Is Alignment an Idea Whose Time Has Come?
Wizards has sparked some discussion on alignment and D&D Next on Twitter. Here’s my quick, rambling take.
Alignment is a relic. I say this as someone who has personally always used alignment and enjoyed what it brings to the game. Alignment is an old-fashioned idea. It probably doesn’t belong in D&D Next except as a throw-back to us old-fashioned folks who appreciated what it did.
See, alignment is a tool of moral absolutism. Kind of like the Great Wheel Cosmology. It implies that there are sides: a good side, an evil side, an orderly side, and a chaotic side. And people choose sides, or at least choose which sides are important and which ones aren’t. Whether you have a three alignment system, a nine alignment system, or a five alignment system, the idea is the same. The words “good” and “evil” mean something, as do “order” and “chaos”, and those meanings are external. They are part of the nature of the universe.
This works well in stories that rely on that sort of absolute approach. Like, say, when an evil shadow from the past returns to conquer the free people of the world, or when swarms of monsters serving the forces of chaos are uniting in a network of caves, or when the forces of evil have begun the construction of a temple dedicated to an insane god. Epic quests, epic struggles between good and evil, order and chaos, and so on.
The trouble is that the tacit assumption that there is an external definition of good, evil, law, or chaos doesn’t lend itself easily to nuance or moral relativism and moral dilemmas lose their teeth because the external definition of alignment can answer so many questions.
Once you become more concerned about moral questions and about character development and about story, alignment really doesn’t serve a purpose. It either confirms the character’s choices and actions or it gets in the way. The classic conundrum here is the ‘evil’ villain. Except for the odd, insane sociopath, it is quite strange to have someone who is evil for the sake of evil. Instead, you have villains who are trying to acheive what they perceive to be a good end through evil means (good at any cost), those who reject the ideas of good and evil as incorrect (there is no good or evil, just power and those too weak to seize it), and those who seek retribution for perceived sleights (they took everything from me and now I will have justice). The true sociopaths (the people who just want to see the world burn) are actually the least interesting villains because they have no redeeming qualities and cannot be reasoned with.
Its not that these things don’t fit into an absolute alignment system, its that the absolute alignment system doesn’t add anything to the mix. The alignment system is just confirmation that, yeah, the guy who thinks he’s doing the right thing is actually wrong. Its vestigial and unneccessary.
The whole thing only gets more complicated when you start adding game effects based on alignment. Because those only confirm that there is a sort of Platonic reality of alignment, that there exists a universal definition of good, evil, law, and chaos, and that it can be known through magical means. Order of the Stick makes this point quite clearly during the trial in Azure City when it is argued that a criminal MUST be guilty because the arresting officer was a paladin and didn’t lose her paladin abilities as a result of mistreating the prisoners. If an object can be created that detects good or evil (as absolutes), the battlelines can be drawn very clearly and the world loses all of its moral dilemmas.
Again, this works just fine when the story is about epic struggles between, say, the gods and the primordials, or good gods and evil gods, because there is no moral nuance to begin with. One side is right and one side is wrong. But D&D very quickly evolved past that idea. Alignment was causing strife back when the game was new and, by second edition, it was a major source of arguments between groups and between players and DMs.
Now, again, I like alignment. I like it because I tend to run my D&D games as epic struggles between light and darkness, good and evil, order and chaos, and so on. I like it because it gives me a solid definition to point to when I tell my players that I do not allow evil PCs. And I’m old-fashioned. But even I tend to ignore it whenever it comes time to do anything with a little more moral ambiguity.
But, liking it as I do, and understanding its utility in certain types of stories, I am ready to say it really doesn’t belong in D&D anymore. I think the game has evolved past the point where it serves any useful purpose. I’m not arguing that its a straight jacket or that it causes fights or anything like that. I just see it as a holdover from a previous era of gaming. An appendix. And maybe its time to just let it go.