Friday, January 20, 2012

Alignment Change

The other day something happened at our gaming table that really got me thinking about alignment.  I was running a 1e game for two players.  They were in a dungeon and came upon a wounded wizard with two wands at his side.  He was bleeding to death and asked them for help.  He said if they saved his life he would give them one of his wands.  Instead, one of the PC's (who is, I believe, chaotic neutral) said "I backstab him and take his wands."  The other player didn't join in the backstab, but he didn't try to stop it either.  If I recall, I think he is also CN.

I must confess that I was utterly F'ing flabbergasted!  I said "OK, you backstab him.  He is dead.  You are now both Chaotic Evil in alignment.  Please adjust your character sheet accordingly."  This definitely surprised both players.

We then had a series of emails afterwards that sort of went like this:
  • The players expressed surprise at my decision, saying that a forced alignment change was too extreme since one incident does not equate to a "pattern of behavior."
  • I said that it may have only been one incident, but it was so contemptably evil and utterly malicious that no PC could call himself anything but evil for murdering and robbing an innocent, wounded guy.
  • The players also argued that only the guy who committed the backstab committed an evil act.  The other guy, by doing nothing to stop him, was playing in character as CN.  (In fact, I think this is a valid argument)
There are also some other behind the scenes aspects that I can't share.  But in general, do you think I overreacted?  Or would you have done the same thing?

This also got me thinking about alignment in general.  And the more I think about it, the less I like it.  I prefer my fantasy settings to have more gray area, more nuances to behavior and personality.  Look at Conan.  He was morally ambiguous at times.  Hell, he may have committed a few evil acts in the name of the greater good.  Same with Solomon Kane.  He murdered people in his own vigilante style to advance a cause. 

I think constraining PCs with labels takes away the ability of players to roleplay them as normal human beings.  And let's face it, normal human beings have moments of greed, stubbornness, lust, envy and cruelty.

By the way, I decided that I was being too harsh and that I reacted withouth thinking it through.  So I reversed my alignment change decision for both PCs but told them to consider it a warning and that another such incident would constitute a pattern in my mind.

By the way, my players read this blog and they are really great gamers.  This was very much an isolated thing.

Have you ever had a situation where you (or your DM) forced an alignment change? 


  1. I've found that players often equate "chaotic neutral" with "do whatever the hell I want without fear of reprisal."

    Premeditated killing of a wounded dying man just to take his stuff = evil.

  2. Here, point them toward this:

  3. I, too, think the argument of the other player is right. Depends on the situation, did he see that coming and did nothing? Ok, that's probably an evil act, but not an evil ACT... Or was he (or could at least claim to be in character) surprised as well? Then it's totally ok for a CN being to comment it ("Hey! Take his wands, if you must, but don't kill him!") and move on.

    I don't care too much about alignments in my games... so, no forced alignment changes I could think of. Maybe in the 80s? ;)

  4. Sniderman - that's a very cool writeup on your link. Pretty interesting how much thought went into that essay on Chaotic Neutral.

    Rorsch - I agree with you about alignment in general. What I did (the forced alignment change) was out of character because normally I don't care too much about alignment.

    By the way, there is another side to this whole thing that mitigates what the players did, so this is more of an "academic" question I'm asking.

  5. Only if dictated by the rules. I do write such rules for some items.

  6. If it were me, and I were trying to play AD&D strictly (that is, as intended by St. Gary), I would say (out loud to the player) this is your first milestone on the journey towards chaotic evil. Two more and you will be all the way there.

    I very much like to give players feedback about the results of their actions. Sometimes I will tack on a "2 in 6 chance of X, are you sure?" before letting the action go through, but in this case I'm not sure they should get a chance to take it back (unless it was an obvious joke).

    Side note: why do you need to "backstab" a dying person to kill them?

    Personally, I prefer alignment to be more about cosmic forces (like Moorcock, LotFP, or the Bible) rather than about codes of behavior. Working on a post about that, actually.

  7. Brendan - I'm looking forward to your post.