Over at the Escapist, they have several interesting articles this week. One in particular spurred me to finally write about something that has irked me for a long time: this business of “alignment”.

From my first acquaintance with AD&D (now just plain D&D), I disliked the concept. It seemed to me more a straitjacket than anything else. Beyond providing a brake on the powerful characters, such as monks and paladins, it had no reason for being that I could see.

The idea that every person or sentient being in world could be so neatly pigeon-holed is ridiculous. Real people are contradictory. Real people – even from the same culture – do not all share the same view of “good” and “evil”, never mind the “lawful, chaotic, neutral” aspects.

So despite any number of descriptions, explanations, and examples, each person has his or her own interpretation of “chaotic good” or “neutral evil” or whatever. Naturally, that makes for difficulties.

You may consider your character is behaving in “neutral good” fashion, where the DM says, “No, you’re acting chaotic good”. Arguments can arise over this with no trouble at all.

In a live game, such differing views can be worked out, though perhaps not easily. When we get to computer games, however, the situation is worse.

Now you have the views of one small group – the developers – incorporated into a product that will be played by thousands. And there is no way to discuss differences of opinion, or make adjustments. You are stuck with the interpretations of those who made the game.

For some players, that isn’t a big deal. For those who want to role-play a particular alignment, however, it’s a severe problem, one that is exacerbated by numeric constants.

Doing this gives you two points of “lawful”; doing that gives you four points of “evil”. Instead of role-playing, therefore, the player is trapped in a guessing game with the designers in order to maintain alignment.

Beyond that, these games take no cognizance of motivation. An “evil” character could do a “good” deed or give a “good” conversational response for any number of ulterior reasons.

Maybe he just needs the reward money, and it’s the easiest way. Maybe it will help gain the confidence of an important official. Or perhaps it will bring him one step closer to his ultimate objective, assassinating the local lord. After all, how many times have we seen a “bad guy” doing “good deeds” as a cover?

The game doesn’t care. It just sees the character did something “good” and adds in the points. The “why” of it simply doesn’t matter, and this can drive real role-players up the wall.

Naturally, this is true from the other side, as well. “Good” characters can’t ever have moments of anger or selfishness. No, anything like that adds those “dark points”, idiotic though that is.

RP is most difficult for players who try to be “true neutral”. It isn’t possible to do that in any computer game with any conviction. Characters only end up doing “evil” this time, and “good” another time, to keep the alignment balanced.

Further, there are times, as the Escapist article shows, that characters can go well out of the alignment, and the game doesn’t notice at all. For instance, a paladin looting someone’s home.

There is no way that D&D can jettison alignment, though I wouldn’t cry if that happened. It is an integral part of the system, one of its “hallmarks”, if you will. Then again, the way the rules are going with each new edition, who knows? One day, that may disappear, too.

In the meantime, designers should be giving more thought to how alignment is expressed in their games. Simplistic “points for this and points for that” may be easy to do, but is nowhere near what is needed.

Of course, even a more sophisticated system won’t be perfect, because of varying interpretations, as noted above. But if we are going to be stuck with alignment in D&D games, at least give us something more closely approximating live play.miniscorp

Can Paladins Loot? on The Escapist