Time To Chuck Alignment

By now I’m sure you’ve all seen this alignment chart:

This cute graphic got me thinking. Back when there were mechanical consequences (protection spells, powers, weapons, etc) to your character’s outlook on life, it made sense to abstract and categorize ethical alignment.

D&D 4e presents players with a reduced and asymmetrical choice for alignment. What’s even more important is that there doesn’t seem be any mechanical consequence to alignment choice. In my experience most players choose “unaligned” unless making a bold statement about the character’s heroic tendencies.

I’m willing to make a bold statement: ditch alignment entirely. In two years of 4e I’ve only seen it used as a role-playing crutch for labelling PCs and bad guys. And worse, I’ve seen it used to limit character choice and bog down play with “alignment fundamentalism.” Have you ever heard “oh no! I can’t work with a bad guy for a greater good because I’m Lawful Good”?

Check out DM Samuel’s 7 Moral Dilemmas for  situations that would be easier and more fun to play without being caged by alignment.

I don’t mean to say alignment systems are always bad. There are valid play-styles where it’s important and appropriately used. If you’ve found the 4e alignment system useful let me know! And if you’ve house-ruled away alignment, let me know it’s been going.


17 thoughts on “Time To Chuck Alignment

  1. I’ve never really found the dnd alignment system to have more benefits than it has drawbacks. The concept of “detecting evil” is strange; whereas detecting evil-ish intent would be fine, but totally subjective to the morals of the person doing the detecting.

    ie. a truthful knight and a selfish warlock would interpret the response from a spell like “detect intent” very differently.

    I like gray areas.

  2. Great Article Mike! I find it funny that no-one noticed that I left alignment completely out of the topic when I posted the 7 Moral Dilemmas. I purposefully left alignment out of the discussion because I feel much like you do – it really serves no purpose in 4e D&D, nor do other modern games have a need for it.

    You’re right though; in past editions there were mechanical consequences for acting outside of the “rules” for your alignment and those constraints could be played up or played down depending on the will of the DM or players. Usually, if we had someone at the table that was required to adhere to the guidelines of their alignment it would start out great and then devolve into a mess after a couple of sessions. Ultimately this meant turning into the “lawful stupid” cliche and then having discussions about whether or not there really was a difference between chaotic neutral and just plain evil (which was often portrayed by DMs as just chaotic, with the evil part being assumed – I mean, it WAS the bad guy!).

  3. Yup, alignment is one of those Sacred Cows that I think can be killed finally.

    D&D would be much better served with mechanics like Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel’s Instincts and Beliefs.

  4. I totally agree about the “unaligned” characters, generally the only exception I’ve seen is with Divine heroes. “Good” could easily be incorporated into a class feature.

    Ameron has a good article about divine characters and indicates easy ways of incorporating “good” into their actions. That’s about all the alignment you need in todays D&D.


  5. If there is one major gripe I have with 4e, it’s the new(er) alignment system. That’s not to say the old system was all that great, either.

    For my own needs though, I’d probably house rule in the old 9-point alignment system as a role-playing guide, if nothing else.

  6. Really, if you think about it, alignment made sense in older versions because there were spell effects that directly targeted a players’ and/or monsters’ alignment. It was not only a role-playing “crutch”, but an actual game mechanic that was used to resolve combat situations.

    Personally, I cannot think of any power that specifically says that it does extra damage to (or especially targets) good, evil, or unaligned creatures (or players) in 4E. So really, all we’re left with is the role-playing “crutch” effect, which you are absolutely spot on in stating that there are better methods of handling than the antiquated system of alignment.

    I’m starting a new Dark Sun campaign, and was already planning on telling my players to not worry about alignment, and worry more about what their character backgrounds and motivations are.

  7. I’ve made that statement exactly eighty bajillion times before too. Alignment is completely pointless in D&D 4e. Hell alignment was completely pointless and reductive before too, but back then there were all kinds of stupid items and spells and class requirements that were miserably glued to the system to forcefeed its relevance to the players.

  8. As far as PCs go, I’m of two minds about alignment. For the most part, I think it can be ignored, and mostly agree with what you’ve said. I do think that alignment can be a useful tool for people who are new to roleplaying, provided they don’t take things to far or become too beholden to their alignment. Mortals do have free will, after all.

    If I were to ditch alignment, I’d probably keep it for monsters and NPCs, though. In that context, it’s a useful shorthand for expressing the probably behavior of a creature or person, at its most basic level.

    Personally, though, I think D&D would benefit more from something akin to d20 Modern’s allegiances system (wherein you choose three ideas that are important to you, and list them in order of importance), or something like FATE’s aspects (wherein you create descriptive words and phrases that flesh out your character and have mechanical ramifications). I haven’t quite figured out how to integrate the latter effectively (though I have tried). The former would be a pretty easy hack, though.

  9. Agreed entirely. I’ve always disliked alignment, and I’m glad 4e stepped away from making it a mechanical necessity. I wish they had dropped it all together, but the outcry from the edition wars was bad enough. I’m fine ignoring it.

    My groups have always felt that good and bad deeds and their consequences are intrinsically roleplaying issues. That is, the DM should decide the ramifications, including (if applicable) problems with deities. Crassly killing off a village of helpless bunny-folk shouldn’t be reduced to a question of strict tiers with defined labels. It can (and should) however have repercussions in your story, campaign, or character development.

  10. Agreed. The balanced system before 4e made sense, but its new incarnation should have been scraped and not altered as it is.

    Good post, great site. Thanks

  11. I couldn’t agree more. I think there is an important distinction to make, though– something needs to *replace* the useless alignment system. Like mentioned above, the Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard system of Belief/Instinct/Goal or an Aspect system like FATE and the Dresden Files RPG all have interesting ways of actually *applying* the kind of thing Alignment only conceptualizes. I’m a big fan of practical rules over theory, so something that makes the game more fun and adds to the players’ experience should be added to the system, not just simply carving Alignment away and leaving the hole there.

  12. I love that poster. I also like alignment. So I’ll be the odd “man” out on this one. I do whatever I think fits my character, and alignment is a good reminder for me. Still, I keep in mind that it’s not a hard and fast thing–even good people do bad things sometimes.

    As an aside, my fiance always explains alignment in terms of different characters on Buffy. The characters on that show demonstrate different alignments wonderfully. I would totally love a poster of that!

  13. Good post, I couldn’t agree more. Besides, alignment didn’t make sense since the introduction of the Good/Evil dichotomy (I think it was 1978, but sometimes old men have problems with memory 😉 ). It’s too subjective to the moral beliefs of the single character. You invariably end up arguing about the moral implications of killing a goblin prisoner. Booooring…

  14. Well at least ONE other person likes Alignment. 🙂

    Not only do I have no problem with Alignment, I actually think it helps the game.

    First, let me say that yes, 4E as a system has little use for it mechanically. Fine fine. I have no problem with that. It is what it is.

    However, speaking to older editions and the 9 point scale, I thought it was more good than bad. Yes, I agree that certain alignments were bizarre, like Chaotic Neutral. I’d house rule a different scale if I really cared about having it.

    The thing I liked about alignment and I think this defines why I consider it differently than most is that I never took it to be some hard fast controller of my characters actions. I always considered it to be yet another point on which to build my character, their backstory and how they relate to the world. It wasn’t something you chose and that were then force to adhere to, but rather, something you attempted to match to what your vision of your character was to begin with.

    I would always flesh out my character first, choosing his motivations and goals. I’d take note of what he saw as important and what events shaped his upbringing. Then and only then would I “choose” an alignment. IMO, this was always a good way to ground your character in the world and know how they compared to society at large.

    It was reinforced with mechanics and I thought that was fine. Without the mechanics, it makes sense to proceed with the exercise, but taking into consideration a different objective. It’s simply a way to define your character in the world. It has ONLY RP ramifications, which is fine, but not preferable IMO.

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