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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

Comments

Kitsune Inari

Explorer
It is analogous to allowing players to have wizard characters with bulging sinews in a world where most mages are far from athletic.
As a fun aside, my current character in an OSR game happens to be a Muscle Wizard. We rolled ordered for stats and I got an unusual combination; I could have gone for a strategist fighter, but this seemed more fun.
 

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Mercurius

Legend
There are numerous angles to take when deciphering alignment, and, while the system is a bit rigid and cantankerous, it holds up pretty well to a variety of approaches and, overall, works well for the game system.

That said, it doesn't exactly jive well with most schools of real-world psychology. From a psychological perspective, "evil" is more of a mental illness or deficiency. Psychopathy is a lack of empathy or any sense of the other; I would even argue that a psychopath is someone with little or no capacity to feel love. Every one of us has moments of rage or destructiveness, or losing sight of how one's actions impact others, but a psychopath is someone who lacks that capacity altogether, or at least only has it in a rudimentary form.

Law vs Chaos seems more like personality types and may have some correlation with left vs. right brains, and the Meyers-Briggs system. A lawful person would be more analytical, logical, systems and judgement oriented, whereas a chaotic would be more aesthetic, individualistic and intuitive. Lawful people like rules and structures, playing within a system (e.g. rhyming poetry), while a chaotic person likes improvisation and playing outside the box (e.g. free verse).

Some psychologists have found that moral development has different levels or stages to it, such as Kohlberg's system of preconventional (obedience to authority), conventional (societal conventions), and post-conventional (adherence to principles), which some have extended beyond that to a kind of quasi-mystical (or trans-personal) sense of intuitive truth and oneness, which in turn guides one's actions. It is almost like if the post-conventional abstract principles are archetypes of an underlying oneness of being that is realized in a "fourth stage."

Or we could look at Gilligan's stages, which are in three as well (she was a student of Kohlberg), but she calls them egocentric, ethnocentric, and worldcentric, which correspond to selfishness, goodness, and, truth. As one develops, one's "sphere of concern" (hopefully!) transitions from self-interested, to what is best for my group, to the world. We could take this a step further and apply the Buddhist ideal of "compassion for all sentient beings" as a further development within the third stage, or even a fourth stage, as I mentioned above.

So in that light, from a developmental psychological perspective, an "evil" person is someone who stalled in their moral development at essentially a toddler or young child's age. For a child it is not evil, but for an adult with adult cognition, it is far more problematic: they utilize complex cognition to manipulate and exploit others. If you buy the basic idea of Jon Ronson's book, The Psychopath Test, then the basic human problem is that civilization has largely been guided and manipulated by a small number of psychopaths, who are essentially deficient in human empathy. Interesting fodder for a campaign...
 




Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
It is if he or she thinks it is. The usefulness is to the user of the tool, after all.
Yep, and to a whole lot of people it's a useful tool. Even if someone doesn't personally find it to be useful, that doesn't change whether or not it's a useful tool. I don't find a hydraulic lift to be personally useful at all, but it's still a useful tool.

With alignment, many people use it as a guide to help them in their roleplay. Others give it more weight than that. And yet others less. As a DM I don't have time to develop individual personalities for the 40 orcs who are attacking the group, so alignment is useful to me to get a general idea of how they act should conversation happen.
 


Voadam

Adventurer
I always hated the definitions of good as being other oriented, that self sacrifice for others was a good ideal.

The stereotypical fanatical evil cultist is selflessly devoted to their evil lord/cause and works to advance their goal, even sacrificing their own life to do so.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The stereotypical fanatical evil cultist is selflessly devoted to their evil lord/cause and works to advance their goal, even sacrificing their own life to do so.
Because of the rewards promised, though. They aren't selflessly devoted. They are selfishly devoted so that they can get power, everlasting bliss or whatever else the reward promised is.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I pretty much ignore alignment for PCs, but for NPCs and monsters it can be a big part of foundational behavior. Sometimes it's the main descriptor I have handy.

Not nuanced enough for detail, but a lot of time you don't need nor want detail. Broad brush strokes are frequently more useful than paragraphs of dense lore.
 

I always hated the definitions of good as being other oriented, that self sacrifice for others was a good ideal.

The stereotypical fanatical evil cultist is selflessly devoted to their evil lord/cause and works to advance their goal, even sacrificing their own life to do so.
You're conflating self sacrifice with selfless sacrifice. There is a difference between 'giving of yourself to help others' and 'dying for a cause'.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
Because of the rewards promised, though. They aren't selflessly devoted. They are selfishly devoted so that they can get power, everlasting bliss or whatever else the reward promised is.
A character like this can also be a pure nihilist or the like, simply wanting to see everything destroyed despite having no tangible benefit to themselves. Arguably they might derive a certain satisfaction from being proven right when Azathoth consumes the universe, but it's pretty hard to argue that they are in any way either selfish or selfless, when their behavior is this omnipathic.
 

wingsandsword

Adventurer
I prefer the allegiance system from d20 modern, it plays very well, and it better i feel at representing the way people play.
. . .and if you insist on a traditional alignment, the allegiances allow that by letting you have 3 of them, and with the law/chaos and good/evil entries both being available as allegiances in addition to groups, countries, religions, codes of honor, etc you could have full backwards compatibility with traditional alignment along with other priorities beyond traditional alignments.

Allegiances: Law, Good, Canada

Or:

Allegiances: Chaos, Evil, Lolth

Or:

Allegiances: Corleone Family, Omerta

Or

Allegiances: Bushido, Law

Or

Allegiances: Good, Christianity, United States

etc.

The d20 Modern allegiance system is definitely a good alternative alignment system for D&D, definitely a LOT better than 4e's dismal attempt at rebuilding the system.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
. . .and if you insist on a traditional alignment, the allegiances allow that by letting you have 3 of them, and with the law/chaos and good/evil entries both being available as allegiances in addition to groups, countries, religions, codes of honor, etc you could have full backwards compatibility with traditional alignment along with other priorities beyond traditional alignments.

Allegiances: Law, Good, Canada

Or:

Allegiances: Chaos, Evil, Lolth

Or:

Allegiances: Corleone Family, Omerta

Or

Allegiances: Bushido, Law

Or

Allegiances: Good, Christianity, United States

etc.

The d20 Modern allegiance system is definitely a good alternative alignment system for D&D, definitely a LOT better than 4e's dismal attempt at rebuilding the system.
The first two just define alignments along with some backstory and bonds/traits along with a love for Tim Hortons. The third assumes there are definitions for each of the terms. Personally while I recognize Bushido I don't know anything about it so that just seems to be LN. The last? Well Christianity and United States both mean completely different things to different people.

So the extras you're throwing in are covered in 5E with ideals, bonds and flaws. Things that help flesh out a PC if you care or are completely ignored if you don't.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
Even if someone doesn't personally find it to be useful, that doesn't change whether or not it's a useful tool. I don't find a hydraulic lift to be personally useful at all, but it's still a useful tool.
But to relate your analogy back to the topic at hand, you'd likely to find it harder to describe the hydraulic lift as a useful tool-- for other people doing different jobs-- if someone kept trying to force it into your hands while you were trying to cook an omelette. It's usefulness to other people, at that point, is entirely offset by the fact that it keeps ruining your damn omelette and the person trying to foist it off on you insists it's your fault.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
But to relate your analogy back to the topic at hand, you'd likely to find it harder to describe the hydraulic lift as a useful tool-- for other people doing different jobs-- if someone kept trying to force it into your hands while you were trying to cook an omelette. It's usefulness to other people, at that point, is entirely offset by the fact that it keeps ruining your damn omelette and the person trying to foist it off on you insists it's your fault.

Some day I'm going to start a "Oddest [fill in the blank] Award". Because this one would probably qualify as a contender for the "Oddest Analogy Award". ;)

Nobody has said that alignment works for everyone, even for people that do use it there's not a consensus on what it means.

Alignment one useful descriptor out of several that is useful to many people. Not useful to you? Rethink how you use it or ignore it completely.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
d20 Modern's Allegiances system would work a lot better if it replaced the two-axis alignment terms with specific moral ideals and virtues-- for instance, a character with an Allegiance to "Justice" or "Harmony" tells you a hell of a lot more than a character with Alleigances to "Law" and "Good". Someone who tries to have an Allegiance to both Justice and Harmony is going to have a Bad Time.

My Allegiances to Liberty and Vengeance tell you a lot more about my personality and my philosophy than my Alignment of Chaotic Evil. Throw in Progress, and it paints a pretty complete picture of my worldview... and the cracks in it.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
Alignment one useful descriptor out of several that is useful to many people. Not useful to you? Rethink how you use it or ignore it completely.
I would happily choose to ignore it entirely if it weren't a mandatory rule in all of the versions of D&D I prefer to play. When I'm not the GM, my ability to ignore it entirely... is entirely conditional on the GM agreeing with me. From my personal experience, the forum posters who most argue that I should ignore alignment if I don't like it have a majority overlap with the game masters least likely to allow me to.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
But to relate your analogy back to the topic at hand, you'd likely to find it harder to describe the hydraulic lift as a useful tool-- for other people doing different jobs--
It doesn't matter who is doing what job. It's still a useful tool, even if not to all people.

if someone kept trying to force it into your hands while you were trying to cook an omelette. It's usefulness to other people, at that point, is entirely offset by the fact that it keeps ruining your damn omelette and the person trying to foist it off on you insists it's your fault.
Alignment has been completely optional for players in my games since shortly after 3e came out. You don't have to use it if you don't want to. Yes, it's forced into the books that you buy, but it's not forced on you personally.
 

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