D&D alignments suck. There, I said it. They yearn for every edition of the tabletop game, but they especially yearn for D&D video games. What a relief to hear that Baldur’s Gate 3 doesn’t use them at all.
For those unfamiliar, alignment is a sort of objective label for a D&D character’s morality. Different sets have had different alignment categories, but the one that is most widely used in sets ranks characters along a lawful versus chaotic and good versus evil axis. A loyal and good character is kind and just, and always follows the laws of the land as much as possible; a Chaotic Evil character follows his dark heart’s desire, inflicting death and suffering whenever he wishes. Characters can also be neutral on one or both axes. A chaotic neutral character believes in freedom and self-determination above all else; a True Neutral character (neutral to both) seeks balance in all things; a Neutral Good character is dedicated to… uh, get back to me on that.
It’s a system that has endured for a long time through nostalgia and tradition, but has always been clumsy and reductive. It’s restrictive enough to stifle nuanced character development, but vague enough that you’re probably already mad at me about my take on one of the above lineups. This led to decades of silly arguments about the ethics of fantasy worlds – D&D’s version of “Would you go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby?” is “Is it legitimate for a Paladin to kill a baby orc Chaotic Evil?”, a hypothesis that is both incredibly boring and, infuriatingly, actually relevant to gameplay.
Indeed, in many editions of D&D, alignment has been made part of the key rules of the game. This could restrict which class you could belong to – at one time all Druids had to be True Neutral, for example. This could affect the spells you might cast or the effects certain spells would have on you. In the case of Paladins, straying from Loyal Good alignment could cause you to lose access to your class abilities, turning you into a mere dude in inappropriate shining armor. This is why so many of them ended up in long philosophical disputes with their dungeon masters.
In a video game, there’s not even a DM to chat with – and developers have often struggled to implement alignment satisfactorily. The nature of the system means that games have to try to cover an absurd range of possible character viewpoints in their dialogue choices, and more often than not the result has been awkward and contrived moral choices.
Thanks for saving my cat from the tree, adventurer! Here is your reward of 100 gold coins.
- [Lawful Good] Don’t think about it, citizen, and please keep the gold.
- You’re welcome, thanks for the gold.
- [Chaotic Evil] I only shot your cat so I could murder it – and you!!!
It’s just not a flexible system for constructing nuanced and interesting choices – and a big reason for that is that it’s not a good reflection of how morality works, in the real world or in fiction. People just don’t fit into such neat categories. Worse still, alignment has for a long time created some very uncomfortable implications in D&D world-building.
When you say that certain types of conscious beings are inherently good or evil from birth, whether you are aware of it or not, you are making a pretty strange statement about good and evil in your environment. Particularly in conjunction with D&D’s historical use of the word “race” instead of “species”, it has long drifted uncomfortably close to discriminatory real-world ideas that view certain groups in society as having inherently negative traits while others are born superior.
In the real world, good and evil are messy, subjective, and hotly contested. By making good and evil literal and objective forces that every character is affected by, you then have to make some pretty drastic decisions about what’s always good and what’s always bad. If orcs are born evil, does that mean good people should strive to annihilate them completely? Yes? Great, now our playful fantasy world is pro-genocide!
It’s issues like these that have led Wizards of the Coast to increasingly downplay the importance of alignment, starting with 4th and continuing into the most recent ruleset, 5th, which removed things like alignment restrictions on classes and innate alignments of races. As playtesting continues for the next 5e update, signs seem to indicate that alignment is finally being removed entirely in the future, or at least turned into a residual optional item with no impact on gameplay or setting.
So it makes sense that Baldur’s Gate 3, based directly on 5e, took that step early on, in conjunction with WOTC. Aiming for absurd levels of interactivity and narrative choice, the game can only benefit from not being shackled by a morality system designed 50 years ago. Larian is free to create his own more nuanced story and world, and players can create whatever characters they want without being pigeonholed into certain personality types by their mechanical choices. Thank goodness I’ll never need to know if it’s morally appropriate for my True Neutral character to stack 10 explosive barrels next to an NPC before attacking them.