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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

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.
Exactly. If we're presuming cosmic good exists as an objective force, murder and torture and genocide can not be considered 'Good' regardless of the justifications you use for those acts.

Otherwise I could be a LG person, tossing screaming Orc children into a bonfire in a campaign of genocide, and attain a place in the Seven Heavens on my death.

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 might be 'just' from your perspective to murder and torture people because they themselves have engaged in similar acts, but I highly doubt such a view would be prevalent among the Gods of Good.

It's certainly not a view that is accepted today by the vast majority of nations.

Sometimes you do really have to get your hands dirty.
Of course you do! It's an all too familiar trope (based on it occurring commonly IRL). The man with a higher purpose (good ends) prepared to get his hands dirty and engage in ruthless murder, torture and worse for this 'higher purpose.'

That doesnt make them Good. It makes them Evil.

Example: I had a LE Vengance Paladin (of Bane; formerly LG and Torm) dedicated to wiping out other religions in pogroms and holy wars, to establish a unitary theocratic ethno nationalist human dominated Fascist State under the auspices of the Black Hand. My reasoning was that under such a State, we would have 'one nation, one God, one people' and there would be an end to the constant bickering and fractured nature of humanity and between the races, and this State would be able to rule all of Faerun as the rightful lords of the realm, with other races subservient to the Human master race (or wiped out as the case may be).

I reserved special hatred for followers of Torm, and would kill them where I found them. Under my State, they would be rounded up and executed en masse. I intended to one day confront Torm and kill him myself to make him accountable for his Evil (as I saw it) in killing my parents (they were Martyrs Progeny) and abandoning me and my Brother (also dead) to die.

The 'greater evil' I was sworn to destroy as my Oath was the (LG) deity Torm and his lies, and his deluded followers and church.

I was honorable (to an extent) and refused to harm orphans (being one myself). I eschewed torture, but murder, enslavement, religious and ethnic persecution and killing were perfectly acceptable. Prisoners could convert or die.

My end goal may very well have been a 'Fascist utopia' of sorts, with the rule of law enforced, an end to wars and ethnic and religious conflict, and stability and peace. However I was clearly and unambiguously evil, being in many ways a fantasy analogy of Hitler who mirrored Anakin Skywalkers fall from grace.

Genocide is unlikely in most applications of the oath.
Unless you're taking your oath literally (via the lens of your alignment) you have enough wiggle room to avoid genocide.

But 'no mercy for my foes' and 'exterminate them' and 'by any means necessary' and 'no qualms' tends to lend itself to genocide pretty self evidently.

If I am a CE Vengance Paladin of Shevrash, dedicated to wiping out the Drow, then I could quite easily see such a PC engaging in a full on war of genocide against the Drow.
 

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Envisioner

Explorer
Well if you're a CE Vengeance Paladin, then yeah, you'll engage in genocide. Because you're Chaotic Evil. The difference is that you're doing horrible things in the name of your oath, when any other CE character would do the same acts just because it's fun.

But if the Vengeance paladin is Good, then he is probably going to find an interpretation of the oath which doesn't require genocide. Unless he has compelling evidence that genocide against a race that was literally created by a demon goddess is Good-compatible, which is unlikely IMO, but not theoretically impossible. This is a fantasy setting, "the sins of the father" and similar concepts can be literally true if the DM decides they are.

(Personally I wouldn't want to play in a campaign where Drow are born irredeemably Evil, but for demons or possibly even for chromatic dragons, I consider this acceptable, because those creatures are so fully inhuman that I don't think it's unreasonable to say they literally have no choice about their Evil nature.)
 

Well if you're a CE Vengeance Paladin, then yeah, you'll engage in genocide. Because you're Chaotic Evil. The difference is that you're doing horrible things in the name of your oath, when any other CE character would do the same acts just because it's fun.
See I think this is where you and I differ.

Evil people arent people who wilfully engage in murder, torture, genocide, slavery and rape 'for fun' (although those people certainly qualify as evil, they would be exceptionally rare and in most cases highly poor characterisations of actual people).

Evil people are people who wilfully engage in murder, torture, genocide, slavery and rape full stop, no matter the justification or rationalisation of that evil.

But if the Vengeance paladin is Good, then he is probably going to find an interpretation of the oath which doesn't require genocide.
Here you and I agree. Oaths are open to interpretation. I (personally) have played an Evil Paladin who interpreted the 'greater evil' he was sworn to fight as being the discord of human society leaving it weak and prone to corrupt influences (embracing fascism, fundamentalism and ethno-nationalism as the solution), and specifically the machinations and church of the god Torm (who is in fact LG) as the greatest 'evil.'

(Personally I wouldn't want to play in a campaign where Drow are born irredeemably Evil, but for demons or possibly even for chromatic dragons, I consider this acceptable, because those creatures are so fully inhuman that I don't think it's unreasonable to say they literally have no choice about their Evil nature.)
And yet I can literally point you to canon examples of dragons and demons and other outsiders, fiends and angels that have changed alignment.

They do have a choice; as hard as that choice may be, and as rare as it is for them to exercise that choice, they have one.
 

Raduin711

Adventurer
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.
He is however, working outside the system. He isn't gathering political allies, he isn't using the church, he isn't using his status as a noble heir... He is attacking traveling nobles to take their wealth and distributes it to the poor. This isn't going to end feudalism, nor is that his goal. His goal is to help the needy and oppose Prince John. There are lawful ways of doing so, but robbing nobles is not it.
When King Richard returns, that is typically the end of the story, so we don't have a very good idea of what kind of man Robin is afterward. When I think of Robin Hood, I think of the heroic bandit, rather than the retired hero who gets fat off of King Richard's wine or whatever happens to him after the story is over.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
Evil people are people who wilfully engage in murder, torture, genocide, slavery and rape full stop, no matter the justification or rationalisation of that evil.
I'm not down with that level of absolutism. The line between killing and murder is very arbitrary and subjective. Torture might be necessary in order to protect others' lives in a critical situation. Slavery can be practiced in a consensual fashion, with respect for the dignity and rights of the slave even while deeming them unequal (and again, the distinction between full-on slavery and the kind of "wage slave" arrangements common throughout US history, from indentured service of debtors up to the modern reality of people who need to work in order to make rent so they don't lose their homes, is an exceedingly fuzzy boundary). No act is every invariably evil; it all depends on the circumstances, the motivations, and the effects.

But that's just, like, my opinion, man.

And yet I can literally point you to canon examples of dragons and demons and other outsiders, fiends and angels that have changed alignment.
The "canon" is just the opinions of people who happen to have been hired by one particular company as writers, and not gainsaid by a particular editorial team. Many of their ideas are, in a word, stupid. The infamous succubus paladin is a fine example IMO of the sort of thing that absolutely 100% should never work. To say that a demon can become Good and still be a demon robs the very concept of Good and Evil of so much meaning that I'm pretty much flat unwilling to participate in any campaign where that sort of thing can happen. I'm okay with a succubus or the like being a "lesser evil" ina given situation, but Good? And particularly an incarnation of Good? No way in Hell, pardon the pun.
 

I'm okay with a succubus or the like being a "lesser evil" ina given situation, but Good? And particularly an incarnation of Good? No way in Hell, pardon the pun.
There was literally a Succubus who did just that in the 3.5 Book of Righteous Deeds (or whatever it was called).

Grazzt was one a Duke of Hell; now he's a CE Demon. Azazel (and every single Erinyes) were once Angels before choosing or falling to evil, and are now Fiends.

I have serious issues with a setting that assumes 'always irrevocably evil or good' as it strips away free will and raises questions about programmed evil (is a robot programmed to murder, actually evil?) and does away with nuance.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
He is however, working outside the system.
Given that he has been outlawed, he doesn’t have much choice in the matter.

He isn't gathering political allies, he isn't using the church,
I’d argue that he is very much gathering political allies, in the people of Nottingham. That’s kinda the point of the “give to the poor” bit, to earn the goodwill of the people. As for the church there’s Friar Tuck. But I do get what you mean here. He is engaging in revolutionary action, rallying the lower class against the upper class, which would generally be chaotic tactics. I would argue though that he is doing so with the aim not of dismantling the established order, but of restoring the proper order. There’s an argument to be made that using chaotic means to achieve lawful ends makes him Neutral Good, but I just can’t see a character who fights to reinstate a deposed monarch as Chaotic anything.

he isn't using his status as a noble heir... He is attacking traveling nobles to take their wealth and distributes it to the poor.
Nobles who’s wealth was unjustly appropriated from the poor. Sure, he’s using means that are technically illegal, but the premise is that those laws were created by an illegitimate authority. He doesn’t oppose wealth inequality on the whole, he just opposes Prince John’s taxation policies. He wouldn’t be redistributing wealth if King Richard was the one appropriating it, because he’s the legitimate authority.

This isn't going to end feudalism, nor is that his goal.
That’s exactly my point. His goal is not one that aligns with the ideals of chaos.

His goal is to help the needy and oppose Prince John.
Well, his goal is certainly to oppose Prince John. But I see helping the needy as the means by which he opposes him, not a goal in its own right.

There are lawful ways of doing so, but robbing nobles is not it.
Again, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that his means put him firmly in Neutral territory.


When King Richard returns, that is typically the end of the story, so we don't have a very good idea of what kind of man Robin is afterward. When I think of Robin Hood, I think of the heroic bandit, rather than the retired hero who gets fat off of King Richard's wine or whatever happens to him after the story is over.
Sure, but the heroic bandit was ultimately working in service to authority. To say he broke local law to do so, therefore he is chaotic is in my opinion a pretty shallow reading of the Chaotic alignments.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I have serious issues with a setting that assumes 'always irrevocably evil or good' as it strips away free will and raises questions about programmed evil (is a robot programmed to murder, actually evil?) and does away with nuance.
I think the question of if programmed evil (and programmed good) is actually evil(/good) is one worth exploring, with plenty of nuance to be found in answering it. Look at Asimov. Accordingly, I think there is value in settings that assume certain beings (such as angels, devils, demons, etc) are irrevocably tied to their alignments, and exploring what that means for their free will or lack thereof.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
There was literally a Succubus who did just that in the 3.5 Book of Righteous Deeds (or whatever it was called).
That's probably the one I was talking about. Doesn't change the fact that she's a dumb idea that basically amounts to fanfiction written by a person hired by the company that bought the IP. Had I been the owner of Wotco, such dreck would never have seen print. You can do plenty of similar concepts, but that was going too damn far.

Grazzt was one a Duke of Hell; now he's a CE Demon.
Most of the lore I'm familiar with says nothing about this. I have heard it before, but never as anything more than an unsubstantiated rumor. It's also not that relevant to my point, since the Law/Chaos binary is rather different to the Good/Evil one.

Azazel (and every single Erinyes) were once Angels before choosing or falling to evil, and are now Fiends.
You will note that they are no longer angels. In my view, if a demon became Chaotic Good, it would cease being a demon, and become a Celestial akin to the Eladrins (though not actually of that superspecies, just as an angel who falls doesn't become a Baatezu since those are specific types of devils).

I have serious issues with a setting that assumes 'always irrevocably evil or good' as it strips away free will and raises questions about programmed evil (is a robot programmed to murder, actually evil?) and does away with nuance.
There's plenty of nuance among the humanoids. The extradimensional manifestations need to be the exact polar opposite. (Dragons are a bit of a special case IMO, given the rather totemic nature of opposition between human thought processes and the "reptile brain", which are reputed to underlie the dragon mythology. Vsauce has a great video on this topic.)
 

Raduin711

Adventurer
Given that he has been outlawed, he doesn’t have much choice in the matter.
...Outlawed for... robbing the rich and giving to the poor, perhaps?

I’d argue that he is very much gathering political allies, in the people of Nottingham. That’s kinda the point of the “give to the poor” bit, to earn the goodwill of the people. As for the church there’s Friar Tuck. But I do get what you mean here. He is engaging in revolutionary action, rallying the lower class against the upper class, which would generally be chaotic tactics. I would argue though that he is doing so with the aim not of dismantling the established order, but of restoring the proper order. There’s an argument to be made that using chaotic means to achieve lawful ends makes him Neutral Good, but I just can’t see a character who fights to reinstate a deposed monarch as Chaotic anything.
I wouldn't really consider the people of Nottingham to be a political ally per se. They don't have any real say in how they are governed, and are more or less the property of the landowners. Their ability to influence politics is proportional to their ability to rebel, and the language here should be telling. TL;DR they have no political power.

As for King Richard, Robin doesn't actually do anything to put him back on the throne. Richard merely returns from the Crusades at the end of the story. Robin is loyal to him because he is a benevolent king, but simply preferring one dictator to another doesn't make one Lawful, it just means that he recognizes that Prince John is a nasty, corrupt leader that lets people starve and King Richard... doesn't?

The idea of Robin dismantling feudalism is quite a bit beyond the scope of the story and beyond what Robin hoped to achieve.

It ends with Richard taking the throne again because the story needed a happy ending that wasn't "And so, the noble people of Nottingham paraded the Prince's head around the town square, and thus began our anarcho-communist utopia, hey nonny-nonny." That would have been... weird.

Feudalism was just the way of the world back then. Having a preference of Kings does not make one lawful. King Richard is effectively a deus ex machina to give the story a happy ending that wasn't revolution.
 
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Envisioner

Explorer
V for Vendetta gave us British fascism. It'd be interesting to see a story where Britain goes full Bolshevik, and pulling this off in a Medieval setting wouldn't be that much harder than doing a modern version (unlike the V4V Ingsoc version, where surveillance technology is kind of crucial to the whole thing).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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.
If you couple a genuine desire for justice with a complete lack of understanding of what justice is, you get Evil.
 


I think the question of if programmed evil (and programmed good) is actually evil(/good) is one worth exploring, with plenty of nuance to be found in answering it. Look at Asimov. Accordingly, I think there is value in settings that assume certain beings (such as angels, devils, demons, etc) are irrevocably tied to their alignments, and exploring what that means for their free will or lack thereof.
A robot programmed for evil, is not evil. The programmer however, is.

That's how I run it. Moral choice is importat. In that choosing to do evil acts in pursuit of goal, no matter how noble the goal, is evil.
 


I'm not down with that level of absolutism. The line between killing and murder is very arbitrary and subjective. Torture might be necessary in order to protect others' lives in a critical situation. Slavery can be practiced in a consensual fashion, with respect for the dignity and rights of the slave even while deeming them unequal (and again, the distinction between full-on slavery and the kind of "wage slave" arrangements common throughout US history, from indentured service of debtors up to the modern reality of people who need to work in order to make rent so they don't lose their homes, is an exceedingly fuzzy boundary). No act is every invariably evil; it all depends on the circumstances, the motivations, and the effects.

But that's just, like, my opinion, man.
The line between killing and murder (outside of a legal definition) is, as you say, fuzzy.
Torture is less so and is a good indicator of good/evil. Torture can be the easy/expedient route to solve a problem, and a single instance in the heat of the moment may not make a Good character into an Evil one.
However a formerly Good character who starts justifying using torture more and more as "its necessary" or "its not evil to use the methods of my enemies against them" is a fairly classic fall from grace story. After all, if your intentions are good, then surely its OK to use whatever means necessary to eliminate the gnome threat, or restore your nation to its former greatness, or inflict venge justice upon those who wronged you.
There's surely nothing evil about that is there?

The "canon" is just the opinions of people who happen to have been hired by one particular company as writers, and not gainsaid by a particular editorial team. Many of their ideas are, in a word, stupid. The infamous succubus paladin is a fine example IMO of the sort of thing that absolutely 100% should never work. To say that a demon can become Good and still be a demon robs the very concept of Good and Evil of so much meaning that I'm pretty much flat unwilling to participate in any campaign where that sort of thing can happen. I'm okay with a succubus or the like being a "lesser evil" ina given situation, but Good? And particularly an incarnation of Good? No way in Hell, pardon the pun.
I generally run Eberron, where things are relatively clear. Most outsiders are actual manifestations of their planar origin, and thus of fairly fixed alignment.
It is possible for them to change alignments, but this is part of a general change in which that cease to become that kind of outsider, and become something else instead.
As you say: An angel that falls becomes a devil. The succubus paladin would no longer be a fiend etc.
 


Envisioner

Explorer
use whatever means necessary to eliminate the gnome threat
I like how you just kinda slipped that in there. :sneaky:

As you say: An angel that falls becomes a devil. The succubus paladin would no longer be a fiend etc.
Unfortunately, the BOXD example that we're talking about was explicitly still a demon and a succubus, with all of her fiendish powers intact. This was likely done for the sake of demonstrating how, from a game-mechanics perspective, she was vulnerable to spell effects as if she was all four alignments simultaneously - LG for her alignment and CE for her innate alignment-based traits, which were not changed. (I think she even had Vow of Chastity, which is obviously insane, and seems to suggest that the Good Is Stupid trope was in play. While they did include a version that had Fallen again, there was no indication that her fall was caused by an inability to keep that Vow, even though a ten-year-old could have figured out that a being literally made out of the cosmic essence of filthy sex would never be able to uphold an Oath of Chastity for longer than six hours.)
 



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