The Dungeons & Dragons Alignment System has been around for a very long time. It traces its roots all the way back to the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. Back then, the alignment system was only three general descriptions for character behavior: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. A few years later in 1977, the system evolved into the nine descriptors we know today that you can choose from during character creation.
Back when the game first came out, it wasn’t a game focused primarily on roleplaying in the sense of how we know it today. From what I understand, D&D was originally a fantasy war-strategy game that wasn’t too focused on the social aspect of in-game interactions. At that time, the alignment system wouldn’t have as much of an impact on gameplay since social interactions weren’t as heavily relied on. However, now that we’re all the way into the 5th Edition of the game, it’s time to carefully consider the impact of the alignment system on the currently popular style of playing. We’re now at a time in the game’s history where it’s becoming more of a widespread trend to place an emphasis on in-depth character creation and significant role playing interactions.
From the perspective of a character-loving writer, the alignment system is kind of a problem, especially in the ways it makes players think about characters and roleplaying. From my personal experience as being a DM for a campaign with an evil character, taking the alignment system too literally can be a major issue.
One of my players plays as a character named Narnaar, a blue scaled dragonborn. The extent of this character’s evil is stealing every wheel of cheese he can get his hands on and taking burial clothes off of dead people. So, nothing too campaign changing to say the least. This problem started a few months ago. Recently, our little group of four changed to a group of three when one of our players decided he didn’t want to be in the group any more and promptly abandoned our group chat. The problem was that we were kind of stuck with his character in the middle of a murder mystery story arc that was taking place on an airship. My group and I were having a discussion in our group chat about how to get rid of the character so we could usher in a new player. While I had an inkling of how his departure would go, I wanted input from my players before I made any final decisions.
One of my players suggested that the killer take him out because he got too close to solving the case. Based on my own characterizations of the killer in this story, it wouldn’t have made sense. So, on to another suggestion. Having Narnaar kill him, simply because he is evil.
Some people might think that it makes sense that this evil character would do something just because he’s evil. As a human being and someone who writes stories on the regular, it doesn’t make sense to have a character be evil for the sake of evil. The reason so many people find themselves relating to villains in movies and television shows is because they are so much more than their dastardly actions. The greatest villains in fiction are never boiled down to the base elements of evil. They always have a certain type of nuance to them that makes them interesting, relatable, or distinctly human. They’re not evil for being evil because, no matter what form it comes in, evil is never there simply for the sake of itself.
The alignments you have a choice of in the game are just blanket terms to generalize behavior. Or, at the very least, they should be. Boiling a character down to that basic descriptor is what causes a lot of problems in people who might take the alignment system too literally. This could even become a logistic problem in a party dynamic where players are liable to have characters from all varying degrees of moral alignment. Barring the idea that a character is reluctantly traveling with a group, a character making decisions based on their moral alignment has the potential to anger other characters/players by not being a team-player. Having characters play lawful good and make decision based solely on that fact could cause a lot of roleplaying issues. This is mostly because that character wouldn’t be making decisions based on background, situation, personality, so on and so forth. The character would be making a decision based on the preconceived notions of what a lawful good character is typically expected to do. This kind of attitude completely discounts personal history and interpersonal connections. It discounts the complexities of relationship and how that character connects to the world and the other player characters around them. Of course you can make decisions that anger the party or cause a lot of chaos but the reason that happens shouldn’t be because the character is [insert moral alignment here].
This attitude is precisely what was happening with my group. What I didn’t tell you was that Narnaar and the character we were saying goodbye to, Kaworu, were actually childhood friends. They had been traveling together for nearly a year before meeting their other party member. Despite any of their playful bickering, there was a real friendship between them that didn’t show any signs of changing in the seven sessions that Kaworu was with the party. Narnaar, no matter how selfish he is, wouldn’t have pushed Kaworu off the ship on purpose, especially without a good reason. The notion that Narnaar would do so simply because he is evil completely discounts the connection he had with Kaworu.
The moral alignment chart can be a good tool, especially for beginning players who don’t have experience in building a complex character. That is excusable. However, experienced players who play in games where roleplaying, character, and narrative are important should not be relying on the system for a personality and shouldn’t be using it as a moral compass. The system, overall, limits players and constricts the ability to develop characters organically. Making a character follow the preconceived notions of a moral alignment can severely limit their movement in a story. If a character never once steps outside of that boundary, like the boundaries of a comfort zone, that character will never have a chance to truly change and grow. They really do become a rather static character. Not only that, but using it too much could be a form of metagaming, or a player acting on information that their character doesn’t have access to. A player might know that their character is lawful evil but that doesn’t mean that their character thinks of themselves in that way or takes that into consideration when making a decision. A character doesn’t consider what is and what isn’t a decision that coincides with that basic outline of moral conduct, the same way humans in real life generally don’t consider whether they’re neutral good or chaotic evil when making decisions.
You definitely don’t have to listen to some random girl on the internet but, at the end of the day, there isn’t a huge benefit to relying solely on the alignment system in the game. While there are a number of small uses for it mechanically, when it comes to roleplaying, the system is very restricting to many aspects of character development. It limits interactions with other characters and NPCs. It subjects certain characters to stereotypes and creates unwarranted hesitance towards player characters who are on the evil side of the spectrum. The strict use of the system limits the moral diversity of characters, especially when a Dungeon Master outlaws evil player characters in a campaign.
On the other hand, there isn’t one singular right way to play Dungeons & Dragons and there isn’t one right way to interpret the alignment system. You can either see it as black, grey, and white or you could see it as being all shades of the rainbow, but neither is inherently wrong. While I love the narrative and roleplaying aspects of the game, other people like the game for different reason. And that’s okay, as long as you’re having fun with the way that you play.