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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

Jonathan Tweet

D&D 3E, Over the Edge, Everway, Ars Magica, Omega World, Grandmother Fish
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.
You're mixing the properties of the fictional level with the nonfictional level. The subjectivity of "good" in nonfictional reality (which is debatable, but let's grant it for the sake of argument) does not bear on its objectivity in the fiction. That would be like saying that dragons are imaginary in reality, therefore they are imaginary in the fiction. Dragons are real enough in the fiction for an equally-fictional protagonist to worry about getting eaten by them; alignment is objective enough in the fiction for an equally-fictional protagonist to worry about falling or getting smote or whatever.
 
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The problem is that the rules make this assertion without doing nearly enough to clarify whose good is supposed to be objectively true.
In an undergraduate philosophy course, this is an interesting question.

In D&D, we are fortunate enough to already have a participant who is in a privileged position with regards to defining the world and its rules, so we can just answer, "it's the DM's good", and get on with playing.
 

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?

In my game evil knows its evil and enjoys it. They promote the values of evil, which is as much an objective force in their universe as gravity is in ours.
 

I'm fine with the standard nine alignments in my D&D games. What I could never wrap my mind around, though, was the concept of alignment languages from the AD&D days. That always seemed weird to me.

Johnathan
Im not exactly sure how or why alignment languages work or would work the way they do but as a neurophysicist i find the idea positively fascinating. To be honest i dont understand. There isnt wnough info to really understand. But it points in a very strange direction and if you consider what could POSSIBLY explain such a bizarre thing as an alignment language with the mystical aspect and other things somehow messing with your brain it can send your imagination down some very strange paths.

So i may not understand for sure what is going on with them but its one of the most interesting things in d&d imo. Honestly, its also a potentially very good plot device for a lovecraftian horror campaign.

Also in my campaigns i have actually expanded upon alignment languages and the gibberings of allips are spoken in one of the new alignment languages.
 
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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.
 


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.

If I follow that logic, then literally nothing in anyones imagined reality is objective because it's all imaginary.

Where you're wrong is only imaginary things can be objective.

It's counterintuitive, but it actually works the other way to what you're saying it does. Unlike in the real world, where the ONLY thing that can be objectively known is self existence (Cogito ergo sum), and knowledge of literally everything else is subjective and requires faith, in an imaginary fantasy world objective things beyond mere self existence can be known to exist.

Example. In the world I DM, I can say 'God, heaven and hell objectively exist in this reality' and I will be 100 percent correct.

You cant do that in the real world.

Judges do this as well. When determining objective standards, Judges literally have to invent a fictitious 'reasonable man' or otherwise known as 'the man on the Clapham omnibus' and then determine what this fictional person thinks is 'reasonable'.

The man on the Clapham omnibus - Wikipedia

Read some Descartes man. And maybe watch the Matrix again ;)
 
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@Flamestrike your post seems to be missing everything other than what you were quoting from sepulchrave.

Fixed above.

If DnD had subjective alignments, than an Orc is LG as long as its following its socially accepted and widely practices (and totally moral to it, and its peers) practices of rape, murder, genocide and slavery.

I've been playing DnD for nearly 40 years now, and I've constantly seen 'evil' as depicted and defined as 'killing, harming and oppressing others' and 'good' depicted and defined as 'altruism, mercy, charity, compassion and respect for life'.

Those terms are not subjective.
 

If I follow that logic, then literally nothing in anyones imagined reality is objective because it's all imaginary.

It's counterintuitive, but it actually works the other way to what you're saying it does. Unlike in the real world, where the ONLY thing that can be objectively known is self existence (Cogito ergo sum), and knowledge of literally everything else is subjective and requires faith, in an imaginary fantasy world objective things beyond mere self existence can be known to exist.

Example. In the world I DM, I can say 'God, heaven and hell objectively exist in this reality' and I will be 100 percent correct.

You cant do that in the real world.
I almost completely agree with you.

I would say that its more like, in the real world, it is not certainly known whether this can be done, but it is KNOWN that we are inadequately equiped to have certainty on such things as things currently are and so, functionally, it might as well be impossible to do, because we do nit even know if what is required is knowable.

Basically, maybe objective good and evil can be applied to the real world but we are inadequately equiped to know it for a yes or no or even to pursue knowing if its knowable.

Otherwise i completely agree with everything you laid out.
 

I almost completely agree with you.

I would say that its more like, in the real world, it is not certainly known whether this can be done, but it is KNOWN that we are inadequately equiped to have certainty on such things as things currently are and so, functionally, it might as well be impossible to do, because we do nit even know if what is required is knowable.

Basically, maybe objective good and evil can be applied to the real world but we are inadequately equiped to know it for a yes or no or even to pursue knowing if its knowable.

Rene Descartes established that nothing can be objectively known with certainty past self existence (Cogito ergo sum). This is also borne out by thought experiments like P-Xombies and so forth.

In the real world you cant know anything to exist objectively (and your characters would face the same problems in the fantasy world they live in). Just like Neo had the same problems in the Matrix.

A DM in control of an imaginary world skirts over this problem though. If he says 'Your PCs are in the Matrix' then thats the objective truth of it, regardless of your PCs knowledge of this fact, or subjective belief of this fact.
 

Fixed above.

If DnD had subjective alignments, than an Orc is LG as long as its following its socially accepted and widely practices (and totally moral to it, and its peers) practices of rape, murder, genocide and slavery.

I've been playing DnD for nearly 40 years now, and I've constantly seen 'evil' as depicted and defined as 'killing, harming and oppressing others' and 'good' depicted and defined as 'altruism, mercy, charity, compassion and respect for life'.

Those terms are not subjective.
agreed. After all, orcish LAWS say that spreading their seed pleases gruumsh. Thats where the reasoning would end.
 

Rene Descartes established that nothing can be objectively known with certainty past self existence (Cogito ergo sum). This is also borne out by thought experiments like P-Xombies and so forth.

In the real world you cant know anything to exist objectively (and your characters would face the same problems in the fantasy world they live in). Just like Neo had the same problems in the Matrix.

A DM in control of an imaginary world skirts over this problem though. If he says 'Your PCs are in the Matrix' then thats the objective truth of it, regardless of your PCs knowledge of this fact, or subjective belief of this fact.
The thing is, my opinion is that rene descarte could have gone one step further back.

He says nothing outside of yourself can be known

I go one step further and say it is not known whether anything can be known outside of yourself but the current state of things is that nothing is known outside of self.

And that is technically true. Its a slight deviation but its the reason why i had the slight difference of opinion with you. Its because years ago i realized descarte stopped one step short. Its a step which pragmatically would hardly ever matter but its a step.
 

The thing is, my opinion is that rene descarte could have gone one step further back.

He says nothing outside of yourself can be known

I go one step further and say it is not known whether anything can be known outside of yourself but the current state of things is that nothing is known outside of self.

And that is technically true. Its a slight deviation but its the reason why i had the slight difference of opinion with you. Its because years ago i realized descarte stopped one step short.

It's not that that things out of self existence cant be known. It's that we can only accept those things based on faith, not on reason.

And there is always a level of doubt.
 


It's not that that things out of self existence cant be known. It's that we can only accept those things based on faith, not on reason.

And there is always a level of doubt.
I disagree. Its actually that at current it isnt known if those things can be known. The default assumption is that we cant because weve never been able to. The issue is that we also dont know that that couod suddenly change.
 

Coroc

Hero
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?
that is one more thing 5e did right, those spells now only detecting extremas not everyone
 

Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
You're mixing the properties of the fictional level with the nonfictional level. The subjectivity of "good" in nonfictional reality (which is debatable, but let's grant it for the sake of argument) does not bear on its objectivity in the fiction.

No, I'm arguing that while you can assert that "good" is an objective force in the imagined world, characterizing what "good" is - in terms of its actual qualities - is still inevitably subject to lensing by the players and DM.

Forty years of conflicting edition definitions, and thousands of pages of speculation on ENWorld suggest to me that "good," "evil," "law" and "chaos" - and their various permutations - are less than clear-cut categories in terms of rules.
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
JT said: "Despite the centrality of alignment in D&D, other RPGs rarely copy D&D’s alignment rules"

One of the most curious examples is the Japanese Star Trek RPG, which ported D&D alignment into the Star Trek Universe: (!) Logical Good, Logical Evil, Neutral, Emotional Good, and Emotional Evil

AFAIK, these are the sources for D&D alignment:

The Austrian-Swiss occult Rosicrucian philosophy of Anthroposophy, with it three-way alignment, personified as Ahriman (Lawful), the Representative of Humanity (Good), and Lucifer (Chaotic). There's even a gigantic wooden statue of the three figures in the Anthroposophic HQ in Switzerland. What's interesting is that the central alignment here is Goodness, rather than grey neutrality.

Michael Moorcock attended an Anthroposophic primary school in Britain. He explicitly credits that philosophy (along with Zoroastrianism) as a primary source for his Elric cosmology (including the very concept of a 'Multiverse' of Higher Worlds). The Elric Multiverse of course has a three-way struggle between the metaphysical forces of Law, Balance, and Chaos. See "Moorcock and Steiner" article.

From Moorcock, Gygax adapted that for the three "stances" of Chainmail: Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. Which became the threefold "alignments" of OD&D and Moldvay and Mentzer BD&D. See "The Changing Meaning of Alignment in OD&D" by James Maliszewski. Of course Moorcook is listed in Appendix N.

Then a second axis was added to make a fivefold (Holmes) and ninefold (AD&D) alignment system. (IIRC it was J. Ward who suggested adding the Good-Evil axis.)

As a sidenote, the Warhammer universe adapted these metaphysics from D&D and Elric but collapsed it more into a twofold, binary the Realms of Man vs. Chaos dynamic, and brought in a Lovecraftian element to Chaos.

Also of note, a case could be made that besides Moorcock and Gygax, Tolkien also picked up the Anthroposophic three-way metaphysics via his acquaintance with his fellow Inkling Owen Barfield, who was the foremost Anthro occultist in Britain at the time. As seen in Saruman (Order), Gandalf (representative of the Free Peoples), and Sauron/Mairon/Annatar (Desire). The name "Saruman" is suspiciously close to Steiner's "Ahriman." See "Sauron, Saruman, and Owen Barfield" by Karl Beech.
 
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seebs

Adventurer
I hated 4E's system because it no longer made sense; it omitted combinations which clearly existed and basically turned "lawful" and "chaotic" into intensifiers; lawful good was just "more-gooder" and chaotic evil just "more-eviler" without actually making sense.

I remember interminable flame wars over the 3E system, which mostly revolved around people trying to argue whether or not killing was innately evil. My personal favorite was the guy who absolutely insisted that the rules explicitly stated that alignment had to do with how you decided that actions affecting sapient life were evil or good... But that it had no impact at all on decisions about actions affecting animals, because such actions could never be evil or good. The weird part wasn't that he stated this; it's that he insisted that the rules stated it.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I hated 4E's system because it no longer made sense; it omitted combinations which clearly existed and basically turned "lawful" and "chaotic" into intensifiers; lawful good was just "more-gooder" and chaotic evil just "more-eviler" without actually making sense.
Just because it made no sense for you doesn't mean that it doesn't make sense. It made sense to me, for example, as I previously mentioned. Law and Chaos as intensifiers actually work pretty well in depicting classical cosmological struggles in mythologies.
 

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