I Do What I Want!: Alignment and the Individual

This week we take a look at Alignment, one of my favorite topics:

Good day Mr. DM. 

When running a campaign where alignment plays a significant role, do you think it best to run the alignment system as personal, or based on the mood of the people you surround yourself with?  The reason I’m asking is because… the way I currently have it set up, a Paladin of Pelor wouldn’t be able to enter a sacred city of Hextor and impose his way of thinking over them without breaking a law, thus making his actions within the city chaotic.  Though if he succeeds, the law that he has established will be the new law and thus, he can earn lawful points again.

The way our cleric terms it, is that alignment is based on personal codes of ethics and so on.  The same Paladin in the above example can now attempt to bash down the doors of Hextor’s Capital City and stage a coup, overthrowing the government in the area and remaining Lawful for it the entirety of the way because his code specifically has him fighting tyranny.

If you could give me your opinion on which Alignment system is best in your view, I’d appreciate it.  If you have further suggestions, i am always open to input.  Thanks for reading my question!



Alignment probably causes more arguments than anything else at my game table.  Some Chaotic Good character decides to behead some shady looking dude that was threatening him and claims it was all in the name Goodness because the guy was obviously a jerk.  When that argument falls flat, they decide it was Chaotic, because they clearly broke the law.  I then explain that it was Evil, because really, they just killed some guy for being a jerk.

Taken from Know Your Meme.

Sometimes the answers are obvious, and sometimes they’re not.  In reality, it’s extremely difficult to understand psychological and emotional motivations behind most behaviors.  We like everything to be clear-cut and obvious in a game, because it is after all, a game.  But if we can’t agree in real life whether or not some war on terror is good or evil, how the heck are we supposed to decide this in D&D?

I always encourage my players to make arguments in favor of their PCs behavior.  If their justification is sound, I’ll generally acquiesce.  If their reasoning is flimsy, I tell them, “Tough shit.”  This process illustrates a really important point: it’s easy to justify almost any behavior from a multitude of perspectives.

In your example above, a Paladin breaks a city’s laws to impose their will upon those people, and establish the laws that he upholds and respects.  Is this action Chaotic?  It could be argued either way, but what I think is important when arguing about Alignment, is the individual perspective.  When trying to classify an action I think about how the PC would feel about their decision:

Would the PC feel any guilt over their choice?
Would the PC make the same decision again without much apprehension?
What, if any, psychological trauma might they suffer as a result of their choice?

If I can easily answer these questions with No, Yes and None, then for me, the action was either within their Alignment, or not a significant enough deviation to matter.  An Alignment shift is a serious thing.  It means the PC has strayed so far from their beliefs and values that they have an existential crisis.  They question the world, reality, the nature of Good and Evil, their purpose, and all the other things that come along with actually being a thinking person.

In order for something like this to happen though, a PC would need to knowingly and willingly do something they didn’t believe in or support.  Returning to the above example of the Paladin, we need to consider one very important thing: Is forceful conversion okay in their own personal code of ethics?  If the answer is yes, then I see nothing PERSONALLY Chaotic about their actions, even if an outside person would disagree.

The really difficult part though, is how to decide what a PC’s code of ethics is (unless they explicitly write them out for you).  In practice, I feel out the way a Player roleplays and what sort of tendencies come out, and so long as they don’t obviously contradict their Alignment, I try to form a coherent personality for them in my mind (I never thought my Abnormal Psych class would help me with D&D).

Sometimes this can take at least a couple of sessions to get a good feel for a PC, and that’s fine.  Players won’t always know right away who their PC is.  They might need some time to get to know their character and what motivates him or her.

In essence, I’m saying two important things:

1) Give your Players the benefit of the doubt when arguing about their PCs behavior.  It is their PC, and they should know them pretty well.

2) An Alignment shift (except perhaps in the case of a Cleric) should be a purely psychological phenomenon, and therefore, Alignment should be a personal issue.

Roleplaying is fun.  I think some people can seriously lose sight of this because they get so caught up in rule interpretation, arguing about game mechanics, and general tomfoolery (and I mean the bad kind of tomfoolery, not prancing naked through the snow).  Whenever you’re in doubt about something, ask yourself this:

Is everyone still having fun? 

If the answer is yes, then you’re doing something right, so keep on keepin’ on.  If the answer is no, then trust your players’ opinions.  They usually know how to have a good time.

Roll it like you mean it.
The Dungeon Master.

Please submit more questions! 

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to dungeonmastermind@gmail.com, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

This entry was posted in DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy, Geek Culture, General Roleplaying, Player Advice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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