There are a lot of different opinions and interpretations of character alignment in the RPG world and just as many ways to use it in your game! Some groups use it as a definitive compass for how their characters will handle situations, while others see it as more of a flexible guideline. Some groups don’t really use alignment at all. There is really no right or wrong way to use this mechanic– it very much depends on the style of your gameplay and how comfortable your party is with role-playing. For Heroes of Iyastera, we don’t focus on alignment too much and you may have noticed that it isn’t even included on the Scribbler’s Character Sheet.
There are pros and cons to using Alignment– new players especially have enough to keep track of without needing to make sense of the complex topic of character morality. As a DM and player, I would rather alignment develop naturally and organically than choose it right out of the gate before I’ve really gotten to know my characters…but as with all things, there are pros and cons:
The Pros: When the player has a good understanding of their character’s sense of morality and motivations, having a defined alignment can aid them in making difficult or complicated decisions. It can also help maintain conscious consistency in the role-playing. Defined alignment can also help the DM formulate interactions between the PCs and NPCs. For example, if a player tends towards more Lawful behaviour, an NPC with a shiftier background may naturally try to avoid them.
The Cons: Choosing alignment right away can restrict character interactions and cause a player to make generic decisions based purely on the definition of their PCs alignment rather than thinking critically about what makes sense for their character’s personality. Alignment can also shift and change over time so, for some players, having to decide on a label too soon may make them feel as though their characters can’t change or develop over the course of a story.
The inherent duality in the way alignments are portrayed can sometimes oversimplify the complex motivations which drive both PCs and NPCs and make it difficult to have any sort of “gray area” themes which, depending on the nature of your part and storytelling, may not be a sticking point.
I typically tell my players to not even worry about their alignments and focus instead on backstory and personality. As I mentioned at thestart of this article, I would rather them find their characters’ moral compass as they become more and more familiar with their motivations and perspectives. In the case that we are using alignment– usually with more experienced players– I try to bring everyone to shared definitions of the various alignments during character creation, to help them get a feel for how they would work in our home games. For us, boils down to a player’s motivation and intent, not necessarily their personality and emotional attachments. Here is the breakdown we use:
Good and Evil
This one is fairly self-explanatory, at least as far as the “Good” alignments go.
Good characters tend to do what they can to help others and combat injustice…this is the typical alignment of the classic hero. They do what they can to minimize pain or suffering and put the needs of others above their own. In short, they are motivated by helping those around them.
Evil characters, contrary to popular belief, aren’t always driven by an insatiable desire to kill or steal (I see you, murder-hobos). The way we handle Evil alignments in our campaign is more along the lines of motivation and intent. These are characters who act of out of self-interest or self-preservation, who put their needs above those of others. They may not feel remorse or guilt if they cause hurt or suffering for someone else, so long as their own desires are fulfilled.
It is possible to have both Good and Evil characters in the same party, working towards common goals. It would just require inter-party conversation, and sometimes negotiation, to determine if their goals align with the methods being used to reach them. For example, a Good character might have to be persuaded to see that the actions of an Evil party member would have good outcomes. Conversely, the Evil player may decide that it is in their best interests to go along with the Good player’s methods…at least for the time being.
Lawful and Chaotic
This is often translated into “Following the rules all the time” versus “I act in the most random and contrarian ways possible”. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, here’s a slightly different take on this duality:
Lawful characters adhere to some sort of chosen code. This might be socially-prescribed norms, laws enacted by a governing entity, personal codes of conduct, or rules for behaviour dictated by an organization they follow. They are unlikely to challenge the code they have adopted nor will they stand by when others violate their rules. Remember, though, that it doesn’t always have to match the code presented by the society around them. A Lawful Good character may uphold the values of the society they are part of, but Lawful Neutral or Evil characters may have different codes that they follow just as strictly.
A Chaotic character, on the other hand, follows their whims of emotion and gut feeling, regardless of established codes, laws, and so on. That is not to say that they are immoral, but more that they are led by their instincts (which can be extreme or inconsistent) and don’t typically concern themselves with the consequences of their actions.
This one can be tricky…Neutral is, as the name suggests, neither completely Lawful nor Chaotic, Good nor Evil, but somewhere in between. Characters don’t devote themselves so strongly to established laws, but nor are they completely mercurial in their decision making. Neutral characters tend to seek or provide balance and the neutrally-aligned variants of Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil lean towards the accompanying alignment, but still tend to steer clear of taking extreme sides in battles of morality or legality. True Neutral characters believe in true balance and the natural state of the world or universe, with little regard for constructed conventions of what societies see as “right” or “wrong”, but prefer instead to see what “is” to the extent that they are able. Many players misconstrue this as apathetic, but neutral players can still be excited, passionate, fearful…all of the normal emotions any other character would exhibit– again, it’s about what motivates them.
Whether you use alignment or not depends completely on the nature of your party and how comfortable they are with Role Playing. For young players, however, try having the discussion about what different alignments mean for your campaign setting, but don’t have them adhere to a strict label. Instead, give them the time to think through problem solving in character and feel out their PCs perspectives and motivations more naturally. Encourage conversations and exploration versus telling them to simply adhere to a generic alignment.