Dating back to the early days of Gygax and Arneson, alignment is an old standard of Dungeons & Dragons, one of the bits that makes D&D feel like D&D.
With every new edition, however, alignment feels more and more like the flumph of the ruleset — a mechanic that many campaigns set aside, ignore, or forget about during play, even though it is likely to appear in every incarnation of the game between now and Ragnarok. It’s an iconic part of D&D history, so it has to be there, but the number of DMs and players who live by it seems small.
For a while, I was one of those scofflaw DMs who pretty much ignored the rule. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never run an “evil” campaign: I really couldn’t. Sure, sometimes PCs have done things I thought were evil, but they made sense for those characters at the time, and when they later did something noble, it was still consistent with their character, even if it didn’t fit into one of the nine cozy alignment boxes. They were consistent characters, but because they never tried to fit an alignment, an alignment-oriented campaign would never have quite worked.
Pinning those characters to a box was challenging for the same reason it’s tough to pin down the alignment of Elric of Melnibone. The famous edition of Deities & Demigods that included him listed his alignment as Chaotic Evil, but noted he had done good as well. Offended at the simplification, I took a pen (and to my horror, given the collector status the book later developed), crossed out the alignment to write “Neutral.”
Elric is the Eternal Champion, a warrior for the Balance! I thought, while vandalizing my poor book.
Still, I can see the argument for Chaotic Evil. Pinning Elric down was tough in part because he was a realistic character.
For a more recent challenge, try to tag an alignment on Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Are you back? Good. Twelve people just disagreed with you. Doesn’t matter what you said. Yet Jaime is a compelling character, one who seems like a real person. Count on it: There’s not going to be a consensus on that guy.
I’m fairly certain the problem that people have with alignment has a lot more to do with the system’s simplicity than with anyone’s refusal to define their character’s morality. The same players who brush off alignment often saddle their characters with odious habits, odd quirks, and other defining qualities, often in an attempt to make them seem more like real people. I suspect many of them do define their character’s morality, just not with the recommended approach.
To the credit of 5th edition, it looks to me like the Player’s Handbook acknowledges this simplicity much more directly than earlier editions did. The alignment page notes that characters may not always act in accordance with alignment — that these are general tendencies, rather than straitjackets.
That sounds about right, but if that’s the case, what pulls people away from those general tendencies?
I’d like to propose a slight adjustment to the way we usually think about alignment. The approach that follows has two qualities that players and DMs might find attractive:
- It leads to more richly developed, authentic-seeming characters.
- It’s a fairly simple tweak to the existing system.
Here’s the idea in a nutshell: All characters have two alignments — an innate alignment and an aspirational alignment.
- The innate alignment is your natural inclination — it’s what you do in your unguarded moments, instinctively.
- The aspirational alignment is the one you attempt to follow, either out of personal choice or else due to socialization or indoctrination.
Anakin Skywalker had an Evil innate alignment, but a Lawful Good aspirational alignment. He mostly failed at the aspirational mission.
Sherlock has a similar gap between innate and aspirational, but seems to do a better job at living up to the latter.
Han Solo wants to be Neutral — he’s just in it for the money, remember — but when push comes to shove and Death Stars start aiming at rebel bases, he discovers he’s a good guy. Can’t help it.
The hired killer who, like Snow White’s huntsman, decides he can’t do the deed, might be innately Good but aspirationally Evil.
Elric is (I think) aspirationally Evil, having been raised to rule a savage empire, but the alignment that keeps leaking out often seems Neutral or even occasionally Good.
I think Jaime has a similar pattern.
That concept of innate alignment being the one that “leaks” out offers a useful trick for knowing when to use each alignment: Use aspirational alignment most of the time — but when your character is under stress, exhausted, or in crisis, let flashes of that innate alignment show. Some special situations:
- If the character goes through something very traumatic, the innate alignment might be embraced completely.
- If the character is brainwashed or takes an oath or encounters an admirable philosophy, she might switch aspirational alignments: Instead of trying to be Lawful Neutral, maybe now she’s trying to be Lawful Good, but still that innate Chaotic spirit keeps leaking through.
Granted, this concept isn’t for everybody. Even if a campaign tries it out, some players at the table may prefer to stick with the default alignment rule, not feeling up to such layered role-playing. And that’s fine. One might think of this as an advanced alignment rule for real role-playing aficionados, and maybe only a couple of folks at the table will take it for a spin (with DM permission).
But I think those layers can help make alignments what they always were intended to be: a role-playing heuristic, or guideline for getting in character for people who care about that facet of the game. †