REPOST: Making Alignments Functional

Today’s topic is one that I believed that everybody understood, yet many DM’s seem to still struggle with, alignments. Folks just don’t seem to grasp the concept of what it means, and thus ignore it, which hurts their games.

Alignment is very simple, it tells the Dungeon Master how to run his NPCs quickly and at a glance. There are two parts to each alignment, with the exception of Neutral. No PC can obtain true Neutral, this alignment is only for animals with low-level intelligence. This tells the DM that the animal doesn’t care who or what it attacks, unless it is trained. For the other alignments, they aren’t all that hard to figure out once you understand what they both mean.

Law vs. Chaos

This doesn’t mean that Lawfully good characters think that their poop don’t stink, nor that all chaotic evil characters are suicidal maniacs, this simply means social participation, or even more simply stated, how well the character plays with others. Lawful characters are weak individually, but work together to solve problems. They are a team, and can act as a unit with precision. Chaotic characters, on the other hand are exactly the opposite, they prefer fighting alone and are incapable of following orders. They are strong individuals who lack the discipline of their lawful counter-parts. Neutrally aligned characters can do both well. That is all it means! It is that simple!

For players, Chaotic fighters won’t work as a unit, they will attack on their own and prefer situations where it is every man for himself. This isn’t to say that two chaotic characters can’t work together, they can but only for brief periods of time before they get frustrated or it turns into a competition of who is the better fighter.

For DM’s, this quickly tells you what creatures fight like. For example Gnolls. True gnolls are chaotic evil, this tells us that Gnolls will fight individually, they may have a plan, but they won’t team up effectively and fight as one unit. They will probably fight in waves with the leader, who is furthest away normally, attacking last. Flind gnolls, however, are lawful evil. This makes them much more formidable because they will fight as one in a strict military style. They’ll have more effective patrols and feel a sense of duty for each other.


The second part of the alignment tells us the creatures thought process. We’ll start with Neutral, what this does is tells us that they are the epitome of either law or chaos. Lawful Neutral characters can ONLY work in a group, they don’t care what there orders are, they live to fulfill those orders. They aren’t deep people, they don’t like, or are incapable of, thinking for themselves.

Chaotically Neutral characters are incapable of working with anybody. They are crazy nut jobs who are just as likely to give you a flower as they are to gouge out your eye just to see what will happen. Not to say that they won’t join a party, because they will. But if you ask them to do anything that they don’t want to do, then they aren’t going to do it, period! They have no discipline what so ever, and only listen to one person, THEMSELVES!

Good vs. Evil

This part of the alignment is more broad then law & chaos, as it shows us the inclinations of how the character thinks, and gives us an idea on how he will react in a given situation. Good alignment gives people a sense of charity and the desire to nurture the world around them so that others may grow strong. Evil aligned characters have a sense of self, and the desire to consume the resources around them so that they grow strong. While lawful characters and chaotic characters struggle to get along, evil and good characters form an even more poisonous concoction. Both evil and good characters assume that everybody thinks the way they do, and when this is challenged, they see it as weakness. This is not to say that Good characters can’t make horrendous judgments that can kill entire nations or squabble amongst themselves about differing ideas of what good is, nor that evil characters don’t believe that they are freeing the masses by taking over a government.

For players, good aligned characters will find themselves and their place in the world by helping those around them, and evil aligned characters will find their place in the world by helping themselves. This psychology runs deep and must always be maintained.

For DMs, this quickly tells you how power is distributed and how they interact with each other. Good aligned creatures will be organized with the most experienced and just being at the top of the food chain, while evil creatures will only listen to those who are more powerful then themselves, and be ruled with a definite bully system. As a general rule, the moral in regards to good characters will always be much better then the moral of evil factions and groups because selfishness is a huge factor.

Neutrally Aligned Philosophies

As the Neutral philosophy turns a character to the epitome of either Law or Chaos, it does the same to Good and Evil.

Neutral Good characters are selfless and constantly trying to obtain spiritual enlightenment. They keep nothing for themselves, satisfying just their most basic needs. Neutral Evil characters are selfish and incapable of charity of any kind unless they figure that they can turn it around to suit themselves.

Changing Alignment

There are two kinds of alignment changes. Voluntary, and forced.

Voluntary alignment changes are up to the Player. They feel that the current alignment that they have written down on their Character Sheet really doesn’t fit the character anymore, and they wish to change to a more suitable one. Sometimes this is easy, particularly with low level characters in which case they may be able to get the new alignment for free with no penalty, but if the character is of a class which specifies a specific Alignment, then it will either be impossible or very hard. A Paladin, for instance, must remain lawfully good. If this were to change, even voluntarily, then he will cease being a paladin and be a standard fighter. If, on the other hand, the character is playing a cleric, he may lose his spells until he can prove himself to a new god, if the new alignment is a problem. It is up to the DM if he allows a Voluntary alignment change, especially if it is a mid or high level PC. If the player has been role-playing the alignment change for a while now, then he might be able to change with no penalties, however if the player just up and decides one day that he wants a different alignment, then it will be a sudden change of behavior and he’ll suffer the same effects as an enforced alignment change. The other kind of voluntary is when a character seeks to regain his original alignment after suffering a forced change that was imposed upon him. This kind of voluntary change must always be earned.

Forced alignment changes happen because a character is constantly ignoring his alignment. This must be a judicious act on the part of the DM, and fully explained to the PC exactly why this is happening, and allow him to plead his case. If he can’t give you a reason why he is playing his character the way he is, then do it. The alignment shouldn’t be a sever hindrance to players, they are allowed to make mistakes and pay for them naturally, they are allowed to personally struggle against their alignment, and they are allowed to fail from time to time, but it is something that you can use to keep rowdy PCs in line. If a Chaotic Good thief backstabs a 0th level NPC merchant to steal his gold, he just broke alignment on two fronts, and he might be subject to a forced change depending upon the circumstances. A Paladin who just starts fighting alone would also be breaking his alignment, but we can let things like that slide unless he keeps doing it, then we’ll have to change him to CG and he’ll have to fight to reclaim his former class.

Magic is another cause of forced alignment changes, as are some diseases, and both are subject to the rules of it.

Effects of Changing Alignment

A sudden change in alignment isn’t a nice thing!!! It messes with the characters head, makes them less effective at their craft. Makes them question themselves and their past. In game terms, the character is docked a full level of XP, if it was a forced change then he also drops down to the appropriate level, if it was voluntary and the DM deems it necessary because of class or the character is of higher level then 5th, he still loses the full level of XP but is allowed to function at the level he has prior to changing alignment.

WOW!!! That sounds confusing, so lets do an example.

Dangar, the Warrior is currently at 10th level with 649,000 XP. He’s suppose to be Chaotic Neutral.

Okay, first example: Dangar is always helping his fellow PCs out of jams, giving magic items that he could use to other party members, and is working with them to pull off advanced strategies as a team. He is now acting Neutral Good and wishes to change, which the DM agrees with him and he does it on a voluntary basis. At the end of the adventure, the DM adds up all of the XP and awards it to the party, Dangar gets 1,250 all totaled, which would give him a total XP of 650,250. He would normally need 750,000XP to obtain 11th level, his last level advancement was when he obtained 500,000XP so to find the exact XP lose, we subtract the entire XP amount that he needs to get from the beginning of his current level, to the next level, in our example of Dangar it will be from 10th to 11th level. 750,000 - 500,000 = 250,000XP which we subtract from his current XP total of 650,250, giving him a new total of 400,250. Because he voluntarily changed his alignment, then he will still function as a 10th level fighter, until he obtains enough experience points to gain 11th level again.

For the second example, we’ll say that Dangar put on a Helm of Changing Alignment, and is now Chaotic Good, this change happens at once! 649,000 - 250,000 = 399,000XP. Since this is a sudden and involuntary change, Dangar is not allowed to continue acting as a 10th level fighter, and is now a 9th level fighter.

If the change was a drastic one, say Lawful Neutral to Chaotic Evil, then he will lose 2 levels of experience. A voluntary alignment change is only allowed to change 1 part of the alignment at a time. Thus, if a player wants to turn his alignment from Chaotic Evil to Lawful Good again, he first must chose which part he wants to fix first, probably the Evil to Good, then, once he has obtained the next level of experience, he may change the other half, or turning from Chaotic Good to Lawful Good again.

We DM’s can’t deduct more points from a players XP score to compensate for high ability scores that grant him a 10% bonus to all that he earns. He is highly skilled at his trade, and will always be able to advance faster at it then his peers.


I’m going to copy this directly out of the DMG, and even underline it because it is the most important rule when you are judging a game.

Alignment is a tool to aid role-playing, not a hammer to force characters to do things they don’t want to do!

I simply can’t say it any better then that! The only time when a DM should dictate how a character should act is when they are under the influence of a magical spell. THAT IS IT!!!

We must be fair, an enforced alignment change should always be a rare thing, there are other ways to get to a character who is acting in an evil manner through the natural laws of Cause and Effect.

Creature Alignments

Now that we know what alignments really are, we can judge them more accurately. The alignments listed in the Monster Manual are not fixed alignments, those are social alignments. Individual creatures may have their own, but it will always be similar to their brethren.

Solitary creatures usually will keep the Alignment stated in the MM, however social creatures may not, for example: Kobolds. As a group, they are Lawful Evil, but Individuals can be LN, NE, or CE. A few can even be Lawful Good if they were raised to be!

Racial, National, and Religious Alignments may vary but at least one section must always stay the same, with, of course, the exception of True Neutral.

Alignment Overview

The alignment isn’t a players personality, it is just their philosophy. You can have a party of all Neutral Good characters, and they will each be different. They’ll all have their opinions about what is right and what is wrong. Also, just because somebody is desperate doesn’t make them evil. A merchant who has an opportunity to steal another mans cargo isn’t necessarily Neutral Evil, he could just be hungry!

Burning witches is a Lawful Good idea. Sacrificing the few to protect the many, just as a Chaotic Evil NPC can appear and function as an upstanding citizen who gives regularly to charity, and leads a productive life, so don’t fall into an Alignment rut where you believe that an alignment causes you to always act a specific way, just look at Al Capone!

A quick word, while we are on the subject, about detecting evil. This is worthless when dealing with creatures most of the time. If something reeks of evil, such as a lich or a vampire, THAT can be detected, even if the creature is hiding behind an illusion, a Paladin, for instance, will not be fooled. However, even a Paladin can't use his skill to sniff out evil when hunting down a serial killer. He would detect an evil church, and an evil cleric, but not his individual followers. The DM just has to know how to identify true evil from the philosophical alignment of evil, hopefully I gave all of you a better grasp on the subject so that you can separate the two more competently.


Timeshadows said...

It is always interesting to me that it takes more verbage to explain why/how Alignments work than the actual text in the books uses.

I think, most of the time, people just don't want to accept Alignment as it functions, and deliberately create asinine examples/problems.

Except for magic items, assassins, and a few spells, Alignment has no bearing on the game mechanics, and so fears that it will 'puin' a character are just silly. If it causes such strong feelings, just run a game without it.

Thanks, though, for re=publishing this informative article. I'm sure it helped someone out! :)

Ryan said...

I personally dislike alignment, but oddly enough I consider it to be such an integral part of AD&D that leaving it out (tempting though it may be) would almost be like running a game without dwarves or thieves. I know that many of my players would be preturbed if I up and removed it altogether.

There are many fine fantasy roleplaying games out there that get along just fine without alignment. (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition, The Riddle of Steel, etc.) However, I do consider it to be one of the "sacred cows" of D&D, not matter how problematic it seems to me sometimes.

Another thing... I have never, and will never dock experience points for alignment change. In fact, I usually keep alignment change secret from the players... all that more shocking when the party's paladin is detecting evil and suddenly his ally the magic-user starts to give off bad vibes.

Andreas Davour said...

The idea of alignment is just so broken. Look how silly it is that this post even exists! Not that it's badly done. If I could kill off one idea from the hobby so it never existed, it would be alignment.

Anonymous said...

K. Edwards said....

Thanks for this excellent post! I've recently decided to return to 2nd edition AD&D and have always had a trouble quantifying alignments.

You've cleared up my thinking wonderfully about them and shown me what a simple and valuable tool they are. I'm thinking the reason I didn't like them before stemmed simply from this lack of understanding.

Now the passage in the books makes sense to me.

Thanks again. You've got a new reader in me!

K. Edwards

Ripper X said...

I don't care what anybody says, I feel that alignment is important. It effectively defines a religion, separates similar classes into unique ones, and provides a basic guideline for how to role-play your character or NPCs.

I like heroic games, elements of good vs. evil are my absolute favorite! An important part of being a DM is knowing exactly how these things function and enforcing them properly. In my opinion, it is just as important as time-keeping.

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