Save My Game 03/18/2005

Alignments in Play
Playing It Right Without Annoying Others

This column's topic for this installment of Save My Game is alignment. Some players are so dedicated to playing an extreme alignment to the hilt that they disrupt the game for everyone else. What's a DM to do?

Problem: Alignments That Cause Problems in Play

When I play characters that are lawful, chaotic, or evil, I do such a good job that the other players -- and sometimes even the DM -- get disgruntled. I know most PCs are good or neutral, but why have other alignment options if you can't play them? At the same time, I don't really want to bog down the game or upset the other players. How can you play extreme alignments without being disruptive? -- Stan

Alignment is a sticky subject -- so much so that some gamers refuse to use the concept at all. Some players think sticking to an alignment is just too much trouble. Others insist that alignment restricts the kind of true roleplaying that can flourish when a character's personality is allowed to develop naturally, unfettered by artificial limitations. Still others use alignment but downplay its importance in order to bolster party unity.

Party members certainly have to find ways to work together and trust one another regardless of their philosophical differences. But does this willingness to put aside disagreements mean that PCs just naturally tolerant of other alignments? Or is alignment so unobtrusive that it never really shows in character behavior?

Alignment may determine your character's actions ("I do this because I'm lawful good") or simply describe them ("I'm lawful good because this is what I do"). Whichever explanation you espouse, alignment is basically a pattern of attitudes and actions that applies universally. The material on alignment in the Player's Handbook defines law, chaos, good, evil -- and even the true meaning of neutral -- in black-and-white terms. These definitions leave no room for moral relativism or cultural interpretation. The orcs may think their people are "good" and elves are "bad," but by the universal standards of alignment, the reverse is true.

Solution 1: Communication

To use alignments properly, both the players and the DM must understand and agree on what they really mean in the context of the particular campaign. So allow some time for an open discussion of alignments. You can start by clarifying the way alignment works in your game and how important it is to you that characters adhere to it. Then let the players ask questions and make suggestions about how alignments should be defined, interpreted, and enforced. Finally, make the necessary decisions about any issues still in conflict and tell the players how you plan to judge character actions with respect to alignment, and what the results of acting against alignment will be. Follow up by creating a player handout on alignment in which all these decisions are summarized clearly and concisely.

The AD&DDark Sun Campaign Setting gave a great example of an alignment reference guide. The text provided an example of what a person of each alignment might do if the group were short of water. Giving examples -- especially situations that might legitimately occur during an adventure -- helps to ensure understanding and get everyone on the same page with respect to this admittedly abstract concept.

Solution 2: Backburner

In some campaigns, acting in accordance with alignment is simply not as important as maintaining party unity. In such situations, the characters automatically trust each other regardless of alignment, just because they're PCs. Furthermore, both players and DM simply assume that the characters manage to work out their philosophical differences and function as a unit, without discussing the details in-game. Characters in such a game may still squabble about alignment-related issues, but they fundamentally get along, and the disputes don't cause any serious disruption because alignment ultimately doesn't matter much.

This technique downgrades the importance of alignment by subjugating it to the greater goal of party unity. Though admirable in concept, this solution tends to ensure that no one bothers to roleplay alignments effectively, since doing so might cause disruption. To make the most of alignment without sacrificing this aspect of play, both the players and the DM should consider why and how people of disparate alignments might get along and trust each other. This question is far from simple -- after all, even characters with the same alignment might not get along because they have widely varying goals and dreams.

I have to wonder about the NE wizard mentioned in a D&D board posting on the Wizards of the Coast website. The character adventured for years with an otherwise LG/NG party, participating in their battles against the forces of evil time and time again, but somehow he stayed neutral evil. Then, when he and the rest of the PCs were high-level characters, the campaign's major villain hired him to thwart the party. Does his acceptance mean that he has been a super-double-secret deep-cover sleeper agent since 1st level? What exactly was evil about him? What evil acts did he commit in years while he was fighting alongside the forces of good? Should such a character have to act evil in order to be evil? To what extent does one act of evil counterbalance a whole adventuring career devoted to good? It's certainly possible to be (or become) evil while working beside the good guys -- just look at Raistlin. But how far undercover can a character go before his "cover" becomes his real identity, and he loses touch with his original ideals?

Solution 3: Metagame

Even after long debate, you and your players may not come to a satisfactory consensus as to why characters of different alignments might get along with one another in the game. If attempts to be true to alignment are seriously disrupting play, you as DM might have to resort to metagame solutions. Applying XP penalties, negative levels, or curses can go a long way toward keeping players from disrupting the game with unnecessary alignment-based arguments.

Solution 4: Alignment Restrictions

Another method of ensuring that alignment play does not disrupt the game is to simply restrict the alignments available to PCs. If desired, you can allow the players to decide which alignments are acceptable for the party, or at least consider their input in your decision. Thereafter, any character with an alignment other than those the group has deemed appropriate is simply not accepted into the party. This method ensures that everyone's character will fit into the party and prevents anyone from introducing a demon-worshiping necromancer into a party of paladins. However, it also restricts your options for ongoing plotlines. For example, the characters are almost certainly safe from betrayal by an assassin PC who has infiltrated the group, or even a secretly evil character who could turn on them at a later time.

Solution 5: New DM

If you and the players can't agree on how to treat alignment play in your game, you may want to suggest that another DM take the reins for the kind of game they wish to have. For example, if the players want a game with all evil PCs and you don't want to run one, you don't have to feel pressured to do so. It's true that everybody at the table should have a say in the basic set-up of the campaign, but the DM has a greater say because she has to put in more time and energy than anyone else. A group can't force a DM to run a game she isn't going to enjoy, even if everyone else wants it. Thus, if the players really want an evil campaign, suggest that someone else run it for as long as people want to play it, or suggest alternating play sessions between that campaign and the one you want to run.


If you and your players enjoy the bickering common to groups whose members roleplay their alignments to the hilt, feel free to do so as much as you wish. In my experience, however, most gamers don't have the time or inclination to deal with that kind of disruptive behavior. They would much rather spend their precious gaming time focusing on a heroic adventure than on party politics and plotting. A group with one or two players who insist on roleplaying that disrupts rather than unites the group should be encouraged to either develop new habits that are more conducive to cooperative play or find another game more suited to their style.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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