Alignment In Worldbuilding

Alignment In Worldbuilding

What if the chaotic actions of the hero cause harm despite their good intentions? Consequences are part of the worldbuilding and within the Dungeon Master (DM)’s control as a result the DM should have a sense of how to handle them.

The Big 9

The following is a basic layout for what alignments are skip if you’re a big nerd and already know this stuff.

For those of you uninitiated with Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) there’s a morality system. It exists along two spectra Good vs Evil (with neutral in the middle) and Law vs Chaos (with neutral in the middle) with characters choosing some combination from each. For the mathier among us you’ll see that there are 9 total alignments possible.

If you haven’t already seen this meme template, that’s where it comes from. You’re welcome.

According to D&D the difference between good and evil is the following:

  • Good implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others.
  • Evil implies harming, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient or if it can be set up. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some malevolent deity or master.
  • People who are neutral with respect to good and evil have compunctions against killing the innocent but lack the commitment to make sacrifices to protect or help others. Neutral people are committed to others by personal relationships.

Law and Chaos with this:

  • Law implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability. Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behavior creates a society in which people can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should.
  • Chaos implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility. Those who promote chaotic behavior say that only unfettered personal freedom allows people to express themselves fully and lets society benefit from the potential that its individuals have within them.
  • Someone who is neutral with respect to law and chaos has a normal respect for authority and feels neither a compulsion to follow rules nor a compulsion to rebel. They are honest but can be tempted into lying or deceiving others if it suits them.

So that’s the primer. This is how alignment essentially works according to the players manual.

Why should I care?

After all. You’re the worldbuilder right? What does it matter what alignment your players choose? I’m glad that I asked for you.

Worldbuilding isn’t just about creating something fits nicely with what your players are doing. It’s about contrasting with their choices. In this case if a player chooses good there must be evil for them to fight, if chaos there must be law that they’re bucking against. In essence, alignment is also a worldbuilding question, one you will have to answer as you unleash your players on your unsuspecting world. It’s also a way to help categorize your players’ characters and get an early sense of how they like to get things done and can give you clues as to the types of consequences you may wish to mete out. Remember the world isn’t clockwork snow globe perfection things don’t just happen in it because you think it’s hyper realistic there’s a story being told and you and your players will have tons more fun if you grapple with that truth rather than bucking against it. Sure the chaotic neutral rogue might steal some silverware when given the opportunity. They might even get to do it ‘relatively’ consequence free if they’re good at it. But if your lawful good fighter is the one who stands watch they may have lingering feelings of guilt, it might behoove you to have a servant come and ask them questions later. The player may ignore the pangs of guilt until the servant turns and reveals wicked lash marks in their clothes. It turns out the local lord’s vengeance has fallen on his servants. Your move ‘lawful good’. These sorts of scenarios create great tension not just around characters but within them. They may cause your fighter to reject their course of action and try to make it right, or make different choices in the future.

I think this can be done effectively for a chaotic character as well. In theory a commitment to chaos should have your character caring little for the law (though they may still be aware of consequences but more on that later). Challenge them specifically with laws that would tweak their noses especially laws they’ll see as pointless. As a matter of public law all peasants must cast a single penny into the fountain on Thursdays. Your chaotic neutral rogue might throw a coin in the fountain to avoid offense only to be mocked by the local thieves guild who spotted them doing it. They could be seen as a ‘joiner’ and not considered for high tier jobs until they prove themselves. Real consequences for behavior that feel narratively powerful but also can make planning far easier for your adventures. Sure, you may have already planned for that thieves guild job but framing it now as ‘it’s low level cause we think you’re a patsy’ is a deeply satisfying way to draw out player emotions and lightly antagonize their characters the way every good DM should.

So that’s it. My first crack at ‘why alignments’. I’ll be doing a little more about baking in consequences soon.

About the Author
James lives somewhere in Pennsylvania with his wife and baby boy. He is an avid distance runner who really gets a kick out of talking to folks. His biggest asset might be his thorough enjoyment of people.

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