Alignment? Huh! What Is It Good For?
A long time ago I wrote two posts about D&D’s notion of “alignment”. Recently some YouTube videos about D&D 5e started talking about alignment, and I just had to post about it. (I thought I was out …)
The other posts may not have made this explicit, but let me say this for the record:
Alignment makes an interesting premise for a world or multiverse in which cosmic forces vie for dominance.
Alignment makes a horrible system for describing the goals, beliefs, and allegiances of individual player characters or even NPCs.
Therefore, in the unlikely event I ever run any edition or spin-off of D&D, assuming alignment remains optional and easy to extricate from the system, I would discourage any player from playing an alignment, and ignore any player’s statement of his character’s alignment.
But then, as often happens, I started wondering what would happen if I allowed personal alignments. What follows is the result of those musings.
Alignments in Hard Mode
The Five Alignments
Alignments transcend petty ethical, moral, and philosophical principles. They transcend local gods, even the ones that exist.
The Powers That Be which truly run the multiverse line up behind five1 distinct fundamental forces, or principles, or entities. (Human language fails.) Humans have named them the following:
- Balance (a.k.a. Nature, True Neutrality)
- Chaos (a.k.a. Disorder, Flux)
- Evil (a.k.a. Darkness, Villainy)
- Good (a.k.a. Light, Heroism)
- Law (a.k.a. Order, Stasis)
Sometimes humans use other names, noted above.
Alignment Is Inhuman
The Powers That Be created powerful ultraterrestrial / extra-planar beings to serve their side in the Great Cosmic Struggle. Most of the Struggle happens in realms of existence far beyond mortal perception; at best they will experience the catastrophe of one Power’s temporary victory over another.
In rare cases, the Powers That Be, with their foreknowledge of mortal fates, will select a mortal soul to act as their Champion, i.e. their pawn, through several lifetimes and incarnations.
All others, particularly mortals, must prove their loyalty to the Powers That Be through actions, the more dramatic and far-reaching the better.
Alignment Requires Work
A manic pixie nightmare may say she’s Chaotic, but she’s no better than the basement-dwelling teenager who calls himself “Evil” because he looks at naughty pictures and chants religious rituals backwards. The vast majority of mass murderer and famous philanthropists scarcely rise above these posers, as far as the Powers That Be are concerned.
The collapse or salvation of kingdoms or the slaying of a rival Champion might get the attention of the Powers That Be. Or maybe a small unseen action in an alleyway might ripple through the multiverse and shift the course of the Struggle. It’s hard to know with our limited mortal minds. The best any servant of an Alignment can do is take their best guess at what the Powers That Be would want them to do in every situation, and do it.
One can try to serve two Alignments at once, but one will most likely fail. Good and Law are not as compatible as one might think.
Hard Mode Alignment Rules
All player characters start the game Unaligned. Full stop.
In game terms, when a player declares themselves the servant of an Alignment, the GM keeps percentile scores for that character’s allegiance to Law, Good, Evil, and Chaos. (Balance has its own rules.) Any incidents that served the purposes of an Alignment increases one or more scores. Kill an orphan in an alley? Add 3% to Evil. Kill a kidnapper in that alley? Add 1% to Law, Good, and Evil: murder is Evil, saving the innocent is Good, and upholding mundane law is Lawful. And so on.
Players don’t see these scores. The DM doesn’t have to even talk about them.
When a player character (PC) has accumulated at least 60% total tally marks, and one (or, rarely, two) Alignments have 30% more tally marks than the rest, the PC becomes a Servant of that (those) Alignment(s). If allegiances vary by less than 10%, the PC becomes a Servant of Balance. Otherwise the PC remains Unaligned.
If one Alignment score rises to 90% or more, and the next highest alignment score is 60% or less, the character becomes a Champion of that alignment. If they’re all within 15% of each other, the character becomes a Champion of Balance.
In rare cases these percentile scores can exceed 100%. Just go with it.
Detection and Protection spells will begin treating a Servant or Champion of an Alignment as a celestial or fiend.
The GM will continue to keep tally marks for the entire campaign. If the DM grants Servants of an Alignment special abilities, dipping below 30% above average will cause the Powers That Be to revoke said abilities.
Optional Rule: Fewer Alignments
The DM may choose to remove one pair of Alignments: Good and Evil, or Law and Chaos. The other alignments may take on some of the ethos of the removed alignments, but not all.
For example, say the DM wants only Law and Chaos (and Balance). “Good” acts may benefit Law, but only to the extent they increase safety, security, and predictability; good for good’s sake isn’t part of Law. Likewise increasing misery and wreaking havoc are part of Chaos’s mandate only if they undermine Law or increase uncertainty, fear, and madness.
Optional Rule: Balance Score
If Balance has an ethos beyond giving all other alignments equal time, give it a percentile score too. A Servant or Champion of Balance is therefore one whose percentile scores are all about equal or whose Balance score exceeds all others.
For example, Balance may stand for the balance of nature, harmonious human relations, and accomplishing things without magical or divine intervention. Examples of actions that would increase Balance without increasing the others includes nonviolently opposing the other alignments, planting a tree, settling a dispute amicably, and building something with one’s own hands.
Optional Rule: Other Alignments
Don’t use these rules. See Allegiance, below.
What is Law?
Law transcends petty human rules and institutions. Only one Law, one Truth truly exists, timeless and unchangeable. Many mortals have tried to derive or divine that Law, but the Chaos in mortal affairs attests to their utter failure. Were the One Law truly followed, the lives of mortals would be perfectly ordered in an unchanging cycle, as reliable as the planets in the heavens or the changing of seasons.
How do I serve Law?
Only the pure Aeons can express eternal Law, and only their impure Luminaries can translate that understanding to limited mortal minds. For now the best a would-be servant can do is to support mortal institutions and all attempts to order mortal affairs according to consistent and just laws. The creation of a worldwide – or multiversal – government and social structure will aid the Powers That Be when Law wins the Struggle and brings its peace and order to the lives of ordinary mortals.
When and how will Law reward me?
The reward for living the Law is living the Law. A true Champion will gain certain boons, like clarity of mind, perfection of motion, and physiological stability no matter what traumas the fallen world inflicts. These will aid the Champion in effecting a universal order, even an imperfect one.
What is Good?
Mortal thinkers have agonized over this question. Is goodness simply the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people? If so, how do you calculate the benefit for an entire village, city, or world? Or is it a matter of practicing certain virtues? If so, what are the best virtues, and what is the best way of practicing them? Is it the avoidance of “bad” actions and the performance of “good” actions? What are those inherently bad and good actions? Are there some actions whose goodness depends on circumstances?
The Powers of Good assert they have The Answer, which surpasses mortal understanding. Trust them. Have faith.
How do I serve Good?
Only the Powers of Good can forsee the outcome of every action, the true measure of virtue, and the rightness or wrongness of all paths. In their wisdom, they do not or cannot share their knowledge unambiguously. Those who aspire to be servants of Good must follow their consciences and act to save lives and improve those lives to the best of their abilities. Only when peace and kindness are not an exception but a norm will the Powers of Good triumph.
When and how will Good reward me?
Some say Goodness is its own reward, but even the Angelic Host acknowledges that striving for good wearies mortals. Thus true Saints will receive aid when they ask for it … and others when they need it.
What is Evil?
Some say Evil is simply the absence of Good. Those people are wrong. To corrupt virtue, to crush freedom, to turn peace to war … those require skill; those are an art. Any thug can steal gold or kill a person; those are childs play. The truly Evil steal futures and kill dreams.
Some also say one man’s Evil is another’s Good. Also poppycock. True Evil spreads suffering equally. True Evil rewards neither the strong nor the swift nor the wise. The instigator of Evil may raise themselves up, if they are clever, but the essence of Evil is first to bring others low. People, groups, civilizations, worlds … all must fall.
Evil truly triumphs when “good” men can do nothing.
How do I serve Evil?
Be evil. Spread suffering and misery. Use every waking hour, every coin, every resource plotting the ruin of all around you.
Although one does not commits True Evil for gain, one must not neglect gathering funds and allies for subsequent operations. Nor should one reveal one’s intentions early, lest some self-styled “hero” try to stop you. Stay in the shadows, wear a virtuous facade, and express the expected amount of sorrow and regret at your victim’s suffering and death. Then, in private, enjoy your victory and choose another victim.
Motive? Motive is for the weak and emotional. Motive is how one gets caught. Do Evil simply because you can.
When and how will Evil reward me?
Evil is its own reward … is what I would like to say.
Unlike those pretentious angels, the Eldest Evils take note of those who understand the true meaning of existence. A truly talented operative will get knowledge, training, and magical lore in addition to the wealth and power they grab for themselves.
What is Chaos?
Everything is Chaos. Order is mere illusion, a momentary bubble of calm in a roiling ocean of perpetual change. The great cosmic force of Chaos will soon destroy what others call the “natural order”, setting us all free to embrace the madness before our inevitable end.
How do I serve Chaos?
Destroy all pretenses or Law. Defy all order: laws of man, laws of gods, laws of “nature”, gravity, mass, time, space. All will bend and break before Chaos, so revel in their violation while you can. Revel, brothers and sisters, revel in the End Times, and become agents for the Great Old Ones! Iä! Iä!
When and how will Chaos reward me?
Who can say? Sometimes Chaos rewards its mortal agents with forbidden sorcery, and its Champions with deep magic and extended life. Sometimes it devours their brains and makes their skin into a jacket and trousers. It’s Chaos.
What is the Balance?
The Balance attempts to mitigate the damage caused by the Cosmic Struggle between Law and Chaos and between Good and Evil. It also prevents any of side from gaining unfair advantage in the Struggle.
Which goal is most important depends on a Servant or Champion’s judgement.
How do I serve the Balance?
The most effective way is to counter the other Aligned Powers, and any other beings who might warp the world(s).
Some followers of Balance attempt to counter any disorder with order and any disorder with order, or any good with evil and any evil with good. That way madness lies, and the resulting instability gives Good, Evil, Law, or Chaos openings.
Still others protect Nature, as they see it, and oppose all the works of sapient mortals. This, also, misses the mark. True, Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil use sapient mortals as their champions and agents, but it does not follow that all works of mortals are inherently Out of Balance. Mortals are part of nature too. As long as change happens slowly, many Masters of Balance teach that human interventions can find a new equilibrium.
When will the Balance reward me?
The Balance has no extra-planar patrons, no ultraterrestrial agents, and at most a handful of lesser deities supporting its goals. The Masters teach that Balance is its own reward. Indeed Masters of Balance live longer, healthier lives; Champions allegedly do not die but merely sleep until needed. How much one credits these stories is up to the listener.
What is Unaligned?
When a character can claim no Alignment, they are Unaligned. All beings save the Powers That Be and their direct servants begin Unaligned. The vast majority of the Multiverse is Unaligned.
The Unaligned are not directly involved in the Cosmic Struggle, although a number of them become casualties.
Those Unaligned who know of the Cosmic Struggle reject it.
How does being Unaligned help me?
Not taking orders from supernatural entities with vague directions and murky motives? Staying out of a war that allegedly began when the Multiverse did and will not end until the Multiverse ends? Doing what you want when you want it without some Eye In The Sky judging your worth to their cause?
How does Alignment help you, chum?
Better Than Alignment: Membership, Loyalty, and Allegiance
Various D100 games – Basic Roleplaying, Renaissance, OpenQuest 3rd edition – introduced percentile scores to track Allegiance to a god, Loyalty to a political or social faction, and Membership in a guild, club, or other social group with common principles. Actions that increase the god, faction, or guild’s reach or prestige cause the score to go up. Conversely, violation of the god, faction, or guild’s rules or principles may cause the score to go down or raise a rival god/faction/guild’s score.
Here I’ll define three mechanics for similar mechanics.
Membership reflects low-key or non-political organizations like guilds, mutual interest clubs, established temples, and other social groups with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of members.
Loyalty reflects higher-stakes organizations that may be illegal or which have enemies like Thieves’ “Guilds”, organized crime families, political factions, social movements, and less secure religions.
Allegiance reflects a personal(?) relationship with a god, supernatural patron, cosmic principle, etc.
Any character may have a membership in a mortal organization, such as a tradesman’s guild, private club, political faction, temple / church / religion, or social movement.
The Player and/or GM keeps a Membership (organization) percentile score reflecting the degree of membership in the organization. Any score between 1% and 25% indicates an “ordinary” membership. 26% to 50% indicates an accepted and respected member, and 75% or more indicates the character is part of the “inner circle” of decision makers.
Ways to raise Membership rank include contributing money or labor to the organization, demonstrating one’s loyalty to the organization, gaining mastery in the organization’s craft, and furthering their cause. Most of this can be done in the character’s downtime. The GM will determine how much each major action is worth, although 5% per act is customary.
Characters may also lose points of Membership if they commit some act which bring shame or unwanted attention to the organization, but only if the guild / club / faction / etc. leaders find out.
Some organizations consider not only positive actions for the group, but negative actions against the group, its goals, or its principles. Examples include more restrictive religions, illegal organizations like crime families or Thieves’ Guilds, or social movements and political factions with significant active opposition.
Loyalty (organization) maintains a tally of merits for actions taken on behalf of the organization and a second tally of demerits for actions that bring shame or unwanted attention to the organization. Rather than tracking percentiles directly, each tally is divided either by 20 or the sum of merits and demerits, whichever is larger.
A Loyalty of less than 50% indicates some too new – or too much of a screwup – to be trusted with anything important. A loyalty of 90% or more indicates the character might be a candidate for the “inner circle” of decision makers. Conversely, a score that falls or remains below 25% after 20 merits and demerits might get the character thrown out … or killed, if the organization kills people.
So, for example, Geoffrey the Thief has 5 merits and 1 demerit (getting drunk and talking too freely about the Guild). His Loyalty is 5/20 or 25% Years later, he has 23 merits and 4 demerits (that old demerit plus a few botched jobs). His Loyalty is 23/27 or (rounding down) 85%, which is pretty good … but not good enough to join the Thieves’ Court.
Clerics, Druids, Paladins, Rangers and Warlocks may have Allegiance scores for their relationship their god, patron, ethos, or oaths. Unlike Membership, merits are measured in 1%-3% increments. Demerits, if any, either subtract from the Allegiance score or add to an equal but opposing score, e.g. the patron’s enemy.
Merits accrue to those who choose to uphold the principles of said god, patron, ethos, or creed despite temptation. Demerits go to those who choose to violate those same principles. The DM and player will hammer out a list of dos and don’ts at the beginning of the campaign.
Either way, some gods or patrons may regard being petitioned for an intervention to be a big demerit; not only will they answer further petitions for a week or more, they may dock your Allegiance 10% or more.
If Allegiance falls below 1%, the character loses all their abilities and must undertake a quest to rebuild their higher power’s trust.
Too many demerits at once may lead to a loss of powers or prompt a very intense conversation with a patron or divine messenger. Enough merits outweighing demerits will lead to favors: subtle interventions, small gifts, helpful visions, etc. But to those whom more is given, more is expected, so the truly faithful may find themselves doing their entity’s bidding … or, for those without an explicit god or patron, having a higher bar to fulfill their oaths.
Artificers, Bards, Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards have no Allegiances. Totem Barbarians may have an Allegiance if the DM decides to add one, but other Barbarians do not. Monks uphold certain principles and observe certain taboos, but nearly all are amoral, whatever their Master may think, and thus as long as they maintain their asceticism Monks may retain their abilities. Sorcerers may have such an Allegiance to their bloodline, but few actual principles or taboos that generate merits and demerits.
For a simpler game, use only three Alignments, either Law, Balance and Chaos for a Moorcockian flair or Good, Balance, and Evil for a neo-Manichean millieu. ↩︎