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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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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Do you actually honestly believe that you just made a point here?
Pretty much everybody who uses alignment has been explaining what it means to them while also saying to ignore alignment if it doesn't make sense to you. It's no more or less important than you want it to be in 5E.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
Pretty much everybody who uses alignment has been explaining what it means to them while also saying to ignore alignment if it doesn't make sense to you. It's no more or less important than you want it to be in 5E.
You can't ignore alignment if you're not the DM. And it's funny how many people who say "just ignore it" on forums are the same people who enforce it strictly in their home games because they don't have a problem with it. Which I literally just got done explaining.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
You can't ignore alignment if you're not the DM. And it's funny how many people who say "just ignore it" on forums are the same people who enforce it strictly in their home games because they don't have a problem with it.
So now you're throwing around accusations of how I, and other people run our games? Are you CIA that has access to our home games? :rolleyes:
 


FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
As a player, if the DM doesn't ignore it, correct.

By the same token, however, if the DM does ignore it you've no real choice but to also ignore it.
The DM doesn't have to enforce the Alignment rules for a player to use them to inform his character concept.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
I think the biggest problem is that the official game materials are inconsistent as to whether or not the "evil" alignment includes the merely bad.

At one extreme the game sometimes claims that humans are evenly divided among the alignments (which would include about one third of humanity in the evil alignment) ... but at the other extreme it allows neutral alignment to be maintained even by characters who have clearly crossed the line into serial-killer like behavior (ie. the random encounters with non-evil murderous bandits in Temple of Elemental Evil, Zagyg Yragerne (CN) kidnapping people and holding them prisoner in his basement (although, granted, two of them had it coming), the true neutral lizardfolk in Book of Lairs who have been killing people to eat them, etc.)
 

You can't ignore alignment if you're not the DM.
I mean, yeah, you're always going to have to shop around for a DM who shares your vision to a certain extent. Like, I'm not a huge fan of super-high-magic settings. If I find a DM who's running a campaign in a super-high-magic setting, and I play in it, I could complain that I can't ignore the super-high-magic. Except there's not really much point in complaining about it. The only real solution here is to find a different campaign. That's just a reality of this hobby -- nothing to do with magic or alignment or any other specific rule.

And I think you will find that you can ignore alignment even in some games where the DM uses it. It's in the rules in the same way magic is in the rules: its prevalence is pretty open to interpretation. Some DMs have a what we might term a "super-high-alignment" perspective, with XP penalties for behaving "out of alignment" and all that jazz. But some don't. Sometimes you can just show up, play your character however you think best, and let the DM worry about how to label you if that's what they're into. So I guess my advice is just to keep an open mind, try earnestly to figure out if a particular DM's style works for you, and not alienate yourself from a whole bunch of campaigns unnecessarily.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
"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.
I think having no concern for yourself or putting the needs or interests of something besides yourself over your own are definitions that accord more with the actual word and its typical usage.

"They are selflessly devoted to their spouse" or "they are selflessly devoted to their child" seem like normal uses of the term selfless applying to a lone specific individual.

Prioritizing the needs of a cause, mission, another individual, or generalized others all fit the normal usage IMO.
 



I think having no concern for yourself or putting the needs or interests of something besides yourself over your own are definitions that accord more with the actual word and its typical usage.

"They are selflessly devoted to their spouse" or "they are selflessly devoted to their child" seem like normal uses of the term selfless applying to a lone specific individual.

Prioritizing the needs of a cause, mission, another individual, or generalized others all fit the normal usage IMO.
Okay. So you can choose a definition that you want to argue makes no sense in this context.

Or you can choose a definition that does make sense.

Up to you, I suppose. But it seems like any confusion here is self-inflicted.
 

willrali

Explorer
Honestly, I wish that Wizards had taken alignment out of 5E entirely. It just feels residual and tacked-on. Maybe add d20 Modern-style allegiances.

I personally loved the 2e and especially 3E versions of alignment as cosmically-consistent properties that every intelligent individual possesses. It put the game in a context of a grand cosmic battle of moral philosophy. 5E's version just seems wishy-washy and a bone-throw to the grognards.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
Sure you can. You simply play your character as you envision them, and you don't worry about how someone else interprets it.
I should probably clarify that I don't really play Fourth or Fifth Edition, and in every edition prior to Fourth "don't worry about how (the DM) interprets it" meant your character not being the character you envisioned anymore, even if you weren't a Paladin or a Cleric. Over half of the classes in the 3.X PHB had an alignment restriction that would prevent you from advancing-- at least-- if your DM didn't think you were the proper alignment.

I have no problem with alignment in 4e/5e where it's just a meaningless descriptor with no impact on the game whatsoever-- but I don't play those games.
 
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I should probably clarify that I don't really play Fourth or Fifth Edition, and in every edition prior to Fourth "don't worry about how (the DM) interprets it" meant your character not being the character you envisioned anymore, even if you weren't a Paladin or a Cleric. Over half of the classes in the 3.X PHB had an alignment restriction that would prevent you from advancing-- at least-- if your DM didn't think you were the proper alignment.

I have no problem with alignment in 4e/5e where it's just a meaningless descriptor with no impact on the game whatsoever-- but I don't play those games.
Clarification question: Do you think that there should be no in-universe codes of conduct that determine whether or not you can be, say, a monk? Or do you allow for such codes and simply think that the alignment system is a poor instantiation of them?
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
I should probably clarify that I don't really play Fourth or Fifth Edition, and in every edition prior to Fourth "don't worry about how (the DM) interprets it" meant your character not being the character you envisioned anymore, even if you weren't a Paladin or a Cleric. Over half of the classes in the 3.X PHB had an alignment restriction that would prevent you from advancing-- at least-- if your DM didn't think you were the proper alignment.

I have no problem with alignment in 4e/5e where it's just a meaningless descriptor with no impact on the game whatsoever-- but I don't play those games.
Seems silly to choose to drive a 20 year old car and then complain it doesn't have Bluetooth.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
Clarification question: Do you think that there should be no in-universe codes of conduct that determine whether or not you can be, say, a monk? Or do you allow for such codes and simply think that the alignment system is a poor instantiation of them?
Definitely not the monk. The monk's code of conduct is just a weak attempt to justify the class's otherwise arbitrary name. Why is the kung-fu class called the monk? How many times have you seen Jackie Chan play a monk?
 

Envisioner

Explorer
Definitely not the monk. The monk's code of conduct is just a weak attempt to justify the class's otherwise arbitrary name. Why is the kung-fu class called the monk? How many times have you seen Jackie Chan play a monk?
Might as well complain about why the Ranger is called that when he isn't from Texas. Monks are called monks because they're based on Shaolin monks. I'd be far more on board with complaints that the Wizard is called a wizard when he's not required to be particularly Wise, or that the word warlock literally means "Oath-Breaker" but the class is required to stay loyal to a Patron, which makes this class second only to the Paladin (and debatably tied with the cleric, though there's more in-setting justification for being a Cleric without a god than there is for being a patronless Warlock), in terms of how "oath"-based it is.
 

Definitely not the monk. The monk's code of conduct is just a weak attempt to justify the class's otherwise arbitrary name. Why is the kung-fu class called the monk? How many times have you seen Jackie Chan play a monk?
I think the non-kung-fu spiritual abilities of the class indicate against the proposition that the name is arbitrary.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
We're talking about fantasy martial arts here though. I know that at least in 3.5e the only monk ability that would be out of place for a fantasy martial artist in a kung-fu movie or an anime is Tongue of the Sun and Moon (and arguably Diamond Soul, but only because the character still has spell resistence even if they can't move; whereas in an anime or a kung-fu movie this sort of ability would generally be depicted as blocking the spell as if it were a physical blow)
 

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