How to Use Alignments as Motivation

I start this article with a confession: I don’t really like alignment. I tend not to use it, either as a player or GM. In my mind it doesn’t add much, only serving as an opaque label for whole swathes of roleplaying fodder.

Compare “I love my kingdom, despite its faults” to “I am Lawful Neutral”. The alignment adds nothing interesting to this description. Even worse when it is used in place of it.

Anyway, rather than simply hate it for the rest of time, I started thinking about ways I could make it a bit more interesting.

Domain-dependent Alignment

Ever think that alignments are too simplistic? Let’s use them in a new way to give characters some more depth.

Domain dependence is the idea that people might apply one tool or perspective to one part of your life and a different one for different parts. The classic example, to quote Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is:

‘The same doctor might recommend exercise so you “get tougher”, and a few minutes later write a prescription for antibiotics in response to a trivial infection so you “don’t get sick”.’

Humans are riddled with contradictions, though we always seem consistent to ourselves. Given this, how likely is it that a character will be, only and always, Lawful Evil?

An example: a successful merchant. City councils, militias, even the local merchant guilds are nothing but obstacles to his free-market capitalism. He makes a good living despite the authorities, never because of them, and he makes enough money to sell goods below cost to the city’s poor. At home, he is the head of the household – he will provide for his children but he expects their loyalty and respect in turn.

What is the merchant’s alignment?

As a businessman, he is probably Chaotic Good. As a family man, he seems more Lawful Good. Is there a contradiction? Absolutely. Is it unrealistic? Absolutely not.

Give it a go with your character. No pairing of alignments is too ridiculous, because no character is too ridiculous – think of the villain bent on destroying the world who thinks his precious Fluffy is simply adorable.

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Misalignment as Conflict

All drama is conflict. At its simplest, a campaign is a conflict between the party and the villain, but the rogue haggling with a merchant is also conflict. Conflict is the interaction of two agents with different goals, purposes or values.

Alignments are ripe for this.

The details will differ if you are a player or GM, but the general idea is the same. Start with a character – if you are a player, it’s your PC. If you are a GM, make it a key NPC. Maybe not the main villain but, say, a powerful rival.

Now, think of an organisation associated with this character. They might be a member or perhaps they once were. The organisation might be a family, a group of adventurers, a cult, a town or a thieves’ guild.

Next, randomly assign an alignment to both. Yes, it has to be random. Yes, pick one even if your character already has an alignment. Don’t worry, this isn’t permanent.

Now the fun part:

How would a character of alignment X see an organisation of alignment Y?

How would an organisation of alignment Y see a character of alignment X?

Answer these two questions and you have your conflict. Throw away these alignments – you won’t be needing them again.

Some examples

How does a Neutral Good character view a Lawful Good organisation? The Character will see the Organisation as fanatical, oppressive, illogical and cruel. The Organisation will see the Character as soft, naïve, inviting corruption by tolerating weakness.

Read the above paragraph carefully. Although both alignments are Good, there is no reference to it. In fact, it would apply equally as well to a Neutral Evil character and Lawful Evil organisation.

Conflict is driven by differences. Even small differences seem enormous when on opposing sides. This is what makes the dynamic between them interesting.

Another example: a Lawful Evil character and a Chaotic Neutral organisation. The Character seems ambitious, ruthless, intolerant, while the Organisation seems lazy and self-interested.

What if these alignments are both the same? There can still be conflict, of course. For example, how do two Lawful Good entities see each other? One is probably fanatical, the other is misguided. There’s nothing to say that this conflict isn’t based on hypocrisy, after all.

Fuelling the Flames

This dynamic – whether in the past or ongoing – motivates the character. The degree to which this conflict shapes the character depends upon its intensity:

  • Low – the Character and Organisation disagree, but are still able to work together for a common purpose. For example, a soldier who disagrees with the actions of his generals may still serve out of duty, ambition or the need for a paycheck.
  • Moderate – the Character and Organisation want to part ways. If they are unable to separate, they are still able to work together, though arguments are common. For example, a son might plan of leaving his family’s farm, but only after the next harvest.
  • High – the Character and Organisation are in violent opposition, seeking to undermine each other where possible. An example would be a priestess who turns against her order and everything it stands for.

The intensity is up to you. Greater misalignments do not necessarily lead to bigger conflicts – sometimes, the small differences are the ones that are intolerable.

Using Alignment Conflict in Your Game

Starting with a single character, we added an organisation and a specific conflict to their backstory. Not only does this add to character motivation, it creates a wealth of material for future encounters.

One final example to demonstrate:

Saldia is a Lawful Good paladin. Following the above, she gets a temporary alignment of Chaotic Neutral. Her organisation, her family, rolls Neutral.

Saldia (Chaotic Neutral) sees her family (Neutral) as boring and cowardly, seemingly eager to tolerate tyrants and thugs.

Her family sees her as impulsive, intolerant and ungrateful for the life they tried to offer her.

Let’s say the conflict is moderate. Sadia cared about the evil and suffering in the world, so she took up a sword and joined a holy order. Her family sees this as a betrayal. They have not spoken since.

This is a simple backstory. But it fits well with a paladin, even though it feels at odds with Lawful Good. Use alignments, but don’t be trapped by them.

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