Aligning D&D Next

February 8, 2012

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.


49 Responses to Aligning D&D Next

  1. Stygian Jim on February 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    An interesting point. I loved the old alignment system, but When 4e can along with Unaligned I saw the merit in that as well. So many of my players fell into that category that I rarely found someone happy with playing a merely good or neutral character. I think DnD Next should include it as an option, but keep the 4e estimation that it is a role-playing aspect, not a mechanical one.

  2. BlackJaw on February 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    If 5th Edition (I refuse to call it D&D Next. It’s a new edition no mater how much it will feel like past editions) is a modular system, why can’t Alignment, or even multiple Alignment systems, be made into modules?

    While most of the articles talk about modular rules for characters, why not modular rules for DMs and their worlds? Alignment, Inherent bonuses, Low magic, etc. These would all make good world/DM rules modules allowing the DM to run a game in various styles. Of course such rules would generally effect the entire group of players instead of just one, but is that a problem?

    But to get to the real question about the usefulness of Alignment:
    For myself, I think there is a place for their moral absolutism within RPGs. For D&D I find that Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos as absolutes are useful for creatures that are superntarual. Places, magic items, and creatures that contain raw superntaural evil, like devils, demons, or haunted houses, can benefit from the existences of rules that treat their evil, or chaos, as “real.” To keep it from ruining the subtle moral nature of the game the rest of the time, have the rules simply not apply to most mortal/natural/common creatures. Even sociopath pyromaniac mass killers (IE: Red Dragons) don’t detect as chaotic evil because they still have free will. A crazed astronomer possessed by a far realm entity might detect as Chaotic and/or evil because he’s tainted. I think it helps. I like being able to describe a place as infused with evil, and have it mean something beyond colorful description.

  3. Mike on February 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    As long at there are no mechanical hooks to alignments, I like them. They serve the purpose of being simple labels for pc and npc drives and personality.

  4. The Angry DM on February 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Mike, therein lies the big question: if they don’t have mechanical hooks. If they are just labels, then, do you need them in the system at all. Do you want the system to provide hard definitions for them? And if there is no hard definition provided, is there really any point? Isn’t it just a blank on the character sheet that says: “are you a good fighter or a bad fighter?”

    And that’s where I’m coming from. If they’re going to spend page space, design time, and resources on including them, I really want to know what point they are going to serve. Are they going to do anything for the game? If not, I’d rather the designers spend time worrying about something else and give those lines of text over to something different.

  5. The Angry DM on February 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Blackjaw, obviously I agree with you: I also think moral absolutism has a place. I admit I’m a fan of alignment and all that comes with it. But its also hard not to feel like I’m being a willful anachronism – like I don’t belong to the modern age of gaming – by clinging to alignment.

    As for the modular nature of the rules, that’s its own kettle of fish. See, it is easy for us, the fans, to respond to every option with “make it a module” for those who want it. But the reality is that each module is going to take time, page space, and design resources to include. So even if we decide something might not work as part of the core of the game but it might make a good module, it also has to add enough to the games that use it to justify putting resources and design time into it. Imagine, for instance, that every module available in the game increases the retail cost of the core game by $1.00 whether you use that module or not. After all, someone wrote it and they got a paycheck. Now, how many modules do you want? And what is the bare minimum a module has to add to the game to make it worth that $1.00?

    Now, of course, that isn’t really a realistic way of looking at it. Each module isn’t going to just up the price to buy the game. But every module is going to increase the price to make the game. So even if we fans aren’t thinking in terms of the retail cost of every module, you can bet the designers have someone looking over their shoulder allocating resources and worrying about exactly that.

    At the same time, a module, to be successful, truly has to be modular. Its got to be easy to lay in and lay out. Take, for example, the idea of different types of damage having a different effect on different monsters. Well, every monster has got to know that that’s a possibility and the monsters that need to interact with that module need to have the stats already in place. It could be as simple as a keyword like “non-humanoid” or “ooze” if you want to do it efficiently. It could be as complex as an entry for damage resistance or vulnerability with a star next to it that says “ignore this if you’re not using weapon types.” But the game has to have the hooks in place for the module to attach. And if it requires too many hooks, its not really modular any more.

    So, you start to look at something like an alignment module with mechanical impact and ask yourself where it has to attach. At the very least, monsters might need alignments. At least, some of them might. There might be optional spells (like detect and banish type effects) that only have an impact with the alignment system. There might be magical item effects. Special conditions. Optional class features. Now, all of this depends on how much of an impact it has and how many things you ask alignment to do. It could be as simple as a page of optional spells and a advice for DMs to assign alignments to NPCs and creatures. It could be much more complex than that.

    But these are non-trivial issues. And that’s where I start to wonder whether its all really worth it. How much does alignment really do? Is it worth answering all these questions and spending the time on? Is it really just a dying convention of the genre?

    Now, this isn’t an “I’m right, you’re wrong” kind of argument. There’s enough swing in the argument and enough to be said on both sides that the best we can do is just all voice our opinions. I just wanted to get it out there that we all (self included) need to be careful of the idea that modular rules let’s anything get in without proving that it has some valuable impact on the game. Whether it belongs as part of the core or as part of the optional overlays, we need to think just as critically about what we want in D&D and whether its impact is worth the effort.

  6. Jeremy Morgan on February 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    I read what you’ve written here, and I think it’s something for consideration. I would hate to see alignment go, but I’m trying to think about how I would implement it before saying it SHOULD go.

    Excellent post, Angry, and definitely something to chew on.

  7. Josh on February 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Personally, I think having alignments helps the role-play aspect. If nothing else it serves as a good reminder that while I might choose to do something that would bend or break rules, if I’m playing a paladin of Bahamut (who would likely be lawful neutral) he’s probably going to follow social rules and structures to a fault that I might not. Alignment in this case helps me to augment my decisions to more accurately align with what my character would do rather than what I would do out-of-character.

    That said, I think adding in effects based on alignment is generally a bad idea. For one thing, it makes alignment a static decision. If a part of the story compels my character to ultimately make a decision about morality that reshapes their worldview and alters their alignment, it’s kind of silly to need to reconsider all of those status effects. Second, alignment isn’t nearly as clear and definable at a glance as such tangible aspects as class and race (or damage type, etc.) How would I determine what an NPC’s alignment is? How would he/she know mine? It’s much more sensible to say “that monster is undead” than to say “that monster is evil!”. Likewise, it’s easier to say “that demon is Ashmodai” than to identify it as lawful evil. By making it into a category that can apply effects, I think it might take out some of the flavor of the story and the role-play.

  8. Josh on February 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    And by “lawful neutral” in my first paragraph, I really mean “lawful good”

  9. DnD Buddy on February 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    From a PC perspective and perhaps for NPCs, essentially anyone in the “roleplay” of the game, I agree.

    But it is still incredibly flavorful to the game world mystique to have alignment. Aligned swords that burn the opposite aligned characters, summoned creatures unwilling to be controlled by their summoner, holy relics that can destroy the powerful undead, factions of Gods that are easy to align in conflict/cooperation with each other. Even so far as to explain the source of world conflict in a campaign. Not to mention the interesting variations on holy/unholy classes.

    Granted, DMs can insert this themselves I suppose but it really makes the game much harder if, say, the section on the pantheon omits alignment and you have to invent your own (clearly not matching any other DM).

    If it adds to the flavor that a DM can use to tell a story, I’m all for it. I was reading Dragonlance to my kid the other day and when Raistlin felt a shock and couldn’t be healed by the holy staff and when we met up with Lord Soth, the disgraced (and yet very powerful) black paladin is met… it’s fun.

    There is no need to devote even a single page in the books to it, just include it for reference in the stats of prominent figures and items.

  10. Alphastream on February 8, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    There is a lot of truth to what you’ve written. At the same time, the loss of just a few alignment axes has turned 4th Edition alignment from something often debated into something forgotten. Most players can’t tell you the alignment of their PCs… and what I find worse is that they aren’t better off for it. The loss of alignments has been a loss for play. If I look at 3E and 4E organized play tables… I absolutely want to see the return of alignment. Now, something else can come in instead, perhaps, but we do need something that provides not just where you came from and what motives you have (background and theme), but also the moral leaning of the PC.

  11. The Angry DM on February 8, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    I don’t agree with you, Alphastream, but I see where you are coming from. And once again, the best thing we can do right now is to get as many opinions out there as possible. Thanks for sharing yours.

    That being said, I think there is a question worth considering in your comment. One that would probably be very difficult to answer. 4E did two things to alignment: it flattened it into a single axis (as you said), but it also removed nearly everything in the mechanics based on alignment.

    So, here it is: how can we determine whether it was the flattening of alignment OR the removal of the mechanical impact that lead to alignment being forgotten? Or some combination of both.

    That’s not rhetorical. I can’t answer that question with any certainty. But its also very important. Because, if we do want to see alignment make a strong comeback, do we need to make alignment more flavorfully complex again or keep it just as simple but insure that there are mechanics to back it up. Or both.

  12. hvg3 on February 8, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    I like alignments, but like Mike, prefer no mechanical hooks to them. For PCs, anyway.

    I think that once we get into monsters, especially demons, angels and the like, having magical circles that keep alignments at bay is fine. But I am most happy that such things as ‘detect alignment’ were dropped in 4e; when used on the general populace, I agree that it becomes too easy to skirt around things (investigation, trials, etc), and just rely on a simple ability.

  13. hvg3 on February 8, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    On Alphastream’s idea – I do agree that alignments in 4e are almost meaningless, and almost every character I see goes “unaligned”.

    I think this may well be partially because of the drop in mechanics, but at best, it’s only the third most significant effect.

    The removal of the L-C / G-E grid made the alignments make a lot less sense. It was great to be able to define yourself as *Chaotic* Good, instead of just good. The “Lawful Evil” villain (or even PC) had that possibility of a redeeming factor, that a straight up “Evil” individual lacks. In flattening the alignments, they lost a good source of roleplay.

    And “True Neutral” has meaning to it that “Unaligned” lacks – 4e’s “Unaligned” is pretty much letting the players choose “I don’t care” as their choice; when there was choice to be had, even if the mechanics of such a choice rarely came up (as happened in certain games), then the player had to stand by that choice. If they chose “True Neutral”, that *meant* something, and if they acted contrary to it, there was reasoning to be had! Now, with PCs real choice being “good” or “unaligned” (for PCs cant be evil…and only snotty paladins are lawful good!), that choice has less meaning for the character themselves.

    I would love to see a choice of alignment as in 3e, but mechanics as in 4e.

  14. Steve on February 9, 2012 at 1:10 am

    Like Angry, I am a big fan of alignment. Unlike Angry, I want to see it continue in D&D and I do want to see it come with at least some mechanical significance built in. I want to see those lines in the rule books, and I am happy to pony up the extra proverbial dollar to support my desire. I firmly agree that to make it ‘modular’ is a design nightmare, thus I err on the side of inclusion from the outset.

    Having read the above comments, I tend to agree with what Josh said in his first paragraph and everything but the last line that DnD Buddy posted. My experiences with alignment are just as they describe, and I particularly agree with the statement that it creates a nice way to order deities, monsters etc. For example, the only thing that makes me an adventurer, and not a murderer, is the fact that Orcs are Evil by nature. Alignment serves as a tool to challenge a PC in some environments and absolve them in others. To lose this from the game would be tragic.

    I am quite content with the way 4E flattened alignment. I felt that it distilled alignment down to what really mattered, though I do miss Lawful Evil if we are being honest. Sure, Unaligned is the new Chaotic Good, being the choice most people make as a way to express the fact that they don’t want morality to be an element of their personal play experience. I get that. The world puts plenty of hard choices, both big and small, in front of us every day. We want to dodge that and just have fun when we play.

    Except, that isn’t true of every one. I like playing Good characters who are inevitably better human beings than I will ever be(maybe I even learn something, no?). I like feeling uncomfortable when I have to make a selfish choice for my Unaligned/Evil characters. I enjoy the rich drama of seeing a Good PC fall, and an Evil one redeemed. And I really like it when the world provides feedback for that. I could care less if I get bonus XP for playing my alignment, but I do want to play in an imaginary world that takes this Good/Evil Law/Chaos spectrum and quantifies it in things like items, environments, deities, spells and so on.

    I must respectfully disagree that alignment makes moral dilemma toothless, with one exception. Inside combat, we do need the evil Orc to justify our actions. I don’t think the game is playable if every dungeon delve becomes an examination of morality.

    Out of combat, I think alignment is the very thing that makes moral dilemma possible. Look at the Outwit Angry puzzle. If our man who would be king had no alignment, the choice to send one of his allies to a potential death would be no choice at all. What makes this puzzle interesting is the assumption that this character is Good. Now he is faced with a choice between the short term good of potential self-sacrifice instead of risking the life of a friend, and the long term good of ensuring that he can provide benevolent leadership to his future nation, even if it kills one of his friends. Choices like that are the essence of story, drama etc and are at the very least enabled and enriched by alignment, and potentially impossible to create without it.

    Anyway, I suspect I should close this off. It feels like the hair on my neck might be growing at a disturbing pace. I really didn’t mean to offend, and I really want to thank the Angry DM for putting this concept under a bit of a microscope. It’s pleasurable to have things I take for granted examined, and I am glad he and the rest of those who commented took some time out of their lives to explore the meaning/utility of alignment.

  15. Camelot on February 9, 2012 at 9:15 am

    When I started playing D&D (with 4th edition), I had already known about the nine alignment system. I was glad to see that 4e had simplified them and got rid of the mechanical aspects. My problem with alignments is that they are too rigid; I have had many character ideas where I can’t fit it into alignment because some decisions would be made lawfully, but some chaotically, etc. For example, what about the character who would never break a rule of his Thieves’ Guild, but by definition of being a thief, breaks the city’s rules all the time? I end up just making him neutral, but that doesn’t seem to tell me anything about where the character’s loyalties lie.

    I think that if they keep alignment, they have to design a completely new system. Maybe have a “self-serving/selfless” axis instead of “good/evil.” I would prefer that they just leave it out and let the characters make whatever decision makes sense at the time, and let those decisions have whatever effect makes sense.

    Alternatively, I do like Blackjaw’s idea of making alignment equate with supernatural. It fits with many mythologies and folklore, and gives free will a new meaning.

  16. The Angry DM on February 9, 2012 at 10:31 am

    In reading these responses, I am noticing an odd pattern: that the removal of alignment is being equated to the removal of morality. That strikes me as saying characters in D&D do not have any personality traits because there is no “personality system.”

    Of note is the example of Smartass’s character in the Outwit Angry puzzle. I hope its not bragging to much to say that it is a very good example of a moral dilemma because you have two ideas of “good” at odds with each other, the “lawful good” (sacrifice others for the greater good) and the “chaotic good” (no individual should be asked to lay down his life for the ‘greater good’ unless he or she chooses to do so). But it is interesting to note that, if there is an alignment written on the sheet, then the choice changes in tone from “which ‘good’ is preferable” to “do I want to follow my alignment or violate it.” In essence, an alignment pre-answers many moral dilemmas and can allow a player to fall back on their alignment choice rather than considering each individual situation (if they choose to do so). Especially in prior editions, where there were mechanics and consequences for alignment and alignment violations, this actually had the effect of occasionally turning a moral dilemma which should be an interesting and difficult choice into a puzzle of “which option matches my alignment” and then, cool logic prevailed. This is what I mean when I say that alignment can remove the teeth from moral dilemmas by creating “right” answers for moral dilemmas and letting PCs pick which answers are “right” before the game even starts.

    In short: “lawful-good is my definition of the right way to live so I will always choose the lawful-good approach” is less interesting to me than “what’s the right thing to do here and now in this situation.” This is also why many discussions about alignment were about the definitions of alignment (is action A lawful or neutral, evil or neutral, what’s the difference between chaos and evil, etc.).

    Now, as unaligned has shown us (and, to some extent, true-neutral before it) not every player (and, by extension, not every PC) cares about morality. This is actually quite human. Not everyone cares about the doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Some people just do their thing. And they make choices based on criteria other than morality. Friendship. Payment. Etc. The fact that a large number of players do seem to choose unaligned suggests to me that alignment just isn’t a big thing for most players. And for the players who do care, you won’t stop them from being “the good guy” or “the bad guy” just by not having alignment. Instead, you’ll give them the opportunity to decide for themselves what the definitions of good and evil are, explore those concepts, and be forced to judge them by their actions.

    As for the idea that monsters and gods benefit from alignment, this again is something that falls into the idea that “there is no morality without alignment.” I didn’t need to know the orcs in Lord of the Rings were evil. The murdering and the burning of things kind of gave it away. A monster’s flavor text can make it clear whether a creature is ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in a much more nuanced way than one or two words in a stat block.

  17. The Angry DM on February 9, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Now, see, this makes me sad. Because I don’t want to be arguing against alignment, but in responding to these comments, I find myself turning against it more and more.

  18. Argokirby on February 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm


    Is there a place for alignment in D&DNext that is only in the character development part of character creation. When creating a character there is a section in the PH that talks about personality, height, weight, background, etc… What if this is where Alignment lived. Just like personality or even height and weight they almost never come up in rule mechanics, but do often come up in role-play situation.

    This is how I wold like to see D&DNext handle alignment. Talk about a Good, Evil, Chaos and Law as somewhat tangible entities that exist in the world and are constantly pulling on the souls of creatures.

    Characters choose an alignment when they create their character, but as they play their character they can make it a major part of their role-playing or just give it lip service. Its not a module this way, and becomes more about play style. Having alignment in the system gives players the ability to craft a character that is heavily swayed by one of the 4 entities or they are neutral/unaligned because they do not feel the pull as firmly or choose not to care.

  19. Tim on February 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    I am a fan of alignment. I think it helps shape the character u make and provides an inherent motivation. If a GM chooses to not use it or downplay it, thats cool as long as everyone agrees. I would prefer a game where alignment is strict and the RP links to it.

    I am a huge fan of Michael Moorcock esp the Elric books. No other author does Law v Chaos better. His books are one reason i dig alignment so much. Extremes of law or chaos are eventually destructive.

  20. BlackJaw on February 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm

    RE: AngryDM
    I get what you mean by there being only so many modules possible, at least at release, and the difficulties in adding modules in add-on books later if they require adding details to EVERY MONSTER, for example.

    My thought, however, is that if you’re trying to make an inclusive version of D&D that meshes well with the game-play of past editions, it would be odd to pull Alignment out considering every version of the game that came before 5th had some variant of it. It’s also a really easy thing to ignore or tone down with rules small enough to fit in a sidebar. You pull out or modify the handful or detect spells/protection spells/abilities, and ignore the listings on NPCs & Monsters.

  21. Steve on February 9, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    You know, I am really enjoying this topic.

    “do I want to follow my alignment or violate it.” This, for myself, is the essence of moral dilemma in the game. If my PC didn’t have an alignment I would always fall back on my own moral code. I would make what I think is the appropriate choice. Regardless of the consequences I would always feel comfortable with that choice.

    However, when I need to consider that I am making a choice for a person who may differ significantly from me morally a new and stimulating tension is created. Even if I am just sitting around a kitchen table pretending to be an elf, the dance between my morality and that of my PC can be very emotionally rich. I guess I like alignment because it creates moral dilemma for me, even if as you rightly point out, it can function as an easy button for the character to navigate their world with. I guess I like to choose alignments that end up functioning as a ‘hard’ button for Steve, when Bob the fighter wouldn’t think twice about it.

    More to the point, I find it really interesting if the character is effected in some way if I simply can’t bring myself to make the alignment appropriate choice(the L/G knight falls, or the N/E rogue unwittingly grows as a person etc)

    Same goes for personality. If I don’t have a couple of touchstones for my PC, the potential exists for them to quickly turn into me. They make the same bad jokes, have the same level(or lack thereof)of eloquence, etc. Do I need the game to give me a list of traits on paper to choose from? Well no. But it keeps me honest. Since D&D doesn’t do Advantages/Flaws(thank goodness)alignment fills that gap for me too, along with ability scores and other crunchy bits.

    Can you game without alignment and still have rich experiences? Of course. I run a Dragon Age game and a Star Wars game, neither of which makes the player fill in a blank alignment line on their character sheet. It is perfectly correct to say that morality doesn’t vanish if alignment is absent. These games are as rich in moral dilemma as the players indicate to me they are interested in. D&D Next will not really suffer if alignment is absent.

    And for what it is worth, I solved the Outwit Angry puzzle, but failed the trial overall because I couldn’t bring myself to potentially nuke one of my friends(even though the other players in the scenario offered)in order to ensure I would keep Smartass alive for the long haul. Assuming Smartass was an L/G type destined to rule, my choice as a player to go against type and dodge the easy button could have been a watershed moment for the PC and might have had interesting consequences in the game world as a whole. While I agree that alignment has the potential to make things too logical/easy, it is the moments when adhering to it is hard that really get me excited about the RP aspect of this hobby.

  22. Alphastream on February 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    It sounds really silly, but the confines of alignment are actually what I most like and why I think it works. You have to think about whether your PC is closer to C or N, or whether a PC is Neutral or Good on the other axis. These decisions are not independent, as is the rest of backstory… it becomes a common currency and impacts decisions. I find myself really enjoying the effect it has on the game.

    In campaign play I find that alignment helps ground me and keeps me from being all over the place. It helps me think of the PC as a separate being with a different personality and over time helps me further differentiate the PC from me and their choices from what I would make. Eventually I find my PC is really a separate person that I understand (as if it were someone else).

    I also like the common language within adventures, where a creature may deal far less favorably with some. It is the reward for the Paladin, guides the conversation of the Wizard with the elemental, creates a breach between two Clerics, etc.

  23. Anaxetogrind on February 9, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    I am going to be brief and post an old debate from my groups forums over on my own site.

    I only have one issue with the standard dual axis alignment. Whose definition of good and evil or Moral compass does the DM employ?

    His own, a PC’s, one of the microcosm of Deities of the campaign, some arbitrary definition. If we incorporate mechanics around alignment, I think, that needs to be well defined.

    Some of the greatest minds of our world have tried to define two simple words Good and Evil and we have four. Vaults of religious texts have been written about. College courses ponder the words of philosophers and play writes. Even John Stossel has gotten in on the act.

  24. Dan on February 10, 2012 at 6:08 am

    First of all, I need to give credit to Angry for the fantastic job he’s done moderating this discussion. I have rarely seen such a civil and respectful dialogue anywhere on the internet, much less concerning a topic like this that for whatever reason seems to get people’s blood up. Please keep up the great work!

    I agree that in general, alignment cannot be conflated with morality, and I agree with several of the posters that a lot of discord comes from trying to reconcile at the table what Lawful or Good or True Neutral really means, especially when it comes to realistic moral and ethical dilemmas. Does Lawful Good mean Kantian ethics? Or is that more Lawful Neutral? Where does Utilitarianism fit in? A religiously grounded morality? This is even without the changing “official” definitions of alignments over the years (True Neutral and Chaotic Neutral being the ones I’m thinking of specifically).

    Steve makes one of the stronger points in favor of alignment by pointing out that by providing an external touchstone for what his character’s ethics are, alignment enhances his play experience by forcing him to make decisions that aren’t necessarily the ones he would make. However, given that the definitions of each type of alignment vary significantly, I don’t see how his play experience would be diminished if when conceiving of his character he decided “This character values fairness (defined as…) highly” or “this character had a bad run in with the law and distrusts authority, although he like to help others”. Since individuals’ personal interpretations of each alignment vary so widely, they end up doing this anyway, since “Chaotic Neutral” simply isn’t enough to encompass a person’s attitudes and feelings towards the moral universe.

    Although I think it doesn’t work well for nuanced discussions of morality, I agree with Blackjaw that alignment is potentially useful to discuss the supernatural or things that go beyond the mortal ken. If I were to use alignment in a game, it would most likely be a single axis system constructed in a way that described “teams” more than “morals”- ie, demons and fey can be Chaotic and devils and gods can be Lawful, but leaving Good and Evil out because that brings mortal morality into it too strongly. This would allow me to implement interesting alignment-based mechanical effects while leaving morality to the players. Certainly, however, this could be done without recourse to alignment at all, and simply describing a creatures or places in terms of what sort of supernatural aura they have (and basing mechanical effects on that aura).

    No matter what, though, my baseline opinion is that alignment is usually house-ruled to some extent or another due to the lack of clarity in definitions and individuals’ varying interpretations. I think any poster on this board could easily house rule some kind of alignment system into any game they chose to, without prohibitive amounts of work. I agree with Angry that alignment does not need to be part of the core rules for D&D Next.

  25. The Angry DM on February 10, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Dan, thanks for saying that. I want to take credit, but I really can’t. I haven’t had to step in and moderate anything. I’m just lucky to have great people participating. So that thanks should go to everyone here.

  26. Thaseus on February 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Just to make things clear: The way I see it, I really don’t think 4e got rid of any iconic alignments at all (with the possible exceptions of “neutral” alignments, but even that is debatable). All basic alignments are simplified and renamed or have retained their old names. For example: evil in 4e is the same as lawful evil in older editions; good in 4e is the same as chaotic good in the old editions; and lawful good is still lawful good; and chaotic evil is still chaotic evil. The only “missing” alignments are the neutral variations of good, evil, and true neutral, all of which I found strange and confusing anyway and silly at their worst (i.e. the true-neutral druid who temporarily working for evil to balance out overpowering good because good is currently winning the war of the cosmos, etc.) It makes more sense to lump all these neutral variations under one category, “unaligned,” because there are so many variations of “neutral” and all of them are full of shades of gray and one’s personal perceptions and leanings (by the way, what person in real life has not made some sort of moral decisions about how life should be lived and what is “right” or “wrong,” remaining true neutral? As the old saying goes: opinion are like a**&$#@#, and everyone has one, and most of them stink). EVERYONE has a moral compass of some sort and leanings one way or another toward acts of good and evil (sometimes both) unless they are truly a mental vegetable of some sort. For these reasons, I find it better that the PCs make the choice of how they envision their “unaligned” stance (i.e. as it states in the 4e rules: do they envision it as an actual stance? Or are they simply uncommitted?) Regardless, all unaligned PCs, for intents and purposes, are mechanically morally “unaligned” in regard to true good and true evil and true law and chaos. For whatever their personal reasons, they occasionally follow laws and sometimes break them too; likewise, they also pursue noble, good causes at times, but also fail to do the right thing at times. It is these reasons they are rightfully and conveniently lumped, at least currently, under the heading of “unaligned.” So the real question is: should we get rid of alignments all together because the same ambiguity can also be applied, to some extent, toward the labels of good, evil, lawful, and chaotic? Again, who do you know who has NEVER broken a law? And who has NEVER turned a blind eye toward some wrong act? As others have pointed out life is not full of absolutes. And that being said, should we retain an alignment system at all, or should it be completely abandoned for these same reasons?

  27. Thaseus on February 10, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Another note: I do think you can still have evil and good-aligned magic items, traps, etc. without implementing an absolute alignment system on free-willed characters; for example, these items can react to a characters’ specific acts instead. That is: instead of having an “evil” item automatically burn or damage a PC when he or she touches it, instead have it punish the PC when he or she displeases it or tries to use it in a manner in-congruent to the item’s purpose (in effect, this system is already in place in 4e with the congruency rules used for artifacts). That being said, I don’t have a problem with labeling angels, demons, and other planer beings and supernatural beings as “good” or “evil”, or even labeling Liches who have sold their soul to evil. They are the embodiments of those philosophies and have embraced good or evil to the extreme. Perhaps, mechanics wise, such labels should be reserved only for those who have tipped their moral compass to such an extreme that they actually exude evil or wholesome goodness, and others can sense and feel it when they are around them.

  28. Erik on February 13, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Hey Angry, I think alignments should stay, and be defining features of certain monsters and of course the different gods in D&D, but should be an optional thing for a PC. Because people are able to do the full gamut of alignments. However, I believe that alignment should be a feature of any religious class, or character. So, if you have to choose a deity for your class, then you have to live by their rules and alignments. So, its like a Paladin that if they go against the alignment of the god they fight for, they lose abilities granted by that god. But i think, say you want to make a very religious thief, or whatever, and you go against your gods alignment, you concur penalties instead of losing abilities. Like they did with the Raven Queen’s curse from the Heroes of Shadow book.

  29. Carl R Olson on February 14, 2012 at 5:53 am

    I want alignments in my D&D game, but I have to acknowledge that the system lacks a plain definition that all players can use. Consider White Wolf’s “World of Darkness.” They use a morality system based on two factors: 1) a chart that outlines which acts are immoral and require a die roll to avoid developing a psychosis; and 2) Virtues and Vices which serve to define abd benefit characters during the game. If a new alignment system could incorporate those elements, I think it would be successful, and I think more people would use it naturally, and as written, thus justifying its inclusion.

    However, WoD assumes a particular stance on morality that is integral to its definition as a roleplaying game. Much as I don’t like it, D&D has grown to the point where there is no underlying definition. I’d go so far as to say that it has reverted to the original concept of “kill the monster, take its treasure.” Alignment under this model is effectively useless, at best, or the source of contention and complication at worst. If the designers include alignment, they really need to define the game such that alignment is a necessary component first, then work on a system that takes advantage of its potential (without hampering players.)

    I hope my thoughts haven’t been too repetitive…

  30. Sean on February 15, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    I’d like to see something more like the virtues system used in Exalted. Basically, you have a set of virtues: Compassion, Conviction, Temperance, and Valor that define your Exalt’s character. High virtues are both a blessing and a curse, as a compassionate person can use to their compassion to help others, gaining a slight bonus on dice rolls, but at the same time, the compassionate person also finds it difficult to walk away from those in need. The higher the virtue, the rougher it gets. It allows alignment to exist as a carrot as well as a leash.

  31. Thoughts on Morality « Stormin' Da Castle on March 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    […] is the ongoing speculation with #dndnext in regards to alignment (some excellent discussion on it here). Another is that the question of morality and how it’s handled in games is something I think […]

  32. Thoughts on Morality « Stormin' Da Castle on March 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    […] is the ongoing speculation with #dndnext in regards to alignment (some excellent discussion on it here). Another is that the question of morality and how it’s handled in games is something I think […]

  33. michael west on May 15, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    I have always loved the elegance of the nine box alignment system. The system effectively helped define character personality and encouraged role playing, but mechanics like know alignment and detect evil always put a monkey wrench into good story telling. Perhaps PCs and most mortal creatures could choose and gravitate toward an alignment but only creatures strongly associated with an outer plane could TRULY be aligned and thus affected by game mechanics that had alignment as a keyword. Even characters like paladins couldn’t truly become aligned until perhaps a paragon destiny path, while the alignment for most mortal creatures on the prime material plane would remain murky at best.

  34. Jeremy Morgan on May 15, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    In addition to what Michael said above, I could see some interesting mechanics from characters adventuring on the outer planes having their alignment influenced by the plane, too. In fact, I really like that idea.

  35. Tyler B on June 12, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    (A little late to the game here, but)

    I personally like the use of alignment in creating my characters and what they stand for/how they act. I feel it also helps new people I introduce to the game create a persona. However, I understand its drawbacks as being restrictive, and, while some abilities are alright based on alignment, there could definitely be minimal applications.

    I feel a good alternative would be, instead of completely defining oneself on an axis, using the character building traits to help define a character’s actions and beliefs as seen in the 3.5 PHII chapter 5. It wont be as ‘clear cut’ as an alignment system, but it definitely has a lot of wiggle room. It also serves the same purpose as defining the personality, which I believe is the most important part of the alignment system.


  36. Jack on June 14, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Thread necromancy, but it looks like I’m not the first one, either.

    I only just started going through your archives and I found this post to be interesting for a couple of reasons. One, I just made a post myself about how a misunderstanding of Alignment is one of my pet peeves. I also just read your post about what Role Playing is, and this post seems ready and willing to cast aside one of the best mechanisms D&D has for encouraging Strong RP.

    I think that the “misunderstanding” is a throwback to the original “Law vs Chaos” battle lines, and I agree that as the game has evolved thinking about alignment in absolute terms has become absurd and borders on meaningless. How can a Paladin be Lawful Good, a champion of justice, benevolence, and those who can’t defend himself, and yet slay countless intelligent goblins, kobolds, and orcs?

    My thinking is that alignment has evolved along with the game and if anything we maybe need to rethink the labels we’re using. Law and Chaos is essentially about Tradition/Order/Stability/Community versus Progress/Creativity/Freedom/Individuality. Good and Evil is about whether you’re willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of others or whether you’re willing to sacrifice others to satisfy your own ends. From this perspective, Alignment becomes a key source for internal conflict, as the LG Paladin has to balance his values against the realities of a sociopathic villain. Just because the villain is CE doesn’t make killing him outright any less evil, does it?

    I think it also loosens the bonds of “alignment dictates actions” if you look at it as shorthand for a values system instead of some kind of absolute. The LG Paladin might struggle with himself before killing the CE Villain, and may be wracked with guilt for years to come, but that single act, or even a series of acts, doesn’t change what values he holds dear. And so he doesn’t lose his Paladin powers, because he’s still a champion of those ideals. it’s only when he changes his values, when he casts away Order and Tradition in favor or My Way that he becomes CG.

    And it makes spells of divination less exact, too. Sure, the senator is a progressive who value personal freedoms over “order” (making him Chaotic) and sure he seems to be a selfish bastard who doesn’t mind hurting people if he gets what he wants (making him evil), but that doesn’t mean he was involved with the Assassination attempt. It’s just as likely that it was some LG character with a variant notion of Law, or Good, or even just an internal conflict (the president was a Dwarf, and Dwarves killed his parents). Magic gives you information about values, but it doesn’t give you convictions.

    Those are my thoughts, anyways.

  37. Roxysteve on July 18, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Very late to this table but it is worth pointing out that the idea of alignment as perpetrated in Men & Magic from the “white box” edition was a Moorcockian thing, Law, Chaos and namby-pamby Neutrality. Good and Evil were explicitly stated as relative judgments made by individuals about others and were concerned with alignment (hurhur) with one’s own ethics. Law and Chaos were universal principals, part of the fabric of reality.

    Of course, the real reason to have them was, so that “protection from good/evil” can be manipulated by the players and also by the GM for humorous effect. That got old quickly so the evolution of the Evil/Good/Law/Chaos diagram (with the namby-pamby neutrals in the middle).

    I hate alignments. I’ve never really understood deep down how to use them from either side of the GM screen. Retitle the spell “protection from enemies” and be done with them.


  38. prufock on November 21, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I prefer Mutants and Masterminds’ system for Motivations and Allegiances, now collapsed into Complications for 3e. Basically, you choose one or more things to which you are loyal, committed, or oriented. It can be an allegiance to an ethical or moral code (good, evil, law, chaos, balance), to an organization (the church of Pelor, the Thieves’ guild, the Rebel Alliance), a personal relationship (your family, a pet), a particular goal (killing the man who killed your family), or really anything you want (money, fame, your sword).

  39. Leap on January 5, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    As someone who began playing with AD&D (yes “1st edition”) I have always loved the alignments which, for all their faults, added a depth to the game that is lost in the world of “unaligned”. But I would like to see 5th Edition alignment (yes, I refuse to call it “Next” as well) a little better written than the previous examples.

    4th Ed was right in associating Chaos with Evil, but Lawful Good became a truncated version of Law in response.

    Alignment should be a battle between Holy and Unholy that forces places to face up to their choices rather than fudge them in a mass of “unaligned” (or contrived) hack and slash….Holy being the force of light, truth and accord whilst Unholy is the force of darkness, falsehoods and discord.

  40. Paxx on January 14, 2013 at 3:35 am


  41. Paxx on January 14, 2013 at 3:36 am

    Hi, been a DM for 35 years, wanted to blog fo the first time

  42. Jbot on May 27, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    How about instead of a strict alignment system, an alignment spectrum. Break up the lawful – chaotic and good-evil into two separate tracks for which you can receive points that shift you in either direction.
    I think in addition to this, having game mechanics attached to alignment is a necessity to provide an incentive for proper role play. Like “hey if I kill the little boys puppy I can’t use my good guy sword of goodliness anymore”.
    With a spectrum I have a little more leeway and more awareness of when my decisions are going to shift me into a different alignment. If I want to take advantage of the effects and npcs I must play my character in a certain way but still have some wiggle room for morally ambiguous situations.

  43. Tim on May 30, 2013 at 10:05 am

    If u read alignment in 1e, it does have 2 axes. Good vs evil and law v Chaos. They are more for flavor but classes like paladins have mechanical restrictions. I think when a person designs a pc they should choose the relevant alignment and play it so. One can convert, but that should entail some formal ritual and ordeal, kinda like converting religions in today’s world.

  44. DM Dave on August 7, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Once again, the old alignment argument rears its ugly head, and as always, the arguments for the against side reiterate the same tired statements. This is simple… if you don’t like alignment, don’t play with it. Take it out… ignore it. Its like when a TV show you don’t like comes on that you do not care for… you change the channel.

    However, here’s the thing. Alignment is core to the flavor of D&D. D&D without alignment is ‘just another fantasy rpg’. The game itself is INFUSED with the alignment mechanic in just about every aspect. Sure, PCs have alignments, and monsters have alignments, but so do WEAPONS and magic items. Many spells are focused on alignment, protecting or damaging characters or monsters of certain types. Traps in dungeons can CHANGE a character’s alignment, and the list goes on, and on.

    So, when people start talking about taking alignment out of D&D, I seriously have to question their comprehension of its importance to the game, and its flavor.

    Jack, if you’re still around to read this post, I agree with everything you said, and more.

    Alignment is a wonderful role playing tool, and more importantly a story telling one. First and foremost, D&D is a FANTASY role playing game. Fantasy is genre of literature, and it follows certain conventions, the most predominant of which is the struggle of good versus evil. That is the core conflict of any fantasy tale, whether the characters are fighting the ‘Dark Lord’ or a group of thugs that are terrorizing the town.

    The fantasy genre is dramatic story telling, and the key to all drama is conflict. No conflict, no drama. The alignment system is quite wonderful in that it immediately places a newly created character into the core conflict of the milieu.

    Alignment does not restrict your character, nor does it ‘make choices for you.’ Sorry, but that’s total BS. You can do what you want, but if the action is against your alignment, then you have a moral conflict within yourself to resolve… your character should ‘feel bad’ and this in turn can lead to more stories. Should there be a game mechanic to enforce this? Probably not… but a good DM will certainly point out this conflict to the player, and encourage them to make use of it, and fit it into the ongoing campaign.

    In every aspect of the game, Alignment serves to create story threads, not kill them, and to claim otherwise only indicates a complete lack of understanding of what alignment is, what it does, and how integral it is to the core flavor of Dungeons and Dragons.

  45. Frank on October 29, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    I think to many DM’s and players do alignment wrong. It is a roleplaying tool yes, and while there may be game mechanics based on it the real issue is how players and DM’s deal with it.

    Before I allow anybody to make a character in my game I let them know how alignment works in my game, what is defined as good, evil, ect. for the region they are in. Take for example different cultures in our own world even just in one nation. What might be considered a good and honorable trait in one area could result in you being considered the scum of society in another.

    It is a part of the DM’s job to make sure that his or her players understand from the get go how alignment is going to be defined, what are considered good acts, evil acts, ect. prior to those players even considering what kind of character they are going to play.

    Doing it this way also takes care of one of the big glaring issues that a lot of systems have and that is the detection of alignment. That “evil” villain that you just tried casting detect evil on wont show up as evil as he really does believe that what he is doing is a good thing as in his home culture it is considered a good thing.

    Honestly there is no hard or fast answer on alignment and each DM is going to handle it differently. The main point is that you as a DM need to insure that your players understand how you are going to handle it.

  46. Perturbed, or at most, Mildly Irritated DM on October 30, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    I have a chat with my players about house rules before every campaign. The chat is rapidly forming into a credo document, based on some other Angry advice I’ve gotten. In general, I don’t count arrows, track rations or allow alignment-based spells and/or items. Alignment is too subjective to support that kind of mechanic. That being said, I really do like the G-N-E and C-N-L spectra as guidelines for character development. I think it’s useful to contrast what a character would do in a situation to what the player would do. But it’s a factor, not THE factor. I had one very lawful player who was also quite cowardly in social situations. She would disagree with the actions of those around her quite violently, but often lack the courage to act upon it. So often, though her conscience (played in this production by her LG alignment) would tell her to do one thing, she’d often ignore it for the sake of her fears. So, at my table, the alignment system is a useful metric for moral decision making, and not some set of laws handed down on stone tablets.

    • Uwe Britfeld on November 4, 2014 at 6:54 pm

      I see alignment as absolutely indispensable. It is an important tool to help prevent certain types of metagaming and to make characters more ‘real’.

      I don’t see them as a moral compass, they are simply summarizations of personality traits.

      To me, Law and Chaos are metaphors for people you meet in everyday life.  ‘Lawful’ people are people who believe in and follow rules.  They are
      people who will do whatever they can to keep their promises.  They are into planning and will follow the plan no matter what.  They tend to be very
      confused when they have to “think out of the box.”

      ‘Chaotic’ people, on the other hand, are the opposite.  They don’t like rules, don’t like to be told what to do.  While they may be willing to make
      promises, they will probably only keep them if nothing shiny crosses their path in the meantime.  They don’t follow plans, they prefer to “wing it.”
      They are extremely uncomfortable when someone makes them stand in line or follow a timetable.

      I hate ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’.  I try to replace those with ‘Social’ and ‘Individual’.  

      Social people are those that like the company of others, they will tend to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.  If there is only one room
      available at the inn, they will be the first to step up and say, “Let’s share.” or, “You take it, I’ll be alright.”  Social people don’t have to be
      ‘Good’ per se.  Even murderers have friends, social murderers just prefer to do things with others around. I’ve seen people who are totally selfish
      who like to have their friends around and can even be very self-sacrificing in those situations.

      Individual people are those that believe in “Every man for himself.”  It’s nothing personal, they’re not out trying to hurt others, it’s how
      they look at life.  They simply believe that, if everyone looked out for themselves and stopped worrying about everyone else, things would get done
      and we wouldn’t have to wate a bunch of time with the touchy-feely stuff.  They tend to look out for number one more than anything else.  A person who
      is an individual alignment can be part of a group but usually only if they get something out of it.  They’re not going to sacrifice themselves for the
      good of others but, they aren’t ‘Evil’ in any sense of the word, they consider themselves realistic rather than ‘Evil.’

      So, for example, assume a party has taken on a mission to stop some kind of evil wizard miles away.  Meanwhile, the village has been set on fire by a
      gang of goblins.

      Lawful Social would be torn between saving the village and following the original quest.  Maybe whichever can save the most people.

      Lawful Neutral would almost certainly be for continuing on with the quest.

      Lawful Individual would more than likely be for continuing  the quest unless there were real personal benefit in saving the village.

      In either case, the Lawful characters would get back to the quest at the earliest opportunity.

      Chaotic Social would almost certainly save the village.  

      Chaotic Neutral wouldn’t really care which way it goes.  @$#@ happens. Flip a coin, who knows?  Might just sit down with an ale and watch.

      Chaotic Individual would decide which action would get them the most prestige, money, clout, etc.  Or which would be the least risky.

      Chaotic characters would be for wherever events lead them.  Maybe chase the goblins, maybe go on the quest, maybe go home, whatever.

  47. Dan on November 8, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    I like the idea of social, neutral, and individual to classify people’s social behavior. The games alignment system (character class restrictions) has always left me bewildered. If the DM’s confused that you can bet the players are! I’ll shall endeavor to work these new social concepts into my game, thanks.

  48. Frank on November 13, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    The only issue that I would have with the social, neutral and individual way of classifying alignment is that it does not leave room for moral absolutes. Even a selfish person who is only out for themselves (aka Individual) still has morals and even moral absolutes. (a moral absolute is something that a person always does due to personal beliefs or cultural beliefs or refuses to do for the same reasons.)

    Prime examples are contentious objectors during WW2 some of whom even earned the Medal of Honor. They believed it was morally wrong to carry a weapon and kill folks, yet being law abiding citizens they obeyed the draft and served as medics or other fields that did not require them to kill people. They even faced death like many other combat soldiers with no qualms about dying yet still held firm to their belief that carrying a weapon was wrong period.

    The social/individual way of doing alignment unfortunately does not account for moral compass. While yes good or evil may be defined by culture, using the good/evil axis allows for moral absolutes. It actually does it quite well and helps with creating those moral situations to pit your players in.

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