Wednesday, August 14, 2013

If You Have No Use For Alignments...

...then I have no use for you.

This is not really a discussion about alignment systems or other personality mechanics. It's about the people who think they don't need them. "Alignments are for people who don't know how to roleplay" and all that twaddle.

Because I think what those players are really trying to avoid is accountability. They don't want to be bound to any hard and fast rule about who their character is. Maybe it's so they can freely crap all over their GM's world. Or maybe they want to be open to whatever plot hook the GM throws their way.

But by avoiding making statements about your character's inner life, you lose a lot of opportunities to actually roleplay. Even if alignment is a straightjacket, the character always keeps a key under their tongue. It's the moments that you break your alignment that make the game interesting.

A prime example is the movie "Hot Fuzz". Simon Pegg's character is a by-the-book "supercop". Since we're talking alignment here, it's fair to call him "lawful good."

The turning point of the entire film is the point when he realizes that his alignment was holding him back and the only way to beat the bad guys is not with paperwork and warrants, but good, old-fashioned, cliche-ridden violence.

For a slightly more geeky example, look at the Original Series Star Trek episode "The Galileo Seven." Spock, a Vulcan, and therefore eminently logical, leads the crew of the shuttlecraft Galileo as they try to escape the planet that they have crashed on. By the time they are able to repair the Galileo and achieve a weak orbit around the planet, the Enterprise is forced to leave the star system on another mission. Spock then comes to the logical conclusion that he must do something desperate if he wants to get back to the Enterprise, so he ignites the remaining fuel to act as a flare that Kirk can see.

In both cases, the defining moments of these stories are not when the main character plays strictly to type, but the moments that they realize that they need to break out of their boxes in order to reach their larger goals. And that's what alignment and similar mechanics can enable in your game if you let it.


  1. I'm not a fan of alignment, if only because I find it difficult to swallow the range of human behaviors being boiled into a very, very small number of packages, and because alignment can be very subjective. I like Palladium's alignment system oer D&D because it provides behavior guidelines instead of nebulous concepts like good and evil. I do like the idea of characters with personal values (and situations that make them reexamine those values), but I do chafe at trying to fit complex character motivations into something you can fit on a single space on a character sheet.

    Incidentally, Galileo Seven is my favorite TOS episode. :)

  2. I never had a problem with alignment in my games. Of course, it has a greater impact on certain character classes than others. I remember seeing in the old Polyhedron magazine from the RPGA where alignment was listed something like this: "Chaotic Good with Neutral Tendencies" and I think that might help some people get over the straightjacket feeling. I have played in several games that replaced the traditional D&D alignment with the Palladium system and it worked great.

  3. I'm not knocking alignments at all. In fact, I think they're a good thing. We can argue about which alignment system is better and how to make an awesome one (and I might just come up with a post on the subject), but I'm never going to say "alignments are stupid."

    My media examples were not intended to say "Look at these characters break their alignments." I was trying more for "Look at these characters stick to their alignments, making it all the more dramatic when they are finally forced to break them." Spock's act of desperation is all the more dramatic because Spock is the one doing it. If it were Scotty, or anyone else on the shuttle giving that order, it would have been a different story entirely.

    And in both examples, the characters do not turn their backs on their previous characterizations. Spock is still Spock in the next episode. And Simon Pegg's cop keeps on being a cop. He's just got one more tool in his toolbelt.

  4. I like alignment, but on two conditions:

    1) It should be based on character actions, not preordained. For example, the old Stormbringer game game you Law, Chaos or Balance points based on what you did, which allowed you to use them for boons or feats from the three powers.

    2) It should be just as much carrot as stick. One problem with older gaming is that some DMs and players only think of punishment for breaking alignment, not of rewards for exemplifying it. Palladium gave extra XP as mentioned, but boons from supernatural forces and social advance within the alignment community should also be part of the package in my opinion.