Mechanizing alignment

Image derived from Wikipedia

Image derived from Wikipedia

Adam M. recently posted a good piece on deferring the choice of alignment. The idea contained in that post, as I understand it, is mostly narrative; rather than pick an alignment at first level and try to live up to it through character actions, instead make alignment depend upon low-level character actions. Presumably this would then matter somehow during the mid-game or stronghold phase of play, though the post is light on details.

Traditionally, alignment did have several mechanical effects, though only a few of them seem like they would regularly see play. For example, evil or chaotic characters should be affected by spells like protection from evil. However, these effects are few and far between, may not add enough to play for the management hassle, and anyways were largely eclipsed by the way alignment came to be interpreted as something like personality in AD&D and after.

If one is going to defer the choice of alignment, however, why not leverage incentive psychology and make attaining alignment an achievement? One could build something like a skill or feat tree with criteria, either level- or action-based, for gaining status within law, chaos, or whatever moral/allegiance structure underlies the fictional world. Action guidance could be provided by taboos or restrictions, the violation of which might cause an aligned character to fall down a rank. Alignment ranks could also be prerequisites for certain powers or faction benefits in a way that is mechanically transparent to players. Such transparency would make alignment motivational rather than descriptive.

8 thoughts on “Mechanizing alignment

  1. Adam Muszkiewicz

    I think that you’ve got a handle on where I want to go with no alignment at 1st level. In order to MEAN SOMETHING, you should also be ATTAINING SOMETHING. For me, in the games where alignment is going to matter the most, this will likely be something big on the domain game scale.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Yeah, my sense is that you can also tap into multiple player motivations. Like, have some character powers key off alignment achievements and then players who care about character power will care about alignment. Have some domain game features key off alignment achievements and then you have players who are into building the campaign world interested in alignment. And so forth.

  2. Frank Mitchell

    This sounds a LOT like the Allegiance system from _Stormbringer_/_Elric!_ and later _Basic Role Playing_ 2nd Edition and _Magic World_ (all from Chaosium).

    In those games, each alignment — e.g. Law, Balance, Chaos — has a percentile value attached. If the PC takes actions favored by that alignment the Allegiance score of appropriate alignment(s) goes up by a few percentage points. E.g. Saving a village and meting out justice would increase Law, murder and mayhem would increase Chaos, and preserving the natural world would increase Balance. Actions could also decrease Allegiance, especially if favored by an opposing power. When one Allegiance score outpaces all others and reaches 100%, the Power(s) behind that Alignment may give the character special abilities … and missions to fulfill.

    I’ve seen a similar concept with individual alignment graphs. The GM could start each character at True Neutral, and each significant action edges the character in the direction of Good or Evil and/or Law or Chaos. When the character hits a threshold he has a confirmed alignment.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Though I’m only moderately familiar with Stormbringer, I can see the similarity. The only thing I would add is that in a game built around levels, it seems to make sense to plug into that framework, if for no other reason than to maintain parsimony.

  3. Scott Anderson

    I promised myself that the first time I came back to post anything after a seven month absence from the ORC, it would not be a negative.

    Which makes it obvious that it must be one.


    Do we really need– Do we really want– Another mechanical system to define our little men? Lawful means “with Man” and Chaotic means “Against ’em” and Neutral means “none of the above.” That’s as mechanical as I ever want my alignment to be. Even explaining alignment seems like an affront to alignment to me.


    You always come up with something wonderful, so I’m willing to see where you go.

    1. PW Shea

      Is it necessary? That’s hard to say.

      Personally, I find that some players are happy to ignore alignment entirely, others want it and sometimes in great granularity. In the latter of the two categories seem to be three groups of people:

      a. people that simply expect alignment in the same way they expect to be rolling a d20 to hit;
      b. people whose understanding of right and wrong in RPGs is closely informed by trends in modern video game RPGs where being a “good guy” and being a “bad guy” often means something meaningful both in terms of diegetic signalling but also in terms of getting stuff to play with; and
      c. people who simply want something that says, “I am a good guy” or, “I am a thief and therefore think this way about things”

      1. Brendan Post author


        I don’t think it is necessary. Also, personally, I don’t feel any need to satisfy the desires implied by A, B, or C.

        However, I do still think alignment is potentially an interesting hook on which to hang mechanical developments or incentives.

        I’m also not working on anything that could really use something like this at the moment though, so consider it more an idle musing than a plan for future work.

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