Three Tier Alignment  

Posted by Spenser Isdahl in , , , ,

I was reading an article over at Dungeon Mastering, where the question of whether your character's actual alignment is how she acts or what she thinks she is. The author, Krystal, answers that it's how your character acts, and within the context of a normal game, I tend to agree. However, it got me thinking about D&D alignments in a new way.

Three Tier Alignment

The idea behind three tier alignment is that a character doesn't have a single solid alignment that the player can confidently point to. Alignment is a murky matter that a player has to think about when he or she acts in-game. The three tiers are as follows:

  1. Perceived by Self: The player decides this based on the character. This is only a representation of how the player thinks his or her character is acting, and is not the character's alignment for the purposes of spells and abilities.
  2. Perceived by Others: This is how NPCs think of the PC, as decided by the DM. This can be influenced by other NPCs or the PC's own actions, and the player should only be made aware of this alignment with a successful Gather Information (Diplomacy in Pathfinder) check to discover what people are thinking. This alignment informs how new NPCs see the PCs. Like first tier, this is not the PC's true alignment for spells and abilities.
  3. Actual: This alignment is decided by the DM based on the PC's actions, and is only magically discernible. For the purposes of spells and abilities, this is the alignment you use.
While much more complicated, this system is much more dynamic and forces the PCs to think about their actions and how they may impact both their second and third tier alignments.

Has anyone used an alternate alignment system? How did it work out?

This entry was posted on February 15, 2010 at Monday, February 15, 2010 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


While I have not used a dynamic system I tend to let the alignments be a bit more fluid. For one I always let me players become evil if they so desire. It's lead to some interesting roleplaying choices and I feel it's my job as the GM to get out of their way. If I'm not stifling them by restricting who they want to play it allows for a more dynamic system.

The alignment on the character page for me is also just a temporary marker. It's what the player thinks they are in the begining, and honestly is only useful for classes with alignment restrictions. Honestly in my next game I may just throw them out entirely and allow everyone to just play their characters. In the event that an alignment check is needed (such as evil weapons) I would use a will save check to see how much the characters ideals conflict.

On a side note I knew that article would cause quite a bit of reaction and I applaud Krystal for writing it. If I wrote for a more D&D focused blog I would have written an article like it by now. :D

February 15, 2010 at 6:35 PM

I use a modified version of WoD's Nature and Demeanor system -- yes it can still buttonhole players, but the options are greater . .

February 15, 2010 at 10:25 PM

While I have never used an alternate alignment system for either Pathfinder or D&D I have played Vampire the Masquerade and Vampire the Requiem, and used their Nature/Demeanor and Virtue/Vice "alignment" systems. I think Virtue/Vice would be well suited for both Pathfinder and D&D; in fact that is the system used in Green Ronin's True20 system.

Virtue/Vice allows for good/evil spells and weapons function more or less unchanged as virtues are all that is good in someone and vice is all that is bad. You would have to determine which aspect really drives the character's motives and actions, and you can determine whether or not they are good or evil as far as spells and weapons are concerned.

February 15, 2010 at 11:24 PM

I don't use alignments in my games, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

On the one hand, I like this system. On the other hand, the idea of a PC thinking of themself as good, but in truth being LE, and then getting burned by a holy symbol that damages evil creatures... I don't know, I just feel like inanimate objects shouldn't inadvertently reveal personal truths.

February 15, 2010 at 11:31 PM

You can't have alignments based solely on actions. Actions are meaningless without the context of intentions. If your character has a very low intelligence (or is just plain misinformed) and thinks he or she will be helping the villagers by trying to slay the sleeping dragon, it's not an evil act when the dumb PC awakens something they can't handle and the beast destroys the countryside.

Having a three tiered system just complicates things. There's no need to worry about whether or not others perceive you as evil. Lawful Good Paladins get in arguments all the time on how to best serve the populace, it doesn't mean one must be evil at heart because they disagree.

The point is that whatever alignment the character truly thinks they are is what you should use. If a good character thinks it's best to completely eradicate the nearby orc population to help a farming community, then they're acting "good" even the PC destroys the ecosystem and hordes of small vermin now run rampant because there are no orcs to hunt the rats.

Also, I use alignments as part of the character description. When a player describes their character, alignment falls right in line with the "dashing swashbuckler with a bit of an ego" part of their description. It's a guideline for how that character will act in most scenarios. It lets you know how to be "in character."

February 16, 2010 at 8:41 AM

@R It really depends on the type of game you're playing. In most settings, morality is a player choice, and used as a tool for playing the character. But in much of D&D, such as the planar cosmology, the gods, and magic, morality is a tangible force in the world. There is absolute and measurable good and evil, law and chaos. They exist regardless of a character's perceptive on them. It is under this scheme that I wish alignment was more clearly defined, and also the scheme under which I attempt to define it.

If I'm playing in a game where these forces don't matter, then I simply drop alignment and use other systems.

February 16, 2010 at 9:20 PM

I really like WoD system as well, though I've never used it. Often it's just easier to use normal alignment and ignore it until it's relevant (which I fully support, btw, as alignment can often be quite opaque).

@R: This system is really just if you want to up the ante on traditional D&D alignments. Naturally, if you have your own system, I'm not going to stop you from using it :P

February 17, 2010 at 1:06 AM

Nobody's stopping anybody from using any of their own house rules :-)

@Jeff Carlsen - "But in much of D&D, such as the planar cosmology, the gods, and magic, morality is a tangible force in the world. There is absolute and measurable good and evil, law and chaos."

The problem is that good and evil are not absolute. As a DM you can certainly make them absolute, but that should be made explicitly clear to the players in the beginning of the game if so. What if one player is using their natural Utilitarian ethical system and another player is following Kantian ethics? How do you figure out which one is actually "good?" If the DM hasn't thought about it, he or she will just follow their gut and (for example) say the utilitarian character is being selfish, when the player is honestly trying to be an upstanding lawful good citizen.

I understand that alignments are often left by the wayside, and never really thought out to this detail, but if I were going to improve the existing alignments the first thing I would do is examine the variety of real-world ethics and morality systems and let the players choose from those.

February 17, 2010 at 8:18 AM

"You can't have alignments based solely on actions. Actions are meaningless without the context of intentions."

I recently read a short story about dragons, both good and evil. In the beginning, the good dragons do what you would expect: Help people, protect them, in general watch over them and keep them safe. The evil dragons also do what you would expect: Go on murderous rampages, destroy crops, steal livestock, etc.

However, the good dragons eventually saw that their good deeds ultimately did nothing to reduce the suffering of the people, and the evil dragons learned that they could do far more damage and cause more misery if they allowed people to live.

By the end of the story, the good dragons are killing the innocent out of mercy to save them from a life of hardship, while the evil dragons are protecting people because they know that a longer life means more pain in the world.

This was a very interesting twist on good and evil and I plan on using it in my next game. I expect my players to be confused when the villagers say, "Oh, you're heading up that way? Well, there's a dragon that lives nearby, but don't worry. He's evil."

July 30, 2010 at 10:10 AM

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