Once upon a time in tabletop gaming history, we had three, no, NINE alignments.
For those who are new to D&D or fantasy TTRPGs in general, Alignment refers to a system of loose guidelines to indicate a character’s moral and ethical values. It has become widely used since its iconic implementation in the 1977 Basic D&D set. Back in the day, and in subsequent retroclones, three alignments were used (Law, Neutrality, and Chaos,) but the chart everyone knows best revolves around nine alignments (Law, Chaos, Neutrality, Good, Evil, and combinations thereof.)
Since the implementation of Alignment, countless essays and blog articles have spawned explaining what the various alignments are and how they are used. There are also dozens of memes with nine squares showing different characters and attitudes for each alignment. There are some great examples out there. In addition to the memes, there are hundreds of internet debates about “What alignment is ‘X’ character?”
While alignment is great for new Players and Dungeon Masters to describe the basic attitudes of characters and monsters, it is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Paizo, for example, has announced they will be doing away with the old alignment system for Pathfinder 2E Remastered. While this is most certainly a move away from the Wizards of the Coast D&D Open Game License and subsequent System Reference Document, it also indicates the shift in popular opinion amongst the larger fantasy TTRPG community.
The Alignment system is basically becoming obsolete. While we can’t speak for WotC and whatever they’re calling the newest edition of D&D coming in 2024, a lot of us are abandoning the old, rigid alignment guidelines in favor of creating more precise descriptions of character personality. Could this be happening as yet another way to emulate the roleplaying of trained voice actors on the acclaimed Critical Role? Or just an evolution of the rules that have been around for almost 50 years.
|Lawful Good||Neutral Good||Chaotic Good|
|Lawful Neutral||True Neutral||Chaotic Neutral|
|Lawful Evil||Neutral Evil||Chaotic Evil|
Here are my interpretations of the various alignments from decades of seeing them go by:
- Lawful Good (LG) is the alignment of goody-two shoes. Sometimes referred to as “Lawful stupid.” The character will always try to do the morally just thing within legal bounds.
- Neutral Good (NG) characters will always try to do the right thing, even if it’s a little outside of the law. The greater good is all that matters. Just do the right thing.
- Chaotic Good (CG) has been described as the Robin Hood or alignment. Laws be damned, we’re doing the right thing. Rob from the rich, give to the poor.
- Lawful Neutral (LN) means the character follows the governing laws of whatever kingdom they’re in. These characters most often defer to authority, even if it’s not always the proper thing to do in the situation.
- True Neutral (N or TN,) the preferred alignment of Druids. The natural balance of things is what is most important. Whatever will be, will be. Nature takes care of itself.
- Chaotic Neutral (CN) or Chaotic-Chaotic as we refer to it here. Sometimes referred to as the batsh🦆t crazy alignment. Chaos is all that matters. Anarchy and insanity rule.
- Lawful Evil (LE) eliminates a lot of ethically gray areas for some characters. Has also been referred to as “Lawful Selfish.” Everything goes for the kingdom’s dictator or emperor. Their word is never to be questioned.
- Neutral Evil (NE) is often portrayed as evil for the sake of evil. It’s the stereotypical villain’s alignment.
- Chaotic Evil (CE) is the worst of the bad guy alignments. It’s the most psychopathic, sociopathic, remorseless evil imaginable. It is the polar opposite of Lawful Good. It is the nastiest, murderous utter malevolence possible.
Why might it be going away?
For one thing, the alignment system lends itself to abuse. We hear a lot of “It’s what my character would do because they’re ‘X’ alignment.” It usually ends up being an excuse for poor behavior and a lack of good character roleplaying.
It also paints the game world in very rigid; black and white; dualistic; all or nothing ways. For years many Dungeon Masters/Game Masters didn’t allow (*and I still don’t) characters to be any of the evil alignments or CN. (Chaotic Neutral has a bad reputation for being the Daffy Duck alignment.) While there is much duality even in the real world, the various shades of gray get lost in the alignments. For example, a character might be a perfectly law-abiding citizen and believe they’re doing the right thing while still experimenting on giant man-eating plants in their backyard. A particularly nasty villain might have the utmost love for his cat and revere cats in general while still trying to push the hero into a volcano.
Most players do things that act against their alignments. True neutrality is very difficult to maintain because it would be super difficult to travel with the party of adventurers. Most Paladin and Cleric players find themselves in conflict with the rest of the group when questions centered around Lawful Good behavior come up. A lot of DMs probably know CE makes it very hard to retain loyal minions.
What’s Alignment being replaced with?
The short answer is good roleplaying. As a DM, I often tell my players to give me six traits that define their character’s personality. Another tool that helps is the character’s backstory. When I’m behind the DM’s screen, think about my Big Bad Evil Guy’s motivations more than alignment. Greed, power, influence, vanity, and malevolence are common motivations for bad guys. A character’s actions speak louder than alignment ever did.
In terms of game mechanics, alignment was always very cut and dried. Protection from Evil, Detect Good, and other such spells weren’t as useful as wards against specific creatures and talking in character to discern the villain’s intentions. Ultimately, I think it will lead to better roleplaying and more spells such as Zone of Truth being employed. (I dread that spell as a DM, kinda love it as a player.) I think we’ll also see more spells that ward or protect against specific creatures. Protection from Unholy Creatures, for example, might come up to ward an area against Demons, Devils, and Undead. The trait system used in Pathfinder 2E are incredibly useful in determinations such as this.
Another take on alignments might be in order as well.
In Basic D&D and Dungeon Crawl Classics, there are only 3 basic alignments- Chaos, Neutrality, and Law. They’re a lot broader than the nine alignments listed above. There’s still room for character personality and players aren’t necessarily trapped within the bounds of good vs evil in terms of their actions. It also works mechanically for some of the spells discussed previously. Protection from Law/Chaos, for example. It’s a good happy medium if one simply must have some kind of alignment guides. I’m using it as my sort of general pantheon for my game system.
Another thing that has been discussed as a change to D&D going forward is monsters not being held strictly to alignments. Now we can have Lawful Good Red Dragons or Chaotic Neutral Gold Dragons. While these creatures used to be an exception to the rule, now they can be common as water. The concept of “evil humanoids” is also being dropped, meaning Drow might be popping up like daisies everywhere. Orcs are just another character to run into. The idea of “Terminate On Sight” monsters and humanoids are going to become a thing of the past.
What’s my take on all of this as a DM?
I haven’t discussed alignment much in 30 years or so. I ask players for personality traits. It’s there as a game mechanic as I discussed earlier. I see it coming up a lot with the massive influxes of D&D 5E players. I think it’s a good tool for learning the game early on. It’s not something I’d rigidly enforce.
I know some of the old-timers are probably going to castigate me for this one. I just don’t think alignment is that big of a deal. Let it go. Move on. I applaud Paizo for removing it entirely. It’s going to work so much better for Pathfinder 2E to rid themselves of it. I think it will teach younger players new to the game to think about their character in terms of personality, ancestry, and background. Good for them!
Thank you for being here. I appreciate you. It looks like a lot of projects from May are going to stretch into June and beyond here on the blog. Please stand by for further announcements. 🤪
To me, alignment is a tool for making some early and broad personality strokes about your character–and even after 40+ years of gaming gives me some RP hooks to connect with. I’ve also done Meyers Briggs to give me some RP hooks. At the same time, I love Cypher System which has no alignment construct.
Alignment isn’t perfect, and any discussions of “what does it *really* mean haven’t interested me since the 90’s. Good people do bad things; Bad people still think they’re the hero of their own story. And it’s really how one reacts to things that define them, more than 1-2 letters on their character sheet. But it’s good for giving me a starting location from which to build, and that’s what I like.
So I don’t consider it essential, and I won’t riot if they pull it from D&D. My only small fear is that without it, the game would be less D&D–in the same way that I thought 4e was a solid game, but lost a lot of it’s D&D feel by the way they managed things.