Conflicted and Misaligned: Storytelling, Conflicts, and Morality

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Sigh.

You know this going to be a f$&%ing great article when it begins with a sigh. And that was actually a very long, drawn out, exasperated sigh. The kind the goes on for ages and doesn’t end so much as trail off into the inaudible. A sigh that you know it’s still going on, even if you can’t hear it. Though silent, the sigher is visibly sagging and their mouth is still open. And then, at the very end, there’s a tiny rattle in the sigher’s throat as their lungs push out the last little bit of air. That’s the kind of sigh that starts off this article.

Here’s what happened: I was going to do a neat article about building settings and stories and fantasy religions around dramatic conflict. I figured that, since conflict lies at the heart of every story, you might as well start with it. And then I made a mistake: I talked about it on Twitter. F$&% me what a mess. Suddenly, I was being lectured about how I didn’t understand what conflict was and how all conflicts are just about good and evil. Everyone was falling all over themselves to tell me what a f$&%ing idiot I was. And, of course, alignment came into it. Because alignment ALWAYS comes into it.

So, thanks to shrieking morons on Twitter – and well-intentioned people who were merely ignorant and weren’t shrieking so much as just stubbornly bludgeoning – thanks to Twitter, I get to discuss conflict and morality and how it they fit into RPGs. I also get to talk about about alignment in D&D and why no one gets it right. And you get to read this bulls$&%. And then I get to moderate the comments. This is just going to be fun all around.

Conflict

Now, although my critics will deny it like insane street preachers ranting about the end of the world, I am a story gamer. In fact, I am more of a story gamer than probably anyone who uses that term. Because, while others are yammering about giving players narrative control and always saying “yes, and…” and making sure everyone fails forward, I’m talking about things like narrative structure, pacing, tension, themes, tone, conflict, characters, setting, and all those other things that ACTUALLY MAKE UP A F$&%ING STORY. Oh, and I am also remembering that fifty percent of the phrase “story game” is “GAME”.

Every story is about resolving a conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story. If I told you that I went to the store to buy some milk, went to the dairy aisle, found the milk, paid for it, and brought it home, you wouldn’t call that a story. You wouldn’t say it’s a bad story. Or a pointless story. It is literally not a story. But if I’m accosted by a street-preaching hobo who won’t let me into the store or if there is a 90-year-old on line ahead of me trying to pay with a personal check whose only ID is one of those “collect ten punches for a free coffee” or the store is out of milk or the cashier has a heart attack mid-transaction after trying to deal with an octogenarian who still thinks personal checks are a thing in TWO THOUSAND F$&%ING SEVENTEEN, those things are stories. And that’s because I am facing a conflict. And you want to know what I did. Did I punch the hobo? Did I punch the 90-year-old? Did I resuscitate the clerk? Did I go to a different store? And did that make me late for my anger management class?

Conflict is what makes a story a story and what makes a game a game. And yet, SOMEHOW, a whole group of people whose volunteer job is to RUN A GAME THAT IS ALSO A STORY do not understand what conflict is, how it drives stories, and, in fact, how it drives absolutely every aspect of the world that stories take place in. At its simplest, conflict is what happens whenever two forces are in opposition. For example: I want milk. But the 90-year-old woman wants to live in the f$&%ing stone age of banking and refuses to be dragged, kicking and screaming into the modern era. That’s a conflict. My desires and her desires are opposed. And we can’t both have what we want.

But – and this is where it gets complicated – conflicts aren’t merely encounters. Dramatic conflicts, the conflicts that drive stories, are actually about ideas. Go back to the little old lady on line ahead of me again. There really isn’t a conflict if I’m willing to wait my turn. See, there’s a rule. And that rule says “we wait in lines and take our turns in the order we arrived.” That’s a social rule. And it doesn’t matter if the person ahead of us is a complete a$&hat who is taking far more of her turn than she deserves. And you’d think she’d hurry given that she probably doesn’t have that much time left on God’s green Earth anyway. I’m not struggling against the old woman. My real struggle is the value I put on my time as opposed to the rules of an orderly society.

And THAT is really the key to understanding conflict. You didn’t really think I was going to spend a whole article explaining “conflict is when two things are in opposition,” did you?

The essence of any conflict is that there are two ideas that are at odds with each other. Now, that, in itself, isn’t unusual. Lots of ideas exist in opposition to each other. And normally, we find ways to balance them out. Normally, for example, I don’t have a problem living in an orderly society with rules and fairness despite the fact that I value my own self over all others. That’s normal. That’s every human f$&%ing being. But sometimes, a situation occurs wherein a conflict between two opposing ideas can’t easily be balanced away. A side has to be chosen. A priority has to be set. Or a compromise has to be negotiated. The underlying conflict becomes a confrontation. And that is what stories and games are all about.

Innies and Outies

Conflicts are a lot like belly buttons: they come in two different varieties. Innies and outies.

Innie conflicts are the sort of conflicts we face every day, often without even really noticing them. For example, when I’m in the store and suddenly confronted with that elderly lady in my way, I have to make a choice between my selfish desires or the rules of orderly society or I have a find a creative compromise. Do I shove the woman out of the way and demand to be served first? Or do I accept that my time is apparently far less valuable than some decrepit old fossil’s whose only remaining use to society seems to be transporting used tissues around in a giant purse? Do I politely ask the woman if I can go ahead of her because all I have is milk and I understand debit card technology? Do I move to another line? That’s an innie conflict. Two ideas that I want are in opposition and I have to decide how to respond.

Now, say I shove the old lady aside and demand to be served. I’m going to face some immediate obstacles. The cashier is probably going to be some bleeding heart type and insist that I wait my turn and not assault other human beings. And after I explain my views on the subject, using my fist as an education aid, the police will probably show up. And that is an example of an outie conflict.

In an outie conflict, each of the ideas in conflict have champions. I represent freedom, self-worth, and desire. The police represent the rules of order and society. And now we have to resolve the conflict between us. And it will probably involve tazers, handcuffs, a court-appointed attorney, and jail time.

Innie conflicts – yes, some people call them internal conflicts – occur entirely in the mind and occur when you have to choose, for yourself, between two ideas. Outie conflicts – external conflicts – occur whenever two or more people or groups or forces want different, incompatible things and end up in a confrontation.

Conflicts in Disguise

Confrontations in stories are usually between two characters with pretty specific motives. The Joker wants to murder a whole bunch of people, for example, and Batman wants to stop him. But at the heart of most specific confrontations, there’s a more general conflict. Batman represents just, orderly society. The Joker represents freedom, anarchy, and chaos. How do we know that? We know it by looking at the details.

For example, Batman refuses to kill criminals. His role is merely to capture apparent criminals, not to serve as judge, jury, and executioner. He imposes limits on himself. They make things harder on him, but he does it anyway. He also works directly with the police. Those facts tell us what Batman really represents. The idea of justice and social order. Meanwhile, the Joker works with criminals. He helps them get their money back. But he turns against them on a whim. And he puts people in situations where they are forced to violate the rules of society. He balks at rules and laws and order.

Just ignore the fact that Batman is a good guy and the Joker is evil. We’ll come back to that. Holy f$&%, will we come back to that.

Since we’re on the subject of The Dark Knight – which was a good movie but it was nowhere near the work of f$&%ing art that most people swoon over – since we’re on the subject, we might as well discuss how stories often have innie and outie conflicts as well. In the story, Batman is conflicted over his self-imposed rules and whether they really help anyone. It would be easier for him to just do whatever he has to do to bring the Joker down. Alfred suggests Batman might even have to give up his rules. Ultimately, though, Batman has the chance to kill the Joker with his Batorcycle and he doesn’t. Thus, he has resolved his innie conflict. That’s actually a very common pattern in stories. Before the hero can resolve an outie conflict, they usually have to resolve their own innie conflict.

Now, there is another conflict in the Dark Knight. One which is both an Innie and an Outie. In the end, Batman uses cell phone technology to spy on everyone in the entire world so that he can find the Joker. But Morgan Freeman says that spying like that is wrong. This is an example of a conflict commonly stated as the conflict between individual rights and security. That is, to be safe, we have to be willing to give up some of our freedoms. And to maintain our freedoms, we make ourselves less safe. Now, that conflict is really just another form of the conflict between social order and freedom. But don’t worry about that. Yet.

The point is most stories about specific confrontations are actually about general conflicts. And that is what makes them good.

Good vs. Evil is NOT The Conflict

Now, here’s the part people get fighty about. The part about morality. See, each of us has inside of us certain ideas about what is right and what is wrong. Right now, if I ask people whether social order or individual freedom is more important, there will be lots of different answers. And if then ask about specific situations, I’ll get even more answers. For example, I might ask if freedom of expression is generally more important than protecting people from discomfort or offense. Different people will feel differently. And that’s because, whether we like it or not, we live in a world without a single, provable, objective moral framework.

Yeah, I know those are big, complicated words. And I also know they are fighting words. I need everyone to stay very mature and open-minded here because it’s impossible to discuss conflict without discussing morality. And it’s impossible to discuss morality in stories without also discussing it in real life. And I realize that appeal is f$&%ing hillarious coming from a guy whose example of a moral dilemma is whether to punch an elderly lady in the face to save himself five minutes in the store.

The truth is that you cannot be a good game master without becoming a good story teller. And you cannot be a good story teller without being able to see things from multiple perspectives and without being a student condition. You don’t have to accept all perspective. But you do have to be able to understand them.

So, we have all these conflicts, right? Social order vs. freedom, individual rights vs. a feeling of safety, emotion vs. reason, justice vs. mercy, and so on. And whenever one of those conflicts becomes a confrontation, we’re have to resolve that conflict. Conflicts like those are called moral dilemmas. And when we resolve them, we’re making moral choices.

 

Over the years, lots of people have proposed lots of ways to resolve moral dilemmas. Both specific dilemmas and general conflicts. Moral philosophy, religion, and the legal justice system all represent systematic attempts to resolve specific or general moral dilemmas. The problem is all of those systems are just guesses. Morals aren’t physical laws. They aren’t like gravity. At least, they aren’t provably objective physical laws. But who knows? Maybe one of the major religions is right. Maybe there really is an objective set of moral laws that apply to the universe and maybe some day we will be able to prove that. I can’t say. No one can. Not with a certainty.

I’m not saying I don’t believe that there are things that are right and wrong. Certainly, I do. I’m just saying I have no way of proving my system for telling right from wrong is somehow more correct than anyone else’s. It’s just my best guess based on my personality, experiences, my reason, my beliefs, my values, and my best judgment. And whatever I might think, I still have to find a way to live in a world with a whole bunch of other people who also have their own best judgments.

What the f$&% does any of this have to do with stories, conflicts, and role-playing games? Well, that comes down to value judgments. It comes down to the idea of good and evil. And understanding that, even though many stories are about struggles between good and evil, no good story is about the conflict between good and evil. Because good and evil aren’t ideas in conflict. They are value judgments.

Let’s go back to the Dark Knight. The Dark Knight is about the conflict between social order and freedom, right? But in that story, Batman is clearly the good guy and the Joker is clearly the bad guy. And that’s because the author of the story is putting a value judgment over the conflict. Social order is good. Rules, laws, and social norms keep people safe and happy and they make us better people. Anarchy, chaos, and selfishness are bad because psychotic clowns will kill people and because you might have to see Heath Ledger in a skimpy nurse’s uniform.

But the thing is, social order is not inherently good and freedom is not inherently bad. In the situation with a psychotic murderer clown, it works out that way. But if we change the situation, we might not reach the same conclusion. Consider Demolition Man. That’s an absolutely fantastic movie wherein a destructive, devil-may-care, loose cannon cop is transported to a future society where all bad things have been outlawed and everyone is forced to be happy and nice and not think the wrong thoughts. In that movie, the free-thinking individuals have been forced into exile and the autocratic leader of the city is trying to kill them. In that movie, social order is stifling, restrictive, and domineering and it has led to weakness and complacency. Only the wild cop and the freedom loving exiles can save the day.

Want another example? Consider the classic movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In that movie, a high-school senior decides to skip school for one day to have the best day of his life before he’s forced to graduate, go to college, and enter the drudgery of adulthood. He’s pursued by Principal Skinner, who finds out he’s playing hooky and is determined drag him back to school. Ferris Bueller just wants one great experience, one fantastic memory, one break from the humdrum of daily routine. But the rules of society say no. No experiences. No memories. Just structure and order.

 

So, we have the same essential conflict in three movies. But each movie comes to a different conclusion about who the good guys and bad guys are. That’s the difference between the conflict and the value judgment.

Now, value judgments in moves can be more nuanced than simply saying “this side is bad and that side is good.” For example, remember that bit in the Dark Knight about the cell-phone surveillance system? That actually shows a potential evil of social order. Social order, the movie says, can also go too far. And the movie resolves that by having Batman put a limit on it. Batman gives the surveillance system to Morgan Freeman. He won’t use it himself. Instead, Morgan Freeman uses it for him and then destroys it. So rules win again. And in Demolition Man, the final resolution involves the crazy cop telling everyone that the real answer lies somewhere between autocracy and total freedom, but that people have to figure it out for themselves. Which means, freedom wins again. See how this works?

It’s also important to note that some stories are more nuanced. They don’t present the conflict in terms of good and evil, but rather show what happens when two equally desirable ideas confront each other. They show the good and bad consequences of both. Or they show that both of the ideas are dangerous when taken to extremes and that the real answer lies somewhere in the middle. But that’s not nearly as important for this discussion.

What is important is to understand the good and evil are not forces that are in conflict. Rather, they are judgments that we as authors, game designers, and audiences put on the forces in conflict.

Misalignment

And that brings us – unfortunately – to alignment. And why alignment in Dungeons & Dragons is an utter mess. Or at least, why GMs make a mess out of alignment when they design and run their D&D games.

Here’s the deal: all that crap about dramatic conflict and value judgments? That actually isn’t how D&D works at all. What you have to understand is that D&D and Pathfinder represent a world in which there is actually an objective, moral framework. Good and evil are real things. With real, universal definitions. Vague definitions, sure. Poorly written definitions. But they are defined nonetheless. And people, gods, and even the entire universe, are beholden to them.

For example, all of the gods have alignments. As do the angels and devils and demons that serve them. And the planes of existence, aspects of the cosmos itself, they have alignments too. Now, the degree to which alignments affect the game world vary from system to system and edition to edition. But, the fact remains that every edition of D&D includes aligned gods, aligned planes, aligned supernatural creatures, and aligned societies. Alignment can effect the rules of magic, especially divine magic, and alignment affects your afterlife destination. Hell, in many versions of D&D, alignment is a detectable thing. And that means that there is no question of perspective.

What that means is that you might do terrible things like murder and steal and suggest that Heath Ledger is a better Joker than Jack Nicholson for any number of reasons, but neither your intent or your perspective matters. You can reject morality. You can convince yourself you’re doing evil things for the greater good. But you’re still evil. Because it isn’t your perspective that matters. It is the objective laws of the universe that decide whether you are good or evil.

 

Now, before you get all all: “but you don’t have to use it that way, you can do whatever you want,” let me say this: NO F$&%ING S%&$. I KNOW! I F$%&ING KNOW THAT ANYONE CAN DO ANYTHING IN THEIR GAME! I GET IT! But that doesn’t make me wrong about how the game is written. And rejecting the way the game is written because you think its bad or stupid or just not very fun is fine. Just admit that’s what you’re doing. Because it is bad and stupid. And I’m going to tell you why.

D&D defines good and evil in terms of conflicts just like all stories. Selfishness is evil. Charity is good. Greed is bad. Protecting others is good. Hurting people is bad. Respect is good. Theft is evil. And so on. And D&D doesn’t really make any bold statements about what is good and what is evil. It’s a very simplistic, Sunday school for kids approach to good and evil.

The trouble is that D&D provides a setting for a story. And part of telling a story is setting up conflicts and, normally, providing a way to judge those conflicts. That is to say, assigning value judgments to the conflict. But, in most stories, those values are assigned by the author based on the sort of story they want to tell. And D&D very much wants value judgement. It’s a game about the struggle between good and evil. It’s standard epic fantasy fare, after all. But D&D’s conflicts and value judgments are pretty simple. So, once you get past simple conflicts like “hurting people vs. not hurting people” and try to address a conflict like “self-determination vs. inherent nation” or “passion vs. reason” or “security vs. freedom,” D&D doesn’t have any answers in its objective moral framework.

And that leads to a few problems. First off all, D&D is a “good vs. evil” story, which precludes a more nuanced discussion of any conflict. You can say security is good or freedom is good, but it’s much harder to say either extreme is bad and good is in the middle. Second of all, the GM generally has to act the part of the author and provide the moral authority for the universe. But the players in the game also represent authors because they have to be able to resolve internal moral conflicts. Their value judgments may not align with the GM’s universal moral code.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s as it should be. Role-playing games actually provide an a great way to explore various conflicts and the resulting moral dilemmas. And because the stories and situations change from week to week, mature, open-minded gamers can explore all sorts of moral questions from lots of different perspectives.

But f$&%ing alignment.

Alignment – as an objective moral code – requires the GM to declare what is good and what is evil. Because they have to know when a player’s alignment changes, right? And they have to know when the paladin falls, right? And they have to know how angels and devils will behave when faced with complex questions. Will the devil push a city toward authoritarian rule a la Demolition Man or anarchy a la the Dark Knight? Which one is corruption? Don’t answer. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that D&D has to have an answer and everyone has to be able to agree on that answer.

And this mess of perspectives and relativism and absolutism and dramatic conflict and the nature of the world and a really crappy presentation, this mess that is alignment guarantees that no two people will ever see alignment in D&D in the same way. Useful? Useless? Relative? Absolute? Defined by the GM? Agreed upon by the players? What is good? What is evil? What is lawful? What is chaotic?

Alignment is useful in games with clear moral rules that are about confrontations between good heroes and evil villains. The moment you want to add some complexity, the GM and the players have to answer some questions about how they want the world to work. That isn’t bad. It’s fine. In fact, it can be really cool. I’ve run some really fantastic campaigns in morally complex worlds using alignment as a jumping off point. But I put in the up-front work of developing and communicating the rules of morality. It’s kind of like adding space travel to D&D. You can do it. It can be fun as hell. But you actually have to work out the rules first.

Alternatively, you can add moral complexity by removing alignment. But you actually have to remove it. You can’t merely ignore. You have to pull alignments off the gods and the planes and societies and monsters and magic and everything else. And you have to decide what it means to have a D&D world with no alignment. What is a devil or a demon in a world in which law and chaos and evil aren’t actually things. That takes work too.

And this is why, before D&D 5th Edition came out, I wrote an article about how the designers have to either go whole hog with alignment or they have to remove it completely. But, they decided to just half-a$& it in an attempt to make everyone happy. And now we can all be happy with more endless “discussions” about how alignment works, what law and chaos and good and evil mean, and whether any of it is useful. Hooray!

In Conclusion? 

So, what does all of this discussion actually get us? Well, honestly, it doesn’t get ME anything. I already knew all of this s$%&. The only thing it is going to get me is a thousand new fights about this crap, mainly with people who read half an article and then want to lecture me about alignment, morality, and conflict. And that’s why I’ll be deleting any comment that doesn’t explicit mention at least one of the following colors in it somewhere: white, blue, black, green, or red. The people who didn’t read far enough to see that rule don’t deserve to comment.

As for you, consider this a primer. Because that article I threatened to write? The one about conflict-driven setting and story design? That’s coming. In fact, specifically, we’ll be looking at creating a mythology and a morality system for your world that will replace alignment and let you tell morally complex stories more easily. Neat, huh? Expect it in two weeks.

Meanwhile, before I close this out, I want to add one digression. A bonus section. You can skip it if you want. It’s just a side note about how f$&%ed up D&D alignment really is.

The Biggest F$&%ing Bulls$&% Mistake in D&D Alignment

There is a big problem with the two-axis, nine alignment system in D&D. You know, lawful-good through chaotic-evil? It isn’t as severe nowadays because the discussion of alignment in the rules has been stripped down to almost nothing, but it’s still basically there. And, to be honest, it was kind of subtle even in the alignment discussions. But once you notice it, it’s really f$&%ing glaring.

The conflict between law and chaos in D&D is basically presented as the conflict between social order and freedom, right? Batman vs. the Joker. Ferris Bueller vs. Principal Skinner. Whatever. And that’s fine. It’s a good conflict to build stories around.

But the conflict between good and evil isn’t, as I noted, a conflict. Instead, it’s a value judgment applied to other conflicts. Batman is good and the Joker is bad. Ferris Bueller is good and Principal Skinner is bad. Right?

After reading this article, that should stand out as quite strange. One of those is a conflict with no value judgement. The other is a set of value judgments with no conflict. It’s odd to be asked to choose one of each. You shouldn’t have to define both of those things in the same universe. But what’s funny is that you could actually build an interesting alignment system that would drive a nuanced moral discussion by exploring the good and bad aspects of society vis a vis the good and bad aspects of freedom. In such a system, you would decide whether your character represented the good aspects of society (lawful-good, Batman), the bad aspects of society (lawful-evil, Principal Skinner), the good aspects of freedom (chaotic-good, Ferris Bueller), or the bad aspects of freedom (chaotic-evil, the Joker). Pretty cool, right? And morally complex? Of course, under that system, alignment wouldn’t make sense as part of the world. It would only make sense as a descriptor of what forces the characters represent in the story. It’d be a meta-quality. And in that system, neutrality would be meaningless. Everyone would at least need to state a preference with the understanding that all of the characters are actually going to lie somewhere on the spectrum and that the chosen alignment just represents an ideal viewpoint.

But that’s not what D&D does. Instead, it asks the gibberish question of “choose a stance on the question of freedom vs. society and then choose a value judgement for everything else.” And that’s why the alignment descriptions are so fuzzy and filled with weird verbal gymnastics to explain how those two questions actually make sense when paired with each other. And the definitions are so fuzzy that the words law and chaos and good and evil in D&D ONLY make sense in terms of themselves. There is no way to discuss alignment outside of the definitions that D&D provides because D&D has twisted and contorted those words to make the nonsensical somehow seem sensical. The only thing it is still good for is to allow dips$&%s who aren’t as clever as they think they are to demonstrate how well they can follow the twisted, bulls$&% mess of definitions by picking nine characters from some stupid franchise and classfying them by alignment to share across social media for the applause of monkeys who think morality really does work that way.

But that’s not the mistake. Here’s the mistake. If you read the definitions D&D provides for good and lawful and for evil and chaotic across the various editions, what you find is they overlap. Not completely, mind you. But they overlap a lot. Good is very concerned with “the greater good” and with putting others before the self. Evil is about being selfish and putting your own desires above those of the other people in the world. In other words, good INCLUDES some amount of lawful. And evil INCLUDES some amount of chaotic. A chaotic-good individual is one that respects the needs of the many – because that’s good – but says that sometimes, it’s okay to be selfish. A lawful-evil individual is one that believes in the pursuit of self-interest, but recognizes that you still have to follow the rules and laws that exist solely to protect society as a whole. In other words, chaotic-good is essentially “mostly good” or “medium good” or “kind of good.” And lawful-evil is basically “sort of evil” or “diet evil.” And most of the reworking of the various alignment definitions over the years has been about burying the overlap. Kind of like how the definitions of Intelligence and Wisdom have changed over five editions to make it seem like there is actually anything other than an arbitrary, nonsensical difference. Except 4th Edition. 4th Edition was almost brave enough to outright say that the alignments in D&D were Very Good, Good, Neutral, Evil, and Very Evil.

But that’s what happens when game designers who aren’t actually writers smash together the naked value judgments from epic fantasy with a couple of words that were just a fancy way that one book used to describe the sides in a war between humans and faeries.

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93 thoughts on “Conflicted and Misaligned: Storytelling, Conflicts, and Morality

    • You know, I actually originally included a parenthetical remark that said “if you go by concept, not letter count.” But, when I edited, I cut it. I said to myself “nah, no one is that big of a pedantic a$&hole so lacking in anything to say that they would bother posting a comment that added absolutely nothing except to prove they are a pedantic a$&hole with nothing to fill their life except being a pedantic a$&hole.”

      Thanks for proving me wrong, pedantic a$&hole. I helpfully changed your name for you in your comment.

      Also, iut is not a word. If you want to be a nitpicky, pedantic a$&hole, you damned well better to learn edit better.

      • Hey, Angry, question for you before you tear out those red-eyes of hatred in frustration.

        You live in an age where twitter, youtube, and facebook exist alongside of the ability for people to become internationally known for stupid shit and arguing about shit for no apparent reason.

        Why did you think that no one is that much of a pedantic asshole? Much less the first comment?

        On a more hopeful note, I am also exasperated by this argument. Gets even worse when your players think they can creatively interpret the alignment system for their gain. I look forward to your article and your insight.

      • What’s fun is if you count the white space between words, then a story game is 50% story, 40% game and 10% of absolutely nothing.

      • Ok, I’m sorry.
        As you said, alignment models personality with 2 discrete-valued axes. Psychologists have models of behavior, but none are that clean. Having said that, alternate discrete axis for a psychology-inspired personality system might include:
        need for control and empathy (my personal favorite)
        feeling blue (anxiety) and self-awareness
        ranging-red aggression and suspicion
        green-eyed jealously and blackness of fear

        I love your stuff, please keep it up.

  1. With the bit at the end, I was expecting a piece on how the original alignment system was just Law vs Chaos, defined with the same terminology we use for Good vs Evil.

    I certainly noticed when playing a 40k game that my trust in authority is ingrained and implicit, as I saw the various threats to annihilate heretics as valid despite how thinly stretched the “mighty” Empire’s resources are, and I missed out on a couple story options as the thought of just deposing corrupt officials never occurred to me. I’m glad I talked with the DM and other players in that one, helped reveal that part of myself.

    I expect you to be seeing red for some time yet. Avoid the blue bird!

  2. Completely agree that alignment as written is a big green puddle of sick. I threw it out of my current campaign, but admittedly I still can’t quite stop myself from thinking about characters in those nine terms, albeit those terms as I interpret them – like you said, always have to explain away that overlap.

    I’ve characterized the d&d good-evil axis to my players as more or less self sacrifice vs destruction of others. It’s just another attempt at justification of the mess that already exists though.

    I mean look at the character I just made for a one shot I get to be a player in – I ended up labeling him lawful evil because he’s a “might makes right” / “take no prisoners” type who believes that power creates order, which makes it righteous. But it’s already obvious that the characters morality is more complex than that label, which is really an I’ll-fitting shorthand I would only ever use as a quick description.

  3. I sort of wonder if a third element could be used to describe the lawful chaotic axis such has Extremist – Moderated … (for lack of better words)

    Before your face turn red with anger, let me explain further.

    There could me Extremist Loyal Good or Moderated Loyal Good. The first one would try to make a really rigid society for the greater good or might be willing to go to war to expand his views. While the Moderated one would be less of an “activist” in his actions. That could make the difference between a lawfull good fighter and a lawful good paladin. Moderate Chaotic good would be a Robin Hood type, he does not want to tear down society while not following all it’s rule an extremist chaotic good would be an anarchist motivated by the greater good..
    Under that third axis of alignment the joker might be an Extremist Chaotic Evil while a Moderate Chaotic Evil would not be following any law but would be less destructive of society.

    The interesting corner cases would be covered with things such has extremist loyal evil, those would build a really rigid soviety or regime with no care for the actual happiness of the people… It, probably would need to be refined or better word could be used… i don’t know if the added complexity would be balanced out by the better understanding of the character and of the world… what do think ?

  4. Black.
    While the article is interesting, I think you are just too weary of the constant arguments with people who just want a good argument (sometimes for healthy reasons, sometimes not) or are just taking things too seriously. Also, you are coming from the older editions where alignment was actually important (and that is just insane, and I hated that), and you actually always had to first define what exactly alignment means and fight with players who think alignment sucks or who have a diametrically different opinion on how alignments work from yourself.
    Finally, while I agree that 5E did a half assed job with alignment (one sentence description, seriously?) and generally with the whole Chapter 4 of the PHB, alignment no longer has the same impact, not even close. Sure, it matters, but the alignment definitions are so broad that pretty much everyone agrees on the basic principle of each alignment, and that is all you need. I agree that it is a complete compromise, and I understand why it rubs you the wrong way, but it works. If a DM or player group wants to remove alignment, it is easier than before (although still work intensive). If they want alignment from the days of 3E and down, they can make that too (although they have to work for it). But for the vast majority of people, it just works. And honestly, I think that’s the way it should be.
    Evil is Red
    Good is Blue
    Alignment is Green
    Because why not.

    • No, it doesn’t. In the modern era of 5E – that’s the edition I currently run too, I’m not some OSR freak – alignment doesn’t work. It’s just ignored. It’s written down on character sheets once and forgotten. That isn’t working. It’s doing nothing. See, me? I think if something is actually DOING NOTHING, it either needs to replaced with something that adds to game play OR it needs to be cut out as a waste of perfectly good letters and paper. “Well, it’s not doing anything but it’s not hurting anyone, let’s keep wasting page space on it. Let’s confuse new gamers by spending pages discussing something weird and nonsensical and telling GMs to think about it and then wait for them to discover that it actually isn’t important or useful and has ZERO F$&%ING IMPACT on the game.” THAT’S WHY NOT! BECAUSE IT COULD EITHER BE REPLACED WITH SOMETHING USEFUL LIKE I’M GOING TO DO! SOMETHING THAT HELPS GMS UNDERSTAND THE ESSENCE OF STORY! OR WE CAN AT LEAST STOP WASTING TIME AND RESOURCES DISCUSSING IT! THAT’S WHY NOT!

      And no. The definitions are not “so broad that everyone agrees on them.” If they were, no one would ever discuss alignment. New players would never ask me things about alignment and whether it matters and what is and is not an alignment violation and GMs wouldn’t be on Twitter whining about how their players don’t understand good and evil and alignment. WHICH HAPPENS ALL THE F$&%ING TIME. Maybe you are just insulated from it in your world where you think alignment matters because you’ve trained yourself to ignore it after years of experience with the game. Good for you.

      • Alignments are one of those iconic D&D things that has to stay just because they’re terms strongly-associated with D&D. Granted, the system was always pretty terrible, and the designers wanted to get rid of it, but they especially after the 4E “this isn’t D&D” backlash, they had to keep everything that remotely “felt” like D&D, and alignment is one of them, since the pointless alignment debates are an iconic D&D thing.

        It’s for the same reason that we’ll never see the ability scores or the 3-18 scale touched at all. Granted, it’d make a lot more sense at this point if ability scores were done away with and just turned into their modifiers, since we barely do anything with the actual 3-18 score and only care about the modifier anyway. But it’s another D&D thing and thus will be kept until the end of time.

    • I mean, there is no way that people all agree on alignment anymore. It’s not black and white, open and shut, discussion done and over. Look at this article posted on Kotaku *yesterday*:
      http://kotaku.com/how-to-redeem-d-ds-worst-alignment-which-is-obviously-1796825496

      I think with D&D’s current rise in popularity (I’m seeing people post about it in my facebook feed, in the open, in public! That hasn’t ever happened before…usually it was in emails or in private groups or what have you), there is even MORE discussion, confusion, and irritation with Alignment in D&D.

      Just check the comment section, and try to read it without bursting a blood vessel.

  5. I’ve always hated black & white alignment because it is a system of ‘description’ (and only two-color at that, no RGB) – for something that is about ‘action.’ What you value is good and all, but only _matters_ because it drives what you will do (and how those actions can/will change over time).

    Best “alignment” system I ever found was from ‘Design Patterns of Successful Role-Playing Games’ (hopefully it’s short enough to post in these comments):

    Suppose we want to want to create Blood and Honor, a game set in the Vietnam War where battles are lethal and where victory entails killing as many enemies as quickly as possible. A battle’s victor is based purely on who remains standing at the end of the fight. To make it more interesting, though, we also want to explore the toll killing takes on the human psyche (and to explore how Last Man Standing can be spiced up a bit). Sometimes, we want the player decision to not kill to be a rational choice even though that conflicts with the goal of victory.

    We’ll give each character a “Wounds” attribute that follows both the Trauma Gauge and Hit Points patterns. If a character’s Wounds value exceeds 6, he dies. Characters will also be given two more attributes: “Vengeance” and “Compassion,” whose values range from 0 to 6 and which begin set at 2.

    Contests are performed by rolling a number of d6. Each d6 rolling 4 or higher is counted as a success. The number of d6 rolled in a contest depends on the nature of the contest. When a character defends his own life or the life of another platoon member, he gets to add both Vengeance and Compassion to his dice pool. When a character attempts to kill an enemy when his life or the life of a platoon member is not directly threatened, he adds only Vengeance. If the character attempts to perform some non- combat action to save his own life or the life of a platoon member, he adds only Compassion. The number of successes in any combat action indicates the number that is added to the enemy’s Wounds attribute. The Wounds value is always subtracted from that character’s dice pool in all actions. Vengeance and Compassion are affected according to the following table:

    Situation Affects (all options are player choice)
    Killing while Defending Comrade or in Self-Defense: +1 to Vengeance or Compassion
    Killing in Cold Blood: +1 to Vengeance or -1 to Compassion
    Resisting Killing when Killing is an option: -1 to Vengeance or +1 to Compassion
    Saving a Comrade’s Life without Killing: -1 to Vengeance or +1 to Compassion
    No choice can raise an attribute above 6 or below zero. If this would happen, the other choice must be taken.

    A character’s Vengeance and Compassion values may trigger dramatic events as follows:
    6 Vengeance, 0 Compassion – Enraged: Rage fills the character, who finishes the current battle without heed to safety. All actions strive to kill enemies.
    0 Vengeance, 6 Compassion – Pacifist: Character will not attack except in self-defense.
    0 Vengeance, 0 Compassion – Catatonic: Character blocks out reality and permanently refuses to perform any further actions.
    6 Vengeance, 6 Compassion – Bi-Modal: Character permanently refuses to attack except in self- defense. But, when attacked, becomes Enraged as above.

    Never played it, but this looks like an ‘alignment’ system that actually can drive choices/ actions. That seems like something useful instead of descriptive.

  6. Huh. I have, ever since I started DMing D&D 4e about 6 years ago, never thought of alignment as anything other than a sort of generally-understood descriptor. It’d go something like:

    Me: “Well, a chromatic dragon – a white, blue, black, green, or red one, that is – tends to set itself up as a ruler of Kobold tribe or something like that, and demand tribute and obedience from its subjects.”
    Player: “So they’re Lawful Evil?”
    Me: “Yeah, I guess.”

    It never really occurred to me that others used it in some other way.

    Also, I’ve always understood the distinction between Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil a bit differently from how you described it. To me, it’s always been Lawful Evil = tyrants, repressive regimes, Tywin Lannister etc, Chaotic Evil = the Joker, rampaging Demons etc.

    • Well, that’s because D&D has spent many long years revising itself to make that seem like what it’s trying to say. But, study the evolution and you’ll see what I’m saying. In the end, good and evil in D&D – when defined separately – include society and freedom to some extent. That’s what creates the overlap.

      In point of fact, when 4E came out and went with the five tiered system, lots of D&D gamers made fun of it as being a system of “Very Good, Good, Neutral, Evil, Very Evil” for precisely that reason. That wasn’t just my joke.

    • Heck, even the different editions of D&D have understood the distinctions between alignments differently. Here’s an aggregation of alignment descriptions from every edition: http://www.ruleofcool.com/smf/index.php?topic=691.0

      Second Edition is particularly interesting, because it actually says that what is considered “good” or “evil” can differ from society to society. (Which makes me wonder how alignment-detection spells fit in. I never played 2E, though. But this approach makes more sense to me than the modern-day “objective morality” of, e.g., Pathfinder — which, if you take it seriously, seems to require your GM to do what millennia’s worth of philosophers have failed to do, and develop a complete and coherent ethics in order to play the game and adjudicate the alignment of any possible action you could take, as Angry pointed out in the article.)

      P.S. They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady MondeGREEN.

  7. I’ve been toying with the idea of using the “allignments” of magic the gathering. Letting the players choose a color, or maybe a color-conflict like nature vs nurture (green-blue). But the world also have to reflect these five conflicts.

    • magic might have a better system for generating interesting conflict, but that is only because it is required to deal players choosing any color and having the resulting conflict improve the play experience.

      my only gripe with using it is that any DM that tries to use it will want to have a plan for dealing with conflicts that are not between “monocolored”(A term from Magic the Gathering) ideologies.

      If anyone is curious about trying using magic as the basis of alignment you could try searching for the plane shift for one of the four most recent planes (zendicar, innistrad, kaladesh, amonkhet). these suppliments while not valid for official D&D events are created by WotC as Magic… is also owned by them.

  8. If it were black and white, it would be easy. Even if you’re red/green color blind.

    My personal take on alignments is that they provide a general guideline, but in no shape or form establish or force conflict. The only place I found where they had mechanical meaning in 5e is in the background determination during character generation. So, in my usual way, I took this and made something from it.

    From a variety of sources, I culled together all the “background” traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws I could find – from numerous home-brew sites, from the WotC books, from official and unofficial supplements, etc. I entered all these into a database.

    Then, using a VALUE judgement, I assigned three alignments, ranked, using a unique code letter. The first position meant that this trait was a good match for this alignment, the second position was decent, and the third was okay. If the trait couldn’t be categorized, I had a 10th letter I used for “any.” I took this coding and created an algorithm. When I create an NPC character in my setting, I go into this Access Database (which also contains my name database, along with a lot of other cool utilities), open the specific “personality” window and click the alignment I’ve chosen for the character. The program randomly selects the 4 personality factors (trait, ideal, bond, and flaw) using the algorithm and, most of the time, the results actually make sense. If they don’t, I just click again. When I’m satisfied with the results, I copy and paste them into the character sheet and I’m done.

    Now that I have my character’s personality established, which is loosely based on their alignment, I can go forward and completely ignore the alignment when running the character, because it’s their personality that will drive conflicts within the encounter, not the arbitrarily established mechanic.

      • I can’t share it here, but if you’re resourceful enough to find me elsewhere, and can run a MS Access 365 database, I can get it to you.

        If you can’t use it, I guess you’ll just have to feel blue. 😉

        But if you can, let me know what you think as well as any suggestions you might have for improvement.

  9. Wonderful article! I agree completely. There’s way more “axes” than any table top game system can cover. And all those twitter twits can tweet until they are blue in the face.

    Most interestingly, however, I think that two really cool, really fun aspects of D&D related to alignment, should be preserved and made more flexible, and here are some ideas on how to fix them:

    1. Detect Evil. I was sad that this was removed from 5e because i had such fun with it in 3.5e and loved interpreting dm’s ambiguous results from me spamming Detect Evil non-stop. Perhaps this can be re-flavored to detect anger, or intents to harm. And perhaps it can detect its “uniformity” as well. Perhaps if I use detect evil on this door, “You detect occasional flickering desires to stab and hurt from an entity somewhere on the left side of the room opposite the door, and a constant, comfortable, steady affection for bright red blood sitting on the right side of the room.” Would that be a good alignment-free way to “detect evil” ? Thoughts?

    2. Angels, and demons. These are heavily tied in to world-building and to warlocks, but let’s relax about that for a while. Demons are generated by the universe’s arcane energy as the manifestations of emotions of hate, cruelty, greed, torment, etc., every time some person feels these emotions, and they are living biological creatures that behave as the embodiment of these emotions. Angels are as such but for emotions like love, devotion, constance, order, etc. I think that works, but I can’t really set this up while maintaining the Forgotten Realms distinction between demons and devils, it’s too awkward and inconsistent a separation. Anyways, do you think this setup would work for these outer-planar creatures? …. Even as I think about it, I”m already losing faith, because I can just as easily imagine an “Angel of Order” as a “Devil of Order”, and a “Angel of Vengeance” vs a “Hate Demon”. Hmnm…maybe it’s not possible to keep angels/demons without the rigid alignment stuff.

    • Yeah, Charles, Detect Evil could be re-flavored to stop it being a black-and-white value detector.
      One interesting modification that I’ve seen is Keith Baker’s idea of alignment in Eberron.

      Like Angry, he doesn’t like DnD’s good/evil simplicity, and decided to modify it to allow for some ambiguity. Instead of good and evil being absolutes, he prefers them to be descriptors of motivation- do people have empathy or do they have the potential to hurt others and feel no remorse? For instance, there is an evil monarch who will do anything to prevent war from occuring, and a good queen who wants to start a war, believing that it would be best if she ruled everything. The queen is good because she attempts to limit pain and suffering, while the king is evil because he will condone torture, blackmail, etc to preserve peace.

      I think Baker is doing what Angry is said. modifying the alignment system in order to add complexity. I thought it might be nice to show an example of that.

      Here’s the link to Baker’s article: http://keith-baker.com/dragonmarks-44-good-and-evil/

      • In 5e they have moved detect evil and good (and similar spells) into a less black/white dichotomy place. They also divorced them from alignment. They now affect fiends, celestials, fey, undead, etc…. as categories rather than alignment as categories.

  10. Yeah, a lot of those stupid arguments made me see red too.

    People just have huge amounts of energy invested in a stupid mechanic whose sole remaining purpose is to give everybody different team uniforms and set them at each other’s throats. Personally, I think the main reason Wizards is afraid to just weed alignment out completely is that at this point, it has very deep roots in A) the memes of the general culture of tabletop gaming, and B) a whole bunch of potentially profitable IP. The whole concept of the Great Wheel makes zero sense without the alignment grid laid on top of it, and I’d lay good money that at some point they’re gonna want to squeeze some sales out of Planescape again.

  11. I’m surprised you identify Law/Chaos to be a value judgement based on conflict (is social order or freedom and independence the greater good?), but not Good/Evil. Good isn’t necessarily snow white purity, and black-hearted Evil isn’t something anyone really admits to being, even to themselves.

    Instead, why not define Good as willingness/eagerness to help others even if it prevents achievement of one’s goals and Evil as willingness/eagerness to help others even if it prevents achievement of one’s goals? The conflict is simple: how much suffering are you willing to cause in order to achieve your objectives? Sure, you could say that hurting others is inherently against the social order…until you encounter proponents of spanking kids and punching out 90-year-old grandmas. Lots of societies are willing to trample on the backs of some oppressed groups and keep on truckin’, while lots of freedom-lovers are hippy-dippy flower children. I don’t see how being good is inherently more orderly or evil more chaotic, or vice versa, under this principle.

    That’s why examples of Good include selflessness, charity, protecting others while risking yourself. A good person is willing to help others even when it gets in the way of his or her goals – riches, power, continuing to live. That’s also why examples of Evil include theft, murder, selfishness. An evil person is willing to hurt people to get what he or she wants, whatever his or her larger goals are. Of course, there are limits to how good you can be. To be willing to kill Goblins for cash, you can’t be pure good by any means. Also, evil isn’t absolute either. You don’t have to enjoy killing or stealing, you just have to consider it the best way to get what you want.

    • Fender: I strongly disagree with your take on black & white morality. Sorry.

      ” An evil person is willing to hurt people to get what he or she wants, whatever his or her larger goals are.” This person is a Neutral in my book.

      A good person is willing to help people just because. An evil person is willing to hurt people just because. Everybody else is neutral.

  12. Alignment in 5e is basically vestigial. In my games I try to make sure the NPC’s (at least the ones who matter) have actual goals and personalities and I think it’s fairly clear to the players who is a “bad guy”. It’s pretty straightforward to come up with interesting choices for players to make. Not everything has to be black and white, and that makes the games more fun and interesting.

  13. Red, Green, Blue, Black, White.
    Just wanted to say that to everyone I spoke (which is not a big number, but not small either) alignment became a simple shorthand descriptor for the DM. Nothing more, but nothing less either.
    You are of course right in thinking that it should do something more, and that originally, alignment was a core concept. But just like we no longer accept wandering through the savannah in red leather clothes the apex of humanity, most people don’t accept Gygax’s alignment concept anymore. The 5E designers kept it as a handy shorthand for DMs, and because the motto of 5E is keeping as many traditions alive while making something new. And honestly, I like it.

    • Well everyone I talked to said I’m right. So f$&%ing what. You want to ignore it, fine. Ignore it. You want to keep a useless appendix in the game just because we’ve always done it that way, also fine. Me? I have higher standards. If this isn’t worth YOUR discussion and time and thought, then DON’T participate. All you’re saying right now is “I’m not interested so no one else should bother with the discussion.” That’s a terrible attitude. And you can take it elsewhere. This thread is done. It’s no longer constructive.

  14. Oh, look.
    Today’s XKCD (uh, can I link here and not get beaten? Do I need to? it’s a stupid google search away, anyway) features (among other things) a D&D alignment chart. It isn’t just black and white, AND it implies law-is-good-and-chaos-is-bad.
    Great minds think alike.

  15. Soooo question. I’ve never really used alignment all that much (really only when I had a player that wanted to interact with it on a paladin or cleric). I’ve almost always just taken the approach of ignoring it and working from a morality stand point (which of course is painted by my objective view as a story teller).

    You make a statement in the article along the lines of it’s not good enough to just ignore it. You have to completely remove it (if that’s the route someone is going as a gm anyways).

    My question is why? Is it honestly so insidious that ever campaign I startup I need to check first as to whether it’s going to be a campaign that utilizes alignment or completely removes it? Is it possible that there’s a middle ground without screwing things up?

    Hope I’m not making you see red. Just asking an honest question because I value your opinion.

    • I think it’s less that it will inherently ruin your game if even a trace of it is left in, if you write alignment on your players’ sheets and then ignore it forever it’s not going to harm anyone, but that seeing a system in game that takes up character sheet space and pages in the book while achieving literally nothing makes Angry upset, because if they’re not going to try they shouldn’t have put it in to start with.

      And also its very existence does make people on twitter and reddit and facebook and anywhere these discussions can pop up regularly turn blue in the face, so it would be better for *society* if maybe they just dropped the mechanic 😛

      • Right. You as a DM can just ignore it, but if you as a game designer throw it in thoughtlessly you are creating pointless confusion and arguments and don’t deserve your green.

  16. I appreciate your insight – I hadn’t considered the distinction between a lawful/chaotic conflict and a good/evil value judgment before. I’m green with envy at your insight! As a follow-up question, it seems like the choice of the lawful/chaotic conflict, while certainly in keeping with established mythologies, is awfully arbitrary. Do you think an alignment system could be built out of any of the conflicts you mention? In other words, could you tell an interesting D&D story in which characters were Emotional Good and Reasonable Evil?

    • That sounds like the blue versus red conflict in the MtG color pie. Blue characters are logical, Red characters are emotional and impulsive. There’s some good alternative moral conflicts in there (each of the five colors has two enemies that conflict with them philosophically).
      Also, the cold war could be considered a conflict of individualism versus collectivism. There was other stuff going on as well, but that could be simplified for an rpg setting.

  17. Good points here. In the best stories issues aren’t nearly as back and white as alignment in DnD would have us believe. No one thinks they are evil in real life.

    A few weeks back, two in my party (a cleric and a bard) took two kobolds as prisoner. The cleric was trying to get information through diplomacy to little avail when the bard slashed the throat of one bound prisoner and threatened the other with similar violence. The two characters almost came to blows over the morality of their choices, but they eventually agreed to let the other one go after getting the requisite information.

    There will, however, be a reckoning for the choices they both made since now a tribe of kobolds is coming after the party because of their actions.

    • I think this is exactly the sort of event/problem that alignments attempt and fail to address. What GAME consequences exist for a character who violates his or her alignment, assuming your bard and cleric aren’t on Team Black aka Team Evil (why would they fight about it if they were evil?) Do they both get penalized for one’s actions because the other didn’t or couldn’t stop him? I presume kobolds would be after the characters anyway (they’re kobolds, what else are they gonna do?); what additional effects do their actions have on their abilities, powers, spells, items, etc.? Does the cleric’s god or philosophy allow the torture and murder of prisoners? If not, what happens to the cleric? The rules are woefully light on game consequences for most violations of alignment, but as you point out, there may be story consequences. These are the sorts of things that need to be addressed GM to Player from minute one because nothing wrecks a game faster than characters doing this sort of ambiguity. In a world where divine arbiters of good and evil literally exist, is moral relativism still a thing?

  18. The way I see it, alignment is very useful if you want to tell a certain, fairly specific kind of story (that kind of story being either black and white Good vs. Evil, or some kind of twisty subversion of that). If you intend for your campaign to be anything besides that, alignment is going to get in your way more than anything else, and you’re better off chucking it.

  19. I have red so many of your articles. I love them. They have ruined all other commentary on DnD for me. I am running my first (starter set) campaign, and am glad to have taken the advice to run a pre-published game with pre-gen characters – it’s giving me and the players a chance to learn the trade in a neutral setting. I am aspiring to run a game in the psychiatric inpatient unit that I work in. Thank you for your wonderful articles.

    • If you want some good suggestions on other blogs or sources, I found a few. They aren’t as black and white as Angry, but they do provide some useful insights. I won’t post the links, but their names so that if you’re clever, you should be able to find them on your own.

      The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: One of my new favorites – tells you how to run monsters in combat from a tactical perspective.
      Tribality: Not only do they provide summaries of WotC output (especially Unearthed Arcana) but they give detailed reviews. They also have a lot of other cool content.
      Raging Owlbear: This guy just talks about random things – from his perspective on various topics to his convention reports.

      And of course, tracking down my WordPress blog should be pretty easy. It’s still new – at present I have no followers other than myself and no one has ever made a comment on any of my posts.

      I hope this helps!

  20. I know that generalizations sometimes makes you red in the face, but for my 5E game I present it simply like this: help = good (+), harm = evil (-), follow rules = lawful (+), break rules = chaotic (-). The positive and negative signs are to show that in my game that’s how I determine actions: harm (-) evil (-) = good (+), break (-) helpful (+) rules = (-) evil. Neutral means flexible. A neutral good character is one whose actions are usually good whether they are lawful or not. A lawful neutral character follows rules whether the outcomes are harmful or not. It works pretty well for me.

  21. My approach to alignment is that it is a storytelling tool created by the viewpoints of the various gods that created my campaign worlds. Alignment is literally that – you are choosing a side to follow. If you believe in the values of red team, then you align yourself with them. If blue team is the team for you, great, join blue team. I create the gods of each alignment and define through their personalities and traits what each alignment represents. What the gods want is what defines the alignment, and by roughly matching it with acknowledged shorthand (evil is all about selfishness, cruelty, and domination while good is generosity, cooperation, and nurturing). The god of tyranny is Evil, the god of farming is Good. How these alignments are understood is through the gods who literally represent those ideals. They are viewpoints as much as values, and choosing an alignment means committing to some extremes. If you don’t have strong commitment to any ideals, then you’re unaligned. By acting according to the alignment of a side, you bring power to that side. Team blue scores points when team blue’s players act blue. Team red scores points when its people are out doing red things. This creates a framework for the different gods sending people to do missions, the balance of power as sides gain or lose members, and a sort of economy of faith (believe hard enough and you get extra rewards). Alignments are squishy and unclear in the abstract, but here they can be represented as concretely as you want by designing the factions that they represent. It isn’t a perfect system, but I think it gives you more tools rather than less tools by playing with it this way instead of ignoring it.

  22. Blued it really take that much work to remove alignment from the game? All I can think of that matters is the different planes and perhaps some monsters. None of which seem to be any problem at all?

    On the contrary, adding something that actually requires alignment to be a thing sounds like a lot of work.

    Looking forward to your next article on this in… 2 weeks. I think that’s what you said anyway.

  23. Even with a nominally black and white good v evil spectrum there are magnificent story conflict opportunities based on it. The thing is it’s not good v evil that is the source of conflict. It’s good v good. Or (to my taste less so) evil v evil.

    Do I rescue the one, or rescue the many? Must I forsake saving my friends to save a city – or vice versa?

    I have learned the Necromancer has a child, a baby. It lies before me, innocently babbling and cooing. It bears the sign on its forehead marking it as a potential heir to the necromancer’s powers.

    Yes, those are both innies, but outies can be established as well.

    I get, and even agree with, your point that the good v evil spectrum is highly subjective. I just disagree that this denies nuanced conflict.

    • First off, fascinating article. Kirk, I think you describe some good moral conflicts in your comment that sound interesting to play. However, what you describe as good vs good or lesser evil type conflicts sound like they could be distilled into classic moral quandaries. In the case of the necromancer’s baby this could be described as the conflict of preventing possible future harm to others vs preventing immediate harm to an innocent. What makes these interesting is that there is no objective moral judgement system laid upon by the world in which they exist. If there was an in-game black-and-white answer to this problem that would dictate which action was good (like a detectable, in-world evil alignment that could be assigned to the baby) then the value judgement would negate the interesting moral discussion of what to do. Now I’m very interested in Angry’s next article. I really do like the great wheel cosmology and gods as alignments, but I also want to know how he’d take it in the other direction and rip out rather than ignore alignment in the game.

  24. As much as I love to go on about Alignment, especially in 5e, and the relationship between story and game in RPGs, there’s one very important take-away in this article.

    Please stop taking the Anger Management class. We don’t want to risk being deprived of your wonderful rants. 🙂

    [Edit: Would it make you blue if I stopped ranting. 😉 – The Angry GM]

  25. I like the 4e definitions (although I never played/ran 4e) we tend to use variations of them and discuss our PCs point of view with the GM at the beginning of character creation so the GM can somewhat monitor the moral choices made throughout the campaign.

    Very Good (Lawful Good) = Pompous Good
    Good (Chaotic Good) = Average (Reasonable Person) Good
    Neutral (Neutral Good/Neutral) = Situational Fence Straddler (basically the Liberal Conservative)
    Evil (Lawful Evil, Chaotic Neutral, Neutral Evil) = Punch Clock Evil
    Very Evil (Chaotic Evil) = Psycho Serial Killer Evil

    and Go Big RED!!!
    Nebraska Cornhuskers for life.

  26. Just wanted to say:
    1) the editing really shows, and I found it very helpful!
    2) I removed alignment from my current 5e campaign entirely, but still ran into issue with characters declaring they could, for example, exterminate kobold children “because evil”, so I feel I failed to some degree.
    3) I am white-knuckled with anticipation for your future article. I’ve always WANTED a working alignment system. I think it could be useful. I don’t see a point in the current system where you could put batman in every alignment category.
    Thanks again, well done 🙂

    • Number 2 is a white hot opportunity for story conflict, though. Sure, your players and their characters might think that and act on that, but I love the idea of a normally thought of as good good, or maybe a protector god of children, comes down HARD on the characters because of their callous action towards those kobold children.

  27. For what it’s worth, I definitely agree with you here, especially on the whole black and white, lawful and chaotic, on and off system of morality that D&D creates. It’s annoyingly oversimplistic, but you still have to use parts of it if you’re running D&D because it anchors player expectations. In my most recent game, for instance, I mandated that all players must be good and must be connected to the local feudal lord. What does good mean? Hell if I know, but if it prevents the lazy chaotic neutral anti-heroes from coming out of the woodwork all the better.

    In my setting that I’ve been working on and variously berated for talking about on here, my solution to this problem was to tie each race in the setting to a school of philosophy. I like this solution a lot, even though it’s kind of a pain in the ass as you implement it, because it gives you a baseline for any given NPC that you can layer traits onto. For example I’ve got the Leonid, who are basically the lion-man Bedouin peoples of my setting. Like the Bedouin, they are an intensely lawful culture, build around codes of honor, family, and loyalty. With that as the baseline, it was pretty easy to play as a group of Leonid cattle rustlers as the group encountered them – fun even!

    Anyway I don’t know if this is what your article in two weeks is going to cover, but hopefully you can get into a little bit because I think it’s a good starting point, especially when you mix it into your history/mythology/cosmology.

  28. Green

    If you haven’t heard about it before, the story system of Dramatica sounds similar to what you talk about in this article.

    Probably overkill for D&D, but the theory says that every complete story is like a mind working out conflicts from differing perspectives. I’ve found it to be a useful thought-provoker and analytical tool. Most of the better films out there seem to tell a complete story, from a Dramatica point of view anyway, so it’s convinced me it works.

    The creators of it have a software program that can walk someone’s story through the system. It can seem a bit Byzantine at times, but really seems to mirror your ideas here.

  29. Hi Angry,
    I am quite surprised by this article. I am a real fan of your previous post “Alignment in D&D 5E: S$&% or Get Off the Pot” and I totally agree with the second part of it: it is the BEST article on alignments I ever read. In my campaigns, I always used a definition of the alignment very similar to one you present at the end of that post. Here, on the contrary, I don’t completely agree with you.

    Maybe a part of the problem is in the words: “good” and “evil” (unlike “law” and “chaos”) seem to imply a certain moral judgement. Maybe we should better call them “white” and “black” instead, or even better “green” and “red”, which sound even more judgement-neutral.
    Quoting your older post, “if you are willing to suffer harm or make sacrifices to benefit others, you’re green; if you are willing to harm others for your own benefit, you are red”.
    This seems to me a quite clear and objective definition. Why is it so different from the chaos vs. law (order vs. freedom) conflict? In my opinion, we could well say this is “choosing a stance in the conflict between altruism and selfishness”.

    I don’t see the overlapping with the law vs. chaos conflict: they are more like orthogonal. I understand that, for some people or cultures (in our world), “selfishness” might seem closer to “freedom”, but based on the definition above they are independent: a chaotic red person will have the classical stance “I do what I want regardless other people”, while a chaotic green person will fight to claim freedom for itself and for others as well (which is not selfish: it is very altruistic instead).
    A chaotic green character is in no way “less green” than a lawful green character. And a chaotic red character is in no way “more red” than a lawful red character. That is why, personally, I HATED the “very good, good, neutral, evil, very evil” simplification.

    But you are right that the explanation of the alignments in the D&D manuals is quite confusing.

    Apart from this, I completely agree with you, especially on the conflict as the center of a story.
    Personally, what I like most is when the conflict is not on the alignments themselves (the armies of Good vs. the armies of Evil to conquer the world), but on something more real and contingent (i.e. the succession on the throne of the realm). Then the alignments may take sides in that conflict, but it could as well happen that there are red people and green people on both sides. There are a lot of in-story conflicts which are “neutral” under the alignment point of view: these are often my favorites, and nevertheless I like the 9-alignments system as well.

    Anyways, I really look forward to see your future developments on this topic. I am sure they will be clever. Congratulations for your website!

    • The problem is that red and green aren’t in conflict. I can be willing to suffer harm to help others and to cause harm to help myself, depending on a lot of factors.

      • You are right, thanks for your feedback.
        I forgot to specify that we should intend “others” as “generic others”, meaning “other people who are not strictly our declared enemies nor our friends”.
        Maybe in this way the red vs green definition would be less ambiguous.

        But you are definitely right that some kind of ambiguity would still exist. It would affect even the law vs. chaos dichotomy, as well.
        The world is complicated, so there are situations where one is forced to choose the “lesser red” 😉

        As Angry says in the other post, alignment could be viewed as a sort of “declaration of intents”, the main ideal the character wants to follow. But no mortal character is 100% green or red.

        Also, I agree with John Whitesell, below: alignments are very rough approximations, with many different nuances existing inside the same alignment, and a lot of grey areas in between.

  30. See, when you brought up red, blue, green, white, and black, I thought you were going a totally different direction with this. WotC is sitting on an alternative morality system that, while far from perfect, is vastly superior to Good/Evil/Lawful/Chaotic, it’s just in Magic instead of D&D. They kind of tried to port it over in the Adventurer’s League factions, but of course they did so poorly. There are a lot of problems with the M:tG color wheel, but it’s a much better place to start from than the nine-alignment grid: none of them are just floating value judgments, they all prize different outcomes and emphasize different values. Even Black, the evil-colored one, has a believable moral worldview: cynicism.

    I have toyed around with fleshing out the color wheel for D&D games by turning it into a 2×2 grid with axes of Individual vs. Group and Reason vs. Instinct, and then Black which rejects both dichotomies. White = Group + Reason, Blue = Self + Reason, Red = Self + Instinct, and Green = Group + Instinct. This is better than the alignment grid, but it still suffers some from the conceptual overlap between self and instinct on the one hand and group and reason on the other (it’s hard to have a cohesive group of significant size without some systems and rules that keep everyone together). Then again that could just indicate that Green societies are made of small groups that do not require complex rules and philosophies to maintain cohesion, while people in Blue societies prize knowledge but just don’t trust each other all that much. That works, as well as anything.

  31. I think the problem with the alignments is that people starting thinking that it’s more then it is. The alignments should be understood as a VERY rough approximation. You have your white hats and your black hats. That doesn’t tell us what people are. But it does have some interesting story applications. There are tons of stories where the black hats and the white hats team up. There are entire tropes and cliches about it even. That’s the sort of thing that the alignment system can tell us about; if you put a NG and a CE character in the same party, you need to have certain expectations about the story and make sure they know how to keep the story from sucking. Sadly, people don’t see it that way and as a result 99% of parties with a NG and a CE character will ruin not just the party through infighting but the entire damn story. A good system would tell people to watch out for that. Instead people waste their time analyzing the shades of gray of a system that was never supposed to be that complex…

  32. I red the article earlier today, and I must say, I thought I was alone in hating alignment. Your reasons differ than mine, although I fully agree with yours, and they have helped me further define why alignment sucks. I always have and always will completely do away with it.

    Aside from the superfluousness of, say, good intersecting with lawful, I find alignment to be restrictive to a player developing more than a 2 dimensional character, or a character with more depth evolving from what was initially a cutout, as well as forming arbitrary restrictions as to what a character can do without either lawyering it to the GM or losing their powers, in the case of paladins etc.

    People do strange, “uncharacteristic” things all the time. But they did them. Those things are still part of a (in this case fictional) person.

    So should we define character by the majority of actions, or take each action and extrapolate repercussions, independent of where on a 3×3 grid you pointed to when you made your character, or where the dart you threw on taking an action lands on the dartboard the GM moves at their leisure? (which they shouldn’t if alignment is even being used, but as Angry said, it’s value judgements, which are not concrete to begin with)

    I think reasonable reactions to the characters’ actions are the only thing the GM should be worrying about when it comes to actually running the game. Although while designing, it’s fun to poke them in the inny and see what lint they pull out from that. Let the player have fun with the inny, (which reminds me of “intentions”. I could write paragraphs on moral relativism and consequences vs. intentions. But I won’t, because it would be (l)awful boring) but that should have no effect on what is happening mechanically. There are games where that is fun when abstracted in a certain way, but I don’t find D&D or any derivative thereof to be included in those cases.

    Note that I’m not talking about a player declaring the intention they have as it relates to an action, I am talking about what they feel about their action, and how they weigh it against the possible alternatives. Making them justify that to their deity (in essence, the GM) or some other bullshit just bogs down the game with why they did what they did.

    In fact, the GM not giving a shit about if the act was good or evil leaves more room for the character or player to reflect on it. Let Joe deal with his character’s conscience, I have other things to do, like have an NPC alert the guards after you murdered the duke of Shitstormshire because he wouldn’t give you more gold for returning his long lost McGuffin. And for that matter, look for the guards’ stats that got buried in my paperwork because fuck man, this was a peaceful town after you fended off the invading whatevers.

    And they will try to justify it.

    I’m reminded of Treehouse of Horror 3 where homer was eating the Halloween props, and upon being called out on it, promptly stated that it was an evil game. The players are going to play the characters they want to play and do what they want to do, so let them have fun with it. Don’t gimp your players, because that’s not fun. Give them more things to do, like run from, bribe or fight the guards. Or maybe they got themselves involved with some political intrigue by killing this Duke. Maybe they have to stage the perfect murder and frame a hated NPC so they can go about saving villages. Or pillaging them. Whatever. There are countless possibilities, and yelling at/shaming/weakening a player/character shouldn’t be any of them.

    • which reminds me of “intentions”. I could write paragraphs on moral relativism and consequences vs. intentions. But I won’t, because it would be (l)awful boring

      That’s not so much moral relativism as it’s consequentialism vs. deontology, which is another major problem with alignment. What it actually means, in terms of ethics, to live in a world where “good” and “evil” are tangible forces of nature depends on which of these types of ethical theory is “correct” — that is, which one maps to alignment — but (as far as I know) there’s nothing in any rulebooks or setting material that bears on this question.

      If Good-aligned actions are the ones that have beneficial consequences (increase aggregate utility, i.e. good and evil map to a consequentialist view of ethics), then anything that shifts your alignment towards evil must cause more harm than benefit. For instance, the spell Infernal Healing in Pathfinder is a healing spell with the “evil” descriptor (and casting it enough times will shift your alignment to evil). If alignment is consequentialist, that means that casting the spell causes an amount of harm to the universe at large that outweighs the benefit to the individual being healed. If alignment is deontological, then all we need to say is that casting Infernal Healing is not virtuous, regardless of the net effect that casting the spell would have on the world.

      Now, in this latter case, an individual could decide that the effect of casting the spell is worth it (e.g. saving someone’s life — though, in a world where there’s (provably) an afterlife, the meaning of death is very different from what it is in our world, but let’s set that aside for now). And they might say, “Sure, that was an evil-aligned action, but it was the right thing to do.” And, somehow, that sentence has meaning, doesn’t it? (In the former case, it depends a little bit on the nature and magnitude of the negative effect the spell causes, but basically we have a trolley problem on our hands and they’re killing the many — by action rather than inaction.)

      In fact, if evil is a tangible thing, then taking the taint of evil onto yourself (by performing a nominally “evil” act) in order to protect someone else could actually be a heroic and altruistic thing to do. I think something along these lines happens in Madoka Magica, maybe? There are probably better examples, but my pop culture fu is weak.

      (blue)

      • Thank you, that’s essentially what I was getting at.

        [quote]”in fact, if evil is a tangible thing, then taking the taint of evil onto yourself (by performing a nominally “evil” act) in order to protect someone else could actually be a heroic and altruistic thing to do.”[/quote]

        Illidan from World of Warcraft comes to mind.

        • Hmm, never heard of Illidan, but I’ll look into it — it seems like a really interesting kind of story concept.

          I lurk on the Paizo forums, and every time some blowhard tries to shut down discussion of the practical implications of alignment in the game world by saying “But morality is OBJECTIVE in Pathfinder! Your argument is invalid!”, I want to smack them upside the head with a copy of Principia Ethica or Kant or something.

          (red)

  33. I am new to D&D (and new to DMing) and the first thing I wanted to do when I made my world was dispense with alignment completely. My group has fairly experienced players who have always used 3.5, so on their advice I left it in, because it is so integral to the mechanics. However, next time I start a new campaign I would like to remove it. Having read this now I wonder if I could get away with converting the whole system solely to order/chaos. Look forward to the next article 🙂

  34. White. I was always disappointed in D&D alignments and felt like 5e’s inspiration was some kind of weird bandaid for the problem. “DMs, if your players feel like behaving within their alignments, give them inspiration.”

    I would love to see distinct mechanical benefits for playing to an alignment, like more powerful heals for Clerics who act Good or stronger undead minions for Necromancers who act Evil. What to do for other classes? No idea.

  35. Morality is objective in the real world. It is black and white, even if humans can’t always tell whether it is black or white. (And that’s important. There’s a difference between something that is truly subjective, and something that is objective but difficult to discern, so that opinions about the truth of the matter may vary.)

    That doesn’t mean it is universal, nor that we can even determine what is morally acceptable in any given situation. But it is not subjective. There is a whole background of conversations that underlie this stance, but in order for something to be objective, there need only be at least one situation in which the answer is objectively true (for example, a situation in which it doesn’t matter which subject tries to say an action is good, because the action is never good). We don’t need to think for very long to imagine a situation that is simply and contextually always evil. There is no way to play the subjective card to make it good, no matter how far we stretch our credulity. Again, this doesn’t mean there is always an obviously correct action in all situations, but that’s a different point. Some things, despite being objective, are difficult to understand. This leads to differing opinions about what is true, but it does not mean the truth is subjective.

    On the topic of the law-chaos and good-evil axis, I think you’ve set up a nice straw man. Certainly you can consider the axes as you’ve described, but it’s not how they were designed. They can be fairly simply explained as the ethical and moral axes for any given individual. It may not seem obvious that good and evil are in conflict, but as soon as you add context, they are. As soon as an individual experiences an evil urge, his conscience (insofar as he has one) is placed at conflict with that urge, in the classic devil-and-angel-on-your-shoulders situation.

    The good-evil “moral” axis is more internal. It’s more of a weight one places on doing the right thing because of an internal moral compass.

    The law-chaos “ethical” axis drives more toward what one thinks about other people: are people inherently good or evil? The more a good person believes in the utopian society of noble-savages, the more likely he values chaos. But the more he thinks man is evil and primitive to his core, the more the good man values law.

    The evil man values law or chaos based on which provides the most personal pleasure. Is it easier to have fun through fascism or anarchy?

    • Red I think I agree with angry on this, Morality is very much subjective in my mind because its about the goals and standards we base them on. For instance, us sane folk value life and happiness, its a widely held goal across the world that the correct (good) thing to do is promote this, and the incorrect (evil) thing to do is to impede it. Trying to do the correct thing by that goal is objective, one way will in fact be the most efficient, even if we cant agree which it is, but if the goal is different say some people valued ” learn all there is to know by any means” or “Punish mankind for its hubris” Then all of our definitions for incorrect (evil) change.

      Some religious people may say that serving the creator of our universe is our goal and the deity defines good and evil. But if the deity says clothes are wrong and unnatural, am I an evil man for wearing a hat? Does it not make good/evil subjective to the deity’s whims? And if such a deity is provably real, like it popped in on Tuesdays to say hi, would I be evil if my goal was to promote happiness and life even if it went against the creators wishes?

    • Blue- Im confused by burgerbeasts logic. It implies all things are objective. I would say musical oppinion isnt objective, but by your logic,
      If I create a song everybody agrees is bad, then the distinction between good and bad music is now no longer subjective? I dont think that method holds water…

  36. Pingback: The Angry GM is a F%#king Coward | The Alt-Right DM

        • “Subjective” and “opinion” are used to describe a variety of situations, and the result is that people use the same language to describe three (at least) situations in such a way as to give the impression that they are the same, when they are not.

          Example 1: “do red tomatoes taste good?” This is a subjective question. There is no rational basis to refute anyone’s answer, because only the person in question has access to the sensation. Nobody else can possibly know the answer. Only the subject can know.

          Example 2: “who is the best footballer in the world?” This question is not subjective, by which I mean to say there are some answers hat must be wrong. Brad Pitt is not the best footballer in the world. That is objectively true.

          Example 3: “what’s the best way to reduce traffic in Seattle?” Again, not subjective. But even more complicated because the best answer is not necessarily knowable at all. But reducing the number of lanes on every road cannot (objectively) be the correct answer. There is no room for that answer.

      • I guess we should all hail the Red, White and Blue… because being so f@*#ing ‘murican obviously makes you a genius when it comes to RPGs.

        The article was so funny. It made my day. I thought it had to be parody at first, but no.

        Also, is it just me or does he seem to twist everything you say, my angry diety?

      • That’s… impressive. The way he can create “arguments” out of thin air with nothing more than some shitty insults and stubborn beliefs. Because D&D is all about politics. Jeez. Still, all those words just for you? It’s flattery really

        White, blue, black, green, or red.

  37. I always wear black. That’s why so many people think I’m evil.

    Overall, I think that this sums up my views on alignment in D&D quite well. And goes even further. I’ll be honest, I’ve had issues with alignment since I first played 1e D&D. I didn’t know enough about alignment to worry about it in BECMI. The point being, as you’ve said before, you have to go all-in or walk away from the table when it comes to alignment. I have chosen the latter in my games. And fortunately, since I’m running D&D 4E, it is easy as there aren’t any actual (meaningful) mechanics tied to alignment. Of course, that makes me wonder why they bothered to have alignment. But then, again, they changed so many things between 3.x and 4E, that if they had dropped alignment, I think heads would have asploded.

    Anyway, thanks again for the great bit of information. And for essentially putting to words the things I’ve thought about alignment for a long time.

  38. Pingback: D&D Alignment | Cirsova

  39. I’ve been dragged into alignment arguments in the past, especially in the early days of playing, and in more than one instance it has succeeded in ending a campaign entirely. Most people I’ve played with have avoided taking the alignment system and it’s vague value judgements too seriously, I suppose playing them more as the character’s general proclivities and ideals. Some, though, would argue until they were blue in the face, right into the black hours of 4am, and bring the whole campaign crashing down in a heap of red flames.

    The experience of these arguments scared me enough that I actually did try and put the work in to remove the vagueness in my own campaigns. I built a system of basic traits that I assigned to each of the axes – things like strict, lazy, empathetic, homicidal, and selfish. Taking a trait to describe your character, or adopting one through play, served double duty of helping the player define their character and to push them a point along one of the alignment axes. The system also offered a concrete way to track alignment changes: if you don’t play your character as charitable, then you don’t get that trait. I also put in a system for Ideals and Codes, which are like a collection of traits that a character choses to, and strives to, align themselves with. Like the Code of Broken Chains, where a character dedicates themselves to freeing the oppressed and the enslaved, no matter the law of the land (good, chaos). Codes and Ideals gave two points in the direction of one or more alignments, but carried with them the risk that if a character strayed too much from their code they could loose a lot of points that keep them in their alignment (thus allowing for the ability loss that comes along with an alignment change for some classes – we play pathfinder).

    I love my system, and I think it especially gives new players some concrete examples to play their characters to, but the fuzziness between some of the traits always left me uneasy. I mean, if we are assigning value judgements then obviously homicidal is pretty evil, but can we really say that a loving father who is considerate and charitable (all ‘good’ traits), but who is racist and homicidal (evil) against all goblinoids is a good person just because they have three points towards good and two points towards evil? The law and chaos axis makes more sense, but good and evil are just too vague and judgy.

    Now you’re making me think, why lay the alignment grid over top of the traits and codes at all? All I’m doing at that point is trying to jam what is basically a narrative aid into the same boxes that caused so much strife in my old gaming groups (I don’t play with most of those people anymore, for probably obvious reasons).

    I’m really interested to see where you go with this, but I think my solution is going to be applying the traits and codes to my world. So aligning with a God means aligning with their value system, their codes of ethics, and their traits. Being opposed to a society means adopting traits that don’t fit in with the traits and codes of that society. A Paladin of Broken Chains is opposed to Tyrants and unjust laws that oppress the weak. A Charitable character is seen as strange, and perhaps an easy mark, in a town of greedy thieves. I think this provides more concrete opportunities for conflict in the game, and more meaningful than ‘I kill them because they are evil, and I am good’.

    The only thing then I need to work out is how that would affect alignment based abilities and classes. What happens to detect alignment and smite, being as we play pathfinder?

  40. I’m blue, daba-dee daba daaa~

    I play 3.5, where alignment is a pretty big deal with lots of rules tied to it. Yet, I choose to not get my pants in a twist over them. I try to get a thorough understanding of the character’s motivations, opinions and beliefs, and choose an alignment for them. The players may or may not know this, it doesn’t matter. I’ll call it out when I see a character act against the player’s chosen alignment for a prolonged amount of time, if it actually causes problems with the rules or among the players (I.E. if a paladin is obviously chaotic and/or evil, he gets a warning. No change, he loses his powers and changes alignment. Easy as that).

    I understand that this does not solve the issue of alignments being fuzzy and badly implemented, but it does save me a lot of time that would otherwise be spent arguing with the players about their character’s alignments. They get awfully stuck up on them a lot of the time, and I’ve given up trying to reason with them ages ago. If a problem with alignment presents itself, I’ll handle it on the spot. If the people want to discuss/argue about them, they’re welcome to do so after the game session, with someone else.

    I have clear ideas of what the alignments mean to me, and as the DM, what the alignments mean to the game. I inform the players about what I belief, and how I won’t argue over what the alignments mean to someone else. If a player has different opinions, I’m afraid he’ll have to comply in order for his character to fit in my game’s alignment grid. He’s welcome to use his own ideas in his own games.

    My players are welcome to write their character up as Chaotic Neutral after I told them I believe they’re rather evil. You can have that on your sheet as long as you like, and act evil all you want. When the rules come to interact with your alignment, you WILL be evil. No discussion.

    Now, onto the ACTUAL subject of the article…
    I’ve never looked into conflicts as much, and in hindsight, should probably pay more attention to those. As you pointed out, conflicts make the story (with a lot of other things). How Good vs. Evil is not an actual conflict is interesting, and I will definitely remember it when I prepare my next game of FAE. Thank you very much for the insight!

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