log in or register to remove this ad

 

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.

 
Last edited by a moderator:
Jonathan Tweet

Comments

Redwizard007

Explorer
I'll keep my not-lawful monk examples to one movie for simplicity. In CTHD:

Dark Cloud (and his bandits)
Jade Fox
Jen Yu
And the guy at the inn who wants money to protect the Green Destiny and gets owned.

Thats 3 of the 5 most important characters in the movie (and I guy who's name i can't remember.)
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I'll keep my not-lawful monk examples to one movie for simplicity. In CTHD:

Dark Cloud (and his bandits)
Jade Fox
Jen Yu
And the guy at the inn who wants money to protect the Green Destiny and gets owned.

Thats 3 of the 5 most important characters in the movie (and I guy who's name i can't remember.)
Except that one way to be lawful is to have a lot of discipline. It takes a lot of discipline and order to be able to learn, practice and maintain martial arts ability at that level. So the monks you are describing are both lawful and not lawful, depending on what aspects of their nature you are looking at. It's just one way that alignment fails as anything more than a kinda, sorta, general overview of how someone MIGHT act.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Having the lawful alignment doesn't really index self discipline in any particular way, just like having a Chaotic alignment doesn't imply a lack of self discipline. In neither case does it make more or less sense for a monk, IMO.
 

Redwizard007

Explorer
Except that one way to be lawful is to have a lot of discipline. It takes a lot of discipline and order to be able to learn, practice and maintain martial arts ability at that level. So the monks you are describing are both lawful and not lawful, depending on what aspects of their nature you are looking at. It's just one way that alignment fails as anything more than a kinda, sorta, general overview of how someone MIGHT act.
I hear what you are saying, but im not entirely sure I agree with you. Tying discipline to an alignment fails to take into account the hyper-focused, hyper disciplined villains that are obviously psychotic and fall easily into CE.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I hear what you are saying, but im not entirely sure I agree with you. Tying discipline to an alignment fails to take into account the hyper-focused, hyper disciplined villains that are obviously psychotic and fall easily into CE.
Which describes in a general way, pretty much every human in the real world. With this part of their personality they act one alignment. In other part of their personality they act a different alignment. In a third part, they're often downright crappy people.

Alignment is helpful when people treat it like a vague guide to how PCs/NPCs MIGHT act and fails when players/DMs try to lock a PC down with it.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Having the lawful alignment doesn't really index self discipline in any particular way, just like having a Chaotic alignment doesn't imply a lack of self discipline. In neither case does it make more or less sense for a monk, IMO.
It did in 3e. 4e didn't really have alignment like that. And 5e is very vague. This is what 3e said about it.

"A lawful neutral character acts as law, tradition, or a personal code directs her. Order and organization are paramount to her. She may believe in personal order and live by a code or standard, or she may believe in order for all and favor a strong, organized government. Ember, a monk who follows her discipline without being swayed either by the demands of those in need or by the temptations of evil, is lawful neutral."
 

Redwizard007

Explorer
It did in 3e. 4e didn't really have alignment like that. And 5e is very vague. This is what 3e said about it.

"A lawful neutral character acts as law, tradition, or a personal code directs her. Order and organization are paramount to her. She may believe in personal order and live by a code or standard, or she may believe in order for all and favor a strong, organized government. Ember, a monk who follows her discipline without being swayed either by the demands of those in need or by the temptations of evil, is lawful neutral."
And here we have the usual problem of English. Discipline in this instance refers to a particular tradition, not to actual self-control.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
It did in 3e. 4e didn't really have alignment like that. And 5e is very vague. This is what 3e said about it.

"A lawful neutral character acts as law, tradition, or a personal code directs her. Order and organization are paramount to her. She may believe in personal order and live by a code or standard, or she may believe in order for all and favor a strong, organized government. Ember, a monk who follows her discipline without being swayed either by the demands of those in need or by the temptations of evil, is lawful neutral."
That's almost exactly what I said. The self discipline to, sat, practice a martial art, is a separate thing from outward or extrinsic manifestations of law or chaos. Chaotic beings are not somehow constitutionally incapable of disciplined training in some way though, not even in 3E. If that were the case you'd never see a CE weapon master, which is silly.
 


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.
You gloss over "born under unusual circumstances" and "learns martial arts and various paranormal abilities" awfully quickly.
 


Envisioner

Explorer
Always Lawful monks are as silly as always Chaotic barbarians
Barbarians aren't always Chaotic, just always non-Lawful. One upshot of this being that it's impossible in 3E for a character to have both Monk levels and Barbarian levels active at the same time. Which makes perfect sense, as a disciplined fighting style and a screaming blood frenzy are pretty much exactly opposite approaches.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Barbarians aren't always Chaotic, just always non-Lawful. One upshot of this being that it's impossible in 3E for a character to have both Monk levels and Barbarian levels active at the same time. Which makes perfect sense, as a disciplined fighting style and a screaming blood frenzy are pretty much exactly opposite approaches.
That may be true in your campaign (or previous editions, I don't remember) but there is no restriction in 5E. I don't see a reason a barbarian couldn't be lawful.

A barbarian could be very dedicated to the laws of their tribe, plenty of people who we would consider lawful rant and rage.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'll keep my not-lawful monk examples to one movie for simplicity. In CTHD:

Dark Cloud (and his bandits)
Jade Fox
Jen Yu
And the guy at the inn who wants money to protect the Green Destiny and gets owned.

Thats 3 of the 5 most important characters in the movie (and I guy who's name i can't remember.)
You're conflating Lawful with Good.

None of those characters are Good. All of them are Lawful, inasmuch as they have the self-discipline to do the training required to achieve some pretty decent powers. They then just turn those powers toward Evil ends.
 



Bohandas

Adventurer
You gloss over "born under unusual circumstances" and "learns martial arts and various paranormal abilities" awfully quickly.
He learns martial arts form a Taoist holy man but IIRC was not a Taoist holy man himself. Sort of like how in Skyrim Ulfric Stormcloak learned the Thuum from the Greybeards but was not himself a part of their order

Barbarians aren't always Chaotic, just always non-Lawful. One upshot of this being that it's impossible in 3E for a character to have both Monk levels and Barbarian levels active at the same time. Which makes perfect sense, as a disciplined fighting style and a screaming blood frenzy are pretty much exactly opposite approaches.
You arguably can if you take the "Ordered Choas" feat from Fiendish Codex 1
 

Redwizard007

Explorer
You're conflating Lawful with Good.

None of those characters are Good. All of them are Lawful, inasmuch as they have the self-discipline to do the training required to achieve some pretty decent powers. They then just turn those powers toward Evil ends.
I most certainly am not.

The BANDIT leader is lawful because he learned how to fight?

The girl who trains in martial arts without her parents' knowledge, lies, steals, trains in secret from her master, and abandons a marriage arranged by her family is lawful because she learned how to fight?

The woman who learned to fight by spying on her lover, killed him with poison, hides in disguise among the governor's servants, and assassinates anyone on her trail is lawful because she learned how to fight?

Is Robinhood also lawful? It takes years to master the sword as he did, longer to master the longbow, and he's touted as loyal to the absent king Richard. Of course he's touted as CG by the 2nd edition alignment rules by name (i believe it was 2nd.)

What about Vincent Van Gough? A "master of his discipline." Of course discipline here describes a form of art.

How bout Two Face. His "code" is dependent on a coin toss. 50/50 isn't exactly consistent.

You, and the 3e developers, got hung up on practice=discipline=lawful, but only when applied to exotic fighting styles. Its silly, kind of racist, and old-fashioned.

Edit: fixed a double post mess.

I also don't want anyone to feel singled out by the "kind of racist" line. It wasn't meant to silence anyone or discredit their opinions. Just to make you stop and think that the only reason we westerners think of eastern martial arts as more than martial because it is foreign to us. Eastern heroes running up walls and across water is kind of like pulling a sword from a stone or tearing off Grendel's arm.
 
Last edited:

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The BANDIT leader is lawful because he learned how to fight?

The girl who trains in martial arts without her parents' knowledge, lies, steals, trains in secret from her master, and abandons a marriage arranged by her family is lawful because she learned how to fight?

The woman who learned to fight by spying on her lover, killed him with poison, hides in disguise among the governor's servants, and assassinates anyone on her trail is lawful because she learned how to fight?
They're not Lawful because they learned how to fight.

They're Lawful because of how they learned how to fight, and what was required for the training (by self or other) to have any useful effect.

Is Robinhood also lawful? It takes years to master the sword as he did, longer to master the longbow, and he's touted as loyal to the absent king Richard. Of course he's touted as CG by the 2nd edition alignment rules by name (i believe it was 2nd.)
Robin Hood, along with countless other great warriors of both fiction and reality, either taught himself how to fight or had others teach him.

However, the Monkish style of fighting requires more of its practitioners than does what ol' Robin learned to do; and that 'more' involves rigid self-discipline and structure in part because while Robin Hood can brawl with his fists he usually needs weapons to kill people. A Monk can just as easily kill with pretty much any body part he-she can bring to bear. Weapons, while handy, are not necessary.

What about Vincent Van Gough? A "master of his discipline." Of course discipline here describes a form of art.
Completely different use and meaing of the word 'discipline', but I'm going to assume you already know that.

You, and the 3e developers, got hung up on practice=discipline=lawful, but only when applied to exotic fighting styles.
The 3e developers were only following what came before: Monks have been Lawful-only since 1e.

Its silly, kind of racist, and old-fashioned.

I also don't want anyone to feel singled out by the "kind of racist" line. It wasn't meant to silence anyone or discredit their opinions. Just to make you stop and think that the only reason we westerners think of eastern martial arts as more than martial because it is foreign to us. Eastern heroes running up walls and across water is kind of like pulling a sword from a stone or tearing off Grendel's arm.
Most historical fighting styles were either initially developed or brought to their peak by one particular culture or another, no news there; and the fictionalized versions simply take what history gave us and dial it to eleven. Doesn't matter if it's Eastern martial arts or Welsh longbows or Roman military formations or jungle-culture blow-guns or whatever: having any of these in the game is not silly, is not racist, and the whole point is to be old-fashioned - as in Middle-Ages old. :)
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Is Robinhood also lawful? It takes years to master the sword as he did, longer to master the longbow, and he's touted as loyal to the absent king Richard. Of course he's touted as CG by the 2nd edition alignment rules by name (i believe it was 2nd.)
Well... I would argue Robin Hood is absolutely a lawful character, but not because of any nonsense related to discipline. His whole deal is fighting a usurper king who taxed his subjects unjustly.

EDIT: I’m totally with you on the “monks are kinda low-key racist” thing though. Like, in a mostly harmless way, but there’s definitely some unexamined orientalism underlying that class.
 

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters

Advertisement1

Latest threads

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top