All right… alignment.
I don’t want to do this.
The problem is, alignment is, like, the most contentious f$&%ing thing in the entire history of D&D. I mean, every stupid edition has its stupid fights and I’ve lived through most of them. When can you sneak attack? How do lightning bolts reflect? Do dwarf women have beards? Bring back THAC0! Level limits ruin the game! We have enough f$&%ing elves! Quadratic wizards vs. linears fighters! Vanican magic can suck it! Why do female dragonborn have boobs! All classes are wizards! What the hell even is a ranger anyway? Bring back Greyhawk/Dragonlance/Ravenloft/Spelljammer! And on and on and on.
Most of these fights rise and fall. Many are particular to specific editions of D&D. Some come up when a new edition is about to be released and then die out again. But alignment is forever. It’s a super contentious issue. Some people – particularly GMs – love alignment. Some people – particularly players but also other GMs – hate alignment. But the wacky thing is thing: almost no one uses alignment at all. But EVERYONE has an opinion.
Aligning in 5th Edition
Now, over a year ago, I wrote about alignment. Specifically, I wrote an article that amounted to this.
I like alignment. But, here’s the thing. You’ve clearly stopped doing anything with alignment. You don’t know what to do with alignment. You don’t care about alignment. And, the way you’re going, alignment is barely going to be in D&D Next. So, why don’t you just take it the f$&% out. It’s cool. Just remove alignment.
Hugs and Kisses,
And, goddamnit, I was right. Well, I was sort of right. Alignment isn’t actually IN D&D 5E anymore. So, good. Great. Good riddance. Except that, it still sort of IS in D&D. Right? I mean, it’s in the Players’ Handbook. You’re told to pick an alignment for your character. And all of the alignments are defined and explained.
And alignment pops up in a few other places too. For example, every race is described as tending toward a certain alignment. Elves tend to be chaotic. Dwarves tend to be lawful and good. Humans tend to be any damned thing because the gods know the only flavor we have for humans is diversity which only actually works if you then enforce racial stereotypes on EVERY OTHER F$&%ING RACE or else it doesn’t mean anything. Halflings tend to be lawful good. In point of fact, all of the playable races tend toward good to a greater or lesser extent. And one might argue that that’s WHY they are the playable, civilized races. But whatever.
In addition, if you look at the Spreadsheets O’ the Gods at the back of the PHB which is all the description of the deities you’re ever going to get, note that every deity has an alignment. And for that matter, when the PHB inexplicably starts rambling about the planes of existence, it notes that all of the planes have alignments too. Except for all of the planes that don’t.
Also, there’s a little nod toward alignment in the Ideals section of the whole Inspiration System. Every Ideal in the book has a parenthetical alignment trait after it. E.g. “Fairness. We all do the work, we all share in the reward (Lawful)” (PHB 139). In theory, your alignment drives you specific Ideals encouraged by your Background. That isn’t actually spelled out, though. And there are no tendencies, either. Every Background has options for most alignments. I can play a lawful-good criminal or charlatan or a chaotic soldier. And there are some major issues with those if you put the description of the background next to the description of the alignment and compare notes.
So, how can I say that alignment isn’t actually in 5E given all of that? Well, because, none of that means anything. None of it actually does anything. Actually, all it really does is start fights. Let me explain.
Firstly, there’s nothing that says that your alignment has to match ANY of the choices you make. You can choose to be a cleric of a lawful-good god and be chaotic-neutral. You can choose a chaotic ideal while you, yourself are lawful-good. You can play a chaotic-evil halfling or a lawful-good elf. You can play any combination of race and class and background and have any features you want without regard to the alignment you choose to play. And some will argue this is perfectly okay. In fact, I’m going to come back to that point. But for now, if you’re already incensed that I seem to be suggesting that we go back the alignment restrictions of bygone days, calm your f$&%ing tits. I’m not. Except maybe I also sort of am. But it’s complicated. Like everything. We’ll get there. Right now, we’re just establishing context. So stay calm and read on.
What’s weird is there are all these nods to alignment. Take a look at the various paladin oaths. Each paladin is given a code of rules to follow as part of assuming their particular paladinly oath. Which, to be fair, makes a lot of sense. Paladins swear an oath to an external divine force and that powers their magic. So it makes sense they’d have an honor code. And each oath is described as having a “tendency” toward a particular alignment. Which also makes sense. Because if you look at the actual codes, the actual honor codes kind of leave no room for interpretation anyway. Paladins of Devotion must remain honest, courageous, compassionate, honorable, and dutiful. That’s pretty much a textbook definition of lawful-good.
What’s interesting, though, when it comes to the paladin, is the sidebar on PHB 86 that specifically addresses a paladin failing to uphold their oaths and how a GM should deal with those that. But the game is pretty clearly saying “this shouldn’t be ignored, really.”
What’s really odd though is that nothing like this exists for clerics who are also empowered to act by divine agents and have to follow some sort of ethos. Nor does it exist for druids. Nor does it exist for warlocks who are more similar to clerics at this point than wizards.
It’s weird for TWO important respects. First, why paladins but not clerics and druids and warlocks? And second, why spell out the oaths when the alignment system already pretty much handles that?
But, let’s look further. If you look into the DMG for alignment, you’ll discover it doesn’t even have an entry in the index. And the alignments are barely mentioned at all in the DMG. Even in the chapter on planar cosmology, there’s just a brief mention that the Outer Planes have alignments. And that’s it. There’s a few other throwaway mentions, like when they talk about NPC Ideals, but it’s a quick mention that ends with “but you can totally ignore this alignment s$&%.”
Also, look at the spells and magic items. Check out, for example, Protection from Evil and Good. That’s a single spell now, by the way. And it protects you from: aberrations, celestials, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead. It doesn’t protect from specifically aligned creatures or actually have anything to do with alignment at all. Hell, most elementals are neutral with respect to good and evil. The spell is really a ward against supernatural creatures. Or non-material planar creatures. Whatever.
In point of fact, there is only one place left in which there is any sort of a specific mention of the consequence of having an alignment. And that is under sentient magic items. It is noted that if your alignment is in conflict with that of a sentient magic item you own, you might have an argument. A magical sword with a mind of its own literally cares more about its wielders alignments than the gods themselves who are aligned and live in planes made of pure alignment and gain souls based on alignment.
As a side note, cool magical items like the Helm of Opposite Alignment (that changes your alignment like a curse) and the Mirror of Opposition (that generates a duplicate of you of the opposite alignment)? Those are gone.
It’s all kind of wacky, isn’t it?
It’s almost like they didn’t want alignment to be a part of the game but there were afraid to actually remove it. And, frankly, I’ve said that a lot about a lot of the things in the game. Hell, that’s probably why we got a spreadsheet of deities for every goddamned world when the 3rd and 4th Edition PHBs had no problem saying “for you divine types, here’s a default list of gods with some traits you can work into your character.” And yeah, I actually DO have a problem with that. Because paladins get all of this flavor about their divine oaths and s$&%, and clerics get mechanics that mostly boil down to “pick a list of features, then give it a name.”
And, TO BE CLEAR, I am fine with either of those approaches. I am fine with the Dungeon World esque approach to divine classes that basically says “pick a slate of powers and then give your god a name and come up with the rest yourself.” I’m also fine with the Paladin approach of “if you want this class, you’re also picking this flavor, so here it is, go ahead and choose and if you can’t live like this, you can’t be part of this class because that’s what THIS CLASS MEANS!” I actually prefer the second. But that’s a personal preference.
What I have a problem with is BOTH in the same f$&%ing game. Both approaches DON’T WORK TOGETHER.
Throwing Out Alignment
Honestly, if you hate alignment, and I know a lot of people who do. And personally I feel a lot of the alignment hatred comes from poor explanation, poor implementation, and dumba$& GMs who don’t understand it. And I AM going to defend it shortly. But if you hate alignment, get rid of it.
Seriously. Let’s economize here. And let’s put on our big boy pants and big girl panties and do what the creators of D&D were too scared to do: take it out. Alignment isn’t doing anything anymore. And if you find it restrictive and absolutist and too much of a pain in the a$&, seriously don’t bother with it. Don’t ask players to pick one. Don’t write it on character sheets. Don’t acknowledge it. It does nothing.
And I don’t just mean MECHANICALLY either. I’m not just saying “well, there’s no game effect on alignment, so why have it,” I’m saying alignment literally adds nothing to the game. The Inspiration system, particularly through Flaws and Ideals, is more than plenty for your game. A character chooses one personal moral or ethical value that guides them and one moral or ethical failing that gets in their way. And everything else is just handled on a case by case basis. Done and done.
So, that’s my first piece of advice. Don’t even waste time. Don’t waste player time. Don’t waste GMing time. Alignment doesn’t exist in 5E. It just pretends to. It’s just an impotent wraith buzzing around the edges of the rulebooks. It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.
And that’s my advice. Come back next week and we’ll do adventure structure some more. Bye.
Are they gone?
All the alignment haters? Are they gone? Did that get rid of them? Good. Let’s you and me talk.
A Case for Alignment
At heart, I am a world building GM. I love creating worlds. Currently, all of my D&D campaigns take place in different corners (or slightly different versions) of a world that I have come to call the Angryverse. Although I have been running homebrew games for over 25 years now, the Angryverse is a relatively new construct. It began in 2008.
What happened was, in January of 2008, WotC released a pair of preview books about the design and development of D&D 4th Edition. They weren’t really about the mechanical framework beneath the then-unreleased D&D 4E. They were more about the development of the world of D&D. The lore, the mythology, the roles that different races and classes would play in the world, the planes, bits of fluff, all sorts of really richly cool stuff. Oh sure, they talked about how the design and development worked together, too, which is something I am a fan of. And it excited me to see this grand vision for the WORLD OF D&D. See, none of the previous editions had really spent much time designing the world. The game itself was generic, right? Port the rules into campaign setting you chose. But even 3E spent some time on the deities of that default world and gave little odds and ends here there. Especially when it came to the races and the classes.
Both 3E and 4E had this sort of hidden consistency underlying it that suggested a default world for D&D, but 4E turned that up to 11. Sure, there was the Nentir Vale as a setting for adventure. But there were new gods, a newly simplified cosmology based on those gods and their relationships, and it had an actual history hidden in the pages. The Dawn War. The Birth of the Dragonborn. Asmodeus’ rise to power. The Raven Queen slaying the god of death and erasing her true name from history. The elven schism. Yeenoghu’s gnolls destroying the great empires. Wizardly orders like the Emerald Orb and the Golden Wyvern. Nations like Arkhosia, Cendrienne, Bael Turath, and Nerath. The nature of life and death, the Shadowfell, and the three-fold relationship of body, spirit, and soul. Nothing was spelled out in excruciating detail. It was all sort of implied. And some of it was just hidden away. Gems you stumbled on. Hell, the wizardly orders came from the names of several powers, a few references in the preview books, and the names of several miniatures.
The thing was, it was all just enough detail to suggest there was a world in there without forcing a setting on you. Yeah, the story of tieflings and dragonborn define those races, but that’s also just ancient history. And it doesn’t have to be that way. And there were some missing details – very important missing details – like why humans don’t have a patron deity. And there were clues to suggest answers without spelling them out. One of the funniest details was that one of the gods – Tharizdun – the Elder Elemental Eye – was only named in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Several references to the Elemental Eye were floating in other places, but it was purposely kept a secret from players that Tharizdun was the Elemental Eye and he had created the Abyss in an attempt to destroy the Primordials of the Elemental Chaos.
The thing is, I LOVE a nice, solid, consistent world. And I ate that s$&% up. Hell, I memorized it. I pored over every book for the hidden details that would let me glimpse the secret World Bible of the Points of Light campaign. And a lot of people never even noticed it was there. Or that it was truly consistent. And I’m honestly glad they never published it. Because I know – I KNOW – they had a secret design document with all this crap in it. They could have. But they didn’t.
Because it was the PERFECT level of world lore for a game like D&D that thrives both on people making it their own AND on people obsessing over published materials. And that is why, once I started running games in the 4E POL campaign, I adopted it as my own. My home campaigns take place in a universe that a 4E fan would recognize. It works mostly the same way.
But the other amazing thing about the 4E universe is that it was economical. There was never more lore than was needed by the game itself. The Dawn War existed to explain the difference between the Divine and Primal power sources. The history of Bael Turath and Arkhosia existed to explain where tieflings came from. Wizardly orders coincided with the the Arcane implements: staff, orb, and wand. And that informed the types of magic they used. That’s what made it so powerful. At least initially.
So, what does any of this have to do with alignment? Well, it has to do with the part that alignment plays in the D&D universe.
The Objective Moral Reality of D&D
We know for a fact that, in the D&D universe, there are gods. And there are divine realms. And there are also souls. And there are also supernatural beings born of particular alignments. And because of the way these things interact, we know that alignment is a property of the D&D universe.
Now, obviously, everything I’m going to say here varies a bit between editions. Alignment was very strong in 2nd and 3rd Edition. There were all sorts of restrictions, spells, and magical effects keyed directly to alignment. Especially once you added in all of the planar stuff in Planescape, the Manual of the Planes, and so on.
In 4E, alignment was weak and kind of weird. Because even though deities had alignments and souls had alignments, the nature of life and death got a little strange. When you died, your soul transferred to the Shadowfell, where it eventually journeyed the Raven Queen’s palace and was ushered off to… whatever happens to the dead. However, certain souls were placed in the care of particular deities based on their devotion. But alignment wasn’t really a big THING in 4E, so it wasn’t really based on alignment. And alignment was greatly simplified in 4E. But it still sort of existed.
The point is, though, that however strong the system makes it, alignment is a thing that exists in the world of D&D. It’s a force, sort of like gravity or buoyancy or the law of “haters gonna hate.” Creatures born of the outer planes like devils and gods and stuff? They ARE their alignment. They lack free will. They cannot behave in a way counter to their alignment because it’s literally what they are made of.
What that also means is that there is an objective, external definition for what is good, what is lawful, what is chaotic, and what is evil. It isn’t relative. It isn’t a matter of perception. There are universal laws of morality that exist in the D&D universe.
And honestly, that’s the only way alignment makes sense. If alignment weren’t based on some sort of external rule, the concept of evil would make no sense. No being would ever classify itself as evil. Evil beings are evil for one of two PERSONAL, SUBJECTIVE reasons. Either they believe their actions actually serve the greater good in some (possibly misguided capacity) and therefore they consider themselves good. OR they reject the concept of morality altogether. They refuse to accept that good and evil have any meaning and therefore, don’t base their decisions on good and evil.
The only way a standard works is it’s accepted and agreed upon. Temperature wouldn’t be useful if we only discussed relatives. What is hot to me may not be hot to you. And alignment comes down to a lot of “hot” or “cold.” But heat is a real, universal property. When we measure the temperature of something, we’re measuring how much energy the molecules in that thing has. We agree upon various standards so we can talk absolutely about the temperature of things, but we can also speak relatively about this thing being hot or that day being cold or whatever.
And the temperature analogy works well for other reasons. See, the thing is, once you try to point to the fact that the D&D universe includes a sort of “moral and ethical temperature” as a metaphysical law of the universe, people like to start picking that idea apart. And the “flaws” they point to almost always come down to a couple of key misunderstandings.
First of all, good and evil AND law and chaos are spectrums. They aren’t binaries. For example, assume that stealing is an evil act. That doesn’t mean the moment you steal something, you “turn evil.” Stealing bread from a wealthy baker to feed your starving family is much different than stealing bread from a starving family because you don’t feel like cooking. The first might barely register as “evil,” especially when balanced against the good of not letting starving people die. The second is pretty s$&%. And the fact that good and evil and law and chaos come in degrees is why we have the concept of “making the punishment fit the crime.” So, if someone says something mean on the Internet, our response should be proportional. It should not be to destroy the person’s life. But I digress. Heh.
That’s part of why the temperature analogy works so well. Good and evil are like hot and cold. I can say “wow, this room is hot” or “it’s not a very hot day out,” and you understand that I’m speaking in a subjective and relative way about a broad, continuous spectrum. We don’t have rules for how hot it has to be before I say something is “hot.” And context is also important. So, when I say the “oven isn’t hot yet,” I probably mean it’s not yet the 425 degrees I need to cook my french fries. But, if I say “the shower is hot,” I probably mean the water temperature is above the normal 100 to 110 degrees most people shower at.
The other issue that f$&%s people up is disagreements about the interpretation of alignment. If there is an absolute objective alignment system, how can people possibly disagree about what is good and evil and lawful and chaotic.
The answer is simple: we’ve had concepts of hot and cold for far longer than we’ve had thermometers and understand molecular kinetic energy. Just because there ARE rules in the universe doesn’t mean that WE know what they are or that WE can measure them, yet. You and I might disagree on whether stealing bread to feed my starving family is evil or not, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a correct answer that the Universal Moral Objective Authority actually knows. Hell, for all WE know, we might live in a universe – the real universe – where there really is an objective moral reality and we haven’t worked it out or found any evidence for it yet. Who the hell knows?
The point is, in the D&D universe, there is an objective moral reality. That’s the only way alignment makes any sense as it has been presented in D&D. And everything is beholden to that final authority. Mortals, gods, planes, devils, angels, everything. But the funny thing is that that’s not actually that surprising. We kind of already know that. At the end of the day, it is the Game Master who decides the moral laws of the universe. Bahamut, the lawful good platinum dragon takes the actions the GM dictates and the GM decides what lawful good means. In that respect, Bahamut can’t oppose his own alignment.
Free Willed Player Dips$&%s
But that brings us to the thing that f$&%s up every system and idea in D&D. The f$&%ing players. See, the players have free will, right? They will choose whatever actions they want. But the players also have alignments. And if there is an objective moral reality to the universe that controls literally the whole universe, how can the players have free will.
And usually, this is the point where people say “AHA! Gotcha!” And they think they broke my entire alignment system. And then I have to explain to them that they are dumba$&es.
Of course sentient mortal beings have free will. They can choose to be good or evil or lawful or chaotic. They have the capacity to be any alignment. What they choose determines the alignment that they are.
You can think of it like this: a mortal soul begins as an unmarked blank slate. Over the course of a mortal life, it gets heated or cooled by all choices a mortal makes. When the mortal dies, something takes the soul’s temperature. And that determines what happens after death. It’s as simple as that. And it totally gels with all of the ideas of D&D afterlives and MOST of the ideas of real-world possible afterlives.
But what does that mean for the alignment on the character sheet? Well, that written alignment is just a statement of intention. When I write “lawful good,” all I’m saying – as a player – is that my character generally tries to live a good life and believes in social orders over the individual. When I write “lawful evil,” I say people live by social order and I will do whatever I have to do to be at the top of that order. And so on and so forth.
But that alignment doesn’t actually mean a whole hell of a lot. Which isn’t weird anyway. Players state lots of intentions about their character. But once they start playing, the character usually evolves based on table dynamics and how various in-game events affect the character. So, alignment shouldn’t be any more different.
Under this approach, what that means is that the players don’t know their characters’ true alignments in the universe. Only the GM knows for sure who is lawful good and who is chaotic evil and so on. The players have to guess. Moreover, if the players WANT to follow a specific alignment, they have to make their best guesses to keep in line with that moral code.
And that’s exactly how it should be. If it is important to me, as a PC, to be lawful-good, I try to always choose the lawfullest and goodest courses of action, but I can never be really sure. Barring, of course, a detect alignment spell.
Is Any Of This Useful?
Okay, so I’ve made a case for a pretty basic idea. Alignment is a property of the D&D universe. It is woven into the very fabric of reality. Supernatural beings are basically slaves to it. Sentient mortals have only a dim understanding of it, are burdened with free will, and their souls gradually get marked with all of their choices. The alignment on a character sheet is a combination of the player’s intentions and their best guess but their real alignment is a secret until revealed by some sort of magical outside force. And the GM acts as the ultimate moral authority for the universe.
But, fine, is any of that useful? Seriously. Does any of that serve any useful purpose in the game that justifies not jettisoning all of that crap? And the answer is: that depends.
Once upon a time, a dude who called himself Lord British released a video game called: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. And it was unlike any role-playing game ever released. It didn’t present a grand quest like “kill the evil princess” or “save the wizard” or anything like that. Instead, it asked the player to become a paragon of virtue. Basically, to become the savior figure in a new religion. The idea was that there were three major virtues that combined in a Venn diagram setup into eight basic values: Compassion, Justice, Honesty, Honor, Valor, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Humility. And you wandered the world, visiting different holy sites, gathering relics, learning how the virtues related to each other, and so on. Along the way, you were presented with numerous choices and a great deal of freedom and you were constantly being graded on all eight virtues. Now, the game was extremely primitive, but it was also amazing. And alignment served an important purpose in that game. It was the central conflict of the entire game.
You can decide for yourself how much alignment should matter in your game. The best I can do is teach you a functional system. This is how alignment works best. You have to decide if you want it and if you want to do anything with it.
For me, though, I’m hesitant to throw it out because it’s at the core of religion, spirituality, life, and death in the D&D universe. Those things all only make sense because alignment exists the way it does. Why are devils always trying to corrupt people? Because if you turn a mortal soul with free will to lawful evil, it will end up in the Nine Hells serving Asmodeus. Why does Bahamut preach justice, honor, compassion, etc? Because he’s giving you his instruction manual for being lawful good. That way, you end up in his domain. Good gods preach rewards in the hereafter. Evil gods use trickery or bribery to win souls. It all makes a nice kind of sense.
Beyond that, though, such an alignment scheme also allows players to choose their level of engagement with alignment. For example, I can choose to play lawful good. That becomes a goal for my character. My fighter must be honorable, compassionate, and all the other things that go into lawful good. Even when it’s hard. So, when I’m confronted with a tough choice where the easy way out is also the chaotic or the evil way out, I can choose not to take that way specifically because lawful good is a goal for my character. My character thinks it’s important to be a good person, even if it kills them.
Of course, not all players can choose to ignore alignment and just be neutral. Characters who draw their power from divine sources are rubbing right up against the alignment system. I know a lot of gamers oppose the idea. But me, I see that as completely reasonable. If you want to play a Paladin of Bahamut or a Cleric of Pelor, you’d better be prepared to live by their commandments. And the shorthand for those commandments is “lawful good” and “neutral good” or whatever. See, part of my philosophy is that it’s never JUST mechanics. When you choose a class or a race or a background or whatever, you aren’t just choosing some mechanical rules to have. You’re also saying something about your place in the world. And if you don’t like that place, well, honestly, you’re choosing the wrong race or class or background.
If someone comes to me and wants to play a human but use the dwarf traits because they want the mechanical benefits of being a dwarf without the baggage of being a dwarf, I don’t have a lot of respect for that. Because you’re telling me mechanics are more important than the world and the characters. And it goes the other way too. If you want your story to ignore the mechanics, I don’t buy that either. Mechanics and story have to reflect each other for the game to make any sort of f$&%ing sense. They have to work together.
So, I have absolutely no problem telling people “hey, you want to a paladin, you’d better be prepared to try your damndest to live by this code.” That’s part of what being a paladin is. It’s not just a divine smite and a suit of nice armor. It’s also a place in the reality that we’re building. And we need to agree on what that place is.
Now, in my game, other things key off of alignment as well. For example, alignment is another way of getting inspiration. Live in accordance with your alignment in a major way? Get inspiration. Likewise, I use divine blessings as magical treasures. Instead of a +1 sword, you might get a blessing of Kord. Same deal: a +1 to attack and damage. But that one comes with some baggage as a tradeoff for its versatility. It only works until you piss off Kord. Kord only bestows his blessings on those who please him.
One of the other things that alignment allows me to do is to ban evil. I do not allow evil PCs. I haven’t for a long time now. There’s a lot of reasons. And every so often, some dips$&% will tell me that this makes me a terrible, limiting, restrictive, a$&hole GM who runs an awful game and doesn’t allow any fun. And those are precisely the dips$&%s I don’t want at my table anyway. Anyone who reacts like that is a terrible player. And I’m done running games for those people. So, as a character starts to slip and I start to realize they are becoming “evil” according to the universe’s (my) definition, I warn them. Because if they cross that threshold, the character must be retired. Those are my rules.
When Players F$&% Up
Now, here’s the big issue. Once upon a time, D&D encouraged GMs to be kind of an a$&hole about alignment changes. It basically said “if a character fails to live up to their alignment, take the character sheet, erase the alignment, change it, take away a bunch of experience points, and punch the player in the throat.” And, with all respect to the various authors of D&D, that’s complete and utter horses$&%. A moral system that expects absolute perfection from imperfect, free-willed mortals is going to fail. People make mistakes. They screw up. They have moments of weakness. That’s why all major religions – INCLUDING THE D&D ONES – have some methodology for apologizing for transgressions. Because people are human.
In general, I don’t make a big deal about alignment changes. They just happen. The only time I do start to worry is when a character is turning to evil. And, at that point, I pull the player aside and say “you did this, this, and this. In this world, those things are evil. Keep it up and I take your character away because I don’t allow evil PCs and you knew that when you made your character.”
However, once you have divine agents who need to conform to moral standards, you have to get a little more involved in the alignment. What happens, for example, when the lawful good paladin of Bahamut starts drifting toward chaotic good or lawful neutral or neutral evil? In ye olden days, GMs were encouraged to strip divine characters of their powers. If the paladin falls, take away their paladin powers. If the cleric turns away from chaos, take away their divine powers.
And, you know what? I fully support that. A cleric or paladin that has failed their oaths is, in my mind, unplayable as a cleric or paladin. And I make that clear to players right up front. You want to play this character? You’d better be damned sure because the universe is holding you to a higher standard. End of story.
But, if you think about it from the god’s perspective, it’s kind of weird to let someone that valuable slip away from you. The whole “well, you did one evil thing too many so I took away your spells” is really a dumb management technique. Hell, when I f$&% up at work, I get written up before I get fired. Within reason. If the lawful good paladin of Bahamut gleefully burns down a puppy orphanage, you have to let him go.
But I am a big fan of using omens, dreams, visions, and ultimately even divine agents and other members of the clergy to stop a character from falling too far out of favor. It actually makes divine characters MORE interesting in my world because divine upper management wants to work with them. Clerics aren’t just waiting around for the hammer of divine judgment to fall. They get a personal connection with their god. Why? Because god, GM, and player ALL want to see the character succeed.
In the end, though, sometimes it isn’t to be. And when a divine character falls, well, you have to find a solution that works for your game. And that solution comes outside of the game. That is to say: player and GM sit down and decide what the hell to do. Do you retire the character? Does the character seek atonement? Does the character join a different faith? And does that conversion leave the character with enemies in their former priesthood? Do you rebuild the character as a fighter assuming they retained their combat abilities and lost all their divine magic? It has to be worked out on a case by case basis.
The point is, any useful alignment system has to acknowledge that people aren’t perfect and f$&%ing up happens. It can’t be too strict, but it also can’t be too loose, or it loses all meaning.
If you’re still with me, at this point, maybe I’ve convinced you not to throw away alignment. Maybe I’ve even convinced you to make alignment meaningful in your game. Which is cool. It can be very rewarding, especially if your games involve a lot of the spirituality and magical fantasy of the D&D cosmos. But you may have noticed I didn’t actually define the nine alignments. I didn’t even talk about what alignments actually mean.
And the thing is, you, as the GM, are now the final authority on alignment. So, you have to know what the alignments are. I’m going to say this: the absolute best modern writeup on alignment comes in the D&D 3.5 Players Handbook (PHB 104-105). The writeup in 5E is s$&%. Like so many writeups in 5E. Because alignment isn’t really IN 5E. But really, you need to sit down and decide FOR YOURSELF what good and evil are and what law and chaos are.
But I’ll tell you this: it doesn’t actually have to be that complicated. It can be, if you want it to be, but it doesn’t have to be. To end this article, I’m actually going to share the alignment quiz I give new players at my table so they can choose their alignments. That way, you can see how I do it. Ready? Here it is:
First, Good vs. Evil
Are you willing to suffer harm or make sacrifices to benefit others? If so, you’re good.
Are you willing to harm others for your own benefit? If so, you’re evil.
Otherwise, you’re neutral with respect to good and evil.
Now, Lawful vs. Chaos
Do you think individuals should be expected to give up freedoms for the benefit of society as a whole? If so, you’re lawful.
Do you think you are better off retaining your individual freedoms by living outside of society? If so, you’re chaotic.
Otherwise, you’re neutral with respect to law and chaos.
Don’t clarify. Don’t accept “it depends.” Just tell people to answer those questions and write down whatever alignment results. Let them decide how much they have to lean toward an option before they become that option. Don’t tell them the cutoffs.
Oh, don’t be surprised if a lot of people end up Good and either Lawful or Neutral. That’s how it usually plays out. Because humans tend toward Lawful Good or Neutral Good. As it turns out. Just another thing the PHB got wrong.