D&D Alignment Revisited
Updated: Feb 22, 2021
Alignment is a nifty tool that helps Dungeon Masters bring to life encountered creatures and asks players to think about their characters' core values and disposition. Jeremy Crawford says that alignment needs to be revised in order to help eliminate harmful stereotypes perpetuated by the game. I try to address that issue below, as well as revise the system more generally so that each alignment makes more sense.
The Player's Handbook p. 17 and 122 and the Monster Manual p. 7 contain the main rules on alignment. The table below contains the summaries of the various alignments. Good, evil, and neutral are not expressly defined in 5e. The summaries shed a little light -- helping others makes sense -- but what does it mean to "do the right thing as expected by society" or to act as one's "conscience directs" or to "act in accordance with law"?
Let's add some concrete-ness and consistency to the alignment.
Good. Individuals of any good alignment exhibit a moderate if not greater concern for the well-being of others. Although more attention is usually paid to family, friends, tribe, or polity, the empathy of good-aligned individuals extends, to some degree, beyond this circle. Good-aligned individuals can of course stray at times from their core values, exhibit pettiness, boast, and so on.
Neutral. The neutral (moral) alignment category covers two separate sets of values, only one of which applies to a particular neutral-aligned individual. 1. Neutral individuals generally care only for the themselves or for those within their circle of family, friends, or tribe, narrowly defined, and treat all others with wariness. Respect given to outsiders is utilitarian. 2. Neutral individuals have a developed understanding of good and evil, believe that a balance between the two is proper, and act or refuse to act in an attempt to maintain their understanding of such balance.
Evil. Individuals of any evil alignment are not concerned with the well-being of others generally. They are willing to cause serious harm or death to others when there is no proper justification to do so. Some are capable of non-evil acts that serve their interest or the interest of a more powerful authority, and some are capable of exhibiting genuine concern for particular family members or friends.
Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. This axis describes two related characteristics. One is temperament. Lawful-aligned individuals are generally more reflective and deliberative than neutral and especially chaotic, the latter being more impulsive and thus more prone to spontaneous action. The other characteristic is attitude toward society. Lawful-aligned individuals generally feel obligated to, or choose to, follow social mores, protocol, the chain of command, the terms of contracts, and the law. However, the morality axis is dominant. A lawful good individua will not feel compelled to follow any law or protocol if such serves an evil or unjust purpose. A chaotic good individual will usually keep the good in mind, but is not inclined to follow the procedures of formal society. A lawful evil individual feels more inclined to follow the law, the chain of command, etc., with respect to his or her own evil community, but feels no compunction to follow the law of society in general unless it suits his or her purposes. Chaotic evil individuals are difficult all around, given their lack of concern for law and the chain of command or the legal and cultural dictates of more rule-oriented society.
Determining a Creature's Alignment
How is an individual creature's alignment determined in 5e? On the one hand: "For many thinking creatures, alignment is a moral choice . . . . good without free will is slavery." (PHB p. 122.) On the other hand: "Most races have tendencies toward certain alignments. . ." (PHB p. 17.) For example: "[Dwarves] tend toward good as well, with a strong sense of fair play and a belief that everyone deserves to share in the benefits of a just order." (PHB p. 20.) "Elves love freedom, variety, and self-expression, so they lean strongly toward the gentler aspects of chaos. They value and protect others' freedom as well as their own, and they are more often good than not." (PHB p. 23.) Creatures of certain species "have strong inborn tendencies that match the nature of their gods . . . and thus are inclined toward evil." (PHB p. 122.) "Most orcs share the violent, savage nature of the orc god, Gruumsh, and are thus included toward evil. Even if an orc chooses a good alignment, it struggles against its innate tendencies for its entire life." (PHB p. 122.) But: "Humans tend toward no particular alignment. The best and the worst are found among them." (PHB p. 31.)
To me it appears that the 5e designers are sincerely struggling to reconcile several strong and conflicting currents: the notion of free will; the nurture versus nature debate; and the prominent theme of "monsters" in the myths, religions, and folktales of the world. I see many difficulties with the current system. I appreciate the escape hatch built into the rules: "The alignment specified in a monster's stat block is the default. Feel free to depart from it and change a monster's alignment to suit the needs of your campaign." (MM p. 7.) Also: "Most races have tendencies toward certain alignments . . . . These are not binding for player characters . . . ." (PHB p. 17.) But the default itself should be revised.
I can't help but chuckle at the notion that dwarves have a greater sense of fair play than do humans and elves. I don't think I've ever met that dwarf in literature, movies, D&D sessions, or D&D source books. Likewise, to say that elves "value and protect others' freedom" is puzzling. These descriptions are not only wrong, but unnecessary.
Discard innate moral alignment tendencies for humanoids. I recommend doing away with, at least for humanoids, the notion of innate moral alignment tendencies. This conflicts with the notion of free will. It is also difficult to explain why elves and dwarves would be inherently more good than humans. The issue is trickier for orcs, given their traditional identification as "monsters," but even here, we are talking about doing away with inherent traits, not with the notion that orcs are generally more hostile to humans, elves, dwarves, and so on, for historical or cultural reasons.
Discard culturally-based moral alignment tendencies for elves, dwarves, etc. The 5e rules do not clarify whether the tendency of elves and dwarves toward good is innate or based on some cultural and historical underpinnings. I don't know why dwarven or elven culture would be on average morally better than human culture. Like humans, some individuals and some communities are better, some worse, depending on the point in time and history and place.
A good or neutral aligned creature can be hostile. I think it is easy in a fantasy setting to blame all conflict on an overblown notion of evil. Evil is sometimes present, but to casually identify some general notion of evil as the cause of all conflict greatly lessens the real-world hustle, bustle, jostling, competition, and friction, and sometimes deadly conflict, that accompanies all living creatures and communities of the world.
Good is a realistic range of behavior that will always include some general level of respect for others. It does not require sainthood or naïveté. The lawful-chaotic axis describes temperament as well as a general attitude toward following the rules in a legal and social context. But a lawful good character will not sacrifice his or her obligation to good because of the law. Also, contrary to tradition, lawful good is not the apex of the good alignments. Good can be served equally well by the paladin or the short-tempered, rough-hewn, good warrior.