Very rarely do we as DMs get into any discussion about alignment. Usually it doesn’t even come up until a point of order demands it. Maybe it concerns one of those ‘alignment spells’. Or possibly it has to do with what spells a PC has access to. Or, more than likely, one particular PC’s alignment whether written in ‘stone’ on the character sheet or as they play it is causing a schism in the group. Whichever it is, it usually sends a DM’s head a spinin’.
So, first of all, we have to ask, “WHAT IS ALIGNMENT?”
ALIGNMENT: “the moral compass that guides his or her decisions”
5E PHB p. 15
Seems cut and dry, right? It simply defines a character or, possibly, creature’s moral and ethical outlook. I mean, we can simply walk away and go back to some homebrew monsters, right? Uh…wrong.
Ok, before I get any further, let’s just mention here that there are NINE alignments. Now, most are just a hair from others, but some are camped on opposite ends of the 9-grid chart. From LAW to CHAOTIC, from GOOD to EVIL and all the NEUTRAL in-between, there’s plenty of room for problems.
But, first of all, the seasoned DM or even long-playing PCs should be able to navigate through the cautious waters of a disagreeable alignment. It’s usually a rookie DM or a new member to the crew that brings problems like this. Most know that the group has to be within a certain framework of good, evil, chaos and order to make the party work. So where does the problem really lie?
How important is alignment? Well, to give you an example of how Wizards fills about it, they didn’t even mention it till after Race, Class and Ability Scores. Now, to begin with, I think that may be a little backwards, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere. It becomes an afterthought in the character-building process and, yet, at times, the hardest decision about your burgeoning character.
But, although, they don’t place much emphasis on alignment to begin with, in a lot of instances it becomes the most important thing. For example, if you veer off it either for good or bad, the DM would have made you change it back in my day. Also you can’t be a cleric of some gods because of alignment. And, for decades, some races were inherently good or evil which made, for example, playing a good/neutral goblin like Nott on Critical Role an impossibility.
To start with, I’ve never put much weight on alignment. It was a fluid thing to me. At times, a relatively good character could stray and a thoroughly bad character could be redeemed. For the longest time, it was taboo to even think about playing an evil campaign. But, now, they are quite regular. It was important in my games to record what alignment you were going with, but, from there on, for the most part, it did not factor. Sure, if the character drastically changed, an alignment reorg was expected. But, in most stories, it never changed that drastically. It was never one of those things I held over my player’s heads and threatened to shut them down if they didn’t comply with. No, D&D is a story-telling device. The story’s the thing. SO, if part of their story is the fact that they slowly went evil, that’s just the way it was.
I especially thought the whole ‘this race is evil’ and ‘this race is good’ was bullshit from the beginning. Ask anyone who plays my game. I believe there are exceptions to every rule and I down right celebrate that fact. A hero Drow? Absolutely. I mean, Drizzt Do’Urden anyone? A kind Orc? Sure. A chaotic dwarf? Absolutely!! I believe nurture over nature. It’s how they grew up. So, of course, if they grew up in a murderous Orc band, they were probably going to be evil and murderous. Or maybe not. It was always up to the player.
But, if you, as a DM, work with your players from the forefront, you can head these kinds of things off before they even become problems. Me personally, I put a lot of weight in the formation of the character before they even get to race, class and ability scores. Now, that isn’t to say that, at times, the character doesn’t start with an idea of a certain race and/or class. In fact, class is where I usually start because I’m one of THOSE players that likes to balance the group and bring something I think is missing to the table. But it doesn’t always start like that.
My ideal start to a character whether it’s my own or my players is simple. We’re telling a story, right? Where did this story actually begin? Even if a player comes to me with class, race and even personality ready to go, I need to know something a bit more.
BACK TO THE BACKSTORY!!
What did I say before? I’m more of a nurture over nature kind of guy. What that actually means is that where the character came from matters. Their parents, siblings, extended family, lack thereof and every other influence upon their upbringing matters. It DEFINES them. Have you ever heard that? Well, to a certain extent it’s true. What you have been through defines a major part of who you are. Every input in your life and therefore your character’s life shapes who they are today. Were they driven hard as a child by an overbearing parent? They probably have a well defined order to their life, a demanding work ethic and, possibly, judge themselves and those around them harshly for failing. Did they raise themselves on the street? They may have no rule but that of survival and personal happiness.
That’s why 5E has set up the character sheets thusly.
Right next to Class and level is BACKGROUND. Not only does this little mechanic give your new character tools to do what they do and be who they are better, but it also helps to begin to define who this character is. I wouldn’t really allow a player to roll up a character until they can choose a background, create a well thought out backstory and fill out the four handy tools on the top right of the sheet.
First of all, if you don’t know the list of backgrounds, go to the PHB page 126 and flip through them. If none of those strike your fancy, get with your DM and either look for some of the variants or homebrew you one that makes sense. This gives you a jumping off point.
Still doesn’t get to the point of alignment though, does it?
Stay with me. Look to the top right part of the character sheet. There are four empty rectangles stacked on top of each other that can help you get there. These four, PERSONALITY TRAITS, IDEALS, BONDS and FLAWS, are the journey you, as the creator of your player character, will have to take to understand what alignment this new creation will rest on.
PERSONALITY CHARACTERISTICS is fairly simple. According to the PHB page 123, this is how you begin to set your character apart from a cardboard cutout. And the more you flesh out this little box the better. Don’t just use adjectives to tell us something about you. Like a good writer, tell us what your character does that makes them like this. For example, instead of just saying, he or she is careless, you may say that they jump into things without thinking or, if they’re cautious, you might say that they overthink situations or they’re slow to respond before they’ve thought about it. Make sure that this trait is telling us something interesting that sets them apart from all other characters. Things like past accomplishments, likes and dislikes or even they’re worst fear can to a long way to fleshing them out.
Ask yourself what it is about your favorite anime character that makes you like them so much. Is it a simple descriptor or is a whole litany of mannerisms that makes that character stand out in the crowd?
IDEALS are all about motivations. What pushes your character? What really makes them get up in the morning and do what they do? No one just does what these types of character’s do without proper motivation to do so. IDEALS are about principals your character won’t break, life goals that drive them or what they strive for.
This is where you will begin to think about alignment. What drives your character is all wrapped up in who they are and all wrapped up in what alignment they will be whether good, evil, chaotic, lawful or neutral.
A BOND has a great deal to do with a character’s relationship, not only, to whatever family they have but how they view and interact with the world around them. It will determine how they respond in every situation. As with all things, the background you chose and the IDEALS written before will help you define this. And, on the inverse, it will help you understand your character’s alignment. BONDS are all wrapped up in or will help determine your class and race.
FLAWS are a welcomed part of this process that, for a while, was passed on as negative. If your character is mortal and I assume they are, they will have character flaws that will also help determine the alignment or, by this time, will spring from them. This is a major role-playing mechanic that has been missed because of the adverse effect it has on what your PC does. And, although, they don’t assign negative effects, if you play your flawed character right, you will automatically sew unintentional negatives in the story. I think this is the most important part of aligning yourself because it shows your character at its worse where the BONDS and IDEALS show them at their best. It takes both to make a well-rounded, fleshed out character.
Now, is this a linear checklist? Of course, not! This process is circular and spiraling and intertwining. You will pop back and forth through them as your character comes in focus, all the while weaving a backstory that makes the PC not just a set of words and numbers on paper, but flesh and blood that will actually begin to stand up and speak for their selves. The more you do this, the easier and more fun it will be.
And as you either mull over the above bullet points to yourself or talk them over with your DM (I HIGHLY encourage you to do so), you will understand your character more and alignment will become more relevant to you.
But does this answer the problem of alignment? I think it will, in the end. As long as you make your alignment about creating a very real character with an amazing backstory chocked full of personality, ideals, bonds and flaws, that strange word ‘alignment’ won’t really be a problem. The real kicker is constant contact and discussion with your DM. He understands the whole story you are about to be a part of. He can guide you to make your own place in his world while allowing you the creative freedom to make something that no one else can and never will.