Crucible of Souls
So what IS alignment? It’s a concept included in the game for players to use as a guide in roleplaying their characters by drastically simplifying what would otherwise be cumbersome details of religion, philosophy, morals and ethics for a PC. It is useful for a dungeon Master to apply for NPC’s for much the same reasons in addition to suggesting behavior and attitudes of monsters.
Alignment is description, much like height and weight, family background, personality, actual deity worshiped, etc. It is a generalized reference meant to assist players in decisions about individual behavior and attitudes for their PC’s. It isn’t meant to dictate a characters choices of action. Players will always retain control over what their characters choose to do short of specific magical influences. Alignment is meant to act as a guide helping keep a characters behavior reasonable and consistent, which is a desirable role-playing goal. When you know more about how your character views the world and his own place and influence within it then you have a better grasp as to how the character might act and why.
It isn’t the same thing as a characters religion. Alignment and religion play off of each other because they will both deal with philosophy and morals but the two are not meant to be interchangeable. The player is still supposed to make the character’s ultimate moral and ethical decisions using the characters alignment as guidance. It isn’t a substitute for a characters personality either. It can’t tell you if your character is supposed to be abrasive, pleasant, enthusiastic, gregarious or the like. Evil people can be happy and pleasant. Good people can be intolerably obnoxious.
Rule #1 of Alignment
Actions determine alignment – alignment doesn’t determine actions. It has to be that way or else alignment cannot work the way it is intended. If alignment isn’t supposed to dictate your actions, then specific actions cannot be associated inherently with a given alignment. If it did dictate your actions, players would actually have no say in any morally significant acts that their characters perform – their choices would be removed because behavior would just be dictated to them – forced upon them.
You need to look at a characters behavior over a period of time; to look at trends, the pace of changes in behavior, and at a characters developing motivations rather than pick an isolated action example and from that alone decide what the alignment is. Single, specific, egregious examples can apply in deciding whether a characters alignment changes, but don’t try to determine what a characters alignment currently is with them. Except in a few extreme cases and looking at an action in the full context of when/why it’s performed, a single act just can’t sufficiently describe a characters overall behavior, and thus his alignment.
Players and DM’s may be experienced enough that they don’t need to use alignment. The more experience a player has with a given character the better he will know how he wants him to behave because he already knows how the character has acted in the past; has more deeply developed what the PC specifically believes and why. The longer a player has had opportunity to do this with a number of characters in a variety of situations the less they may need the assistance of alignment. But even an experienced player could use a little guidance or “attitude” adjustment from time to time, to keep a character’s behavior consistent and reasonable. Applied correctly, alignment does not interfere with how a player runs a character.
Alignment can, and does change. This is a natural result of roleplaying. There are no penalties for changing alignments unless your character class requires a specific alignment. It is simply acknowledged that alignments do change. The only questions are “when”, “why,” and what happens afterward. An initial grace period of at least a few levels is allowed to change alignments without penalties as the player develops the character in actual play.
Role-playing the changing morals and ethics of a character because of in-game events is good role-playing. It makes the game and the character more fun and interesting because the characters are not static but reacting understandably, realistically to the world they live in (even if it is occasionally an inappropriate and unexpected reaction, given the characters past behavior). If you think the characters behavior and thinking has changed enough to qualify as a different alignment then inform the DM and just change it. Then just have the character ACT according to the new alignment. If the DM is the one seeing the difference then the player will be informed and should either alter the characters behavior to be more in line with their chosen alignment or just change it.
An action that might be considered to be inconsistent with a characters professed alignment (and thus inconsistent with his past behavior and possibly required behavior for classes with alignment restrictions) are what demonstrate that alignment may be changing. Alignment deviations are common occurrences – even for such behaviorally restricted characters as Paladins. Perhaps especially for them because their LG behavior is further constricted by self-imposed limitations. Not every deviation indicates that the characters alignment is actively changing.
Alignment is left vague to allow a range of behavior. Characters need room to occasionally be inconsistent in their behavior because they are not automatons. A simple acknowledgment of trends is all that is generally needed. Characters must be allowed an occasional step outside their normal behavior without penalty (if still within reason). If characters aren’t allowed those deviations then they become robots that are forbidden to be fallible or to change. That makes for very boring as well as highly unrealistic characters because they cannot react to in-game events in any but the narrowest, dictated, range of actions.
A character that never shows signs of deviating from his alignment can be static, boring, and unrealistic, and probably is just not being allowed to react properly to campaign events as they occur. That doesn’t mean characters should constantly change alignment or push the limits without repercussion, just that deviations and even a rare change of alignment are to be expected, are normal, and are not to be penalized. A character like a Paladin that requires a specific alignment may have a little less leeway than others in how far and how frequently “out of bounds” he can get without consequences, but he does still have leeway.
What Happens When Violations Occur
If the DM decides that a PC action constitutes a “violation” of alignment then the player will be cautioned. If the player persists, the DM ought to give a second warning of consequences that could be levied. Only then, if the player remains committed to his character’s course of action, should he be allowed to go through with it, but consequences that the DM warned him of should be applied IF the situation still warrants it.
The reason for following that procedure should be clear but I’ll explain it anyway. As has been noted, alignment is not meant to be a hammer to hit the PC on the head with at every turn, and the PLAYER is the one who makes decisions for player characters. Alignment changes should never, EVER take anyone at the table by surprise short of magical influences. When the alignment of a PC changes in the game it should happen because everyone understands and agrees that this is what should happen, long before it ever takes place.
Penalties ought to be necessary only when a player is deliberately being disruptive by abusing the vague boundaries of alignment. Any penalties a DM does levy for alignment violations should be adjusted according to the severity of the violation and degree of disruption to the game. If neither is very significant then neither should be the penalty. Players should still try to run their characters with reasonable consistency. Players that cannot or will not keep their characters behavior sensible and non-disruptive need to be handled on the basis of being problem players (and thus discussion between player and DM) rather than problem characters (with in-game punishments). Roleplaying characters poorly often brings its own punishments within the game that players prefer to avoid. Rewards encourage greater achievement; penalties may only tend to create bitterness for failure or be perceived as needlessly judgmental.
Why Communication is Not Just Important, but Irreplaceable
It is hereby explained clearly BEFOREHAND how characters of certain alignments should behave, and why. Neither the player, nor the PC should be penalized if the DM hasn’t explained what they think is correct or required and that explanation is what you’re reading right now. Alignment is supposed to be there to help players avoid pitfalls – never to set them up to fall into them.
The DM is not the only one responsible though. If a player has a question whether something is acceptable then they need to ask and get a clear answer. If a DM considers something NOT acceptable then they should inform the player before the action becomes irreversible. Alignment changes by PC’s should nonetheless be VERY well-considered. A character who changes alignment many times, or whose behavior simply varies wildly is a big part of what we’re trying to avoid. They are usually not much fun for DM’s or other players to interact with, and the player risks being unable to ever get a proper fix on how their own character really should behave.
Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic comprises the ethos/ethical alignment factor; Good-Neutral-Evil comprises the moral factor. “Morals” and “ethics” are words that have very closely related definitions. Morals have more to do with accepted notions of what’s right and wrong and conforming to established & sanctioned codes of behavior. Ethics involves more subtle or difficult questions of what’s fair & equitable, and impartiality.
“Lawful” as an alignment element is NOT to be equated with crime-and-punishment, courts-and-jails, and king’s decrees kind of laws. The opposite of Lawful after all is not “Lawless,” nor “Criminal”. Its opposite is Chaotic. So what we’re talking about here is more general and abstract. It’s a belief in, and often a promotion of order and structure in the universe. The enacting and enforcement of written laws in a society is perhaps a common outcome of that Lawful alignment perspective, but the mere fact that written laws exist and the activity of sticking to them is NOT what keeps a lawful character lawful. Written law reminds and compels people who are NOT of Lawful alignment to behave appropriately. The Lawfully-aligned character would ideally act that way whether such written laws were in place or not. It therefore cannot be the written law and how a character reacts to it which in any way defines a Lawful alignment.
As suggested, it implies a character whose views are of a more orderly world – that the universe has certain “rules” and that there are (or should be) consequences associated with breaking or going against those rules. Common reflections of this belief might be gravitating to an organized and structured society, adhering to formal codes of laws, or membership in an association that attempts to establish or follow regulated behavior or a regulated universe. A character may feel that the world is NOT ordered but seeks to make it that way. Lawfulness implies neither a lack of individualism, nor a guaranteed preference for organized groups.
“Chaotic” as an alignment element is NOT to be equated with bizarre, irrational, nonsensical, and intentionally criminal behavior. As with Lawfulness it indicates more about how the character sees their place in the universe. It would suggest that the character sees little or no cosmological consequence for his actions, but that doesn’t mean that he will then act insanely, without reason, self-direction, or personal control. Chaotic alignment is not about performing deliberately random actions,(which is what the game actually defines as insanity. Insane characters do not have alignments because they are by definition acting without reason or according to the implications of a personal philosophy or ethos. Chaotic alignment is not permission to actually disregard reasonable and consistent behavior.
“Chaotic” is the opposite of Lawful and would be a character that sees little or no order in the universe, and few or no greater consequences to ones actions. Such a character doesn’t necessarily believe that this is the way it should be (although that’s possible). He doesn’t necessarily try to advance and further the level of Chaos in the universe. More likely he simply sees this as the way the world IS, and that such things as codes of law, and other such personal and social efforts at organization are relatively pointless, or simply ineffectual. Chaotic-ness (for lack of a better word) does not necessarily mean a character believes only in anarchy rather than any formal government, nor imply that he despises all organization.
“Neutral” (meaning ethically Neutral; between law and chaos) is just that – a character that is in between the two ethical extremes. The world is neither eminently ordered as a Lawful character might believe, nor is life as random and haphazard as a Chaotic character might think. It’s somewhere in between so his ethos is likely to contain elements of both; that there is some order and consequence for actions but there are random elements to the universe too, so occasionally the consequences are disproportionate or actually absent. He may think that social conventions are generally a good idea but that they often don’t work or have unintended effects. Such a character may actually feel that the world ought to be different but that this is the way it IS. Neutrality can also indicate indecision or simply not having considered principles of law and chaos in the first place. Seldom will it ever represent actively choosing the middle ground.
Neutrality is not an independent alignment element; something separated from the extremes such that the three elements might be represented by a triangle with three major points each pulling away from the others. Instead, it should be thought of just as it has always been graphically represented – as the midpoint on a line segment with the extremes on either end. Neutrality is the middle ground between extremes, not a philosophy unto itself.
“Good”, is a word for which there is any number of synonyms: honorable, virtuous, just, kind, benevolent. This is not to say that a Good character MUST be all of these things. Perhaps it’s best to say that a Good character believes that these are attributes to be striven for and maintained as best as can be managed. This leaves leeway for good characters to be brash or annoying, temperamental, stupid or in general to simply fail to be what he could be or feels he should be.
“Evil” has just as many adjectives as Good: dishonorable, deceptive, abusive, cruel, immoral, and more. As noted before, an Evil character is not necessarily at his worst, most foul and antagonistic behavior at all times. Being of an Evil alignment only means that the capacity for these things is always there, that the character does behave this way often enough that it is a useful descriptor of him, and that they may know no limits to the depth of their depravity. This means that an Evil character can be charming, cooperative, and for all appearances a nice guy. But it’s a façade that is not likely to last long unless the character is particularly determined and capable of maintaining such a deception.
Perceptions of what is good and evil are at least somewhat subject to the socially accepted norms of what those extremes are. However, what is Good in one society is not possible to be perceived as Evil in another. Alignment in D&D is NOT structured to be, or intended to be morally relative, where no universal standards exist by which to assess moral/ethical truth. It’s the exact opposite. In D&D, morality is for most intents and purposes absolute. What is good, what is evil, and what is in between, is clearly understood, unchanging, and highly reliable as it applies to characters.
It is intended that characters should be able to rest reasonably assured in the knowledge that certain creatures are inherently Evil. It is intended that paladins CAN slay critters known to be evilly-aligned without concern for violating their own alignment and losing their class as a result of doing so (though that also doesn’t necessarily give them the mandate to do so at any time, any place). Players should understand that often as not the PC’s themselves make their own authority, and that creatures who only moments before were doing their best to kill them are no less Evil or deserving of execution for having surrendered and begged for mercy. If one Good society perceives an Evil where another Good society does not, one of them is certainly going to be correct, and the other will be wrong. Again, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be social constraints or consequences, only that there won’t be alignment consequences.
Alignment does not dictate the laws, customs, or attitudes of a large, complex society any more than it can dictate these things for an individual PC. The most it can do is imply and suggest – and that only to a limited degree. Societies often have rulers and laws which DO NOT match the attitudes and beliefs of their general populace. The alignment of a society is only a very rough approximation of the alignments of the majority of people in it. It seldom accurately will reflect the desires of those VERY few who created or influenced its laws.
Knowingly introducing a PC with an alignment that is diametrically opposed to others in the PC party is possible, but is a very bad idea for reasons that should be obvious. A player who attempts this is in my experience simply being a jerk (with RARE exceptions). They are using it as an excuse to cause trouble; to have their character “permitted” to misbehave or disrupt the game because of alignment conflicts with other characters. Nobody has the right to needlessly disrupt a game much less to use their characters alignment as the excuse. It is not asking too much of the players to insist that they be reasonable about their choice of alignments so that PC’s have mostly compatible ideologies. Playing a game with severe PC alignment conflicts can be done of course, but unless all concerned are mature people as well as experienced role-players it’s not worth the trouble it will undoubtedly cause.
Players must be made aware that just because their characters alignment allows or even encourages certain behavior doesn’t mean that they should or must go through with it. Just because your character and an NPC have conflicting alignments is not good enough reason for you to decide your character MUST behave in an openly antagonistic fashion towards them, disregarding all other considerations. While alignment friction is almost inevitable (and some amount makes a more interesting game) players MUST understand that screwing up the game for one player, much less for everyone based on such a shallow, pathetic excuse for role-playing is not acceptable. Alignment is a guideline for deciding on your characters behavior, it is not, however, an excuse for disruptive and irrational behavior. “I’m not a jerk, I just play one in D&D,” doesn’t fly. If you choose to play a character who consistently is an irritation, a jerk, a disruptor of game-play, then YOU, the player, are actually being the jerk. Your character is simply how you’re doing it.
Behaviorally restricted characters should not be obsessed with alignment. As stated before, don’t replace a characters personality with alignment, as if that alone determines who the character is. Also, with paladins in particular, their choice of being LG and acceptance of other behavior restrictions on top of that is a PERSONAL choice – it wasn’t a choice made by all the other PC’s. Paladin players and paladin PC’s have no reason to expect other characters to conform to the paladin’s beliefs. That’s the paladin’s own burden to bear – not the entire party’s burden to be forcibly shared.
Players need to be willing to bend in their dedication to what they are convinced is the correct choice of behavior for their character. I’ve seen too many players have their characters acting like jerks, and when asked about it respond with, “That’s what my character would do,” or, “I’m just being true to my character.” That’s bull. If you simply cannot or will not adjust your character concept to, “play well with others,” then do the right thing and take the character out of the campaign entirely rather than disrupt it on the assumption that the game and all other participants must conform to you and your PC’s attitudes and behavior.
Having a characters alignment forcibly changed, such as by a cursed item, is NOT an alignment violation of any kind. Such a forced alignment change is utterly beyond the player’s control (with the possible exception that a player has been clearly warned and had the choice to avoid it). It’s otherwise something inflicted upon a character by a DM, and it is the DM who is solely responsible for even allowing the possibility if not actively engineering it to happen.
Note that paladins only fall when they intentionally do things that are chaotic or evil. A character who ignores omens, clues, and whose player still stupidly defies warnings straight from the DM and has a PC put on a Helm of Opposite Alignment might deserve what he gets (solely as far as the change itself goes), but no matter WHY it is done, inflicting an alignment change upon a character is no less than the DM offering a role-playing challenge. “Bam! Your characters entire moral and ethical philosophy has just changed. How do you handle it?” If a player accepts that challenge then they better be able and willing to accept the consequences. If a character/player is tricked or trapped into that challenge without warning then the DM must be prepared for the player to decline the invitation.
An alignment-restricted character (paladin, monk, druid, ranger) who through absolutely no fault of his own is tricked or forced into putting on a Helm of Opposite Alignment or otherwise having his alignment altered to where it interferes with his class restriction is NOT at fault for what the DM has inflicted on him and should not be punished further for having had his alignment uncontrollably changed. They certainly shouldn’t be punished for electing not to keep that change. A player who is not seeking such a challenge, who (understandably) objects to having his characters ideology uncontrollably altered, or who is simply not up to the challenge against his roleplaying skills should never be punished by the DM (by way of punishing the PC) for failure to meet that challenge. The PC will be allowed to quickly work his way back to the class and alignment he was forced out of with a minimum of fuss and bother.
No discussion of the abuses of alignment would be complete without again specifically talking about Chaotic Neutral. There are those who believe that CN characters should be, or at least are permitted to be utterly random, arbitrary, unmotivated, unfathomable LUNATICS. It’s a common misconception, and also commonly used as an excuse (misconception or no) but the entire purpose of alignment is to help prevent characters from just doing any random thing they wish to do in any given moment. If CN did indeed allow that then alignment itself is completely meaningless. Chaotic alignment is not about being random, or acting insanely. The opposite of Chaos is Lawful, not, “Predictable,” “Stable,” or, “Sane”. The descriptions of Chaotic alignment are therefore not “UNpredictable”, “UNstable,” or “Insane.”