Oh Lordy, I've done it now! I've called into question one of the oldest and most prevalent institutions in tabletop role-playing. An aspect which is so profound it can determine how a player behaves in character, how party members interact with one another, and even one's eligibility for a class. I am of course talking about that little thing in the corner of your character sheet that tells you how you should play your character; your alignment.
"I may fall into the bottom right corner."
The Shoe Horn
If you have played Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder for any length of time than I am sure you are no doubt familiar with the nine alignments pictured above. The most recent Edition of D&D describes alignment as, "A combination of two factors: one identifies morality (good, evil, or neutral), and the other describes attitudes toward society and order (lawful, chaotic, or neutral). Thus, nine distinct alignments define the possible combinations."
From the get go you are given a guideline, a social contract if you will, that tells you how your character acts and reacts to situations, what they find appropriate, and what they find morally offensive. It suggests codes of conduct, both hard and soft, that determine how your character views the world.
It does this without taking into consideration that a character can exist in more than one box.
That, my friends, is a heaping, seeping, bloated, festering, steaming pile of putrid B.S.
If a Game Master were to tell a player what choices they could make, cries of "Railroading!" would echo across the tabletop as the other players prepared the rope, tar, and feathers. But for some reason, if the Core Book or Player's Handbook says you nee this magic box to create a character then it is suddenly okay to place limitations on how you would play your character.
This doesn't enrich character development, it stunts it. It makes it difficult, if not impossible to make a layered, complex character because alignment sticks you in a tiny box and tells you to stay in there if you know whats good for you. Well, you know what? I'm getting out of the box, and I am busting it open because you don't need it.
"Results may vary."
A Question Of Character
A character is a tool for the player to interact with the game world. With enough thought and effort, the character can become a living thing, growing with each new adventure, transforming from bright-eyed greenhorn to hardened adventurer, with all the emotional, mental, and muscle weight that goes with that. The character might be a good, upstanding person. It could have saved an orphanage from drowning (sadly not the children, though). It could have always paid its taxes and helped its elderly neighbor carry in her groceries. It could exist without a single dark thought in its pretty little head.
"I am far to brave to show mercy!"
Then one day a villain appears who says that a great calamity will befall the town in which the character lives, and only he knows when it will happen and how. So our good guy demands to know what this calamity is, and more importantly when? The bad guy refuses to talk, as bad guys are inclined to do. So our hero threatens him. And he still holds his tongue, for he knows that the hero is a good person that wouldn't bring any harm to a helpless prisoner. Our hero thinks about that orphanage they saved (poor kids), the elderly neighbor and her groceries, and the community that is enriched by the taxes it pays. Realizing that time is of the essence, our hero plunges a red hot poker into the villains kneecap and demands the information, promising this situation will get a whole lot worse if he doesn't start talking.
Our hero is now not a good person anymore. Not according to alignment rules. It has lived its life as lawful good and has been an example to live by, but in this instance, when it saw no other way, it harmed a helpless person (albeit a deplorable one) in order to save hundreds, perhaps thousands of other good people.
Now the character is neutral, if not full-on evil. Why? Because his alignment wouldn't allow him to torture someone, and having one infraction can see you fall faster than Anakin Skywalker.
"Your alignment wouldn't allow it" are words that should never be uttered. It is, for me at least, akin to saying, "Hey, get back on your leash!"
"Word to the wise. Never Google 'Man on a leash'."
A character's alignment should be something fluid that changes and grows as they grow. They can do good things, but are capable of not-so-good things. They have moral crisis'. They have conflicting ideas. A person can want to protect women and children and still be okay with the idea of slavery. They can kill women and children, but get violently outraged if someone abuses and animal.
All an alignment is is a chart that measures someone's moral character. It is my firm belief that if you want to see the measure of a PC's character, let the player play them the way they want to. Allow the player to make the moral decisions. Keep watch on how they behave. If they do only good things they're good, if they only do bad things they're evil, and if they do both they're complicated.
Does that mean that characters can behave in any way of their choosing without consequence? No, not at all. People doing bad things in front of people who are good (or at least want to seem good) are asking for repercussions. You can't just stroll into town and burn down all the orphanages (especially the one that almost drowned). Just because a character isn't "lawful" doesn't mean there are no laws. If you break a law, there are repercussions. And this doesn't just go for local law enforcement. The way a character acts around their fellow party members is constantly submitted for the party's scrutiny.
And if there is one thing a character wants to do, it's to do right by their companions.
Alignment Restrictions Restrict Characters
If I am playing a barbarian, the alignment charts tell me I must be chaotic, and therefore I fit into the chaotic box. But what if my tribe has a very strict code of honor, where we must venerate our elders, take pity on those weaker, and never flee a battle. I follow these rules set down by the tribal elders, and therefore, I am lawful. Therefore, I am no longer a barbarian.
"Guess I won't be wearing the crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow."
I prefer the idea that I can adhere to a code of honor, and carry myself as an honorable individual that can also devolve into a creature with of seething rage and rain a down iron and bloodlust on those foolish enough to cross me. It may sound like I want everything, and I do. I really do.
So why can't I have both? Why is it so hard to believe that a barbarian can have tenents they adhere to and can willingly lose control and come unglued? Because it has always been that way.
Paladins are another fine example of how alignment can stunt a class' true potential, a potential that is being realized these days. It used to be, once upon a time, that paladins were pillars of law and goodness. And, of course, they were. They had a strict code of ethics akin to the saintly knights of yore and they were charged with holding to the tenants of their Gods and the will of their Lord of King. If they failed in any way, they would be stripped of their special God-given abilities, and were forced to atone. There was a lot riding on these guys, to say the least. The sheer weight of what a paladin had to do, and what they had to stand for, and what they were forced to represent would have crushed most other people.
"My God is bigger than yours."
So what became of these gleaming bastions of good in the world? Every little annoying prick who ever darkened a table with their vile presence went out of their way to try to make or get the paladin to fall. Game Masters and duplicitous players would place them in impossible situations where no matter what choice they made, falling was guaranteed.
But it didn't end there, my friends. This is a double-edged Holy Avenger. Many players saw the paladin as a defacto babysitter, keeping the other characters at the table out of trouble (and fun, and loot) as long as they were around. They read the alignment Lawful Good to mean "Uptight Douchebag Zealot"
It is hard to come across a group of players or Game Masters that hasn't encountered this festering boil on the face of our beloved hobby. This flagrant disregard for the enjoyment of others is truly evident in the Dead Gentlemen's web series JourneyQuest with the character Glorion, and is even referenced in The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising. This type of portrayal later became known as Lawful Stupid and cast a bit of a stigma on the paladin for decades.
"Well, that escalated quickly."
Fast forward to D&D 5th Edition. Paladins are held to no alignment of law or chaos, good or evil, Not even to the oath they swore. They could be at odds with the oath, or in perfect harmony. Hell, it even says right in the damned book, "paladins are rarely of any evil alignment."
That means there are some evil paladins running around out there (and suddenly my next villain is born). For the first time, alignment isn't being used as a tool to restrict characters' choices. Players are being allowed to play the character they want.
The way life should be.
Alignments And The Party
But Ed, you mad, stupid, insane fool! Don't you realize what removing alignments could mean for the game? It will tear the party apart! Without the alignment setting up the code of ethics, the player characters will outright kill each other, or devolve into some chaotic stupor, for they have no idea how to human. Human is a verb now!
Well, not quite.
Think back to any game you've ever played. How many times have you had two characters in the party with conflicting alignments? In combat, they always worked well together, right? But outside of that, they hated each other for no other reason than the alignment chart told them that they should. Imagine if there was no alignment telling them they were foes. Imagine for a moment that characters judged each other by each other's deeds, their acts of kindness and cruelty, and the measure of their character.
Pure anarchy. And I like it.
There is probably a large section of the RPG community that will disagree with me, that a character's morality should be a measured and quantified element. I personally think that there is no mechanical purpose for it anymore, and that is an antiquated system that we keep holding onto out of some semblance of nostalgia.
Do what the lady says...
"Let it go!"
But that is just one bard's musing.
Roll well, me friends,
+Ed The Bard
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