Game Mastery


by on Sep.04, 2008, under GM, player management

This is a D&D specific post, as it deals with the topic of alignment.

Last night our game ended and it was time to discuss what to run next. The new guy asked what we thinking of evil characters and accidentally triggered a well rehearsed and lengthy rant from yours truly. The topic comes up fairly often. My thoughts on the matter are well refined from rehashing them over and over. Since this blog is a central repository for RPG issues that keep resurfacing, I figured this topic was post worthy.

First off, let’s talk evil. One of my favorite topics. Evil (and chaotic for that matter) often gets misplayed. I’m talking about the sort of evil that wonders off from the rest of the group to go barbecue an orphanage for shits and giggles. Sometimes it’s one character seeing how much carnage he can get away with. Sometimes it’s a whole party taking part in a verbal depravity contest. Characters like that aren’t evil, they’re monstrous. They’re beyond the brink of sanity. You can’t roleplay something like that, you can only perform a freakshow of disgusting acts.

And that’s all well and good if that’s what your group is doing. I’m sure we did that back in middle school too, even if my subconscious doesn’t want me to remember it. Some people just need to get that sort of thing out of their system before they can try being evil in a not so juvenile way. Personally, I’d rather play Grand Theft Auto.

The point I’m trying to make so far is that there’s a difference between evil and monstrous. Many players think back to their early evil campaigns which were nothing but monstrous and think that that’s what playing evil is. It’s not.

Evil characters are self motivated. They do what benefits themselves at the expense of others. They probably don’t even consider themselves evil. No really. The classic example of evil is Hitler, and I doubt that even he saw himself in an evil light. People don’t acknowledge their own evil. They don’t embrace it. They justify it. But they also hide it.

It is almost never in an evil character’s best interest to let the world know he’s evil. Okay, supervillains maybe, but they’re different. Let’s say you’ve got an evil halfling in the adventuring party. The evil halfling wants to ensalve humanity. Since he’s evil, the halfling is self motivated and will put himself and his cause above others. He sees a nunnery. The monstrous evil version of the halfling would light nuns on fire for his own amusement. The monstrous evil version would also be arrested by the town guards, then quartered and tossed in a pauper’s grave. Whereas the truly evil halfling would recognize the flammable nunnery as nothing more than a distraction and leave it alone. Burning nuns does nothing towards his goal of enslaving humanity. In fact it’s probably detrimental. Even if he isn’t caught, the town guard will be on the lookout for a little guy who smells like lighter fluid. This attention is totally unnecessary. To avoid attention, it is often in an evil character’s best interest to appear to be lawful good.

I’ve seen similar problems come from characters of the chaotic disposition. Let me rephrase that. I’ve seen similar problems come from players who don’t understand their character’s chaotic disposition. They act randomly. Sometimes lighting nuns aflame, sometimes giving orphans treasure, all in the name of chaos.

I’ve come to believe that this misunderstanding is actually a problem with the alignment terminology. Chaotic sounds, well, chaotic. I can understand why a player who picks this alignment might be a little confused about its meaning. Lawful gives the wrong impression too.

For as long as I’ve had these opinions I’ve been trying to come up with alternative alignment terminology. Nothing seems to work quite right. And on top of that, D&D relies on so many alignment based effects that any little changes I make to the names could unbalance things. ‘Detect self-centered’ seems like a poor replacement for a paladin’s detect evil.

Furthermore, I’ve found that the nine alignments available represent a poor selection of possible characters. I even go so far as to use alignment as a litmus test for figuring out how interesting a character will be – if he don’t fit in one of the nine slots, he’s probably interesting.

As such I’ve chosen to expand the alignment system we’re all used to. I think I’ve done so in a manner that is elegant and sensible, but I haven’t tried it with any PCs yet.

The basic idea is that you can be active or passive in an alignment. A paladin is actively lawful and will try to arrest law breakers. An every day citizen leads a lawful life, but is passive about it. It’s not their problem if someone robs the bank. A passive good character wants people around to be happy. An actively good character does something about it.

This system also allows for the two kinds of neutrality. Some neutral characters just don’t care. Others actively strive for balance in the world. The first group is passive, the latter active.

To represent activity and passivity, I use capital and lowercase letters. Paladins are LG. Citizens lg.

This translates well to evil too. Someone in it for themselves is merely evil. The Big Bad Enemy who is trying to take over the world is Evil with a capital E.

Between Lawful, lawful, Neutral, neutral, Good, good and Chaotic, chaotic, Neutral, neutral, Evil, and evil, we’ve taken the alignment system with 9 possible slots and made it possible to accommodate 36 types of characters, without adding any new terminology. This post is long enough without enumerating all 36 types (especially when you consider the differences between the four true neutrals: NN (balances all), nn (apathetic), Nn (balances law/chaos), and nN (balances good/evil)), but I hope this is something people find useful in their games.

Back to the original topic, I explained my active/passive alignment system to the new guy and told him that I’m happy to have an evil character, but capital E is off limits.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Maliseraph

    I am definitely in agreement with you on this, Travis and I have started talking about this on (my blog! yay!)
    I feel like the basic alignment system is way too simplistic, and even a little thing like doing the lower-case-upper-case thing makes such a huge jump to cover the gaps. I feel like the bigger problem is trying to shoe-horn an alignment system that doesn’t fit the themes of the campaign.

    With D&D though, the game is structurally designed to have these archetyes, built into the system itself with “detect evil” and such. It makes it hard to use the alignment system for more than intended, it seems to me. Maybe adding another letter or two? Communal, Neutral, Selfish? Denotes the scale they focus on, LEC would be Sauron, evil on a grand scale, lec would be a corrupt magistrate running a mafia family in his town.

  2. sagotsky

    While my games have themes I’ve rarely felt the need to give the theme a game mechanic. D&D has alignment because it has angels and demons and Detect Alignment. You need to know a character’s alignment to see how Magic Circle against Evil affects that character.

    Beyond that though, alignment hasn’t been something I’ve needed. There’s no Paladin of Community who will use his “Detect Loner” at will ability to weed out seedy guys sitting alone at the bar.

    I suppose I’m dismissive of alignment because I see it as ad-hoc rather than central. I come up with a character, and then define that character within the rules of a system. If the system has an alignment, I’ll pick the closest one, but I’ll never change a character to fit into alignment. If you threw out the mechanic entirely I’d play the same character as before. Other players get it backwards (IMHO) by choosing an alignment and then figuring out the character. This puts alignment up on a huge pedestal as it becomes the foundation for a character.

    Oh and as far as LEC, I’d still call the corrupt magistrate LEC. He’s actively doing all that. The lec one would be the low level guy whose buddy asked for help shaking down a baker for protection money. He’s just going with the flow – the mafia is not necessarily his cause.

  3. Heatwizard

    The first evil character I wrote was a LE Warblade who used to be part of an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of six thieves, as the primary muscle, and as a parkour-style infiltration expert(+20 to jump, oh yeah). Then the team walked into a sting, got arrested, and he was shipped off to Karrnath(this was an Eberron campaign) as part of a deal with Aundair to generally screw with their military supplies and stuff. Which gave him ample reason to be wandering around Rekkenmark, where the plot started. It was a PbP game that died quickly, which is a shame, because it was slated to be a horror campaign, and I thought it would be interesting to be That Guy, the one that doesn’t care about anyone else in the midst of a zombie outbreak, at level 10. Alas.

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