Thoughts on Alignment

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“Alignment: Causing Moral Dilemmas since 1974”

There are three constants in life: death, taxes, and arguments about alignment.

Throughout the many editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the divisive nature of alignment has remained ever-present. It has sparked numerous debates both on- and offline, most of generally devolve into excessively loud diatribes about whether or not alignment should even exist as a rule within modern iterations of the system.

Tackling the topic of alignment is metaphorically similar to taking a stroll through an area filled to the brim with land mines: tread carefully or you’ll have a REALLY bad time. This is especially true if you have the sheer gall to admit that you actually kind of like alignment, like myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people despise it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. I might think that level of hate is incredibly excessive, but I understand why it exists, especially if the individual expressing that amount of hate describes a DM who viewed alignment as a prescriptive element. Forcing you to only take actions that fit within a rigidly defined box labelled “Lawful Good” or “Chaotic Neutral”, punishing you severely if you dare attempt to escape the straight-jacket they’ve forced you into, and this is doubly so if you decided to play a paladin in earlier editions.

I have empathy for players who have had to deal that kind of enforcement of alignment, but I feel we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in this case. I think alignment can be useful when viewed as a descriptive thing, something that gives the player a broad idea of how this fictional character will generally act in any given situation. Not how they will always act, but what kind of action they will usually take in any given situation.

To put it simply, the alignment system works best as a set of guidelines than actual rules. Picture your character’s alignment as just another aspect of her personality, another tool in your arsenal to use when bringing her to life at the table, and help keep her behavior consistent. This doesn’t mean a character who happens to be Chaotic Good must always act in a way that is “Chaotic” or “Good”, but she will usually perceive the world through that lens, even when she occasionally acts “against” her alignment.

Now, I know what you are probably thinking. “That sounds like a wonderful approach, but how do you reconcile this with rules that allow you to detect alignment? How can you objectively detect something that is merely a philosophy? What about classes or features that require the character to maintain certain alignments or lose access to them?”

Those are all legitimate questions. In 5e, alignment seems to be less of an issue, but using this approach does create a wrinkle in earlier editions. The best way to iron out those are to simple have a short discussion with your group about how you will be handling alignment, figure out a way to justify those abilities/features, or simply remove them from the game entirely. Furthermore, you can treat alignment among mortal creatures differently than alignment among outsiders like angels or demons.

The key is to remain consistent, not to take the mechanic too seriously, and apply it with a gentle hand. At least, that’s how it has worked for me over the years.

 

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