The idea of good and evil as an actual essence that can be detected or a guiding force that is palatable is a popular concept of high fantasy, but should we include alignment in our D&D sessions? If we use our own world as a guide, the idea of absolute good or absolute evil is extremely rare if it even exists at all. So, should this apply to the fantasy world we live in while playing D&D, Pathfinder and other RPGs?
While we might find it easy to label terrorists and others who commit heinous crimes as evil, very few people walk around with the belief that they are evil. Even a terrorist who commits an evil act does so under the belief that they are serving a higher purpose, and while serial killers might revel in evil acts, others might say they are simply suffering from mental disease.
And if we look at the human race, we certainly can see the whole gamut. It can be convenient to label all orcs as chaotic evil and think of them as barbarians, but remember, the Viking barbarians of our history were the same species (human!) as those who built the organized definitely “lawful” Roman empire. This is where D&D alignment hampers creativity rather than amplifying it.
Worst, alignment in RPGs can often pigeonhole a character. What is Lawful Evil? Can a Lawful Evil person do good? Can they fall in love and sacrifice everything for it? Are they doomed to be murderers and thieves?
When we deal with demons and undead and other aberrations or supernatural creatures, the idea of good and evil as an absolute might make more sense, but when we deal with most of the humanoid races — even those that have historically been cast into ‘evil’ roles such as the drow elves — sticking to these labels makes little sense.
In most campaigns, alignment really doesn’t come much into play. You could easily erase the label on your character sheet and play the exact same game. In fact, barring holy or unholy objects or places or spells that detect alignment, the entire idea of keeping track of it seems in opposition to the idea of roleplaying a character whose motivations may change throughout the various adventurers.
Certainly, those classes that dedicate themselves to a god (clerics, paladins, druids, etc.) can fall into the category of alignment. D&D 5e got detect alignment right by restricting it to those dedicated to a god or supernatural beings with a direct correlation to their alignment. But even then, priests are acting on behalf, not their god’s alignment, so their actions are dictated more by their god’s beliefs rather than any basic idea of alignment.
Note: D&D got it right with new rules on detecting alignment. A good way to bend the Pathfinder Detect Evil rules is to determine that humanoids aren’t creatures and as such don’t fall into those rules unless their class dictates they do. And really, the rule itself is pretty simple. Why would a warrior suddenly have a good or evil aura just because he’s learned to swing his sword better? And why would a thief suddenly have one just because she picks locks better?
For the most part, alignment should be thrown out when playing RPGs. Characters should roleplay their characters, not some idea of “alignment.” Incantation and divine spells that detect good or evil should apply only to supernatural creatures that might have some type of “absolute” alignment or those creatures that have dedicated themselves to a deity.
For dungeon masters building a homebrew world, throwing out alignment when designing the world can lead to a lot of great opportunities. That orc tribe that needs to be wiped out? Perhaps they are quite peaceful and only defending themselves!