Alignment in D&D 5E: S$&% or Get Off the Pot

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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.

Dear WotC:

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.

Defining Alignments

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.

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46 thoughts on “Alignment in D&D 5E: S$&% or Get Off the Pot

  1. man, whenever discussions of alignment come up, i always get made to feel like a terrible person.. mainly because im 100% certain that most humans arent good.. or evil. everyone falls into some variety of neutral… and thats where the average should actually be, considering that neutral is the average of good an evil… but no one seems to agree on that, so i guess maybe im just a shit human :\

    • If you define the good/evil spectrum on a scale of 1(good) to 10(evil) and say everyone at 2-9 is neutral, then yeah, you’re right. But you’re also lumping some pretty nice folks and some real bastards in with legit fence sitters. If you expand good out to 3 or 4 and evil to 7 or 8, you’ll end up with a more useful scale.

    • I agree with you, but it’s partly because ambiguity over what “willing to make sacrifices” means. Is that “willing in a theoretical sense” or “actually, consistently willing”? The former might “Like” a link on Facebook that says “Help the Syrian refugees,” the latter will actually go and do something about it. Or do something concrete at any rate, whether that is volunteering at your local church or Boys’ and Girls’ club, or taking a casserole to a sick neighbor, or giving a ride to work every day to someone who is too poor to afford a car right now.

      Either of those might fit the “willing to make sacrifices” standard in someone’s eyes, but at my table only the latter would get ruled as Good-aligned instead of Neutral.

      And by the way, Good-aligned people can do horribly bad and wrong things, like giving away national security secrets that start wars and get millions of people killed. Good-aligned doesn’t mean “morally good by real-world morality,” nor “wise and far-sighted.” It just means “willing to make sacrifices to benefit others.” Steven Sondheim would refer to this alignment as Nice but for historical reasons we tend to call it Good. Good-aligned bad guys are awesome.

    • I think the reason a lot of people disagree with “the average should be neutral” is because, the way alignment is usually defined, neutrality isn’t given a definition. The two extremes of a spectrum are defined, and then neutrality is “If you’re not either extreme, you’re neutral.” I think it’s much more useful to define the conflict defined by the Law/Chaos and the Good/Evil spectrums.

      Law/Chaos is about security versus freedom. The more personal freedoms you’re willing to give up in order to be safe, the more Lawful. Vice versa for Chaos. But most people are neutral, because they’re willing to give up some freedoms (the freedom to steal, murder, etc.), but not willing to give up others (freedom to speak your mind, spend your time as you wish, etc.) The extremes are rare, and they should be.

      Same for Good/Evil. It’s about the group versus the individual. The more you care more about others, even strangers, than yourself (“willing to self-sacrifice for others”), the more Good. The more importance you place on yourself at the expense of others, the more Evil. But most people, while willing to make a sacrifice for a friend or family member, won’t take too much of a hit for a stranger. Thus, most people fall close to the middle of Good/Evil, being Neutral.

  2. My problem with alignment is that most people who play with alignment don’t define what they mean and all these terms come loaded with variations and different extremities. It also feels like a crutch to explain different motivations and attitudes. I can deal with alignment granted that I don’t have to play mind-reader with GM.

    Personally in my own games I don’t let players choose an alignment. In my experience, players think more about /who/ they are aligned to. Do they do it all for themselves? For the family, faction, nation? And who are they willing to risk? With alignment, some players just get lazy and use it to justify their actions which is just stupid. Now, I don’t allow douche-baggery in my games which I have seen done with literally every alignment. I also give Paladins a code to uphold and require clerics uphold their god and their gods beliefs or they lose their powers; you don’t need alignment for that.

    I technically have alignment if you consider corruption and purity (which the players really have no control over), but they basically take on the mechanical effects of alignment. But that is a separate issue handled by demons and gods, paladins and necromancers.

  3. What if they sacrifice for others’ benefits but it’s for a small in-group (like the party), while they’re fine with hurting others outside of it? The two choices of “sacrifice for others” and “hurt others for self-gain” aren’t mutually exclusive. You could do both. But putting that as a neutral choice sounds wrong; it still sounds evil.

    Articles like this make me wish parts of the PBH were written better. That and making me wonder how much it’s worth looking into 4E books just for lore and ideas.

    • Remember that it’s a spectrum. If you do both, but do the second much more than the first, you’re still evil. If you do both, but do the second a little bit more, you’d probably be neutral with evil tendencies.

    • For that, I’d define “other” as a psychological term. The other is those outside your tribe/family/friends/nation etc. the reason for this is that most people treat their “group” well. How one treats strangers and their enemies has always been the deciding factor for good or evil.

  4. Great article. I let my players choose an alignment and then I let them choose how much (or little) to engage with it. Which… honestly… feels a little lazy to me. I don’t want to be a dick about it, but I’ve never been comfortable having it be this vestigial mechanic that, in the end, no one ever does anything with.

    I REALLY like your idea of having alignment be something the characters strive for, but not something that necessarily locks them up with moral shackles (Paladins and Clerics notwithstanding). I think it’s an elegant solution that allows the players to maintain free will but also provides DMs with interesting ways to use alignment in creating stories. I think this is a discussion I’ll be having with my players — especially the Paladin who, I think, has been slacking off a bit in this department. (I’ve been giving him some portents and dreams… we’ll see if he take the hint…)

  5. Brilliant finish, and agreed.

    Speaking of vestigial artifacts, why does D&D still have ability scores, when literally all they serve to do is tell you what your ability modifier is? Can’t we just cut out the middleman?

    • They do more than that.

      Ability scores determine what feats and what classes you have access to. For example, the monk requires at least a 13 in Dexterity and Wisdom.

    • I can only think it’s because some people would freak out seeing a small positive or (shock and horror!) negative number next to “Strength”, “Intelligence”, etc.

    • It’s so you have to put two points into it to get an actual stay bump. It’s always been about that. I think.

      • No, it hasn’t. +1 per 2 points is a 3e thing; before that stats affected several different mechanics e.g. Charisma didn’t just tell you how to make friends and influence people, it put a strict cap on the number of henchmen you could have and how loyal they were. Modifiers were extremely rare, cutting in for scores of about 16 and up – given that 1e rules were roll 3d6 six times and write them in order for the abilities. It also meant you couldn’t have free choice of class, roll a 6 for intelligence and wizard was off the table. Monks didn’t suffer from multiple attribute dependency because to qualify as a monk you had awesome scores across the field. Oh, and you never, ever got a stat increase. So, don’t say “always” unless you know about always. God, I feel old!

        • In older editions though, there were still differences between a score of say, 16 and 17 in terms of the bonuses you received.

          From 3e onwards though, there’s really only the (Arguable) justification of the two point requirement to increase modifiers, and I’d argue that a lot of that is left over from the 1e/2e system as opposed to any real mechanical depth.

      • Yes, but that’s easily remedied by only offering increases half as often
        Keeping an inelegant vestigial system in place out of fear of balancing +1 bonuses half as often is just laziness. Or maybe catering to grognard nostalgia.

    • There’s a few arguments to be made for the ability score system, primarily in terms of ability score damage and rolling odd numbers. However, I feel that for the most part you’re right, and it’s left over from the 1e/2e days, when the difference between one number and the next mattered more.

  6. Great article. How you handle/enforce alignment also depends on your players. In the ‘adult game’ I play in, the world is full of alignments, the Gods play a big part, so people have to constantly make judgement calls regarding alignment choices. But the GM can do that because these are older, experienced players who buy into the ideas of following a particular god, with all the alignment restrictions etc. The Clerics and Paladins do their best to adhere to their tenets, and the only remotely neutral player in the group is the fey sorcerer.

    On the other hand, I run a game for a group of teenagers. Teenagers are inherently chaotic, and are still figuring out a moral code for themselves. And are Young, Dumb and full of C&*$. So they do a lot of stuff that is all over the place alignment wise. So I tend not to lay the alignment hammer down much, fortunately none of the players plays a religious class (Priests, Paladins, Warlocks) so I can let them just stick to their ideals and call it good.

    In general, I prefer the world building or Michael Moorcock and the Thieves World books. Gods, demons etc. take a very active role in what is going on. That the Priests, Paladins and Avatars should really adhere those beliefs. While I like many of the Forgotten Realms books, I tend to get bored with the amorality, ‘everything is relative, mostly’ approach. I like my game gods active, involved and wreaking havoc in the world as a whole, with their followers doing the same thing.

  7. I know I was supposed to stop reading the article half-way through, but I decided to finish anyway as I value your opinion, Angry.

    I don’t see a problem having the universe at large have aspects of alignment, it’s more or less necessary if your gameworld is to have any metaphysical depth. But I really don’t see the point of putting the word “Alignment” on the character sheet. In my experience, it does only a few things, none of which are good:

    -it constrains players from acting as they would like
    -it gives a%%&*le players a justification to let their freak flag fly
    -it dictates morality and oversimplifies conflicts of values. These are the good ideals. These are the bad ideals. There is a true order to things and all moral/ethical conflicts have a correct resolution.

    Better for players to make up their own minds about such things, rather than being told what is right and wrong by page XXX of a book or a prepared survey. Part of the fun of rpgs is the chance for players to act on their chosen set of values, in competition with other groups and otherworldly forces.

      • Tell that to anyone who actually creates for a living. Game design has a responsibility to sell a product – some products will sell better than others. DMs sell a game to a group – the players vote with their feet. If you sell a sh*t game, eventually your players will leave and you get to start all over again. Your statement has no point – why don’t you challenge me on point rather than use a meta-critique that ends all analysis.

        • He did challenge your point. He said that game design has no responsibility to cater to people who don’t buy into the concept. If you want the strict morality guidelines, go play Advanced D&D or 3.5. If you want the new feel of 5e, play 5e.

          Since 5e heavily encourages the DM to throw out whatever the hell he wants, alignment is optional (like everything else) in 5e.

          • Now I’m having a hard time understanding your point, Reaper. I am aware of what he said, and I addressed his idea which I find silly. And I’m sure you’re right about AD&D and 5e, not that I really care since I don’t play those systems and if I did I would just hatchet-job alignment out of the mechanics anyway. So? What is your point, and how does it relate to what I originally said?

    • All of the things you accused alignment of doing? Those are things that GMs do with alignment. And I said EXACTLY as much. In fact, I specifically addressed EVERY ONE of those points. I suspect you didn’t actually read the article.

      Further, I actually came right and said “if you’re not willing to use alignment in a deep, meaningful way and explore how it affects the world, just remove it.” I actually started with “alignment actually doesn’t do anything anymore. Get rid of it.”

      In short: read the f$&%ing article before you comment.

  8. A fantastic article (as usual). I am one of the GMs that loves the idea of alignment, but hates how it is implemented in the game. I have played D&D since 1981 and other than “OD&D” and 5e, I’ve played every edition (including BECMI). Alignment is a great descriptor. It is a wonderful way to sum up some important concepts about a character. And this was all described wonderfully in the article here. But alignment, when actually put into use at the table, can be ugly.

    For me, problem one is the players. I actually had to stop an argument that was escalating between players about alignment. Player A chose a course of action. Player B chimed in, “No, your character wouldn’t do that because you’re (insert alignment here).” Seriously, I had one player telling another player what they would or wouldn’t do. Or rather, telling them what they COULD or COULDN’T do. I told the both of them a couple things. First, whatever Player A stated their action was, that was the sole decision of Player A. If Player B felt that was an “alignment violation” (or whatever), that’s fine, but Player B wasn’t allowed to “veto” an action by Player A. Second, I told Player A that their action was outside the intent of their stated alignment and that continuing to act in that manner could have consequences. And Third, I told the both of them that arguments like that at my table are inappropriate and they needed to knock it off.

    I have had more than one “discussion” about alignment with various players over the years. Usually they were centered around things like “I realize that the Wizard was summoning a demon, which is technically evil. But they commanded this demon, which had fire resistance, into a burning building to save the orphans within, which is a good act.” I would try to explain that the character, though “violating” their alignment was also upholding it. And I would continually try to explain that alignment wasn’t a “straight jacket” that dictated actions, but rather a “descriptor” that explained intentions.

    After many years of seeing that most of the players I’ve had at my tables didn’t quite get that nuance, I was happy to see that 4E had all but eliminated alignment in the game. So I took the next step and pulled the plug on it.

    What I do now is that I have all of the deities in my campaign world have a set of tenets. They have ideals that they expect their priests to uphold. Paladins have a code of conduct. Clerics have tenets (or commandments in some cases). I tell every player, even if they aren’t expected to uphold some sort of “alignment standard” that they need to give me a summary of what their character uses as guiding principles (Angry’s little quiz up there may be adapted to this use for my future campaigns). And I tell all of the players that I expect their characters to work to uphold their stated ideals/code/tenets/whatever. For Clerics and Paladins and the like, they can lose favor with their patron deity. They can get punished with temporary penalties that last until they atone. For Druids or “nature-worshippers” they will have to act in a way that is in line with their connect to the “natural world”. Maybe this is to protect animals or maybe it is to oppose the advance of a city’s growth. Whatever. But in the same way, their connection to their powers/spells/etc may be endangered if they fail to act according to what they say they “believe in” in the first place.

    For other character that don’t have these sorts of connections (Rogues, Fighters, whatever) I still have ways to encourage them to “stay true” to their character. The way they treat the other people living in the game world will be reflected back on them. If they treat shop merchants poorly, that word gets around the city and they aren’t offered as good of service or they aren’t let in on the “good deals” for merchandise. There are Guilds and Unions that can put pressure on members who fail to follow the rules.

    So there are many options that I have to get the players to understand that their actions, good or evil, selfish or altruistic, have consequences. And those consequences are real, but also not a “set in stone” absolute.

    • Alignment might have a bad reputation among some oldschool players because some editions could be prescriptive about it in ways that didn’t make much sense. E.g., 1st ed AD&D said using poison to kill an enemy was an inherently evil act. IIRC, 2nd edition implied the same. For context, in 1st edition most monsters with poison attacks were save against instadeath situations. If you had an unlucky encounter with a giant scorpion or wyvern, you could be rolling up a new character by the end of the combat. I think this was out of a misinformed view of medieval “honour” or “chivalry” or maybe a 20th century view of fair play, but early D&D believed if you had to kill someone or something, slowly beating or slicing them to death over the course of several minutes with a spiked mace or sharp sword wasn’t inherently evil, while a poison that almost instantly and relatively painlessly killed your opponent was.

    • So you require the players pick an alignment/ideal(s), and then you mechanically punish them for not following them from beginning to end. How do you handle characters that change over time, or make decisions based on conflicting ideals? Is this really fun for your players?

      Stepping back, why is all this work to police the mindcrimes of the players useful? What does it accomplish? Isn’t “staying true” to their characters simply acting however the player decides, so long as their actions don’t violate whatever metagame agreements are in effect for the group?

      • I said no such thing. First of all I don’t “punish” my players. I am not the sort of GM who keeps some secretive tally of their “demerits” and waits until they reach a certain threshold and then jump out with a “GOTCHA! You F-ed up and now you can’t do anything EVAR!” Second of all, the whole point of discussing this with the players at the beginning of the campaign is so that there is an understanding between the players and the GM that actions have consequences and that certain privileges require dedication on the part of the character.

        For example, if a member of the castle guard didn’t actually GUARD the castle, then they would be fired as a guard (or worse). In the same way, if a Cleric of a particular deity doesn’t uphold the tenets of that deity, then they would no longer be allowed to remain a cleric of that particular deity.

        But characters can absolutely develop and change throughout the campaign. And honestly, that’s the whole point of putting them into situations where they must decide what is truly important to them. Do they uphold the values of their deity even when what they feel the “right thing to do” is contrary to those values? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. What they do is ultimately their choice. But there are results and consequences to their choices. This is what moves the story along.

        I am in no way “policing the mind crimes” of the players. What I am doing is setting up a practical expectation of behavior of the CHARACTERS within the framework of what the players claim their characters to be. If a player says they are making a Paladin, then I expect that character to behave per the Paladin code (whatever that happens to be within the game we’re playing). If that character acts contrary to that code, then there are consequences. They can atone for their transgressions and work to continue their path as a Paladin or they can ignore that code and ultimately they will no longer be a Paladin.

        The key thing in all of this is that the expectation isn’t some that is hidden from the player. All of this is discussed up front before the first game session even starts. All of the players understand that if they are jerks to the merchants in town, they will gain a reputation as jerks and the merchants will probably not be as keen to do business with them. If the Rogue decides to go against the rules of the local Thieves Guild, then that Thieves Guild will take actions against the Rogue. The point is that all of the players know this up front.

        And what it does is prevent a player from playing a Paladin, with all of the mechanical benefits of one, but not actually acting like a Paladin. It requires them to not only play their character, but also to understand that actions within the game have results within the game. And those results are directly correlated to the actions they choose to make. If they decide they don’t want to be a Cleric of the Eternal Wombat, that’s fine. They can decide that the “true path” is not of the Eternal Wombat, but rather of the Sacred Dingo. And that might even make for a fun and interesting story within the campaign. So they can grow and change throughout the campaign. And it will all be a result of their choices.

        • Well, that all sounds reasonable. I was reacting to these lines:

          “I tell every player, even if they aren’t expected to uphold some sort of “alignment standard” that they need to give me a summary of what their character uses as guiding principles (Angry’s little quiz up there may be adapted to this use for my future campaigns). And I tell all of the players that I expect their characters to work to uphold their stated ideals/code/tenets/whatever.”

          I think my complaint was that the players are required to define their characters up front, and stick to that definition ongoing. And that they are expected to live up to a set of ideals in the first place – why not just play an adventurer, a more realistic person with a variety of competing values and interests? At least you allow players to self-define their values, rather than making them pick from a menu of just a few choices.

          In my experience, players find the personality of their characters through play, rather than checking a box or writing a word or two on the character sheet. And I’ve never met a person in real life who acts the way these characters are expected to act. I guess it’s just a style of play (archetypal, bad guys vs. good guys) that isn’t my cup of tea.

          • I can understand why there might be confusion. But I absolutely do NOT hold the players to some strict trait that they jotted down at the start of the campaign. In fact, this is part of the reason that I don’t use alignment.

            The main thing is that if the character is gaining some sort of in-game benefit from an association (to a guild, a church, a patron, or whatever) then I expect them to uphold their end of the bargain. If they don’t, then the benefit they are receiving will be affected, up to and including, elimination of that benefit. If they want to change their association, that’s awesome. They just need to keep in mind that there are in-game results from their in-game actions.


          • That last explanation makes complete sense to me. That’s a game I would enjoy playing in.

            On a side-note, I’ve always found it bizarre that d&d has tied mechanical game advantages to alignment restrictions that require the player act like a fanatic or a wanker (paladins, I’m looking at you).

  9. Another stellar article Angry. I love alignment and all the things it does for the game. I’ve been running Rules Cyclopedia, so there are only Lawfull, Chaotic, and Neutral (no good or evil per se), alignments. I let the players pick when we started the campaign, but I watch all their actions closely… Whenever they start to nitpick eachother or inquire into the “Lawfullness” or “Chaos” inherent in an action, I love just saying: “I’ll tell you if your doing somthing that will change your alignment, but what are you doing?”. Your totally right about DM involvement in alignment systems. It’s not going to mean anything unless the DM sets the parameters and decides how the players actions change their alignments. I honestly feel the players shouldn’t have to think about it unless they’re getting “off alignment”, at which time the DM decides what happens. I’m also partial to letting clerics keep level one and two spells (learned in training), but losing higher level spells (requiring god-agent intercession) when they get off alignment… Only taking away ALL spells if they remain belligerent (a technique found in the AD&D DMG I believe). Keep up the awsome work! You rule! Oh and I agree about the awsomeness of old school alignment based items. I’ve been waiting 3 sessions for someone in my group to don the Helm of Alignment Changing they unknowingly found….

  10. Maybe it’s all very contentious because alignment really is a DM tool, but specific alignments are written on PLAYER documents. If handled well by the DM it can be great. If one can’t handle it, one shouldn’t use it. I’m starting to think it would work best if only the DM had character alignments written down, at the start of a campaign, and ran it all “behind the scenes”, only bringing it up when relevant, and through narrative style… Like a character having doubts, or nagging anxiety about an upcoming action or choice “for some reason”, that the dm would know… Just a thought.

  11. Back when I still had enough free time to write adventures AND build a world top-down I had the idea that it might be interesting to play in a world that used alignments for their religion system instead of deities. So clerics would be priests of a specific alignment, and any major theological struggles and alliances would be based on the various alignments (including schisms because of different interpretations what “chaotic good” meant). That remained a pipe dream, though, and I won’t be able to dedicate myself to that idea again until I’m retired from work in 25 years or so…
    In theory I think alignment is an interesting concept, especially if you take the D&D planes system into account. As you wrote- for a system that *could* touch so many elements of the game (characters, spells, monsters, planes, even whole societies) it’s use has never been implemented in a meaningful way, except for some vague punishment… and even then it was never really clarified if a character’s alignment should be a guideline for ideal behaviour or a descriptor for actual behaviour.

    All that being said – I’m pretty happy that D&D 5 all but does away with alignments. As a RPG system D&D is filled with lots of redundant effects and systems on top of each other anyway, and as a GM I think I should mercilessly cut everything I won’t use to full effect anyway (one mistake I thought many GMs made during the 3.0/3.5 era was assuming that everything published belonged in a campaign, which meant that all those kitchen-sink campaigns were full of redundant stuff that weirdly stacked on top of each other (lore- or rules-wise)).
    The lack of rules material concerning alignments makes it pretty easy to do away with that.

    A second point: After reading your article I regret not starting a campaign in the POL setting when I started my D&D 5 campaign. I was nudged into using the Forgotten Realms (which I don’t like much anyway) by my players, and now I’m starting to ignore so much established detail from that setting that I should have used a less developed world anyway. What you wrote about POL – the sketchiness, the tantalizing hints at a greater world and the open invitation to GMs to develop the world themselves look reeeeally attractive to me right now… ah well.

  12. I’m still a fairly new player, but what I don’t get about alignment is that you can’t really reason about it. One of the first things we did in a particular campaign was protecting a town from goblin raids. And goblins are inherently evil, so it was (1) possible for a paladin to smite them and (2) totally fine ethically for said paladin to kill them. But when I thought about what was actually going on, the goblins really just wanted food, and didn’t really want to bother or hurt the humans. The combination of their motivations and the mechanical effects of their being “evil” is hard to reconcile in my head.

    Also, why isn’t Neutral Good the alignment for paladins? You’d think that someone who’s supposed to be a paragon of Goodness would tend to resist or rise above the law/chaos distinction. (Which would make the “is it OK to break the law to save lives or otherwise serve the greater good” point moot, too.)

    And yes, I think it was a mistake for my second character ever to be a paladin. 🙂

    • Paladins are an interesting PC to run, the Faith-militant of their respective gods. In the goblin raid example the goblins aren’t peaceful, they can and will kill any ordinary people that get in their way which absolutely makes them evil as defined in the article. Your paladin character is (theoretically) supposed to protect the innocent from violent creatures such as the goblins in this scenario. If the goblins where willing to trade, or surrender that would change the paradigm. Perhaps the paladin could make that offer if they feel conflicted about killing creatures raiding for sustenance?

      Paladins are usually Lawful because of their code, which they treat as a form of personal law. This code doesn’t have to align with the laws of man (but often does to save confusion) and occasionally surpasses it. They are all about sacrificing personal freedoms for this code that gives them their power which is usually incompatible with a neutral outlook.

      I have my paladin PC’s draw up a list of oaths they swear to uphold (one even wrote it in ink on vellum once) then that forms the covenant with the god they revere. If they break that covenant they start to have rough dreams ect. Then if they act contrary to local civil law they may be punished by that law, but as long as they stayed true to the oath they are cool with their god.

  13. Hey angry, once again you knock the topic out of the park, great read.

    But i do have a Biiiiiig issue with the need for an external objective morality. This first of all severely limits various races and characters. You made the point yourself that even the worst people typically view themselves as in the right. Even cruel dictators tend to view themselves as entitled to their position and inherently superior, hell, i’m sure asmodeus himself would tell you he is a noble rebel against those stuffy upper plane gods, who are just sore he outwitted them and did his job too well.

    Second im not sure anything you describe really creates a need for objective morality. Take the afterlife for example, in most settings its implicit that the gods themselves or other explicit forces in universe are doing the judgement. If an evil soul gets dragged down to the abyss, its because none of the good gods really want them and the demons staked a better claim, no ‘moral temperature reading’ needed.
    Even the mechanics you name, such as the presence of inherently-X aligned creatures, and spells which directly interact with alignment, are easily explained away in a subjective system. Paladin smiting works because the god/patron opposes the target, (hence why, as one commentator above pointed out, a paladin is fine smiting a bunch of starving goblins launching a raid for food, his god says goblins and thieves are evil, so smite them he may). And even the alignment-based beings have a long history of changing sides and tunes (once again, asmodeus comes to mind, as does the once-lawful now chaotic grazzt) which implies they have free will and like others are bound by consensus not objectives (remember all the gods teaming up against the primordials, alignment wasn’t even an issue, which you’d think would have come up a lot more)

    As for cosmology, this one varies a lot. Intriguingly, the 4e standard has the least need for morality. The abyss, hell, celestia and the rest are all over the shop, and their locations were decided by the beings who made/occupy them, not vice versa. Only the ‘great wheel’ really made alignment an inherent feature, with planes ‘made of law’ and ‘made of good’.
    Here i can see your point, but then this cosmology least fits the vision you described, namely a minimal lore which services the story and leaves room for creation. Te great wheel is the most rigid and well-defined of the many cosmologies DnD has made use of, and doesn’t seem like your jam.

    So my core issue is this, i always prefer when players and NPC’s make decisions based on goals and ideals or whatever, not based on perfect moral truths. This is easier (because we just think what the character would want and would do, not what is actually perfectly correct) and more true to life (where everyone just does this, because no-one has access to objective truth wherever it might be hiding).
    Basically, under your view, what room is there for asmodeus? for players to hate or even dethrone their ‘good’ gods and not be in an objectively wrong position? for a soul to be put on trial before the gods of light and darkness and claims made on his eternal being? I worry it cuts out too many possibilities for great stories and campaigns.

    • I was in the middle of writing a point for point answer to your post, but instead I think I’ll just say this: you and I have very different views, even though parts of them sound similar. Which is probably what fuels alignment debates in the first place.

  14. A good article about some of the nuance of alignment, and honestly it’s ideas I’ve encountered before. So all the good alignments (lawful, chaotic, neutral), seems reasonable for there to be consequences for acting out of line with their values/intentions. Paladin & Clerics are easy, because of their divine mandates. But what about the rest of the classes?

    Some interesting ideas about druids protecting nature or animals, but that seems to be straying a bit from alignment a little, & getting more into personal vales & priorities. Same with the notions that the fighter might face social pressure from a guild for acting out of line, but the punishment isn’t quite the same, is it? How does you justify the fighter losing some of their class abilities? And if you aren’t taking class abilities, what are you doing that is equally fair?

    And as we get into wizards & thieves, I feel like we are getting more in the weeds. What are guiding principles & punishments?

    And finally, the no man’s land….neutral. At this point, the lines are really blurred. I mean, aside from torture or killing someone, what boundaries for chaotic neutral are you going to enforce?

    So I get the Cleric & Paladin codes is fun to work into your game, but to me all other classes fall short in this alignment game.

  15. In regards to your section about divine characters, I once had a player playing a lawful good paladin of Kiri-Jolith let the minotaur in the party straight up murder a defenseless captive, simply because he had wronged the minotaur in the past. Now, Kiri-Jolith is the god of honorable battle, and their captive, though evil, deserved fair treatment and to face justice, because the paladin is supposed to be above the evil he fights against. Well, the character ended up having to become a cleric, embody the teachings of Kiri-Jolith and spread his teachings, with the hope that the character would come to find wisdom from studying the teachings. It was his “write up” in a way, but it worked out in the end. In the future I might use your suggestion of omens and visions and divine agents.

  16. Love the blog. I’ve been GMing for about a decade and a half, and this is probably the only online source that actually make my GMing easier.
    Although, I have to make a slight criticism: it’s a pain in the ass to look for specificly related posts (like the Paragon enemies bulls$%&t). Maybe you should improve this.
    I have a comment about most people being more tendint to neutral or lawful good: that is pretty much a cultural thing. In my country, although certaintly there is a lot of neutral /Lawful good people, the people tend mostly to being Lawful Neutral or outright Lawful Evil (like our new and shinning f$&%ing idiotic neoliberal and colonized “president” Macri -I’m argentinian, by the way). The law, in my country, is more a mace to humilliate people than anything else for many, many people. It’s almost an excuse to being a moron or an outright s$&%head (think a country with literally way too many lawyers -we don’t pay for being in a state University, which by the way are among the best on the world -for now, anyway, I cannot speak for this fucking new government, although he’s gonna to fight hard against more than fifty years of public schools-).
    Meh, I’m ranting because I’m rightly infuriated, but the last part has not anything to do with your blog. Keep the good work.

  17. I kind of like the way you approach this. The no bullshit stance and the aggressive nature lends well to your style of writing. I hope you can accept criticism in the same vein however.

    You ban evil PC’s. That’s just plain stupid. You’re cutting out the thing that makes alignment so relevant in D&D Next. You see, other D&D games made the price for playing evil so backhanded and heavy that it was a massive detriment to your character.

    Now, evil adds flavour and endless possibilities to the game. I DM games weekly and players can be whatever they want in my campaign. The evil aspect adds a ton of flavour and allows players to do whatever they want in the game. Did we have an asshole who thought it would be fun to start trying to just murder party members and steal from them? Yes. Then I talked to him and let him know that evil is acceptable, and he can totally kill a PC, so long as that wasn’t the goal of his character.

    It seems to me that your abhorrence of evil stems from the lack of a social contract. Evil PC’s open up new avenues for dungeon crawling, information gathering, getting deals in town on equipment, and just so much more. Now your main villain can counter offer the good guys and end up splitting the party against former members. It makes for extremely interesting gaming, and more often than not allows players to sort out the evil PC’s themselves.

    To put this into perspective, in my last campaign I had one of my players willingly give their soul to become a walking avatar for the Book of Vile Darkness. He spread plagues, famine and death everywhere he went as a mere side effect of his presence, but the effects didn’t happen until after they had left the cities they were in. This resulted in good guys hunting the party to determine the cause, and left the good and neutral pc’s with an interesting choice to make: Do we flee, surrender or fight?

    D&D Next finally got alignments right. They’re a tool to provide a foundation for a character, as well as a way to (generally) identify the type of enemies you are facing. Alignments are just a starting point for what a character is going to act like. If you have somebody that tortures prisoners for information, kills them when he’s done with them, and has absolutely no problems with theft, you have an evil player. It doesn’t mean the player is against the group, it just means they have less scruples.

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