It’s Time to Retire the Alignment System

There are times when I’ll walk into the garage, pull out my soapbox, post up on the corner and let ‘er rip.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.  Today, this blog post is my street corner.  The topic of my loathing? The alignment system made popular by Dungeons and Dragons.

What is it?

The alignment system is a simple concept that helps a player in a tabletop setting determine where their character might lean in various situations.  You’re ‘lawful good’ and you caught someone robbing a passing merchant? Capture them and turn them into the local authorities. ‘Chaotic evil’? Kill the thief, the merchant, his horses, and loot them all, taking any valuables that might benefit you.

These are the extreme examples, of course, but the system is meant to create a framework through which one’s character might act, how they might respond.  This alignment is usually (ideally) rooted in a character’s backstory, but there are plenty of times when that’s not the case.

So… what’s the problem?

Glad you asked.  As I see it, there are 3 major problems:

It creates characters that are one dimensional

An experienced player will work beyond this limitation, understanding it for what it is – a framework. But someone playing their first game?  They pick an alignment and think their decisions must happen through the lens of that choice.   

It leads to conversations like:

“Why did you kill that thief instead of taking them captive and asking questions?”

“Um, because I’m <insert alignment here>.”

Not because their character has a deep-rooted fear of being robbed based on losing their family in a robbery gone bad, or an overwhelming desire to protect others because they watched an abusive father beat their mother while they were forced to helplessly look on. Because they are their alignment. Too many people use their alignment as a justification for their actions. It should never be that.

It restricts character growth

This is similar to the ‘one-dimensional’ problem above but takes it a step further.

A strong character grows as the adventure goes on.  They learn and expand their thinking, revising how they view the world and how they interact with it.  None of us are immutable, unchanging. We adapt, grow, expand. Our characters should as well.

I have a player in my game whose background was that of a pacifist people.  She’s grown, and I’ve pushed her, and we’ve watched how her character has evolved and learned to defend herself and her friends, learned that the world isn’t so simple as it might have seemed at first.  Her inclination is still to run and hide, but sometimes she’ll be forced to make a stand – and it’s wonderful to see the growth, the evolution.

It creates unnecessary issues for everyone else in the game

This is aimed at those that believe it’s interesting to be evil for the sake of being evil.  It’s not interesting. It’s frustrating from the perspective of the DM (especially if the campaign is completely custom) and the rest of players that don’t want to kill everything that moves.

Sometimes there is an NPC that might have been put in place to drive the story forward, to expand upon the world, or grant an important bit of information.  If the ‘chaotic evil’ player decides he or she doesn’t like the tone of said NPC and kills them… well, hours of careful planning and writing by the DM might go to waste.  Worse, the rest of the players may become frustrated with the player that killed the NPC.

Now, if the player that killed the NPC has a legitimate reason for doing so, such as a past grievance with the character, then it might make sense.  If they’re doing it because they’re ‘chaotic evil’ and don’t play by the rules?

*deep, calming breathes*

Am I being too picky?

I don’t believe so.  As I see it, the alignment system creates more problems than it actually solves, a sure sign that it’s time to put it to rest.  It can be a great jumping off point for creating a character, but any adherence to it outside of that?  You should be making choices for your characters based on who they are, not on something you might find on a BuzzFeed quiz.

How do we fix it?

DMs should push their players to think character first.  I don’t mean class, race, or alignment first – truly figure out who their character is before even considering the rest. This is far easier said than done, particularly if you’re wanting to play a specific class, but it’s far more rewarding as a player and easier to work with as a DM.

I’ve been lucky enough to play with players that have never touched a D20 before, which made this process much easier.  Even my experienced players were on board. I spent weeks before our most recent campaign asking them questions – questions like:

“What were your parents like?  Are they still alive? Do you have siblings?  What profession did you study growing up? Was your family rich?  Poor? What was it like growing up in your hometown? How were you treated?  What was the political situation like?”

I’m sure they were pretty sick of it by the end (particularly since the documents ranged from 4-6 pages single spaced), but this was the foundation.  By the time the questions were answered, the races began to emerge, and eventually the class that made the most sense within this world. One player’s class didn’t even fit within the normal classes listed in the 5th edition Player’s Handbook.  So we made a custom one that fit his character.

Now, 14 sessions in, they act according to that backstories, according to those questions they answered.  We never once discussed alignment, and our game is better for it. Their characters grow as they learn more about the world, evolve in how they respond to situations.  It’s infinitely more organic, interesting, and fun.

There are no ‘chaotic evil’ players in my group.  There are no ‘lawful neutral’ ones.

There is just Kai, outcast of his people for being different, made practically a slave as a child.  A teenager with a chip on his shoulder.

There is just Aria, a spoiled noble turned freedom fighter after she lost the love of her life.

There is just Kolgut, a man at war with himself, haunted by the father he can’t seem to recall.  

Strip away the alignment from your character – what do you see beneath?

 ~ Brandt

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

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