Thursday, June 12, 2008

D&D Alignment

Now that 4th Edition D&D is released, excerpts from the rules are a little less exciting, eh?

But, an excerpt that released last week discussed D&D alignment, and some of our thoughts about why alignment was updated. Behind the scenes, I was the chair of the alignment committee, and the report I and my committee put together greatly influenced the final alignment system. Here is a summary of what we were thinking, in simplified form.
Like everything else for 4th Edition of D&D, we thought long and hard about the alignment system we wanted to launch with the new edition. The struggle of good heroes against evil villains is one D&D’s core tenants. The D&D alignment system possesses a heritage and brand identity we did not want to lose. If we could overcome a couple of issues associated with the traditional alignment system without introducing new problems, we knew that we absolutely had to preserve the system so players could still talk about their lawful good paladin or the chaotic evil demon they vanquished.

As we saw it, several issues plagued D&D alignment, including:

1. A character’s alignment, chosen at character creation, can become a straight-jacket on that character’s actions. Consider the paladin we’ve all seen in play, “I had to attack the rogue, I’m lawful good,” or the rogue, “I’m chaotic good! That means sometimes I push you off the bridge; come on, don’t get mad!” or some similar sentiment when presented with a role-playing choice. For this reason, many characters stuck with neutral: a nebulous self-serving alignment (as was then defined), a “me first” mentality that didn’t necessarily promote party cohesion either.

2. In 3rd Edition, choosing an alignment usually had the unfortunate mechanical repercussion of making the aligned player vulnerable to an opposing aligned attack of a foe. It’s not really ideal that being good made you more vulnerable to demonic attacks, for instance. Another reason some players stuck with the neutral alignment of previous editions.

3. The alignment system was tied to game cosmology, in ways that sometimes translated to physical effects that didn’t lead to fun gameplay.

So we came up with a new alignment system for 4th Edition, though one not completely unlike the previous version. It saves most of the old terms, if not their cosmological or gameplay significance. If any statement can sum up the new system, it is: “Alignment means making an effort.” --Michele Carter.

Thus was born the concept of unaligned. More importantly, the concept that unaligned is benign. Being unaligned is not the neutral alignment of previous editions. Someone who is unaligned is assumed to be an “easy-going” and sometimes even helpful person, especially when it’s easy to be helpful. Just like in real life, where it’s arguable that many people (cocooned in their routines and safe lives provided by a supporting civilization) are unaligned, your fantasy character can enjoy the same freedom from thinking too hard about morality but still be granted the benefit of doubt when they are judged.

Of course, many players will feel benign isn’t good enough, and so declare themselves good or lawful good. These characters are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to uphold a virtue or save an innocent’s life, even if there is the very real possibility they could lose their own life in the process. Such willingness for self-sacrifice is not benign; it is good.


Sean! said...

thanks for posting some of the thought processes. this helps explain a lot of what the new changes are about.

Bruce Cordell said...


Glad you find it useful :-)

mythusmage said...

Why do I get the impression that someone in the design group has a copy of Mythus? :)

To explain to those who don't have a copy of Mythus to consult, the game has 5 ethoi. Going from good (but not necessarily) to evil (but not necessarily) they are Sunlight, Moonlight, Balance, Shadowy Darkness, and Gloomy Darkness. Most people do not have an avowed ethos. However, those in a clerical vocation (Mythus character classes (but not necessarily)) must declare an ethos, along with a pantheon and an ethically aligned deity in that pantheon.

In addition, any character wishing to use any clerical magic in addition to Tutelary Castings must select a specific ethos. Once the ethos is chosen he may not use any magic from any other ethos. This information provided for anybody thinking of modifying 4e alignment in their game.

Now my beef with D&D alignment is that the rationale and arguments for are largely mechanistic, when they should be philosophical. It isn't laws that matter, it is Law. The recognition that societies function best when there is a code of conduct that has the goal of keeping society functioning smoothly, and which act to the benefit of society and the members thereof. When a law calls upon you to do wrong, then it is incumbent on you to violate that law. For an absolute adherence to the laws of a land is tantamount to lawful-evil behavior.

You have my position, let the reasoned responses and hysterical tirades commence.