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5E Alignment vs. Morality, and the Consequences of Delaying Development of the Planes

AmerginLiath

Explorer
By page five, the main thread on Jeremy Crawford's comments on alignment have already gotten predictably heated, so I thought to post some thoughts on what surprises me about this separately. Apologies if I should have kept it to the main thread.

The first thought that occurred to me, as I read through Crawford's thoughts, was that his take on Prescriptive Alignment seemed to have two main elements behind it: Alignment is Morality, and non-prescriptive Alignment is basically nominalist (i.e. it's just a descriptor we assign to something we see, not a concrete abstract thing) so it serves so useful purpose. Seeing different counterarguments involving examples like Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock, Dragonlance's three forces, and the pull of gods on races informed what quickly came to mind: Crawford's point, and those arguments agreeing with it from a relativistic point of view, view alignment and morality as being different words for the same thing.

It strikes me that, since the Little Brown Books onward, Alignment has meant something different; it's rather a sort of macrocosmic conflict – whether one-axis or two-axis – that reflects down through the multiverse from Upper Planes towards the Material Plane. While Gygax gets his take most directly from writers like Anderson and Moorcock, this idea permeates culture and literature for centuries, from Neoplatonic metaphysics to developments of Natural Law theories. Where fantasy literature takes the idea and runs with it is in the population of creatures on a world that is not our own. So, we see in literature and then in D&D the likes of dragons and chimera Aligned directly by their magical nature, while non-magical humanoids have cultures and religions that lean them to sides in the existential conflict but allow them to actual choose (and indeed often define the heroic story by those choices). That's something distinct from classical or medieval virtue ethics – the expectations of behavior among Lawful Good are very different (and far more violent) than those of any Thomistic or Sufi way of perfection.

While there are moral reflections in Alignments, these aren't absolute. We see that not only in the warring nature of Good as mentioned, but in some of the examples mentioned in the other thread. Dragonlance, with its explicit Balance of Good, Neutral, and Evil as cosmic forces is a great example: we see when we follow the story of Krynn where Good's binding principles have nearly destroyed the world (the Cataclysm) and where Evil's refusal to bow has saved it (the Chaos War). Meanwhile, the history of the game is ripe with examples of fiends doing right by parties and celestials doing wrong by them without either changing their sides. The key distinction between these and many of the examples Crawford given (his sweet werewolf) is how the broader multiverse and planar structure is brought into play. Whether in the LBBs or AD&D, introduction of Alignment also gives you the basic introduction of the Planes, because the two are (in the original conception) meant to literally flow from one another in the sense of the game's sources. Later editions have of course kept the same game terms but separated that connection and described Alignment more specifically in terms of morality (leading to further questions about requirements for classes and such, as the original notion of where the paladin's powers came from where quite precise).

So we come to Fifth Edition, a game where paladin morality has been shifted to a separate structure of virtue ethics (their oaths) and where the planes have gotten a quick broad brush but their interaction with the game as played and as the characters and creatures live has yet to be really discussed five years into the system. So, as so many new players come aboard, there simply isn't an expectation that Alignment means anything but Morality with a trademarked name – and that it's entirely non-prescriptive except as a burdenous descriptor of monster behavior (never enunciating why those monsters are aligned in that fashion). So, the way of opening up the system is to just assign any nominalist Alignment title to anything, because it just matches Morality and nothing more!

This is where Fourth Edition's "Unaligned" Alignment was a beautiful innovation (even if its removal of pieces of the axis was terribly confusing). I still recall really hoping that Unaligned would be the tenth alignment option in 5e, as it marks well the being that isn't tied to the macrocosmic structures and conflicts above and beyond the conceptions of the material. Of course, if WotC actually put out a planar product, in addition to all the high-level and planar travel options folks want, they could readily enunciate these sort of connections and offer options of systems of Aligned campaigns using the traditional grid or Unaligned campaigns using either no designators or separate morality labels. Mind you, I'm saying all this as probably as oddball on this board – a devout Catholic gamer who reads philosophy in his spare time in lieu of fiction and plays Dragonlance as my world of choice specifically for those alignment and philosophical elements that Hickman wrote into it. But I'm probably not alone in being a fan of the Alignment system as it's existed for soon-to-be fifty years and I'd like to think that (amidst all my rambling) I've expressed something of why I think it serves a valuable role in the history and system of Dungeons & Dragons.
 

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Snarf Zagyg

Thrall of Coot.
By page five, the main thread on Jeremy Crawford's comments on alignment have already gotten predictably heated
Seemed more like Car Talk to me. With apologies to the Tappet Brothers.

But I'm probably not alone in being a fan of the Alignment system as it's existed for soon-to-be fifty years and I'd like to think that (amidst all my rambling) I've expressed something of why I think it serves a valuable role in the history and system of Dungeons & Dragons.
I happen to agree that the use of alignment in terms of the planes (absolute alignment, "real alignment") has a valuable place. But .... to be fair, I don't think the majority of adventures concern themselves with the outer planes and grand questions of alignment.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I happen to agree that the use of alignment in terms of the planes (absolute alignment, "real alignment") has a valuable place. But .... to be fair, I don't think the majority of adventures concern themselves with the outer planes and grand questions of alignment.
It also seems to me that you can have Absolute Alignment in the planes and ... Non-absolute Alignment? Relative Alignment? in the Material, where most adventures happen. Sure, The Abyss might be a place of ABSOLUTE AND UTTER EVIL AND CHAOS, but that doesn't mean that chaotic evil being in and from the Material needs to be so ... unreasoning.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Thrall of Coot.
It also seems to me that you can have Absolute Alignment in the planes and ... Non-absolute Alignment? Relative Alignment? in the Material, where most adventures happen. Sure, The Abyss might be a place of ABSOLUTE AND UTTER EVIL AND CHAOS, but that doesn't mean that chaotic evil being in and from the Material needs to be so ... unreasoning.
Agreed. It could be like the allegory of the cave from Plato. The alignments on the prime material plane are just nebulous shapes, shadows on the wall, the imperfect reflections and refractions of the perfect alignments of the Outer Planes.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Agreed. It could be like the allegory of the cave from Plato. The alignments on the prime material plane are just nebulous shapes, shadows on the wall, the imperfect reflections and refractions of the perfect alignments of the Outer Planes.
I've kinda come to think of the Outer Planes and the arrangement thereof as ideas from the Material coagulating and, um, aligning, sorta like a color wheel--but then, I tend toward thinking that people create gawds more than the other way around.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Thrall of Coot.
Eh... personally I prefer the more... adventure friendly and nuanced cosmology from 4e than this whole wheel thing everybody is always harping on about.
Planescape is here again oh Lord
Haven't been to the prime material in a year or more
I hope Greyhawk holds on a little longer

Killed a slaad on a long summer day
Saw a silver dragon, golem made of clay
Ooh, I've been using absolute alignments far too long ...

Ooh, the wheel of the planes keeps on turnin'
I don't know where I'll be tomorrow
Wheel of the planes keeps on turnin'
 

TaranTheWanderer

Adventurer
I like the idea of the planes of alignment as Nature. Which is why people bargain with entities of the outer planes. In power, they are far beyond comprehension (I suppose, unless you are 20th level) but you can use their Nature of Law/Chaos/good/evil to bind them, bargain with them and get the upper hand. I kind of wish the game had more about that. Powerful Fae that can't lie and/or Devils that are bound by contracts etc...

Mortals, on the other hand, have Free Will. Either no predetermined Nature or an ability to go against their Nature. Which is why Powerful Entities are so interested in mortal followers that they can use as Chess pieces. Because they can do things that the Entities, by their Nature, are incapable of.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I happen to agree that the use of alignment in terms of the planes (absolute alignment, "real alignment") has a valuable place. But .... to be fair, I don't think the majority of adventures concern themselves with the outer planes and grand questions of alignment.
Agreed. And, in fact, tying a mechanical element (alignment) to a setting element (the Planes) becomes awkward when you're in a game that doesn't make use of the setting element.

I also think that if you're going to markedly note the difference between planar alignment and morality, linking them through natural language is problematic. If the powers of Good will cause great harm that they don't have to... that's not "good". It is a misnomer. Better to say the Celestial Powers will cause great harm... and you no longer have confusion.

So, you have a setting in which there are Celestial and Infernal powers. Your character may have some descriptor or score that indicates their alignment to those powers. Maybe it has mechanical impact. Maybe some spells also interact with those powers. But leave the attachement to morality only a general tendency, rather than a thing of the exact same name.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Thrall of Coot.
Agreed. And, in fact, tying a mechanical element (alignment) to a *seting*element (the Planes) becomes awkward when you're in a game that doesn't make use of the setting element.

I also think that if you're going to markedly note the difference between planar alignment and morality, linking them through natural language is problematic. If the powers of Good will cause great harm that they don't have to... that's not "good". It is a misnomer. Better to say the Celestial Powers will cause great harm... and you no longer have confusion.

So, you have a setting in which there are Celestial and Infernal powers. Your character may have some descriptor or score that indicates their alignment to those powers. Maybe it has mechanical impact. Maybe some spells also interact with those powers. But leave the attachement to morality only a general tendency, rather than a thing of the exact same name.
I was reading this, and I was thinking of Babylon 5, where you have the Vorlons and the Shadows, and ...

The Vorlons start as if they are "good" (even, ahem, angelic) and the Shadows are "evil," but we later learn that it's more like Law and Chaos, or jerk and, um, jerkier.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
I've kinda come to think of the Outer Planes and the arrangement thereof as ideas from the Material coagulating and, um, aligning, sorta like a color wheel--but then, I tend toward thinking that people create gawds more than the other way around.
Can I ask why you say “gawds” instead of “gods”?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Can I ask why you say “gawds” instead of “gods”?
It's a typographical equivalent of a verbal tic, I suspect, picked up long ago in a place and time where lots of words with similar sound/s were spelled that way (dawgs, frawgs) and I haven't bothered to eliminate it from my casual usage because I don't believe deities exist (and yes that's almost certainly part of why I wrote them out of my homebrew world).
 

Krachek

Adventurer
Dnd is a framework to allow gaming in various setting.
The alignement is an important part for a lot of setting but it’s not an absolute,
The 5 colors system of Magic can be used effectively in a setting in place of alignement.
other system can be imagined,
if DnD want to evolve it can just tweak the rules and monsters description to allow multiple system.
Dont have to rewrite DragonLance just allow other systems.
 

Voadam

Hero
3e did the best mechanical alignment stuff IMO tying it into aligned subtypes for monsters and spell descriptors and the holy/anarchic/etc. magic weapon enhancements and such. I got a lot of mileage out of that with paladins and fiends and such in my 3.X games.

I am still happier with 5e's divorcement of alignment from mechanics, paladins flat out smiting works better IMO.
 

Khelon Testudo

Cleric of Stronmaus
Planescape is here again oh Lord
Haven't been to the prime material in a year or more
I hope Greyhawk holds on a little longer

Killed a slaad on a long summer day
Saw a silver dragon, golem made of clay
Ooh, I've been using absolute alignments far too long ...

Ooh, the wheel of the planes keeps on turnin'
I don't know where I'll be tomorrow
Wheel of the planes keeps on turnin'
This is creative, and I like it. I'd probably be even more amused if I knew what song it was riffing on. :)
 



It strikes me that, since the Little Brown Books onward, Alignment has meant something different; it's rather a sort of macrocosmic conflict – whether one-axis or two-axis – that reflects down through the multiverse from Upper Planes towards the Material Plane. While Gygax gets his take most directly from writers like Anderson and Moorcock, this idea permeates culture and literature for centuries, from Neoplatonic metaphysics to developments of Natural Law theories. Where fantasy literature takes the idea and runs with it is in the population of creatures on a world that is not our own. So, we see in literature and then in D&D the likes of dragons and chimera Aligned directly by their magical nature, while non-magical humanoids have cultures and religions that lean them to sides in the existential conflict but allow them to actual choose (and indeed often define the heroic story by those choices). That's something distinct from classical or medieval virtue ethics – the expectations of behavior among Lawful Good are very different (and far more violent) than those of any Thomistic or Sufi way of perfection.

While there are moral reflections in Alignments, these aren't absolute. We see that not only in the warring nature of Good as mentioned, but in some of the examples mentioned in the other thread. Dragonlance, with its explicit Balance of Good, Neutral, and Evil as cosmic forces is a great example: we see when we follow the story of Krynn where Good's binding principles have nearly destroyed the world (the Cataclysm) and where Evil's refusal to bow has saved it (the Chaos War).
I'm chopping a lot of this, to get to what I think is the heart of the problem.

See, while Law and Chaos are the worst problems when viewing alignment through the lens of morality, the worst problem when viewing it as seperated from morality is good and evil.

First off, the question of morality is itself the question of good and evil, which presents a problem in breaking alignment (which includes all four axioms) away from morality.

But, going deeper. It is very easy to say that extreme law and extreme chaos are both bad. Extreme law is "the world in amber" static, unchanging, unmoving, silent. Extreme chaos is a writhing mass of energy and formless forms that makes anything living impossible.

But, what is extreme good? You mention the Cataclysm in Kyrnn, and it has been a long time since I read anything from Dragonlance, but it sticks out to me because I saw someone mention this exact event in a different thread. Reminding us that the Cataclysm happened because the God-Emperor (or whatever his title was) became incredibly prideful and declared himself greater than the gods, and the gods responded by wiping out the entire civilization.

The problem though, is obvious. Pride and Arrogance are not good traits. They are in fact traits of Evil. How about taking the route of "Purity". That Extreme Good is wiping away all imperfections until everything is pure, and killing anyone who stands in the way?

Well, enforcing your beliefs through violence and removing choice is Tyranny. Tyranny is also not a good trait, it is the trait of Evil.

The only way I can see it, is hyper-pacifism, not only refusing to defend yourself, but refusing to defend others. That is an extreme good that could be used. The problem with hyper-pacifism though is not that a world full of hyper-pacificist is a bad world, it is that it is a bad choice in the face of Evil. But, if Good wins the cosmic struggle, then there is no Evil, so there is no problem with Hyper-Pacifism until Evil comes back.

And to really drive this point home, one of the traits of good is Moderation. The very idea of not taking things to extremes has to be taken to the extreme for an Extreme Good force to work. Which... I'm sure someone can do it, but it is a paradox by its nature.

Agreed. And, in fact, tying a mechanical element (alignment) to a setting element (the Planes) becomes awkward when you're in a game that doesn't make use of the setting element.

I also think that if you're going to markedly note the difference between planar alignment and morality, linking them through natural language is problematic. If the powers of Good will cause great harm that they don't have to... that's not "good". It is a misnomer. Better to say the Celestial Powers will cause great harm... and you no longer have confusion.

So, you have a setting in which there are Celestial and Infernal powers. Your character may have some descriptor or score that indicates their alignment to those powers. Maybe it has mechanical impact. Maybe some spells also interact with those powers. But leave the attachement to morality only a general tendency, rather than a thing of the exact same name.
This style of thing is a lot neater.

One thing I love about the Japanese myths my friend introduced me to is that Hell isn't evil.

The Gods used to chuck evil souls out into the Void, essentially thinking of it like a landfill, until all those souls came back with devastating powers and the ability to unmake things.

So, they stopped that and realized they still needed a place to put the bad souls, so they created Hell (using English anglican terms is not accurate, but it is faster). A place where oni and other denizens could punish bad souls until they had been purified of their sins and could go back to either the mortal world or the heavens (that part depends on whether you include reincarnation.)

So, running into an Oni in the World of Man is a problem, not because he is evil and out to hurt you and drag you to Hell, but because he is there either on the job tracking down an evil soul (which will want to hurt you) or he snuck away from his post and is looking to get drunk (shrug) which is a problem because they aren't "nice" people, and they could possibly be an angry drunk, or have their boss come down and lay a smack down on them.

And Void is much closer to Chaos than evil.
 

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