D&D Alignment Part 2: D&D’s Cosmology

Q: Why don’t alignment mechanics work in 5e?

A: Because alignment was a mechanic used in conjunction with a rarely used portion of the game.

Alignment in #dnd is not supposed to be a personality test but a simplified representation of how a character or creature relates to the cosmos in chart below.


A shift in D&D’s cosmology combined with the move away from a human-centric model for the adventuring party effectively broke how alignment worked.

While some people have argued that player-selfishness is part of what’s going on, you need to look at alignment not as a play-style but as a mechanic. The alignment mechanic represents an aspect of the world in which D&D is set. Trying to drop that mechanic into a different cosmology just doesn’t work without rebuilding the cosmology it represents from the ground up. It would be like trying to apply Tolkien’s concept of light and dark elf to other settings’ elves, bereft of any meaning due to the absence of the Trees of Valinor in said other setting.

Isn’t alignment just a reflection of the cosmos through a character’s behavior? To an extent, but not exactly. Alignment in D&D is not necessarily an indicator of behavior: a character can be “good” but not fall into the “GoodTM” column of a cosmology. Just look at the “virtuous pagans” in Dante’s hell.

For alignment to work mechanically as designed, it needs to be treated almost like a birth-sign. You don’t necessarily have to adhere to all of the associated tropes and traits strictly, but you need to assume, for game purposes, that there’s something greater in effect beyond your own understanding and control. You also might need a touch of Calvinism in your setting for alignments to work as designed, too.

Changing alignment should not be done lightly, because you aren’t just changing some behaviors or habits – you are revolting against cosmic forces and changing your destiny.

Alignment is generally more important at higher levels, since a bunch of low-level mooks have little effect on cosmic affairs. As a mechanic, alignment exists to say that “this person is aligned cosmically with x in a tangible way” for purposes of spells and magic items.

As one gets access to specific magics or has done things which have drawn the attention of extra planar beings, alignment matters both mechanically and for story purposes. At lower levels, detection and masking magic reveal or conceal those tangible connections to the cosmos. “Hide Alignment” isn’t going to keep someone from noticing whether you’re an obvious asshole or nice guy, but it will keep someone from seeing the tangible links you have to the greater conflict playing out across the planes. But until you’re a heavy, those tangible links will be relatively insignificant most of the time. But it’s those same links that explain why certain magic items work in certain ways for or against certain adversaries – they are attuned to the cosmic struggle in the same way everything else is; alignment is a wavelength, which also perhaps best explains the bizarre phenomenon which is alignment language.

Picking an alignment which fits your character’s personality and shaping the cosmos around those characters’ alignment choices is doing it backwards, which is why many people find alignment rules baffling. Unless you are actually using AD&D’s implied setting and cosmology, of course, there’s no mechanical reason to keep alignment. It becomes almost purely cosmetic since players and DMs use it mostly as a personality marker. It can be entirely discarded because it’s a rule that explains a character’s relationship to 1e AD&D’s batshit cosmology!

Please keep in mind, I’m not defending alignment as a mechanic, I’m trying to give context of WHY it’s not working the way people think it should.

The reason I like the 1 axis scale is that it’s a pretty simple range of “Is this character aligned with Mankind or aligned with Fae?”


16 responses to “D&D Alignment Part 2: D&D’s Cosmology

  1. “It would be like trying to apply Tolkien’s concept of light and dark elf to other settings’ elves, bereft of any meaning due to the absence of the Trees of Valinor in said other setting.”

    Didn’t this basically happen with D&D, too? Or was that the point?

    • Yeah; if you throw out the cosmological frame of reference which the Alignment system is a mechanical model for, the Alignment system won’t mean anything more than the dumb personality test that it’s used as today.

      Stuff like “detect alignment” or “hide alignment” don’t make any sense otherwise; it’s just “Oh, this person is an asshole while trying hard not to look like an asshole; why do I need magic to see that?” You need magic to see it because it’s not about him being an asshole, it’s about whether he has a tangible mystic link to the planes of Chaos. It’s closer to an ability that would, say, let one discovered by mystical means one’s astrological sign.

  2. I’m baffled.
    Baffled by living in a world where people can’t figure out what words like ‘good’ and ‘chaotic’ mean and act like it is some obscure mystery.

  3. The very character of planar settings change as the personalities of their divine rulers evolve or are replaced. Locations tainted by evil acts and great betrayals can be swallowed into the lower planes, or demi-planes whose vile nature they attract. Border locales of the elemental planes may shift from one into another based on the actions of their inhabitants. So even on that Planar scale, it is demonstrated that character defines alignment, and not the other way around. Experience, in turn, defines character. Thus your starting alignment is a rough sketch of beliefs, but as that sketch is filled out, where the composite belief structure lands may differ drastically from the formative in regards to a nine-point system, even if certain key principles are retained.

    I don’t think this necessarily interferes with the idea of Alignment as connection to other-planar power, either. After all, those other planes are powered by the petitioners and the Host venerating the deities who rule there, with some help from mortal worshipers; is it much of a leap to consider that mortals are infused with this raw power that Gods quarrel over, and that within them it is shaped just as it is shaped within the greater beings; by action?

    Or maybe as a 2nd ed kid I’m just late to the game. Either way.

    • Those are some good points! But still it requires the alignment mechanic to hinge upon a setting’s cosmology; in the case you give, the cosmological shifts and alignments of powerful entities act like gravitational forces pulling at one another. Even here, alignment is still more significant than it’s typically treated today because in your example it’s still representative of greater cosmic forces at work than just whether people are prone to being nice or being dicks to one another.

  4. It also doesn’t help when the game designers say stuff like: “Alignment isn’t a straight jacket.” Or the fact the alignment system/mechanic changes from one edition to the next.

    And another thing: I shouldn’t have to understand every single aspect of the vast cosmos to understand how the alignment mechanic works. We can forgive Gygax and the early designers for this, as alignment and race/creature where almost tied together. They were trying to build something from a humanocentric standpoint.

    Moral post-modern relativism aside, if your going to build a mechanic based on a intangible quality like a character’s moral compass in relation to the cosmos, you need point of reference to start, like humanocentricism, and then stick with it!

    For example: If humans represent “the balance,” then most humans should be “neutral.” Other races can be assigned likewise.

    But if humans represent “Law” or “Good,” than that changes the mechanics in relation to other, non-human, races.

    In sum: I think I agreed with you…

    • Yep. I go a little far in saying that it ONLY works with AD&D’s cosmology, but the point I’m trying to hammer home is that it needs a fixed cosmology to work as designed, or you’ll get the situation where players complain that Alignment doesn’t matter.

      There has to be an in-universe and in-game explanation for things like why only a Good or Lawful being can use this item or that spell or for why this item or that spell works better against an Evil or Chaotic being.

      The most plausible one, and the one I believe is implied in the original rules, is akin to old Star Trek where whenever they fight an energy monster, the solution is to blast it with a reverse/inverse form of energy.

      • Whereas in later versions of Star Trek (especially Voyager), when they fight an energy monster they use tachyon particles amplified with the ship’s sensor array on multiple frequencies, and the audience just assumes it works–which is sort of what alignment has become in 5e. (To stretch your analogy)

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  7. Back in the day, we borrowed AD&D’s two-axis system for our BECMI games, and it became a personality test like you describe. Mostly, everyone wanted to be Chaotic Good, which meant, “I want to be a hero, but want to make my own decisions on the fly without having to do what someone tells me.” So as a practical matter, we wrote it on the character sheet and then ignored it.

    The Law/Chaos single axis would have worked better if we’d understood it, but we didn’t. After all these years, reading the comparison to human/fairy society finally clarified it. Splitting Good/Evil out into a separate axis implied that Law/Chaos was value-neutral, which it seems wasn’t the original intention. Maybe if Law had been called Order or Civilization, we would have gotten it better, since we took Lawful literally to mean “blindly follows laws and lawful orders.”

  8. Pingback: SENSOR SWEEP: Offended Patrons, In-game Relationships, Jaded Industry Insiders, and All-knowing Prophecy - Top

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