MAKING ALIGNMENT SIMPLE AND CRUNCHY
The nine D&D alignments are an internet meme.
They’ve been talked to death.
By page 25 of the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, you get the sense that alignment is important and that changing it is bad. Very bad:
So wait, if I change alignment I drop permanently to the bottom of the next lowest experience level? Lose my alignment tongue? And at the bottom of paragraph four, what’s this about being damned to oblivion!?
Ok, I get it. Alignment is *meant* to be static; not really a statistic on the character sheet so much as a kind of title.
The mechanical reasons are obvious if somewhat sparse: changing alignment on a whim makes spells like Protection from Good/Evil moot. Plus it’s a way of trying to balance the Paladin’s vast assortment of abilities against a strict code of behavior. Put another way, the Paladin’s special abilities are rewards *for* towing the line.
From a game mechanic standpoint, that’s interesting because it infers a bonus for doing something hard.
Modern stories and screenplays have made us accustomed to anti-heroes or reluctant heroes occupying settings that are as morally ambiguous as they are. This plays on the notion that no-one is really all good or all bad and that people are nuanced.
I don’t want to get into the racist implications of all orcs being evil etc. because frankly I don’t care. It’s not in the scope of this post.
I’m already admitting that worlds where everything is gray exist, are fine and that you can crank this up as many notches as you like, from dystopian cities filled with self-centered NPCs to full-blown hell-scapes where Cthulhu is shadowing your steps and nothing can save you.
RPGs can take place in any setting and many of those settings have little use for alignment.
After all, if your campaign world is more of an LotFP wilderness of weirdness and perversions rather than an LotR struggle of “right” vs “wrong”, what does it matter? If you are running a sandbox where the only goals are lucre and leveling and being shocked by the next vomit-inducing abomination, or solving the next dungeon puzzle, then alignment holds little allure.
But let’s get back to the original setting of OSR because maybe it’d be refreshing to have an epic struggle. My daughter is buying vinyl for her new (old) turntable—so I guess old-fashioned stuff might be hip again.
Well, if you want epic struggle with immediacy, good vs evil is a proven way to go. You can invent other opposing views but whether your players will feel strongly about them is uncertain.
Good and evil can be simple and it can be crunchy.
I am going to focus on both.
MAKING IT SIMPLE
Behold the Alignment Chart!
You will notice that instead of having Neutral on both axes—which is confusing–I’ve swapped one of those neutrals for “Idealist”.
Pick a number 1 thru 3 and read your mantra, then pick good, neutral or evil to complete the mantra.
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Before you get all up in arms, this isn’t a real-world discussion of good and evil. Such a thing is not only tiresome but pointless in the context of gaming. The only value to be had is in ensuring accessibility of the concepts so that players know what’s expected of characters in the world.
I frame it this way: “Good and evil are not actually good and evil in this game we’re going to be playing. For the purposes of this game, Good and Evil will be judged solely by me.
There are only two questions that your characters will be held accountable for and the first is this:
“Does your character behave in a disciplined way that meets with society’s approval: especially under pressure—or does it do whatever it personally approves of in the given moment?”
The answer to this determines Law or Chaos with the Idealist seeking neither society nor self-approval but rather a cosmic correctness one might equate with deep wisdom.
The second question is:
“Does your character look out for its own interests at any cost, or are does it show obvious concern for others: especially when there is nothing to be gained by doing so?
The answer to this determines Good or Evil with the neutral character essentially following a do-to-others-as-they-do-to-you stratagem.
This is perhaps as simple as it can be while still accounting for all nine alignments. Constraining all judgement to two questions aids in simple and fair calls by the referee and in any case there will be a litany of such calls—a burden of evidence as it were—of recorded character actions prior to an alignment switch.
For the record, I allow characters to be assigned whatever alignment the player chooses but then pay close attention to character actions. If the character’s actions cause a shift in alignment, I don’t punish that first alignment change because I chalk it up to the Player formulating who that character is.
With these guidelines established we can now read from left to right on the alignment chart and know that a Neutral (Idealist) Good seems to be the epitome of goodness, arguably on higher moral ground than either Lawful or Chaotic Good.
Meanwhile, Lawful Evil reads like that attorney in the movies that everyone loves to hate.
On to things that actually matter!
MAKING IT CRUNCHY
Let’s consider things that got put into those AD&D rule books.
- Protection from Good/Evil.
- The Holy Avenger
- The Libram of Ineffable Damnation/Silver Magic
There are more of course, but the point is that characters don’t often run into mechanical alignment-related effects, and when they do those effects tend to be negative.
Consider the gamer at your table who you know is more interested in game mechanics than in role playing. This is the person who makes pragmatic choices and enjoys combat and progression but doesn’t show much of a personality through their character. They are clearly playing the game.
Players of a mechanical bent will typically choose neutral alignments by default unless they must choose something else to satisfy a class requirement.
This is because neutral is the best choice. It neutralizes the threat of running up against protection magic. Neutral characters rarely get “bit” by things they pick up. Furthermore, neutrality allows the character to do mostly whatever it wants instead of being constrained by an alignment that rarely impacts the game. Right?
I mean, Chaotic Neutral, right?
That’s the cruel pragmatist’s alignment.
But you want to run a new campaign of epic struggle: Good vs Evil. And you’ve got pragmatic characters that value their freedom more than the cause.
So, what’s broken?
Well, nothing really. But there are things you can do to support this kind of campaign.
Apply Alignments to Desirable Magical Items
The Holy Avenger becomes a template, rather than a unique thing and while a sword +1 might be unaligned, consider this:
A pearlescent white blade of diminutive but beautiful workmanship rests inside a carved mappa burl box on crushed gridelin velvet. It might be the most beautiful weapon you have ever seen.
This +3 Mithril short sword allows the wielder to roll 2d6 or 2d8 dmg vs Small/Medium or Large size opponents respectively when a natural 20 is rolled to hit. This weapon does 1 hp dmg per round to neutral creatures that touch it and 2 hp dmg per round to evil creatures. On any successful hit, the weapon does 1 additional dmg (+4) to neutral opponents and 2 additional dmg (+5) to evil opponents. Value: 11,500gp
This is a weapon that cares about alignment even if you don’t.
Supplying aligned magical items adds crunch. They can be offered as rewards to PCs from NPCs who share the same cause. And you are more freely able to place powerful items of opposing alignment in the armor and weapon slots of enemy combatants without upsetting game balance—since the PCs will either shun or destroy those objects to keep the advantages of their own magical gear.
Obviously not all magical gear should be aligned…but the big-ticket items, the Oo-la-la’s of the world, certainly should.
It will be important to provide similar items to those dogged neutrals with the caveat that neutral aligned objects are far rarer depending on the sort of game you want to run.
Again, all of this is only desirable if you are trying to establish and Axis & Allies campaign and want to add some draw-backs to characters seeking the Swiss solution. Neutral characters will have their advantage in acting without as many constraints and avoiding circles of protection. The point is to steer with incentives.
Upping the Stakes of Staying Neutral
As the struggle of Good vs Evil intensifies within the campaign, being neutral might become uncomfortable as pressure mounts to pick a side.
This can be achieved by effects that allow Good aligned characters to punch through the defenses of Evil and allow dedicated Evil characters to penetrate the bulwarks of good—in both cases by sheer commitment to their ideals.
This will leave run-of-the-mill hirelings, mercenaries and rogue participants exposed as they lack the moral fortitude or cold black hearts necessary to stave off the awesome nature of holy and unholy alike.
You can up the stakes considerably when the enemy’s innermost bastions are enchanted to keep out all but those of proven dedication to the cause:
High-Consecrated/Desecrated Ground (Abjuration)
Level: 3 Components: V, S, M
Range: Touch Casting Time: 1 turn
Duration: Permanent Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: 5‘ x 5’ per level
Explanation/Description: This spell protects an area from incursion by those of alignments that differ from that of the caster. It is most powerful against those of muddy neutral dispositions for whom good and evil have failed to elicit much regard. In fine, the focused morality of good alignments will help such creatures overcome the effects of high-desecrated ground; and the black resolve of evil creatures will allow them to tramp more freely over high-consecrated ground. It is neutrals, rather, who will suffer the full extent of this ward.
Creatures of LN, N or CN alignment who set foot on either high-consecrated or high-desecrated ground have a base 30% chance of being forced back due to deep spiritual uneasiness. This chance increases by 5% for each level below 11th and drops by 5% for each level above 11th. Therefore a 5th level LN fighter has an 60% chance of being constrained from entering either high-desecrated or high-consecrated ground. Only one attempt to enter such ground is allowed per turn. If a neutral character manages to overcome their unease they may enter the area but will suffer –2 to hit and –2 on saving throws for as long as they remain.
Good aligned creatures entering high-desecrated ground (or evil entering high-consecrated ground) have a base 0% chance of being forced back, which increases by 5% for each level below 11th. They too may make one attempt to enter such ground per turn. Those who overcome their unease suffer a –1 penalty on saving throws for as long as they remain in the area, but are not otherwise affected.
Consecrated/desecrated ground can be dispelled by a Remove Curse spell with a probability of success equal to 10% per caster level.
Material component is 1 vial of holy/unholy water per 5’x5’ section.
You can riff on this idea of righteous/unrighteous dedication offering more protection against opposing alignments, while neutrals are left to skirt the conflict with diplomacy or fend with an unbolstered defense.
In this vein, protection spells might completely overcome localized disadvantages for Good/Evil characters (and some benefit to boot) while imparting only a portion of protection to neutral associates.
Perhaps it will even encourage those associates to join the winning side.
As a final note, none of this is meant to be coercive. Just ideas for fortifying a Good vs Evil campaign with mechanics that incentivize belonging to one or the other team.