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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


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Envisioner

Explorer
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.
It may be technically mandatory in 5E, but it has virtually no affect on anything. To the best of my knowledge there isn't a single racial/class/background feature, nor a spell, nor a monster ability except maybe for demons and angels and such, nor a magic item except for a few specific and ultra-rare ones that the DM can easily just not use, which actually brings alignment into play to any meaningful extent. As long as the villain doesn't have a Talisman of Ultimate Evil, your character being Good or Neutral Goodish is largely an irrelevant distinction. Paladins and so forth pretty much all have been changed to only look for extraplanar influences, rather than anything as subjective as alignment. Other things which haven't actually been changed in this way canonically could pretty easily be houseruled to work in such a fashion if preferred.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
You're conflating self sacrifice with selfless sacrifice. There is a difference between 'giving of yourself to help others' and 'dying for a cause'.
Also, what's the driving motivation behind doing so?

Self-secrifice driven by fear or by just following orders is a whole lot different than self-sacrifice driven by love, or by altruism.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
If a video surfaces on youtube next week of someone trying to make an omelette with a hydraulic lift, I'm blaming you! :)

That said, it wouldn't be the strangest thing I've seen...
 

Voadam

Adventurer
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.
Could be in certain instances. But that is generally a different archetype, the scheming sorcerer cultist who pacts for personal gain.

Generally the fanatical are doing it out of devotion though. The true believer. I see no logical reason for evil to not be selfless.

The argument about selflessness also cuts both ways on the Good Evil spectrum and means someone who thought Heaven sounds great and therefore chooses to do Good for that afterlife reward or someone who chooses to do Good out of enlightened self interest is actually not selfless but selfish and so on the Evil end instead of Good for choosing to do Good.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
It may be technically mandatory in 5E, but it has virtually no affect on anything.
That's why I specified versions of D&D that I prefer to play. Everything else about Modern D&D aside, Wizards of the Coast has already gotten this right, and I'm trying to encourage the OSR community to treat ditching Alignment more like the next Ascending AC than the next Dragonborn Paladin/Warlock.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
Also, what's the driving motivation behind doing so?

Self-secrifice driven by fear or by just following orders is a whole lot different than self-sacrifice driven by love, or by altruism.
For a fanatical cultist? True Belief. Complete commitment, devoting everything to the cause. No sacrifice too big. Maybe love or adoration of the object of the cult (the cult leader or the deity).
 

Envisioner

Explorer
That's why I specified versions of D&D that I prefer to play. Everything else about Modern D&D aside, Wizards of the Coast has already gotten this right, and I'm trying to encourage the OSR community to treat ditching Alignment more like the next Ascending AC than the next Dragonborn Paladin/Warlock.
Y'all got somethin' against Dragonborn Paladin/Warlocks, boah? spits out acid-soaked hayseed and fingers his Wand of Magic Missile
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
Y'all got somethin' against Dragonborn Paladin/Warlocks, boah? spits out acid-soaked hayseed and fingers his Wand of Magic Missile
Not really, no. Just couldn't think of a better example. I'm not a fan of Dragonborn and Tieflings suddenly being all over the place in the Realms-- or anything WotC's done with Tieflings since 3e-- but I've always preferred weird settings with weird races. Give me Spelljammer, give me Dark Sun, give me Mystara! I actually liked a lot of the fluff changes 4e brought to the table, except for when they were imposed on TSR and 3.X settings.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
Not really, no. Just couldn't think of a better example. I'm not a fan of Dragonborn and Tieflings suddenly being all over the place in the Realms-- or anything WotC's done with Tieflings since 3e-- but I've always preferred weird settings with weird races. Give me Spelljammer, give me Dark Sun, give me Mystara! I actually liked a lot of the fluff changes 4e brought to the table, except for when they were imposed on TSR and 3.X settings.
If your goal was to say "the next rule that will be bemoaned as a horrible loss by future generations" (as opposed to Ascending AC, which you rightly used as an example of a change nearly everyone would agree is better, though there's probably an even better example out there somewhere), then how about "the next 'simplify everything'"? That's pretty clearly the direction they've gone since 3E, and many of us aren't very happy about it, or at least not entirely so. (I'd be okay with the extreme streamlining of the new version, if it was being done as a new Basic version, and a corresponding Expert rules-set was yet to come along.)
 


Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Could be in certain instances. But that is generally a different archetype, the scheming sorcerer cultist who pacts for personal gain.

Generally the fanatical are doing it out of devotion though. The true believer. I see no logical reason for evil to not be selfless.
Yes, they do do it out of devotion. The tenets of whatever they are devoted to almost always come with rewards beyond belief in the afterlife, though. They're fanatically committed to everything, including what they feel is coming to them in reward for that devotion.

The argument about selflessness also cuts both ways on the Good Evil spectrum and means someone who thought Heaven sounds great and therefore chooses to do Good for that afterlife reward or someone who chooses to do Good out of enlightened self interest is actually not selfless but selfish and so on the Evil end instead of Good for choosing to do Good.
This is true. It does cut both ways.
 


For mine the disconnect with alignment has always been the fact that our hobby is (or at least was) dominated by immature young men, who were interacting with fictional creatures (who it's hard to have empathy for seeing as they dont actually feel anything) in a game that not only features high levels of killing and violence as a central premise but actively rewards killing and violence.

It's a recipe for murder, torture and slaughter, and a raft of justifications for that kind of behaviour.

How does one show mercy, empathy and compassion for a fictional person played by the neckbeard behind a DM screen? It's not an easy task to do, and I rarely see it in actual game play and I've been playing for nearly 40 odd years.

Hurting, torturing or killing someone in real life is limited by conscience and empathy (in addition to moral considerations). It's next to impossible to have that same conscience and empathy for a fictional being. When you add to that the fact the game rewards violence and murder, and the protagonists are all too often immature young men, it's a recipe for wanton bloodshed.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
This is true. It does cut both ways.
Yeah it is a view of good I just disagree with.

I would categorize selfish people choosing to do good as good and selfless people choosing to do evil as evil. Choosing to do good or not and doing good or not seem the relevant points to me.
 

Perun

Mushroom
I'm a huge fan of Moorcock, but the conflict in the default D&D world isn't Moorcock-style Law vs Chaos, it's Good vs Evil. I'm not aware of any published D&D settings that focus on Law vs Chaos.
I don't know if anyone else mentioned this (I'm only on page 2 of the discussion), but in 2e Planescape accessory On hallowed ground, which details various pantheons of the multiverse (and also explains a lot about deities (or powers, as they were known back then), pantheons, their relationship with the multiverse and their servants -- an excellent accessory, IMO), the Babylonian and Egyptian pantheons are described as focusing more on Law vs. Chaos. The Sumerian pantheon, which is one of the oldest surviving pantheons (IIRC) brought civilisation to mankind (taching them irrigation and city-building). What is now Babylonian pantheon separated form the Sumerians, and having already civilised worshippers, focused on strict obedience. Egyptian pantheon was described as a step between the two, where the 'good guys' focused on law and creation, and the 'bad guys' were the powers that wanted to destroy the world.

So, not really a published setting, more of a piece of old lore :)
 

Envisioner

Explorer
Yeah it is a view of good I just disagree with.

I would categorize selfish people choosing to do good as good and selfless people choosing to do evil as evil. Choosing to do good or not and doing good or not seem the relevant points to me.
Except that the definition of "doing good" is incredibly murky and nebulous. Is it good to save one friend's life at the cost of two strangers? Is it good to save the life of one stranger if you kill two evil men? What numbers do you need to substitute into that equation in order to make it become right? Is actively killing ten people worse than letting a thousand die through inaction? It's all wildly open to interpretation. Hanging your hat on a word like "selfless" at least begins to clarify the issue.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
Except that the definition of "doing good" is incredibly murky and nebulous. Is it good to save one friend's life at the cost of two strangers? Is it good to save the life of one stranger if you kill two evil men? What numbers do you need to substitute into that equation in order to make it become right? Is actively killing ten people worse than letting a thousand die through inaction? It's all wildly open to interpretation. Hanging your hat on a word like "selfless" at least begins to clarify the issue.
Eh, I don't see that being selflessly devoted to your friend (or spouse/child/leader) or selfishly devoted to them would change the moral calculus of saving them at the cost of two strangers. I would place the moral weight on the choice made and the duty to the friend versus the strangers and not whether the motivation for the choice is selfless or not.

Being selfless or selfish does not help answer your questions about weighing specific goods against specific evils. You can be selfless in saving one stranger by killing two evil strangers or in not doing evil to a greater number of strangers. You can be selfish in making the same end decisions. I would again place the moral weight on the choices made and circumstances and not whether the motivation for the choice is selfless or not.
 

For a fanatical cultist? True Belief. Complete commitment, devoting everything to the cause. No sacrifice too big. Maybe love or adoration of the object of the cult (the cult leader or the deity).
"Selflessness" typically connotes a generalized commitment to helping others, not a commitment to helping one specific other (who wants to hurt many other others). There are lots of puzzles and paradoxes in moral philosophy, but the resolution for this one seems pretty straightforward.
 

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.
That's funny. From my personal experience, the forum posters who most argue about alignment are the ones who say they want to ignore it.
 

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