This entry is part 1 in the series Focussing On Alignment

Johnn received this article submission for Roleplaying Tips, but it’s not a fit for the e-zine, which tries to be systemless as much as possible. He “didn’t read much of it because 30 years of alignment discussions puts this on my topics blacklist, even for personal reading (smiley).” So he asked me to take a look at it and consider whether or not it was suitable for the blog.

My reaction on reading it, was “I don’t agree with the general conclusions (though they may be correct for individual GMs and campaigns), but:

  1. It was well-written;
  2. it presented a legitimate point of view;
  3. it deserved to appear ‘in print’ Somewhere; and
  4. I wanted to write a rebuttal (or perhaps an expansion; you decide!) which would flow into a couple of blog posts that I already had planned on the subject of alignments, which would be revised as illustrations of the points that I wanted to make within that rebuttal.

So here’s the result: A monster multi-part blog post on the subject of alignment in D&D. Starting with:

The Conundrum of Alignment

A guest article by Garry Stahl

I don’t like alignment, it bears repeating. What I don’t generally do is explain is why. I usually do not explain why because I use an authoritative tone of voice and peoples’ heads explode. If your head is so prone, wrap it in duct tape, here I go.


Yes, I understand the D&D alignment system. I have used it, I have read up on it and read many an article for and against. I have pursued an understanding of the alignment section in every edition of D&D from Zero to Fourth. To be perfectly clear, I do not speak from a point of ignorance. Understanding something does not require agreement with it as well.

One: Alignment causes contention in interpretation

The alignment system has been debated to death. The books can clarify and explain until the damn bovines are dust, never mind come home, it changes not in the least the fact that people will argue the meaning those nine little phrases, and argue and argue. In part, I drop alignment because it unhinges those expectations. By not using the loaded phrases to describe anything, I remove them from contention, and hopefully open people up to looking at my game as it is, not with the baggage they bring to it.

To clarify a point that has been brought up a number of times. Dropping alignment in total is not the job of the lazy DM. It requires a good deal of work to extract alignment from the rules of the game. First you have to replace it with something, an ethical and moral code or several. Second you have to remove it from spell effects and magic items, character classes and any other place it pops up. This was not done because I couldn’t be bothered to keep track of it. On the contrary. Doing nothing and leaving alignment in would have been less work, much less work.

Two: Alignment oversimplifies & confuses

Alignment is the Fisher-Price ethics system. Big blocks for little hands. Simple (except it is not, see above) and bright colors. But using alignment to make a more advanced moral and ethical system is like laying out a highly detailed model with those self-same Fisher-Price toys; you cannot do it. Sure those toys have their place, but it is not in a detailed model.

I have read article after article about how to make “real” politics work under alignment. Or how to inject “real” morals (“real” in quotes because we are discussing a game). How it IS possible to have conflict between two “Lawful Good” characters and not break alignment. Why is this even coming up? Anyone who has ever stood between a Baptist and a Catholic, or a Sunni and an Shiite, understands that conflict among even so closely related beliefs can arise. Conflict to the point of violence. Only the artificial construction of alignment makes this a question in the first place.

Alignment gets taken further into races and even entire nations. This does not work. While an inadequate Fisher-Price system for individuals, it just cracks into little pieces when you try to wrap an entire society around it. Alignment does not scale, either to finer and more detailed ethics or to larger social units. So you either have to work around it, awkwardly, like a dead elephant at a party, or ignore it at different scales. So why do you have it?

Then we have the issue of identification. I won’t even get into the First Edition bad idea of the decade of alignment languages. Which incidentally were too impolite to use, but you still had them – Cant for use at the local Lawful Evil club no doubt. Let us be frank – no sane person identifies themselves as ‘evil’. Everyone is right or justified in their own minds; even the worst of mass murderers has a rationalization for their deeds. Therefore a brotherhood of evil, or even good, is laughable. People will join the Rotary Club or a gang, but for the reasons of society or mutual protection, not to “do evil”. They might indeed be doing evil, but they will justify it to themselves and won’t by default cooperate with the next group of “evil doers” down the road.

The average person in the kind of subsistence society that D&D usually describes as the default are not interested in the finer points of some universal philosophy. They are concerned with how many sheep they have, or how good the crop is going to be; real issues that affect their lives.

Three: Alignment as a behavioural sledgehammer

Long ago (some two decades) I created detailed ethical and moral systems for my game. I came to the point of adding alignment, and realized it was putting lips on a chicken. You didn’t need it. I had just explained in black and white the ethics of the entire religion. I didn’t need the alignment.

By removing alignment wholesale We don’t get into fine debates about the true nature of “evil” verses “Evil”. (This is exactly the kind of argument I was talking about in point one.) You can’t detect alignment, there isn’t one. NPCs have to be dealt with on an “as we meet you” basis. The justifcation for razing an entire town because it was “evil” is gone.

Social consequences replace alignment deviation. If you walk through town kicking puppies you will become known as a puppy-kicker. Mothers will pull children off the street. Adult dogs will bark at you. Merchants will not serve you. Get bad enough and the law takes a hand. Ever wonder what happens to retired epic level adventurers? Why, they get a job as the town constable, that’s what. It keeps rowdy puppy-kicking, punk adventurers in line.

Alignment is not required “to keep players in line”. Frankly if that is what you are using it for, either find a new set of players or quit. Alignment as a behavioral hammer is one of the worst uses for this tool of dubious uses. It stifles role-play and character development. Forcing characters into their alignment mold and punishing any deviation is one of the prime causes for its elimination from my game.

Four: Theological Classes and the Detection of Alignment

What about Clerics and Paladins? Well, they get a gloss of their religion, its beliefs, commandments, and special rules for the order. Much better than a two word descriptive. Deviation as described is punished by the God in question.

Good and Evil? They exist, they can even be detected, but not unless they are very strong. Most mortal creatures will never detect as evil or good. They have choices. The teetotaling saint can become a wife-beater and thief. the wife-beater and thief can turn a new leaf and seek redemption, even become a saint. Choices. Simon McGee is not evil by the detects. He can mend his ways.

Those creatures that do show as good or evil are those without the choice to change. Devils, angels, those creatures that are what they are by nature. In addition those mortals that are strongly tied to a power that is one or the other will detect as such. Sell your soul to the Devil, yes you will detect as evil. Are you a sainted monk that can heal without spells? You will detect as good. These are mortals that have made their choice so definitely that change is impossible or at best highly unlikely.

So in my game anyone that detects as “evil”, really is. There is no “Lawful” or “Chaotic”. Those are philosophical statements, not a property of the universe.

For the last twenty years alignment has not been part of my game. The game has improved, not suffered.

Afterword: 4e

I read that Fourth Edition was going to change the alignment system. Indeed they did, for the slightly better, slightly. Fourth Edition alignment is, well stupider than every other version I have seen in anything labeled D&D. It is like taking one wheel off a car and declaring the new “design” “better”. Mind you, that is without redesigning the car to be a trike. I haven’t heard anyone that likes it from people that like alignment. Come on guys, if you going to remove the Law/Chaos axis, remove it, don’t cripple it and leave the beast to die. Never mind making it meaningless, but keeping it around. No one is held to anything anymore.

My rebuttal/discussion of Garry’s Article will commence in Part 2 of the series.

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