Hello students. Welcome to what was going to be the final article in this series on alignment. There ended up being too much to talk about to wrap this up today. And part three was way too long. My apologies. We’ve spent time discussing what alignment is in Dungeons and Dragons, how it’s changed over the editions, and some of its major problems. Now, we are going to talk about the impact alignment has on mechanics. Next time, we’ll conclude with some ideas about how we can change alignment.
To start with, we cannot include 4E in this article. There are no powers or class abilities in 4E that are directly related to alignment. Of course, I do not have access to all 4E material, so maybe something like this was introduced late in the game’s production. If there is something I am missing, please share in the comments.
Both 3.5 and 5E have similar game mechanics based on alignment. But they also have some drastic differences.
At the core of this comparison are the spells Detect X and Protection from X, where X is a component of alignment. Both spells in both editions are available at level 1. Given the fact that encounters at early levels can be deadly, a spell that identifies and improves defense against potential enemies has a huge impact on the game. The spells in both editions are almost identical.
Detect is available to clerics in 3.5 and clerics and paladins in 5E. In 3.5, the spell has a 60 foot cone effect and allows the caster to get additional information with concentration. In 5E, the spell functions in a 30 foot radius from the caster but it does not include the component of additional information. However it does also identify objects that have been consecrated or desecrated. The major difference is that in 3.5, there is a version of the spell for Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos. In 5E, there is one spell that functions for both Good and Evil.
Protection is again very similar between editions. The difference between them is purely based on the mechanical constructs of each edition. Effectively, they provide almost the same benefits. In 3.5, it grants an AC and save bonus, a reroll and bonus against mental control effects, and it prevents physical contact between the target of the spell and summoned creatures that carry the alignment identified by the spell. Just like Detection, this spell has a separate version for Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos. It is available to clerics, paladins, sorcerers, and wizards. In 5E, the spell grants disadvantage to attack rolls made by opponent creatures, prevents the target of the spell from being charmed, frightened, or possessed, and it gives advantage on the next save if such a condition already exists. Again, like Detection, there is only one version of this spell. It is available to clerics, paladins, warlocks, and wizards.
Oddly, 5E completely ignores the Law and Chaos axis of alignment, even though it recognizes it as a major component of the feature. But the biggest difference between these editions is what these spells actually identify. In 3.5, the spells function with any creature that carries the specific alignment. But in 5E, these spells function only for aberration, celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, and undead creatures. This is a huge shift in the focus and use of these spells. It also drastically changes the tone of these editions.
The way theses spells work in 3.5, they function for anyone or anything the PCs might encounter. They can be used to identify monsters the PCs fight or NPCs the PCs encounter. But in 5E, the spells are focused only on the stereotypical monsters that embody the given alignments. Now, the spells are not really about alignment any more. They’re about interacting with these few specific monsters.
Also consider that paladins in both editions have as part of their core class features, free use of Detect Evil. Tropes, stereotypes, and abuse of the concept aside, this is a fundamental part of the paladin concept. With the changes in 5E, the paladin is now a glorified hunting dog. The GM is expected to use these monsters by the book and make sure the bad guys are clearly bad guys.
Of course, neither edition is completely right or wrong. But they share the problem of locking characters and monsters into boxes based on their alignment. And considering the fact that both editions make it a point to state that alignment is not a permanent factor of a character, I am baffled why these spells exist in their current form.
Alignment as it exists in Dungeons and Dragons is a paradox. It starts by defining moral absolutes but also provides freedom of choice. That’s great. It even recognizes in the text that an individual’s alignment can change and that actions are not defined by alignment. An individual with Good alignment can do Evil things. That’s even better. But then the game provides mechanical support of strict alignment restrictions as defined by class, race, or player decision at character generation. Alignment is considered to be a defining factor that influences the decisions and action in the game.
Beyond the spells discussed above, there is further support of these restrictions. There are wondrous items that serve to change or disguise alignment for a short time. If alignment was not a permanent factor, these items would serve no purpose. But their existence makes it clear that this choice on the character sheet is given a far higher priority than it should.
However, there is another side to this problem. There are specific weapons and armors that are connected with different alignments. While in the context of the current rules they serve to support the flawed system, they also indicate a potential solution. In a situation where alignment was not a restriction but instead a more realistic fluid state, items that react to a moral choice become intriguing and valuable to both the characters and the plot.
In conclusion, these mechanical uses of alignment shed light on how each edition of Dungeons and Dragons prioritizes this part of the game. In my opinion, they cause more problems than benefits. As it stands now, alignment is a feature that is typically ignored unless the plot of a game focuses on it. Furthermore, these mechanics are easily abusable excuses to avoid role playing. I actually think that they support a lack of creative role playing.
I have never made alignment a priority in any of my games. I recognize and utilize morality, but I let the players deal with these moral situations as they role play. This is simply how I choose to run my games, but I feel that it allows more space for creativity and entertainment. With this in mind, I think that the alignment system needs a complete overhaul. The mechanics should support role play instead of define it. And that’s what we’ll be talking about next time.