RPG Design Patterns



Differentiate characters by segregating them into different categories that define how in-game events affect them physically. Characters can also be distinguished by limiting their abilities based on these same categories.

Also Known As

Not applicable.

Related Patterns


The goals of Alignment are easy to misconstrue. This is because many games present alignment as a common characteristic that specifies how a player should portray his character. Alignments are usually specified with connotive words rather than numbers, the most common of which are “Good” and “Evil.” To extend the field of aligned behaviors to a wider range of possibilities, many games specify a number of alignment characteristics, each of which must be assigned values. In addition to “Good” and “Evil,” a game might require a player to decide between “Lawful” and “Chaotic” or “Social” and “Antisocial,” etc.

Because of these moralistic names, it is easy to come to the conclusion that a game having alignments is actually trying to persuade players to portray their characters in certain ways. The text might even say this. However, the Alignment pattern does nothing to promote role-play in any mechanical way (such as by rewarding players for doing so). Thus, the pattern cannot really be described as a mechanical means of promoting role-play. (Note that the Faction pattern, which is similar to the Alignment pattern, does provide rewards for role-playing characters according to specified belief systems. Alignment and Faction are often used together, so it is easy to confuse the two.)

The Alignment pattern is useful, though. One must simply recognize that the actual design goal which Alignment satisfies has nothing to do with promoting role-play. Rather, its purpose is to differentiate characters by assigning various physical effects to some in-game events based on alignment categories. It can also be used to distinguish characters by constraining character abilities based on their alignment category. A character’s alignment might therefore limit the character to a subset of a game’s career choices. For example, a player wishing to play a “White Witch” might be required to select a Good alignment. Selecting this option might simultaneously preclude the character from ever becoming a “Black Witch.” A game might even view Good and Evil as physical properties that can be detected and manipulated. Thus, a “White Witch” might have specialized skills that have different effects based on the target’s alignment. She might get a palpable sensation whenever evil approached, for example. Or, she might be able to summon a “Radiance of Goodness” to aid her Good companions, hinder her Evil foes, or both.


As a role-playing aid that gives guidance to players concerning the manner in which they should portray their characters, the Alignment pattern does a poor job. Other patterns, such as the Faction and Idiom patterns satisfy this goal to a far better degree. It is highly recommended that you understand these patterns before deciding to use the Alignment pattern as a role-playing guide.

As a means of differentiating characters based on pre-specified categories, the Alignment pattern excels. Use the Alignment pattern if your goals include:

  1. A desire to define a fixed set of broad categories into which each character is placed.
  2. A desire to have in-game effects vary from one character to another based on his assigned category.
  3. A desire to limit player options based on the category to which a character is assigned.

Note that goals 1 and 3 can be satisfied by the Class design pattern. If you do not want to vary the in-game effects of character actions based on a character’s alignment, you might want to consider that pattern instead.

The Alignment pattern tends to work well with the Skill and Gift patterns, but is less harmonious with the Trait pattern. The reason is simple. If you want to vary the in-game effects of various actions based on alignment, you need to specify exactly how those effects vary. Pre-defined skills and gifts provide this opportunity in that each requires its own description. The traits pattern, on the other hand, demands a more general rule describing how each player-specified trait interacts with the various alignments. It is telling that none of the games analyzed in researching this book used both the Trait and Alignment patterns together.

The Alignment pattern mimics the Faction pattern in structure, in that both require characters to be placed in groups. Consequently, many games combine the Alignment and Faction patterns. Player options are constrained by a character’s alignment, in-game effects vary based on the alignment, and the alignment serves as a faction promoting conflict between the different categories.


The Alignment pattern essentially adds a characteristic to each character that interacts with the game-world reality as if it were a physical property. It can often be detected, leveraged, and manipulated as in various ways by game rules specifically designed to do so. Although alignments are often identified by moralistic words such as “Good,” “Lawful,” “Evil,” “Antisocial,” and the like, they do not provide any mechanical effect to encourage players to role-play in any particular way (although many players will do so anyway because they closely associate a character’s alignment with his behavior patterns).

Since the alignment pattern seeks to vary the effects of actions based on a character’s alignment category, it can add a large burden to the game-writer’s shoulders. The set of possible alignments essentially spans the entire game and has far-reaching consequences. It is likely that a large portion of the skills and gifts contained within a game’s text will have alignment-based effects. Each of these effects requires its own discussion to clarify the differences. This means that the various skill and gift descriptions will be lengthier than if no variable effects existed. You might decide to lessen your workload by having relatively few skills with alignment-based effects. However, if you do so, you probably should reconsider using the Alignment pattern. After all, why complicate your game for something that will only have a minor impact?

Implementation Concerns

If you decide to use the Alignment pattern, you need to concern yourself with categories to which you are going to assign characters. The whole “Good” versus “Evil” alignment concept has been explored by a great many games. So, you may want to avoid using these alignment categories in your own games to differentiate it from its predecessors.

Note that a game exploring the dangers and moral dilemmas faced by mountain climbers might categorize characters as “High Altitude Acclimated,” “Moderate Altitude Acclimated,” and “Sea-Level Acclimated.” After all, these are broad categories that limit player options and the specific category would define the effects that a high-altitude environment would have on a particular character. By spending sufficient time at a given altitude, a character may gradually change from one category to another. So, it satisfies the pattern in a way that completely strips out all moralistic judgment of character behavior.


A game with an alignment system might segment alignments into two aspects: Goodness and Sociability. These would be set as Good or Evil and Social or Antisocial. Such a system might provide the following definitions:


A Social character befriends others through his trustworthy acts. He helps any other character in desperate need if possible. Social characters also expect others to aid them in their needful times.


An Antisocial character uses other party members to suit his needs. He quickly picks fights with those standing in his way. Of course, he may act highly social as long as it serves his needs.


A Good character has mercy on those who ask and deserve it. He serves justice and demonstrates kindness to all he meets. Good characters defend townships from evil invasions. They save fair princesses from evil wizards. A good character would attempt to slay any slavering, vicious, hungry ogre threatening a nearby orphanage. Conversely, a Good-aligned character more easily gets help when needed. Defending a town from an angry ogre endears a character to those townsfolk saved.


An Evil character delights in the misery of others. He strives for personal power and allows no sense of mercy or justice to interfere with gaining it. Glory, pleasure, power, and wealth are the major aims of an Evil character but his methods may seem perfectly innocent on the surface.

Such a game might then restrict characters to certain classes (see the Class pattern) based on their alignments. For example:

Cult Leader

A Cult Leader is the head of a religious sect. Although some cult members may join the leader on their own volition, most are coerced through brainwashing. Some cult leaders are actual priests of evil deities while others are just greedy bastards trying to make a buck. Interestingly enough, a widespread cult may have many leaders which were “promoted” from the brainwashed cult members. Even as these cult leaders brainwash others, they fully believe in what they preach.

Alignment Restrictions

To become a Cult Leader, a character must be Antisocial and Evil.


Attracting Followers, Beguiling, Imitating Voices, Inciting Riots, Quoting Religious Phrases, Sleight of Hand, Throwing Voice


Brainwashing (+4), Fast Talking (+3), Interrogating (+2), Inspiring Loyalty (+2), Raising Morale (+2), Manufacturing Hallucinogenic Poisons (+1), Torturing (+1)

The game might also include various skills (see the Skill pattern) that have varying effects based on alignment. For example, it might contain a magical spell such as the following:

Shooting Star

Alignment Restrictions: The caster must have a Good alignment.
Affected Area: One creature
Casting Time: 10 seconds
Duration: Instantaneous
Range: 100 feet

Shooting Star creates the spectacular sight of a sparkling ball shooting toward the caster’s target. To strike the target, the caster must make an Attack Roll with Range Weapon Adjustments. The ball is quite harmless to any Good aligned creature. To Evil creatures, however, it represents wrathful vengeance. Any Evil creature struck by a Shooting Star sustains 1d8 fire damage per spell level.

Note that the text describing the various alignment categories seems to indicate that characters should be role-played in certain ways. However, the alignments are only used to identify what career options are available to a character and/or how alignment- based influences affect him.

Known Uses

Dungeons & Dragons v.3.5 has an alignment system with two aspects, each of which can be set to one of three values by the player. The first aspect has the options of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic while the second aspect has the possibilities of Good, Neutral, and Evil. Alignment is used as a prerequisite to attaining certain classes (see the Class pattern), has skills whose effects vary based on alignment, and serves as a general role-playing guideline for players.

RIFTS has three alignment categories of Good, Selfish, and Evil, one of which the player must choose for his character. In each category there are sub-types. From the Good category a player may choose Principled or Scrupulous. From the Selfish category, he may select Unprincipled, or Anarchist. From the Evil category, he has the options of Miscreant, Aberrant, and Diabolic. The alignment system has no effect on the game other than to serve as a general guide on what kinds of actions are appropriate when role-playing a character.

Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing has 39 different “Personality Traits,” 20 different “Motivation Traits,” and 12 different “Alignment Traits.” Players roll randomly to determine which Personality, Motivation, and Alignment characteristics their characters possess. They then make another roll to determine the extent to which that aspect applies. For example, one of the “Alignment Traits” is the Good…Evil characteristic. A percentile roll then determines exactly where on that scale the character lies. Other than as a general guide for players on how to portray their characters, the alignment system does not have any apparent impact on the game.

Warhammer Fantasy Role Play has five alignments, one of which must be chosen for every character. These are Lawful, Good, Neutral, Evil, and Chaotic. Some career options are only available to characters with certain alignments. There are no apparent differences in how various influences affect characters based on alignment, though.

pattern/alignment.txt · Last modified: 2011/05/05 08:41 (external edit) -

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