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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


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Tsuga C

Explorer
Gary Gygax wrote a detailed article detailing the differences between Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil that was included in either the "best of Dragon I or II". That was a worthwhile read.

We never had much in the way of debates or conflict over alignment as I was the DM in our AD&D group 90%+ of the time and I maintained--still do--some very clear ideas on the subject. If alignment isn't included in D&D, it you're not playing D&D.
 


I liked the simplification of alignment that 4e brought, but hated unaligned. On paper, it made sense, but in practice, in my groups people just picked unaligned so that they could act however they wanted as a player, and oftentimes that was just them wanting to be as greedy and domineering as they could without having to call themselves evil.

I hated 4E, but the one thing that I like which came from it was the concept of "unaligned" in D&D.
The Law/Neutrality/Chaos of OD&D and classic D&D (and the OSR descendants like DCC RPG) is my favorite iteration of alignment. It frees the personality stuff up and makes it more about which cosmic forces you hold allegiance to.

Michael Moorcock would disagree with you ;)
Chaotic alignments are rarely my thing. As I've said elsewhere, give me a code to play my character by and I am happy. Giving me those restrictions helps develop who my characters are.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
The word "alignment" itself suggests an external political allegiance rather than individual psychology.

As Jonathan Tweet rightly says, that's what it represents in Chainmail. By OD&D it seems to be a bit of both.
 

Mournblade94

Adventurer
If I play D&D I am using alignment. If I play a fantasy game without Alignment I'll use HERO Or something. One of the things that makes D&D Fun for me is Alignments and Tangible morality.

Shades of grey are great and all, but I prefer it when the Good guys are certainly good fighting the definite evil.
 

Aldarc

Legend
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.
Honestly, the alignments of 4e made more sense to me and were easier for me to explain to newcomers. Often in play, NE and LE played out mostly the same. Same as CG and NG often playing out as just "good." It played to the ancient and classical sense that you find in mythologies that regards order as a good and chaos as an evil. I'm not sure if 4e was that wildly unpopular or it if it was just a matter of too much change all at once soured a lot of people to it, especially in terms of guilt by association.

I'm a huge fan of Moorcock, but the conflict in the default D&D world isn't Moorcock-style Law vs Chaos, it's Good vs Evil. I'm not aware of any published D&D settings that focus on Law vs Chaos.
The 4e Nentir Vale and the Points of Light setting say "hello!" Sure, there's good and evil couched in there, but it's largely a setting defined by maintaining and rebuilding order from the threat of chaos.
 


Aaron L

Adventurer
All of these people complaining about problems and arguments arising out of Alignments... I have never once seen an argument over Alignment. Philosophical discussions, plenty, but never an argument. It has always been pretty cut-and-dried with everyone I have ever known.
 

Mournblade94

Adventurer
All of these people complaining about problems and arguments arising out of Alignments... I have never once seen an argument over Alignment. Philosophical discussions, plenty, but never an argument. It has always been pretty cut-and-dried with everyone I have ever known.
Exactly. Huge circle of gamers, many many different groups. the ONLY time Alignment arguments have ever happened in my experience is when we are at parties drinking beer. Its NEVER disrupted games.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Honestly, the alignments of 4e made more sense to me and were easier for me to explain to newcomers. Often in play, NE and LE played out mostly the same. Same as CG and NG often playing out as just "good." It played to the ancient and classical sense that you find in mythologies that regards order as a good and chaos as an evil. I'm not sure if 4e was that wildly unpopular or it if it was just a matter of too much change all at once soured a lot of people to it, especially in terms of guilt by association.
Unsurprising, as neutrality toward law and chaos are both defined by lawlessness, only to different degrees. In my opinion, if one is to use the 3x3 grid, it’s best to make chaos not simply be disregard for law, but active opposition to it.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
All of these people complaining about problems and arguments arising out of Alignments... I have never once seen an argument over Alignment. Philosophical discussions, plenty, but never an argument. It has always been pretty cut-and-dried with everyone I have ever known.
I saw it happen a lot (heck, I participated in such arguments) during the 3.X era. Basically any time the player of a paladin, cleric, druid, or monk character had a different idea of what their alignment meant than the DM. When your class is on the line, you’re pretty incentivized to argue the case for why your actions fit your alignment.
 

Horwath

Hero
I saw it happen a lot (heck, I participated in such arguments) during the 3.X era. Basically any time the player of a paladin, cleric, druid, or monk character had a different idea of what their alignment meant than the DM. When your class is on the line, you’re pretty incentivized to argue the case for why your actions fit your alignment.
this is why alignment should be just for roleplay flavor and completely disconnected from game mechanics(power level).
 

MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
All of these people complaining about problems and arguments arising out of Alignments... I have never once seen an argument over Alignment. Philosophical discussions, plenty, but never an argument. It has always been pretty cut-and-dried with everyone I have ever known.
But surely their cousin's best friend's sister's boy friend's favorite pizza delivery guy's anecdote about how alignment ruined his life and drove him from playing D&D to drinking Canadian beer must be super important, since they have been using it since Jimmy Carter was President.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
But surely their cousin's best friend's sister's boy friend's favorite pizza delivery guy's anecdote about how alignment ruined his life and drove him from playing D&D to drinking Canadian beer must be super important, since they have been using it since Jimmy Carter was President.
Again, you’ve got a firsthand account of arguments over alignment right here.
 

I have been playing since the AD&D days, starting in 1981, and I carry some of the old alignment rules and restrictions of previous editions into 5E, even though it has to be done as house rules. I tend to be pretty relaxed about alignment, like 5E is, except when a character is a Divine caster. I prefer the character to be the same alignment as the Divine source of their powers, though I will allow the player to use the "one step" rule from 3.x for their PC. Major violations of their alignment will definitely draw attention, and maybe punishment, from their Deity/Power Source. Or in the case of a Paladin following an Ideal or Code instead of a Deity, that would take the form of self-doubt, shame, etc. that can cause a loss of powers. But other than that, I am also more flexible with alignment restrictions based on class and would not use baked-in restrictions the way AD&D did. I would also love a Holy Warrior class, that has a sub-class for each alignment, and the Paladin would be the LG sub-class.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
The only things that have alignments at all in my D&D games are things that absolutely have to, and I generally try to build my settings so as to keep those things to a minimum. I appreciate what they were initially trying to do, as a setting conceit, but the imposition of the Good/Evil axis irreparably muddied that setting conceit... and attempts to enforce "alignment-appropriate" gameplay led to increasingly contradictory and bizarre interpretations that make it unplayable.

Pick up an AD&D Second Edition Player's Handbook and tell me which one of those nine personality disorders describes any functional human being you've ever met, or anyone you would willingly crawl into a deep, dark hole full of danger and death with.

Alignment was a bad idea in D&D, each edition of AD&D made it worse, and getting rid of it-- in all but name-- is probably Wizards of the Coast's single best contributions to its legacy.

EDIT: Constructive Criticism Tax: Using d20 Modern's Allegiance system with something akin to 5e's Paladin Oaths-- specific, concrete goals and methods-- would go a lot further to support the kind of play alignment defenders claim they want, while avoiding a lot of the reasons the alignment system actively undermines it.
 

Voadam

Hero
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.
Were you part of the discussion on orc alignment going from AD&D's LE to 3e's CE?

Orcs as lawful evil was interesting because it could fit easily as people who typically follow as soldiers of evil lords (whoever, orc leaders, necromancers, evil warlords, pretty much any BBEG).

Moldvay basic Chaotic Orcs felt a natural fit as well to me as they are generally considered marauders.
 

HJFudge

Explorer
I dislike alignment systems.

I LIKE faction systems. 13th age does this super well by emphasizing a characters alignment not towards some weird ephemeral concepts like Law/Chaos/Good/Evil, but their alignment towards existing factions in the world.

Good? Evil? You are respected by the Emperor but the forces of the Shadow hate your guts.

It works out far better at the table. When I play D&D I simply ignore the alignment system and nothing in my game is lost.
 


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