Changing the way we think about Alignments

On one of the groups I belong to their was recently a discussion on alignment. In the discussion the OP was trying to use alignment to justify various factions in his world going to war with one another. It was an interesting discussion, and felt it a good subject for my thoughts on the subject.

What are they?

Most of you are likely aware of what alignment is in regard to gaming and rpgs. For those new to tabletop gaming alignments are a set of moral guidelines or outlook to aid in roleplaying the character. Examples include Lawful Good, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Neutral. They represent the players views in regards to law and chaos, and good and evil. Some like them, some hate them. I don’t personally put much stock in them as I find them to be poor motivators for good roleplaying. Many of them are reduced to types of stereotypical behavior, and not (in my opinion used how they should be.)

How some use Alignment

Many players new and old alike fall into the trap of restricting their characters behavior based on their alignment. Or on the flip side, giving them no restrictions and using alignment as an excuse to do whatever they please (looking at you Chaotic Neutral).  You can often find phrases such as “my character wouldn’t do that because of her alignment..” or “Your alignment is good, you can’t murder a peasant.” There are some reasons for this, and I would agree a good character wouldn’t commit heinous acts, such as murder. I find however that it is often used as a way to permit or deny player actions, because these actions are against their alignment. Alignment here being used as a tool to decide what a character may or may not do.

Changing the way we think about Alignment

What I propose, and what I hope others do as well, is to look at alignment from a slightly different perspective. Rather than look at it as a way to judge what a character will or will not do, look at it as how they will do it. One should look at the goal of their character not their alignment for determining their actions. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture. It’s a subtle difference, but to me an important one.

For Example:

Consider the following scenario:

A local lord of a city has recently enacted some laws, which increase taxes on the poor or in some way limit the freedoms of those living under their rule. First examine the situation and determine what your character wants to do about it. Perhaps you decide that limiting the freedoms, or financially punishing the poor is unacceptable and that something needs to be done about it. Your character’s backstory and personality will likely factor into this decision, but the specifics of what your going to do shouldn’t be decided at this point. Keep your goal vague, and flexible before you bring alignment into it.

Now we look to alignment to determine the course of action. Say your character is Lawful Neutral, meaning your more interested in law and order over concern for good or evil. You might decide that these new laws will lead to undue strife or chaos if not revoked. Using your alignment as a compass you decide the best course of action is to speak with the Lord and his aides, going through proper channels to have the laws changed or revoke. You wouldn’t break the law or encourage other to do so, but would acknowledge the harmful effect they can have on the stability of their society. If you fail with the lord you may takes steps to ask a duke or prince any higher in station to legally intercede on behalf of the people.

Now we’ll look at the exact same situation, this time from the perspective of a character who is Chaotic Good. This alignment favors doing what is right, without much regard for law and order. This character might try to organize the people into a protest or if that fails organize a revolt to other throw the unjust laws of the local Lord. They might try to use the system first as with the above example, but are just as likely to take matters into their own hands to correct the perceived injustice.

Conclusion

 Alignment doesn’t need to be a straitjacket or a means to enforce behaviors onto your characters. See it as a tool for roleplaying, a way to show how your character acts and not just a rigid code of behavior. Use it to breath life into you the personalities we bring to the table both as players and game masters. Try to think more of how and less of why. Alignment should be a means to an end, not the entirety of determining our actions.