Our party’s young female fighter — who was clearly coddled in her upbringing — has yet to reap the financial rewards of the adventuring life. Yet, she has been steadfastly lawfully good — certainly she’s more idealistic than the rest of the party.

On a good day, she is lucky to have two silver pieces to rub together, and that includes any pay she’s received from the toil of her day job as a tanner.

In contrast to the other party members, she’s really struggling to scrape by. Our spellcaster professes to be devout in the faith, and has benefited from this close association with his church. As for the bard and the rogue, they are true scoundrels, living fast and free — and despite being penniless too, always seem to fast-talk their way into a free meal, a bed for the night, and a little spending money.

So it’s not too big of a stretch to believe that those freshly minted coins they found in a chest proved to be so tempting. She’d suspected that the rogue had slipped more than a few treasures into his own pocket, I suppose, and in her desperation, rationalized that she could do the same.

She just didn’t reckon on the bard’s Spot check and his own Sleight of Hand skill. The bard called her on it — then did a curious thing.

“Alignment change!” he said, out of character.

DM’s dilemma

Not so fast, I thought. And from this was born the DM’s dilemma: Does a single transgression require me to consider a PC’s outlook to be changed? Does the fact the fighter later returned the coin and confessed her failing to the party count for something? Was the offense mitigated by these other circumstances? And even had there had been no contrition,  would it have necessarily required such a change?

Boy, a lot of questions for a lousy two gold pieces, heh?

I mean, I have no crystal ball. I don’t know what will happen to these PCs in the future. I can envision a day when these heroes look back after years of adventuring, and despite the fighter’s virtue, is continually chided by the others for that moment of weakness long ago.

Or perhaps this is a turning point. Hunger and want have convinced our young fighter that surviving in this mean, medieval world requires a mercenary attitude. Years from now she may be a queen of her own making, a warlord, living off the riches gained from a life of plunder.

(Of course, this is D&D. She could also die from a 3d6 points of damage from falling down three flights of stairs. Who knows?)

A single misdeed

My inclination is not to let a single misdeed (murder and self-sacrifice being the exceptions) dictate alignment. Great and terrible deeds can’t be ignored, after all. But still, a pattern of behavior over a long period is the best indication of alignment.

While I understand the reasoning behind the following analogy is debatable, I think it applies: In modern day, a lot of people who would consider themselves law-abiding, do violate the speed limit. Does breaking the speed limit shift people from lawful to neutral?

I would say no. Other factors be considered to make that shift complete, such as whether the driving is reckless or it causes a fatal accident or it needlessly inconveniences others.

The Hallowed Might subsystem

Monte Cook’s “The Book of Hallowed Might” offers an optional alignment subsystem that is worth looking at. Basically, all alignments are on a sliding scale from 0 to 9, sliding up the scale from the most moderate to the more intense. In the case of law, 0 is for a person who tries to keep their word and generally follows the rules, while 9 is reserved for the paragon of order, who refuses to deviate from the law, even if it means their undoing.

The advantage of this sliding scale is that it attempts to precisely define where a character’s alignment stands. Under this subsystem, a character who is Lawful 2, Good 7, is a much different sort of hero than one who is Lawful 8, Good 2.

In an intense roleplaying experience, these distinctions could be useful in crafting scenarios that pit players of similar — but not exacting — outlooks against one another’s interests.

For example, Commissioner Gordon and Batman certainly have a similar outlook toward criminals. But Batman, as a vigilante, will cross lines Gordon won’t. In the comic books and movies, these lines have been used to create dramatic tension between the two.

Likewise, the 0 to 9 sliding scale can be used to put your party’s PCs in opposition to one another for a time.

Three strikes and you’re out

As a practical matter, I, as the DM, don’t need precision of that magnitude. However, chopping up the alignment pie into fourths does appeal to me. Thinking of a PC as one-quarter lawful, or three-quarters good, gives me a good starting place when I’m re-evaluating a player’s alignment. And it’s sufficiently simple enough to fit even into a beer’n’pretzel environment.

Under such a system, three instances of behavior of a contrary or adjacent alignment is usually sufficient to at least suggest a change in outlook.

So when our fighter swipes her two gold pieces, I’ve got someplace to go — and she’s still got an opportunity to redeem herself.

Other alternate alignment systems?

So, I’m interested in hearing other solutions to the alignment dilemma. What approach do you take toward alignment? Please, feel free to share.