Alignment: love it or hate it?

First off, an apology. I was due to write about Foundry VTT this week, but we didn’t manage a full session, so I want to give it another week or so before I write a review. (First thoughts, though: it’s pretty great.)

Today, instead, I am looking at a completely different topic: alignment. For some, this is as essential to D&D as hit points, AC, and the six stats. To others, it’s a relic that gets in the way of interesting roleplaying. Let’s see who’s right.

A history

The original version of D&D only had three alignments: lawful, chaotic, and neutral. It was the 1977 Basic Set that introduced the second axis of good, evil, and in between. Gygax always cited the fantasy stories of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson as his inspiration for the alignment system, and for the most part, the game has stuck with the two-axis system for nearly half a century.

That said, the approach has shifted somewhat between editions.

  • In 2nd edition AD&D, for example, characters could be asked to change their alignment if they repeatedly acted ‘out of character’, and shifting alignment would cost them experience points. I can’t imagine those were happy conversations between player and DM.
  • In every edition before 4th, there were character classes with alignment restrictions: for example, paladins had to be Lawful Good, a thief could be anything but Lawful Good, and druids had to be Neutral.
  • The Planescape setting of 2nd edition introduced intermediate alignments. For example, instead of being Chaotic Good, you could be Chaotic-leaning Neutral Good or Good-leaning Chaotic Neutral.
  • 4th edition controversially stripped back alignment to Good, Evil, Lawful Good, Chaotic Evil, and unaligned.
  • 5th edition kept ‘unaligned’ as a tenth alignment. A tiger, for example, is unaligned as it acts on instinct: it lacks the capacity to be morally or ethically neutral.

Understanding alignment

There are whole websites devoted to this. This one from easydamus.com is perhaps my favourite, and TV Tropes is also great, as always. But be warned: the deeper you go, the more it becomes a matter of philosophical debate. I would prefer not to fall down that rabbit hole.

To that end, here are nine archetypes. Together, they more or less embody the classic D&D alignments.

  • I think of Lawful Good as a righteous crusader. Superman is Lawful Good, and so are angels, unicorns, and gold dragons.
  • The most famous example of Chaotic Good is Robin Hood. This is a freedom fighter. In D&D, treants, djinni, storm giants, and copper dragons are CG.
  • Neutral Good is somewhere in the middle. Humane. Gandalf is a good example. In D&D, centaurs and pixies lean NG.
  • Lawful Neutral is all about justice and orthodoxy. Judge Dredd is perhaps the epitome of LN, and in D&D, so are sphinxes and modrons.
  • Chaotic Neutral is more anarchic. Jack Sparrow is Chaotic Neutral. So are slaadi and (checks notes) – cloakers? Who knew?
  • Lawful Evil is tyranny. The Borg in Star Trek are a terrifying example of LE at its worst. In D&D, it’s devils, mind flayers, and sahuagin.
  • Chaotic Evil is wanton hedonism. The Joker is probably my favourite example of CE in film. In D&D there are many, many examples. A few: demons, red dragons, trolls, and gnolls.
  • Neutral Evil, again, is somewhere in the middle: self-serving and power-hungry but neither dogmatic nor dishonourable. Emperor Palpatine fits the bill. Think frost giants, yuan-ti, and the drow of Menzoberranzan.
  • What about true neutral? This one is very hard to spot: neither idealistic nor self-serving, and neither honourable nor rebellious. It’s often more of a transition alignment, or a character who seeks to be balanced. Or perhaps they are just completely apathetic about everything. Tom Bombadil is a possible contender, as is . . . Shrek? In D&D, lizardfolk, stone giants, and elementals are neutral.

Problems with alignment

There are lots of reasonable criticisms of the alignment system.

The biggest issue is the fact that interesting characters often don’t fit into a single category. Batman is a famous example: there’s a case to be made for each of the nine alignments, and his morality changes over time. Where would you place James Bond? Lara Croft? Han Solo? It gets tricky.

Another criticism (of 5e anyway) is that alignment has very little impact on the rules of the game. Even spells and abilities that refer explicitly to alignment don’t actually depend on it for the game to make sense: see protection for evil and good and the paladin’s divine sense ability. If you can write ‘Lawful Good’ on your character sheet and fundamentally ignore it – why bother?

A third – perhaps more philosophical – is that alignment is fundamentally subjective. Who are we to decide what counts as good and evil? History is full of righteous ideologues who have committed horrible crimes, and some of them were seen as heroes in their own time. Similarly, there are numerous examples of persecuted martyrs who are now seen as noble freedom fighters. The great Martin Luther King Jr was the most hated man in America when he died, yet Joseph Stalin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Twice.

And a fourth: alignment has recently come under fire over the last few years for its problematic approach to racial characteristics. For example: why are humans capable of good, evil, and every other alignment under the sun, but drow in the Monster Manual are simply ‘neutral evil’? Why are some races assumed to be capable of moral and ethical divergence whereas others have ‘baked in’ mindsets? There’s a whiff of old school colonialism in it all ­– of ‘civilized and uncivilized’ peoples – and WotC have publicly distanced itself from it. Alignment was missing in Rime of the Frostmaiden and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, and game designer Jeremy Crawford used an article last year to clarify where things are going. There is also been a huge update to alignment in the official errata.

For all its simplicity and pedigree, then, alignment can be a crude, misleading, and problematic mechanic. Can we do better?

Alternatives

Several RPGs don’t have alignment at all (for example, Fate Core, Blades in the Dark, and Forbidden Lands). Others, like Dungeon World and Pathfinder, copy D&D’s system almost exactly. And some games do something different again:

  • Magic: The Gathering uses a colour wheel of five colours: white, black, blue, red, and green. While some map on to traditional D&D alignments (‘white’ is essentially Lawful Good), others are harder to place. ‘Blue’, for example, is the colour of science and logic.
  • Legend of the Five Rings replaces alignment with an honour rank. You might be ‘untrustworthy’, ‘exceptional’, an ‘honourless dog’, or have ‘a soul above question’. More important, in some ways, is your clan and your family.     
  • GURPS focuses on character flaws (called ‘disadvantages’). Rather than being ‘chaotic evil’, you might be a ‘bully’ with ‘sadism’. A ‘good’ character might have the ‘honest’ trait.  

Another option is to replace character alignment with faction alignment. This keeps open the option of individual deviations but establishes a quick indicator for the moral behaviour of social groups. I used this approach above when I referred to the drow of Menzoberranzan. Not all drow are evil, but the drow of Menzoberranzan lean towards neutral evil.

Final thoughts

Moral philosophy is complicated, nuanced, and open to debate. Alignment, fundamentally, is a shorthand. And in 5th edition, you are free to largely ignore it. It is part of a picture, but only a part. Intelligence, culture, and history all play their part, too. You could certainly play D&D without alignment, and many do. But if you keep it, remember that it is just a guide, not a straitjacket.

How do you use alignment in your games?

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5 thoughts on “Alignment: love it or hate it?

  1. I feel like Alignment and choice of Deity should be… well… aligned. If you pick an LG Deity, the alignment of that deity should essentially match your own. Also, and you used the word, alignment is more about leanings – the direction a character desires to take. A Good alignment does not mean the character can never make an evil or neutral choice. It is not a static description or a box… it is a source of motivations and temptations and maybe even desires.
    More than just alignment, I would think that the Deity domains would match up with what is important to the character as well. A Barabarian with a -8 Int probably would not look to a Deity with a Knowledge Domain. (Of course they could if they desired to follow the path of knowledge)
    We choose Deities as the light we wish to reflect back into the world.

  2. In my games, I use the D&D alignment system, but replace the words: Lawful is Order, Chaotic is Freedom, Good is Selfless, and Evil is Self-centered. So you have a range of order vs freedom and selfless vs self-centered. I define self-centered as also extremely tribe-centered or nationalistic, so a Nazi is still evil even if he’s giving his life for the Fatherland.

    1. I quite like this! ‘Self-centred’ is the only one I’m not quite sure about; as you say, it doesn’t quite cover the kind of ideological evil of misplaced loyalty. I wonder whether ‘ruthless’ might work better?

      1. wouldnt ideological evil of misplaced loyalty fit under lawful evil or Self-Center Order, in the meaning “the Order above anything else”?

  3. IMO alignment is like the personality traits of a character: a guidance to role-play, especially to new players.

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