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This is something I've been thinking about for some time, and now KRyan's Excellent Answer made me think about that again: is there a way to make alignments work, albeit not as intended?

I'm looking for a way to manage alignment, but remove the ambiguities the current system suffers from, such as demonstrated in KRyan's answer: the alignment system breaks down for describing characters who are not simplistic, and such characters can be argued as belonging to multiple alignments (and sometimes, all of them) — but D&D 3.5e works on the idea you belong to only one.

Removing alignments is a challenge though: they are needed by many mechanics, so completely cutting them out would gut some functions and classes (hi paladin, hi monk). Has anybody found a way to actually use alignments in a meaningful way, contrary to just having them on a sheet, in a game where PCs used to roleplay?

The kind of solution I'm after might be a complete redefinition of what the axes are and what they mean, or a different system altogether. KRyan's answer belongs to the second category: not using them is a different way to manage them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't quite understand why exactly you claim it does not work now. It's simplified. Like, much. But that's what all rules are: simplifications. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Nov 25 '14 at 12:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question might need to be edited to include author experience, but the problem with alignments in D&D is quite common. The rules, themselves, does not specify how to use alignment mechanics, only what they are basicaly represent (As for D&D 3.5 and 4e). Looking forward for some decent answers on this one. \$\endgroup\$ – DM Nailz Nov 25 '14 at 12:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Has anybody found a way to actually use alignments in a meaningful way, contrary to just having them on a sheet, in a game where PCs used to roleplay?" Can this be answered with example games or settings that still use alignment but use it differently? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Nov 25 '14 at 13:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Make them work" as in being meaningful. Editions I'm talking about are 3.5 and Pathfinder, didn't tag them because I have no experience with 4e and 5e, so I didn't want to exclude them. Molot the problem is that it's not only simplified, but, as stated by KRyan, it's controversial. @doppelgreener yes that is exactly what I mean. They work very good with monsters (be it demons or solars) but IMO ( and not just my opinion) they are not well suited for characters. If anything else is unclear please let me know \$\endgroup\$ – Ciacciu Nov 25 '14 at 13:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, maybe explain why you think the standard system doesn't work as you would like. Are you only worried about defining NPCs or PCs too. If PCs, how do you think players will react to the DM informing them that they are expected to play their characters in a more limited fashion than under the standard alignment system, given how many players react to even that? I've used alignments in D&D for 35+ years and I don't know what problem you might think I might be having with using them in roleplaying any more than, say, character class. \$\endgroup\$ – Nagora Nov 25 '14 at 20:12
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Per the challenging the frame meta, I will endeavor to answer this question straight, first. But I want it to be clear that I think the best approach to alignment isn’t to “make it work” but to throw it out altogether.

If you insist on having alignment, however, the best approach I have seen, that allows for internal consistency and provides the appropriate hooks for the appropriate mechanics, is to treat alignments as more-or-less-arbitrary sides that are in opposition for whatever reason. That is, one side is arbitrarily labeled Good, and another side arbitrarily labeled Evil, and those arbitrary labels have little or less to do with any concept of good or evil.

Thus, a Good character is one who is allied with the side arbitrarily labeled Good. It doesn’t mean he is a good person, it doesn’t mean his side would necessarily be a good thing to have “win,” it’s just an allegiance.

Note that this is the way (more or less) the Planescape setting works. Yes, the Upper Planes are generally more pleasant, and celestials generally more friendly and less likely to screw you, than are the Lower Planes and their fiends. But ultimately Good has a lot more to do with being allied with those Upper Planes or their powers, than it does to do with your morality. Note the Sigil cant term “to have a bloody halo,” as in, to be a dangerous and aggressive celestial.

But you really can just throw it out:

Monk is really not an alignment-dependent class. Really, the only classes significantly affected by alignment are clerics, crusaders, incarnates, and paladins. Of those:

  • Clerics are ridiculously powerful even if you strip out the alignment spells. Sure, blasphemy et al. are really powerful spells, but the cleric has a lot of those, it can afford to lose them.

  • Crusaders and incarnates both gain different sets of features depending on which alignment they are. You can easily allow them to just take the set of features they want, as if they had a particular alignment, and then they can act however they like, i.e. divorce alignment from mechanics.

  • Paladins are the “big” problem, class-wise. Smite Evil relies not only on your alignment, but on others’ alignment. But then Smite Evil is a really weak feature; opening it up to attacking anyone the paladin feels like attacking works just fine.

All other classes just have arbitrary alignment requirements that can (and I’d argue, should) be ignored.

From a roleplay perspective, the divine classes have their faiths, crusaders have their cause, and paladins have their code, which gives plenty of hooks for roleplaying and plenty of reasons to act a certain way, without it being codified as an alignment. Incarnates are a little more difficult, but doing this frees you to be more than just Evil Incarnate, but to be other abstract concepts, incarnate. I suggest using the names/concepts of cleric domains and/or ardent mantles for this; this has worked well for my characters in the past.

With these in mind, very little actually has to change for the players if you throw out alignment wholesale. I’ve done it in most of my games, in fact.

The one big area where there’s some trouble is the outsiders. Not only are goodness and evilness rather fundamental to the concept of celestials and fiends, they often have alignment-based attacks, which are both more significant than Smite Evil, but more crucial than blasphemy. The approach I’ve taken in the past is to restrict the “alignments” to only the creatures with (or without) the appropriate subtype. So you only avoid a pit fiend’s blasphemy if you have the Evil subtype, that is, are literally made of evil, no matter how cruel or vicious a person you are.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you, the "throw it out" is a really nice option, and one I'll bring to the table before the next campaign! Did you also remove aligned weapons when you implemented this system? \$\endgroup\$ – Ciacciu Nov 25 '14 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ciacciu They were kept for niche use against outsiders, but I don't recall anyone actually buying one, so it didn't really come up. I'd be comfortable with holy being like, +1d6 damage in general (like flaming), but +1d6 more damage for creatures with the Evil subtype or with DR/good (and of course counts as good-aligned for that DR). The +1d6 damage against all creatures makes up for the fact that the full +2d6 is applying to far fewer creatures than it ordinarily would. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 25 '14 at 21:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Heh, kinda like what I had in mind, very useful as a side weapon but can still be used as "primary" in case of emergency :) Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – Ciacciu Nov 25 '14 at 21:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ In my game weapons and spells built around alignment have been replaced with weapons and spells built around originating within or without the world (e.g. protection from otherworldly). Paladins can also be reformatted to align with a principal (zone of truth, detect lie, smite lying liars, etc.). \$\endgroup\$ – Lexible Nov 25 '14 at 23:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lexible Also a good solution, works particularly well for, e.g., Eberron, which has a strong focus on the dangers of alien invasion (daelkyr, quori, fiends to a certain extent). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 26 '14 at 4:20
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I agree with KRyan that D&D would be better served if alignment were thrown out wholesale.

However, I don't think that treating Good and Evil as arbitrary labels if you keep them in (like subtypes) is the best idea -- first and foremost, because we have subtypes, and that's literally what they do. Replacing the axes with another such as the BRACI grid might serve you, but my suggestion is to interpret the two dichotomies however appropriate. You're never going to find a rigid nine-state grid system that properly accommodates all characters. I mean, what morality grid can you possibly imagine that can simplify all of sapient morality into nine opinions?

Therefore, in order to avoid the task of dealing with what I'll have to do to the other game rules if I throw out alignment, me and my group have a collective, broadened understanding of the current alignment grid. This interpretation hasn't been written down anywhere until now, so I'll try to do my best to explain.

On the good/evil axis, neutral is far and away the most common alignment.

After careful consideration, it became apparent to us that nearly everyone except adventurers (and, judging by the amount of murder-hoboing, even most adventurers) would be Neutral along at least the good/evil axis. Most people simply worry about their next harvest (or paycheck if you're not doing a fantasy setting). They have too little to give and can't find it in themselves to ruin others' lives in order to better their situation. More importantly, most people aren't ambitious, which drives both good and evil attitudes (it takes some serious balls to want to join the peace corps, after all).

"Law" vs. Chaos would be more adequately named "Order" vs. Chaos.

We aren't pedantic about semantics, but I couldn't find a better way to sum that up in a bolded summary.

As it stands in our group, "lawful" or whatever you want to call it only describes your willingness to adhere to a defined set of beliefs or rules. I did not personally see that much of a problem with the Law vs. Chaos dichotomy until I saw both lawful barbarians and chaotic monks in other media (Diablo and Legend of Korra, respectively).

Of course this spawns the classic problem of "what do you do with someone who is dedicated to Chaos conceptually?" This interpretation is made vague intentionally to allow the players and GM to come up with classifications on an individual basis. Most of the time, I think of "Chaos" as "lack of a governing body or set of rules," not "physical/magical entropy" or some other incredibly abstract phenomenon, primarily because it's ridiculous for even demons to believe that replacing everything with pure entropy would somehow better their situation.

On the flip side, Lawful Evil isn't as cut-and-dried in our interpretation. Generally what I've seen is that players tend to think any dictator or iron-fisted ruler is Lawful Evil. This is often not the case. For example, Joseph Stalin rarely followed any of the rules that he set for himself and others to follow. He also did not have any higher calling or authority (that we know of) to answer to, or any strict set of principles that he adhered to. In fact, he broke quite a number of laws to acquire his seat in the first place. A Lawful Evil ruler would transform the nation he or she took control of over a period of time so as to keep the population complacent and keep from breaking any laws while also suiting their needs at the same time. Revolution isn't out of the question, but the new ruler in question, having a set of principles, would at least follow their own rules that they put in place. That's just the way I look at it.

The monks I mentioned earlier are a pretty good example; they're quite obviously very high-level Monks dedicated to an order called the Red Lotus. Problem is, the Red Lotus is dedicated to unseating the Avatar (who maintains balance between the material and the spirit), and sees her as a tyrant or obstacle rather than a benevolent ruler. Their end goal is to make the world less orderly, but they're clearly disciplined and adhere to their tenants. What does that make them? Simple -- they're Chaotic Neutral, or even Good, because they're working to better the world and even offer the Avatar a chance to join them in a one-on-one parlay. Which brings me to the next point.

Ends don't justify the means for Good guys, but they do for everyone else.

Before I begin on this, let me clarify that I'm using the very basic definitions for Good and Evil; Good is bettering others even if it harms yourself, and Evil is the opposite. This is a theme that pops up constantly in "good vs. evil" themed campaigns and adventures that want to give the players a serious moral choice or consequence. I've seen it come up countless times in personal and recounted experiences. In other words, if you're willing to kill 49% of people to save the other 51%, then you've settled for less, and you're not Good. The key part to being Good is the empathy.

The reason that the axes are asymmetrical here is because it's harder to be Good than not. Actually trying to be Good is detrimental towards being the player character while being Evil isn't (at least, in the short-term), by definition. Minimizing losses is not Good, neither is benefiting others when it's convenient. However, the ever-tempting option of "Kill your employer and take the macguffin AND the money" always exists.

There's a joke I've heard that Lawful Good is the easiest to play when you're new to roleplaying, then the hardest to play once you've understood the game. This is mostly true; for new players, the restrictive conduct required out of a Paladin gives them cues and motivation to do things in-character that they might be lacking otherwise. But for one whose mind has been opened up to the possibilities in a given setting, Lawful Good is more of a hindrance specifically because you must follow those rules. Evil does require some finesse too, since it easy to commit a string of violent acts but hard to make your string of violent acts memorable. Subtler evil machinations involving guile get high-risk fast and require some creativity. Playing a non-Neutral alignment is a difficulty step up for roleplaying.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice input! Correct me if i'm misunderstanding, in this system the classic lawful-evil-tyrant wouldn't actually be lawful, right? Also, was this increased difficulty in being good ever harmful for your party? \$\endgroup\$ – Ciacciu Nov 26 '14 at 8:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ciacciu To answer your second question, no. At the risk of sounding like a complete knob-end, our group is full of experienced players who know how to not metagame even in the face of bad decisions and out-of-character certainty. One of our players in particular enjoys playing particularly zealous or dedicated characters (Cleric in Dark Heresy, Cavalier in Pathfinder, etc) that often require him to do things that puts the group at risk due to his Good alignment. As for Lawful Evil, it's a little tough to say and depends again on their motivation. CE has no problem with taking control of a \$\endgroup\$ – Lucas Leblanc Nov 26 '14 at 14:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ (cont.) kingdom just so they can use the nation's military to destroy the world, but LE would see taking control of the nation as its own end. Generally LE leans more towards "control" or "domination" and CE leans more towards "destruction" and "sadism." Again I'm not asking you to follow my exact interpretation, but I'm saying that if you want to address your issues with as little effort as possible, you should just re-interpret the existing alignment system because it does make sense in the context of D&D for the purposes of labelling (moreso for the DM than for the players). \$\endgroup\$ – Lucas Leblanc Nov 26 '14 at 14:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Lucas, can you incorporate anything in this comment exchange you consider to have lasting value, and relevance to the answer, into the body of the answer? Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 2 '15 at 1:21
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One possibility is to redefine the alignment system's axes. My personal favorite is the BRACI Grid, which uses Responsible/Authoritarian and Collectivism/Individualism as it's two axes.

Replacing / Redefining the Law-Chaos Axis, I introduce Collectivism (C) standing in for Law, and Individualism (I) standing in for Chaos. Collectivism values the individual only in as far as they are components of the larger society. What is “good” for the society must be placed above that which is “good” for those who comprise that society and deviation from societal norms is seldom rewarded. Individualism, in contrast, values the society only for its ability to protect and nurture the Self. Individualists see Society as a collection of individuals and will only tolerate a society that places the rights and privileges of the individual at the center of its ideology.

For the Good-Evil Axis, I introduce Responsibility (R) standing in for Good and Authority (A) standing in for Evil. Responsibles [Update: Responsibility is short for Personal Responsibility, not just responsibility in general] view the role of the Self and the State to be one of doing what must be done, of caring for people and making sure that the maximum number of people are allowed to live long, relatively happy lives. It views Authority with suspicion, preferring to use feedback, honor, and pride to keep both governors and governed on task. Responsibility is a tool that only grows stronger the more it is employed. It makes everyone stronger. Authoritarians view the role of the State and the Self to be ones of determinism, of what is and is not allowed. Authority is Power, over the self and over others, and Authority must be used or it is wasted. Authority is a tool for control. Its strength is greatest when all obey.

Instead of the vague "Neutral" to indicate people who don't feel strongly one way or the other, this grid uses Balanced (the B in BRACI) to reflect people who feel like both extremes have their place. In other words, it's a "Both" rather than a "Neither". True Neutral is replaced with Objectively Balanced:

A Balanced Objectivist is one of those who actively embrace Authority and Responsibility, Individuality and Community, rather than rejecting any of them. They strive to maintain a balanced approach, trying not to be doctrinaire in authority, trying not to be consumed by responsibility, trying to balance the wants and needs of everyone against their own ability to provide. By this light, almost everyone is TN, but it’s no longer a bad thing. It’s just the way it is. It’s about getting by.

There's also an optional third axis to indicate how fanatical you are about your alignment's beliefs, which would help in defining characters but wouldn't have any gameplay effect.

So how does this help?

The main focus of this reworking of the grid is replacing an abstract, somewhat arbitrary categorization of behavioral tendencies with defined ideological groupings. A LG paladin can fall for doing one evil act (or a lot of chaotic ones). But a RC paladin is simply one who believes that "sacrifices must be made for the good of all, and knowing that to demand sacrifices of others is wrong, sacrifices herself instead." They don't fall for every exercise of authority or self-benefiting action - only if they stop believing in people taking responsibility for their actions or (to a lesser extent) stop supporting the good of society as a whole over individual desires.

The downside to this system is that it changes the burden of ambiguity from what the characters do ("Is that an evil act?") to how existing mechanics fit into it. Monks could be restricted to Collectivism instead of Lawful, subsuming themselves to their monastery's lifestyles. Or they could be restricted to Individualist, seeing themselves as self-contained and owing nothing to and expecting nothing from anyone else. Lawful Stupid, enforcing the laws on everyone with no regard to anything else, is a Authoritarian Collectivist tendency, but even regular paladins can easily find themselves leaning that way. (Arguably, that's a feature, making crossing the line and falling a real danger for the paladin who's seen too much and just wants to start imposing order)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Interesting read and I mostly agree, but I have one question. How is it supposed to affect alignment-oriented spells? "Protection from Individualists" sounds... weird. And should it work on "those who actively embrace Authority and Responsibility, Individuality and Community"? \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Nov 25 '14 at 20:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot - I agree that it sounds weird. Mechanically, it should be the same (that is the point, after all), but as I said you need to think about your fitting process. I might reflavor them as shield against authority/obedience/conformity/independence instead of protection from evil/good/law/chaos (respectively), just because it sounds a bit better. Not great, but better. \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Nov 25 '14 at 20:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ And what with "actively neutral"? Should these shields work on them as well? Oh, and is there any place for ones that are not balanced in active sense, but just don't give a damn about it? Like, prisoner in a tower may well lose faith he can ever do anything and settle on watching sky. As far from actively embracing anything as possible, for me. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Nov 25 '14 at 20:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Handwaving like that simply leads to my favourite Constantine quote "What if I told you that God and the devil made a wager, a kind of standing bet for the souls of all mankind? (...) Why? Who knows. Maybe just for the fun of it. No telling." and discarding any explanations behind alignments altogether. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Nov 25 '14 at 21:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LucasLeblanc - It changes the definitions from behaviors to ideologies. So an evil act, regardless of the reason, can be the reason for a paladin to fall normally, but an authoritative act done in the service of responsibility will not (but an act in service of authoritativeness would). Whether you consider that "subverting the mechanics" or "making alignments usable without breaking the mechanics" is a matter of opinion and where you draw the line. Saying "a paladin falls less often" is very different from "there is no longer a way to tell when a paladin falls." \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Nov 26 '14 at 0:43
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The best way to make alignment work is not to overthink it, and don’t try to enforce it. Alignment has only a few mechanical effects in the game, which apply mainly to creatures with an obvious metaphysical affinity (outsiders, undead, clerics).

Alignment doesn’t determine how characters behave, as it describes only very general tendencies, whereas role-playing is all about the specifics and exceptions. It’s handy for NPCs as a rough guide as to whether they are heroes or villains, and it’s handy for PCs to figure out how spells and magic items work, but seriously, don’t overthink it. Most people are neutral. They’re generally civilized, and they don’t kick puppies or steal candy from babies. Even a lot of “heroes” are neutral, as they are mostly motivated by protecting the people they love and the place where they keep their stuff.

The non-neutral alignments work best for people who are really consistently and obviously outside that ordinary-civilized-person box. Lawful people are especially honorable or draconian or obsessive. Chaotic people are especially rebellious or carefree or provocative. Good people go out of their way to help random strangers in need – or to smite random strangers who are up to no good. Evil people don’t care who gets hurt, and might even enjoy it.

For players, there’s really no harm in letting them say their alignment is whatever they want to say it is. It’s certainly more plausible if the alignment on the character sheet matches the way they usually act in play. But like I mentioned above, there are plenty of “heroes” who are just trying to get out of a jam, like Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. Conversely, lots of very principled people compromise their principles when they’re in a pickle.

It’s easy enough to rationalize most disconnects between the alignment written down and the way characters act in play. And for the rare cases where it’s too much to suspend disbelief, well, switching alignment isn’t a big deal for most characters as far as game mechanics go. Most of the actual problems I’ve seen in play arose because one player thought an action was evil, and the other guy thought it was perfectly reasonable and how dare you call me evil? That’s the sort of conflict that requires diplomacy, not game rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, especially for the last paragraph! Similar situations are what sparked the question in the first place \$\endgroup\$ – Ciacciu Nov 26 '14 at 8:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hope you found it helpful. This is how I think alignment is actually supposed to work. I think a lot of folks get thrown by the fact that the sort of things we call good and moral in real life would be called neutral in D&D, and what we call immoral is either evil or sometimes chaotic in D&D. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Nov 26 '14 at 9:34

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