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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

Raduin711

Adventurer
I have always held Robin Hood as the quintessential CG character. While both LG and CG characters can challenge unjust laws, LG tend to prefer to do it within the system. For example, they might leverage pressure using the church, or through diplomacy. When those avenues have been exhausted, rebellion is a last resort. Robin uses direct action, robbing nobles (would be labeled a "terrorist" today) and redistributing wealth as opposed to trying to fix a broken system.

I find myself on the Lawful=Disciplined side of the argument. Technically, yes, every skill requires a degree of discipline to learn. But the Lawful requirement of the monk has to do with the idea that being a monk is supposed to be more than just learning how to punch and kick real good and for some reason magic comes out sometimes. Being a monk is more than just a fighting style or a class, it's supposed to be a way of life as well, that requires dedication to maintaining an internal balance (which doesn't include going off the hinge at a moment's notice in a bloodthirsty rage.) Similar to a paladin in that way.
 

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Envisioner

Explorer
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.
I firmly don't agree. The eastern martial arts genre is deeply tied to Buddhist legendry, in a way that is completely not visible in Western spiritual traditions. It's far different from the more prosaic feats of heroism we see in our folktales.

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.
If he was Lawful, he would recognize the king as having the right to tax his subjects however he pleases; even if the king is a usurper, a Lawful character owes allegiance to the throne that has been usurped, if not to the usurper himself. To rob nobles throughout the kingdom is not a direct confrontation of the usurper; a Lawful character would not be so indirect in his confrontation of such an outrage.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I have always held Robin Hood as the quintessential CG character. While both LG and CG characters can challenge unjust laws, LG tend to prefer to do it within the system.
Yes, well, in Robin Hood's case, in the classic telling "the system" is King Richard, who is off in the Crusades, and "King" John has illegally taken control of the system.

The whole "work within the system" line falls apart for lawful characters when it is specifically "the system" that is the source of injustice.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
My war machine Tormentor is pulling to left when I run over people. Should I take to the shop? And what should it cost to fix it?
 

The whole "work within the system" line falls apart for lawful characters when it is specifically "the system" that is the source of injustice.
Yeah, Robin's alignment, like any other character's, depends on the particulars of his characterization more than general observations about "the system". The "default" Robin is certainly chaotic: a merry outlaw outfoxing a pack of authority figures while living a life of freedom in idyllic Sherwood. But then you get versions that play him as a nobleman unjustly outlawed, loyal to the absent king even when nobody else is, who seeks above all a return to the status quo ante John.
 

I firmly don't agree. The eastern martial arts genre is deeply tied to Buddhist legendry, in a way that is completely not visible in Western spiritual traditions. It's far different from the more prosaic feats of heroism we see in our folktales.
Eh, there's plenty of traditions like that in the West, too, reflected in D&D in the paladin class. Having a monk but no martial artist is kind of like having a paladin but no fighter. It definitely misses out on some character concepts, but it doesn't alter what the monk class is or is supposed to be.

And in defense of not having a martial artist class (or viable martial arts option for the fighter class, which is how I'd probably do it), you can reason that if a character can fight as well unarmed and unarmored as another would need specialized equipment for, then that character needs something more going for them than mere martial training.
 

Redwizard007

Explorer
I may have shot my argument in the foot by using Crouching Tiger as my reference point rather than something more mundane, but your responses to it have opened my eyes to something (and that is rare enough in online conversations to be noteworthy.) I always assumed that the monk was a "martial artist" because that is their shtick at lower levels where I have played them, but looking at their higher level abilities, and several of the subclasses, perhaps "mystic warrior" would be a better description of the class, and if that was the intention then an alignment restriction makes sense in older editions. Its similar in every meaningful way to the paladin. If the developers felt that adherence to something greater than ones self was the key to those classes than it makes sense to have a lawful alignment restriction.

I still disagree that the discipline to learn/master any skill is a uniquely lawful trait, but when you add in the truly religious or spiritual elements of the various monastic traditions it makes significantly more sense.

Side note, and I'm not old enough to have first hand knowledge of this, but as I understand it the original D&D monks were based on Catholic monks, not Buddhist monks. Can anyone speak to that and/or where the class switched gears to become what it is today?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
If he was Lawful, he would recognize the king as having the right to tax his subjects however he pleases; even if the king is a usurper, a Lawful character owes allegiance to the throne that has been usurped, if not to the usurper himself. To rob nobles throughout the kingdom is not a direct confrontation of the usurper; a Lawful character would not be so indirect in his confrontation of such an outrage.
You’re describing lawful stupid, or maybe lawful neutral, not lawful good.
 


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If he was Lawful, he would recognize the king as having the right to tax his subjects however he pleases;
Lawful Good characters don't only pay attention to the law, though. If the law is hurting people, they may have hard choices to make.

a Lawful character owes allegiance to the throne that has been usurped, if not to the usurper himself.
And thus is obliged to enact justice for that throne when there is a usurper who isn't doing so....

To rob nobles throughout the kingdom is not a direct confrontation of the usurper; a Lawful character would not be so indirect in his confrontation of such an outrage.
The nobles, in fialing to resist the usurper, have clearly adbicated their own duty to the throne, and no longer get protection that duty normally entails.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Lawful Good is a paladin.
So, maybe we need to look at the 5e Paladin's Oath of Vengeance...

"The tenets of the Oath of Vengeance vary by paladin, but all the tenets revolve around punishing wrongdoers by any means necessary. Paladins who uphold these tenets are willing to sacrifice even their own righteousness to mete out justice upon those who do evil, so the paladins are often neutral or lawful neutral in alignment. The core principles of the tenets are brutally simple.

Fight the Greater Evil. Faced with a choice of fighting my sworn foes or combating a lesser evil, I choose the greater evil.

No Mercy for the Wicked. Ordinary foes might win my mercy, but my sworn enemies do not.

By Any Means Necessary. My qualms can’t get in the way of exterminating my foes.

Restitution. If my foes wreak ruin on the world, it is because I failed to stop them. I must help those harmed by their misdeeds."


So, it seem to me that "doggedly helping the poor, and working against the Sheriff and those who support John" seems right in the paladin and LG line.
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
If a LG person had to obey the laws of the land you get some pretty dumb situations IMHO.

Let's say the kingdom is run by vampires. Legally any vampire can snack on and kill any human at any time without repercussion. Carrying any item to prevent a vampire from snacking on you is a capital offense.

I cannot imagine any LG PC going along with that; it would make alignment meaningless.

Same with the Sheriff of Notingham collecting overburdening taxes. The state may have a right to collect taxes, but they have to be reasonable and also accept responsibility of providing services to the taxed.
 

My war machine Tormentor is pulling to left when I run over people. Should I take to the shop? And what should it cost to fix it?
Just attach more spikes and skulls to the right side.

I firmly don't agree. The eastern martial arts genre is deeply tied to Buddhist legendry, in a way that is completely not visible in Western spiritual traditions. It's far different from the more prosaic feats of heroism we see in our folktales.
Eh, there's plenty of traditions like that in the West, too, reflected in D&D in the paladin class. Having a monk but no martial artist is kind of like having a paladin but no fighter. It definitely misses out on some character concepts, but it doesn't alter what the monk class is or is supposed to be.
D&D's treatment of monks grants them abilities attributed to legendary martial artists (often Buddhist). It is similar to its treatment of paladins, which grants them abilities attributed to legendary knights (often Christian).

And in defense of not having a martial artist class (or viable martial arts option for the fighter class, which is how I'd probably do it), you can reason that if a character can fight as well unarmed and unarmored as another would need specialized equipment for, then that character needs something more going for them than mere martial training.
I may have shot my argument in the foot by using Crouching Tiger as my reference point rather than something more mundane, but your responses to it have opened my eyes to something (and that is rare enough in online conversations to be noteworthy.) I always assumed that the monk was a "martial artist" because that is their shtick at lower levels where I have played them, but looking at their higher level abilities, and several of the subclasses, perhaps "mystic warrior" would be a better description of the class, and if that was the intention then an alignment restriction makes sense in older editions. Its similar in every meaningful way to the paladin. If the developers felt that adherence to something greater than ones self was the key to those classes than it makes sense to have a lawful alignment restriction.
It was clearer in 3e, but monks are not pure martial artists: fighters are closer to that. Monks are magic users who practice a mystical path of self-discipline with the intent of ascending to a higher state of existence. Being able to run up walls, catch arrows, and throw magic punches is a side effect.

Side note, and I'm not old enough to have first hand knowledge of this, but as I understand it the original D&D monks were based on Catholic monks, not Buddhist monks. Can anyone speak to that and/or where the class switched gears to become what it is today?
As far as I'm aware, this is not the case. Monks/Mystics began based on Remo/Kwai Chang Caine and similar 70's martial artists.
 

I still disagree that the discipline to learn/master any skill is a uniquely lawful trait, but when you add in the truly religious or spiritual elements of the various monastic traditions it makes significantly more sense.
Yeah, that's what I was getting at. It's not just "discipline" in the modern sense of the term -- if it were, fighters would be lawful too, and that's never been the case. It's adherence to a specific set of religious or quasi-religious rules.
 

Azzy

Newtype
As far as I'm aware, this is not the case. Monks/Mystics began based on Remo/Kwai Chang Caine and similar 70's martial artists.
Yes, that's been the only story I've heard about the origin of the class and why it was shoehorned (for better or worse) into D&D.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
No, Paladins are (traditionally) lawful good. Lawful good character don’t have to be, or even behave like, Paladins. Robin Hood is probably a fighter.
In my eyes Robin Hood (along with Strider-Aragorn) is the quintessential example of a Ranger.

In most portrayals Little John is more the Fighter.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
In my eyes Robin Hood (along with Strider-Aragorn) is the quintessential example of a Ranger.

In most portrayals Little John is more the Fighter.
Robin Hood and Aragorn are certainly strong examples of what I would like the ranger to be. For better or worse though, the ranger we actually have (at least in 5th edition) is not that. The modern fighter expresses the archetype the ranger classically represented far better than the modern ranger does, in my opinion.
 

Robin Hood and Aragorn are certainly strong examples of what I would like the ranger to be. For better or worse though, the ranger we actually have (at least in 5th edition) is not that. The modern fighter expresses the archetype the ranger classically represented far better than the modern ranger does, in my opinion.
Or, especially in Robin Hood's case, rogue (scout). Robin Hood on paper is as much roguish as rangerish anyway -- he's a thief, a trickster, and a master of disguise, just as much as he's a guy who dresses in green and lives in the woods.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
Or, especially in Robin Hood's case, rogue (scout). Robin Hood on paper is as much roguish as rangerish anyway -- he's a thief, a trickster, and a master of disguise, just as much as he's a guy who dresses in green and lives in the woods.
3E actually has a variant class that's ideal for this, it's called the Wilderness Rogue, I believe it's in Unearthed Arcana.
 

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