The following is a lengthy screed about Alignment, as it pertains to Dungeons and Dragons. If that doesn’t interest you, why don’t you try some bunnies instead?
Where to begin? I’ll start by saying that alignment is and has been one of the core concepts of Dungeons and Dragons, around since the first edition to the current incarnation (no word yet on whether it will be included in future editions). I recognize that alignment is, amusingly, a very polarizing concept to gamers. Many, many people believe that it should not be tied to the fundamental game mechanics, and that it should be fluff only. Others view it as an essential pillar of the D&D experience. How can we reconcile the two?
First, I’d recommend browsing this quick wikipedia article on the history of alignment of D&D. I was going to go through it myself, but others have already done a fine job, so I credit them. Just don’t get lost in the wiki labyrinth.
I’ll also quote the OGL version of alignment for us to use as a frame of reference:
“A creature’s general moral and personal attitudes are represented by its alignment: lawful good, neutral good, chaotic good, lawful neutral, neutral, chaotic neutral, lawful evil, neutral evil, or chaotic evil.
Alignment is a tool for developing your character’s identity. It is not a straitjacket for restricting your character. Each alignment represents a broad range of personality types or personal philosophies, so two characters of the same alignment can still be quite different from each other. In addition, few people are completely consistent.”
That being said, does anyone really like alignment?
Ostensibly, alignment is there to provide a quick, easy-reference barometer for the fundamental morality of your character. I remember quickly communicating to friends what kind of characters we had by simply rattling off alignment. You knew the chaotic neutral rogue was just going to pickpocket everyone, and that the lawful good cleric was going to be a stick in the mud.
But, alignment for D&D is much more than that. The concepts of Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil are so deeply ingrained in the mechanics of the game, you can’t really just treat alignment as an independent stat.
There are entire races and types of creatures which literally embody the pure concept of one of the alignments. There are spells which only affect certain-aligned creatures (Holy Word, for example). The Gods themselves are often aligned with particular alignments. Certain classes have alignment restrictions (Paladin, Monk) that must be obeyed. Certain items can only be wielded safely by characters of the same alignment. It’s everywhere.
The question is, can it be extracted from the game? And, should it?
The quick answers are: yes, I think it can; and honestly, I don’t know.
Obviously, incorporating morality into a role-playing game presents its own set of challenges. One obviously cannot boil down every moral situation into Good vs. Evil or Law vs. Chaos, nor does every character fit neatly into one of nine available boxes. Philosophers have been debating what good and evil are for millennia; Gary Gygax did not produce the conclusive document on morality out of his basement in the late seventies.
When it comes to using alignment as a kind of morality compass, there are a couple of ways to interpret the system. One is predictive: your alignment helps guide your actions. If your character is Lawful Good, he’s probably going to be more likely to help the destitute street urchin than if he’s True Neutral. This is the “I was just playing my alignment” argument. The other interpretation is descriptive: your alignment is a description of how you behave. If you help the street urchin, you’re more likely to be Good than Evil.
Frankly, I think as a gamer, I evolved from viewing alignment as predictive toward descriptive, but recently I’ve been giving predictive a bit more of a look. Here’s why: role-playing is about trying to play characters other than yourself. When you play many characters in many games, your own personality comes out. I find that sometimes without the guiding hand of alignment, my character would always be just like me, because that is what is most comfortable. It’s difficult to step outside of your own moral box, and when alignment changes to how you behave, your characters will (without conscious effort) gravitate toward the alignments that are most fun for you (and for a lot of people, this is unabashed chaos).
Now I take a more nuanced view. When I created my last two characters (3.5/PF), I didn’t just slap an alignment on myself and let it do the talking. I consciously decided what kind of person my character would be, and then I based his alignment off that. I decided that my most recent character would favor non-violent methods due to his rebellion from his violent upbringing, and thus I figured that this was probably more along the Good axis. I wanted him to be compassionate, but also pragmatic, so I eventually settled on Neutral Good, and it’s been working out well. It’s been challenging! There have been several situations where it would be so much easier to do things in a certain way, but I’ve had to think of a way that would make sense for my characters’ morality. My GM has been good about providing several points of serious introspection, where I had to question my character’s moral decisions.
However, again, now we run into another massive problem with alignment – not everyone’s morality is the same. Or, is that actually a problem? I think that when discussing the axes of morality, good and evil are such loaded terms that any Dungeons and Dragons world, despite the guidelines set out by the rulebook, is going to have a difficult time defining them. And this is where the player and the DM might run into some problems, with one defining Evil differently than another – when your philosophical beliefs have in-game consequences (such as becoming a fallen Paladin), then things get messy.
If you’re removing the mechanic, you can replace it with story elements (some might call this “fluff”), and you can replace it with other mechanics that are more specific. Demons are evil, not Evil. Angels are good guys not Good guys. You’d necessarily remove things like Detect Evil and replace them with things like Detect Demon/Devil/Undead/Bad Guy. Holy Word would be replaced by Destroy Demon/Devil/Blasphemers, whatever. Item usage could no longer be keyed off alignment, but why should an item be equally appropriate in the hands of a rotten-to-the-core, murdering blackguard, and a devious, self-important nobleman?
However, I think some of the core D&D experience might be lost. As much as I hate the idea that Hobgoblins are Evil or that God X or God Y is Good, I think having descriptive alignments allows for a lot of cool features to be added to the game. It’s the old Sword in the Stone motif, that only someone “worthy” enough can do something, or that only he with the blackest heart can wield the Kingslayer. Can these things still be accomplished? Absolutely. But the mechanic becomes more difficult, and you find yourself wishing that alignment was there.
If I could do it, I would feature alignment as an add-on to the core rules. Lots of people will want morality there, and others will not. Why force that system onto players, it only restricts their creativity.
Here’s how I run my game worlds now, as an example of a modified alignment system:
Gods do not have alignments. The Gods don’t care about morality. (Though I could easily see a system where they do, and I could easily see a system where there is a god of Good and a god of Evil, but I digress.)
All species alignments are treated as “usually”, except for the incarnations. That means that there can be Good Undead, Evil Angels, and Chaotic constructs.
Alignment restrictions for classes are waived. Lawful classes now have stricter (and more flavorful) behavior codes.
Alignment is more of a spectrum than a set of categories. Imagine a slider with Law at one end and Chaos at the other. As your character does things, you slide up and down along that scale (though it’s more a “feel” than a strict movement based on events. Your general behavior is Lawful or Chaotic, no one event can be so.)
Good is defined closer to altruism and Evil is closer to selfishness.
Law is closer to consistency and Chaos is, well chaos.
All that being said, this is just my own personal system. The point is that alignment can be very personal, and should be treated as such within any particular campaign world. The morality of Greyhawk is necessarily different than the morality of Dark Sun, and the alignment system should be flexible enough to accommodate both of them, as well as the other myriad game worlds out there. Alignment can back you into a corner if you want to create a game world where the Undead are a huge part of the game world and aren’t necessarily brain-eating, blood-sucking malefactors. So, you modify.
My advice to the designers of 5th Edition would be to include that modularity into alignment from the get go. Use sliding scales rather than categories, to provide a more granular look at characters. (Wow, this guy is a 9 on the Evil scale, better watch out for him). The labels at the ends of those scales should also be flexible. Maybe your world is about Good vs. Evil. Maybe it’s about Altruism vs. Narcissism. Maybe it’s about Privacy vs. Openness, or Freedom vs. Order, or Waste vs. Conservation. Maybe it is about nothing at all. The choice is yours.