The struggle between good and evil remains one of the most common themes in fantasy literature. Since fantasy is the genre that defined the most popular roleplaying games, it should not be surprising that this conflict is frequently reflected in both the setting fluff and rules crunch of the games. Today, we tackle the topic of alignment systems in roleplaying games.
Morality in roleplaying games typically comes in two forms – absolute and sliding scale. In absolute systems, the character’s morality is described in terms. The character is “good,” “evil,” “selfish,” “unaligned,” “neutral” and so on. In sliding scale morality uses a numerical system to track the character’s degree of virtue or vice.
Absolute systems are common to games such as Traveler and Dungeons & Dragons among others. Ultimately, your character is of a given alignment with no ifs, ands or buts. A good character is good. His actions might be less consistently good than another good character, but they’re both “good” the same way that a guy who fights with a sword and a guy who fights with a spear might both still be “fighters.”
Sliding scale systems are more familiar to gamers used to computer RPGs, since these tend to track some sort of karma system where you become evil if you do enough bad things or shift to good if you’re too virtuous. Even in systems where morality is applied in absolute terms, it is not uncommon for there to be a (sometimes hidden) numerical element to good and evil. The Wizardry CRPG series tracked actions your characters performed that were “good” or “evil” (things like attacking non-violent enemies or using aligned artifacts) and shifted your alignment accordingly. The Fallout series uses a Karma system to track how your character’s actions have influenced them and the people of the wasteland. Numbers are easy to track and everything a computer does has an underlying numeric system, so CRPGs make extensive (if sometimes secretive) use of them.
Pen and paper roleplaying games often offer ways of introducing a sliding scale. Pathfinder’s “Pathfinder Unchained” and D&D 3rd Edition’s “Unearthed Arcana” both introduce systems for applying numeric values to alignment, both at least partially on the theory that it makes things less gray where alignment is concerned. I’ll admit that, personally, I’ve never needed – or even considered – something like that for my groups. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to remind a player that their character is good / neutral / evil and, therefore, probably should be approaching challenges from that angle, and I’ve never actually told a player they can’t do something because of their alignment. Nor, for that matter, have I enforced an involuntary alignment change (not counting magical effects, of course) even when a good character did something evil or vice versa because – absolute morality of fantasy settings aside – people are complicated and don’t always do the right / wrong thing.
Fictional examples of alignment changes and deviations occur. In the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Jack Sparrow finally does the right thing and, in return, Elizabeth Swan does the wrong thing. Is Jack good and Elizabeth evil now? No, of course not! One alignment deviation doesn’t change the underlying nature of the individual, but it does make for a great story, and that’s a big part of what roleplaying games are about! Playing rich characters with vivid motivations doesn’t mean dropping alignment entirely, but it does mean making alignment a tool for the character rather than the character be a vehicle for their alignment.
Alignment is one of the many trappings of RPGs that help to add depth and quality to the games. In many games, the struggle between good and evil is one with real metaphysical weight as literal moral forces duke it out in shadow realms for the fate of the world, and such a momentous struggle compels our characters to choose sides – or maintain their neutrality – in the conflict for the heart and soul of the setting.