Of Laws & Morals

When it comes to the concept of alignment in D&D, there’s quite a bit of contention. Specifically about whether the system is good or useful for describing characters in the world.

Let’s have a wee bit of review of what that chart generally looks like:

DnD Alignment chart by Nederbird on DeviantArt
One of many iterations of this chart by Nederbird at Deviantart

This grid was created with the intent of describing the tendencies of individuals when dealing with matters of morality or law along these axes:

  • Cosmic Good vs Cosmic Evil
  • Selfishness vs Altruism
  • Obeisance vs Rebellion

In my discussions with people around this, I find that many people have at least two alignments they hate on this chart: chaotic evil and lawful good.

Confession here: I don’t understand why*.

* Well, OK: I do. I absolutely do.

I Like The Grid

I don’t find much wrong with the alignment chart as-is when it is used as a guidepost for someone’s tendencies and believe that many opinions toward it are more intense than need be because the alignments are treated as immutable absolutes.

The Lawful Good Monk? Wonderful. That Chaotic Good Rogue? Great for the “Thief with a heart of gold” archetype. Hooray!

However, as player characters progress and have experiences, their movement within these alignments either (a) marks a change in their overall tendencies or (b) will be punctuated by particular moments that they were extremely “out of character”. I feel that much of the friction we have around the alignments is along these lines on a narrative level.

The only classes that D&D has any hard rules on for breaking alignment/character in this way are Clerics and Paladins. They have to atone in some way because, rules-as-written, acting against your alignment punishes you mechanically. Spells disappear, no more Divine Smite, etc. While the means by which they must atone are up to the DM, at least the rules state that this is a thing that needs to be done.

Every other class is just… “Oh, well you did that, didn’t you? Alrighty then.” from the standpoint of mechanics which means it is up to you, the DM, to assign those consequences for those severe breaks in character or changes in tendency.

Your swords, daggers, and fireball spells have no moral compasses. Burning down an apothecary might make you an asshole, but it won’t punish you on a mechanic level.

The Grid Has No Meaning?

Outside of the social impact and a few scattered magic items (e.g.; the Swords of Answering), alignment has no real meaning for PCs, and in a realm where gods aren’t active and involved in your world, alignments means even less.

Like many things on the social level like this, D&D doesn’t have a lot of hard rules which means that DMs have to do a lot of work to make those alignments impactful.

Not making room for real and/or lasting consequences for your players removes the need for the alignment grid altogether.

Who is enforcing the law if your Chaotic Neutral Rogue breaks one? Does knowing the law help your Lawful Evil Cleric? Are there people who refuse to or are convinced to working with your party because of their reputation?

Or are we going to continue making game quests where the conditions are simply “fetch this”, “kill that”, or “take this item to a place by the night of the celestial alignment” to gain someone’s favor?