“Wait, I didn’t know there is an alignment problem?” or “Alignment ruins every game. Die alignment, die.”
No other item on a character sheet is as controversial as alignment. Since the release of AD&D a two-axis alignment system has been used to categorize the ethical (Law/Chaos axis) and moral (Good/Evil axis) perspective of characters, creatures and societies. Player and DM feelings on alignment even fall on an axis (Love, Neutral, Hate). This article looks at four other ways to deal with alignment in your game.
The combinations of all the choices from the two-axis system provide nine choices for alignment which are still in use in D&D 5th edition (4th edition reduced the choices to five, but we’ll ignore this).
|Lawful Good (LG)||Neutral Good (NG)||Chaotic Good (CG)|
|Lawful Neutral (LN)||(True) Neutral (N)||Chaotic Neutral (CN)|
|Lawful Evil (LE)||Neutral Evil (NE)||Chaotic Evil (CE)|
Trying to have one of the nine values above determine the actions of your player in any situation in problematic. Alignment is a mechanic used by the rules. It is not a two word summary of your PCs personality that drives every decision.
I like that D&D 5th Edition added background roleplay mechanics tied to gaining inspiration. We now can look to our PC’s Background, Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond, Flaw, Alignment and Backstory to decide how to act in a specific situation that requires an ethical or moral choice. A ruthless Chaotic Evil character might have a soft spot for orphans or a brave Lawful Good hero might face an ethical dilemma due to a bond. Alignment is just one aspect.
You might be one of the people who think alignment is fine and it works great in your game. No problem, keep reading you might even find you like one of these ideas and want to try it out. If you think alignment is broken and you’ve given up on it forever, take a peek at these ideas and you might give alignment one last chance.
1) Just for the Magic
Focus on the rest of a PC’s background to figure out how they will interact with the ethical and moral dilemmas of your world. Only use alignment to:
- detect good or evil
- decide if a player has access to certain spells
- decide if a player has access to any magic items that state an alignment restriction for activities such as attunement.
You could also just remove the requirement all together and let your player have access to whatever magic and magic items work with their PC’s background.
2) Current Alignment
As your players advance, they’ll start to gain new abilities and learn more about themselves. As they interact with the world and make ethical and moral choices, they will start to settle somewhere on each axis. You could leave alignment blank (or rough) and let the players pencil it in when they have a better handle on their PC and they start to choose a path.
Let your players decide how they want to handle ethical and moral dilemmas on a case by case basis. People, please stop telling your Paladin he is playing him wrong. The days of the LG paladin losing their powers for jaywalking are behind us, move on. I like to push clerics and paladins to emulate the values of their god (versus sticking to something as basic as an alignment), but the gods in my world are quite meddlesome. Let a PC change alignment, choose a new god, whatever works with their PC’s character arc.
3) Current Party Alignment
I like to keep a rough idea of how the world see the party in the game I am running. I use alignment as one factor to determine how institutions and individuals see the party on the ethics and moral axes.
- The actions of a single chaotic neutral rogue picking a pocket might not be enough to change the party’s alignment, but if she burns down a temple as a diversion and runs back to his friends looking for a high five… the townsfolk might not be fans anymore.
- If an NPC has a relationship with one or a couple of the PCs, I will let that relationship control the interaction versus party alignment.
- Overall, are they breaking unjust laws in the name of good? In this case, most of the world will treat them as Chaotic Good. The local guard focused on ethics will see them as chaotic fugitives and try to arrest them. As the PCs sneak into the temple of a good cleric to hide, she will sense their moral direction and dedication to the fight against evil and hide them from the guard.
- Are the PCs more interested in lining their pocket with gold than risking their lives to save the town from evil without a reward? I might move the party towards neutral and the good cleric might not provide a reward to the party of “mercenaries”.
- Perhaps the PCs are trying to infiltrate a thieves guild and have committed some petty crimes. I’d only change the way the thieves guild and anyone else who knows about the crimes see the party on the ethics axis.
- If I am running a heroic campaign, I’ll let my players know that at the beginning of the adventure or campaign that they are expected to be good. If they decide to move from that path, I’ll remind them that the good people of the world see them might start to change if they continue down this moral path, but I’ll give them a couple of chances before I see it as a trend.
- For an evil campaign, I’d expect the opposite. Running around and saving princesses from dragons is not going to help their evil reputation at all.
- The players are free to have the party change alignment through its actions as a group, they just need to know that the world will change the way it sees the party now too.
4) Campaign Specific Homebrew Alignment
The two-axis system of ethical (Law/Chaos axis) and moral (Good/Evil axis) might not match your campaign. You might have a campaign that is focused really focused on a theme such as corruption or many people don’t believe in absent or distant gods. I’ve seen people add a third axis too or more than 3 choices. If alignment is not working for you, perhaps an alignment that matches your game better is the answer.
Some alternative alignment axis ideas I came up with or found online are:
- Magic the Gathering 5 Axis Color Wheel:
- Organization (White)
- Intelligence (Blue)
- Self-Concern (Black)
- Emotion (Red)
- Instinct (Green)
- Active or Passive
- Yin / Yang
- Urbanism: PC is most comfortable in Wilderness, Country or City
- Arcanity – the level of magic a PC has from -10 (dullard peon) to +10 (wizard)
- Corruption: Pure or Corrupted
- Religion: Believer or Non-Believer
- Warhammer Single Axis: Chaos – Evil – Neutral – Good – Law
- Megaversal System from Palladium
- Principled (Good)
- Scrupulous (Good)
- Unprincipled (Selfish and also good)
- Anarchist (Selfish)
- Miscreant (Evil)
- Aberrant (Evil)
- Diabolic (Evil)
- DC Heroes: Choose Heroic or Villainous, then one of 5 motivations
- Pendragon’s 13 axes is used to set an entire personality: Chaste / Lustful, Energetic / Lazy, Forgiving /Vengeful, Generous / Selfish, Honest / Deceitful, Just / Arbitrary, Merciful / Cruel, Modest / Proud, Pious / Worldly, Prudent / Reckless, Temperate / Indulgent, Trusting / Suspicious, Valorous / Cowardly
I’m not here to tell you how to use alignment in your games, but maybe one of these ideas could work in your game. I personally don’t even have an issue with alignment. I think of it as a classic part of the game that I’d hate to lose, but thankfully it is evolving and becoming more about mechanics and less of a significant portion of a PCs personality.
If you need to rant, please feel free to comment below. We’d love to hear how you are using alignment in your games too in the comments.