Friday, October 21, 2011

D&D Alignments: A Lament


When I first started roleplaying, I was introduced to the hobby through MERP, a Rolemaster variant. It was lots of fun, though it was a simple game with plenty of design issues. We explored Middle-earth, got tired of it, made our own worlds, and pursued radically different creative agendas concurrently and somehow made it work. I got to play with some awesome people who were my best friends, and we had some deep, rich, and rewarding campaigns.

Then I went away to college. I was introduced to AD&D2e. I had heard it wasn’t all that great of a system, but it was the only thing the guys around there knew how to play. When I first met up with them, I asked to borrow the Player’s Handbook. As I read over Chargen, I seized on Alignments. I thought it was the coolest part of making a character. I could see how it would challenge me as a player to hold to it, and I figured that the game would reward sticking to your alignment even in situations where it would be advantageous to abandon it. The game did no such thing.

In fact, alignment almost never came up in the games I played. I got to game with about five separate DnD groups in college (truth be told, I crammed 4 years of college into 6). And not one time did alignment matter. No one cared about it. The mechanic seemed more of a shackle than invitation for roleplaying. Eventually, I gave up my quest for it to matter.

I hated that. I really wanted alignment to be important, in fact the center of my character. In truth, I think it should have been. It seems obvious that, at some point in DnD’s design, someone thought moral dilemma would be an interesting facet of play, but the game never supported it. Alignment is the ultimate flag in DnD when it comes to what a player wants his character to really be about, but the game never provided incentives for challenging and changing alignments. It would tell you how to do that (and offer some nominal punishments for the change), but not why a person should, or when, or offer bonuses and temptations for doing so. I felt the mechanic was almost entirely ignored by the game. I wish it wouldn’t have been.

This is why I have high hopes for Dungeon World. I’m not really plugging that game here, just relating that I am sorrowful that my experience with DnD marginalized what I found to be the most intriguing part of character creation, and that I hope DW offers me the chance to see what it would have been like if Alignment mattered.

Have you ever felt this way about a game? That there was a mechanic that seemed really awesome and even central to play, but was ignored altogether by the rest of the rules and/or players?




anarchist said...


Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

I've recently put out an ebook of my writing, called The New Death and others. It's mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard's King Kull story The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune and HP Lovecraft's Under the Pyramids.

I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog (either a normal book review, or a review of its suitability as gaming inspiration).

If so, please let me know your email, and what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy. You can email me ( or reply to this thread.

You can download a sample from Smashwords:

I'll also link to your review from my blog.


Martin said...

I feel this way about the concept of humanity in Vampire:The Masquerade.
I first learned about Vampire sometime in the mid-90s at a time when I had only played the usual fantasy-stuff so far. The idea of playing a conflicted character who existed under the constant threat of losing control and becoming a monster was something totally new and exciting for me - and it took some years of playing Vampire until I realized that it somehow didn't create the tension I was looking for; and some more time until I had figured out the reasons:
- There is no real mechanic punishment for declining humanity - very few rules reference it.
- The lower your humanity, the harder it is to lose further points. So what usually would happen during the game is that a character would lose a few points for stuff like accidentally killing someone while feeding, but then he would reach a point where the rules said something along the lines of 'to lose the next point, you'd have to torture or mutilate someone' - which is something that never would happen in our game, because we as players didn't want to do Real Evil Stuff (because we wanted our characters to be tragic heroes, not monsters) and we as players didn't want this to be part ouf our game.
So, humanity didn't have any real impact on the game. Instead of being that thing spiraling out of control, it was more like limit: We will go this far and no further.
I keep wondering how a game of Vampire would work with rules like Don't Rest Your Head - rename exhaustion to hunger, discipline to humanity and madness becomes your in-humanity, vampirish aspect... I think this could really work.

- Martin

[Disclaimer: It's been a while since I looked into a Vampire rulebook, so I may have gotten some details wrong. And I don't know if they changed the system for Requiem.]

Troy_Costisick said...

Martin, that was my impression too. It was so close to awesome, but didn't quite get there. I think I'll be doing several of these "lament" posts in the future. I really like just getting this stuff off my chest :)



Bwian said...

Hi Troy

I can see how one might make a whole variety of games 'about' moral codes taken from one perspective or another. But it never occurred to me to see the alignment system in D&D as a 'central' mechanic. Perhaps this is part of what you are saying.

I always regarded it as more of a way of publishing to others how I intended to play my character. But then, I never played any edition of D&D after AD&D, so maybe my experience was quite different than yours.

I never had a strong opinion about what D&D was about, so it never bothered me that alignment mechanics were not central.

I was first attracted to Champions, believe it or not, by the distinction between 'normal' and 'killing' attacks (which seemed ingenious to me, and just perfect for comic book violence) and the cleverness of point purchase system. Later on I came to believe that the best part of Champions was the idea of 'Character Disads'. I stopped playing Champions though, not because the Disad rules were not central to play, but because I found the combat system too cumbersome for repeated play.

Maybe this is an example of what you are talking about. The interesting part of the superhero genre for me was the stuff covered by the Disad system, but nearly all of the time was taken up by other activities.

Or to put it more simply, I prefer role-playing and interactive narration to tactical combat.

I too have played a lot of MERP. I stopped playing it because I stopped being interested in just fighting stuff. But I'm curious about why you call it 'simple' and what design problems you see are

Damián said...

A few years ago, I started a thread at Story-Games regarding this very subject. :P

In my experience, most players see it as a crutch as best, and as a hindrance at worse.

The only times I saw them in play were when the DM forced his hand about them. For example, I was DM'ing AD&D (2nd), and one of my players (allegedly a NG mage) started killing innocent people in cold blood; he suffered a massive XP penalty, and the player got very close to a social break-down, until I suggested he could permanently change his allignment to NE and prevent that from ever happening again. (He played exclusively NE characters from then on.)

Another example was my brother playing to the stereotype of the "insufrible goody-two-shoes" paladin, chastising every other player for the most ridicule and minor faults (to the point where everyone was openly plotting to get rid of the character in the most devious way possible).

*sigh* So many interesting oportunities lost to missunderstanding their role-playing potential.

Unknown said...

I was delighted to find this web site.I wanted to thank you for your time reading this wonderful! I really enjoyed every bit of it and I've marked to ensure that the blog post something new. agen bola, agen sbobet

Fastbet said...

I think more updates and will be returning. I have filtered for qualified edifying substance of this calibre all through the past various hours. Ibcbet

Ariana Richardo said...

Great blog! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the information are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which really should do the trick! Have a nice day! Ibcbet

Unknown said...

Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog. A great read. Agen Bola

Ariana Richardo said...

You should comment on the competition comparison of the blog. You can highlight it's mind boggling. Your blog exploration/tour will broaden your conversions. Berita Arsenal