Friday, February 15, 2013

Musing on Alignnment

During the eight years that I have been apart of this strange, but entertaining hobby, I've noticed there are a number of topics that seem to get people riled up for one reason or another. One such topic is the alignment system in D&D/Pathfinder.

Some people hate the alignment system with every fiber of their being. They see it as a restrictive system that forces their characters into specific roles and punishes them whey they try to act outside the box they have been placed in.

Others, like myself, are quite fond of the alignment system. Instead of viewing as a metaphorical straight jacket, we see it as simply a shorthand for the player to help determine their character's basic personality and how they will approach and react to certain situations in the game.

With that being said, I do have my own set of problems with the alignment system that tend to rear their ugly heads every now and then. My biggest problem with the system is how easily it can be interpreted in different ways and the lack of explanation given on how to handle changing a character's alignment. 

While playing the game, the player might have their character do something that you as the GM view as opposed to their stated alignment. However, the player see the action in a different way that doesn't match your perception of his alignment. The easiest way to handle this, of course, is to just sit down before the campaign begins and tell the players how you perceive each alignment and figure out which alignment best fits the player's idea for their character.

Although this problem has an easy fix, it can still through a monkey wrench into the game when the character does something you believe would cause him to have to change his alignment, but he doesn't view it the same way you do. While you can tell them what they did is going to cause them to change their alignment, there is a good chance you might spark and argument where he feels like he has to defend his action and the session comes to a screeching halt. While you can implement a "three strikes" rule (they get three warnings about acting out of their alignment before the alignment it changed to one that better mirrors how they are acting), there is still that chance you might cause an argument to break out.

A few days ago, I was contemplating some other ways to handle alignment in the game that could allow those who view the system as "restrictive" more wiggle-room during the game. One idea I had was to create a variant system that mirrored a morality system found in games like Fable. Each character would have four "alignment scores" that begins with a score of 0 (starting them off as neutral characters). During the game, every significant action they make that has some moral consequence to it will raise or lower each alignment score. For example, pick-pocketing a man walking down the street for selfish reasons might raise a character's Evil score by 1 or 2 points while saving a child from a marauding orc for purely altuistic reasons could raise a character's Good score by 2 or 3 points.

However, this kind of system would cause more problems than it would fix. You would have to figure out how spells like detect good and protection from evil would work against characters with scores in all four alignments. Also, how would you handle classes with restricted alignments like the paladin? Would they begin with points in two of the alignment scores? Would they fall or lose class abilities if they gain points in another score or their Good and Law score drop to 0? What score would you have to have in Evil before you could become an assassin? Finally, what would these numbers actually mean? What makes a Good score of 10 different from a score of 5?

While the current alignment system does have some problems associated with it, I think you would probably to rebuild a large amount of the game to implement a variant system that fixes those problems and those variants would create their own problems.

What are your thoughts on the alignment system? Do you love it or hate it? If you hate it, how would you replace it?