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D&D Alignments: Or why it's hard to be lawful good in RPGs

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Who is the most interesting Avenger?

Ok, so we can automatically edit out Hawkeye. Out of the remaining five, from a narrative point of view my money is on Captain America; being Steve Rogers is a tough gig.

How so you ask? Isn't he strong, noble and blessed with an instinct for leadership?

Yes, all these things are true, but his nobility itself is the seed of dramatic tension. How does one remain good in a world so morally compromised and cyncial. How does an individual suited to a Manichean world of black and white, binary opposites exist when there are infinate shades of grey?

Throughout the films, he struggles to hold true to his moral core, he doesn't betray his friend (Bucky), but at the price of turning on his other friend (Tony Stark).

He doesn't trade lives in Avengers: Infinity War, but has to contend with his defeat at the end. He won't compromise when the state wants to regulate the Avengers, having become far more jaded as a result of his experiences with Shield/Hydra, and is prepared to fight his former comrades in order to complete the mission his moral compass says is right.

Some players see 'good' characters as boring, but the above example is anything but dull. A lawful good character in D&D has set certain rigid parameters around them, codes of honour, conduct and ethics that mean some choices are not available to them, and sometimes their codes must be broken at great cost to the character.

There is a tendency to instinctively flinch from a character that doesn't have complete freedom of action. A character that doesn't steal, abuse prisoners, that keeps their word even if that causes them to be inconvenienced, a character that will stick to their principles; all of this can feel like a straightjacket to some players but there is in fact multiple reasons why it makes for great character development.

  • The road of honour is harder to tread: Steve Rogers, Aragorn, Bruce Wayne, three of the loneliest characters in fantasy fiction. In all three cases they carry a burden of duty and are loners because of it. Bruce Wayne will not kill his enemies because that makes him like the monster that took his parents. Aragorn knows that he must stay away from power itself, knowing that he is Isildur's heir and that poor decision making sometimes runs in the family. He knows who is people are and their role in fighting against the evils of Middle Earth. Finally, Steve Rogers himself is a man out of time, frozen and thawed out in the 21st Century with only the principals he went to war with in 1941 to navigate by. Why play a lonely hero, who struggles to find their place or role in the world? Because the character has a journey if you do. There is a clearly defined arc for all three characters as they try to contend with their otherness and difference and put down the burden of duty. This is more interesting than a character whose sole motivation is to acquire sacks of loot.

  • The character does harder stuff: If played right, the lawful good player takes harder decisions than others do, or inspires other players to become more honourable and decent. This, from a GM's perspective, can lead characters into some far more interesting circumstances than if they were simply being self serving. Interesting campaigns are far more often based around the need to serve a greater purpose than simply looking after and enriching the party. Characters who have been around for a long, long time and need to be retired can even go out with a bang and sacrifice themselves in the interests of the greater good. Why is doing the harder stuff a good thing I hear you ask? Shouldn't my character, in the interests of self preservation try to take the easy road whenever it is presented? You can have characters like that, and this is the point of thinking of them as 'characters' with different personalities, drives and motivations. However, if every PC is as amoral and self serving as each other, things become tedious and dull very quickly. (similarly, an entire party of Steve Rogers would also be a joyless fun desert too, so it's all about balance and role playing to the character).

  • Dilemmas reveal the truth about us: Being good when things are going well is easy, it's when we are visited with impossible situations that things become interesting. When does a moral code break down? When a player is forced to make a decision between the rules that his knightly order demand of them and the need to listen to their conscience, what do they do? Do they throw aside their order and become a Ronin? Do they have to fight their former comrades? Do they betray a religion or a god they have sworn to serve in order to answer to their deepest selves?

From a DM's perspective, the trick is to make 'goodness' enough of a challenge to give characters definition, meaning and agency, but not to make the experience of role playing onerous and suffocating. Having obligations and duties placed on the character which means that the player has to consider what the character would actually do and how they would actually behave can make for some really interesting and nuanced game play. Steve Rogers without his moral code is just a pumped up asshole jock, and no D&D player in their right mind actually wants to swap Captain America for Biff from Back to the Future.

If you found this quick read through alignments interesting, check out our Arclands (5th edition) newsletter here

Also, if you're tired of reading about good guys, check out our article on how to create D&D villains here

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