RPG Corner: Alignment

Few things get gaming geeks more riled up than arguing about alignment. Worthwhile or pointless, good or bad, nonsensical or the Best Thing Evar? Goodness (or Evilness or Chaositude or what have you) knows, if you’ve ever dealt with an angry twelve year old “role playing” a chaotic evil character in your party, you’ve seen how bad alignment can be when played poorly. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you think about it for too long. But it’s been an integral part of game design almost from the beginning, for better or worse.

My question for you this week is, “What classic AD&D alignment would your favorite comics characters be?” I’ll start it off with a very obvious one — Superman is Lawful Good. Never does anything selfish, always plays by the rules, thinks authority is the best thing since Lois in a mini-skirt, code against killing, the works.

But how would you rate Batman, or Spider-Man, or the more troublesome and dark characters like The Punisher or Spawn? Do you judge characters by what they do, or where they’re from, or what they say they’re about, or what?

Also, how do you judge characters’ actions in games that do not have a formal Alignment system, like Champions for instance? Do you find that leaving that mechanic out enhances or detracts from the game play experience?

Finally, if you have any fun stories about alignment played either well or poorly in your RPGs, I’d love to hear them.

Have at it folks!

26 Responses to RPG Corner: Alignment

  1. Ben Trafford

    I think the Hero System concept of Psychological Limitations (or Complications, in 6th Edition vernacular) is the best way to go. It allows you to capture the richness of a character, without having to pigeonhole them within somebody else’s vaguely described system of ethics.

  2. I’m biased, as Champions is easily the RPG I’ve played the most, but I like the whole Limitations and point-buy system a lot. Definitely seems more flexible and meaningful than the static Alignment system.

  3. I agree with you both, sirs. Role-playing is mo’betta with Advantages/Disadvantages (I’ve switched from GURPS to Savage Worlds). But if I had to choose an alignment, I still ike the ol’ AD&D idea of “Chaotic Good”.

    For example:
    Captain America – Lawful Good
    Daredevil – Lawful Neutral
    The Kingpin – Lawful Evil
    Spider-Man – Neutral Good
    The Watcher – True Neutral
    Magneto – Neutral Evil
    The Punisher – Chaotic Good
    Deadpool – Chaotic Neutral
    Carnage – Chaotic Evil

    Of course, figuring out everyone else’s mindset in the Marvel Universe (any flavor) nowadays is more complicated than that and requires some serious d20 Limitations number – fudging… But that’s just meep.

  4. Anarchangel

    I’ve played both good and evil characters in the past but lately I’ve been playing a character who could best be described as chaotic neutral. She’s sort of morally ambiguous and I have to admit it’s the most fun I’ve had with a character in quite some time.

  5. I’ve found the alignment system to be silly. It requires a black-and-white world view, with cackling villains on one side and designated heroes on the other. It justifies slaughtering intelligent creatures since they are ‘evil,’ ignoring that you invaded their homes in the first place.

    It’s the Anaikin Skywalker defense: “I murdered a tribe of Tuskens, but they’re Chaotic so it’s OK.”

  6. Me, Myself & I

    I certainly believe the world(and game settings now) are more shades of grey than black and white. Narrowly defined Alignments rarely totally fit and despite their narrow definition there is still tends to be differences in interpretation. For example Owl_Poop mentioned above that The Punisher is Chaotic Good. From my perspective he would be more like Chaotic Neutral. I think he believes in the greater good and that his targets need to be brought to justice but for him the ends also justify the means. He often takes actions that are not only illegal, could be considered evil. Despite that most of what he does is to try to make the world a better place. I tend to interpret people with ‘the ends justify the means” perspective as neutral.

    Over all, I certainly prefer the psychological limitations method of viewing behavioral guidelines. Also I liked what White Wolf did with their Natures and Demeaners. In that system, whether your actions are good or evil are kind of moot. What was important is WHY your character does what he/she does.

  7. The Doomed Pixel

    I’ve found that I have to disagree with you, Jeff, on your statement that Superman is Lawful Good. To be Lawful Good, he not only has to recognize the law as supreme rule, but also has to obey the law, which he obviously does not. He’s a glorified vigilante; he could be arrested several times over for assault and manslaughter, and several other crimes. And in modern society, as we see all the time in real life, people are often charged for breaking the law, even when it’s for a good reason (stopping a criminal, etc.). The only possible way for him to get away with all those offenses is if he pleaded self-defense, which he can only do if the criminal threatens him with a deadly weapon or assaults him at least three times before Superman’s “self-defense” kicks in.

    All that ramble boils down to this: I believe Superman to be Neutral Good, disregarding the law personally for the betterment of society.

  8. We never used alignment for the players in games I played. It was just too restrictive and didn’t allow for the characer to grow and change over time. For example, there was one guy who started out with a naive and good cleric who, over time, lost his family, his faith, and his wealth, and ended up as a con man and grifter, snookering people out of their money with his powers.

  9. On the other hand, we DID use alignment for NPCs and monsters; it was much easier for the DM to flesh out an NPC using alignment. That’s not to say he didn’t throw alignment away if the situation called for it though.

  10. Montana Player

    I think Palladium’s alignment system is pretty good and workable; I think it gives great guidelines for actions. It’s not as vague as D&D seems to be.

  11. sutter_kaine

    In most fantasy settings (and maybe in superhero settings for that matter) good and evil are not merely philosophical concepts but literal forces at war, and the characters are soldiers (willing or otherwise) in that war. Take away good and evil and you take away the whole point of the story. It’s the struggle with temptation that defines a hero much more than big weapons or magical powers.

    You could certainly write a story about a conflict between two rival evil factions, but personally I think it would be harder to find a sympathetic or relatable character in that setting. Who would you root for? I recently read a trilogy of Warhammer books featuring dark elves. Virtually every character was irredeemably evil. The books were okay, but even after making it all the way to the third book, I didn’t really feel invested in any of the characters, mainly because I didn’t LIKE them (my fault for choosing the books, though). And I think some writers make the mistake of confusing “chaotic and unpredictable” with “interesting”. A setting without good AND evil would be pretty dull in my opinion.

    I think the point of alignment in an RPG setting is to help the player stay in character, or more specifically to keep the character behaving in a consistent fashion. Randomly changing your character’s behavoiral patterns (or when it’s advantageous to a given situation) kind of undermines the whole idea of role playing. Again, in my opinion.

  12. I think the whole alignment thing is just another way for Wizards of the coast to say that ‘Wievers are morons’, who must be hand held, because they too stupid to make up their own minds. Its the whole class system and level system all over again, except this time in the moral dimension.

    That’s why I prefer RQ, because it features alignments as rather sides to take. Trolls view themselves as the good guys, whom the evil sun god drove out of the Good place (known to others as the Underworld) and all the others are evil enemies/snack. To orlanthi the yelmists and lunari are evil, who think orlanthi are sun killers and barbarians. Westerner monotheists view polytheists as evil pagans etc. Basically in RQ morality depends entirely on what culture you belong to. Whom do you defend and who are threats to them? The only really EEEEVIL creatures are the chaotics, who do lots of raping, mind eating, disease spreading and headhunting.

    If one had to make get into D&D-like alignments, my favorites are neutral evil (neutral me) characters played without melodrama. That alignment captures best the whole realistic attitude that I’m looking, while other alignments see too much impractical idealists to me. Chaotic evil goes for sadism, Lawful evil goes for oppression, lawful neutral goes for order, chaotic neutral strives for anarchy and rebellion. Lawful good is fanatical goody-goody stuff. True neutral is all about balance and all that don’t-get-attached jedi crap. Chaotic good is all about sticking it to the man. Neutral good is the only alignment with the same non-fanatical attitude towards ideals as neutral evil, except it fits less for the whole mercenary group theme that most RPGs are to be played with.

    I mean, be honest, PCs mostly just get hired to do morally questionable missions, they meet guys who object to that, kill them, take their stuff and then spend it on better weapons so they could be better at killing people who object them and at the end of the day get to call themselves the good guys. That’s the american dream which is at the heart of the appeal of RPGs, but does it seriously have anything to do with some absolute moral dimension, or is it just a hypocritical subtext for basically Neutral evil characters to sleep better at night in between atrocities? I think that the whole alignment thing comes down to a simple sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism, and it doesn’t really matter, what that predicular idealism happens to be. I also don’t think that single-minded fanatics make good characters, because card board heroes are uninteresting, so non-committing cynicism (neutral me) is the way for me.

  13. sutter_kaine

    @Kalkin – What you said about the unintentional (at least I assume it’s unintentional) lunacy of breaking into someone’s home, killing them, and taking their stuff and still getting to be the good guy is dead on. But think about this. If you’re (general “you”, not specifically you) a cynical person living in a grey world with a sliding scale of morality, and you’re playing a cynical character in a grey world with a sliding scale of morality, aren’t you essentially playing yourself? Doesn’t that sort of undermine the concept of role playing? I agree that “cardboard heroes” are uninteresting, but a good guy doesn’t have to be an extreme caricature. D&D characters don’t have to be automatons. They can chafe under their alignment and have to think up creative ways to remain faithful to their personal convictions without breaking the letter of the law, like say a paladin who’s been ordered to get rid of some kobolds but doesn’t want to hurt them because they’re just minding their own business. Kobolds aside, that’s a genuine real world dilemma.

  14. Oh-noes! Has the world turned into the World of Warcraft? Ya’ll know what I mean: kill stuff and power-up, no matter what “side” you’re on. Is that why the “black knight” rules behind “police” (riot) shields worldwide nowadays? Seriously, there ain’t a single person real or imagined that doesn’t have a goal or fifty in mind. Do the ends justify the means? Yeah! But no “outlaw” in any fashion will ever see “justice” and “mercy” the same way. Ergo, there’s always a line drawn. Deathstroke the Terminator may cross one that Deadpool will skip out of spite, Madman may seriously consider, and Spawn may just shock the hell out of you for straddling it and leaving “everyone” unfulfilled.

    For every situation there’s a moral compass, meaning a series of consequences, and so there is a difference between Good and Evil being served after all.

    As an awesome superhero sported on his chest, “Law is Not Justice”. Look at Robocop, Judge Dredd, and Marshall Law.

    (holy-moly, am I just gonna push [Enter] on this??)

  15. After reading all of this here’s my take:

    What most people don’t get about alignment is that it’s not set in stone. It can change (this is IN the D&D rules). Alignment is supposed to reflect your “moral upbringing” up to the point when you start playing the character. If your choices from then on are mostly consistent with that alignment ok, but it’s up to the DM to “police” his players and make sure they are either suitably penalized for making choices that go against that alignment OR if it becomes a common occurrence to change the players alignment in accordance to previous actions. This may even cause a PC to loose certain abilities or even in the case of a priest all his spells if the new alignment goes against his old god.

    As far as specific alignments go, I think people read too many restrictions into them. For example, lawful is describes as: characters who tell the truth, keep their word, respect authority, honor tradition, and judge those who fall short of their duties. Notice that there is NO mention of strict adherence to the LAW.

    My experience as far as playing characters is that Chaotic good is the easiest to play. Most people’s first character tends to be CE. The most fun I’ve had were the few times I played an evil character. Chaotic Evil is particularly fun, but it doesn’t imply a cowardly character. I’m currently playing a CE Pirate Wizard who is often found going toe-to-toe with our party’s foes (obviously having a very good magical item defense and being lv-18 with lots of offensive spells helps ;) )

  16. Ugh. If you say evil-acting people are totally Good of COURSE alignment is going to look weird!

  17. I remember having trouble with alignment in regards to “lawful” and “chaotic” when designing a DnD 4.0 character. He was a criminal mastermind, the leader of a gang, but he was a bit quirky in that he had these personal rules, like a code of honor, that he followed and enforced in the gang. And that got me to thinking: Is he chaotic for being a criminal and not obeying the local law, or is he lawful for adamantly following a set of rules, albeit not the rules most people follow? In the end, I decided not to play him.

    What bothers me is how in DnD the alignments are in theory considered universal, but, as stated above, in practice they aren’t. Another example: What if a character thinks he’s a good guy, but he’s really delusional and has a skewed perception of what helps the world vs. what hurts it?

  18. 4.0? He’d be Unaligned.

  19. D&D alignment was absolutist because it was lifted and twisted from Moorcock’s stuff, where Order and Chaos literally fought, with champions and everything. With outside forces making the rules, there’s no room for individual perception. Your delusional character might think he’s doing good, Jadebrain, but the gods (or whatever’s above them, making the rules they live by) consider him evil, and so he is evil.

  20. Good or bad alignments are here to stay. People in fantasy settings generally love them because of the simplistic nature of defining what’s what. They’ve been there from the dawn of RPGs and are implemented in all of their variations.
    I haven’t seen a comment on it so here it is: Definitions.

    Lawful-Good: Anyone who takes the “LAW” a bit too seriously and strictly (Judge Dread comes to mind).
    Neutral-Good: Someone who is law abiding and acts in the confines of it, never doing everything for the sake of the law but abiding its codes (Superman fits better in here).
    Chaotic-Good: Someone who will do anything to protect what is right for him. Justice and codes are conflicting for this guy (Batman and most comics anti-heroes will fit here).

    Lawful-Neutral: A law abiding person, doing exactly what is right and no more. (Most cops probably should fit in here).
    Neutral: Not here, nor there. This is could play in two ways: A volatile person that could act in totally random way; or a mild person who douse not act at all.
    Chaotic-Neutral: An implosive person, doing what he likes when he likes it.

    Evil is a tricky thing because it is subjective and miss defined in most places. I would use the “Destruction=Evil” formula here.

    Lawful-Evil: A neat person calculated and organized who brings destruction not with bombs but with numbers. (Nazi SS agents, Lex Luther and other master minds could be placed here)
    Neutral-Evil: An in between person, bent on destruction but uses parts of order and chaos. Usually surprises in his path for destruction. (The Joker could be placed here and so are a lot of insane villains because they have order until they explode)
    Chaotic-Evil: Pure evil. Bent on pure destruction and nothing would stand in their way. (A gunman in a school shoot out or Galactus)

    Those are my takes on the thing, probably a darker more realistic approach to alignments.
    If we have it more defined we could put people more easily in them.
    (Spellchecker douse not always work so I apologies about any and all misspells and grammar mistakes).

  21. knighthawk

    As Worf said: “Alignment is supposed to reflect your “moral upbringing” up to the point when you start playing the character.” I agree totally to this statement, it is the start, it is how your ma’ma raised you kindly or why your in such an attitude over your drunk uncle’s “might makes right” right before he belt ya with all his might.
    It is the foreshadowing, if you stick to your ways and keep to the teachings, all goes well. If life shows you a new way of thinking, your moral compass might be shifted.

    A great example is the last airbender, Zuko goes from CE (everything and everyone will die for me to bring in a 100 year old spiritual entity so my honor is restored) to NG {I don’t hate you/ i’ll overthrow my father to bring balance back to the world}

  22. I hate coercive Gygaxian alignment systems with a passion, and will do you all the great favor of skipping my usual rant, and just say two things.

    One, not everybody wants to play a limited character stereotype from an extremely short list, and I despise any rule or gamemaster who would apply game system penalties to a player who wanted to do something that doesn’t fit on their pop psych chart.

    Second, role playing is all about having fun as a character who may bear a suspicious similarity to you, or may be radically different. If you let the gamemaster abuse your character until you behave how he thinks your character should be played, then you are the one who isn’t getting the point of this whole roleplaying thing.

  23. It’s evolution, man! D&D gave us Alignment as a framework to personalize our characters and the world(s) they inhabit. Something more than just stats and dice.

    Looking back, D&D was computer BASIC. Now we have C++, ColdFusion, SQL, VisualBasic, and all sorts. I don’t fault D&D’s creators for Alignment as an absolute. Rather, as a way to customize.

    With the right GM, Alignment is at the core of a D&D universe. It’s not just how your characters behave, it’s their reason for being.

    I understand that it doesn’t work in all game systems. The concept can be confining, impractical, and considered obsolete. But that’s real-world thinking. Which, frankly, kills the joy and escapism of RPGs.

    Worst example of Alignment ever played. We had a “Neutral” monk in our compliment of six. We had reached the end of our quest and only four giants to kill. Well, Mr. Neutral started attacking the party. Why? Well, six of us, four of them. So “balance” dictated 5-on-5. Yeah, we killed him.

  24. Idiosyncracy

    …now I want to play a Chaotic Evil character.

    I mean, seriously, if you look at the individual components, it should be possible to play them as non-psychotic. Chaotic, well, that’s a strong individualistic personality, with disregard for norms, rules and conventions. The evil is, well, simple lack of compassion combined with strong egoism. If you do whatever would help yourself the most, while disregarding everyone else (By, say, not harming them if you wouldn’t gain anything from it), you’d certainly be evil.

    It’d actually be possible to play a CE pacifist. Imagine a highly intelligent character who believes him/herself superior to everyone else, and believes that violence is only the tool of the unsophisticated savages.

    He/she might still be completely diabolical (Or should I say demonic?), and show blatant disregard for the consequences of their actions, resulting in them ruining countless lives. They just wouldn’t be violent – After all, if you’re the best, and every rule in existence is merely the product of their savagery, then obviously you shouldn’t act like they do, using violence, but instead show yourself as the clearly superior being.

  25. @Idiosyncracy: I know someone like that!

  26. uh well here’s my take on the Allignments

    first the basics

    Good: the desire to help other people, putting others before one’s self. (your average nice guy)
    Evil: willing to do anything to get what one wants, putting one’s self before others. (your average jerk)
    Lawful: the belief that order must be upheld or the desire to bring order to chaos. (your average noncorrupt judge)
    Chaotic: the belief in individual freedom or the desire to bring anarhy to order. (your average anarchist)

    now the “corner allignments”

    LG: the desire to help people and belief that order is the best way to accomplish this goal. (a noncorrupt cop)
    CG: the desire to help people and belief that “the system” causes more harm than good. (robin hood)
    CE: the desire for one’s self to prosper and the belief that the law limits the character’s prosperity (a rebel)
    LE: the desire to promote one’s self within the system by any legal means necessary. (most politicians)

    and now Neutral

    Neutral (druidic): the belief that balence between powers must be upheld as nature commands.
    (a druid)
    Neutral (indecisive): one is unable to decide what one belives and does what seems like a good idea at the time.
    (your average teen-ager)
    Neutral (animalistic): one does not think about moral beliefs, instead focusing on survival (a wolf)

    I dunno I guess I just see neutral differently than most people but…whatcha think?