should be resolved in a metagame fashion (ie all the parties concerned talk about it like mature people). Not via alignment rules.

Furthermore, after the game begins you should NEVER remind them, nor bring it up when something threatens their alignment. Let the player get into the role, and if they act in contrary to it, let them realize it in character.

If Paladins were always reminded "Ah, Ah Aaaah!" then they would never fall and experience the journy of redemption or go the path of the Black Guard..
Again, I obviously object to the notion that not only does the GM get to have a major say in the paladin player's playing of his/her PC, but also gets to do this in a secret, "Gotcha!" style. As for the falling issue - NPC paladins can fall or not depending on the GM's whims in setting up the backstory. It's not as if a GM who does use alignment rules, in giving the heads up to the player of a paladin that s/he is thinking of stripping that paladin of its abilities if the player has the paladin pursue a particular course of action, is playing an ingame role. It's a purely metagame heads up. NPC paladins don't experience any metagame.

Being a Paladin or a Cleric is to also risk falling. If you remind them every time, you arent letting them "feel" and realize the kind of character they really want to play. They might discover The Dark Side, realize they just arent cut out for that kind of life and have a crisis of identity, or be HORRIFIED and experience personal horror when they realize what they have done.
This is great stuff. I don't object to this at all. I've GMed players whose PCs have undergone this sort of self-realisation. But you don't need alignment rules to do it. Nor do you need to mechanically destroy the PC. If the player is genuinely interested in this sort of play experience, they will play out this sort of tension without needing that sort of threat to lead to it.

An actual play example, concerning a paladin in a Rolemaster game. RM is a game with random crits, and is also one in which defeat of foes frequently occurs by disabling them via accumulated penalties to action, perhaps leaving them maimed but allowing their bleeding to be staunched so they can be taken prisoner/sent on their way/whatever. The first time the player of this paladin actually killed an NPC in combat was when he rolled a death crit - 00 on the percentile dice - and therefore beheaded the foe. This sent him into a period of deep mourning and introspection, and he wandered alone away from the rest of the party. I (as GM) rolled a random encounter, got a low level demon, and proceeded to have that demon appear near the paladin and begin taunting him for his conduct. I assumed that the paladin would attack the demon, on the grounds that demons speak falsehoods and not truths, but in fact he interpreted the whole thing as a sign from his god that he had done the wrong thing and deserved punishment. He therefore let the demon beat him to a pulp, until - realising that there was no more sport to be had here - it let him go. The paladin in question spent the next part of the campaign trying to atone for (what he took to be) his wrongs by building housing for refugees fleeing war in a neighbouring country.

So like I said, I'm all for hard choices, and a game in which crises of faith and moral judgement are at the forefront of play. But (in my view) to be meanginful to the players these have to come from the players in the course of playing the game. That is, in my view, what an RPG is about. GM-enforced alignment rules are just an unnecessary obstacle to this.

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To a large extend I agree with your analisys. In my mind, the whole alignment system is a guideline for roleplaying. When players transgress, I believe it is always fair of the DM to remind the player that what s/he is about to do is contrary to alignment, and so allow the player to retract the action, or convince the DM why it is under the circumstances, not that much of a transgression. Furthermore, as a DM I handle alignment shift in a sort of 'three strikes and you're out' principle, thus, the shift is never based on a single event / action, but a series. Naturally, if the PC atones after having transgressed, these 'stikes' can be erased, setting the 'clock' back.

This way, alignment is still on the table, there is still the threat of shift, but it is the result of repetitive, conscious, decisions made by the player...


A cohesive argument and I happen to agree. Of course, what interests me is need for it. This is a game... a form of cooperative fiction for some, strategy and tactics for others, beer and pretzels night with friends or solving a mystery. I think some take aspects of the game too seriously. Everyone knows the saying about opinions and other orifices.

This is mine :)

I had similar problems with alignment but have since switched to the three tier method. Motivation, Virtue and Vice.

Motivations are taken straight from Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs while Virtues and Vices are in line with what ever age you're playing in.

I've found that this paints a much better map for players to roleplay on and for GM's to determine whether an action is inline with the character's world view or not.


First Post
I've never had a problem with alignments, either as player or a GM. Did I ever screw up according to my alignment? Yep, sure did. I also enjoyed atoning for my mistakes.

As GM I only take alignment very serious for those PC's who serve a deity, such as Cleric, Druid and Paladin. When a player chooses to serve such a "power" they are also choosing to serve the ideals of that power. Since I also use resources that give a pretty good outline of what is expected from such a servant I do not cut them much slack. So when they screw up, especially if they do so in the heat of the moment, I as the DM have every right to decide the consequences. I am the DM, so therefore I am the defacto stand in for every "power" that exists within the game I am running.

So unless the player can give me a rock solid explanation as to how their action(s) do not go against the demands of the power they serve, they will be getting punished.

If a player does not like my having the final say so then they have two choices, don't play a PC that serves a "power" since I decide how those powers will react, since they are MY NPC, not the players; or they can just quit playing in my games.

I would of course prefer they continue to play in my games, but the bottom line is it is my game. I spend a lot of time prepping for it, I give up playing in order to run it, etc... and as long as I am willing to consider their reasoning in the end they better respect my decision. Players play their PC's, I play everything else.


First Post
If there is going to be alignment, I want it to be a strong part o the setting and reflected in the rules. 3.x had some of it, as spells and such worked against/for different alignments, but it did not go far enough, in my opinion.

I would like alignment ot be 100% or 0, and most games I know the 0% is far better.

Interesting ideas on the motivation, virtue and vice. Can you give an example?

Basically in any sort of narrative a character has a main motivation. For example, Inigo Montoya was motivated completely by Revenge much like Batman and the Bride. While Virtues and Vices act kind of like a moral compass anchoring the character's most positive element and their most negative element.

So, instead of arguing what alignment Batman is we can assume that Batman is motivated by Revenge for his parents deaths and his Virtue is his Ingenuity while his Vice would be Murder. At his most positive Batman is extremely resourceful but at his most negative Murder of those he deems bad doesn't phase him.

You can better gauge a players actions with these three things IMO and the player has a better picture of how to portray the character.

If a character is motivated by Safety but has a Vice of Recklessness then it's safe to say that it isn't his personal safety that motivates his actions. Perhaps it's the safety of his party mates? Maybe it's a secret he is keeping safe and so on.


First Post

alignment doesn't force this sort of hard choice.

Rather, it forces the player to choose between playing his/her own conception of a LG/exalted/self-disciplined/etc PC, and playing the GM's version of the same character. This is because, at least in my experience, alignment is enforced by the GM against players, based on the GM's conception of what is permissible and what not.
Yeah, been there. Never to return, I might add. ;)

In a high trust environment (i.e., featuring maturity, mutual regard and respect, etc.) alignment can work just fine, IME. Quite well, in fact. As a guide, it's as good as any other. I've seen (and maybe even contributed to... :hmm:) some pretty darn good interpretations, some really smart uses, of the traditional D&D (AD&D - 3e, actually, I suppose) alignment system.

And besides, much of the time, it should (IMO) be "invisible".

Also, I would expect by far most people in your "average setting" (so to speak) to be Neutral. Followed by the Neutral ---- and ---- Neutral varieties.

While I can see what you mean with your OP, the same (or thereabouts) would presumably apply to, for instance, Pendragon. And, um, it would pretty much gut that particular game, were you to apply the same... "cleansing" to it.

The same argument could be made for D&D, though it's a bit of a curious case, given how alignment has changed over the years (not to mention the rest of the game! :p) - 3, 5, 9... take your pick. Still, I suppose it's an aspect common to them all, regardless of its implementation.

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