Monday, November 17, 2014

Renaming the Alignments in D&D

I've been thinking about revising the alignment system of D&D. Not really revising, but just renaming. Because when I think about it, the system isn't unclear per se, just a bit... stale. This comes out of playing that Temple of Elemental Evil video game where you had to choose a party alignment. I think its a good system, but terms like good and evil are somewhat nebulous, to say nothing of 'lawful' and 'chaotic'. They don't quite describe what's going on in the game as well as maybe they could. So I wondered if they could be renamed to be a bit more... well... evocative.

The thing is, we often think of D&D as a heroic game, at least since 2nd Edition focused on that. The opposite of heroic is villainous, and has been pretty well established. Asking the players if they want to be a heroic or villainous group is pretty descriptive of what will happen in the game, and maybe a bit easier to grasp than good or evil.

There's other options though. I think mercenary pretty well captures the neutral alignment. A mercenary party might not be heroic, but they'd certainly be adventurers. Its also clear that a mercenary party might be selfish, but not really evil.

This gives us a pretty good notion of what sorts of characters might be at the table if you know if your party is heroic, mercenary, or villainous. But D&D has two or three more alignments. The big ones are law and chaos.

Chaos can be described as anarchic. With some of those political implications, an anarchic party doesn't believe in authority figures. You can imagine that Orcs and Goblins are anarchic because they have shifting power structures. While might might make right for them, another anarchic group might be elves who lack a high king or queen but have groups of respected elders: who have earned their places and don't govern from some divine authority (like a Dwarf king might). This has that Robin Hood, libertarian, or wild west sort of feel.

I'm having a harder time with a term for Law. Lawful isn't half bad, nor is Law-Abiding. The idea is a lawful party is possibly authoritarian, or possibly deputized into the governing hierarchy. At any rate lawful groups or characters believe that laws, regulations, and rules are necessary for society to function. Lawful groups will have a chain of command, a clear leader (or group of leaders), and possibly some organizations in place to ensure that the laws or rules are followed. Laws need not be codified and written, but sometimes can just be the tradition of the community. Disciplined or orderly are also reasonable terms here, but I haven't quite picked one that I think really applies both to describe groups and individuals well.

The last alignment is the other neutral, balance. I have kind of a hard time with this alignment when applied to good and evil: because in a way its admitting that there's an unseen order to the universe and being in harmony with it is the way to be. So that begins to sound pretty lawful to me, even if its not law as defined by mortal governments. This druid-alignment is often used as a way of opposing both the law and chaos of civilization in favor of the neutrality, harmony, or balance of nature. It would be a pretty specific type of party, so I'm not quite sure its needed. I also think someone who legitimately thinks the world needs evil in it is kind of a dick. I mean, yeah, there can be philosophical arguments about it, but its sometimes hard to fathom. Which is odd, because I've labeled that as mercenary (i.e. don't care). But the balance between law and chaos is just some sort of pragmatism perhaps, if it doesn't have cosmological implications. I'm not sure that axis needs some hard-to-grasp label when no label works just as well. If you want to do the druid pro-nature story, labelling a party as druidic might be just as evocative as long as players are experienced. I'm not sure if there's a better term but I'm not inclined to mull it over much finding a great term I'd never intend to use.

So, five terms to (mostly) replace the old alignments. The group might choose to be Heroic, Mercenary, or Villainous. They might also be Lawful or Anarchic. I could see a group just choosing one of those, however, and allowing "evil" characters in a Lawful group: the bad cop who uses the rules for personal gain.

Now, do these new terms really do enough to replace the old ones? And how do we get "neutral good" out of the mix? I think players will have a better idea of the type of game they're playing if they know its a Heroic or Mercenary game rather than good or neutral. And the neutrality between chaos and law can be dispensed with if a group need not pick two descriptors: Heroic is good enough and could include Lawful or Anarchic characters.

I think certainly labelling a party as heroic, mercenary, or villainous will give the right impression of a game to players. I can tailor my character idea easily given those labels. Lawful and anarchic might also be doable, but you kinda wonder what an anarchic party's goals are, so those two lose a little. But I think its worth giving players something like this to think about while myopically building their characters or giving the players the agency to decide what sort of game they're interested in playing by choosing the label themselves.


  1. I definitely prefer Heroic and Mercenary to Good and Neutral. Though still need to figure out a good way to enforce a Heroic outlook for parties as often the Murder Hobo instinct is strong and humanoids like goblins are often murdered out of hand, even if they were to surrender.

    Though perhaps my perspective is shaped partly by playing more recently with groups who delight more in winning at combats than in subtle role playing of fantasy moral systems.

    1. So the 5e carrots might come in the form of inspiration (assuming the characters ideals, bonds, and flaws are suitably heroic), since bonus XP is kinda meaningless. Bonus magic items might come from a benevolent patron, but you could also have the sort of world where bad deeds are cosmically punished. Using actual monsters more than ambiguous humanoids might also help reinforce what should be slain and what shouldn't be. Scratch that: whenever you're tempted to use humanoids, just use PC races instead. That might get them thinking about a parlay rather than a mêlée...

    2. For our Dungeon World game set in a loosely fantasy Minneapolis area, the DM explicitly told us that monster races weren't inherently "Evil" and we have both a Ratkin and Kobold in the party, still, when we encountered the teenage goblins (seriously, high school students) in a dungeon where the first level was basically a teenage party pad, complete with half empty keg, none of the party really had any problem with straight up slaughter. I didn't push too hard, as I'm not playing a Heroic character and I had the moral saving grace of using a whip which only does stun damage so I wasn't directly slaughtering but there was no sense for the group of "Hey, we're basically just killing High School kids, delinquint, vandalizing, perhaps criminal high school kids, but nah, just cut em in half."

      So that was part of my feedback to the GM, that since "humanoids" aren't inherently evil, we needed a better "bad guy" indicator.