This started as a reply to Brian’s comment on my last post, but quickly ballooned into something too big for a comment thread. Brian said he likes my notions on the 3×3 Alignment (thanks, so do I) but he feels like there really needs to be consequences for breaking alignment — “If you’re a lawful good paladin and you strike down an enemy out of anger instead of in the name of your deity, there should be repercussions.”
Generally I agree, but I need to do a lot of unpacking to get at what I mean. There are a lot of things going on with that deceptively simple question. First, yes, there should be repercussions for acting out of alignment; but there should be repercussions for any meaningful action, so this doesn’t really tell us much. What I think Brian means, though, is that D&D has traditionally had mechanical and class-based penalties for breaking out of alignment, and this has traditionally meant that a Paladin can not lie for fear of losing their powers and being reduced to less-than-a-Fighter — how would I deal with that actuality?
I think that there are a few things going on here. There’s how how Alignment affects a class, Alignment affects a character, and how Alignment affects the world. I’ll address them in reverse order.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here: it gets long.
The Uncaring World
How does Alignment affect the world? In short, it doesn’t. That is to say, The World doesn’t care if you’re Chaotic Evil or Lawful Good, if you kill the blacksmith there are going to be consequences. If an Evil Sorcerer kills the diabolical tyrant, the people are still freed and will still cheer. A village will rally a mob over the death of an innocent whether you’re Chaotic or Lawful. These are completely external forces that don’t care what your motivation is or how you feel about your actions (within reason, of course), it’s as close to cause and effect as interpersonal interactions get. (Obviously how the Sorcerer or Knight behaves from that point on will have their own consequences and reactions, but that should go without saying.)
How does Alignment affect the character? In my treatment of Alignment, this is the heart and soul of the system. Alignment is shorthand for the values and perspective that are at the character’s core. They describe how a character is likely to act because, generally, a character is inclined to act in accordance with their core values. What they don’t to is outright proscribe actions; it’s not the case that a lawful character can’t lie, it’s that he isn’t likely to, because honesty and honor are core values for him. The real meat of role-playing comes from internal conflict, and alignment sets up a character for being put in that situation. Acting out of character should require some amount of justification, guilt, and internal dissonance proportionate to the offense, and enduring until the character can make amends in some way. In some cases he may never make amends and that guilt will haunt him throughout his days. He may continually ask himself if he did the right thing or if there was some third path to take.
What should not happen, generally, is that a single action shifts the character’s alignment. This is because doing so is a sign that the character’s core beliefs have been altered, and that doesn’t happen in an instant or overnight. A pattern of acting out of alignment, especially where there’s no remorse or only weak justifications, may be a sign to the DM that a character’s alignment has shifted through the course of events, but I think that almost always an alignment change should be the result of a conscious choice on the part of the character, to abandon his values and take up new ones. This conscious shift should be allowed, but it should also be recognized for the monumental event that it is. This is the Knight choosing to no longer serve, the Cleric who abandons his faith, the Paladin who decides that he will not sacrifice his life to save another’s. At the greatest extreme, it’s deciding that Good is foolish, and a reasonable man chooses to satisfy his own needs first, and to hell with what happens to others.
There should be consequences to this, too, but they should be the consequences of how people react to his new behavior, or to any public proclamations he’s made or oaths he’s broken. Just like with the consequences of The World, the purpose of Alignment is as a role playing tool and aid, and the consequences of alignment are role playing consequences.
By The Power Vested In Me
The last point is the most difficult: how do, or should, Alignment and Class interact? The easy answer is: this is a setting choice. And I think that’s generally true on any aspect of classes — the DM should feel free to treat classes however he likes in his world, up to and including adding or removing requirements, changing features, or restricting them to certain character types. Dwarves can’t be Wizards? Sorcerer’s must be Chaotic? All a DM’s choice.
That’s kind of a cop out, though, and I know it. How would I handle it, since we’re talking about my treatment of Alignment?
As I’ve noted, my treatment of alignment presupposes that it’s a very internal thing, the character’s value system. The alignment requirements of certain classes — Paladins must be Lawful Good, Monks must be Lawful, Clerics must match their Deity — simply tell me what sorts of value systems will lead a person to that class. A Paladin is the embodiment of honor and self-sacrifice; anyone with softer principles simply would never follow through with what it mans to be a paladin. Someone who can’t can’t commit to tradition and authority lacks the discipline necessary to master a Monk’s class.
Are these hard and fast rules? Generally I’d say yes, but it depends on your campaign setting. Maybe your paladins can be lesser men, so long as they dedicate themselves to a god the way a Cleric does. Maybe there’s a Monk school that eschews discipline for rage. But for me, it’s really just a requirement at 1st Level. To be a Monk you must’ve submitted to Law, but once the game begins your character and his values can and should be influenced by the situations he encounters and the deeds he commits.
The last bit, though, is what about the mechanical penalties associated with certain classes? I know Paladins, Clerics, and Barbarians fall into this category, I don’t know if anyone else does. I think this is also a call that the DM needs to make, and it’s a matter of how you want things to work in your game. If gods actively hear and response to Cleric’s requests for spells, then it makes sense for them to lose their abilities if they offend their god (by abandoning their values). If instead Clerics are ritually imbued with divine power and a god has little say in the matter after that, then it makes sense that a fallen priest of Pelor could still sanction undead even if he’s turned Chaotic Evil and serves Orcus. Maybe a Barbarian who shifts to Lawful can’t Rage, but more likely he simply won’t because doing so means losing himself and violating his new dedication to order. Maybe Raging is a sin that wracks a Lawful Barbarian with guilt the same way a Good character feels when he’s forced to kill someone.
And what of this one?
So what happens in my world when a Lawful Good Paladin kills someone in anger? It depends. Most likely, he realizes what he’s done, is crippled with guilt, and goes on some quest in hopes of making amends with the world, himself, and his god. Possibly, he slips from Lawful to Neutral (or Chaos, if extreme enough) if he decides that he was justified, or he slips from Good to Neutral (or Evil) if his moment of weakness opens his eyes to the expediency of the act. But it’s unlikely that I’ll take away his powers: it’s more interesting for me if former allies have to hunt down a Fallen Paladin rather than merely having him become a wretched has-been.
So there’s a half-baked version of my approach to the larger questions of Alignment; what say you?