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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

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Wait, have you not seen Revenge of the Sith?
Yeah. He joins the Sith out of fear. Fear of losing his wife specifically, and to a much lesser extent due to fear of reprisals from the Jedi after being complicit in Mace Windus death.

Remember - Fear leads to hatred, hatred leads to anger, and anger leads to suffering.

Watch RoTS with that in mind, and watch Anakin track along that exact path.
 
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I would say yes. Otherwise what’s the distinction between Chaotic and Neutral on the Law/Chaos spectrum?
There are any number of ways to be chaotic without actively opposing the establishment. Salvador Dalí was bizarre and eccentric and never once met a rule that he felt applied to him, but I'm not aware that he tried to bring down the Spanish government at all. (Which, given the Spanish government of the era, was controversial in and of itself.) Most nonconformists don't try to bring down the government, actually. They're busy doing their own thing. Nevertheless I don't think we're at a loss to separate them from the normal everyday folks who fall into neutrality.

We could perhaps say that Dalí was chaotic because he opposed the artistic establishment rather than the political establishment. But if we admit rebellion against other sorts of establishments this way, then Robin Hood could (and probably would) oppose some such establishments as well. So either way, we can't say he's not chaotic just because he's okay with King Richard.

Characters aren’t obliged to do anything on the basis of their alignment, but their actions determine their alignment. A character who believes in Chaotic ideals but never violates or opposes Law is at most Neutral. Just as believing one is committing atrocities in service of a greater Good doesn’t make them any less Evil.
Well, it's not like Robin Hood never violates or opposes the law -- he violated and opposed the law a lot. (Whether "Law" and "the law" are the same thing is another question -- see above re: different ways to be chaotic.) Just because he's not breaking a law right now doesn't mean he hasn't done it in the past or that he won't do it again in the future. Don't think of a character choosing to commit an atrocity for the greater good; that analogy runs off the rails at a couple points (briefly: the act-omission distinction and the asymmetry between normative and antinormative alignments). Think instead of a character who decides that they don't currently have to commit any atrocities to get what they want, but who would commit one if the circumstances changed.
 

Azzy

Newtype
So, what I'm getting is that you guys are saying that Robin Hood is Neutral Good—he's Lawful in some aspects, but Chaotic in others.
 

So, what I'm getting is that you guys are saying that Robin Hood is Neutral Good—he's Lawful in some aspects, but Chaotic in others.
No, what they're saying is 'There is not one Robin Hood. There are many different interpretations and depictions of the character. Some Chaotic, and some Lawful and some in the middle.'
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
No, what they're saying is 'There is not one Robin Hood. There are many different interpretations and depictions of the character. Some Chaotic, and some Lawful and some in the middle.'
More or less, though I’m tossing in a side-helping of “y’all’s standards for what separates chaotic from neutral are too low” and “a character’s actions don’t always align with their ideals.”
 



Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
There are any number of ways to be chaotic without actively opposing the establishment.
Not if we want consistent definitions. If neutral means “obeys the law, except when it doesn’t suit them” and chaotic means “doesn’t obey the law except when it suits them” then the line between them is both subjective and extremely fuzzy. Better that chaotic mean “actively opposes Law” and neutral means “does not actively oppose or support Law.” (And that’s Law with a Capitol L, as in the forces of Law, not necessarily local legal code.)

Salvador Dalí was bizarre and eccentric and never once met a rule that he felt applied to him, but I'm not aware that he tried to bring down the Spanish government at all. (Which, given the Spanish government of the era, was controversial in and of itself.) Most nonconformists don't try to bring down the government, actually. They're busy doing their own thing. Nevertheless I don't think we're at a loss to separate them from the normal everyday folks who fall into neutrality.
You’re advocating for an “I know it when I see it” definition of chaotic here, and I don’t think that’s useful. To serve a meaningful function, alignments need clear, objective criteria.

Also, Dhali identified as a communist, an anti-monarchist, and anti-clerical when he first joined the surrealist movement, so I think it would be safe to say that he held highly anti-establishment ideals at that time. He gave lectures for the Workers and Peasents front, and contributed to their journal, and at one point got arrested for being “intensely liable to cause public disorder.”

Of course, he grew more apolitical over time and eventually completely flipped over to pro-monarchy. People are complex. At any rate, I would characterize Dhali as ideologically Chaotic at first, shifting to ideologically Lawful later in life, but remaining fairly Neutral in action throughout most of that time. Which is a pretty typical story, honestly.

We could perhaps say that Dalí was chaotic because he opposed the artistic establishment rather than the political establishment. But if we admit rebellion against other sorts of establishments this way, then Robin Hood could (and probably would) oppose some such establishments as well.
Now this argument speaks my language. Can we find support in the text for Robin Hood opposing establishments beyond the political establishment of whatever adaptation we’re looking at?

So either way, we can't say he's not chaotic just because he's okay with King Richard.
I think we can say that his opposition is to the system under John, not the system itself, and that is not an ideologically Chaotic position in my evaluation. We can say that he acted against the system while John was in power, which is Chaotic. We can say that he did not act against the system when Richard returned to power, which is not Chaotic. How much he actually supported the system under Richard we can’t say, because that’s generally where the story ends, so we can’t say whether his actions were Lawful or simply Neutral at that point. So I think depending on the adaptation, we have a character who is likely either Lawful or Neutral ideologically, but whose actions are Chaotic, until the proper social order is restored, at which point his actions shift to more Neutral or perhaps Lawful, though the text doesn’t give us enough support for either option to evaluate.

Well, it's not like Robin Hood never violates or opposes the law -- he violated and opposed the law a lot. (Whether "Law" and "the law" are the same thing is another question -- see above re: different ways to be chaotic.) Just because he's not breaking a law right now doesn't mean he hasn't done it in the past or that he won't do it again in the future.
Indeed! His actions are undoubtedly Chaotic through the majority of the story, in just about any adaptation. And ceasing that action does not undo the effects they had on his alignment. But, his actions after Richard returns to power have their own effects on his alignment.

Don't think of a character choosing to commit an atrocity for the greater good; that analogy runs off the rails at a couple points (briefly: the act-omission distinction and the asymmetry between normative and antinormative alignments). Think instead of a character who decides that they don't currently have to commit any atrocities to get what they want, but who would commit one if the circumstances changed.
Apologies, I don’t follow.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
By what measuring stick do we evaluate a standard as too low, too high, or just right? [/quoteWhat works worse when the definition is not optimized as you recommend?
I think I answer this in my reply to your other post, but if you would like me to elaborate just let me know and I’ll be happy to do so.
 

There have been some Robin Hood adaptations where the money he is stealing from Prince John and other corrupt authorities are being used by Robin for charity AND given to the Queen Mother Eleanor to raise Richard's ransom. Which makes Robin Hood very Lawful Good, does it not? He's actively improving the lot of the common folk as well as ensuring the correct authorities are returned to power.
 

There have been some Robin Hood adaptations where the money he is stealing from Prince John and other corrupt authorities are being used by Robin for charity AND given to the Queen Mother Eleanor to raise Richard's ransom. Which makes Robin Hood very Lawful Good, does it not? He's actively improving the lot of the common folk as well as ensuring the correct authorities are returned to power.
I dunno. Sounds like socialism to me.

:ROFLMAO:
 

Not if we want consistent definitions. If neutral means “obeys the law, except when it doesn’t suit them” and chaotic means “doesn’t obey the law except when it suits them” then the line between them is both subjective and extremely fuzzy. Better that chaotic mean “actively opposes Law” and neutral means “does not actively oppose or support Law.” (And that’s Law with a Capitol L, as in the forces of Law, not necessarily local legal code.)
I'd agree that Law isn't the same thing as the local legal code. But if it isn't, then the fact that a character follows the local legal code doesn't tell us whether or not they're opposing Law. And it presents us with the further problem that characters probably know what the local legal code is, but they might not have any idea what Law is, or exist in a context where Law and Good are seen as a single entity (e.g. medieval Catholic England), and so not have the opportunity to actively oppose it even if they wanted to.

You’re advocating for an “I know it when I see it” definition of chaotic here, and I don’t think that’s useful. To serve a meaningful function, alignments need clear, objective criteria.
Even if you're right that clear, objective criteria are desirable here (and you probably are, but it's debatable), it does not follow that the specific clear, objective criteria you're proposing are desirable. A different set of clear, objective criteria may be better -- and we usually evaluate "better" by seeing how well they line up with the "I know it when I see it" version.

Now, obviously, things get fuzzy around the boundaries of a know-it-see-it definition, and figuring out exactly how to draw the line through the fuzz is part of the, ah, "fun" of developing a clear-objective definition. But that's at the boundaries. Hopefully our clear-objective definition doesn't have a problem matching the know-it-see-it definition at the center. If our definition of "Europe" says that Turkey is not a European nation, that's arguable; if our definition says that France is not a European nation, we may have a problem.

It is in this light that I would suggest not placing this freaking guy firmly and unequivocally in the "chaotic" category constitutes a weakness of your proposed definition scheme.

Now this argument speaks my language. Can we find support in the text for Robin Hood opposing establishments beyond the political establishment of whatever adaptation we’re looking at?
I think it's pretty clear from his characterization that a Robin Hood like the Flynn or Disney version doesn't have much use for social protocols and proprieties and is bored out of his skull by routine and regularity. (Seriously, the whole golden arrow escapade is less "strategic move to counter John's regime" and more "alternative to spending another day in the woods staring at trees".) I have no reason to believe he'll suddenly become a square after returning to civilization under King Richard; it's a safe bet that he'll keep finding ways to disrupt the orderliness of his life and the lives of those around him, just not in a criminal fashion.

Now, maybe he does mellow out and stop causing chaos, evolving into a neutral character. Getting married often does that to a person for some reason. But simply abiding by local laws is insufficient evidence on its own to indicate that this has occurred, when there are so many other areas in which he can continue to be a scoundrel.

Apologies, I don’t follow.
I think this is an asymmetry that squares with most people's intuitions: an evil character can perform a good act for their own purposes, and that's still evil, but when a good character performs an evil act for the greater good, that's not good. This is because good is normative and evil is not. Evil doesn't tell you what kinds of behavior aren't allowed; on the contrary, it says that good is dumb for doing that, rejecting such restrictions. Law and chaos have a similar normative/antinormative relationship, and thus a similar asymmetry where chaotic characters can get away with lawful acts more than lawful characters can get away with chaotic acts.

On top of that, merely not breaking the law doesn't usually constitute a lawful act, because it's not an act at all. It's an omission: you're passively not doing something you could be doing. And very few conceptions of any alignment, I'd venture, hold that it is necessary to perform acts of that alignment all the time, at every opportunity. Evil characters don't lose many or any "evil points" for deciding not to burn down a particular orphanage; chaotic characters don't lose many or any "chaos points" for deciding not to break a particular law.
 

MichaelSomething

Adventurer
You all don't understand Chaotic Good if you think Robin Hood is the best example.

The clear embodiment of Chaotic Good is Guy Fieri. His loud and distinct style clearly puts him at odds against the more modest mood of lawfulness. Yet he also has done a great deal of charity work; like cooking for people suffering from wildfires.

To quote that meme guy who sits on a chair and drinks coffee, "Change my mind."
 

You all don't understand Chaotic Good if you think Robin Hood is the best example.

The clear embodiment of Chaotic Good is Guy Fieri. His loud and distinct style clearly puts him at odds against the more modest mood of lawfulness. Yet he also has done a great deal of charity work; like cooking for people suffering from wildfires.

To quote that meme guy who sits on a chair and drinks coffee, "Change my mind."
Id say Anakin Skywalker (pre fall) personally as a paragon of CG.
 

Coroc

Hero
You can be pretty chaotic in your personal life without severely breaking the law all the time, don't you folks agree?

The same time you could be lawful to the bone, following a strict codex and principles, routines in your daily life, rules to the letter how to do certain things and still be a rebel in e.g. a "lawfully justified" revolution.
 

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