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If you’re brand new to D&D, you’ve probably spotted the ‘alignment’ section of your character sheet, right at the top there. It must be jolly important to be so high up on the page, amongst other crucial info as name, class, race and eye colour(!). You might then have gone to the Player’s Handbook and sought out exactly what the alignments are, and how to pick one. You will have found 9 paragraphs with names like ‘True Neutral’ and ‘Lawful Evil’, some vague descriptions about how one would act, who is likely to be something like this, and then that’s your lot.
For a mechanic that is so often focused on and comes up so regularly, this is simply not enough for a new player to go on. So here I am, to give DMs a fighting chance when players start acting outside their alignment, question it, and really, ask what the bloody point of it is?
A lot of Dungeon Masters ignore it
Before we get into the nitty gritty, I’ll just put it out there that a lot of DMs ignore it. If you go onto roleplaying related forums and subreddits, any alignment question is reacted to in a very apathetic shrug. The system is considered not relevant to many anymore, and is merely for character flavour, much like eye colour, hair colour, height, weight and flaws. It is not mechanically backed by any part of the game (anymore). So you may not even have to worry about it, or you can just ignore it after character creation, and stick to the morality laid down by the type of game you’re playing, and the party the players have naturally created.
The origin of alignment was different anyway
Back in the day, when Dungeons and Dragons was young and alignment was first dreamt up, it wasn’t on a 3×3 grid, it was a linear scale. On one end you had Lawful, and on the other you had chaos. It was meant to differentiate between civilisation and nature; and where exactly that character felt most at home. Were they socially aware, rule-followers and believers of hierarchy and the chain of command? Or were they forest-dwellers who loved a good bongo and if you got eaten by a giant griffon then *shrug*, law of the jungle. That’s why elves are described as chaotic, something which never really clicks unless you’re thinking of something like the Scoia’tael from The Witcher. Tolkien elves are incredibly civilised, more-so and for longer than any other race.
The gods and alignment
One of the ways in which alignment worked and players were held accountable was if their abilities and strength came from one of the gods or patrons. Each deity had an alignment, and so if that player strayed too far from it, BAM, nerfed. And this wasn’t like 5th edition, where every character can still be useful with a half-decent strength or dexterity bonus and a weapon, if you were a warlock who saved a puppy, you were fucked. You better grab Shia le Woof and throw him down a well pronto, and a few more just to apologise. The ‘good’ gods were just as strict with staying good. Paladins and clerics couldn’t be as bloodthirsty as the 5e ones are, there was no neutral/evil oaths to take. Nowadays, Paladins get their power from…a warm and fuzzy feeling or something? So the possibility of their alignment shifting is about as impactful as a chaotic good rogue finding a hole in their trousers – probably just makes things simpler anyway.
The party has its own morals
Normally after a few sessions in, a party of adventurers will homogenate into a group of people who think relatively the same, unless someone is really trying to be antagonistic all the time (one of the those ‘flaws’). They normally agree how to treat prisoners of war, how far to threaten NPCs, who to save and who to leave behind. So maybe the fighter is just going to roll their eyes when you, the DM, remind them that they’re ‘neutral good’ and that the killing of unarmed combatants is something they wouldn’t do. How come the DM gets to decide what my character would and wouldn’t do because of two words I wrote down 5 months ago? It just feels bad and blocks play. Alignment friction in parties rarely generates fun beyond a few sessions and hardly any positives, especially on the good-evil scale. At least a civilised noble and a chaotic druid could agree to disagree, and have some interesting banter on the benefits and drawbacks of both. An evil character will seldom get understanding and mutual respect from a lawful good character. That’s why ‘lawful good’ has become a byword for ‘buzzkill’ in most RPG circles.
Most systems don’t use it anymore
You can always tell if a mechanic is a really good one because most other game systems will copy it. New innovations such as Powered By The Apocalypse’s 2D6 dice rolling, or dice pools, or the mechanisation or simplification of combat, depending on what you want, have permeated many systems. This can’t be said for morality. In Shadowrun, or Dark Heresy, or Star Wars, or Fantasy AGE, or whatever, there is no morality to stick to. And it can be much more interesting to see, just like in real life, characters drop to lows to achieve their goals. It also makes their acts of good stand out, because it’s their own morality, not just something on the character sheet. It also means that ‘grey’ characters are the norm (much like in D&D 5e actually) and those who are traditionally kept to a code of their own making are the outliers.
It’s open to interpretation
Kobolds are ‘lawful evil’. Therefore, any ‘good’ character is free to kill them at will, right? I mentioned before that when alignment comes up in RPG online circles, those involved despair. They may even mention the ‘goblin baby’ scenario. It goes thus: The party of adventurers come across a goblin camp, they fight and slaughter the combatants, and then discover a bivouac with goblin babies in it. Goblins are ‘chaotic evil’. Any good aligned god would theoretically have no issue with you killing these babies too. But…our own sense of what is good says that’s wrong. So is good all about the destruction of evil, or is it about the act of being good? Is evil just wanton murder and destruction? Some might say that good is selfless and evil is selfish. That brings us onto my last point…
WHAT ON EARTH IS TRUE NEUTRAL?
Seriously, what is neutral supposed to be? I mentioned lawful and good being civilised and nature, and good and evil being selfless and selfish, so what is neutral? Can you see how hard it would be to walk that tightrope of being true neutral? And don’t you dare point to Treebeard. I swear. Treebeard attacked Isengard proving his good nature, and he’s a fucking tree living in the forest so how can he be lawful? Unless lawful means adhering to one’s own code of laws, but this also defines chaotic characters too sometimes….
As you can see, alignment is a bit of a mess, and you will have these discussions with more passionate players. You can choose to leave it out, you can choose to lay down exactly what it means, or you can just have one of the fictional character charts as your guide. I recommend the Star Wars one.