First glimpses of D&D’s Wild Beyond the Witchlight offer 5th Edition’s latest attempt to grapple with applying alignment to monsters–typical alignment:
5th Edition has gone through several different changes to alignment in monster stat blocks. In the core rules, alignment was included for every monster (some unaligned), with a broad disclaimer to ignore or modify as you see fit. When Candlekeep Mysteries was released, alignments were omitted from general monster stat blocks. This practice continued through Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. Now, another change has arrived.
Stat block alignment has returned in modified form in Witchlight. Now, general monster stat blocks state that a creature is “typically [alignment].” Specific NPC stat blocks may still identify a character as a particular alignment. Other creatures may still be “unaligned” such as this adorable displacer beast kitten:
Why Care About Alignment?
In some ways, alignment discussion is very serious because it intersects with D&D’s efforts to address their historical treatment of certain races as real-world race analogues in the Drow, Vistani, Orcs, etc. The Drow’s history has begun a rewrite with the help of Drizzt Do’Urden creator R.A. Salvatore. Vistani portrayals were revamped when D&D reboxed Chris Perkins’ Curse of Strahd. 5e discontinuing alignment in monster stat blocks seemed to be another effort towards distancing from this history. So it’s important that a return to the practice is not wielded in a harmful fashion.
In other ways, this discussion doesn’t matter at all. Alignment is easily ignored. It has little to no impact on how the game is actually played. Mechanically, 5th Edition has moved away from it. Players fill out their character sheets with a trait, bond, ideal, and flaw that inform their actions. Even spells like protection from evil and good key off of monster type, not alignment. It’s basically defunct.
Why Does Alignment Exist?
If alignment has no foothold in the rules, why does it still exist?
There’s several reasons:
- Legacy. D&D is a collection of idiosyncratic practices that have developed over nearly 50 years. Some of these “sacred cows” have lasted through the decades and persist through editions. Alignment is a shibboleth that aligns the D&D community.
- Marketing. Alignment is arguably more recognizable than D&D itself. The tic-tac-toe alignment grid is a memetic force. It would be silly to spurn that marketing power, strictly from a business standpoint.
- Discussion. People constantly talk about alignment. This ties back into the two other factors. As D&D changes, the things that persist is the stuff that people identify with D&D the most. The discussion becomes the legacy. Also, in the age of social media, you need people talking about your product to move it. The most successful games have strong online communities. The discussion becomes the marketing.
How Did We Get Here?
If alignment isn’t going anywhere, D&D needs to figure out what to do with it. People tend to have very strong opinions about this. That’s probably because there’s no good answer. There’s pros and cons to every treatment. So, let’s focus on how we got to Witchlight.
Since AD&D, alignment is provided with a general disclaimer that the DMs are free to ignore it. This first came with a strong caution, but the language has improved significantly over time to empower the DM:
Unfortunately, the disclaimer is often ignored or forgotten, and folks found that having the suggested alignment in the stat block was reinforcing some of the less desirable narrative treatments.
So, they tried removing it. This also made people upset.
Alignment is useful–if you understand what it is. It’s a starting point. Alignment is an overdistilled kludge of different concepts. That combo is different for everyone based on the media they’ve consumed. Each person’s idea of alignment includes things like disposition, desire, relationships, cunning, domestication, and nobility, in different amounts.
Including alignment also loads the monster with expectations that might be better explained in the lore. The best information for understanding a monster comes in the narrative. Lore will provide a richer experience than just checking alignment and running the actions on the stat block.
But, it’s a monster MANUAL. The stat block is meant to be used as a reference. At a glance.
Reading an essay about the creature isn’t always an option. Sometimes the DM doesn’t have the time to prep monsters on top of the adventure. Running monsters can be complicated (especially with spells) and reading several paragraphs might be bandwidth overload.
Consider how a shorter reference may be especially useful to new DMs. A new DM is better knowing that a kobold is “lawful goblin,” not taking wiki dive all the way down to Menzoberranzan trying to figure out whether it’s a dog or a dragon.
There is value to making game books more accessible as reference materials. There is value in making books better for new players to use. Experienced players will break the rules they want anyhow.
3e to the Rescue?
In an effort to compromise, alignment is back with a predicate.
Adding frequency predicates to alignment is nothing new. In 3rd Edition, creature alignment was “often”, “usually”, or “always” [alignment]. With “always” being reserved for creatures like angels (good), devils (evil), modrons (law), and slaad (chaos).
But, there’s no difference in frequency. All the non-NPC stat blocks say the same thing: “typically [alignment].” This is likely just a result of 5e’s effort to simplify from prior editions. However, simplicity reads flatly in an area that’s long needed hard-thought and well-consulted development. Beyond that, adding the same thing to every stat block is just bad design. You’re better explaining it all in one place. Except, they already did that, and there were cries for change.
And while “typical” is technically accurate, it carries a dismissive connotation. While designers may not have wanted to borrow 3e’s language with only one band of frequency, its diction was stronger. A different word choice would be a good idea.