Why I Hate Alignment

2007 September 30
by Vanir

If I had to pick one concept in D&D that has always driven me completely insane, I would have to pick alignment. How many times have you had a discussion with another player about something his or her character did and whether or not they played their alignment correctly?

Chaotic Retarded

The rules for alignment are JUST vague enough to be confusing, and are frequently the subject of some very… shall we say…. liberal interpretation. Here are some of the doozies I’ve heard over the years:

  • Lawful — Always obeys laws, no matter what.
  • Lawful Neutral — The ONLY thing this person ever cares about is laws. Always.
  • True Neutral — Can’t decide what to do because they’re always on the fence. Actions that require a decision must always be taken at random by a roll of the dice. Frequently switches sides in the middle of a battle.
  • Chaotic Neutral — Always does the first thing that pops into their heads. Always chosen by the guy in the group who doesn’t want to be labelled as “evil” but never wants his alignment questioned.
  • Chaotic Evil — Enjoys killing everything. On sight. Always murderous.
  • Lawful Evil — Always obeys laws, but has to find loopholes to still do evil.

And these aren’t just from one poor misguided gaming group I was in during college. I still hear these things from time to time, and it’s a wonder I have any hair left.

Never Always

See the common thread between every stupid thing said above? Every last one of them has the word “always” in it. Nobody always or never does something. People are much more complex than that, and under the right circumstances, you can see people do some pretty unexpected things.

The problem with alignment is that it’s a label. And the problem with labels is that one can be stuck on something complex and people will only see the label. Even if the label is pretty accurate, most people will never ever be able to see beyond what is printed on it.

Let’s take a guy who would be, by most definitions, a good guy. He goes to church every weekend, loves the wife and kids, gives back to the community, and goes the speed limit. But he steals money from his workplace and kicks his dog too. Is he Good? Evil? Chaotic? I’d say he’s got some of each in him. ALL people do, to a certain extent. But what label do you slap on him? You can’t slap “Good” on him, he’s a thief. You can’t slap “Evil” on him, he’s good most of the time.

I’m expecting emails from some of the rules lawyers out there saying “He’s OBVIOUSLY Neutral!” or “He’s Neutral Good with Evil Tendencies!” or something like that. But you’re missing the point — why are we working so hard to classify something that defies classification? Emotion is notorious for being wildly irrational, and human behavior is largely based in emotion. I submit that it doesn’t matter one bit what Official Alignment someone is — they are who they are. And no two word description can accurately portray that.

This Dial Goes Up To Eleven

Another problem with labelling something with an alignment is that in not seeing past the label, they also exaggerate what it means. So if someone is “good” they hug puppies, shit candy canes, and are Dedicated to the Eradication of Evil. On the other hand, Evil people rob the elderly blind for fun and always have at least two people killed before 11am. I’m exaggerating, of course, but raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a party where somebody does something slightly morally questionable and another party member immediately drew their blade and tried to kill them on the spot BECAUSE OMG THEY ARE EVIL!!!!!

That’s a lot of hands.

OMG But What About Classes And Other Things That Are Alignment-Specific??!!?

I think those rules are silly!

I can understand the spirit behind wanting paladins to be Lawful Good or they lose their paladinhood. But paladins are holy warriors, and it really ought to be up to their chosen deity whether or not they’re doing what they ought to. Especially in groups with…. interesting ideas on alignment, if the paladin doesn’t see a “keep off the grass” sign, they could wind up a fighter in fancy armor in short order.

Monks have the same problem, and if they’re not always “lawful” they lose their monk status. If the Lawful part that needs preserved is all about discipline, then if someone doesn’t obey laws or does “something chaotic”, how does that mean they don’t train every day? Now, I understand the monk’s powers in D&D are supposed to be supernatural abilities. That’s fine. But I’ve been in martial arts every bit as long as I’ve played D&D and I mean to tell you there are some seriously chaotic martial artists out there. And last time I checked, they all still train and none of them lost the ability to do Flurry of Blows.

A Helm of Alignment Change? Start acting more evil. DUH.

The Heart of The Matter

I was once in a campaign where I was playing a monk, and something happened in battle where the DM thought I was being “chaotic”. I think I jumped over a short party member, accidentally knocking him over in the process. And I got warned that if it ever happened again, I would be stripped of my monk status. I thought that was completely ridiculous, and we got into a big argument over it.

And it was after that when I realized why I really hate alignment. It is really vague, open to interpretation, and regarded with incredible importance for some unknown reason. It’s the D&D equivalent of talking about religion or politics at your in-laws during Thanksgiving dinner, and somebody’s going to get their panties in a wad.

Sure, I think all of the things I said above are true. But so does everybody else who has an opinion about alignment. It has a tendency to bring out the worst in D&D players. And for something that can be so easily overcome by good roleplaying, I see no reason why we should trouble ourselves further with it.

But then, the problem really isn’t about alignment, is it? As always, talk to your friends at the table, and try to reach a reasonable consensus. Once you have, stick with it. It’s the Lawful Good thing to do!

17 Responses leave one →
  1. Yax permalink
    September 30, 2007

    Words of wisdom. How come a vague concept is a core element of the game?

  2. ChattyDM permalink
    October 1, 2007

    Yup alignments are bad when they become poor excuses for Role Playing.

    Iron Heroes did away with them.

    And you can remove them pretty easily in D&D. You let Alignments define Outsiders (à la Planescape) and you drop them from Material plane creatures.

    All Protect from and detect spells become protect from Outsiders and Detect Outsiders.

    Smite spells become Smite Outsiders (Smite Evil) or Smite Mortals (Smite Good)

    Alignment based magical weapon are removed from the game or become outsider slaying weapons.

    My 2 cents…

  3. Vanir permalink
    October 1, 2007

    I dunno, Phil… I think Alignment is a weird concept no matter what plane you’re in. All Outsiders aren’t evil and all mortals certainly aren’t good. It’s a game mechanic applied to an abstract, subjective concept and that’s why it’s so confusing.

    The Protection spells might be able to be modified to “Protection from Opponents” or something like that. But “Protection from Evil” sure sounds cooler…..

  4. Dave The Game permalink
    October 1, 2007

    Agree with everything you’ve said here. 4th edition is supposed to be doing something about this, though we’ll see how far they go.

    I often find people using their alignments to justify whatever they want to do. It’s not just bad roleplaying, it’s used as “you can’t get mad at me, I’m Chaotic Neutral!”

    One of the threads over at the Wizards boards recently was why even mindless Undead are considered evil. Can mindless things really make moral choices?

  5. ChattyDM permalink
    October 1, 2007

    I don’t have that much an issue with alignment because we’ve used it to pull off some pretty cool stuff in the past.

    We’ve had Alignment-based wars, we’ve had both a Chaotic Evil and Neutral Good characters co-exist, sometimes tenuously, in the same group for 2 years.

    But having played an alignment-free d20 campaign, it is extremely liberating for all.

    So much so that when we came back to D&D all players spontaneously chose good alignments but they do not play as all good all the time. They now make questionable choices but with an underling principle based on our common conception of good.

  6. ChattyDM permalink
    October 1, 2007

    And I suggested keeping the plane aligned because of Planescape…

    Which you probably don’t play right now but which I’m gearing up to…

    Sorry I guess I’m guilty of DM selfishness here.


  7. Vanir permalink
    October 1, 2007

    @ phil: Yeah, I think what you’re saying might make more sense if I’d ever messed with Planescape. But it sort of sounds at first blush like somebody based a whole roleplaying setting on alignment, which to me is approximately as appealing to me as Carrot Top. 🙂

    @ dave: let’s not forget the Evil and Good spell domains. Like anything that uses negative energy is inherently Eeeevil. Sorry, but I think chopping somebody’s legs off with a battleaxe or roasting them with a fireball is just as “evil” as casting Eyebite on them. (And, on a side note, that spell doesn’t even involve EYES!)

  8. Myers permalink
    October 1, 2007

    Alignment has always bugged me. I often wonder if it was meant to provide a framework for the DM to evaluate how well someone was roleplaying their character.

    Hmm… let’s see… didn’t follow the letter of the law while helping the miller and his family rebuild their home. Yep, that’s Chaotic Good! Nice job!

    Why not just choose three or four adjectives like greedy, sentimental, and flatulent? Now that’s some character motivation!

  9. ChattyDM permalink
    October 1, 2007

    For what it’s worth, Planescape was written in the mid 80’s where TSR was looking to compete with White Wolf’s very flavourful settings. They worked with what they had, which was Gygax’ Planar chart in the PHB 1st ed and Jeff Grubs’ Manual of the Planes.

    While the alignment’s philosophy is very strong, they also created a large number of Planar-philosophies that are alignment inspired but not that constraining.

    The various authors also explored the themes of ‘deviant planars’ like Chaotic Modrons (Usually Lawful Neutral sentient constructs), Fallen angels and risen Devils…. etc.

    Finally, you might want to have a look at Monte cook’s Book of Hallowed might which tackles Alignments with a twist. Each aspect of the 2 axes (Law/Chaos etc) are now numbered 1 to 9 which represents intensities in the alignment philosophy .

    So If I want to play a very strict but only slightly do-gooder monk, I make him :L7G2 A Paladin that champions protecting others but has no great attachment to order can be L1G8.

    It’s a step away from Lawful Stupid and Chaotic Jerkism…

  10. Myers permalink
    October 1, 2007

    @ chattydm: I think I have a friend whose alignment is Chaotic Stupid. Thank you so much for helping me finally put a name to his personality. That was brilliant. Best laugh of my day!

  11. Doug Hagler permalink
    October 2, 2007

    I wrote about this too a while ago. i basically think that alignment is almost impossible to use in such a way that it adds to the game consistently. What I suggested was to have a character’s alignment simply be their center of value – what they align themselves with. So this could be their home country, or someone they love, or their greed, or whatever. Alignment is just primary motivation, basically, but it doesn’t have to fit into an absurd view of morality if you don’t want it to. I definitely have the Detect/Protect Alignment spells just detect Outsiders (if they show up at all). The Alignment-based spell Domains are fine because those are aspects of a particular deity’s ethos – and for Clerics, their Alignment is almost always their deity anyway under my house rules system.

  12. Anonymous permalink
    October 2, 2007

    Alignment is a relic from D&D’s war-gaming roots. The PCs and NPCs are automatically “good”, the monsters and enemies automatically “evil”. Everything that assigned moral or ethical values to good and evil came later. Skeletons are “evil” for the simple reason that they are monsters the players can kill. The Law/Chaos stuff is from Michael Moorcock, and was added for fantasy flavor. It also has little to do with ethics or morals, and instead refers to whether the player is fighting for the forces of Chaos or the forces of Law, in the eternal battle between these forces. Thus, unless you’re doing hack-and-slash, Good/Evil is meaningless, just as Law/Chaos is meaningless outside a Moorcockian campaign.

    Planescape’s organizations and planes have, in addition to alignment, very well articulated philosophies and goals. Thus alignment becomes unnecessary.

    However, I would say that alignment should be kept in-game (there’s too many spells/effects that use it) but it should not affect roleplaying. Reinvent alignment as “dweomer” or something. It only affects spell-casting and has no affect on player personality. So, a paladin with a black, fire-aspected dweomer becomes possible, but would cause some hassle when the party casts Protection from Black.

  13. Anonymous permalink
    October 3, 2007

    Back when I started playing D&D (when the rules were in several saddle-stapled booklets), the gaming group I played with treated the two alignment axes differently; the lawful/neutral/chaotic axis represented the character or creature’s adherence to a standard of ethics, while the good/amoral/evil axis (using ‘amoral’ to avoid confusion) represented whether or not the character or creature’s actions were constructive or destructive of social order.

  14. rainbowspryte permalink
    November 20, 2008

    Good article, wise words. I remove alignment from many games.

    However new 4.0 alignment is even worse IMO.

    Hey BTW can we please refrain from using the term “retarded”. I work regularly with folks who are labeled with that kinda term. It’s hurtful.

    Not trying to be ultra PC just saying it’s a antiquated and harsh term for some of those less well off people out there.

    Thanks guys.

  15. Justin permalink
    March 27, 2011

    “However new 4.0 alignment is even worse IMO.”

    Not to me. Anything that reduces the crazy amount of alignments in D&D is a good thing; all the crazy number of alignments did was act as pornography for people obsessed with lists and categorization (not to mention start meaningless debates).

    Overall I agree with the article: alignments aren’t needed.

  16. Nyghtmaer13 permalink
    October 30, 2011

    Vanir, you are awesome. I agree completely. Alignments are especially annoying when D&D fans insert them into things that don’t use them, like The Elder Scrolls. TES is pretty much anti-alignment down to the lore behind the games. It’s just…really strange. When I first heard about D&D, I thought it was neat and all, but the alignment deal put me off.

    The point is, you took the words right out of my mind. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  17. MurdererOfLamePCs permalink
    March 29, 2018

    You obviously have no clue on what good role-playing or storytelling is if you can’t understand alignment. It’s actually VERY integral to the game. Law/Chaos and Good/Evil are pretty obvious concepts, as is Neutrality. These things challenge characters, and thus make them interesting. There is a spectrum, just like anything else. I often find people who “hate alignment” simply cannot understand it, or had a bad experience with it once. Your “by most definitions is a good guy” example adds clarification to this: He is Lawful Evil, or Lawful Neutral. He goes to church: big deal. That means nothing without knowing his motivations. He loves his family. So what? He can feel emotion. That means nothing. Drives the speed limit. Doesn’t want a ticket, or has a dead body or drugs in the car. Stealing money? Does he keep it, or give it to the poor? Kicks his dog: kind of knocks the shine off of the “good” things he does, and thus brings me to my point: Alignment is a sliding scale meant to make roleplaying INTERESTING, and to keep characters from becoming gimmicky, overpowered douchebags. A Paladin is not Lawful Good because they are a Paladin, they’re a Paladin BECAUSE they are Lawful Good. This line of thinking prevents Paladin/Warlocks, Barbarian/Wizards, and a whole slough of other dumbass shit that actually takes the fun and challenge out of the game. But in the end it is all personal preference. I find there are 2 types of players/dms: Those who want to play a tabletop version of Final Fantasy, where you “win/finish” because you simply participated, and those who want something more akin to Dark Souls, where the stakes are high, and you must rely on luck and skill to make it to the end. Whenever I read posts that are “anti” alignment in D&D, it inevitably comes back to a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is, why it is relevant, as well as how they work. I’m well aware that this comment will go over about as well as telling a die hard Beatles fan that “Yoko isn’t the reason the Beatles broke up,” but I really get annoyed at how this amazing tool is misunderstood. Alignment fucking rocks. Most people just struggle with understanding it. The end.

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