How important is alignment? Does it serve a practical purpose in D&D , or does it just take up room on the character sheet? The alignment mechanic underwent significant changes when 4e D&D was launched. The traditional or classic view of alignment was turned on its head. Nine alignments were pared down to only five; and two of the remaining alignments are, for the most part, off limits to players. So with only three real choices remaining does alignment even matter? Is this just a carryover from previous editions that no longer has a place in D&D?
As a player and a DM I believe that alignment is a vitally important part of every character sheet and that it doesn’t get nearly enough attention. In fact I’m extremely dissatisfied with how alignment is handled in 4e D&D.
In the early editions of D&D alignment was a big deal. You choose an alignment and were expected to play to those ideals. Some classes offered very little flexibility (like the old-school Paladin who had to be lawful good or else) while others had choices curtailed with some restrictions (Rogues had to be of non-good alignment). Now players can choose any alignment, regardless of class or race. It’s unfortunate that as the reigns loosened the choices disappeared.
Until D&D 4e we had nine alignments: lawful good, lawful neutral, lawful evil, neutral good, neutral, neutral evil, chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and chaotic evil. Now we only have five alignments: lawful good, good, neutral (now called unaligned), chaotic evil and evil. So what happened? Are there no more good characters with chaotic tendencies? Are their no more evil characters who believe in order?
In a system that provides more choices for feats, classes, races and powers than any previous editions of D&D they’ve eliminated choices for alignment. I think this is a powerful (albeit subtle) statement from Wizards of the Coast that alignment isn’t as important in 4e as it once was in previous editions.
These simplified alignments now cover so much ground that it’s nearly impossible for a player to stray outside of the boundaries of his chosen alignment. Good and evil are so all-encompassing that you’d have to do something pretty extreme to be called for not playing your alignment.
When you create your character you choose an alignment. The alignment is intended to be a guide and not a straight-jacket. It’s a moral compass that should help you when role-playing your PC. That’s not to say that you can’t act outside of the boundaries of your chosen alignment, but these instances should be the rare exceptions and not the norm.
Choosing an alignment isn’t as permanent as choosing a race or a class, but it’s pretty close. The alignment you choose represents the accumulated experiences of your PC before you begin running him at level 1. In most cases this represents 20 or more years in this character’s life. Beliefs and morals learned and developed over a lifetime aren’t usually changed lightly or quickly. But sometimes alignments do change. Here are the three most common ways for a character to change alignment.
This is the most extreme method of change. Donning a cursed item, being dominated by an evil creature or inadvertently taking part in a ritual are all examples of how an unwitting PC could have his alignment changed forcefully and against his will. It’s rare, but it happens.
After choosing a starting alignment, the player intentionally decided to change his PC’s alignment by playing the character differently. This isn’t something that usually happens right off the bat. It’s a gradual shift based on this PC’s experiences during the campaign. The things they’ve seen, the people they’ve met or the deeds they’ve done have opened their eyes to a new way of looking at the world around them.
Although you’ve chosen a particular alignment for your PC, the way you’ve chosen to role-play the PC is more in keeping with a different alignment. This is usually due to carelessness by the player. They either don’t realize they’re acting outside of their alignments comfort zone or they just don’t care. After crossing the line one too many times the DM informs the player that his character must change his alignment to match his actions.
In 4e D&D there are no in-game repressions for changing your alignment. Whether your alignment has changed because you want it to or whether it’s changed because you haven’t been playing the one listed on your character sheet, there is no down side.
In previous editions of D&D there was a substantial penalty if your alignment changed by choice or by accident. A PC who changed alignment in AD&D 2e needed to earn twice the normal amount of XP before he could advance to the next level. In the original AD&D 1e you lost a level and were reduced to the minimum number of XP of that lower level. Until recently it was a huge deal if you didn’t stick to your alignment. Now it’s not even worth noting.
The idea of penalizing PCs for changing their alignment seems pretty harsh given the say yes mentality of 4e D&D. Rather than punishing players who don’t play to their alignment I prefer to reward players who do. For example, those who play within the framework of their alignment and work it into the role-playing gain significant bonuses to relevant skill checks during skill challenges. On rare occasions I’ll even award additional XP for making tough decisions and playing your alignment despite pressure not to.
Alignment in Your Game
Even though alignment has been diluted in 4e D&D, it’s still a part of every character. It may not resonate as all that important to players, especially newer players, but it should. When you’re creating a new character his alignment should be the first place you look when figuring out how to play this PC. Obviously there’s a lot of flexibility within a given alignment, but a PC that’s lawful good and a PC that’s unaligned (neutral) should look at the world differently. They don’t have to be at odds, but there should be some opposing view points.
The importance of alignment needs to be emphasized by the DM. Remind players that they have an alignment (many forget, believe it or not) and be sure that they play within the boundaries that alignment represents. Ensure that your NPCs havean alignment and be sure to work within that framework as they interact with the PCs. Not every NPC need be evil, but even those that are will behave very differently if they’re chaotic evil or just plain evil.
What are your thoughts on alignment? How important is alignment is your game? What rewards do you think are appropriate for role-playing your alignment correctly? What about suitable penalties for not playing your alignment correctly? Do we even need alignment beyond just good and evil in D&D?