Fixing Alignment in D&D

Image result for batman as every D&D alignment

It isn’t so much that alignment is broken, but that I’m not sure alignment as it is expressed in the 5E Player’s Handbook is all that helpful. It is an element of D&D that has always, and still, provokes a lot of discussion and disagreement, as well as podcast episodes and blog posts trying to explain it and account for it.

The original idea for alignment came, according to Gary Gygax, from the stories of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson – in the first case, a self-conscious reaction to what was seen as the good and evil binary presented by writers like Tolkien. There were only three alignments: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. The good/evil axis was added later in 1977’s Basic Set, went back and forth a bit, but has remained consistent pretty much since then.

The problem that I encounter is that this alignment system is, in brief, that it is too vague. Does “evil” mean finger-steepling, sinister and malicious intent at all times? What about a well-meaning villain? What about the idea that most villains see themselves as heroic, if not outright good? Look at Thanos – is he evil because he plans on killing trillions, or is he lawful because he wants to do so in the most fair way possible, or good because he is willing to make personal sacrifices for what he sees as the greater good, or chaotic because his plans would cause the collapse of civilizations, at least temporarily, or perhaps neutral because he seeks balance in the universe (or says he does)?

The fix for alignment, in my view, is to literally “fix” the ideas of an alignment system to more specific terms so that they are clear and can also be flexible by culture. I ran into this challenge planning for a Ragnarok campaign, called Twilight of the Gods, set in mythic dark ages Scandinavia. The Norse clearly had moral ideas, but they aren’t my moral ideas – “good” for a Norse person is quite different from “good” from my point of view and the likely points of view for the players. Killing someone because you want their silver is not “evil” for the Norse, unless you kill them through treachery or poison.

What I did for Twilight of the Gods I described in a previous post, but I’ve since taken this same idea and applied it to Dragonblade, my medieval Asia setting, and Alaam, my elemental setting inspired by Islam and Zoroastrianism. I think the best way to explain my thinking is to show where I ended up – and I’m now quite convinced that more specific alignment terms are the way to go.

Twilight of the Gods (Mythic Dark Ages/Norse)

Rather than good or evil, characters are honest or treacherous. This reflects the fact that violence was not seen as evil – the greatest moral failings included deceit and cowardice for the Norse. Honesty implies keeping promises, including promises of vengeance or oaths of support, and reinforces the idea of boasting being motivation for great deeds in order to fulfill one’s own words.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are civilized or wild. This follows pretty closely to the idea of law and chaos in original D&D, but lets me highlight a theme of the setting and campaign, which was between the old gods, who are closer to the land, and independent life that is bound to the cycles of nature, compared to the Christianizing/urbanizing influence coming up from the south. It also takes the “Chaotic Asshole” alignment off the table, where players choose to be Chaotic Neutral because they want to be assholes and behave randomly. Both civilization and wilderness imply a strong set of values, both of which are rational and interesting.

Dragonblade (Heroic Medieval China/South-East Asia)

Rather than good or evil, characters are benevolent or selfish. These ideas align relatively well with my own idea of good and evil, which I think is widely shared in my culture, but are drawn more directly from the philosophies that were influential during the medieval period in China – Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Mohism and so on. The highest good is often seen as being entirely self-giving and self-negating, and the deepest evil is often seen as arising from a focus on the self above all else. This also gives roleplaying clues that are more clear, I think, than “good” or “evil.” What concerns characters in this setting is a particular kind of good or evil.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are legalistic or free (committed to freedom). Like the take on good and evil above, this is similar to what is described in the Player’s Handbook, but actually quite different from what was in original D&D’s Law and Chaos. Again, these ideas are drawn directly from the philosophies in China at the time, in particular those of Laozi (Daoism) and Confucius.

Another way of looking at this alignment system is that the good/evil axis is rooted in Buddhism, and the law/chaos axis is rooted in Confucianism and Daoism. Since those are three of the most powerful influences on Chinese culture, I thought it was a pretty good fit. I also felt that whatever replaced “law” and “chaos” had to be two positive choices with a moral underpinning. I realize that boiling down Confucianism to “legalism” and Daoism to “freedom” is stupidly reductive, but hopefully the idea comes across. I’m actually not entirely satisfied with the term “legalism”, but it’s the best I have for the moment.

I like how mundane the alignments become. Chaotic Evil sounds like a lot to live up to – you have to go full Joker and watch the whole world burn. In Dragonblade, this would be Selfish Freedom, which seems a lot more common and easy to understand. Someone committed to Selfish Freedom could even be part of an adventuring party without a lot of trouble, in contrast to someone who was Chaotic Evil.

Alaam (Inspired by Arabian Nights/Islam/Zoroastrianism)

Instead of good or evil, characters are kind or cruel. Here I went with a simple, direct moral description of how one treats other people, rather than the inner morality that is more of a focus for Dragonblade above. These descriptors also fit well with the almost-fairy-tale sense I wanted to evoke of 1001 Arabian Nights. At the very least, it avoids the “But what is evil, really?” kind of question that plagues conversations about D&D’s standard alignment. (Thanos, to take my example from the beginning of this post, is clearly cruel.)

Instead of lawful or chaotic, characters are obedient or rebellious. In this case, I am drawing more from Islam, where obedience is a very high virtue. The Middle-East is also a part of the world that has had strong central authorities for a very long time – thousands of years in the real world. This alignment axis assumes that the law, that authority, makes demands on you, and you have to respond one way or another. This fits with a strong theme for Alaam, which is that of the authority of the genies who created the world, and how characters respond to that authority.

Specific Is Best

My advice to other writers and designers in the area of alignment is almost always to make it more specific. Root your alignment system in the questions you want to ask in your campaign. Fix the alignment axes to the strong themes of your setting. Alignment is often the source of disagreement, but it has a great potential to highlight aspects of a setting right from the beginning. If you want to play a Lawful Good paladin, I think that it is a distinct experience to create a character who is Honest and Civilized, or Benevolent and Legalistic, or Kind and Obedient. Those are all, to me, much more interesting than Lawful Good.

To pick another crappy alignment trope – I am of course suspicious of any player who wants to play a Chaotic Evil character. But what about Treacherous and Wild? That’s at least really interesting. Or Selfish and Free – that’s not even necessarily “evil” in the villainous sense. (Heck, that could be a Libertarian) Or Cruel and Rebellious – the option most similar to Chaotic Evil, perhaps, but still easier to understand and portray. It clearly states a relationship to other people and to whatever authorities exist in your world, and that’s a big step ahead of Chaotic Evil in my book. Or, in my games at least.

What do you think about this take on alignment? What do you think the alignment could be for your favorite setting: Middle-Earth, Westeros, Krynn, etc? 

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