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.