One of the more controversial aspects of Dungeons and Dragons has always been the use of alignment. The boiling-down of characters to ‘lawful good’, ‘chaotic evil’, ‘true neutral’, or something in between seems a little reductionist to many players. And the tendency of older editions to group entire species by a single alignment can be a little unrealistic.
Personally, I like alignment. It’s useful for me both as a player, and as a DM. But I understand that a lot of people just don’t see the use of it. After all, 5e doesn’t limit classes and abilities by alignment, like older editions did.
If you’d like to make alignment more useful to your games, here are a few ideas.
How I Read (and Play) Alignment
Alignment charts use some strong words – good and evil, chaos and law. These are pretty big concepts, and they’re often extremely subjective. Plus, no one considers themselves to be evil. Why should a character be defined as such. Moreover, why should animals, or overall cultures (although entire species are no longer given alignment requirements in 5e), be ascribed it?
This is how I view alignment, as applied to creatures, characters, and societies/cultures. ‘Character’ is used here interchangeably for ease of comprehension:
A ‘good’ character is someone who will always act to the benefit of others, even at a great expense to themselves.
An ‘evil’ character is someone who will always act to the benefit of themselves, even at a great expense to others.
A ‘neutral’ character on the spectrum of good-evil is someone who will variably take action to the benefit of themselves or others, and cost to the other party, but only if the cost is not great.
A 'lawful' character is someone who believes that acting according to social norms, maintaining the peace, and acting ‘within the rules’ is the best/most effective way to either create or maintain a desired society. These characters usually value safety over freedom.
A 'chaotic' character is someone who believes that defying social norms, disrupting power structures, and ‘breaking the rules’ is the best/most effective way to either create or maintain a desired society. These characters usually value freedom over safety.
A 'neutral' character on the spectrum of law-chaos is someone who believes that different situations call for differing levels of adherence to social norms and laws, usually determined by their willingness to tolerate the both danger of freedom and the restriction of safety in varying amounts.
5e has eliminated the spell Sense Alignment, but the concept can still be useful. Instead of simply casting a spell and knowing the personality of an NPC or monster, I like to give particularly powerful examples of each extreme an ‘aura’.
If a creature of an opposing alignment (good in opposition to evil, for example) gets too near, I have them make a CON save to resist feeling nauseous and reluctant to approach. This gives an extra layer of tension and sets the atmosphere for particularly evil enemies.
It also adds to the feeling that force of conviction as more power than simply determining subclasses. In the same way that a Paladin can heal through their oath, and they might have an aura of protection or power, a particularly strongly aligned NPC might also give off some magical sense. This is a fantastical realm - and personality can have real-world effects here.
Having trouble with keeping your players in line? Things like murderhobo-ing (randomly killing and looting everything and everyone in the players’ path), or simply disruptive behavior (such as players having their characters mess with party members or do things that disturb the other players) can be a big problem. You hear people complaining about it all the time!
I find that using, and enforcing, alignment can be a big deterrent for that. If you disallow evil characters (as I do), you can easily cut off inappropriate behavior by calmly informing the problem player that taking such actions will result in an alignment change. And, depending on your personal purview, that could either lead to them losing some of their magic, losing their allies, or even being asked to retire that character.
Of course, continual problems should be addressed formally with the player, outside of the game. Make sure that everyone is on the same page!
Older editions included, among the elemental planes, elemental planes of chaos, law, evil, and good. These realms sometimes appear in 5e lore, but only very briefly. I think they make a great backdrop, and motivation, for a lot of powerful figures.
Random, horrific events popping up that your players need to solve can come from the plane of chaos or evil. Strange, retributive curses might come from the plane of law. And even good, taken too far, can be a problem. Justicars and devas can make powerful foes, particularly to a party filled with chaotic- and neutral-aligned characters.
Keep in mind, these planes are not merely examples of what we would consider to be ‘mostly lawful’ or ‘mostly good’ cultures. While human cultures may tend to emphasize one value on the chart over another (rural and isolated communities tend toward ‘chaos’ while urban and densely populated groups prefer ‘law’, in the terms of DnD), human nature is such that there is a great deal of variety in all of our personal tendencies. While a culture may value lawfulness overall, its people will often subvert the norm. There will be aspects of chaos and unlawfulness built in – even if it seems to contradict that lawful tendency. That’s just how we are, as a species.
Elemental planes aren’t like that. These are magical lands which embody law, chaos, evil, or good. A mostly personal-freedom loving culture might have strict taboos in the real world – the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is foreign to the Plane of Chaos. Human cultures that value self-promotion and personally-motivated-ambition (traits mostly found in evil-aligned DnD characters) tend to also admire charity and protection from the well-off – helping another being would be grossly inappropriate within the Plane of Evil.
Do you use alignment in your DnD games? How has it come into play? If you don't use it - do you use anything in its place? We'd love to hear about it in the comments below!