Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about D&D 5e. I love the edition and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons is a pinnacle of the hobby but there are somethings about it that I just don’t love. One of those is the alignment system which I find a little strained and not something that actually achieves what it means to. I don’t ever think it’s in the way of the game (Lawful Stupid and Chaotic Dumb situations aside) but there are definitely ways it could be improved. Here are some brainstorming efforts at achieving just that!
Tweaking the Traditional Nine Alignments
A good place to start with all of this is to simply tweak the traditional nine alignments in the PHB. The two axes of Good vs. Evil and Law vs. Chaos are a proven way to show character motivations in D&D. On top of that, the four cardinal points of the alignment chart are hard-coded into spells, monsters, and other aspects of the game. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t tweak things a little bit in order to make a slightly different version of the familiar alignment spread.
One easy option is to add true alignments to the mix. Already people refer to Neutral (not Good, Evil, Lawful, or Chaotic) as True Neutral and you can add new options in all the other cardinal directions. Neutral Good folks, for instance, are good souls that sometimes act impulsively and sometimes follow a lawful system. True Good folks, on the other hand, care nothing for any other question than “what is the moral thing to do here?” Repeat this for True Chaos, True Law, and True Evil. A lot of people play some alignments like this (the classic “Lawful Stupid” problem) but this makes that choice intentional and people who are “merely” Neutral Good or Lawful Neutral will be encouraged to have a more nuanced approach to their alignment.
Another relatively easy, though more complex overall, option is to add interstitial steps to the alignments. Right now you can fall along the “Good” axis at Lawful Good, Neutral Good, or Chaotic Good. You can go all-in with this and add Lawful Neutral Good or Chaotic Neutral Good to turn this three-step axis into a five-step one. Do this between all the classic nine alignments and you get a more complex web of at least twenty one (depending on if you allow half-steps on two axes at once like Neutral-Lawful Neutral-Good, I’m assuming you’re not) and things become more manageable if you include some better terms and then you can end up with something like this…
The benefit of this second option is that you have people thinking about exactly how they approach morality. When it comes down to things, are they truly evil or are they just selfish? Sometimes I’ve seen players not want to be a “goody two-shoes” and so will pick Neutral, or they don’t want to be some prick and so they pick a Good alignment. But this can make things watered down: if a rogue is Neutral Good are they really morally in the same category as a NG angel? Likewise, if you have a player ask to play a Neutral Evil cleric, are they really asking to play someone with the conscience of a yugoloth? Both of these situations can help you with these issues.
Another more involved option is to throw out the specifics but keep the general shape of things. You can still have two axes but change up what they are measuring. The trick with making a new axis is picking ones that can coexist. Pairing the usual Lawful-Chaotic axis with a Logic-Emotion axis is problematic, for instance, because the two axes might be showing different things but it’s difficult for that to come out in play. At the same time, picking an axis where most people only pick one option is the same as removing that axis: in a game like D&D it would be tough to play a Nonviolent character so most people will pick the Combative side and you might as well not have that axis. There are plenty of options that do work, though, and I’ve been pondering some cool choices in preparing this post.
For example, the Journey to Ragnarok game uses 5e mechanics but for alignment they have Honor vs. Dishonor instead of the Law-Chaos axis. The emphasis is on the PCs’ personal code: an Honorable Good person might go against local traditions or laws but they never break their personal mores. This works especially well in some settings (Rokugan, for example) but even in a more typical D&D setting like Eberron or The Forgotten Realms it creates situations where players think about how their actions impact their reputation and conscience.
Another option is something I would plan to use if I run a game in Ravnica. Instead of the Law-Chaos axis, this system uses a Loyal vs. Disloyal axis since guilds play such an important role in the setting. Basically, it doesn’t matter whether your character obeys the law or flouts it but you are concerned if they are loyal to their chosen guild or not. Someone in the Azorius Senate, for example, might follow the law all the time but if they are Loyal they do so because they think their guild is a shining example to the city but if they’re Disloyal then they would sell their guild’s secrets. I think this is a more interesting option than having all Azorius and Boros characters be Lawful and all Rakdos and Gruul characters be Chaotic. Plus, the Good-Evil axis adds an interesting twist to this, since people can be loyal out of a sense of morality or for selfish reasons, and the same goes for disloyalty.
On the other side of things, you might opt for considering Community vs. Selfishness instead of Good-Evil. Rather than worry about morality in a general sense, this system narrows in on whether someone would make a decision for themselves or whether they would think about other people. This is a very definite breakdown that would come into play frequently and it changes the nature of the game to split the world this way. Combined with the Honorable-Dishonorable axis above it makes for a really great system in a survival setting: the Honorable Communal rogue insisting that they help the group of refugees while the Honorable Selfish fighter feeling conflicted because raiders are bearing down on their exposed position.
Lastly, a slight twist on the Lawful-Chaotic axis is the Tradition vs. Revolution axis which is great for settings where big changes are taking place. Consider a game of Eberron, for instance, where the play isn’t so concerned with the law but instead puts characters in situations where they have to pick between the world before the Last War and a new postwar world. You could combine this with a Community-Selfish axis for a very philosophical game or eschew abstract morality altogether and have Tradition-Revolution and Loyal-Disloyal. The Traditional Loyal cleric is trying to return society to before everything burned while the Revolutionary Loyal druid is fighting for the new nation of the Eldeen Reaches, and the Revolutionary Disloyal rogue is hoping to overthrow the Karrnathi monarchy and usher in a theocracy led by the Emerald Claw. The idea of “what’s right?” doesn’t need to even enter the scene!
As I said, you could spend all day coming up with two-axis options for your D&D game (and I’m tempted to!) but choosing can be hard. So why not make it easier? Adding a third axis might make for a complicated visual but it means you can have a lot of thought from your players about just what their characters hold dear. Consider, for instance, having Law, Chaos, Good, Evil, Tradition, and Revolution. A Lawful, Traditional Good cleric in that game would be trying to maintain orthodoxy and respect for the past. He would obviously have a lot in common with a Lawful, Revolutionary Good cleric but that person wants to upend society and make something new, though a benevolent and ordered something. It adds an interesting element.
Another way to look at this is the why axis, or the reason for why they subscribe to the other parts of their alignment. In this way, you can leave it fairly open-ended or give players a category to pick from. For instance, if you are running a game set in Waterdeep you could add a third alignment axis with the options of Money, Power, Acceptance, and Family. Characters pick which of those is more important (they can still be into the other ones, just not primarily) and then the DM gets to give them choices that could split the party. When offered a favor by a crime lord if they return stolen goods, for example, the Chaotic Good rogue focused on Money wants to keep their ill-gotten gains while the Neutral druid focused on Power thinks a favor sounds more valuable long-term.
Let’s go a little farther afield now. What if we remove alignment altogether? What could take its place? One option is to use Drives, core beliefs that make the character tick. This is the alignment-like system seen in lots of other games like Eclipse Phase, Star Trek Adventures, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, though the names differ. Characters in this system don’t benefit from shared terms (“Were both Good!”) but players do get a chance to think through exactly what their characters hold dear during character creation.
There is actually something like this built into D&D 5e: the Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. In my experience, these hardly enter into the picture after character creation is done, mostly because alignment does all the heavy lifting. Without alignment, you can use those for your morality guidelines for what a character holds dear. The biggest challenge with this switch is what to do with spells and effects that target specific alignments. Luckily for us, the choices in character Backgrounds already come with alignment labels and we can use those to recalibrate. If someone’s Ideal, Bond, or Flaw is labeled as “Law” then they are affected by spells that target Lawful alignments. This might mean that PCs are affected by fewer zone spells but… well there are worse problems.
This is an interesting option that has some of the benefits of both alignment axes and Drives. In this system, seen in Scion 2e and (interestingly) Good Society there is a single axis with a sliding scale. Players pick two ends of a Virtue Track (in Scion it’s two sides of a pantheon’s values, in Good Society it’s two things pulling on your attention) and when they take actions it shifts them towards one or the other. You could even make these as simple as “Law” and “Good” for the classic paladin type, but doing that is a more interesting and dynamic option than just having a Lawful Good paladin. The paladin in the former situation will be weighing whether to do the moral thing or the lawful thing in situations and might end up shifting to one end or the other.
Probably best to have a number of steps between the ends of this Virtue spectrum (say five, not including the extreme positions) and to make the shifts rare but not super-rare: maybe aim for a shift every session or so. As I said, you can use the normal alignment axes (using Good and Evil, for example, makes a situation similar to Mass Effect) but it’s most interesting when you change it up. Imagine that paladin having a Virtue Track that runs between Community and Church. That’s a very different character than Law and Good, and it’s also different if the player choses Duty and Faith or Love and Justice. If nothing else, this is the start of a conversation where the player tells the DM what they want to be torn between and the DM responds accordingly.
Well, what do you all think? Do you have other alignment alternatives you’d use in your game? How about one of these you think would fit well in your D&D campaign? Let me know in the comments!