From my first exposure to the game, when there were just the three alignments and I was creating a dwarf named Thorin Silversword, alignment seemed so artificial and unyielding, like a saccharin straightjacket. When complexity was folded into the mix, in the form of good and evil, and the three options ballooned to nine, the straightjacket became vented, silk-lined, and double-breasted, very fancy and good for an evening out, but still, you know, lashed in the back and making dancing a challenge. Yes, I’m pleased that 4E gave alignments a good shake, reducing the number to five, but I still feel like that might be five too many.
Alignment was supposed to inform the player what the character would do in a given circumstance, except, of course, it didn’t. Most of my friends would take alignments that impacted their gameplay the least. Tell me if this sounds familiar: “Because I’m [alignment], I can do anything I want.” “Because I’m True Neutral, I can do anything I want.” ”Because I’m Chaotic Neutral, I can do anything I want.” ”Because I’m Neutral Evil, I can do anything I want.” At best, they would wind up playing a variation of Chaotic Cartman.
About the only alignment that actively restricted a player’s actions at the table was the big scarlet LG, which stands for Lame Guy. This was the buzz-kill, the wet blanket. This was the droopy dog who would show mercy to the enemy, march the rogue to the authorities, and get in the way of a good torture session. He would also avoid the gambling halls and the houses of ill repute, the silly twit.
Needless to say, this was the alignment I frequently chose. And even when I didn’t, I kind of did. I had a Lawful Good Monk (who started as Lawful Neutral), I had a Neutral Good Magic-user/Cleric (who obeyed the laws of the land and preached goodness and temperance to the party), and a Neutral halfling Fighter (who would sacrifice himself for the sake of another). Yeah, I’m the dope who bought into all that heroism nonsense, who fought for the greater good, who wanted to be more than I was in this thing called “real life.”
The thing is, I would have acted that way regardless of some 2-letter notation on my character sheet. It was “me as player” getting in the way of “me as character.” I’ve played a black-hearted Necromancer who would always think of others first, a lawless pickpocket who endangered himself to protect an NPC child, and a psychotic half-ogre who became BFF’s with the party dwarf. When I have tried to be the villain, I’ve always wound up as the hero. Or failing that, as the cuddliest, wuddliest villain you ever did see.
Clearly, this is a role-playing problem with me, but I feel like I’m not the only one. I’ve known players who portray jerks and scoundrels and traitors effortlessly, and more often than not, that’s all they ever play. Every single one of their characters fit into that mold. I’m not saying these people are chaotic or evil or neutral in real life (any more than I’m saying I’m lawful or good in real life, as you know if you’ve ever driven slowly in front of me). However, these did seem to be roles that came very easy to them – that perhaps came automatically to them – and they went right into that flow. In moments of high stress, that persona came out. It didn’t matter what was written on the character sheet.
There was so much misinterpretation (or reinterpretation) of alignments, one of the Players Handbooks included a story about a how a party of nine differently-aligned characters would act inside a battle. There’s also that excellent nine-panel representation of comic book characters, with Superman as Lawful Good, Wolverine as Neutral Good, the Joker as Chaotic Evil, and so on. It even includes quotes from real-live often dead famous people demonstrating what a person of that alignment thinks. Both of these were show-don’t-tell exercises, and both were brilliantly constructed, marvelously executed, and universally ignored.
People (and I reluctantly include myself in this group) just went on playing their characters however they bloody well pleased, never stopping to think, “Wait, Chaotic Neutral means cheese-off-the-cracker crazy? You’re saying I should occasionally attack characters in my own party, just to stay in-character? That doesn’t seem fun at all.”
And it probably wouldn’t be, assuming you want to be invited back to games. DMs could make with the giant hammer of enforcement (YOU ARE A LAWFUL GOOD PALADIN AND YOU JUST COMMITTED AN EVIL ACT… PREPARE FOR YOUR JUDGMENT!), but that would only result in more people jumping over the chaos / neutrality fence. After all, if chaos equals unpredictability, who’s to say you wouldn’t help that orphanage? Wouldn’t that be unpredictable?
All of this is to propose the following: let’s just do away with alignment. Let’s have a big farewell dinner, and then shuffle alignment out the door with a pat on the back and a nice gold watch. It was great working with you all these years, you were always prompt and reliable, but we need to go in a new direction, and your time is over. Collect your last paycheck at the reception desk, and please don’t flirt with Pam on your way out.
Of course, that would leave us with a sad and gaping hole on our character sheets, and we certainly couldn’t allow that. What if we replaced alignment with something more accessible and dynamic, like Personality? Players would put a single word in here which would act as a touchstone for decisions. The word would be a suggestion rather than a mandate, and there would be no hovering punishments for players who stepped outside of their touchstone word.
For example, I could write the word Selfish or Angry or Gentle or Hopeful, and then, over the course of the game, I could think, “How would I act in this circumstance? How would a selfish / angry / gentle / hopeful person act?” While playing, I might discover an evolution in the character, as my Coward becomes Noble, as my Brawler finds Fear.
I think there’s definitely room for exploration here. More importantly, it’s a simplification of an aspect that can be opaque to new players. How is good different than Lawful Good? Why not just call it super-duper good? How is evil any different than chaotic evil? “Well, you have to understand, this one would kill you and your family and then burn your house down, but that one would do all those things AND kick the dog on the way out.”
Compare that to telling a new player, “Think about your character and come up with a one-word description.” That player might pause and then say, “Stubborn,” and you’re off to the races. I have to say, that sounds a lot easier.