Alignments are Terrible


If you want to have nice, argumentative discussion with a bunch of D&D players that will inevitably turn dark and make everybody in the room angry, just find a group of players and ask them (as a group) how you should play your chaotic neutral character. Then sit back and watch the fireworks explode. I’ve seen some of the most reasonable, easy-to-get-along with people become screaming gibbons ready to throw shit at each other over how to define alignments in Dungeons and Dragons.

I have a lot of opinions on this, but probably the strongest opinion I have is this: Alignments are pointless and at this point most of the games I play in ignore them almost completely. This is a drastic change from how I started playing 40 years ago, when I was in middle-school, and alignment was one of the most important parts of a character, right after race, class and finding a cool name.

There are a number of reasons why alignments throw players into such a tizzy, and a number of problems (IMO) that they create, so below I’ve listed my two biggest complaints about the alignment system, and then what I prefer to use instead.

The only relevant alignment chart.

Nine alignments isn’t enough, and it’s also too many.

It’s really difficult to define a character’s personality as belonging to a single point on a nine point scale. People (and characters) are complex. Do two Lawful Good paladins have the exact same reaction to every single scenario? Do Neutral Good characters all have the exact same opinion of things like slavery, imprisonment, cutting off thieves’ hands, or marriage laws in foreign countries? Does every True Neutral druid really just not care about the difference between good and evil?

Some of this was addressed even in older versions of D&D where you’d see stat blocks with things like:

Alignment: Lawful Neutral (with good tendencies)

Meaning a character (Usually an NPC) could be played as Lawful Neutral by the DM, only occasionally it was ok if they leaned towards good a little more than a “neutral” character should. I feel like there’s a spectrum, like with classes. Not all Fighters are the same. Some are archers, some use swords and shields, some use spears. In the same way, not all Lawful Good characters are the same. The only problem is, players for whatever reason expect all Lawful Good characters to be the same. They’re all supposed to be nice, and easy to trick into doing whatever evil deed you want to do because they’re naïve and don’t understand how easy they are to trick. It’s one of the reasons the term “Lawful Stupid” originated in the first place.

It’s oddly one of those cases where a non-intuitive solution actually helps. 4th Edition cut down the number of alignments to 5 (see below), and it actually made things better.

Even D&D designers can’t decide what Chaotic Neutral means:

1st Edition

Chaotic Neutral: Above respect for life and good, or disregard for life and promotion of evil, the chaotic neutral places randomness and disorder. Good and evil are complimentary balance arms. Neither are preferred, nor must either vail,  ultimate chaos would then suffer.

I literally don’t know what half of that means. I mean, I guess you’re an agent of Chaos who doesn’t prefer good or evil…

I still don’t know what that means, really. The problem is, what do you do? Sow randomness and disorder? Like make it difficult for the rest of the party to get things done? Cause that’s what tends to happen.

2nd Edition

Chaotic Neutral: Chaotic Neutral characters believe that there is no order to anything, including their own actions. With this as a guiding principle, they tend to follow whatever whim strikes them at the moment. Good and evil are irrelevant when making a decision. Chaotic neutral characters are extremely difficult to deal with. Such characters have been known to cheerfully and for no apparent purpose gamble away everything they have on the roll of a single die. They are almost totally unreliable. In fact, the only reliable thing about them is that they cannot be relied upon! This alignment is perhaps the most difficult to play. Lunatics and madmen tend toward chaotic neutral behavior.

Well, here we go. Just some more deep dive into what we’re talking about in 1st Edition, which is, you’re a lunatic. A madman. You’re playing the hardest alignment to play. You’re “extremely difficult to deal with“. It should have a big flashing light over it that says “Don’t let your players use this alignment!”

3 & 3.5 Edition

Chaotic Neutral: A chaotic neutral character follows his whims. He is an individualist first and last. He values his own liberty but doesn’t strive to protect others’ freedom. He avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions. A chaotic neutral character does not intentionally disrupt organizations as part of a campaign of anarchy. To do so, he would have to be motivated either by good (and a desire to liberate others) or evil (and a desire to make those different from himself suffer). A chaotic neutral character may be unpredictable, but his behavior is not totally random. He is not as likely to jump off a bridge as to cross it. Gimble, a bard who wanders the land living by his wits, is chaotic neutral.

It really feels like someone working on 3rd edition hated that description in 2nd edition and made it their life goal to undo it. That “A chaotic neutral character may be unpredictable, but his behavior is not totally random.” line feels like a direct rebuke to the entirety of the 2nd edition definition. The problem is, this definition lends itself to the “Chaotic selfish” character more than either of the others. You’re not random, you just don’t care about anyone but yourself.

4th Edition

Tried its best to claw its way out of this quagmire by simplifying things. In 4th edition there are really only 5 alignments:

  • Good: Freedom and kindness.
  • Lawful Good: Civilization and order.
  • Evil: Tyranny and hatred.
  • Chaotic Evil: Entropy and destruction.
  • Unaligned: Having no alignment; not taking a stand.

I like that they kept LG and CE and made it so that players could be good (Good) or REALLY good (Lawful Good) or they could be evil (Evil) or they could be REALLY evil (Chaotic Evil) or they could just not give a damn (Unaligned). There’s a lot to like about this system because it completely removes Neutral and disarms all the conversation about “What’s the difference between Neutral Good and Chaotic Good?” Well, nothing, anymore. You’re just Good.

The only real beef I have with this setup is the words at the end. Are Lawful Good characters not for Freedom and Kindness? Do Good characters not care about Civilization and Order? Can Evil characters not strive for destruction? Or Chaotic Evil characters for Tyranny and hatred? Or are the specialized ends of the spectrum (LG and CE) just inclusive. Though that still leaves Evil characters without destruction and Good characters without civilization. I just don’t get what they were going for here.

What I DO like about this is, if you’re a new player and you ask the other people at the table, “What should I put in alignment?” Someone can say “Just put good.” And you’re good. No need to explain a bunch of crap about Lawful and Chaotic, or what the hell it means to be Neutral. Just, good. We’re good. That’s good.

5th Edition

Chaotic neutral: Chaotic Neutral (CN) creatures follow their whims, holding their personal freedom above all else. Many barbarians and rogues, and some bards, are chaotic neutral.

Well, we’ve backpedaled our way to 3.5 again. You’re selfish, you follow your own whims, and your personal freedom is more important than anything else. This leads to CN characters cutting and running when the city guards under the influence of the tyrannical Duke show up, because screw a fight we might lose, my freedom is more important, so the party can just deal with this without me. And while everyone at the table wants to toss you off a rooftop, you’re technically playing your alignment correctly. The only difference is now we have a list of classes that might be CN.

What I find really frustrating about the alignments in 5E is that it feels like it was stuck back in there just to appease the old school crowd. It’s a crammed in section that just doesn’t have any of the power it used to, and feels really superfluous, especially in any 5E games I’ve played in.

What I prefer instead

The Personality Section in 5E is much better than the alignment system for doing what the alignment system (I believe) set out to do. There’s 4 sections to it, but really you can sort of boil it down to a sentence or two, but just as an example, here’s a character with the Folk Hero background from 5th Edition:

Personality

If someone is in trouble, I’m always ready to lend help.

Personality-wise, so far, he sounds like a good guy. He’s willing to help if someone is in trouble. There’s nothing here that says he will or won’t break a law to do it. If one of his party member’s is captured by the local authorities, he might try to break them out. Or he might try appealing to the judge (legally) to see if he can get him out without committing a crime. The good thing about this statement though is that it has room for flexibility. The rigidity of “Lawful Good, so sorry, I can’t help you break out of a prison you were legally incarcerated in” or “Chaotic Neutral, so sorry, you’re on your own, I can’t be involved” isn’t an issue with this type of system. You’re just giving a general idea of a character’s personality.

Hey, do you know Bob the folk hero?

Yeah, that guy’s always willing to lend help if you’re in trouble.

Ideals

Fairness. No one should get preferential treatment before the law, and no one is above the law. (Lawful)

Again, 5E stuck “Lawful” at the end of that for some reason (I guess if you’re trying to figure out from your ideals what your alignment should be?) But this, in combination with the personality quirk, or even on its own, is better than an alignment. You believe in things being fair. You don’t think mayors or city guards should be above the law, they should be treated like everyone else. Your true ideal is that things should be fair. You’re always willing to help people out, and you think things should be fair. I’m getting a much better picture of what kind of person you are than Lawful Good could ever account for.

Bonds

A proud noble once gave me a horrible beating, and I will take my revenge on any bully I encounter.

All right, now we’re getting a bit more specific. I imagine that your personality (willing to help) becomes noticeably pronounced if you run across someone who’s being threatened or beaten by a bully. You probably find that unfair and you’re willing to jump in and throw a punch (especially if it’s a city guard beating up some innocent citizen).

Flaws

I have trouble trusting in my allies.

And this is just a bit more information. Why do you have trouble trusting your allies? Well, that’s up to you as a player, but if this were my character I’d say it’s because they’re tough, powerful adventurers, and I know people like that have a tendency to become bullies, which is the thing I hate the most, and because I believe in helping people and being fair, I’m wary of them and watch their every move to make sure they’re not becoming jerks as we level up and become even more powerful.

So you can boil all this down to: “I believe in fairness, I hate bullies, and I’m willing to help when people are in trouble.”

Wordier, but more descriptive than: “Neutral Good”.

This system is so much better at creating a personality than just a label from a list. It doesn’t necessarily have the advantage of a quick glance at a character sheet to say “Oh, LG, I can trust this guy.” Or “Oh, CN, I’m leaving this party immediately.” but it does give a much better description of the kind of person your character is, and I think that’s kind of the point of the alignment system in the first place.

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