Alignment in D&D (theory and practice)

Hi everyone, I threatened to do it, and @grampton_st_rumpterfrabble pushed me over the edge by talking about shaking up the OT hegemony by putting a lot of specialized discussions out there to get folks looking outside of the OT, so here is me talking and hopefully getting you talking, and all of us talking productively about alignment.

Let me talk a little about what I’m trying to do and where I’m coming from. I think that having a mechanic related to moral/ethical/factional concerns built into the game is the best way to make moral/ethical/factional concerns feature in a game. D&D has so many fights because it has a very robust rules system for fighting. D&D has fewer battles of the bands because the rules for performances are very abstracted and simple. The developers of 5th edition have reduced alignment to a vestigial stub, in large part because a majority of their playtesters just didn’t like it and weren’t interested in moral/ethical/faction concerns as a PILLAR of at the table play. I’m in the minority who loves that kind of philosophical fantasy (I adore Planescape), so I’m in the minority who wishes alignment in D&D were MORE robust and MORE well-thought out.

Alignment as written across 5 official editions and literally dozens of OSR and OGL games is inconsistent and confusing. I agree with folks who say alignment has caused more arguments than solved problems, but I insert “AS IT CURRENTLY EXISTS” after alignment in that statement. So I want, for at least myself but hopeful for all the D&D players in the community, to start from first principles and make a consistent alignment system that makes sense, something that is logical enough that you can then hang consistent and playable systems on it.

To that end, I want to start with as few a priori assumptions as possible. There may not end up being a ninefold gridspace of alignments, there may not necessarily be a Good/Evil dichtomy (although ditching that entirely really changes up D&D core assumptions), alignment may or may not be an absolute elemental reality.

I’m going to use a non-D&D example here to talk about the implied state of “alignment” in D&D.

In the game setting of Glorantha, magic (and everything comes from magic) comes from three (four ([five]) [it gets complicated]) Purely Ideal realms – a world of Essence and Hermetic-Style Magic, a world of Spirit and Shamanic-Style Magic, and a world of Gods and Religio-Cultic-Style Magic in the simplest, basic understanding. An essence and a spirit are mutually incompatible and to some extent, mutually incomprehensible.

However, it is an axiom of the world in which the Player Characters have their adventures that “The World is Made of Everything”. Because of Chaos, the God World and the Spirit Realm and the Essence Plane all got mixed up and turned into “the world we live in”. People semi-consciously align themselves to these Ideals (semi-consciously, because someone raised in a society that worships the Gods and has temple rites and everything isn’t going to spontaneously wake up one day and decide they’re going to propitiate the Great Spirit and become a shaman), but a God-Worshiper will still appease a river spirit because the spirit is there and needs to be appeased or it’ll flood. They will just INTERPRET their actions through a God Lens.

Humans are always where it gets complicated, because they don’t (except in rare cases) have JUST a soul or JUST a spirit or JUST an essence, but at the same time, they don’t really have all three simultaneously. Morality in a lot of cases in Glorantha is doing your best to follow the rules laid out by these extreme idealistic entities while being a mixed entity that literally CANNOT perfectly follow the rules, and if you do it good enough, you go to the afterlife those entities promised.

But at the same time, it’s possible to consistently refine yourself that you DO end up being a SOUL entity or a SPIRIT entity, etc. In D&D terms, the alignment restrictions on Clerics and Paladins represent these people who are refining themselves to this state.

In D&D terms, a God or Spirit or Essence are real embodied beings constructed from Alignment and if they even COULD change alignment that would fundamentally change WHAT they are; most people are following Alignment as best they can but it’s purely descriptive, but some people consciously begin this process of becoming more “pure” and then Alignment becomes prescriptive and you can stray from it and be punished, at the very least by losing your powers. These tensions and contradictions that come from having ALL THREE SIMULTANEOUSLY are at the heart of Gloranthan Heroquest gameplay, but while that tension and those contradictions exist in some form in D&D gameplay it exists mostly unaddressed.

In short, the thing D&D calls Alignment can be Absolute, Descriptive, or Prescriptive, or all three at once; D&D has all of them but DOESN’T see fit to seriously deal with the issues that arise from that. 5th edition reduces Alignment to a rump, and anyone and anything can be any alignment (although they seem to have a shortage of Chaotic Good Devils out there).  1st edition D&D could have mortal entities like Orcs ALWAYS be a specific alignment, and the specific alignments even had their own languages!

For purposes of the comments, the only assumption I’m going to start with is that the thing D&D calls Alignment is a worthwhile thing to have in the game. Suggestions to toss it entirely are off-topic. I’ll post a few questions as comments to steer discussion as best I can, but please feel free to talk about alignment in your D&D game however you’d like as your own top-level comments!