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I want to run a good alignment campaign in D&D 5e with my friends, but we are not even at session 0 and we already have a major disagreement.

I usually GM tabletop RPGs that are not D&D, like World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu, AFMBE, LORT 6D, Star Wars 6D but occasionally I DM Pathfinder and D&D oneshots. I'm experienced as GM but I'm still quite new to the D&D world.

Recently a guy new to the group decided that he wanted to DM D&D after I made a oneshot in 5e. It's been quite fun despite a disagreement in how we see alignments. We are playing a "good" campaign but in his world some PC races are evil period like Tieflings or Half-Orcs and some of the PCs in the party are of one of those two races, he argues that there is no such thing as evil and that being evil is just a point of view. This caused some trouble with my LG life cleric but since I'm the only one in the entire group that sees it that way I decided to come to an agreement and commit to it; after all, I don't want to kill the fun.

So far so good, the DM and I had a disagreement, talked about it and found a solution. But there is where my problems start when I decided to start my own homebrew 5e campaign with my tabletop friends. I decided to make the usual good vs evil campaign, but some of the players that also play in my friend's game want to play evil characters. When I told them that in "D&D the good and evil is black and white there are no greys" they use the same argument as the other DM there is no such thing as evil it's only the point of view yada yada. I told them that most NPCs and one player (a paladin) will probably try to kill the evil PCs if they found out and they think about it as limiting their freedom to make a PC as they want.

But I don't feel like making a D&D world in which being evil is relative. If I want to make a campaign like that I will GM something like Vampire: The Masquerade, classical adventurers facing against evil and crawling in dungeons is what makes me want to GM D&D over other system that I usually play, and since besides the new DM I'm the only other GM, I would like to do something that is not the same as always.

What should I do? Change my campaign and world so they can play evil PCs without consequences or risk it and tell my players they can take it or leave it?

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    \$\begingroup\$ As you all know, questions about alignment are off-topic because of their inherently subjective basis. The questions here is really “can the GM impose limitations on his game.” Going too far afield of that will result in the unholy close/downvote/delete trifecta; most comments have already been deleted as they were about alignment not about what the GM can determine about their game. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Feb 28 '18 at 21:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ A related question is here \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 1 '18 at 4:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ ♦ Once more with feeling: if anyone wants to chat about alignment, don't use this comment section. Consider instead making a chat room that you can link to here, so others can join your discussion. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 1 '18 at 15:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ As well, answers go in the answer section below. If one feels compelled to comment "It sounds like [diagnosis of problem, solution to that problem]", even if there's an embedded question, then that's an answer and doesn't belong up here. (For getting actual clarifying questions past the mods' comment misuse radar, just ask — leave the surrounding answer material out.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 1 '18 at 15:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ "in his world some PC races are evil period like Tieflings or Half-Orcs... he argues that there is no such thing as evil and that being evil is just a point of view" - These two ideas seem to contradict one another. If "evil, period" is his stance on those races, then how can he say "evil is just a point of view"? \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Mar 1 '18 at 17:23

11 Answers 11

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The DM decides what campaign he runs

While it's true that roleplaying is a cooperative effort, and it's better to find a consensus... Your campaign is yours. It's your world. You decide how it works. So if every ork is evil in your campaign, then it's so. Your players may not like it, but they're not the GM, so there's that.


That being said, while your are certainly free to decide what your campaign is, if none of your players buy-in then you'll be left without players. Try to find out why they want to play a good tiefling or whatever.

  • Is it mechanical benefit? Take a similar good race and be done with it. If tiefling aasimar is a great option.

  • Is it love to that specific race? Maybe you can make them half-blood, maybe a spell changed their alignment for good, maybe the stars aligned on their day of birth. They are the solo good aligned tiefling in the world. Every other tiefling should die, and they know it. Resume your goblin-slaying antics.

  • Is it because they don't want to try something new, or don't think playing the campaign you envisioned will be fun for them? If that's the case, try to focus on telling them why you want to play your campaign and why letting them playing "evil" characters would hinder the experience. If they're in, go kill kobolds in the name of justice. If they're not, you either make a different campaign or find other players. Maybe convincing the undecided to try a first session and making it awesome can help seduce them into your campaign.

  • Is it because they want to play out the struggle of having an evil nature and a good heart? Well, that's clearly not what you want. Tell them that this will be dungeon-delving monster-slaying and their sentimentalism has no place in your world.

On a final note, in D&D5e alignments are there mostly for historical reasons, it seems. There are fewer mechanical effects than on other editions, no rules to govern when someone changes alignment and a general "flexible alignment policy" in place. They are explicitly told in the player handbook that they can freely choose their alignment. So if in your campaign alignment is rigid and important, say that clearly, because it's not the default setting.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ On the other hand, there's the matter of the players not being interested or not willing to try something different than they are playing at the other game with the other DM. I am not sure if this is a matter of philosophical difference, of if there is an attempt to bully the DM here. Did those points arise as you put this answer together? I ask this because I was once stuck in a "I play thieves" rut and it took a new campaign to shake me out of it. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 28 '18 at 19:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nothing in the question seemed to indicate that the players were trying to "bully" the DM, just that they wanted to play characters the DM doesn't want to have in his campaing. I'l add the "they don't want to try something new" as the option, though. Thanks fo the suggestion. \$\endgroup\$ – LordHieros Feb 28 '18 at 22:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a hard question and a tough answer, good effort on your part. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 1 '18 at 4:26
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Should you change?... Maybe.

When setting up a campaign, the DM should explain the tropes of his setting. In some worlds, the nature of evil is definitely in question, sometimes it is is complex and nuanced.

The other DM's campaign may have shades of grey, making evil a matter of nurture, while yours may make evil a matter of nature. Neither approach is wrong. The only mistake would be not making it clear to your players before the game begins.

Related to that communication with your players is getting player feedback. If the players are not interested in playing the setting you've outlined, you won't have happy players. That leaves you with three options:

  1. Change the setting to make the players happy

  2. Change the players to ones who will be happy with the setting.

  3. Abandon the setting completely.

It's entirely your decision on which of those options you pursue.

On Absolute Statements

Your declaration of...

D&D the good and evil is black and white there are no greys

...is completely wrong, because it's an absolutism. Making an authoritative statement like that may put the players on the defensive, especially for players who game with multiple DMs. As explained above, the weight, meaning, and even existence of "good and evil" is a property of the setting, not the game system at large.

The rules generally shy away from it. There are things that use "good" and "evil" in the name (like Protection from Evil and Good) but aren't actually based on alignment. That particular spell protects by creature type: aberrations, celestials, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead. Despite the name, alignment has nothing to do with its effects, and other abilities follow the same pattern.

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    \$\begingroup\$ No TvTropes warning! How are you going to compensate lost 2 hours of my life? :@ \$\endgroup\$ – AntiDrondert Mar 1 '18 at 9:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AntiDrondert You say that like StackExchange itself doesn't have a similar effect. :) \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Mar 1 '18 at 18:05
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If this isn't a big deal, compromise; if this is a big deal, tell the other players to take it or leave it

If you and the other players' differing views on how alignment works is not a make-or-break issue for your campaign, then go ahead and change the campaign to accommodate the other players. If it's trivial to make the campaign's overarching bad guy an angel instead of demon, for example, there's no need to have the campaign die with you on the bloodsoaked Hill of Who's Right about Alignment.

However, if your view of how alignment works is absolutely central to your campaign, then, regardless of the game's canonical stance on alignment, you should not compromise. First and foremost, a DM must want to run his campaign, and if the campaign that you want to run, for example, requires on a fundamental level that the PCs (not the players—just their PCs) adhere to your view on how alignment works—no matter how wrong folks may tell you that view is and no matter how accurate (or not) that view may actually be—, then that's how alignment should work in your campaign. Seriously, those players with whom you have an irreconcilable difference of opinion on how your campaign should work should participate in a different campaign.

Really, as the DM, you are responsible for enjoying your campaign, and feeling forced to run a campaign that you don't want to run won't be pleasurable for you. Compromising on what you view as one of the campaign's essential elements may lead to having more players, but it will also likely make you unhappy, leaving you burnt out and resenting the campaign and the other players.

Note: This doesn't strike me as an issue specific to alignment at all but, instead, a campaign-building issue broadly. I mean, if it's fundamental to the campaign that, for example, all elves are demons, and a player wants to play an elf that's not a demon then that campaign is probably not well-suited for that player.

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D&D 5e is much less "black and white" than previous editions.

I ran most of my games in the past with good old AD&D 1e, and that game is very stark. Characters and monsters have alignments, and the system expects those to be followed. They can be detected, and so on. One of the big moral events in that old campaign was when the PC party had the ability and opportunity to wipe out the orcs. It was a good party, including a paladin, two LG clerics, two rangers, etc. The party was in favor (especially the rangers), but their gods were not so sure. It was a very interesting play session, that conversation. Ultimately, the party convinced their gods that (a) orcs are almost always evil, (b) you can detect that, (c) there are evil orc gods who make it their business to make and keep orcs evil. They wiped out all the orcs, i.e. genocide, and then imprisoned their god. Very stark, good vs. evil, battle for the fate of the world type stuff.

In 5e, that argument would not have been so convincing. The flavor of 5e is much more ambiguous, and my 5e world is likewise so. The PC party alignments in both the campaigns I run are more mixed, and the bad guys are, too. I've got an ongoing plot regarding a necromancer who wants to become Santa Claus. Both parties have looked into this guy, and decided that he's not doing much harm and to leave him be. And another plot line in which there is a Hobgoblin warlord who is building an army of thousands, to fight underwater and take on kraken who is sitting on a shipwreck that contains the Holy Grail. Both sides in that conflict are mostly evil. One party is at odds with the Hobgoblin, but hasn't figured out the whole plot yet. The other party has figured out the plot, and aligned themselves with the Hobgoblins (and will be helping in the battle, mainly by casting Water Breathing on the whole darned army).

So the DM needs to decide what the nature of his world is like, and whether it is more of a good vs. evil stark plotline, like Lord of the Rings for example, or more of a realistic shades-of-grey sort of world, where things may shift around some. There's room for both flavors, if the DM wants to. (Out of the Abyss spoiler below.)

The Out of the Abyss module is practically a whole campaign in itself, and is laid out in a pretty much good vs. evil setting, but there are moral ambiguities and choices in it. The main struggle is Good Party of PCs vs. Evil Demon Lords, but it all takes place in the Underdark, where pretty much everyone is evil. But one choice is that the party can decide whether to have the final demon battle in Menzoberranzan, and let the Drow be collateral damage, or to have it safely somewhere else. The answer to that may well depend on how the party feels about the Drow, and whether they are considered to be inherently evil or not. In the campaign I played in, this was quite a discussion, mostly between the Vengeance Paladin, whose history was all about opposing slavery, and who was in favor of letting the Drow take the hits, and my character, who was a CN Warlock with an Old One pact, but who nevertheless was a nice guy and objected to wholesale indiscriminate slaughter if we had the choice to avoid it.

So it really has to do with the design of your world, and the stories it contains. Whether the overall plotline(s) involve defined battle lines between the greater forces of good and evil, in which everyone must ultimately pick sides, or whether it's a more nuanced setting.

It's important that both the DM and the players know what the world is like, and agree within reasonable limits how it operates. That's the main thing.

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There is no good answer to this question as posed

Instead, I would start with an axiom: No one should be forced to play in a game that they don't want to play in. The realities of life serve to make this a little more complicated, as gaming is a social activity that can bleed over into other aspects of life, if you're playing with people you know outside the gaming table. But the basic axiom is correct.

This applies just as much to GMs as it does to character players, and therein lies a certain advantage to the GM if GMs are a scarce resource: If the desire to game at all is stronger than the players' aversion to a certain type of game, the GM has an advantage in running what he wants to run.

But this is a practical advantage, not a moral advantage-- the players no more exist to serve as props in a morality play of your design, than you exist to as a public service to run games. And as a practical advantage, it has limits-- as others say, if you push your players too hard, they can and will abandon your game leaving you with fewer players and (very possibly) a weaker game, or no game at all.

This is a case where the players and the GM simply must have a good meeting of the minds, or there may be no game. The good news is that this is happening before the game and so there is time and there are many ways to address this. The bad news is that you (and perhaps some or all of your players) seem to have dug in, and are just looking for someone to tell you who's right or wrong.

I would strongly urge you to talk to your players-- and I mean really engage, if they're willing to engage you-- and get creative and figure out how to find the pocket of games that will satisfy all of you.

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It sounds like you need to have your Session 0, in particular, to establish:

  • Campaign expectations (Do we want to play an intrigue campaign? Dungeon crawler? An epic campaign?)
  • Setting
  • Character creation

If the GM wants to do wizard trials, half the party wants to play LG Paladins and the other half wants to play CE murder hobos, it's probably not going to work out.

It may also help to go over some of the aspects of the social contract for games like D&D:

There are a few things expected of all PCs:

  • PCs are expected to get along to some degree
  • PCs will (in the gross majority of cases) not willfully act against the party
  • PCs generally give other PCs the benefit of the doubt
  • PCs will buy-in (to the game and the collective story)

In my experience, an unruly player is playing a character whose core personality is at odds with one of those rules: Playing a lawful good paladin in an evil campaign, for example.

If you want to play a good campaign, you can also restrict alignment from a story standpoint:

You're a band of adventurers hired by the Priests of the Warm and Fuzzy to clear the castle of vampires.

Would the Priests of the Warm and Fuzzy hire murder thieves or vampires to do this? Not likely.

If they aren't willing to buy into the setting, then it isn't going to work: trying to force people to use a particular play-style or into playing a specific campaign is a recipe for disaster, so...

It's OK to pass on a campaign

If you can't come to an agreement that everyone is happy with, then it's ok to drop it. I have a regular group I've played with for years, and we often get ideas for new campaigns that end with us not playing them, usually because not enough of us are willing to buy into the idea.

If I don't like super heroes, a Mutants & Masterminds campaign likely won't interest me, no matter how great it is. That doesn't mean your campaign isn't a good idea, it just isn't a good fit for that group.

Another thing we do is we play two campaigns and alternate between them. So that's an option: Have an evil campaign (run by someone else most likely) and your good campaign running in tandem, so those that want to do despicable acts have an outlet to do so (although I'd be wary with new players having trouble keeping their actions appropriately aligned between the campaigns).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it’s worth spending a little more time in this answer discussing what it means for things to “not work”—in terms of compromising, or agreeing to disagree and not playing together, and how to work that out. Addressing some of the roles in question—DM, other players—would also be good. But this is still a fairly good answer, so +1 either way. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Feb 28 '18 at 21:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Thanks, I've added additional information. I may add more once I get home. \$\endgroup\$ – TemporalWolf Feb 28 '18 at 23:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your last paragraph is the beginning of what the problem presents as asking to solve. If you can offer a bit more meat on that bone, it would be good I think. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 1 '18 at 4:37
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You should agree to disagree—and leave alignment out of the game

Alignment does very little for the game. Alignment also causes immense strife, disagreements, hurt feelings, and so on. Therefore, the easy solution is to just ignore it altogether.

Luckily, D&D 5e makes this easy: as part of a continuing trend of reducing the significance of alignment, 5e uses it very, very little. Those few uses can be easily ignored.

So open yourselves up to grander, more varied possibilities. Stop trying to fit yourselves in nine neat, easy, fake little boxes. Allow your characters to be more than that. Allow your characters to disagree on what it means to be good, what it means to be evil.

You will have a better, more vibrant world, where you don’t arbitrarily remove the shades of gray from some of the most complicated questions that humanity has ever asked. There will no longer be any pressing need to come to any agreement about what alignment—about what “good” and “evil”—actually mean. You will be able to disagree, and present characters who disagree. You will be able to interact with them, disagree with them, without having it become an out-of-character disagreement that ruins everyone’s fun.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a nice general answer in terms of philosophy that does not address this DM's problem with the campaign he wants to run. That vision is clearly stated in the question. Is this a frame challenge/X-Y problem response? (FWIW, I think Novak nailed this one, though I think you are coming from a similar direction) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 28 '18 at 20:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I have also upvoted Novak’s answer, yes—this is my answer because, in my opinion, it is the only answer that will ever work. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Feb 28 '18 at 20:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ The thing is, alignment is a part of the game in the Rules As Written. What is left open for any group is 'how big a part' and that's the question only a group at a given table can resolve. Your answer doesn't help solve that tension, for all that your points on a general level are sound. Alignment as "leper, unclean!" may be a valid approach from a philosophical perspective, but it doesn't solve the stated problem. My view on this question is that it is a case of expectations mismatch more than anything else. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 1 '18 at 4:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the point this answer is making is that the GM can go ahead and create a campaign in which good and evil are very much black & white, and players who don't see it that way can create characters that don't fit into those boxes, and as long as the players can accept that all of the NPCs they encounter are going to act according to the stark-alignment worldview, and the GM can accept that the PCs won't necessarily follow that same pattern, it can be an interesting, fun, and unique experience for everyone. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Mar 1 '18 at 17:49
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Yes, but the system won't support you very well

I use the term RCAI (Race/Class/Alignment Interlocking) for what you're talking about, where certain creatures or classes are restricted to certain alignments. This was a salient feature of D&D before 4e streamlined and largely separated out alignments, and 5e follows the 4e path even though they undid the 4e simplification of alignments themselves.

As a result, no classes in 5e, not even the Paladin or Warlock, have alignment restrictions placed on them out-of-the-box; likewise, none of the PC races, not even drow, have these restrictions either. Features and rules that were once based off alignment now work off of set lists of creature types (divine sense, most spells that once used alignment) or are generally applicable (smiting).

Nor do you need these to have a non-relativist campaign

This lack of support sounds like a problem, but it really isn't: alignment originally was designed to support target designation during dungeon crawls, not grand moral visions. So, even in a black-and-white campaign where the identity of evil is plainly apparent in-universe, 5e gives you far more flexibility as a DM to design your world -- perhaps in your setting, the dwarves are beard-twirling imperialists trying to drive the kobolds out of their ancestral warrens and the drow are coming up from the Underdark to stop some great ecological disaster from dooming everyone on the surface? Or some death cult has swept through the barrows, drawing a horde of converts from the local populations and now pushing into the grand cities of the coasts while threatening to wipe out closely-held traditions of warlockery that are thousands of years old?

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Alignment is tricky in that it is poorly defined game wise. Some people run without it. Some feel it is a bolt on, and have it filled out and it doesn't mean/do anything. Among those who use it, there are two common ways of looking at alignment.

Prescriptive

The prescriptive view means that a character can't act against his/her alignment. It is part of their stat block, and that is who the character is. When a player applies alignment prescriptively it can be hand tieing and might even lead to My Guy Syndrome. When the DM applies the alignment perscriptively it takes away character agency, "I'm sorry, your character is Lawful Good, they would never do that."

Descriptive

This view means that the alignment describees the behavior of the character. This view allows the aligment to change over time based on the actions of the player.

A few things...

D&D the good and evil is black and white there are no greys

That isn't at all what D&D is. Morality in D&D isn't strictly defined, if the players and DM don't want it to be. D&D doesn't have a solution to the trolly problem, for instance.

[I]n his world some PC races are evil period like Tieflings or Half-Orcs

That seems shortsighted. Even the DMG and/or MM has language saying that the alignment in monster stat blocks are the average alignment of the race, some individuals of any race can differ from the stat block. The exception seems to devils and demons whose story text describes them almost like they are made out of evil. To tie race to alignment that tightly means that you always know the teifling the party met will betray them... I personally think they are making a mistake, but it is their campaign and world.

What should I do? Change my campaign and world so they can play evil pc...?

It is hard, but not impossible, to run a campaign with PCs of polar opposite alignments. You'll have to make sure they have a good reason to remain a party and not backstab each other (unless you're alright with a very chaotic game with PvP and split parties).

without consequences or risk it and tell my players that is take it or leave it?

The whole point of the game is to see the consequences and risks of the actions of the player. If the player's actions don't have risks and consequences, what is the point of the game? If you decide to allow evil PCs, or to run an evil campaign, then you should have risk and consequences. If the players get caught stealing, looting, and murdering their way through town that isn't an inconvenient distraction, that is called story.

Final Thoughts

Limiting the alignment to get a cohesive party is common, but not everyone does it. It doesn't mean a hard locked in choice either: "You all must be Good". It can be "You can be anything but Neutral Evil or Chaotic Evil." (which leaves LG, LN, LE, NG, NN, CG, CN to chose from. That way, if they are evil, they are at least lawful (which should make it easier for them to get along with the LG Palidin of Light and Goodness.... :) )

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Have you ever heard about the Book of Exhalted Deeds and the Book of Vile Darkness? They talk about exactly what your players are questioning.

They are both books from D&D 3.5, but they should give you some base to convince your players that your point of vision is more "D&D like" than theirs.

On these books they offer advise on how to judge good vs evil and that they are extremely black and white as you say, that is the rule of thumb.

But, there is another rule that the books suggests as secondary rules that backs up the point of view of your players, but the book advises that this can make quite a number of spells and magical effects confusing, these however are pretty much non-existent on 5e.

I can't be sure of this but I don't think that 5e had already touched the question of good and evil on detail, so I guess that these two books from 3.5 are your best bet at convincing your players.

It's been a long time since I've touched any of those books, but I believe that both of them goes along your line of thought.

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Being a good DM is about balancing. You have to let players have enough flexibility to be creative and make their experience their own, but only up to a certain point. Give everyone too much free reign and eventually someone is going to make an obnoxious character that spoils the game for everyone, but if you're too strict and nit-picky about rules, nobody will want to play your game.

Some Basic Guidelines for Alignments:

  • If you're going for an evil alignment, your character should have a good reason for being evil. Avoid "he/she's just crazy" and "their family died" like the plague. Evil Mary Sues are the worst kind of Mary Sues.
  • Your character should fit into the party and/or plot well, no matter what their alignment is. If you're playing with two holy paladins, a squeaky clean cleric and a hippie druid, you should probably think twice about playing a chaotic evil Tiefling warlock, for example...unless you can somehow make it work smoothly.
  • Evil alignments in general tend to attract trouble and unnecessary conflict, though not always. But at the end of the day, it's the DM's call as to whether or not they allow evil at all. I don't blame DM's who don't allow it, simply because it's incredibly frustrating to organize a game, only for it to be ruined a few weeks in by a murderhobo or overly aggressive crybaby.
  • Ultimately, I think a player should have already proven themselves as a competent player within a group before trying to play an evil character, and even then, the DM might just not want the story to go that way, and that's fine. Their game, their call.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer seems to neglect the problem that this is a DM asking a question about players who have a narrow range of alignment they want to play, and your point 3 is what is being specifically asked about since the position being taken up front is "the DM sets the tone of the campaign." \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 1 '18 at 14:21

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