Sunday, July 5, 2020

Alignment Doesn't Need You

Wizard of the Coast's recent announcements regarding changes to humanoids and alignment have spawned a fresh discussion of why we even have alignment as a factor in the game.  Orcs used to be categorically evil; the new WOTC position is that all humanoids are basically unaligned (although they could certainly belong to an "evil" culture and play the roles of villains).  For that matter, the 5E version of the game has dropped all of the player-character facing restrictions around alignment - paladins don't have to be Lawful Good, druids don't have to be Neutral, Assassins don't have to be Evil.  What's the point of alignment in this new regime?  Is it just a set of guidelines to roleplay your character?  A mere descriptor of the character's attitude?

Here's the thing - regardless of how meaningless you think alignment is at the table, it is hard-wired into the cosmology of the game.  Alignment describes the objective reality of the game universe.  Each outer plane corresponds to a specific alignment and is home to a set of deities associated with that alignment.  There are extra-planar races such as demons, devils, and angels that strongly correspond to outer planes and the alignments of those planes, too.  Furthermore, when a mortal dies, their soul goes to the plane where their deity resides.  Take a look at this picture of the 1st Edition Cosmology - although there have been tweaks here and there through the years (with 4E representing the biggest departure from the classic scheme) 5E has basically returned to the 9-fold alignment system and corresponding outer planes.

The 5E DMG goes on to say, "bringing someone back from the dead means retrieving the soul from that plane (the plane of the soul's deity and/or alignment) and returning it to its body".  Regardless of how the individual players or DM fold, spindle, or mutilate alignment at their table, alignment is the basis for the transcendent reality beyond the concerns of grubby mortals.  Players and referees may ignore alignment at the table, but it's there in the core assumptions of how the multiverse works.

Of course this is all governed by rule zero.  You are the master of your campaign and game world, the creator of the cosmology.  Your cosmology might deviate from the default assumptions and the rules as written.  I get the impression many of the referees discard alignment as a relative matter, without considering that alignment has this objective game existence.  At least if you're going to jettison alignment, replace the whole cosmology and redefine the objective reality of the game universe, too.

One can argue alignment is just a descriptor tag with no inherent meaning - a player calls himself "lawful good", acts arbitrarily, and the players and referee agree this aberrant behavior is actually what lawful good looks like for this particular cosmology.  You've seen the argument, "I'm a viking, and lawful good to a viking means murder and pillage, amiright bro?"  The important thing, from my point of view, is the relationship between the game objects - the "good" plane exists, there are "good" deities there, there are "good"-aligned extraplanar beings, some player characters pencil the word "good" on their character sheets, there's a recognition they're going to the "good" place when there's a character death.  Ideally there's a common understanding of what is good or evil, law or chaos, too.

Alignment has bedeviled referees and players, but also sets D&D apart from almost every other RPG because of these behavioral guidelines and game universe tie-ins.  Thus we grapple with questions in-game of what constitutes law, chaos, good, or evil and put on our ethics hats from time to time.  My position is alignment is important mainly because of it's relationship to the broader multiverse and game fiction and less about managing behavior; but next time out let's look at some common approaches of dealing with how alignment can work at the table.


  1. Hi, John! This is one of those areas where, as you say, pretty much every other role-playing game has not followed D&D. There are good reasons for that.

    The D&D multiverse *seems* to have alignment baked into it, but I think it is possible to reverse the rationale. We can say that it's not that the multiverse reflects a cosmic balance of alignment. Instead, alignment is an attempt to describe, in human terms, the distribution of factions across the planes, each of which tends toward different motivations. In other words, alignment is a human (humanoid) convention to describe tendencies, like political parties, and is not a cosmic reality.

    Or we can just ditch alignment as an objective game reality along with everybody else. The multiverse map may be an in-game human-centric point of view to give order to a messy multiverse rather than the actual (two-dimensional) cosmic arrangement. D&D works just as well without alignment. Factions and motivations don't need alignment. The next edition of D&D could make it more explicitly into an optional rule and everything would be fine.

  2. Alignment can just be the way the Wizards of the Conclave explain the world. The Church of the Burning Sphere regard that as wixked blasphemy & speak of only enlightenment & ignorance, with ignorance the perpetual state which need be acknowledged to bring enlightenment... The Oards speak of only law & chaos, the enemy of Entropy which must be eliminated if they are ever to rule eternal...

  3. Moral absolutism has fared poorly in the biome of teenagers' imaginations and also more generally in western culture. Maybe it's time to leave behind a philosophy designed by a dead reactionary, libertarian christian who once expressed that massacring Native American children might be a lawful good act under his fictional philosophical system.

    1. Wow.
      Regardless, alignment comes from the fiction of Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock.

    2. The concept, yes. The implementation, no.

  4. Been thinking about alignment a fair bit lately so def looking forward to next post.

  5. im doing oposite on alignment - you can increase it with gifts and oaths till you become a complte jerk and risk tpk's over moral issues

  6. I feel like only Planescape really delved into the logical ramifications of making alignment part of a setting's cosmology. In other D&D settings alignment is supposed to be integral to the functioning of reality, but only functions at a surface level. And in all those other settings alignment starts to break apart under the real world knowledge and assumptions that the players bring to the table. Alignment as we have it today is built up as a huge deal, but rarely lives up to its own hype. I figure alignment has to go big or go home, and I'd like to see it become setting-dependent.