What’s your view on D&D 5e’s alignment system? Most people have one and many times it’s strongly held.
In this guest post, Tyler Gamba and Brandon Gurwitz share theirs and a solution that appears in Redsky. Redsky is a 5e conversion that’s taken more than $40,000 on Kickstarter from hundreds of backers and is still open for pledges. Let’s take a quick look.
It’s a pledge of only $4 to get the core rules in PDF, Discord Perks and early access to the novel, but $25 for the full digital book. Art from the project illustrates this article.
Now, on with the idea…
Everybody Knows There Are Flaws in the Alignment Grid… Why Haven’t We Changed It?
By Tyler Gamba and Brandon Gurwitz
In the creative dramas a gamemaster wants their players to experience, the idea is to make their choices feel as meaningful as possible, right? Yet it is too often that a game hits a snag due to the “choices” a character makes, leaving many people asking the titular question: why are we still bothering with alignment?
Well, when you’re creating a character, alignment still manages to feel like a meaningful choice. Picking one spot on a 3×3 grid points you toward fundamental personality quirks, flaws, and morals a character uses to make their decisions. Many tabletop RPG players are looking for character development in a rich story. That means well-written characters. Having the right creative tools helps to make them, and alignment does provide some foundation.
The D&D Alignment system used to be one of the most prominent tools provided by Wizards (and TSR) when deciding what drives your carefully crafted character. It has a long and contentious history, sure. But it has also achieved meme-status outside the RPG domain and is still adhered to by many gamers. I and many others argue it’s also long overdue for a rethinking. Or at least a few alternatives.
We are by no means the first people to voice opinions about alignment. Almost everybody who has played D&D for more than one game has thoughts to share, many of whom are smarter, funnier, or have more gaming experience than we do. Maybe you’ll think what we’ve got cooking over at Solar Studios is a viable replacement, but this is mostly an open question for the community.
So for those of you that don’t already know, what’s the problem with alignment? Well…
Let’s be real. If a player has an impulse or hang-up during a session, many will treat their character’s alignment as the broadest of guidelines or ignore it altogether. Others use it as a defense for completely irrational behavior. This is such a common practice that by the time we got to 5e, a lot of the gameplay restrictions tied to the alignments had been removed.
Yet alignment is a fundamental part of the D&D multiverse; the Gods must stick to their cosmically dictated moral compass, mortal characters steadily fall into a category based off their choices they make with their free will, and there is an objective moral authority by which everything can be judged. In reality, Good vs Evil is a pit of moral relativism. It’s familiar enough to work, but how do you reconcile what your gaming group considers “good” with the in-game universe version? Lawful vs Chaotic works for the huge cosmology of the worldbuilding, but in practice, it can easily feel forced onto players’ archetypes if the wrong circumstances pop up.
Alignment can be detached from the cosmology, especially when GMs run games in their own settings. Yet players still tend to use it as a character-building tool, so that doesn’t truly solve the problem. I think it’s worth asking in no particular order:
- What character in their right mind willingly identifies as an “evil” person? For example, is it evil to commit crimes in the service of the greater good?
- Is it evil to act in your own self-interest? Can someone be consistently self-interested without being evil?
- If Lawful Neutral is about having a strict code of conduct, what exactly is the difference between True Neutral and Chaotic Neutral? They both imply a lack of devotion to “the rules”, so is Chaos just a measure of how impulsive a character is?
- Will your players be up for interpreting all this in between rolls for initiative? Are you all on the same page about these questions at character creation?
These questions aren’t necessarily unanswerable, but they are common and the answers can change from one group to the next. If a GM doesn’t go the extra mile to make sure they are all on the same page, then players will design a character according to their own interpretations. For new players this can be an especially large problem when they let alignment dictate too much of their character or use it as an excuse for bad RP, leading to less-than-fun adventures with a “Lawful Stupid” Paladin who won’t break the law or a “Chaotic Random” Rogue who burns orphanages.
And hey, many GMs run campaigns with a rule of having no “evil” characters at all to avoid problematic gaming. Let’s ignore the problem of determining the boundary of “evil” and try a thought experiment. Assuming a standard heroic fantasy with some freedom of personality leaves us with six alignment choices from Lawful Good to Chaotic Neutral. From my perspective that leaves us with two fundamental questions:
- Is my character actively interested in helping others? (Good vs Neutral)
- Does my character have an internalized “code” that they try to adhere to (Lawful vs Neutral/Chaotic, depending on impulsiveness)?
Or, do they have “Goodness” and are they “Lawful”, each with a yes or no answer. I don’t find this very interesting.
A Potential Solution
Obviously, I’m not exactly breaking new ground here by pointing out the flaws in the Lawful Good/ Chaotic Evil way of thinking about a roleplaying world. There’s a good chance you’ve picked up on some of this during your own experiences. Attempts to enforce an overarching morality without compromise is often a free ticket to a Hot post on r/rpghorrorstories.
How would we develop a viable system for grounding and categorizing a character? Instead of starting by dictating an absolute true morality, we should start in the mind of the character. Specifically, how does an individual react to a conflict? What part of their personality can help you predict those reactions? Starting with these questions works well because roleplaying games (and indeed most stories) are about how characters react to conflicts – one after another until they reach some ultimate resolution.
We probed the question even further, ultimately determining a few universal criteria for how an individual would react to a problem:
- How much they let their emotions dictate their behavior.
- How methodical and structured they are when solving problems.
- How they relate to and consider the people around them.
Now, how would you design a character if they were asked to pick which end they aligned with on the spectrums of this image:
This is a brief guide to Elemental Dualism, an alignment system I’ve helped design along with its main creator Alex Ioakimidis. We used it as a building block in the world of Redsky, my team’s TTRPG universe. Nowhere on here is the need to identify as Good or Evil. Fire and Water are the Emotional Spectrum. Air and Earth are the Intellectual. Void and Aether are the Social. Any given character will fall somewhere on each of the three axes, but many conflicts can be reduced to one of them.
The Emotional spectrum is the easiest to start with: Imagine your character is pushed into the mud in a busy market square by a drunk looking for trouble. A Fire character would get loud and confront the bully head-on, letting their anger carry their response. Contrast that with Water, who would either refuse to be bothered by the needless aggression, or quietly wait for the right time to strike back. This interaction doesn’t really have anything to do with whether your character is Good or Lawful, it has to do with how they handle their anger!
Of course, there can also be negative traits emphasized by an element, such as a Fire-leaning person with an anger problem. You might get some great character development over a campaign as they learn to be more Water-oriented in their decision-making. The Elements of a character can change over the course of their adventures, reflecting growth or regression, compromises made, lines they do or do not cross. Since this acts like a sliding scale instead of a limiting blueprint, being dynamic is part of a character’s evolution as opposed to something to discourage in an effort to force players to always remain, say, Lawful Evil in thoughts and deeds.
A GM can build interactions around the idea that any experience is a chance for personal growth. The Elements are a way to frame your players’ decisions about personality in a more relatable way than asking them to openly identify as Good or Evil, or ask big ambiguous questions that they may feel locked into after 10 levels worth of gameplay. Like the D&D Alignments, The Elements also scale up to the structure and behaviors of organizations like brotherhoods, countries, or religious/social orders. There can be an evil Water-based tyrannical kingdom asserting its rule with a Water-Air-Void figurehead, bent on the cultural value that those that show emotions are showing weakness.
We’re talking homebrews here, but for the sake of casting a relatable net, try thinking of characters from pop-culture, like Game of Thrones. Daenerys Targaeryan was a Fire-Air-Void protagonist at the beginning of her arc. She constantly ran into situations that would suggest choosing a Water/Earth/Aether path would be for the better, or resisting an Elemental decision that the audience felt was fated to be made for her. Her decisions to resist or compromise felt weighty every time a Void principle like anti-slavery was countered by looking out for the collective Aether good of the cities in Essos.
The team has made it a fun drinking game to chart the path of a character from their starting Elements to every fork in the road presented along the way, and seeing why they ended up where they did at the conclusion.
This is why systems like The Elements, I would argue, should be made as accessible as possible as tools for character creation in systems like 5e. What would your own system look like if you designed it to be adaptive to a world of spectrums and the morally gray? It’s up to our wonderful community of gamers to come up with their own systems like The Elements to make all players benefit from meaningful character choices when first gathering their party to venture forth.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.