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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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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Let me be more clear. I like clear faction systems. I have never found 'law/good/evil/chaos' to be particularly clear in any edition or in any game, unless its watered down to almost meaninglessness. They add nothing to the game that can't be added in a much better way through other means.
As Jonathan Tweet mentioned, its origin is a wargaming faction system, indicating which side an army was on.
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
Michael Moorcock would disagree with you ;)
I know he called his powers Lords of Chaos and Lords of Law but to me that appeared to be just a branding exercise. They always struck me as just two opposing almost LovecraftIan factions (Not as in tentacled and weird but as in uncaring and powerful), who were not particularly chaotic or lawful in nature.
 

3catcircus

Adventurer
I kinda like the idea of going back to just the Law - Neutral - Chaos of BD&D.

"Good" and "Evil" are clearly subjective, based upon a society's values and norms.

"Law" is pretty straightforward - you follow the rules and values of a society, "Chaos" means you reject those laws and values, and "Neutral" is probably closer to adhering to those rules and laws you agree with and rejecting the ones you don't. What constitutes good and evil can and will change over time as societies re-normalize their values and the laws change subsequently.
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
As a matter of interest does anyone know if there is somewhere in this wonderful world wide web where someone has compiled all the D&D alignment descriptions? From OD&D thru to 5e? I am now intrigued and would quite like to read them all side by side.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
I kinda like the idea of going back to just the Law - Neutral - Chaos of BD&D.

"Good" and "Evil" are clearly subjective, based upon a society's values and norms.

"Law" is pretty straightforward - you follow the rules and values of a society, "Chaos" means you reject those laws and values, and "Neutral" is probably closer to adhering to those rules and laws you agree with and rejecting the ones you don't. What constitutes good and evil can and will change over time as societies re-normalize their values and the laws change subsequently.
Law and Chaos in 1974 OD&D are good and evil but confusingly labelled. They derive from Poul Anderson's Three Hearts & Three Lions rather than Moorcock. Holmes BD&D has something pretty close to the nine alignment system. In Moldvay and Mentzer BD&D Law and Chaos are almost, but not quite, equivalent to good and evil.

This is from Moldvay BD&D (the text in Mentzer seems to be identical):

Law (or Lawful) is the belief that everything should follow an order, and that obeying rules is the natural way of life. Lawful creatures will try to tell the truth, obey laws, and care about all living things. Lawful characters always try to keep their promises. They will try to obey laws as long as such laws are fair and just. If a choice must be made between the benefit of a group or an individual, a Lawful character will usually choose the group. Sometimes individual freedoms must be given up for the good of the group. Lawful characters and monsters often act in predictable ways. Lawful behavior is usually the same as behavior that could be called "good".​
Chaos (or Chaotic) is the opposite of Law. It is the belief that life is random, and that chance and luck rule the world. Everything happens by accident, and nothing can be predicted. Laws are made to be broken, as long as a person can get away with it. It is not important to keep promises, and lying and telling the truth are both useful. To a Chaotic creature, the individual is the most important of all things. Selfishness is the normal way of life, and the group is not important. Chaotics often act on sudden desires and whims. They cannot be trusted, and their behavior is hard to predict. They have a strong belief in the power of luck. Chaotic behavior is usually the same as behavior that could be called "evil".​
Neutrality (or Neutral) is the belief that the world is a balance between Law and Chaos. It is important that neither side get too much power and upset this balance. The individual is important, but so is the group; the two sides must work together. A Neutral character is most interested in personal survival. Such characters believe in their own wits and abilities rather than luck. They tend to return the treatment they receive from others. Neutral characters will join a party if they think it is in their own best interest, but will not be overly helpful unless there is some sort of profit in it. Neutral behavior may be considered "good" or "evil" (or neither!), depending on the situation.​
 

I still take 3e's alignment descriptions as my standard. They actually made sense and ejected a lot of stray nonsensical crap that had been scattered around in previous material--while actually according with how 1e-2e actually assigned alignments to NPCs a lot of the time. (Of the zillions of NPCs listed with "Neutral" or "True Neutral" alignment in 1e-2e products, the vast majority of them were really 3e "neutral", not "True Neutral", but 1e-2e didn't really have a default "regular person" alignment, so they just wrote up "Neutral" in their statblock and ignored how the rules actually defined it. 3e actually defined the "neutral" alignment as a normal default regular human, rather than some one with a wacky active-balance philosophy of life.)

I struggle to think of any cases where alignment rules made for a better game experience. The concept of alignment, maybe, if you're a fan of the Great Wheel cosmology, but the actual alignment rules? I have seen much grief result from them, and little to no gain.
I doubt many people have ever existed who actually like alignment rules. I doubt the people who wrote them liked them, and they most likely wouldn't have made those rules in hindsight.

It's really about exactly what you said. Those (like me) who like alignment, like the concepts of it and how it works in the multiverse and such. So getting supernaturally injured from touching a powerful object of opposed alignment, or having different cool effects when traveling the planes--those are interesting and add to the game. But nobody wants to mess with XP penalties or "your character wouldn't do that" crap.
 



werecorpse

Adventurer
I kinda like the idea of going back to just the Law - Neutral - Chaos of BD&D.

"Good" and "Evil" are clearly subjective, based upon a society's values and norms.

"Law" is pretty straightforward - you follow the rules and values of a society, "Chaos" means you reject those laws and values, and "Neutral" is probably closer to adhering to those rules and laws you agree with and rejecting the ones you don't. What constitutes good and evil can and will change over time as societies re-normalize their values and the laws change subsequently.
totally disagree on good and evil being subjective, yes societies view of what is good and evil may change over time but .....

oops nearly got into an alignment argument, never mind. Walking away now.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
totally disagree on good and evil being subjective,
Ultimately even in-setting they're determined by consensus because of the whole planar belief=power thing going on. All religious and philosophical matters in settings that use the great wheel ultimately come down to consensus
 

"Good" and "Evil" are clearly subjective, based upon a society's values and norms.
Not in DnD they arent.

There are literal cosmic planes of existence made up of good and evil. They're objective forces, not subjective ones.

Unless you want 'heaven' comprised of people who just thought they were good, and hell comprised of people who just thought they were evil.

Subjective existence of alignment has never been DnDs thing. The assumption has always been that alignment is an objective force, independent of subjective belief (like gravity, or time).

Your PC (and others) might subjectively think you're morally good, but you could be in for a rude awakening when you die and wind up in the Nine Hells.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
Not in DnD they arent.

There are literal cosmic planes of existence made up of good and evil. They're objective forces, not subjective ones.

Unless you want 'heaven' comprised of people who just thought they were good, and hell comprised of people who just thought they were evil.

Subjective existence of alignment has never been DnDs thing. The assumption has always been that alignment is an objective force, independent of subjective belief (like gravity, or time).

Your PC (and others) might subjectively think you're morally good, but you could be in for a rude awakening when you die and wind up in the Nine Hells.
The objective alignments are shaped and defined by subjective belief. The key matter here being that its a matter of aggregate belief rather than individual or even societal
 

Ultimately even in-setting they're determined by consensus because of the whole planar belief=power thing going on. All religious and philosophical matters in settings that use the great wheel ultimately come down to consensus
...And I'm sure planar sages vigorously debate the limits of the effects of belief...

It's one of those setting conceits that actually allows you freedom to do a lot more than one might initially think. Defining the nature of true Good and true Evil as something absolute can totally be done.
 

HJFudge

Explorer
...And I'm sure planar sages vigorously debate the limits of the effects of belief...

It's one of those setting conceits that actually allows you freedom to do a lot more than one might initially think. Defining the nature of true Good and true Evil as something absolute can totally be done.

It can, but I question whether it should.

In a novel format, I think it works extremely well. I am unsure if you're familiar with or have read R Scott Bakers 'Prince of Nothing' series or its follow-ons, but this is basically one of the concepts he explores in the novels...that Good and Evil are absolute and Heaven and Hell really exist and there are immutable laws surrounding them that have effects on the real world. Its very interesting his take on it and how it affects the characters and such.

However, in the venue that is a tabletop game, I do not think its a very good route to take. Simply because it causes and creates issues. Not all the time, but you can't go very long without someone getting into an argument about alignment and what constitutes Lawful Good, for example.

So if you DO define True Good and make it a Faction in your game, it is best that the rest of your group is in lockstep with your opinions (or rather, the games) on such things or run the risk of the Paladin whose player legitimately considering his actions as heroic and just and good suddenly getting a little annoyed that the DM deciding that he woke up in Hell.

Or probably more typically, "Hey I thought you said these were the Good Guys, yet they are doing things that are very not good."

Far better to instead keep them vague concepts...or EVEN better really not try to define good and evil and let the players do so as they play. Let the paladin show you what he considers to be good in how he acts. Challenge him on it, if thats the kind of game you want, in the setting and in the adventures. Or if its less of a heavy game, let him do his deeds he sees as good and play along.

In other words, don't say 'write your alignment on your character sheet' but instead 'show me if your character is good and evil through their play'.

Of course this is all just like, my opinion. So hey :)
 


Doug McCrae

Legend
One aspect of alignment I find hard to understand is how evil works in conjunction with spells that detect alignment. What does the "savage humanoid" shaman or witch doctor make of the fact that every member of his tribe is evil, while humans and demi-humans are mostly non-evil? Do they know that they worship evil gods? Do evil beings know they are evil? Do they misunderstand their own alignment in a way that good beings do not?
 
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Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
No, they're not.

Good is shaped by subjective belief as much as gravity, fire, energy, matter or any other force is.
You're free to assert that good is an objective force in your imagined reality, of course.

But it's still your imagined reality, and, therefore, entirely subjective. Unless you're identifyng your subjective understanding of "good" with some eternal, objective "good" - which is problematic for different reasons.

My good might be quite different from yours; I think it's pretty presumptuous to assert that they're the same.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
If it drove him to drinking Canadian beer that alone makes it the best thing in the history of forever! :)

(but he should have kept playing D&D as well)
 

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