Alignments in Conflict

There are advantages and disadvantages to building a campaign around alignment struggles. On the plus side, players always have a goal, even if they're not always aware of it. This goal is useful when constructing adventures. It motivates player characters and provides a continuing storyline; it ensures that characters always have something to do ("Restore the balance of Law, loyal followers!"). Also, a sense of heroism permeates the game. Players know that their characters are doing something important, something that has an effect on the history of the campaign world.

There are disadvantages to this approach, too, but none that can't be avoided by a clever DM. First is the question of boredom. If every adventure revolves around maintaining balance or crusading for the cause, players might get tired of the whole thing.

The solution is simply to make sure adventures are varied in goal and theme. Sometimes characters strive in the name of the great cause. Other times they adventure for their own benefit. Not every battle needs to be a titanic struggle of good vs. evil or light vs. darkness.

Another concern is that everything the characters do may affect their quest. An aligned game universe is one of massive and intricate cause-and-effect chains. If X happens over here, then Y must happen over there. Most adventures must be woven into the thread of the storyline, even those that don't seem to be a part of it.

This is in direct conflict with the need for variety, and the DM must do some careful juggling. A big quest is easy to work into the story, but what happens when the player characters take some time off to go on their own adventure? Are they needed just then? What happens in their absence? How do they get back on track? What happens when someone discovers something no one was meant to know? For these problems there are no easy answers. A creative DM will never be idle with this sort of campaign.

Finally, there is the problem of success and failure. An aligned universe tends to create an epic adventure. Player characters become involved in earthshaking events and deal with cosmic beings. Being at the center of the game, player characters assume great importance (if they don't, they will quickly get bored). This is standard stuff in sword-and-sorcery fiction, so it is natural that it also appears in a sword-and-sorcery role-playing adventure.

Fiction writers have an advantage DMs do not, however--they can end the story and never return to it. At the end of the book, the good guys win, the world is set right, and the covers are closed. The writer never has to worry about it again, unless he wants to. What happens when characters win the final conflict, the battle that puts all to right? What can be done after peace and harmony come to the universe?

Further, the author knows who is going to win. He starts by knowing the good guys will triumph. There may be many twists, but eventually the heroes come out on top. Many DMs make the same assumption. They are wrong.

Never simply assume that the characters will win. What if they don't? What if the forces of darkness and evil win the final battle? No matter how high the odds are stacked in their favor, there is always a chance that the characters will do something so stupid or unlucky that they lose. Victory cannot be guaranteed. If it is, players will quickly sense this and take advantage of it.

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