D&D Alignment

Thought I would post this here for posterity; I wanted to share my thoughts on why people complain about the 2-axis alignment system in D&D doesn’t work, why it gets thrown out, or has no real impact on the game.

To those saying alignment doesn’t work in 5e: D&D’s bi-axial alignment system has NEVER worked (at least it doesn’t seem as though it’s really worked as intended), but moral relativism totally kills it. Now, I’m not even talking about real-world moral relativism, cultural rot, yadda-yadda-yadda, but the trend towards standardizing monstrous and non-human PCs.

By using two axes, chaos moved away from, in the minds of gamers, opposition to Laws of Nature to opposition to the Laws of Man.

The Law of Man can be good or evil, but the cultural/moral relativism introduced by moving the adventuring party outside of the traditional heroic fantasy framework makes it even more difficult for the alignment system to usefully reflect anything about a party.

A “Lawful” party would act on behalf of the world of man against the world of fae/demons/tangible evils, while “chaotic” parties would treat with those forces for their own benefits. A “Good” party in the two axis system would act on behalf of the commonweal, or to its benefit.

But when everyone is playing half-demons, orclings, and priests of nebulous gods of mystic ambivalence, then, yeah, alignment means jack. The cultural and moral framework of elves, half-demons, fae-cat-girls, and all of the other dumb shit you see in post TSR D&D are so alien to the traditionally western framework of morality that both the 1 and 2 axis alignment systems were designed to model, of course it’s not going to actually work!

PC Bushi noted that it might be useful for stuff like Protection from Evil, but Protection from Evil was originally in a system without the Evil alignment axis! Evil was supposed to be so self-apparent to people who were around the table that it didn’t need to be explicitly spelled out what Evil was. The big problem with alignment is that the sort of parties people run today often look like out-of-depth monster encounters old parties had to fight: “You see two orcs warriors, a half-demon thief, a cat-man with a lute, and an elf wizard. They are the lawful-good party at table 2.”

While the alignment system has never been very good, a lot of folks complain that it doesn’t work without really understanding WHY it’s not even working for what they think it’s supposed to be use for or why so many DMs just toss the whole thing out entirely. A DM doesn’t have any justification for dealing with alignment mechanics for your blood-god-worshiping cat-elf being Lawful Good within the framework of its own culture. It’s easier to just ignore the implications of a system that was initially built upon an objective approach to morality within a cosmology rather than attempt to apply that framework to alien cultures and moralities.

Related Reading https://gamingwhileconservative.wordpress.com/2017/07/18/the-angry-gm-is-a-fking-coward/

Related (TL;DR) Reading http://theangrygm.com/conflicted-and-misaligned/

Note: More on this later, as I expound upon how D&D’s in-game cosmology accounts for much of the mechanical aspect of alignment and why it “doesn’t work” at the table in many folks’ games.


9 responses to “D&D Alignment

  1. Pingback: Aw Yeah, That’s the Good Stuff | The Alt-Right DM

  2. Doesn’t alignment kinda assume imperilled, decaying humanity trying to hold off the savage wilderness which itself is rotting into total physical and moral disorder, ie, Chaos? It’s echoing the fall of Rome and the shrivelling of humanity at the end of the Medieval Warm Period; everything’s is fraying, the wolves are hungry, the barbarians are at the gate and they are not Conan the Libertarian. The elves can’t be relied on, the dwarves have locked the doors, the Fey don’t much care, and dark whispers clutch at the minds of Men.
    The problem with modern DnD then, is that it’s so cosmopolitan and comfortable. It reeks of middle class comfort, where the worst thing that might happen is mild social approbium for being insufficiently urbane.

    • Pretty much!
      The thing is, you CAN use alignment in the way it was originally intended without using AD&D’s official cosmology*, but it requires establishing exactly what alignment means within the greater universe on the front-end. For whatever reason, I’d failed to include an elaboration on what I meant about alignment being a wave-length. But essentially, alignment is like the frequency that living things operate on; certain magic weapons and spells work for certain alignments because the individuals using them are attuned to that frequency and beings on antipodal frequencies cannot attune to it. D&D assumes an alchemical rather than purely scientific cosmology, so for the same reason that elemental water extinguishes elemental fire, elemental good/evil/law/chaos can disrupt its opposite.

      *:There’s a myth that AD&D is a setting-neutral system-it’s really not.

      • Cool. That is actually pretty evocative, imagining not just representatives of an abstract clashing, but thrumming cosmic forces smashing into each other viscerally as the conflict unfolds; the cleric turns undead and the floor shudders as the blind will(s) of Chaos and Law collide.

        Awesome. A bit like reading Vance made DnD magic not only sensible but exciting and flavorful, you’ve helped me fill in some emotional content for DnD.

  3. Pingback: Alignment Part 3: Some Examples! | Cirsova

  4. *I read through all three parts (at time of comment) before contributing.

    I’ve found alignment to be an interesting ride the last 14(?) years, and I concede that I have been inconsistent in my interpretation and understanding. Of course I consider myself a student of philosophy, and alignment systems fascinate me.

    When I started playing 3e in 2003, I remember reading alignment debates on the Internet, and I recall various alignment memes as they came and went (I actually recall more before the advent of social media propagated the current forms). I got into a few fights with friends and DMs in the early days. Good times.

    Shortly before the release of 4e, I had had enough of the alignment system with regard to other players. I encouraged players to choose an alignment if they believed one applied, but in the majority of cases I advocated for PCs to be “undeclared.” When 4e landed, I was flabbergasted with the changes to alignment.

    Since a year or so before my group switched to 5e, I’ve gone back and done a lot of research on the original applications of the alignment system (with some direction taken from your blog, and Jeffro’s), to expand on my understanding of alignment. I also took another philosophy class last year. Because I love philosophy.

    I ALWAYS choose an alignment for my characters. I have since I started playing, because I like to play characters with beliefs and convictions. I like to think that I’ve only gotten better at it over the years. Nowadays, I still encourage players to choose an alignment, but for the majority I push to remain “undeclared.”

    I agree that alignment becomes increasingly important at higher levels, and in some cases, I will deny “significance” to player characters who remain unaligned into the highest levels of play — in my view, remaining unaffiliated is (forgive the comparison) … like voting Independent. Your guy will never win in this cosmology.

    • I do think that a sort of “undeclared” might not be a bad idea; if alignment is truly cosmic, character’s might not actually know from the get-go what their alignment actually is-it’s something that emerges from gameplay and comes to them based on their actions. They might not know what their alignment truly is until it’s tested.

      Even when I was running a one-axis game, I had a mace that was explicitly “evil” and cursed, but it was used by evil priest npcs with a bonus to hit. When it came to it and the thiefy character tried to use it, I went ahead and let him get the attack bonus except when he used it against other evil monsters or NPCs. At that point, it was established once and for all that, yes, his character was evil and somewhat favored by the dark gods.

      These days, I’ve mostly rolled my characters’ alignment randomly; it’s interesting to see what comes out and gives me opportunities to try new things.

      Anyway, it’s great to hear from you again! It’s been ages. I hope you and your family have been doing well.

      • We are doing well, thank you! Between school and the new baby, I’ve had way less time to blog and comment, but I’ve tried to continue reading and lately I’ve been experimenting with Twitter.

        My projects have been rolling on; recently i began drafting my version of D&D’s cosmological history (that’s on my wiki), I’ve begun outlining my canon of creatures for the cornerstones project, I’ve made progress on my faction and settlement generation systems, and… back in November, i think? I finished a condensed spell list to rebuild classes around.

        Mostly i just don’t have as much time to share my updates and advances… every few months i might steal some time to post. This summer has been kinder.

        Incidentally, i recently had this idea for an alignment hierarchy to replace the alignment axes:
        1. Fate
        2-3: Good and evil
        4-6: Order, chaos, and neutrality
        7-10: Air, earth, fire, and water

        It isn’t the first alternate alignment system I’ve come up with, and this one was inspired by a problem i encountered while rewriting the history of the cosmos: i just wasn’t convinced that the half-dozen or so probable alignment positions made sense for creatures residing in the planes of chaos.

        Their alien views on how the universe worked made more sense when posed as alignments, and that “personality” alignment you mentioned could almost be placed along those lines (ah, humorism, my old foe).

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