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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Effects of Dropping Alignment from the Game

Just saw a big debate (in the middle of a completely different debate) about whether it's easy to remove alignment from D&D and whether that will change the game dramatically.

My answers are "yes" and "maybe".

Let's look at how alignment interacts mechanically with the rest of the game.

First, you have the common interpretation of alignment as personality, which is expressed in two game mechanics: a simple bonus or penalty on reaction rolls when negotiating with characters of matched or mismatched alignments, and an xp bonus or penalty for acting in accord or discord with one's declare alignment. The reaction modifier isn't explicit in OD&D, but it shows up in later editions and in the Judges Guild Ready Ref sheets; it's pretty simple to add or remove, or replace with a set of modifiers based solely on real actions instead of abstract alignment. The xp modifier isn't mentioned in OD&D at all, but it becomes an informal rule in some of the basic line; in AD&D, there's a way too fiddly method for tracking alignment change and modifying experience accordingly. Dropping just these rules doesn't affect the game much, really, especially in OD&D.

Second, you have the spell system. Cleric spells that cause harm are actually forbidden for Lawful clerics (or Good clerics, in later editions;) and, some argue, the healing spells are forbidden for Chaotic clerics, or at least this is one possible interpretation in OD&D. As a consequence, OD&D played according to the 3LBBs makes a sharp distinction between Lawful clerics, who can't cause magical harm and who have healing powers, and magic-users, who have several ways to cause damage, sometimes lots of it. Removing this alignment rule in OD&D thus changes the game significantly, making clerics just another spell caster... but if you are using the Greyhawk supplement or AD&D, this sharp distinction goes away, anyways, because of spells like Spiritual Hammer and Flame Strike; dropping alignment restrictions for clerics doesn't cause much change in AD&D.

Conversely, there are a few spells in OD&D, more in AD&D, which specifically mention alignment. There's a good argument that Protection from Evil and Detect Evil in OD&D really have nothing to do with alignment at all, at least under some interpretations. In later editions, especially AD&D, there's a stricter adherence to alignment, so dropping alignment would require removing or re-writing several AD&D spells, perhaps rolling it back to the OD&D interpretations.

Finally, you have magic swords and a few other items, particularly artifacts, which have an intrinsic alignment.  This system works about the same across all TSR editions (not sure about WotC editions,) but it's very light-weight, involving only potential damage and possible denial or reduction of the item's powers. This is notable in that it doesn't require the interpretation of alignment as behavior or personality to make it work. Even so, I get the feeling that many GMs keep alignment as personality, but ditch the alignment rules for magic items, thus keeping the more complicated, annoying aspects of alignment.

So, in summary: dropping all aspects of alignment from OD&D won't matter too much, but you lose the interesting optional behaviors of magic weapons and kind of make clerics less distinct as a class. Ditching alignment for a later version, particularly AD&D, makes the game look more like OD&D (and saves a lot of bookkeeping in AD&D.) It only becomes complicated if you decide to rewrite spells linked to alignment, instead of simply dropping them.


  1. BFRPG manages to work without alignment. It isn't totally absolutely required for D&D.

  2. i have alignment in game universe - there were only 2 or 3 alignments in dawn age - expanded to ADnD style in later age - in process of collapse in present game with balanced and neutrals and non aligned becoming popular and many alignment followers being poor examples. Clerics care the most concerned and tell you your soul needs you to be alignment true. Commoners in cities increasingly dont care.

  3. I have long been fond of the alternate alignment system presented in the Dragon magazine article "For King And Country" (issue 101). Basically, the idea is that a character declares his allegiance for (or against) the local political and religious powers. Opposing political/religious powers are then "evil" with respect to that character. An example given in the article has Arthurian and Carolingian knights, both with Paladins, but acting in opposition to each other (the political structure is further complicated by Druidic Celts and Wood Elves with Rangers as special warriors, Scottish Dwarves, Viking raiders, and so on). I'd add that many supernatural creatures should be automatically "evil" (or "chaotic") for the purposes of many spells.

  4. Recently, I've come to see alignment as a bizarre bolt-on that really adds nothing to the game.

    People and creatures are who they are, and act the way they act. People don't have alignments.

    I don't think you would lose any interesting weapon behaviour, or make clerics less distinct. You wouldn't have to rewrite any spells, either. You just have to use your noggin a little.

    While alignment tends toward a system of making certain items or swords or spells automatically work or not work based on a dissociated and arbitrary stat, without alignment as a crutch you're freer to make a call about what would actually happen.

    Rather than the lawful sword working for the lawful fighter, you might be more inclined to think, "This sword was forged for the knight Sir Ignatius, who always strove to uphold justice." Now the sword isn't lawful - it was forged to uphold justice. Maybe it will fight any user it sees as unjust, or maybe it just won't work to perform injustice.

    Either way, more interesting than a "lawful" sword, and all without alignment.

    Similarly with spells. By dropping alignment you make an easier path to a more interesting and nuanced approach to rulings.