Toss Out Alignment Entirely and Try This…

Ok folks. Over the weekend I came up with an intriguing concept that I’m going to employ in a campaign I’m starting in June. We’re going to use D&D 5e, but I’m tossing out alignment entirely.

And now you should be asking what I’m replacing it with… But first, let’s talk about why I’m tossing it out.

Long ago (back in 2009) I detailed an alignment system my friend Bindel and I created for the original Moebius Adventures RPG system. Instead of the traditional quadrants of lawful and chaotic, good and evil, we decided we’d go with a continuum of Morals and Ethics. Each was rated on a scale of -10 to +10 and would be used to figure out how a particular character felt about right and wrong, pain and suffering. And though it was philosophically quite interesting, I haven’t used it in any game I’ve run since we stopped development on the system years ago.

Why? It’s too complex. Too ambiguous.

A New Approach…

Over the weekend I came up with a different approach. One more uniquely applied to a particular character.

Let’s look at Conan the Barbarian. He lives in a world where might makes right. Weakness isn’t tolerated. In fact, the weak usually find themselves at the mercy of the strong. If you wanted to, you could almost say that Crom, the god he curses on a regular basis and ignores Conan all the time, believes that this continuum works. Strength > Weakness.

The stronger Conan becomes, the more things happen to him. People are drawn to him. He’s drawn to problems other folks can’t solve. But why is that?

Robert Jordan wrote about the Ta’veren. These are individuals the Wheel of Time uses to bring the Pattern back into alignment. And they have wildly different effects. Perrin can influence people. Mat warps the laws of chance. Rand causes the impossible to come to be. This concept always fascinated me, though I ran out of patience with the series long ago.

But I love the concept that a character’s decisions or even presence can affect the world around them or gain the attention of some other-worldly forces…

Introducing the “Continuum”…

Let’s look at in another way.

YinYang_transparentTake two opposing concepts. I’ll give you a few to contemplate…

  • Law & Chaos
  • Good & Evil
  • Fire & Water
  • Air & Earth, Ground & Sky
  • Pain & Pleasure
  • Harm & Healing
  • Light & Darkness, Day & Night
  • Liberty & Imprisonment
  • Reality & Illusion
  • Heaven & Hell
  • Insight & Ignorance
  • Spring & Winter
  • Summer & Fall
  • Outside & Inside
  • Mind & Body
  • Truth & Lies
  • Chance vs. Order

At character creation, a player decides which two they want to use for their PC. Every decision the PC makes must be weighed against the two concepts they have chosen. Unlike the good old alignment system which was largely viewed from the outside in, this puts the decision squarely on the player with some guidance from the GM.

Each concept gets a point value. They start at zero. But each decision has the potential to change the counter.

Let’s say a character has the qualities of Mind & Body. Attacking another creature and doing physical damage would count for Body. Looking for knowledge counts for Mind. If it was Pleasure vs. Pain, healing might count as Pleasure (i.e. ending pain) while hurting another being would definitely count as Pain.

Not every action has to change these potentials. Just the big ones. Combat. Encounter-changing decisions. Even little things. But the player gets to decide.

The justification for each should be done by the player, but confirmed by the GM. The GM can keep a list of key events during a session that may affect the continuum that might be slightly different than the player’s list, but there should be a reckoning at the end of the night.

Also keep in mind that the player’s age or experience may come into play here. It’s not meant as an exercise in frustration to use terms or concepts unfamiliar to the player. Even Friend vs. Foe works as a simple way to judge the point value of a particular action. It’s not that one side is better than the other – just that they are different.

How are they used?

The GM can then ask for the Continuum values and make some intriguing decisions based on them.

For instance, if a character has reached some threshold the GM has decided… let’s say 10 points one direction or another, let’s say they’re “noticed” by beings of that particular flavor. If it’s Fire vs. Water and a character has gained 10 points of Fire, perhaps a minor Fire elemental is in the area and looks in on the character. Nothing says it will harm the PC – only that there’s a level of interest.

If it’s a bigger number down the line, it’s quite possible… let’s say a character has 50 points of Earth – that a bigger creature may awaken or be disturbed when the PC enters the area. A troll or giant may come to see what “feels” off and cause difficulty for the party.

At  perhaps the gods themselves get involved, sending minor servants to watch and aid or hinder based on values – or ask for help down the line.

Imagine a Goddess appearing before a group of PCs and asking for help for a particular cause. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

This gets rid of the whole good vs. evil alignment thing. It’s useless as far as I’m concerned. Morality and Ethics are completely subjective between the subject and those affected. This offers some intriguing push/pull for the GM to use and some interesting philosophical possibilities for the players. Do they try to balance things out? If so, how do they do that? Can they avoid getting the attention of some of these otherworldly creatures?

I’m looking forward to playing with this in an actual campaign. I think it has some very interesting repercussions. Good and evil are overrated (unless you’re a cleric or paladin who depend on those concepts). Why not change things up a bit?

What do you think? Is this total rubbish or something that can be used to change the balance and make roleplaying more a part of the tapestry we’re creating at the game table?

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This article has 6 comments

  1. Michael Ruch Reply

    This is an intriguing way to handle this. And in the right hands could be very interesting. I think the biggest thing about Alignment is how you use it.

    I employ what I call Carrot & Stick with Alignment as a DM. The Carrot is that Alignment can be used to help decide questions. The Stick is where I as a DM step in and enforce consequences for ignoring Alignment.

    Of course I run a game for rowdy teenagers for whom morality is a vague concept at best. With adults your system might work better.

    • Fitz

      @Michael – I like the Carrot & Stick approach too – that actually could be another way of defining this continuum of opposing forces. 🙂

      But that’s a good point. This is definitely a vague concept… but I think that might make it work even better. If you’re playing with kids (and I will be as well), I look at it as a great opportunity to have those deeper conversations about ethics and morality. Asking how they might rank a decision from their own point of view vs. the point of view of their character also gets more to the roleplaying side of our hobby, which is something I want to really encourage in this group.

      This group in the past has been more about roll-playing than role-playing and I want to encourage the latter. The hope is that by giving them their own measuring stick vs. one that’s predefined for them they can use some critical thinking along with all the other skills RPGs foster (reading, math, problem solving, cooperation, etc.).

      Do you write about your ongoing campaign with the teenagers? I’d be curious what you’ve learned. 🙂

  2. Cyric Reply

    Fading Suns in it’s 1st and 2nd Edition used something like this. Sadly not anymore in the new 3rd Ed.

    They used Spirit attributes which where contradicting to one another:

    Extrovert / Introvert
    Passion / Calm
    Faith / Ego

    If you raised one you lowered the other. Both sides had effects on your skill rolls.

    • Fitz

      @Cyric – Thanks for bringing up Fading Suns – it’s a system I’m not familiar with beyond the name. But those are very similar. I thought about doing a continuum with positive numbers on one side of the spectrum and negative on the other side, but I don’t think that’s really necessary in this case. It will require some playing. The whole “balance” thing works whether we’re at zero or the two numbers are nearly the same, so I’m not sure that’s necessary.

      The new opposites you mention however are awesome. I’ll add those to my list. 🙂

      As for affecting skill rolls, I’m not sure I want to go that way. I may add a “Continuum Check” for the GM to roll every once in a while and make it a percentile. Make a roll and add the difference between one end of the spectrum and the other. If it’s X, then something interesting happens. If it’s Y, then nothing happens. Sort of like a random encounter check, but where the PCs are sort of warping the world around them and potentially disturbing the universe as they trundle along. 🙂

  3. Sean Holland Reply

    An interesting idea for a system, I look forward to hearing how it works out.

    I dropped alignment from my campaign long ago but I have never found a satisfactory “replacement”.

    • Fitz

      @Sean – I look forward to seeing how this works next month as well. 🙂

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