Why The Alignment System In Dungeons & Dragons Is Overrated
Have you ever been frustrated with the traditional alignment system, or struggled to determine your own moral alignment in real life? I have. That’s because the rigid alignment system, which defines each character with just a single phrase, seems too simple to be true.
No two words can encapsulate a character’s personality, in the same way, no two words could contain you or your sense of morality.
The alignment system attempts to capture the entire range of human choices and beliefs into a black and white system, which fails to describe or understand the nuances of morality and choice. Not only is this system misleading, but it also creates rigid moral barriers which stigmatize belief systems, cause divides, and snap judgments between characters and NPCs alike.
What is the Alignment System?
The alignment system is a way to define a character’s moral perspective. It is defined by two axes: Lawful vs Chaotic (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic) and Good vs Evil (Good, Neutral, Evil).
Each character is defined by a point on two of the axes (i.e. Lawful Good).
Lawful vs Chaotic determines how closely characters adhere to the law or a moral code. A character who closely follows the law would be considered Lawful, whereas a character who does what they want, regardless of what the law says, would be considered Chaotic.
Good vs Evil determines how closely characters follow a typical morality system. Characters who believe in self-sacrifice to help or protect others, or are altruistic would be considered Good, whereas characters who are selfish, do not care about others, or are willing to do whatever it takes to meet their ends are considered Evil.
Why the Alignment System is Bad
These nine options are meant to encompass the entire scope of morality and personal choice. At a glance, it is easy to see how this system might fail; there is a mismatch between a character’s individual actions, which could each be considered a different alignment. Assigning only one alignment to each character misrepresents all of the choices they would choose to make. There is such a high degree of abstraction that it cannot accurately describe all of the thoughts and decisions a character has and ultimately misrepresents that character by defining them as only one alignment.
For instance, if you’re running late to a friend’s party and cut the line at the grocery store checkout, you are performing a Chaotic Evil action. However, you cut the line so you wouldn’t be late to your friend’s party, because you hate being late (Lawful Good). Also, your friend has anxiety and you know that, if you don’t get there on time, she’ll be upset, and you want to prevent her suffering (Neutral Good). Based on all of these actions, what would your alignment be? You certainly would view yourself as Neutral Good, recognizing you were breaking a law for the greater good, but others in the line may view you as Chaotic Evil, taking a selfish action and breaking the rules without caring for those being affected.
This degree of subjectivity and variable alignment makes the traditional alignment system a poor representation of a character’s morality and personality.
What Should We Use Instead?
We should throw out the alignment system. Not only does it create certain expectations for characters that they do not match, but it also makes it more difficult to role-play characters. Instead of focusing on what a Lawful Good character should do in a certain situation, you should focus on what your character would do in that situation.
When you create the personality, bonds, ideals, and flaws for your character, choose them to encompass the actions your character may take and choices they will face. Decide what your character truly cares about and truly fears, then imagine how they will react in certain situations. Once you have imagined this character, you can fully flesh out who they are.
Taking time to fully create your character negates the need for assigning an alignment to actions. Regardless of what the world thinks of your character, they will always have a sense of what is right from their perspective, embracing a sense of subjective morality, that will guide their actions throughout the campaign.
How This Will Help Your Game
Take for instance Inspector Javert from Les Miserables. This character is lawful to a fault, following the literal word of the law regardless of the moral consequences. Believing that law is morality itself, he punishes many innocent people or people who arguably should not deserve punishment. Many would argue that he is Lawful Evil, following the law regardless of its consequences for those who should not deserve punishment. However, Javert sees himself as Lawful Good, as following the law is the definition of goodness. Even villains rarely see themselves as evil, believing their actions to be just and reasonable, even when society disagrees and considers them evil.
“Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” -Tom Hiddleston
Instead of squabbling over the differences between how characters view themselves, how the world views the character, and what the alignment of a particular character is, we can accept that everyone views morality differently. A character may believe they are acting with good intentions, as almost all characters do, while still accepting that the world views them as evil.
Accepting a view of subjective morality eliminates squabbling, rids the players’ minds of confused definitions of morality, and lets characters choose actions that fully reflect themselves, rather than trying to abide by a flawed alignment system.