D&D Alignment

Advanced Gaming & Theory: Pet Peeve: Detect Alignment

I THINK THAT EVERY body has a “pet-peeve” or something that bugs them about a game system itself. For me, that pet-peeve was largely spells used for detecting alignment. Now, this stems from playing the game incorrectly when our group was still learning, and not detecting our error, thus never fixing it. But this spell still bugs me to this day. It just seems like one of those things which was put into the game to make the Dungeon Masters life miserable.

Tim Ripper goes on to talk about how he deals with alignment, basically by neutering it. NPCs and PCs don’t actually know their own alignment, good characters can do bad things and vice-versa, the Detect Alignment spell is basically useless: easily fooled, obvious when it’s cast, considered a hostile act or even a prelude to an attack, and so forth.

But I have to ask, why have alignments in your game, then? What’s the point if they’re secret even from the players, you have to nerf certain spells to keep them that way, and even the GM can’t use them as a guide to behavior? I think it’s far simpler to just remove it from the game, which is pretty much what we did back in the day. Trying to keep alignment in the game without making it actually useful or having noticeable game-world consequences strikes me as more trouble than it’s worth.

Generally, there seem to me to be two and a half standard fruitful approaches to really using D&D alignment as part of the game world without running into the problems of having players run around casting Detect Alignment and short-circuiting any kind of real moral reasoning or thinking about the motives of the NPCs.

Approach 1 is that Alignments are sides in a cosmic war. Your alignment says which side you are on in the war, and nothing more. There can be honorable, maybe even admirable people and creatures on the Chaotic side, though perhaps few and far between, just as there can be complete rat-bastards on the Lawful side. Your alignment in particular says nothing about how you treat people in petty day-to-day things, whether you lie, cheat, give to charity, keep your word,  and so forth. Alignment detection spells detect which side’s uniform you’re wearing, as it were.  This was easier to pull off without confusing modern sensibilities when the alignments are just Chaos and Law, instead of the two-axis AD&D Law vs. Chaos and Good vs. Evil, but is still possible.

A subset of approach 1 (the “and a half”) is that humans and most other creatures don’t even really count in the cosmic war. Only supernatural entities and magic actually have concrete alignment, and that’s what spells detect. Ordinary mortals might have tendencies, but they’re really weak stuff compared to the real thing, and don’t register even when they’re conscious allegiances.

Approach 2 is that alignments are the Gods’ eye-view score card of your behavior: how the Gods view your actions according to their moral lights.  This makes Alignment, though perfectly concrete and detectable, more like having a prison record or past citations and medals for good works.  “Past record is no guarantee of future performance.”  Still, you’d have to be willfully stupid to ignore the evidence that alignment offers when deciding whether to put someone in a position of trust.  None of this namby-pamby alignment detections exists, but there are social taboos against using it guff.   You want a position of trust, you submit to the alignment check, just as today you submit to a background check in any kind of sensitive position.

What you don’t want to do, in my opinion, is make alignment exist, but be useless.  Either figure out the ways it plays out in the game world and deal with it (perhaps just giving up the cliche of the vizier “secretly” being evil), or strike it from the books and say that in your game world people steer by whatever their own personal moral compass is… different religions and philosophies advocate different things but there is no one universal measure, magical or otherwise, that can be applied.  Keeping it but figuring out all kinds of reasons that nobody does or should do the obvious things given its existence just magnifies its flaws.

17 thoughts on “D&D Alignment

  1. Scott says:

    Obviously since I’m playing T&T, I’m not using D&D alignments. When I *do* use them for OD&D or B/X, I just use the Law-Neutrality-Chaos construct.

    IMCs, Law encompasses draconian repression in addition to benign order, and Chaos encompasses whimsy and caprice in addition to EEEVIL.

    So most Elves, for instance, are Chaotic but not evil, and the Invincible Overlord is Lawful but decidedly not good.

    As far as PCs go, I just use the sentence in OD&D about alignment being a “broad ethical stance” and leave it to them to figure out what their own alignments mean.

    Scott’s last blog post..Practice run at regional mapping

  2. Ishmayl says:

    I don’t eally play D&D anymore, so I don’t even really use alignment at all. But…

    When I did, I prefered a system that focused on the motivations behind characters’ actions. I think it’s a lot more important to know why a person acts and reacts the way he does than to know what arbitrary compass point a character falls under (usually just to help in the determination of spells and abilities).

    Ishmayl’s last blog post..Fantastic Governments

  3. Ken St. Andre says:

    I threw out the whole idea of alignment along with the idea that gods ran the world and actively participated in things way back in 1975 with the first edition of T & T. But people absolutely had to have gods, so I dumped (pseudo) godhood on the great wizards like Khazan, Gristlegrim, and Lerotra’hh. Legend, wishful thinking and shrewd politics turned them into the gods of the my corner of the world. Then when I wrote Stormbringer for the Chaosium, the need to recreate Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms made Alignments both necessary and useful. It’s easy enough to tell Alignment in Stormbringer–just ask the character what gods he worships. If he starts chanting “blood and souls for Arioch”, you know you have a Chaotic on your hands. In the beginning, I think Moorcock was equating Chaos with evil and Law with good, but as he kept writing about Elric and other champions of the multiverse over the decades that simple identification went away. Moorcock became a champion of moderation. Too much Chaos or too much Law–both were bad for the universe in general. A Balance was needed. I like to think that T & T has that kind of balance without even thinking about it. For that matter, so does Runescape. Saradomin = Law, Zamorak = Chaos, Guthix = Balance. I’m a Champion of Guthix myself. 🙂

  4. Russell says:

    I definitely go with option 1. Your alignment is the result of your agreements with the supernatural, so most people don’t have one. Detect evil should definitely tell the paladin if the merchant is a vampire, but not if she is a blood-sucker of the ordinary variety. Adventurers in my world do have pacts with supernatural beings (the heroes), so adventurers do have alignments, but they don’t necessarily reflect personal morality. (Actually, players still try to “play their alignments” no matter how many times I tell them they don’t have to.)

    My personal pet peeve are people who want character alignment to dictate their actions, or want to argue about what a character of a certain alignment “must do” in a situation. I like to start with a detailed notion of a character’s moral views and then map that to the closest alignment as a short-hand. Saying there are only 9 possible moral stances in your world is pretty limiting as far as developing a character.

    As far as asking people their alignment, in Mac’s game, there is a standard question: “An old man runs by you, followed by an orc with an axe. The orc yells, “Stop him! He’s getting away!” What would you do?”

    Russell’s last blog post..Sometimes things just come together

  5. Joshua says:

    @Ken – I find the lack of Clerics as a class in T&T to be really interesting. In keeping with that, in the T&T setting I’m noodling on, there will be churches and priests, but no actual gods…or at least no miracles or ways to demonstrate their existence. Any magic done on behalf of the church will be by priests who are trained as Wizards, just like any other Wizard.

  6. Ripper X says:

    Howdy, I’m not sure where you got Tim from, my name is Rip. I’m glad that you enjoyed my writing, but I think that you are miss understanding my intentions in putting it out there, they were all my fault for not clarifying many of my ideas clearly.

    Alignment is a very important aspect of the game. It does control a character who isn’t a PC. As DM, I track a players alignment, and I do it quietly. A player who is suppose to be a lawful good fighter, will act chaotically now and again, if he does this too much, then I silently change his alignment, which doesn’t really effect the game unless alignment is a factor in his/her class. If it changes to drastically, then bad things can happen to them, it is part of the game that they must figure this out.

    I don’t like the spell because I find it to be cheap. Play the game and you’ll be able to figure out every body’s alignment, I didn’t say anywhere that you should give up on alignments at all! Alignments make bookwork that much easier. What I did say is that nobody is a slave to their alignment. A chaotic thief can work with others for short periods of time, a lawful wizard can work independently. We all have moments of weakness, a good person who steals money to feed his family didn’t suddenly change to chaotic evil, even if he killed somebody to do it, there isn’t this sudden shift, he is going to be guilt ridden, and if this guilt goes away, then he might move one step closer to Chaotic evil, but it will be a simple step.

    Alignment is a big factor for Classes regarding religion. Clerics and Paladins, as well as Rangers. Without alignment, there is no checks and balances set in place to keep these powerful classes in balance with your world.

  7. Joshua says:

    @Ripper – sorry, I scrolled down the page til I saw a name at the bottom of the post, but missed that it was the art credit. I fixed the main post.

  8. Doug says:

    Just a thought to go along with Option 1: Have know alignment apply to how it’s cast. The neutral Wizard might be interested in a “Know Deity” spell, which tells you which deity someone worships and whether they’re in good standing. Bob, Paladin of Kranky, god of inflexible Lawful Good on Rails, on the other hand, might just come back with how the target ranks on the “Smite-O-Meter”.
    I’ve always thought that the inherent flaw with the spell was that anyone you really want to know about by casting this spell is going to have some defense. The god of assassins is going to give its followers a boon of permanent “Lawful Good, kinda leaning towards Lawful Neutral” aura. The trickster god is likely to be even better, maybe a “Follower of a God similar the casters, but maybe with some strained relations so y’all wouldn’t necessarily know each other.”
    You might as well just ask them “Are you telling the truth?”

  9. Joshua says:

    @Doug – that’s why you cast a spell instead of just asking them “What alignment are you?” IMO having a spell that isn’t actually useful is a no-no. Having a spell that will mislead you almost every time it matters is even worse. If the GM isn’t prepared to deal with the consequences of reliable divination, then it’s a thousand times better to eliminate those spells (“Nobody teaches them any more, they weren’t reliable”) then pretend it’s a live option for spell casters while making sure that methods of fooling it are so prevalent that as a practical matter it’s a waste of time when it isn’t actively self-defeating.

    Divination magic of all kinds can be a headache to GM, but I think making it unreliable is a poor solution to those headaches.

  10. Doug says:

    @Joshua I think it depends on your definition of “useful”. Sure, you could cast Know Alignment on every passerby or business associate you come across so you can determine if they’re going to shill you. But d20 already has http://www.d20srd.org/srd/spells/misdirection.htm to keep your players from finding the (spy/assassin/covert agent) right away. Thus my comment about anyone who’s going to try and make a living out of going undercover is already going to have an active counter to the Know Alignment ploy.

  11. Joshua says:

    @Doug – leave it to d20 to pick the stupid way out. Yeah, the spell exists, but there’s this really easy spell to cast to make sure you get no reliable information from casting it. Sucker!

  12. Russell says:

    @Josh– I don’t think that having counter-measures (that have costs) makes an ability useless. You seem to be thinking of Detect Evil as primarily a non-adventuring spell, designed to root out traitors in the troops of good. Whereas it is really primarily a dungeon-crawling spell, designed to alert you to supernatural menaces. Not having all the uses you could think of isn’t the same as being useless.

    For example, detect magic is a first level spell. It detects magic auras, and can tell if items are worth taking with you, or help you classify a spell effect. My players also sometimes want it to reveal all illusions and magical traps. I don’t want a first level spell to do all of that. So I assume that the Magic Aura counterspell is put on traps and illusions as a matter of routine, to prevent this. Detect magic is still quite useful, just not a panacea. In the same way, I want Detect Evil to be useful, but not for sniffing out dishonest merchants or revealing treasonous courtiers.

    Russell’s last blog post..Two can keep a secret if one’s the GM

  13. Joshua says:

    @Russell – The right way to make it be primarily for detecting supernatural evil is to make it so that alignment is something that applies to supernatural evil but not dishonest merchant or treasonous courtiers. The wrong way is to say that it would work against them, except, whaddaya know there’s an perfect countermeasure easily available.

    Honestly, what’s so difficult about the idea that you shouldn’t allow divination spells in the campaign if you’re just going to endlessly be weaseling out of the logical consequences of the existence of that form of divination?

    If you don’t want Detect Magic to work that way, raise the level or change the description, but don’t introduce a counter-spell that’s “routinely” applied. Because honestly there’s no difference between introducing a counter-spell and telling the players don’t even bother, if it’s important I won’t let your ideas work anyway.

  14. Russell says:

    There’s a big difference. There’s a spell to protect against arrows. Does that mean there’s no use owning a bow? Are spells that protect you against fire cheating casters of fireball? Players have the list of counter-measures, know what level they are, and use them themselves in similar positions. Just because you cannot be guaranteed that a spell is always effective in every circumstance doesn’t mean that it is useless. And I don’t block the use just because it is “important” to the plot for the spell to fail; I only block that use when an adversary would logically have been able to and would have spent the resources for the counter-measure.

    Russell’s last blog post..Two can keep a secret if one’s the GM

  15. Joshua says:

    Do you really not see the difference between interfering with an information-gathering spell, and how the mere existence of a means of blocking or fooling an information-gathering spell nerfs it, and something like a spell that protects against arrows? Maybe if it were obvious to the caster that something was interfering with Detect Evil and that something could only resist so many probes (as the SRD version of Protection from Arrows can only resist 10 points of damage per level, max 100, before poofing out)…

    I’m sorry, but while I believe you when you say you only use it when an adversary would logically have been able to and have spent the resources for the counter-measure, I don’t believe you’re retained its utility… except for fairly trivial circumstances such as determining which items to have identified. By introducing divination-blocking counter-spells into the game-world you’ve in effect demanded that it be used wherever it’s important for the plot. You’ve made it so it’s an idiot plot if an enemy fails to apply it, unless the enemy is particularly stupid or resource constrained. Players will now expect their divination magic not to work precisely when it would be particularly useful. More than that, they’d probably object if they found out a supposedly competent enemy neglected the obvious precaution and got caught out by such divination–at least my players would.

    That’s categorically different from a spell that blocks this or that form of attack. They might be more similar if you could never tell whether the arrows were just missing or the foe making his saves against the fireball…but, no, you’d still be able to tell if you were hurting him and try different tactics if you weren’t getting anywhere. To make it more or less the same you’d have to make it so that in general players couldn’t tell whether they were making progress in a battle, or even if a battle was occurring.

    By adding divination counter-spells you invalidate the entire strategy of using them when there’s the suspicion of an adversary. Not exactly surprising, since that’s the purpose. I object to that…if the information such as alignment is there in the game-world and if the players discovered it that information would be useful and there’s a spell for detecting it and the players manage to figure out the appropriate time and target for that spell… I say well played, they’ve won the use of that information.

  16. Russell says:

    No, I honestly do not see a difference.
    It’s just as cheap if, knowing there’s a fire mage in the party, you have all the villains use a spell to make them fire-resistant or knowing that there’s an archer in the party, you give them all protection from arrows, as if you always assume that the enemy casts undetectable alignment every time. I won’t do any of the above. On the other hand, a villain that is taking on a fire elemental will use the fire-resistance spell, and the demon trying to infiltrate the temple will use undetectable alignment. And, yes, the players will assume that, and not bother scanning the priests for evil.

    It does change the nature of the spell to have a counter-measure, but I think it changes it in a way that I want. I don’t want a world where espionage is simply impossible, even by supernatural beings. Especially, I want it to be an option for the players, and not have the idiot plot be that the adversaries fail to detect that a paladin has just entered their evil temple, or that the simple party of farmers at the city gate is radiating illusion magic. Players use the counter-measure spells at least as much as the villains do.

    I don’t want a world where illusion magic leaves a telltale aura that every wizard can detect. I don’t want a world where the wizard uses a cantrip to put the rogue out of work at magical trap-finding.

    Yes, players expect the counter-measures to be in place when they would be justified. ( By the way, almost always, you can trump the counter-measures by using a more powerful divination, and there are more and less powerful counter-measures. Counter-measures aren’t perfect and permanent, and each have different limitations.) Whether or not they are used, or how powerful the spells that are used are, do provide clues about the enemies’ resources.

    Going around casting the same spell on all potential enemies is not particularly interesting or clever. Players (and opponents) get plenty of mileage out of divination magic, even with counter-measures. So I do not feel guilty if I don’t make it perfectly reliable, especially since they know the limitations and act accordingly.

  17. Joshua says:

    A better solution is to not have divination magic, or at least not have it work in problematic ways. You already said that in your world most people don’t have an alignment, because it’s a result of a pact with a supernatural creature. It hardly makes espionage completely impossible if it can’t be carried out by demons and paladins. They’re both of them just going to have to rely on somebody without that handicap. More work for the Rogues.

    As an aside, I don’t get how you think it’s sensible that magical traps are concealed from detect magic but ought to somehow be detectable by Rogues; besides making me wonder exactly what procedure they’re using to detect the trap, it seems particularly arbitrary, since there’s no logical reason that magical trap designers ought to be worried about niche preservation.

    Be that as it may, I’m not particularly concerned with anything except alignment detection. The interaction of divination versus spells that are intended to fool the senses is going to involve arbitrary decisions about which one trumps the other anyway. If you want to make illusions not be trumped by Detect Magic, it strikes me as simpler to say that illusions fool Detect Magic than to say that any smart illusionist casts Magic Aura on top of the illusion, but that’s six of one vs. half-a-dozen of the other. (If you were serious about niche preservation and Rogue’s purview, it seems that you would want it the other way around, so that non-magical disguise would clearly have its use, but whatever.)

    If casting Detect Alignment on potential enemies who you suspect are supernatural creatures in disguise isn’t interesting or clever, so be it. Searching for traps whenever the players suspect a trap probably isn’t particularly interesting or clever either, but I worry more about whether having had a correct suspicion the players get to act in sensible ways upon that suspicion even if it’s not as entertaining for the GM as having the trap go off.

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