Once again @TheAngryGM has done it, written a post that I feel compelled to link to, Alignment in D&D 5E: S$&% or Get Off the Pot, and then talk about how I deal with the subject and why. Because this is a very interesting topic, and an interesting follow up to my talk about D&D and symbolism.
First of all, some background. D&D 5E is for me an extension of story telling. And it is inspired by the books I have read. In some ways I wonder if I would have been as ready or excited about D&D had a couple of things not happened when I was young. First, I had the Hobbit read out loud to me when I was in 1st or 2nd grade by a talented actor who taught at the hippy school I attended. And my older brother, who was in many ways an idol, got me into reading the books myself. And he had posters and calendars that were prints of the Brothers Hildebrandt illustrations of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. So I was about as in deep with Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings as I could get at an early age. Second, I found when I first started playing D&D, that reading certain books enhanced the games, this was well before there was ‘official’ D&D fiction, so I was reading Lloyd Alexander, Conan, Roger Zelazny, Andre Norton, etc.
But there were two series and writers that probably had the biggest inspiration for my D&D. First, Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, and other similar books like the Chronicles of Corum. The concept of a vast battle between Law and Chaos was the essential element in those books. And how Gods played an almost every day part in this battle on the mortal plane. Second, was the Thieves World series, which was a terrific fantasy series that if you can get a hold of I strongly encourage reading. Again, one of the essential elements of that series was Gods using mortals as proxies in their battles for supremacy.
So, books are by far my biggest source of inspiration for D&D. I get ideas from the books. And I draw general concepts from the worlds that the books are set in. And most of my fantasy reading was done well before the branded D&D novels came out. So certain concepts like Alignment were just not that big of a deal. It was either a case of being the Heroic good guys, a la Tolkien. Or amoral figures just trying to get by in a world where Gods toyed with mortals, a la Conan and Thieves World.
Given those sources of inspiration, is it any wonder that I have no problem following the first of Angry’s pieces of advice? Just toss out Alignment altogether. I admit I am also influenced by having spent a lot more time playing games without alignment like GURPS, Shadowrun, Deadlands. And that leads me to the last point (and the central one.)
If I were to reorder the Player’s Handbook for 5E I would make one big change. I would move the section on Personality and Background between Races and Classes. Because I think that you should pick out (or randomly roll) things like that before choosing your character class. I think that if you have all of that on your sheet, and stick to it, it can do a better job than the Alignment stick of dictating your characters actions.
Here is an example from the boy’s campaign. One of the boys rolled the following characteristics after choosing the Urchin background, and they are doing a much better job of shaping his character than just saying that he is Neutral, Chaotic, Lawful, Good or Evil.
Personality Trait: I bluntly state what other people are hinting at or hiding
Ideals: Retribution, the rich need to be shown what life and death are like in the gutters
Bonds: I escaped my life of poverty by robbing an important person and now I am wanted for it.
Flaws: I’d rather kill someone in their sleep than fight fair
Now that is far more interesting than just saying that someone is Neutral Good, don’t you think? In many ways that is almost like reading the ideals of Conan, especially the Conan from the books, this Conan:
Now we all know that Conan can be a hero, kill the bad guys, rescue the weak etc. But that doesn’t mean that he has to be of the purest intentions. That is your essential ‘Anti-hero’. And I think it makes the game more interesting using things like this to shape your character than generic labels like alignment. That set of characteristics would definitely result in someone being labeled ‘Evil’ in an alignment system, but few people (other than his enemies) would call Conan evil. Which is my point, alignment is far too broad and generic in my view.
Now the big question, that Angry pointed out, is what to do with the Priests, Paladins and Warlocks without alignment. Simple: they will be forced to follow a code or approach based on their deity or patron. One could be a Paladin of the Death God (although not much fun to hang around with) or a Warlock of the Fairy Queen, and have to follow certain rules laid down by the Deity. It doesn’t mean your deity is Good or Evil, they just are, and have their preferences. I think that makes for a more interesting campaign, not relying on broad alignments for the Gods and their followers.
In essence, I am writing this as a support for those who want to do what Angry suggests as an option: trash alignment. Toss it out for the players. And really only use it as a tool for the ‘monsters’ to determine which ones are ‘bad guys’.