Alignment in Dungeons & Dragons 5e

Before I delve into alignments for D&D 5e, lets first take a moment to acknowledge that alignment is one of the many controversial aspects of D&D and it is one of the primary reasons many parents object to the game. In short, any game mechanic that encourages and rewards behavior that would be considered “evil” is something any responsible parent should be concerned about. It is for this reason that we do not allow any evil player characters at our kid-friendly games. No exceptions. 

There is a severe penalty included in the rules that I use, if players start acting evil despite their good alignment. Characters lose one level and are reduced to the lowest experience point value for that level. Additionally, they lose all hit points, level bonuses, skills, feats etc that were gained as a result of leveling up to the higher level. If the player chose to multi-class and this is the first level of that class, they are striped of the class entirely. This may sound harsh, but it keeps players from going off the deep end with their characters.

Alignment​

The creators of D&D established a very clear grid of alignments. Mechanically speaking, these were to be used in many different ways. By stereotyping behavior and personalities, the designers were able to create game mechanics that affected characters in many positive and negative ways.

The alignment system breaks down into three main categories: Good, Neutral, and Evil. Then these are paired with the the behavior modes: Chaotic, Lawful and Neutral.  So we are given:

  • Lawful Good, “Crusader”
  • Neutral Good, “Benefactor”
  • Chaotic Good, “Rebel”
  • Lawful Neutral, “Judge”
  • Neutral, “Undecided”
  • Chaotic Neutral, “Free Spirit”
  • Lawful Evil, “Dominator”
  • Neutral Evil, “Malefactor”
  • Chaotic Evil “Destroyer”
By forcing characters into this rigid alignment system, the creators were able to create spells like Protection from Evil and Detect Evil. Without a codified alignment system, these spells wouldn’t work or, they would be so subjective as to be fodder for arguments between players and DM’s. In addition to spells, there are gods, magical items and even areas on the map that are restricted based on a character’s alignment.

Take It or Leave It​

The modern version of D&D has much less emphasis on alignment and many players & DM’s will tell you that alignment is only a guide for how to play your character. I disagree entirely. Alignment is something you either need to accept and incorporate into your game, or it must be scraped entirely.

If you are not going to use alignment in your game, don’t use it at all. Maybe you should consider using Cattell’s 16 Personality Factors instead. This is a much better system if your consider alignment to be a guide for how to roleplay a character. Removing alignment from the game also means you have to ignore all of the alignment based effects, spells, benefits and restrictions within the game.

If you want to keep the alignment system, but want to avoid the player drama that inevitably comes from allowing evil characters at your table, simply ban evil characters. If your group is made up of adults that communicate well AND can keep their in-game and out-of-game relationships separate, you can explore allowing evil characters at your table.

Going Down the Dark Side​

A final few notes on allowing evil player characters…If you are going down this path, make sure to have a frank discussion with your players. Establish clear guidelines for what is out of bounds. Establish safe words and timeouts.

Check in with players often to make sure that they are not being alienated or put off by the content the game. I highly recommend that there is a check-in before and after every game. Also give players a way to communicate with you privately. They may be too embarrassed to discuss their objections in front of other players. 

If a player does confidentiality raise an objection, make sure that you don’t “out them” to the table.  In these cases, I like to take the “blame” on myself. I will tell players that I was concerned by the direction or actions that were taken in the previous session and that I want to make sure that we don’t cross that line again. As the DM, I will steer the game away from situations and remind players when boundaries are being threatened.

The first and most clear rule of every game with evil characters, “No means no.” You can say it in many ways, but here is how I say it, “No means no. There is no arguing with no. There is no barging with no. There is no guilt or shame in saying no. If you can’t abide by that rule, there will be no game.”


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2 Responses

  1. Fantastic blog/article!

    I am also a die-hard (1E) DM – been playing since 1981. If you remove the “Good versus Evil” struggle in D&D (or any FRPG) then what’s left? (i.e. What’s the point?). Such a struggle is at the center of 99% of all major Fantasdy (or even general) stories – including moist Sci-Fi genres, major movie francishes, etc.

    So the recent move by WOTC to remove alignment troubles me deeply. It is definitely NOT what Gary Gygax intended when he created D&D in the first place, and IMHO means the WOTC game is not D&D anymore.

    The removal of alignment is (again IMHO) some strange cow-towing by the WOTC to the “woke” moment and also the general “moral ambiguity” of the modern world. To claim some connection between Orcs and some REAL human race is, well just silly!. And it should be by species anyway (i.e. D&D lump all human together for example). Hint: The MM Alignment is just the AVERAGE for each given creature (assuming they are free-willed and not simply some abberation/creation/incarnation of the ethos – i.e. devils, demons, undead). Ofc you can have “out-lier” which is usually what makes a good story! And you “could” have a Fiend who happens to have a charming personality and CAN be reasoned with (i.e. I role-played Zariel as one of these).

    In my 5E game I shall continue to use alignment 100%. For any species with Free Will alignment will be a choice (though influence strongly by social-religious pressures). But ultimately for me (as DM) it is the ACTIONS of the character that matter – not what the player writes on a character sheet. So alignment is more Aspirational than Prescriptive. Anyone can write down (and claim to be) LG, but if their actions don’t “measure up” then they will be judged accordingly. If they are a Paladin for example, but fail to protect the weak, vanquish evil, etc. well – they eventually will be stripped of Paladin-hood. Every now and then I also hand out a typical “:moral dilemma” (i.e. test) to see where peoples’ true alignment resides. Treatment of prisoners is always a great one. Or what do the party do with live offspring (children) of said monsters they just slayed?

    And as for what is GOOD versus EVIL (I find it almost laughable we have to debate this) it is obvious when we meet it in real life (or have even an inkling of morality). Good = Grace, Mercy, Kindness, generosity, helping those in need, protecting the weak, honesty, etc. Meanwhile Evil = cruelty, greed, selfishness, mercilessness, domineering, cheating, dishonesty.

    With recent groups I usually outline all this as Session 0.

    And Chaotic versus Lawful (I wish they had used Order versus Law): “Lawful” – orderly, follows rules, follows a strict regiment, etiquette, honour, etc. “Chaos” – irrational/erratic, impulsive, rule breaking, freedom, going against societal norms, etc.

    1. Jonathan,
      I agree that you shouldn’t remove the “good vs. evil” from D&D especially for mature player groups. But, we do need to manage younger, less mature players and restrict their alignment choices. As a parent, I would be appalled if one of my kids came home talking about how they just had a great time playing a game where they were performing horrific and evil acts. Frankly, I know adults that aren’t mature enough to play evil characters without derailing the game and damaging real world relationships.

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