Screwtape's Notepad

Why should your RPG campaign include character alignment?

Today I was listening to a podcast about tabletop role-playing games and how tastes have changed since the 1970s. At one point, one of the hosts made an offhand comment about what a terrible idea character alignment was, and how great it is that nobody bothers with it anymore. Now, I haven’t played in campaigns that made good use of alignment, and I haven’t yet managed to bring alignment into campaigns I’ve run, but it’s something I’m looking forward to, and I figured I should write about why.

Why should your RPG campaign include a central tension?

As Matt Colville is so fond of saying, an RPG campaign is a story, stories require drama, and drama is all about tension and release. Technically, you don’t need a central tension, any old tension will do, but if your story keeps lurching from one unrelated tension to another, it’s going to feel disconnected and arbitrary.

If your campaign has a good central tension, every encounter, every session and every adventure will feel like part of a whole thing. A good central tension also provides an unending supply of conflicts for your players to get involved in.

What makes a good central tension?

A central tension needs to be big enough that the player’s characters won’t be able to resolve it themselves. It could be a conflict between city-states, nations, or empires, or better yet a conflict between ideas, or a conflict that’s part of the human condition.

A central tension needs to have positive qualities at both ends. If neither choice is clearly better than the other, the players will have to think about what they want to do in any given situation, and the consequences of their actions on the world, and that encourages them to be more immersed in it.

A central tension should be about cultural or moral values. If picking a side is a matter of taste, most people are happy to live and let live. However, people form strong opinions about how other people should behave, so if you can trigger that response in your players, that will increase their investment and immersion.

A central tension should be relatable, but abstract. If it’s clearly a specific real-world tension (like specific real-world political parties or religions) players will feel they’re being preached at, but if it’s too abstract, they won’t understand or won’t care.

Good examples of central tensions might include:

But these would be bad examples:

A central tension becomes an alignment

I suggested above that your campaign should have a central tension, but of course it already has one: nearly every story told in the Western European tradition implicitly includes the tension of “good versus evil” — or perhaps (if you want to be more sophisticated) “altruism versus selfishness”.

Even if you don’t particularly want to explore that tension yourself, your players will still take a position on that axis, judge characters’ actions against it, and make decisions based on those judgements. Since it’s going to influence your campaign either way, you might as well take it into account.

If we draw a grid, with good at the top and evil at the bottom, and the tension you actually wanted to explore going from left to right, we wind up with something very much like the classic D&D alignment diagram. If you want a central tension with more than two sides, or you want more than two tensions, that might make for a more nuanced, richer story, but it would also be more complex to manage and more difficult for the players to navigate. Two dimensions is a good number.

What’s alignment good for, anyway?

Whether you intended it or not, your campaign now has an alignment system. What can you do with it?

First, you can create NPCs. Whenever you make an NPC, choose an alignment for them, or just roll for it. Without doing anything else, this NPC now has context: they have an attitude to life and their circumstances, they’re naturally aligned with or against the party, they probably have some allegiances and enemies.

On a larger scale, your world should have organisations associated with at least a couple of opposing points on the alignment grid. They could be political factions in a city, societies in an empire, or even gods in a pantheon (and their followers). Not only does this give you organisations that feel different and have different goals, it also provides reasons for those organisations to come into conflict, giving them cause to hire an adventuring party, or even to come into conflict with the party themselves.

Remember that an organisation’s members are not a monolithic block. Some members will be 100% on board with the organisation’s goals, others will be from neighbouring alignments trying to steer/subvert the organisation in their preferred direction, or just using it to further their own goals. Some members might even have the complete opposite alignment, but they’re participating because they have non-alignment-based ties to it (such as family or friends), because this was the only job they could find, or because they’re not confident enough to stand up for what they believe in.

After you introduce two diametrically-opposed organisations, your players will think of one as “the good guys” and the other as “the bad guys”, giving you an excellent opportunity to keep things fresh by subverting their expectations. In their next adventure, have “the good guys” send them on a mission against a different organisation that’s equally good, but at the opposite end of the left-right axis. Alternatively, have them attacked by a new faction that’s as bad as “the bad guys”, but from the same end of the left-right axis as “the good guys”. Either way, the goal is to stop players from being able to simplify moral decisions into a simple good/bad binary, and encourage them to think about the in-world consequences of their actions, increasing their immersion and investment.

If you can put your party into situations that challenge their assumptions about which are the good guys and which are the bad guys, you might be able to convince them to change their alignment. That gives those characters more interesting arcs than just “levelled up, got stronger”. You might even be able to put them into a situation that mirrors one from the beginning of the campaign, and give them a chance to act differently.

If any of the party actually change their alignment during play, that can have massive consequences. What happens to all the alliances they’ve worked hard to create, when their alignment shifts? They may find themselves alongside the enemies they once fought, their former friends may turn against them, or maybe they’ll be able to convert their friends, tearing apart the organisations they were part of?

But nobody wants the alignment police!

Historically, some players and game masters have assumed alignment was there to stop a character from doing things: “You can’t do that, it’s against your character’s alignment!” As those people quickly figured out, this is not very fun, and I do not suggest you run your games like this.

Instead, I’m proposing that alignment should be something that players might not ever notice, that only really exists inside the game master’s notes. The game master might have opinions about a character’s alignment, and might even ask the player how their character feels about particular characters or events in the game world, but the player never has to sit down and choose an alignment from a list. It’s just a summary of how the character has behaved so far, and expected others to behave, to help you find scenarios that will morally challenge that character.

Of course, some people don’t want moral challenges in their entertainment, they just want to be the goodies and triumph over the baddies. That’s fine, everybody has different tastes. If that’s the game your players want, you don’t need alignment or a central tension or any of this stuff, just have the local goblins kidnap the blacksmith’s son or daughter, and you’re ready to go.

But if your players do want to wrestle with moral challenges, if they relish weighing the consequences of each course of action, they’ll want to be reminded of consequences that their character could see, just as if they were deciding on an acrobatic stunt, they’d want to be reminded of the precipice their character could see. You don’t have to mention the word “alignment”, but you could say something like, “Your character has worked hard to build a reputation for this, are you sure you want to do that so publicly?” or even, “You were sent on this mission by people who trusted you to do this, how do you think they’ll feel about you doing that?”