I was recently listening to the Game Master’s Journey podcast, episode 94, where the host, Lex Starwalker, was expressing his opinions on alignment in RPGs, and his Primordia campaign in particular, and it got me thinking about alignment as a game mechanic.

Alignment, as I recall from the D&D 3.5 days, was fairly controversial. There were mechanical implications, such as spells, as well as the issues of dealing with “evil” PCs, and the problem of “Chaotic Stupid”. On top of that, groups seem to struggle with whether alignment is a guide or constraint that governs the characters actions, or a reflection of what the character has already done. And then there’s the problem of alignment shift.

I’ve always liked the idea of alignment as a mechanic, but I’ve struggled with the problems and questions that I mentioned above. And in our current edition of D&D, 5th, it’s stated that there are 3 pillars of adventuring, one of them being social interaction. It seems that alignment as a mechanic should fit into that pillar, if it’s done right.

One of the things that occurred to me in my ponderings was that the two axes of alignment are too subjective.

The Law/Chaos axis is cultural. In the real world, some societies/cultures/groups might consider some actions “unlawful” while others don’t care, or perhaps even encourage them. So what happens when the PC enters a region where an action she considers lawful is considered unlawful. Does the PC change her mind, or is she forced to act against her choice? That’s a problem.

The Good/Evil axis, on the other hand, seems to be an issue of morality. Again, this tends to be subjective, based on cultural mores, beliefs, tradition, etc. Who determines the rightness or wrongness of an action? In Christianity, good and evil are determined by God, set down as absolutes outside of the person. In a D&D fantasy world, where there are multiple gods, who makes those rules? One god may say one thing is good, and another god in that pantheon may say otherwise. 

Given these thoughts, it seems to me that, at the very least, what we call alignment, and the labels used therein, need to change. Something that is more objective or absolute, without raising questions of culture or morality. My idea (and granted, this is just an initial set of thoughts on this) is to change the Law/Chaos axis to Order/Chaos, and the Good/Evil axis to Life/Death. And in each axis, instead of picking one of three positions (lawful, neutral, chaotic; good, neutral, evil), the character is given (or chooses) a score that reflects their dedication to that ideal.

I have some thoughts on how this might work mechanically, but I’m not ready to lay them out here. I’ll do that in another post. But I wanted to get written down some of what I’ve been thinking, and perhaps even start a discussion.

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