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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

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
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.
The scout rogue is much closer to how I see rangers than the actual ranger, so I’d agree with this. Although, I generally don’t connect Robin Hood with the D&D rogue. The D&D rogue’s identity to me is intrinsically connected to dungeon delving; to picking locks and disarming traps. Additionally, the rogue’s combat ability revolves around sneak attack, which doesn’t fit with my view of Robin Hood at all. Yes, he hides out in Sherwood Forest and wouldn’t be afraid to make use or ambush tactics. But he’d also beat the Sheriff of Nottingham in a fair fight any day of the week. If anything, it’s the Sheriff who has to resort to underhanded tactics against a more capable opponent.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Only until and unless a DM goes rogue and modifies the 1e Ranger to fit 5e while tossing the as-written 5e version in the bin... :)

The modern fighter expresses the archetype the ranger classically represented far better than the modern ranger does, in my opinion.
Fighter kinda lacks the tracking bit, though, and the later-level nature-mystique angle.
 

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.
Robin Hood as the dispossessed nobleman can easily fit into Lawful Good, and particularly considering the ideals of the 12th century. This was not an era of "divine right" where God gave you your crown and everyone else can go hang. The king was bound to the order of the things, as was his subject, and if either broke the covenant, so to speak, it was bad news. Robin fights John because he is a usurper, has betrayed his brother, and has betrayed his subjects.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Only until and unless a DM goes rogue and modifies the 1e Ranger to fit 5e while tossing the as-written 5e version in the bin... :)
Sure, but that’s not something most DMs are going to do, which I think makes it not particularly Germaine to the question of what class Robin Hood would be.

Fighter kinda lacks the tracking bit, though, and the later-level nature-mystique angle.
Anyone can track, all you need is half-decent Wisdom and maybe proficiency in Perception, Investigation, and/or Nature. If by “nature-mystique“ you’re referring to spellcasting, I don’t recall Robin Hood doing any such thing in any story I’m familiar with.
 

Voadam

Hero
4e Ranger did a fairly great Robin Hood. Effective at bows, two handed staff fighting, and swords while in light armor and good at running around the woods. The leader and banter and disguise skills are the only thing you have to stretch for. Their striker role made them effective and not just easier to hit fighters with some magic.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Sure, but that’s not something most DMs are going to do, which I think makes it not particularly Germaine to the question of what class Robin Hood would be.


Anyone can track, all you need is half-decent Wisdom and maybe proficiency in Perception, Investigation, and/or Nature. If by “nature-mystique“ you’re referring to spellcasting, I don’t recall Robin Hood doing any such thing in any story I’m familiar with.
Tracking is survival.

But the main issue I have with the ranger archetype is that it's such a nebulous concept. It seems to me that the only real reason we have it is because Aragorn was called a ranger (and old school rangers were awesome at higher levels).

But what are they really? Nature variants of paladins? Rogue-like fighters designed to work best in the wilderness? Fighter-druids?

They're kind of a mess IMHO with no clear design goal. With 5E there's always going to be some fuzzy areas, but rangers to me seem like the fuzziest.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Tracking is survival.
Generally, but there are things that fall under perception and investigation that are involved in tracking as well. And ultimately it’s the DM’s call.

But the main issue I have with the ranger archetype is that it's such a nebulous concept. It seems to me that the only real reason we have it is because Aragorn was called a ranger (and old school rangers were awesome at higher levels).

But what are they really? Nature variants of paladins? Rogue-like fighters designed to work best in the wilderness? Fighter-druids?

They're kind of a mess IMHO with no clear design goal. With 5E there's always going to be some fuzzy areas, but rangers to me seem like the fuzziest.
At this point, the D&D ranger is absolutely a mess with no clear design goal. It doesn’t really represent any archetype, and is instead a mishmash of features that the rangers of previous editions have had. But, I believe the Yeoman is a sufficiently different archetype from the Knight and the Man At Arms that it merits its own class.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
Going back to the monk discussion and whether the class name makes sense, I know that Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was mentioned, and I'd like to point out that IIRC Jade Fox wasn't a monk
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
And speaking of goofy alignment restrictions, why does the bard have to be chaotic? I sort of get it, but it doesn't seem to fit with what they're trying to do with the class. The bulk of the class is some kind of historically knowledgable skald, but for some reason the alignment restriction is Charlie Sheen or something. It goes with the whole performer thing, but its a totally different kind of performer.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
And speaking of goofy alignment restrictions, why does the bard have to be chaotic? I sort of get it, but it doesn't seem to fit with what they're trying to do with the class. The bulk of the class is some kind of historically knowledgable skald, but for some reason the alignment restriction is Charlie Sheen or something. It goes with the whole performer thing, but its a totally different kind of performer.
Because bards were rogue-adjacent? I'm just glad they got rid of those types of restrictions. Not that we ever paid much attention, but still.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
And speaking of goofy alignment restrictions, why does the bard have to be chaotic? I sort of get it, but it doesn't seem to fit with what they're trying to do with the class. The bulk of the class is some kind of historically knowledgable skald, but for some reason the alignment restriction is Charlie Sheen or something. It goes with the whole performer thing, but its a totally different kind of performer.
The bard only needs to be non-Lawful in order to gain a level as a bard. If you reach the right XP threshold and you're not even Ethically Neutral anymore, well, you're completely devoid of creative inspiration, your mind capable only of operating in familiar patterns, and thus unable to further improve your Bard abilities, which depend on the spark of brilliance (this being ultimately an expression of the Big Bang, an event which would have been impossible if there had been laws of physics prior to its occurrence). Time to multiclass until the Muse comes back to you, and allows you to think outside the box again.
 

3E actually has a variant class that's ideal for this, it's called the Wilderness Rogue, I believe it's in Unearthed Arcana.
Or, y'know, the actual scout class in Complete Adventurer. But the problem with both, in the 3E paradigm, is that they don't have full BAB, meaning our wannabe Robin Hood can be outshot fairly easily by any fighter.
 


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.
Those tenets are most certainly not Good, and nor are they reflective of Robin Hood.

No mercy? Exterminate my foes? You're straying into Punisher (LE) territory there.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
Deeming the Punisher to be LE is highly questionable. He's certainly not Good, but I don't think anyone whose motivations are that thoroughly rooted in a genuine desire for Justice can be considered Evil.
 

Deeming the Punisher to be LE is highly questionable. He's certainly not Good, but I don't think anyone whose motivations are that thoroughly rooted in a genuine desire for Justice can be considered Evil.
I wholly disagree. Virtually all acts of the most heinous evil have been performed for 'a greater good'. Its the catchcry of genocide, mass murder, religious pogroms, militant and fundamental extremists and so forth through recorded history.

The Punisher engages in frequent extreme acts of pitiless murder and torture in his crusade for a 'greater good'. That makes him unquestioningly evil.

It's a common trope. The man prepared to 'get his hands dirty' or 'do what needs to be done' for a 'greater good' or a higher purpose. Those protagonists are thoroughly evil.

I'd find it very hard to effectively role-play a Vengeance Paladin as anything else other than LN or LE. The vengeance tenets taken to their extreme literal meaning, can quite easily read as 'merciless genocide on my sworn enemies', and I am damn sure we can agree that a person that engages in wilful merciless genocide is unquestioningly evil.
 

Raduin711

Adventurer
Deeming the Punisher to be LE is highly questionable. He's certainly not Good, but I don't think anyone whose motivations are that thoroughly rooted in a genuine desire for Justice can be considered Evil.
The Punisher is kind of a moving target. He can be Good, Neutral or Evil depending on who is writing him.
 

The Punisher is kind of a moving target. He can be Good, Neutral or Evil depending on who is writing him.
The Marvel series on Netflix steered him towards a much more LN bent, blaming his LE stuff (the murders and torture etc) on a combination of PTSD/ a Brain injury that he basically cant control (absolving him of his darker actions).

I really hated the way they went about giving him an 'out' for his evil.

I personally feel it would have been much more interesting exploring his fanaticism, evil, preparedness for and justifications of mass murder in in light of similar acts and justifications we see happening on an all too familiar basis (mass shootings, fanaticism, radicalisation etc).

I guess the problem there is; how do you explore the justifications of a protagonist who engages in mass murder and torture without condoning his actions, and also without condemning them to the point we disengage from that protagonist?

Dexter had similar issues.

You can compare two different men, both of whom dress in black, keep themselves at peak physical condition, and use terror, intimidation and the darkness to fight a fanatical war on crime, motivated by the murder of their own families before their eyes (the Batman, and the Punisher).

Both men have identical goals, and are similar in many ways, but use very different methods. The Batman actively avoids torture and killing (but isnt above roughing the odd villain up) from his repertoire, making him Good aligned. The Punisher embraces murder and torture (to extreme ends) making him Evil aligned.

Both have similar backstories, motivations, and end goals. But the way they approach the problem is radically different.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
I wholly disagree. Virtually all acts of the most heinous evil have been performed for 'a greater good'. Its the catchcry of genocide, mass murder, religious pogroms, militant and fundamental extremists and so forth through recorded history.
Acts can be performed while paying lip service to the idea of a "greater good", but that doesn't mean those actions are actually being done for the sake of Good as a cause; it just means the villainous person is able to lie and to manipulate gullible people. This is a universe which has literal gods, angels, and magic; if you're a sufficiently powerful being or a sentient cosmic force (like the "Good" which gives Paladins their power and will take it away if they break their Code - that's going by the 3E version of the Paladin, before the more recent shift to "oaths"), you're capable of penetrating those webs of deceit, and can take away the powers of a Paladin who just performed an Evil act while claiming to be acting in a Good cause.

The Punisher engages in frequent extreme acts of pitiless murder and torture in his crusade for a 'greater good'. That makes him unquestioningly evil.
I question that. If the Punisher is "pitiless", it's because he recognizes that pity is a weakness which Evil people will exploit in order to make Good screw up so they can defeat it. When all the people he murders and tortures are themselves murderers and torturers, it's distinctly possible to argue that his actions are neither Good nor Evil, but simply Just, and thus consistent with an LN alignment.

It's a common trope. The man prepared to 'get his hands dirty' or 'do what needs to be done' for a 'greater good' or a higher purpose. Those protagonists are thoroughly evil.
Sometimes you do really have to get your hands dirty. I could go into real-world examples, but the mods on this board are a bit on the hypervigilant side, so if you want to have that argument we'll have to go to PM.

I'd find it very hard to effectively role-play a Vengeance Paladin as anything else other than LN or LE. The vengeance tenets taken to their extreme literal meaning, can quite easily read as 'merciless genocide on my sworn enemies', and I am damn sure we can agree that a person that engages in wilful merciless genocide is unquestioningly evil.
Genocide is unlikely in most applications of the oath. If you swore vengeance against the orc warband which burned down your farm, then you don't have an oath compelling you to kill every orc on the planet; you just have to kill that one particular warband, and maybe others that behave similarly. You're not going to murder orc babies, and you might even adopt an orc baby and raise it to follow in your footsteps as a defender of the civilized world. But then, let's say that instead of orcs, the warband that killed your family were literal demons from actual Hell (or devils from the Abyss or yugoloths from Gehenna or whatever). Those beings literally do not have free will, they are simply living, humanoid-shaped extensions of the cosmic force of Evil, and this fact can be proved with magic or by querying the actual creators of your particular cosmos. At that point, if you want to wipe out all of these demons, I would argue that isn't an act of genocide, any more than tearing down an old brick wall is an act of mass murder against an entire community of bricks. The demons aren't really "alive" in any meaningful sense, they're like lightning bolts emerging from a stormcloud called Hell, and slaying or smiting them is like putting up a lightning rod to harmlessly ground those bolts so they don't destroy your house.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
The system I was referring to was Feudalism, for the record, but whatever works.
Robin Hood doesn’t oppose feudalism though, he opposes Prince John. He’s not against “the system,” he’s against the wrong person taking control of the system. With King Richard reinstated, Robin’s vigilantism comes to an end.

The Punisher is kind of a moving target. He can be Good, Neutral or Evil depending on who is writing him.
I’d argue even with a consistent writer you’d likely run into this problem. Any sufficiently complex character will be difficult to pin down to a single alignment, because they’re broad archetypes that lack the nuance to effectively describe a character’s moral outlook.
 

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