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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

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)
Still Mind, Purity of Body, Wholeness of Body, Timeless Body, Empty Body, Perfect Self... to me, those all paint a pretty clear picture of somebody engaging in the fantasy version of a Buddhist monk's path to spiritual enlightenment through asceticism and mental discipline, as opposed to somebody who simply practices the martial arts (fantasy or otherwise). I don't think the 3E writers were just picking names out of a hat when they chose to call the class the "Monk". I think the name clearly indicates their intent on which they followed through at every point in the class's fluff and mechanics. It may be worth asking whether or not that intent was too specific in concept and whether going for a generic fantasy martial artist class might not have been a better choice, but those are counterfactual questions -- for better or for worse, they didn't write a generic fantasy martial artist class.
 

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Redwizard007

Explorer
Still Mind, Purity of Body, Wholeness of Body, Timeless Body, Empty Body, Perfect Self... to me, those all paint a pretty clear picture of somebody engaging in the fantasy version of a Buddhist monk's path to spiritual enlightenment through asceticism and mental discipline, as opposed to somebody who simply practices the martial arts (fantasy or otherwise). I don't think the 3E writers were just picking names out of a hat when they chose to call the class the "Monk". I think the name clearly indicates their intent on which they followed through at every point in the class's fluff and mechanics. It may be worth asking whether or not that intent was too specific in concept and whether going for a generic fantasy martial artist class might not have been a better choice, but those are counterfactual questions -- for better or for worse, they didn't write a generic fantasy martial artist class.
I agree with almost everything you just posted. Monk is the only class that I struggle to refluff for different concepts. Most of it works well for boxers, brawlers, or brutes with a little parkour, but a few of those class abilities really push it into Crouching Tiger territory despite all the refluffling. Oddly, the original monk was envisioned more as a western monk iirc.

I do think that there are enough examples of chaotic martial artists in movies and lit to call the old "must be lawful" argument into question, but i see the "personal discipline = lawful" as appealing to designers who only looked at a small fraction of eastern lore for the sources (and conveniently ignore ninja.)
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
Seems silly to choose to drive a 20 year old car and then complain it doesn't have Bluetooth.
Even sillier to drive a car that you find uncomfortable and that doesn't fit most of your needs, just because it does have Bluetooth.

I'm driving a 20 year old car in real life. I literally installed a Bluetooth-equipped stereo system in it before I got license plates.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Even sillier to drive a car that you find uncomfortable and that doesn't fit most of your needs, just because it does have Bluetooth.

I'm driving a 20 year old car in real life. I literally installed a Bluetooth-equipped stereo system in it before I got license plates.
We each have our preferences. I much prefer my blind spot mirrors, proximity sensors, bluetooth, my touch mouse control over the radio and other features, etc. over "My car is old."
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
I do think that there are enough examples of chaotic martial artists in movies and lit to call the old "must be lawful" argument into question, but i see the "personal discipline = lawful" as appealing to designers who only looked at a small fraction of eastern lore for the sources (and conveniently ignore ninja.)
I'm pretty sure that having a high degree of personal discipline is more of a matter of having a high Wisdom score-- like most effective Monk builds-- than a particular alignment. Part of it is the designers only appealing to a very narrow window of East Asian folklore and fiction for "martial arts" archetypes, as you say, but I would say that a much larger part of it is simply that D&D has always claimed that the Law/Chaos and Good/Evil axes were perpendicular, but has never treated them that way.

Frankly, for all of the talk about "black and white morality" and "the forces of light and darkness", D&D lore has generally assumed that Lawful Good and Lawful Evil were reluctant allies in the war against Chaotic Evil-- and Chaotic Good was more often a hindrance than not.

We each have our preferences. I much prefer my blind spot mirrors, proximity sensors, bluetooth, my touch mouse control over the radio and other features, etc. over "My car is old."
I preferred the price tag, to be honest. The analogy breaks down here because I would prefer to drive a newer car if I could afford one, because newer cars have a lot of features I like, and generally don't have a lot of features I don't; I don't prefer older RPGs to newer RPGs as a general rule, but I specifically prefer TSR D&D (and its imitators) to WotC/Paizo D&D despite its archaic design because the things WotC ruined were far more important to me than the parts they (admittedly) improved. Which is probably a subject for another thread.

I'm not a car guy, but surely there's an example of a car make & model where model year X is substantially better than model year X+1.
 
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Envisioner

Explorer
Even sillier to drive a car that you find uncomfortable and that doesn't fit most of your needs, just because it does have Bluetooth.
As a lifelong slow-adopter of technologies such as the smartphone, I've found it incredibly challenging to do things like look for jobs, because of how many things the employers simply assume EVERYONE has. So your preference for a 20-year-old car could pose a significant problem, if laws were put in place which dictated that (to pick a random example of newer technology, and maybe getting that set up in an old car is possible, but for the sake of argument pretend it isn't) you're not allowed to drive cars which don't have those computerized cameras that let you see what's behind you when you back up. The highway patrol has just decided that any car which doesn't have those cameras is a threat to public safety, and so if they see you driving a car which predates the introduction of that technology, they automatically pull you over and give you a ticket and possibly even impound you. So in some cases, there are severe consequences for failing to adapt as fast as the rest of the human herd wants you to do. In this case, of course, we're talking about games you play in your spare time for fun, so it's not that dire a consequence, but people who cling diehard to past editions (including myself, so it's not like I have no sympathy for your position, I'm just saying this is an issue we have) are people who are creating division and diluting the pool of available co-conspirators in the hobby. It would be a lot easier for us all to find the game we're looking for if we didn't get so hung up on sometimes-insignificant differences between editions, and were more willing to compromise in order to find common ground.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The highway patrol has just decided that any car which doesn't have those cameras is a threat to public safety, and so if they see you driving a car which predates the introduction of that technology, they automatically pull you over and give you a ticket and possibly even impound you.
I believe they call that arrest. :p
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
Still Mind, Purity of Body, Wholeness of Body, Timeless Body, Empty Body, Perfect Self... to me, those all paint a pretty clear picture of somebody engaging in the fantasy version of a Buddhist monk's path to spiritual enlightenment through asceticism and mental discipline, as opposed to somebody who simply practices the martial arts (fantasy or otherwise).
What about Saitama from One Punch Man?
 


Bohandas

Adventurer
Still, he's not a monk.

Another counter-example would be Sun Wukong, during the beginning part of Journey to the West where he's actively the enemy of Buddha and can still do all that stuff and more anyway
 


For those arguing 'Lawful Monk':



Monkey is pretty iconic (based off the Monkey King or Sun Wukong) and he is as Chaotic as they come.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
Monkey is pretty iconic (based off the Monkey King or Sun Wukong) and he is as Chaotic as they come.
I see Wukong as the exception that proves the rule. Like Drizz't versus the normal Drow. Monks aren't Chaotic, even though Wukong is Chaotic and Wukong is a monk. This isn't mathematics or formal logic, it's mythology; the only reason to have a rule is to allow it to be occasionally broken, but only occasionally, since otherwise it fails to fulfill its function as a rule.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
He's a god.
I see Wukong as the exception that proves the rule. Like Drizz't versus the normal Drow. Monks aren't Chaotic, even though Wukong is Chaotic and Wukong is a monk. This isn't mathematics or formal logic, it's mythology; the only reason to have a rule is to allow it to be occasionally broken, but only occasionally, since otherwise it fails to fulfill its function as a rule.
You're missing the point. He could already do that stuff before he became a monk or a god. That's what he did first, and those other considerations came later
 

Monkey is pretty iconic (based off the Monkey King or Sun Wukong) and he is as Chaotic as they come.
Man, Sam Riegel has had a long acting career. :D

I'm not actually arguing in favor of a return to alignment restrictions. You could, like @Envisioner, take the Monkey King as the exception that proves the rule... but PCs are exceptional too, so chaotic monks are fair game as far as I'm concerned. However, in the context of 3E, given what the writers were trying to do with the monk class at that time, a lawful alignment restriction is understandable and defensible. Think of it this way: if 3E had been completely alignmentless, it would still have made sense for there to be a special roleplaying restriction (a la paladin codes) to the effect that you have to maintain a disciplined and ascetic lifestyle in order to keep progressing on the path of the monk. Saying "you have to be lawful" instead is just a sort of shorthand for that, using the preexisting tool that is alignment.
 

I see Wukong as the exception that proves the rule. Like Drizz't versus the normal Drow. Monks aren't Chaotic, even though Wukong is Chaotic and Wukong is a monk. This isn't mathematics or formal logic, it's mythology; the only reason to have a rule is to allow it to be occasionally broken, but only occasionally, since otherwise it fails to fulfill its function as a rule.
So the rule should be 'Monks must be Lawful, aside from when they are not?

Seems like a pointless 'rule' to me.

I could imagine plenty of Chaotic Monk orders. An order dedicated to Kord or Tempus for example. Their teachings would be pretty liberal and teach independence and individual thinking, with a very loose hierarchy indeed.

Look at the Drunken Master archetype. I could easily see plenty of Chaotic Drunken Master monks. Or a Fire focussed 4EM, embracing the chaotic nature of the flames. Or any one of a billion other concepts that are anything but lawful.
 

You're missing the point. He could already do that stuff before he became a monk or a god. That's what he did first, and those other considerations came later
Uh... I don't want to get too deep into the weeds on this, but I don't think this is accurate to his bio in Journey to the West.
 

Look at the Drunken Master archetype. I could easily see plenty of Chaotic Drunken Master monks. Or a Fire focussed 4EM, embracing the chaotic nature of the flames. Or any one of a billion other concepts that are anything but lawful.
The 3E drunken master PrC lifted the lawful restriction.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
Uh... I don't want to get too deep into the weeds on this, but I don't think this is accurate to his bio in Journey to the West.

He doesn't become a disciple of Tang Sanzang until AFTER fighting all the gods.

First he;s born under unusual circumstances. Then he becomes king of the monkeys. Then he learns martial arts and various paranormal abilities. Then he demands a position in heaven. Then he trashes heaven because the position they gave him was too minor. Then he's subdued by the Buddha and imprisoned for 500 years. Only after this does he become a buddhist and a disciple of Tang Sanzang and eventually achieve enlightenment.
 

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