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General Alignment in D&D

Alignment is, on some level, the beating heart of Dungeons & Dragons. On the other hand, it’s sort of a stupid rule. It’s like the hit point rules in that it makes for a good game experience, especially if you don’t think about it too hard. Just as Magic: the Gathering has the five colors that transcend any world or story, so alignment is a universal cosmic truth from one D&D world to the next. The deities themselves obey the pattern of alignment.

On the story side, the alignment rules contain the rudiments of roleplaying, as in portraying your character according to their personality. On the game side, it conforms to D&D’s wargaming roots, representing army lists showing who is on whose side against whom.

The 3x3 alignment grid is one part of AD&D’s legacy that we enthusiastically ported into 3E and that lives on proudly in 5E and in countless memes. Despite the centrality of alignment in D&D, other RPGs rarely copy D&D’s alignment rules, certainly not the way they have copied D&D’s rules for abilities, attack rolls, or hit points.

alignment.png

Alignment started as army lists in the Chainmail miniatures rules, before Dungeons & Dragons released. In those days, if you wanted to set up historical Napoleonic battles, you could look up armies in the history books to see what forces might be in play. But what about fantasy armies? Influenced by the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Gary Gygax’s rules for medieval miniatures wargaming included a fantasy supplement. Here, to help you build opposing armies, was the list of Lawful units (good), the Chaotic units (evil), and the neutral units. Today, alignment is a roleplaying prompt for getting into character, but it started out as us-versus-them—who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Original D&D used the Law/Chaos binary from Chainmail, and the Greyhawk supplement had rudimentary notes about playing chaotic characters. The “referee” was urged to develop an ad hoc rule against chaotic characters cooperating indefinitely. This consideration shows how alignment started as a practical system for lining up who was on whose side but then started shifting toward being a concrete way to think about acting “in character.”

Another thing that Greyhawk said was that evil creatures (those of chaotic alignment) were as likely to turn on each other as attack a lawful party. What does a 12-year old do with that information? One DM applies the rule literally in the first encounter of his new campaign. When we fought our first group of orcs in the forest outside of town, The DM rolled randomly for each one to see whether it would attack us or its fellow orcs. That rule got applied for that first battle and none others because it was obviously stupid. In the DM’s defense, alignment was a new idea at the time.

Law versus Chaos maps pretty nicely with the familiar Good versus Evil dichotomy, albeit with perhaps a more fantastic or apocalyptic tone. The Holmes Basic Set I started on, however, had a 2x2 alignment system with a fifth alignment, neutral, in the center. For my 12-year old mind, “lawful good” and “chaotic evil” made sense, and maybe “chaotic good,” but “lawful evil”? What did that even mean? I looked up “lawful,” but that didn’t help.

Holmes Original Alignment Diagram.png

Our first characters were neutral because we were confused and “neutral” was the null choice. Soon, I convinced my group that we should all be lawful evil. That way we could kill everything we encountered and get the most experience points (evil) but we wouldn’t be compelled to sometimes attack each other (as chaotic evil characters would).

In general, chaotic good has been the most popular alignment since probably as soon as it was invented. The CG hero has a good heart and a free spirit. Following rules is in some sense bowing to an authority, even if it is a moral or internalized authority, and being “chaotic” means being unbowed and unyoked.

Chaotic neutral has also been popular. Players have sometimes used this alignment as an excuse to take actions that messed with the party’s plans and, not coincidentally, brought attention to the player. The character was in the party because the player was at the table, but real adventurers would never go into danger with a known wildcard along with them. This style of CG play was a face-to-face version of griefing, and it was common enough that Ryan Dancey suggested we ban it from 3E.

The target we had for 3E was to make a game that doubled-down on its own roots, so we embraced AD&D’s 3x3 alignment grid. Where the Holmes Basic Set listed a handful of monsters on its diagram, 3E had something more like Chainmail’s army lists, listing races, classes, and monsters on a 3x3 table.

When I was working on 3E, I was consciously working on a game for an audience that was not me. Our job was to appeal to the game’s future audience. With the alignment descriptions, however, I indulged in my personal taste for irony. The text explains why lawful good is “the best alignment you can be.” In fact, each good or neutral alignment is described as “the best,” with clear reasons given for each one. Likewise, each evil alignment is “the most dangerous,” again with a different reason for each one. This treatment was sort of a nod to the interminable debates over alignment, but the practical purpose was to make each good and neutral alignment appealing in some way.

If you ever wanted evidence that 4E wasn’t made with the demands of the fans first and foremost, recall that the game took “chaotic good” out of the rules. CG is the most popular alignment, describing a character who’s virtuous and free. The alignments in 4E were lawful good, good, neutral, evil, and chaotic evil. One on level, it made sense to eliminate odd-ball alignments that don’t make sense to newcomers, such as the “lawful evil” combination that flummoxed me when I was 12. The simpler system in 4E mapped fairly well to the Holmes Basic 2x2 grid, with two good alignments and two evil ones. In theory, it might be the best alignment system in any edition of D&D. On another level, however, the players didn’t want this change, and the Internet memes certainly didn’t want it. If it was perhaps better in theory, it was unpopular in practice.

In 5E, the alignments get a smooth, clear, spare treatment. The designers’ ability to pare down the description to the essentials demonstrates a real command of the material. This treatment of alignment is so good that I wish I’d written it.

My own games never have alignment, per se, even if the game world includes real good and evil. In Ars Magica, membership in a house is what shapes a wizard’s behavior or social position. In Over the Edge and Everway, a character’s “guiding star” is something related to the character and invented by the player, not a universal moral system. In Omega World, the only morality is survival. 13th Age, on the other hand, uses the standard system, albeit lightly. The game is a love letter to D&D, and players have come to love the alignment system, so Rob Heinsoo and I kept it. Still, a 13th Age character’s main “alignment” is in relation to the icons, which are not an abstraction but rather specific, campaign-defining NPCs.

 
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Jonathan Tweet

Jonathan Tweet

D&D 3E, Over the Edge, Everway, Ars Magica, Omega World, Grandmother Fish

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Funny; my absolute favorite descriptions of alignment ever, in any game or edition, are the ones from 3.x. They actually tell you what the alignment means in terms of worldview and actions.

But I also just love alignment as a character and worldbuilding tool, as well as an analysis tool, so YMMV.
 
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ced1106

Explorer
I grew up with the horrible arguments during AD&D, so I'm glad alignment was addressed in later editions. IMO, "lawful good, good, neutral, evil, and chaotic evil" was a good change, since it simplified alignment from a graph into a line with two extremes, and let you get on with playing the game.
 

Lots of players are teenages and young adults in the rebellious stage, and this is showed in the PCs they create. And roleplaying coherence with the lawful aligment is a harder work when DM forces your PCs to choose some dilemas.

My house rule is adding allegiance (race, country, clan, brotherhood, code of honor, religion) and spells and other powers with aligment key can hurt enemies with same aligment but different allegiance, for example an orc shaman vs a drow cleric. I think even evil groups need a common allegiance or nobody can survive an external threat if they are too wek by fault of internal conflicts.
 

I'm just happy that alignment has (almost?) zero influence on the game mechanics. Players can choose any alignment and then in case the character evolves during gameplay this is no problem.

Obviously, the purists out there may object to a chaotic evil paladin or a lawful evil druid, but personally I don't care as long as all the players (and DM) have fun and the character is interesting.
 

DaveMage

Slumbering in Tsar
Great read.

I hated 4E, but the one thing that I like which came from it was the concept of "unaligned" in D&D.

I think if I were designing the next edition, PCs could be "unaligned" if they wanted to, but to stay true to the game's history of alignment (which I like), I would either let them choose to be unaligned or have an alignment as desired. However, they must be a certain alignment if they channel divine energy (in which case their alignment and aura would match their deity). That way you could still include spells and magic items that were tied to an alignment (which I find fun) and are usable (or bane) to those similarly (or in opposition) alignment-wise.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
If alignment describes only sides in a conflict then Law and Chaos seem unnecessary, unless, as in 1974 OD&D they mean Good and Evil.

In the default D&D world the major conflict on the material plane is between the forces of good (predominantly humans and demi-humans) on one side and the forces of evil (particularly "savage humanoids"). Humans may be split between both sides, as they are in Greyhawk and Middle-Earth, or mostly on the side of good, as per Gary Gygax's account of D&D in Role-Playing Mastery.

This is mirrored by a divine conflict - good gods vs evil gods and powerful fiends.

Role-Playing Mastery:

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons... is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people. Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarfs, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominant force in the world... despite the ever-present threat of evil​

5e Monster Manual:

Humanoids are the main peoples of the D&D world, both civilized and savage, including humans and a tremendous variety of other species... The most common humanoid races are the ones most suitable as player characters: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings. Almost as numerous but far more savage and brutal, and almost uniformly evil, are the races of goblinoids (goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears), orcs, gnolls, lizardfolk, and kobolds.​

1e Dungeon Master's Guide:

There must be some purpose to it all. There must be some backdrop against which adventures are carried out, and no matter how tenuous the strands, some web which connects the evil and good, the opposing powers, the rival states and various peoples... characters begin as less than pawns, but as they progress in expertise, each eventually realizes that he or she is a meaningful, if lowly, piece in the cosmic game being conducted.​
 
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MarkB

Legend
I really like the little alignment 'diagram' that appears in this Order of the Stick comic, including phrases that sum up each one's attitude, as well as filling in 'gaps' between the main axes, so that you have, i.e., a "Lawful Lawful Good" response.


Fourth box in the second strip. Note that Lawful is on the left and Chaos is on the right in this one.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
By and large I don't I don't enforce alignment other my no evil PC policy. Alignment is just one more descriptor amongst many that help define a character. So the short version is that alignment just describes how your PC views the world, it's why you do what you do which determines what you do.

Where I use it is in determining how NPCs and monsters respond, how they see the world. One theory in psychology is that people view the world through schemas, basically predefined templates for how we view the world. You can read about it here. It even extends to color, apparently if you don't have the word for the color blue you don't distinguish between it and green.

Two people can look at exactly the same situation and have vastly different opinions on what is going on. One person may see a beggar on the street and have empathy for someone down on their luck while another may see someone who is lazy or unwilling to work. Yet another person would see someone that could be abducted and killed and no one would notice.

As another example, a lawful person may look at how a kingdom is being ruled and see a tyranny where title, not worth determines a person's value. Another may look at the same kingdom and see an organized structure that works for the people by giving them a sense of tradition and a proper place.

There's a lot of leeway in this concept, they are just general guidelines. There may often be conflict - a Chaotic Good character may not like the tight control a king has over his kingdom, but may realize that the option is worse. A Lawful Evil person may work to throw a kingdom into chaos so that in the long term a new regime may rise from the ashes.

In addition, people aren't always 100% consistent. Personal experience may soften the heart of a chaotic evil serial killer for very specific individuals. A lawful good paladin may have a blind spot and not realize the harm they are doing to innocents.

Lawful: views the world as a clockwork mechanism. Everything works according to a grand plan, even if we don't understand that plan. When things are in proper order, the whole system works smoothly. If a title is honorable, the person holding the title should be given the respect the title deserves.

Chaotic: there is no grand plan. The only organization is that which makes sense for the people involved. If the old order needs to be replaced so that people can be free to pursue their own goals, so be it. Perceived organization comes out of individuals choosing to cooperate for themselves or their community. Individuals should be judged by their worth or power, not by title or station.

Good: this is complex, but essentially it comes down to empathy (the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes), and not wanting to harm others. This doesn't mean you don't fight or kill, but that you will fight and kill because you need to protect others. You may do things for your own personal gain as long as you are not harming innocents.

Evil: in general evil people view others as objects with no inherent value. They may love someone, but in many cases love them as a possession, something they own. If the object of their affection doesn't reciprocate they may not care. They may kill or cause pain in others simply because they enjoy it. Your personal gain is all that matters, other people's goals do not unless they hold power over you or you can use their goals to manipulate them.
 

Nikosandros

Golden Procrastinator
I like alignments as metaphysical allegiances, the way it appears in AD&D. In recent editions it is merely a descriptor and, as such, I don't find it very useful. Normally, in my 5e games, we don't use it at all.
 

I prefer the 3e way. Not only was alignment spelled out clearly there, but game mechanics affected it. It's a fantasy game and it's cool to have story elements revolve around Law, Chaos, Good and Evil. Star Wars does it's entire thing on Jedi/Sith after all and it works. The Light and Dark Side of the Force (and learning it's neither, there's actually Balance, it's just two opposing views trying to label The Force in their own directions).

It's a fantastical idea to have it where your moral and ethical beliefs have meaning and effect on the universe. Especially when the multiverse hangs on those alignments such as The Blood War and the Upper Planes battling the Lower but also having scuffles with each other on who's "good" is more pure.
 


MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
Back in the days when xp was gold, I figured lawful evil was a bad guy who would keep his/her word if you made a deal with them, neutral evil was a bad guy who would break his/her word when and if it was profitable to do so, and chaotic evil was a bad guy who would break his/her word as soon as keeping their word got boring....
 

Gothstaff

Villager
The Alignment grid fascinates me, but I feel it's too 2-Dimensional due to intelligence not being factored in, but then again, it's not supposed to be, not until you make a character to give it it's main personality that is... take e.g. Beasts are always neutral, because their int is always 3 or lower, so the opposite must be true that the more intelligent the better grasp into ethics and morals...

A friend once argued the Joker (from Batman obviously) is Lawful Evil, because according to him no CE creature should be able to live too long as they tend to kill each other, hence the Joker must be very good in Law that he manipulates Chaos proficiently.
I argue that the Joker is CE, not only because it's obvious, but because he's a Genius at being chaotic: The joker makes sense of Chaos like no ones business... the keyword here being "Genius."

The smarter the character the better he/she thrives in his/her alignment, but this is specially true for Chaotic alignments.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
My favorite morality system has always been WoD Nature and Demeanor. That system has always gotten my players more active in portraying a characters rather than an archetypes. When a player would get stuck on how to behave in a situation I just tell them to go read there nature and demeanor and it usually worked. I always wanted to graft the system into D&D but because mechanics are tied to alignment it would be difficult. I suppose one good choose an alignment and then choose a nature and demeanor as well, picking once that best suit the alignment.
 

BenTheFerg

Explorer
Nice post Jonathan.

You're right that alignment is driven down deep into the DNA of D&D. Planescape as a setting best exemplifies this point.

However, Keith Baker's innovative setting Eberron avoids the traditional Law-Chaos tropes and instead presents us with shades of grey and uncertainty over fact. Which I really like. Monte Cook's planar sourcebook Beyond Countless Doorways also gave GMs a way out of an alignment driven planar system.

I hope that the next iteration of D&D dumps alignment entirely for this morally greyer and more complex path.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
In 5E, the alignments get a smooth, clear, spare treatment. The designers’ ability to pare down the description to the essentials demonstrates a real command of the material. This treatment of alignment is so good that I wish I’d written it.
You wish you'd written it because of its expertise, or because there's so little of it? 🤓

I really like the little alignment 'diagram' that appears in this Order of the Stick comic
Broken image on my end. Was looking forward to it.

You're right that alignment is driven down deep into the DNA of D&D. Planescape as a setting best exemplifies this point. . .

I hope that the next iteration of D&D dumps alignment entirely for this morally greyer and more complex path.
I'm feeling the opposite. I'd like to see the tendrils of alignment reach out and own the rest of the game. It should be the first thing that a player checks on her sheet. If WotC could pull it off, it would give a new edition a very unique feel, while proudly parading that sacred cow up to the state fair.
 

Dausuul

Legend
"It’s like the hit point rules in that it makes for a good game experience, especially if you don’t think about it too hard."

Uh... what? Not that I ever saw. I struggle to think of any cases where alignment rules made for a better game experience. The concept of alignment, maybe, if you're a fan of the Great Wheel cosmology, but the actual alignment rules? I have seen much grief result from them, and little to no gain.

4E essentially eliminated alignment rules, and 5E stuck with that choice, and that is as it should be.
 

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