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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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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Nothing on a D&D character sheet accurately represents anything about a real person. Alignment's no different.
I understand that, but a lot of us want PCs to behave in a more believable way. Alignment is a useful tool, but if you pigeon hole people into that narrow definition, you take away from that believability. As a DM, I'd rather have my players just create a personality for their PCs and forget about alignment.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I understand that, but a lot of us want PCs to behave in a more believable way. Alignment is a useful tool, but if you pigeon hole people into that narrow definition, you take away from that believability. As a DM, I'd rather have my players just create a personality for their PCs and forget about alignment.
I understood what you meant.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
You can have a preacher who has spent his life living LG to the fullest. Then one day someone breaks in and murders his family before his eyes and leaves him for dead. The law lets the guy go on a technicality and the preacher snaps, hunts the guy down and kills him in cold blood, making him suffer before dying, like his family suffered.

While that would be an evil act, it doesn't turn the preacher from LG to evil. It's one act in which the guy snapped. The act doesn't suddenly define his personality from then on out.
Or rather, if it did change their alignment, their alignment would drift back to LG over time. I feel alignment makes much more sense if treated as a description of a character's accumulated karmas, rather than a description of their personality
 

Kidding aside, I think that the way alignment has been handled in the most recent editions is the way to go. It’s a snapshot of the general way the character may behave....and that’s about it. I suppose it could tie into setting lore in some way....like where a PCs soul might go after death or something like that...but I think minimizing its mechanical meaning is a good move.

In my experience, any mechanical use of alignment generally resulted in one of two things. Either the DM used it as a strict behavioral mantra for certain classes and any deviation was questioned. Or it was a means to eliminate nuance and justify murderhobo behavior.

There were other instances that came up, but those were the most common, and neither was fun for anyone.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Kidding aside, I think that the way alignment has been handled in the most recent editions is the way to go. It’s a snapshot of the general way the character may behave....and that’s about it. I suppose it could tie into setting lore in some way....like where a PCs soul might go after death or something like that...but I think minimizing its mechanical meaning is a good move.

In my experience, any mechanical use of alignment generally resulted in one of two things. Either the DM used it as a strict behavioral mantra for certain classes and any deviation was questioned. Or it was a means to eliminate nuance and justify murderhobo behavior.

There were other instances that came up, but those were the most common, and neither was fun for anyone.
At a minimum, 90% of the alignment fights that I've seen at tables concerned Paladins. The remaining 10ish% were, "You did X, so you're alignment is shifting and you get the penalty" or general arguments over what chaotic, lawful, etc. meant, much like most alignment threads.

Since I started 5e, there have been 0 arguments over alignment that I've seen at a table. Only in these threads.
 

Raduin711

Adventurer
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?
I can only assume in a world where spells like Detect Alignment exists, that Alignment is more than just a debatable description of a person's ethics/politics/etc. It's a physical reality with physical consequences. Whether or not they know is a matter of whether or not they have cast the spell. That said, if there is a tradition of evil in that tribe they are probably aware of it, and probably don't consider being evil to be a bad thing.

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.
Apparently alignment languages were special in that you had to be a member of that alignment to speak them, and if you heard an alignment language different than your own, you didn't understand it but you did know which alignment was being spoken. If you changed alignments, you would learn the new alignment language and forget the old one.

There is a certain appeal to it though. I think it is because if you are in a setting where Detect Alignment exists, I think a lot of people would be interested to know what alignment they were. Some might check up from time to time to see if they were still the alignment they thought they were. With alignment languages there is no question of whether you know your own alignment or not- you know.

But I don't think I have ever seen anyone play their character where they, in-character, stated their own alignment. Mostly it was just paladins casting detect evil.

Alignment has often been billed as a roleplaying tool but really it's a feature of the D&D setting... at least until more recent editions that removed IC consequences of it.
 

jsaving

Adventurer
But I don't think I have ever seen anyone play their character where they, in-character, stated their own alignment. Mostly it was just paladins casting detect evil.
I think this very much depends on the campaign. I've run with DMs whose main characters self-consciously champion the impersonal forces of "Lawful Evil" or "Chaotic Good" as well as a Blood War campaign in which the LE and CE alignments were routinely discussed by name. I'd also say there are a fair number of fantasy books, including but not limited to Moorcock's, where key NPCs are aware of and would be able to state both their own alignment and those of their compatriots.

On the other side of the coin, I've also participated in campaigns where alignment detection spells were banned. However even in those campaigns there were differences over whether alignment didn't exist at all, or whether it did exist but couldn't be objectively assessed (exemplified by one memorable campaign where NPCs openly lied about their alignments knowing there was no way for anyone to check).
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I mean, Jack the Ripper was evil, but this preacher guy? Guilty of a crime and deserves imprisonment but evil? That's not for me to say.
That's just it, though: if the same situation arises in a game where you're the DM, it is for you to say.

And inquiring minds around your table will be eagerly awaiting you to say it. :)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Apparently alignment languages were special in that you had to be a member of that alignment to speak them, and if you heard an alignment language different than your own, you didn't understand it but you did know which alignment was being spoken. If you changed alignments, you would learn the new alignment language and forget the old one.
When I first started playing we still had alignment tongues in the game - and they were never used. Never!

So out they went.

For some years after this we kept Thieves' and Assassins 'cants' as secret languages for those classes to use, but guess what? They were never used either.

So out they went too.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
That's just it, though: if the same situation arises in a game where you're the DM, it is for you to say.

And inquiring minds around your table will be eagerly awaiting you to say it. :)
Well the question was about real world preacher, not a PC.

But ... if it were a PC I'd probably just say it was another Tuesday for my murder-hobo players. :p

Okay, actually I do think PCs can cross the line now and then but if it happens it's time for a conversation. Taking revenge on someone who otherwise got away with murder? Certainly may well slip towards neutrality depending on a lot of factors. But so much of it depends on motivation, reasoning, where the player wants to go with the story. If this becomes a repeated thing or murder of innocents? Yeah, we've discussed that in our slot 0 and despite my kidding I don't want to run a game for murderers.

But TBH I've never had an issue in a game because I'm clear up front what I will and will not allow. If someone starts down that path I'll just warn them. I have lost a player over this ... but that's okay. Not every DM is going to run a game for every player.
 

Well the question was about real world preacher, not a PC.

But ... if it were a PC I'd probably just say it was another Tuesday for my murder-hobo players. :p

Okay, actually I do think PCs can cross the line now and then but if it happens it's time for a conversation. Taking revenge on someone who otherwise got away with murder? Certainly may well slip towards neutrality depending on a lot of factors. But so much of it depends on motivation, reasoning, where the player wants to go with the story. If this becomes a repeated thing or murder of innocents? Yeah, we've discussed that in our slot 0 and despite my kidding I don't want to run a game for murderers.

But TBH I've never had an issue in a game because I'm clear up front what I will and will not allow. If someone starts down that path I'll just warn them. I have lost a player over this ... but that's okay. Not every DM is going to run a game for every player.
I think the question of whether or not to allow such PC behavior is orthogonal to questions about what it means for alignment. It gets more at player motivation than character motivation. But you do raise another use for the alignment system which I had not heretofore considered: you need to have evil in order to have a "no evil PCs" table rule.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I think the question of whether or not to allow such PC behavior is orthogonal to questions about what it means for alignment. It gets more at player motivation than character motivation. But you do raise another use for the alignment system which I had not heretofore considered: you need to have evil in order to have a "no evil PCs" table rule.
You have to have evil, but you do not have to have alignment. Everyone at the table knew the difference between good and evil before playing the game. Alignment can help, but it isn't required.
 


Kitsune Inari

Explorer
I dislike alignment a bit less when it is literally alignment—i.e.: when it is part of a faction system. When your alignment means who writes your paychecks and who you take orders from.
Alignment in Chainmail and the White Box OD&D made sense. Alignment from Supplement I: Greyhawk onwards, not so much. I can't help being positively glad that 4E and 5E removed alignment entirely from the game.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
I disagree. We were each able to find evidence for our cases in the same paragraph of text on what Lawful Neutral meant. And if I’m being totally honest, I was trying to get away with playing a less-than-lawful monk by citing the bit about a personal code.
When I was very early in my career as what I now describe as "the world's first 3rd Edition grognard", I saw the alignment restriction of Monk as very fitting, but saw it as a starting point rather than a be-all-and-end-all of the subject. ("Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end." --Spock) You use the corebook RAW as a foundation, but then you build upon it. One of the concepts I came up with was the idea that monk abilities could be compatible with a Chaotic alignment, but the resulting character wouldn't make sense to call a "monk", so I made up a new name for it. In that process, I also came to the conclusion that True Neutral, and only True Neutral, ought to be a valid alignment for a non-Lawful Monk, one who was less "disciplined" than "detached", which I felt could achieve similar results. Rather than Shaolin Kung Fu, this would be based upon Taoist mysticism or Zen buddhism; instead of training your body to become a perfect instrument, you would attempt to attune yourself to cosmic energy flows (which are in no way particularly Lawful, they're more like a weather system, in which Chaotic results are ultimately the result of cosmic "rules" operating in a predictable fashion, producing larger patterns which appear random to a casual eye), with the result being that you would "practice the way of effortless effort". It still seemed properly Monkly, but would make it possible to justify also picking up a few levels of Bard or even Barbarian on the same character, since the stereotypical behavior of such classes is not incompatible with this vision of Monkliness.

Instructing the GM to take away the players’ abilities if they don’t follow a certain set of roleplaying restrictions is a recipe for arguments about how to interpret those restrictions.
Without getting into a real-world subject that I shouldn't argue about publicly (PM me if you want to discuss it in more depth), I will say only that it is possible to get a result similar to lawlessness by the creation of sufficiently complex laws. 5E is an extremely "chaotic" rules-set, with a broadly permissive approach typefied by the DM's Guild being a thing; very few things are prohibited, but likewise very few things are spelled out. If you tried to make a computer game based around a uniquely 5E adventure path, you'd have to make a lot of hard-and-fast decisions about how to program the fast-and-loose rules into the computer so that they worked consistently, or else your game would be buggy to the point of not functioning at all. 3E and Pathfinder have gone very much more with the "lawful" approach; they inherently assume that everything is disallowed by the rules unless there is a rule specifically allowing it (the opposite of 5E's assumption, which is that all the players' and DMs' ideas are legal unless the book says they aren't), and then they manufacture huge numbers of additional rules to specifically allow some new niche thing. While this approach is a convenient excuse to sell more and more new books, it is also a good way of providing detailed support to a GM who doesn't want to resolve all situations with off-the-cuff rulings that will be difficult to keep consistent, or adherent to a simulationist approach to the in-game reality (which many players, such as myself, very much appreciate, as it's easier to suspend disbelief when the space you're playing in seems fully fleshed-out).
 

Voadam

Adventurer
The house rules I adopted in my d20 games were to make alignment more cosmic forces descriptor significant but reduce the personal morality aspects of it.

I generally say play whatever you want however you want in my games and however you self identify your character is fine by me. In some d20 games I came up with a system where everyone was neutral unless they had a specific connection to an aligned force, so divine connection characters (cleric, paladin, druid, ranger generally) were aligned to the powers they connected to. Bad guys were neutral unless they were connected to aligned forces as well (such as descriptor outsiders). Undead were connected to [Evil] thus the undead creation spells all having that tag and them all detecting that way under the spell description in core 3e. This is regardless of whether they were a good guy ghost or not, it was inherent to the undead condition. I houseruled that Fey were [Chaotic], and Constructs were [Lawful], planetouched, celestial/fiendish, and halves would be their outsider alignment tags. This made detecting evil a demon hunter tool instead of a bad guy detector. I liked the feel of that and was happy with how it turned out.

It also allowed things like plots about corruption in churches to good gods to be a more easily accommodated thing. Also the over the top zealous inquisition paladins and a religious schism holy war in a good church.
 

dwayne

Adventurer
there was even if i remember back in first edition and kind of one that shifted depending upon what you did. Your actions and motives in the game shaped your out come, i remember a paladin losing spells and abilities because his tipped too far into the chaos part from law.
 

Zander

Explorer
I had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan Tweet at UK GenCon in London many years ago. He kindly agreed to sign my PHB despite the fact that I doorstepped him while he was moseying from stand to stand and not 'on duty' at the WotC booth. What a gent!

With regards to the topic at hand, I have read through the entire thread and one thing hasn't been stressed enough. The purpose of alignment in D&D was (is still?) to emulate the fantasy fiction of Anderson, Moorcock, Tolkien and others. It was a game mechanic to enhance D&D's reflection of the genre. It's akin to why elves in D&D have pointed ears (though I don't think JRRT said that in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings), halflings are short and bookish wizards don't go charging into battle in plate armour. In fiction, the author controls the universe, characters and narrative. In RPGs, it's the games' designers, adventures' writers, DMs and players. With the added agency afforded by RPGs, it was inevitable that players (and DMs) would push the boundaries of the genre. With that in mind when I DM, I permit players considerable latitude in their portrayal of their characters' alignments within the bounds of the genre. It is analogous to allowing players to have wizard characters with bulging sinews in a world where most mages are far from athletic. The game world may be simplistically aligned; the PCs don't have to be.
 

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