What’s Your Favourite Alignment System?

What’s Your Favourite Alignment System?

A lot of games these days have a pretty standard two-pole alignment system: You’re evil, or you’re good. Hero or villain. Paragon or a Renegade. Jedi or Sith. Which is good and all, but once you leave the realms of childhood and politics behind, you realise that the world is more complex than goodies and baddies. People are more complex. You need an alignment system that captures this complexity and lets you roleplay better.

Chaotic Good? Lawful Evil? Somewhere in between?

dungeon master Image: Kotaku

Dungeon & Dragon’s 3×3 alignment system is one of the other archetypes. On one axis, Good-Evil. On the other, Law-Chaos. On one hand, the alignment system makes a certain sort of sense. An honourable true paladin really ought to be Lawful-Good.

Having a rogue be Chaotic-Good is a way to explain how someone who steals for a living might consider themselves a Robin Hood sort of character. One of the former editors of Gizmodo told me he constantly used the D&D alignment system figure out people.

On that scale, I’m definitely chaotic-something.

But it’s a bit constricting, as well.

Having done a lot of online, writing-based role-playing recently (I play on Storium), my role-playing has shifted towards developing character and telling story, rather than solving puzzles and defeating monsters.

So I’ve found the Good-Neutral-Evil / Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic schema of D&D to be too constricting when trying to portray a good, well-rounded characters.

Real people are a mess of conflicted emotions and feelings. We do virtuous things and sinful things all at once. We do noble things for selfish motives and atrocities with the highest of intentions. That’s hard to capture when your D&D alignment is a relatively static thing.

In one D&D group, we debated about whether me role-playing my profit-focused former con artist-come-mage was really chaotic neutral (I do whatever the hells I want, and yes, I’ll take the money if no-one else is looking) or neutral evil. And it was an odd debate because my character was entirely self-consistent, but didn’t precisely fit in a good D&D box.

One of the things I appreciated about Planescape: Torment was that it made my alignment fluid. If I started acting too chaotically, it would shift me in that direction. If I started behaving noble and charitably, I’d move towards the good alignment. Baldur’s Gate featured a similar thing in a more dramatic fashion, and “turning” Viconia or Anomen were thoroughly enjoyable sideplots.

I guess in real life, sometimes people do have “Damascus experience”, and at other times, they change their lives slowly, step by step.

Numenera’s Tides System

Image: Tides of Numenera, Kickstarter campaign.

One of the most interesting aspects of Torment: Tides of Numenera was the entirely different alignment system that placed the five tides at right angles to Good or Evil per se.

You align to a tides based on how you are perceived, irrespective of your motivations. As far as the tides are concerned, being greedy and being thrifty are the same side of the same Silver coin.

Someone who selflessly gives money to charity for the greater good, and someone who gives for the public recognition are both regarded as Gold.

  • The Blue Tide is for people who want to seek knowledge or enlightenment.
  • The Red Tide is for people who seek passion, emotion, and zeal, and reject restraint and imprisonment.
  • The Indigo Tide represents justice, and compromise and the greater good.
  • Gold Tide: charity, sacrifice, empathy.
  • Silver Tide: admiration, power and fame.

For a video game, this was an excellent design decision methinks, because it doesn’t try to double-guess your moral choices underlying your character actions. Tides of Numenera, just like its illustrious forbear Planescape: Torment, are very much about pushing the role-playing limits of the underpinning role-playing system.

If you’re curious, here is a breakdown of how different tides would answer different questions, prepared by the good folk at inXile.

The Harry Potter Houses

This is the other system that always comes up. It has it’s flaws — such as the fact that one house clearly says “Hero” and another “Villain”. But there’s a moment of realisation that most young people come to — when they realise it’s quite okay not to belong to Gryffindor.

After all, Harry’s friends have the great Hufflepuff trait of loyalty, and I’m with the crowd that think Hermione should really by Ravenclaw (I don’t care if you disagree, come at me bro). And as James Potter’s gang of four prove, celebrating bravery can just as easily turn to bullying.

I’ve also been appreciative of several HP fanfics that try to cast Slytherin in a more nuanced light than merely “the evil house” — one can be equally ambitious to help others as to serve oneself. Just because all Death Eaters come from one house mean nothing other than that Death Eaters recruited those they knew and trusted. Right? Right.

Anyway, it might not surprise you to know that I consistently poll Slytherin. #sodamnedSlytherin and proud.

Anyway, if you need a refresher, I’ll let the Sorting Hat sort you out:

By Gryffindor, the bravest were
Prized far beyond the rest;
For Ravenclaw, the cleverest
Would always be the best;
For Hufflepuff, hardworkers were
Most worthy of admission;
And power-hungry Slytherin
Loved those of great ambition.
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

It’s okay to be Hufflepuff. We’ll let you serve us *evil grin*.

The Divergent Trilogy

Here's a handy chart introducing newbies to the factions

The very excellent young adult novel by Veronica Roth, Divergent (which was then followed up by two less-than-excellent but still-readable novels Insurgent and Allegiant, and a movie trilogy that became exceedingly far from awesome), presented a very neat system of alignments in a very bizarre setting.

Society has been broken up into five different tribes or factions. Come adolescence, teenagers take an aptitude test, and then take part in a Choosing Ceremony, where they choose which faction they want to join.

If you have a world-building sort of mind and you read the book trying to figure out exactly how such a world comes about, you may become somewhat frustrated, because you’ll think there’s no way such society would come to this sort of arrangement so naturally.

Finding out the arcane history of this system is very much the journey of Tris (short for Beatrice) as she discovers and upends her world, but the short answer is, it does make sense. Exactly how would be spoilers, so I’ll stop talking now.

Long story short, there are five factions in Divergent, and as archetypes they seem slightly more balanced than the Hogwarts Houses. They are:

  • Abnegation, for the selfless;
  • Amity, for the peaceful;
  • Candor, for the honest;
  • Dauntless, for the brave; and
  • Erudite, for the intellectual.

That sounds all well and good, but each of the factions are excessive caricatures of their virtues. Abnegation are so selfless that access to mirrors is rationed.

You wouldn’t want to look too beautiful to make others feel bad. And Dauntless take bravery to the point of permanent adolescent idiocy. For instance, their primary mode of transport is train-jumping. Amity bring peace by supplying happy drugs in the water. Actually.

But I digress.

What’s your favourite alignment system? One of the above? Something else entirely?


  • As with, say, personality classifications and tests in psychology, no system could ever been deep enough to capture the complexity of all sentient beings, their motivations etc. whilst also fulfilling the purpose of neatly categorising people. All the systems mentioned in the article are too simplistic to capture enough complexity, but simple enough to allow us to understand characters and people at a somewhat basic level. Granted, this is usually sufficient for the vast majority of characters in most media, as we often rely on archetypal characters, stereotypes, and tropes. Anyway, to answer the question, I favour the D&D alignment system but expanded to a 5×5 grid to add a little extra depth.

    • Haha. Speaking psychology, I would love to see a video game that does your personality test (see @AlexWalker’s article on Jagged Alliance) and gives you a Myers Briggs alignment.

      Probably too real.

      • I think some of the ultima games did something like that, and I vaguely recall an indie game trying to do that. But they all have their limits. Even personally psychology has struggled to develop a strong system that lives up to expectations. It’s actually a lot more useful to understand people in terms of social identity rather than individual personality.

        • You are correct. Actually, most of the Ultima games did that (back when they were still good. U9 is dead to me.)

          There were a bunch of morality questions which sorted you into one of the 8 virtues (honesty, valor, compassion, justice, sacrifice, honor, humility and spirituality). And generally you were trying to max out your score on all 8 virtues to embody (re-embody) being the Avatar.

  • Fallout 3,fallout nv, Mass effect.

    Fallout 4 was ruined the moment I found out it had no karma. it was so hard for me to take anything I did in the game seriously. Fallout 3 was my first fallout

    • Good choices, when the illusion of choice breaks like it did in Fallout 4 it’s a drag. You could either help then or come back and help later. The raider DLC was cathartic at least after having to play the whole game good.

    • It occurred to me after I wrote this that Mass Effect actually has two axes: Paragon-Renegade, and Shaggability.

    • I liked the Fallout 4 system they added for how your companions react to your actions. It makes sense that some people would approve of things like you hustling people for extra money whilst still disapproving of you eating babies.

      But there should have also been reputations with individual factions/settlements.

  • Whatever reputation system was running in the back of Fallout 2. Post patch. It’s been emulated over and over, but felt right on the money back then.

  • I welcome any and all reminders that the Black and White games exist, even if its only a picture and the article doesn’t mention it. Generally speaking it was always easier and more fun to be evil in those games but I almost always veered towards trying to be good simply because of how repulsively malevolent your towns/creatures/godhand ended up looking.

    For the record I was a fan of the Creature alignment system specifically because it wasn’t JUST good and evil. You could also teach it to be pointlessly weird. you will weight-lift COWS ONLY. Don’t eat them though, your on a fish only diet my friend. Don’t forget to set fire to boulders with magic for no good reason on your way to the ocean.

    Otherwise I really like how Pillars of Eternity II handles alignment where it keeps track of your responses to determine how your character is viewed (make a lot of stoic responses and some NPCs will treat you as a fairly serious humorless fellow for example) as well as how the different factions like you.

    • Yes. I like that PoE system too. I think it was also in Tyranny, where you were clearly Evil, but the *type* of evil you were mattered.

      • Oh yes. Tyranny doesn’t get enough love for how well it pulled off it’s factions and morality. Pretty much every faction had multiple ways of approaching their philosophies that could make you varying degrees of justified in your actions. I hope they keep that series going, the first one ended just as it was gettin good.

  • The D&D alignment chart works if you understand that it isn’t this rigid box you can’t move from.

    Like a Chaotic good character doesn’t mean they always have to to make a decision that might be risky to their team, they can understand context and when and where they might be at a disadvantage if they steal something or kill someone, they’ll probably complain a bit and try and convince others, but they can learn.

    In fact thats the whole point of the grid is to point out that there are other moralities that are close by to the character, like a lawful good character will most likely follow the law (whether it is literal law or their own code of ethics) but right below them is Lawful neutral, when pushed a laweful good character might make a somewhat selfish decision that still fits within their code, or hey just to the right is neutral good, so they may break one of their commandments if they understand that it is the best option.

    Hell alignments can change as much as they want, like maybe a chaotic good thief steals something to help the party, but it turns out that what he stole made things way worse, maybe after this he decides he doesn’t want to steal anymore, and moves over to a neutral good or even Lawful Good (he now has a code of ethics that he doesn’t steal).

    I think the reason D&D’s alignment gets a bad rap is because as is the nature of D&D people interprate things the way they want, and unfortunately there are some who interpret alignment as this rigid thing that is unmoving, when instead it’s quite free form.

    • Thanks for the comments, this is the discussion I wanted to have!

      I’m not bothered by the rigidity of the D&D alignment system, so much as explicit labelling of good/evil. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that there is Good and Evil in this world. But at the same time, 99.9% of people are neither Jesus nor Hitler. We’re somewhere in between.

      But the D&D world, building on the the classic LotR racism of Elves = Good, Orcs = Evil, likes to make these grand distinctions.

      But a good character (as distinct from a Good character) is going to be nuanced and balanced. Maybe once person is charitable but has anger issues; another believes in nobility and justice to the point of inflexibility, which ends up hurting those around them.

      So I’d prefer an alignment system which lets me role-play everything in between black and white as colour (rather than just shades of grey).

  • Great mention of Tides of Numenera -that game seriously messes with some RPG tropes! Your outline of the tides is really good.

    But on your example:
    both regarded as Gold
    Isn’t the latter conduct an example of silver tide, not gold? But anyway, I must dust the game off and actually finish it!

    • Maybe. It’s all based on perception, right, so it depends how well you’re perceived to be charitable.

      If, I dunno, you’d set up the Donald J. Richfella Orphanage, then it’d be a Silver-Gold, because clearly it’s both an ego trip, but also doing tangible good for the public.

  • I like Robert Jordan’s Ajah system for the Aes Sedai, which is kind of like the Tides system mentioned above:

    Red – basically the inquisition
    Green – battle, strategy, leadership
    Blue – justice, noble causes, saving the world
    Brown – knowledge, history and research
    White – logic and philosophy
    Grey – politics, negotiation and law
    Yellow – healing
    Black – evil

  • I think the DnD axis is freeeform to an extent but keep in mind that unlike pur world, this is a universe where there are literally entire races and deities that are naturally evil. Couple this with magical attacks versus particularly aligned opponents; “Smite Evil/Good, Protection against Evil/Good” etc, and the alignments need to remain rigid to an extent to have the game run smoothly.

    I usaully run my games so the players focus more on the flaws/strengths and vices side of their backgrounds more so than worrying too much about alignment. NPCs however, benefit from having a little more of a clear cut label alignment wise

  • Want to give a shoutout to the Ultima approach with Virtues. While not directly attributable to an evil/good type axis, it was still a groundbreaking approach to morals, and hence alignments.

    I think it reflects adulthood better than most systems, though the granular setup of Black and White wasn’t a bad effort either.

  • You’re evil, or you’re good. Hero or villain. Paragon or a Renegade. Jedi or Sith. Which is good and all,

    No, it’s good and evil.

    I’ll see myself out.

  • My favourite is the DND system, although I know it is inherently flawed on some levels.
    Some spots on the grid I don’t know how to play, others depend on your party. And I feel too often I wind back at good old “easy fun” chaotic neutral.

  • One of the most interesting AD&D campaigns I was involved in had a lawful good paladin bad guy. His religious beliefs brought order and to him was good and anyone who disagreed or didn’t live up to it was evil.

    It was weird organising an alliance of orcs, humans, kobolds, elves and dwarfs vs the heretic burning Paladin and his zealots.

    • That paladin and related zealots may have actually been lawful evil – I guess good/evil also has perspective which makes it tricky in certain cases.

  • There will never be a perfect alignment system and whilst D&D’s would be my go to the quantitative labels make it too simplistic if you want real detail. Perhaps one day in games we will see a qualitative alignment which would be a reduced bio focused on the character’s actions that explain how a person generally is with referenced examples.

    Lawful good paladin by all accounts is the embodiment of an ideal person, except for how he treats animals…An example of how a character is good but at the same time evil and no +1 here -1 there to shift between alignments can fix that as those two opposing alignments occur simultaneously.

    An alignment narrative at least has a chance of capturing nuance.

  • Surprised not to see a mention of Magic The Gathering’s “colour pie”. It has grown to become really sophisticated and the fact that the game allows any permutation of numbers of colours makes easy to describe really nuanced characters. The “ally-enemy” combinations derived from the position of the colours in a wheel also gives a fascinating level of depth.

    As a really simplified summary:
    White cares about community and order, it seeks peace.
    Blue cares about knowledge and improvement. It seeks to reach its full potential.
    Black cares for itself. It seeks the power that will allow it to always have its way.
    Red cares for freedom. It seeks new experiences and sensations.
    Green cares for growth and the natural order. It seeks acceptance of one’s place in life.

    Note how neither colour tries to suggest “good” or “evil”. While on the surface, it’s easy to believe that White will always be good and black always will be evil, both are capable of good and evil. A white society that seeks order as a principle and who believes that “living in community” means destroying the elements they don’t deign to accept as part of the community or that peace can only be sustained by subjugation of everybody else is a good example of evil. And so on.

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