I’m going to come out of the closet here and admit that I am a fan of the classic D&D alignment system. Maybe fan is a strong word, but I certainly never felt a strong dislike for it. While some see it as restrictive, I see it as a good framework for a character’s basic moral compass and behavior. In real life, I wouldn’t steal, because I think it’s reprehensible. My real-life alignment wouldn’t let me do it, and neither should my PC’s in game alignment if it sways that way. But I’ve digressed from the original intent of this post, which is the (lack of) alignment system in 4e.
In 4e, alignment exists as nothing more than some flavor for the pc’s to sort of, kind of, maybe guide his actions. It allows you to worship certain deities, and pick up a feat or two for the worship of that deity. I think that’s about the usefulness of alignment. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, I’m not a rules lawyer, nor a PC, so I could be wrong. But I think that’s the extent of crunch as far as alignment is concerned. Not much really, in the large scheme of things. So why have it at all? My gut tells me that alignment is a sacred cow they couldn’t really kill. Kind of like the necessity of having 6 ability scores and Magic Missile.
So let’s say you as a DM have a player that is clearly not following his original alignment choice in the way he behaves in your game. What are you to do? Well, the game really doesn’t offer a lot of options. You can warn him, reminding him that he’s not acting per his choice. But so what? Mechanically, what does that mean? At most, you can force him (upon his next leveling up) to retrain one of the divinity feats tied to a particular deity if his worship of that deity doesn’t jive with his actions. That’s about it.
I believe more can be done with the alignment system, beyond what the designers of the game have done, which was basically to neuter the system to the point of near-irrelevance. I think, however, that there is a potential to introduce mechanical uses for alignment that don’t necessarily restrict the PC, or punish him, but rather rewards the player for following his alignment choice at the time of character creation. Simply put, make alignment a keyword in the exception based design of 4e.
Why can’t certain classes include powers in their repertoire that are dependent on a PC being of, and acting, within a certain alignment? Obviously clerics and paladins come to mind. Powers are picked by players, they aren’t assigned, so why not reward players that stick and act to their alignment with some neat powers that are only available to a particular alignment? You choose to be neutral, cleric? Sorry, you don’t have access to “Pelor’s Guiding Light”, or whatever. You get the point. That’s certainly not a game breaker.
The DMG2 introduced boons to the game, and these work mechanically like magical items do. So why not have boons that are only available per alignment. Again, you aren’t forcing PC’s to act a certain way, but rather rewarding those that choose to and you as a dm feel they deserve it. Not having access to a boon because you choose to play a certain alignment isn’t a punishment, or restrictive to players, but rather a reward.
Perhaps some magical items or artifacts can be tied to a particular alignment. Why not? A lawful good dwarven cleric knows that there is a weapon called “Moradin’s F**k-You-Up Hammer”, but alas, it’ll only make itself accessible to Lawful Good clerics, and the artifact’s concordance varies based on the DM’s assessment of how the character’s alignment is being played.
In closing… what I’m suggesting is that the alignment system as presented in 4e doesn’t need to be as abstract as it is, nor should it be a system that puts a straitjacket on players and their actions. Rather, it should be a mechanical part of the game that rewards or encourages players to abide by the alignment choice they made at character creation, without it being a necessary part of the game. You don’t need those powers offered to a particular alignment, but if you do choose it, they are nice to have.
This rant was born this afternoon on twitter, after complaining about some of my players not playing to their alignment, and I figured I should write a post about it. I’d love to hear why I’m wrong and alignment sucks, even if what I’m suggesting is not really a hindrance to players.