An Ontology of D&D Alignment

Big J Money

Over the years, I’ve continued to be surprised that neither TSR nor WotC made an effort to educate in any depth the ways one can play with alignment in D&D.

In an effort to understand it more deeply, I’ve written this tool to break down and identify the meaningful characteristics of a given implementation of alignment (“alignment system”). You could apply this to the alignment that you use in your own D&D campaigns, those used by other DMs, or one which a given player uses for their character. Usually we’re not aware of these characteristics; they are not often deliberately identified or chosen. But, by learning about them one may become more aware of the possible implications, interactions and even compare and contrast different perspectives on D&D alignment using (somewhat) measurable criteria. My hope is to inspire at least one person to consider engaging with D&D’s alignment when maybe before you thought it was a pointless exercise.

I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m just another DM or player like yourself. There is no TLDR for this article. If you don’t enjoy analysis, you may wish to skip.

Features of Alignment
These are ten properties which determine the form and behavior a given alignment system exhibits; I have broken them up, below. There is also a final section on actual interpretations of the alignments themselves.

I. Objectivity
Is there one true and Objective answer for every question about Alignment in your campaign, or is there Subjectivity? An objective alignment is a ground truth for your setting. Alignment is explicitly defined, and every situation can be adjudicated by the DM according to a ruling. A purely subjective alignment cannot be measured or judged. The individual character decides whether they are acting according to a stated alignment or not and there is no correct or incorrect interpretation.

To have a fully subjective alignment system is practically equivalent to not having an alignment system, and none of these other alignment features have any meaning when alignment is wholly subjective.

This feature can be binary, or it can have a scalar (partial) characteristic by way of a threshold. A DM might rate actions to be "inconsequential" and treat them subjectively until a threshold is crossed by “very strong” action, at which point the treatment becomes objective.

Example: A Lawful Good character steals food to avoid starvation.
  • In a fully objective alignment system, the DM will delineate which alignment this action falls under (ex. he may declare it chaotic).
  • In a fully subjective alignment system, the DM does not declare this to align to anything, allowing the player of the character doing the stealing to determine what alignment the action falls under.
  • In a partially objective alignment system, the DM may not care about this action because it falls under the threshold of things that are to be treated subjectively; but if the same character kills an innocent, then the DM may declare that action to be evil and/or chaotic because it crosses an established threshold of “very” evil and/or chaotic.
N.B.1: In an objective alignment, one need not predetermine everything up front, but can adjudicate on demand, developing the alignment on the fly.

N.B.2: It could be interesting to have give the Good alignment a high threshold for objectively good actions, giving PCs a chance to measurably increase their goodness and attain sainthood, if they dare try. In such a world, it would be easy to fall from grace and hard to find redemption.
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Big J Money

II. Mythicality
Is Alignment a Mythical, Cosmic Force or simply a Mundane description of a character's history of behavior? A wholly mythical alignment is circumscriptive -- the being in question doesn't have totally free will, and by their nature they are bound to act according their alignment. A wholly mundane alignment is simply a description of typical behavior as displayed by the being’s actions.

This feature can be binary or scalar. For example, you might imagine Evil or Chaos as a corrupting, cosmic or mythical force. Some creatures could be fully corrupted (binary) while others are only partially so, to a greater or lesser degree, and possessing a chance to act of free will, however unlikely.

In all editions, D&D publications to me do not suggest either direction along the mythical scale for monsters, leaving this distinction open to interpretation. For PCs, all editions strongly indicate a mundane alignment -- or at least a mostly mundane alignment for demi-humans -- giving PCs free will over their behavior, yet encouraged to take a particular allegiance and stick to it.

N.B.: It could be interesting to tie this mythicality to something, such as immortality, or simply years lived. As a creature ages, its alignment becomes more “solidifed” and unchangeable.
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Big J Money

III. Exclusivity
Is every aspect of Alignment wholly Exclusive to one pole, or can certain elements Include more than one alignment? Exclusive alignment behaviors can only be good or evil, lawful or chaotic; while inclusive alignment behavior can be partially good and evil, partially lawful and chaotic.

In a mythical alignment system, an evil creature’s behavior (for example) can be inclusive, but it will always lean more heavily toward evil than good. A mundane and inclusive alignment system displays the most shades of gray because any behavior can be partially good and partially evil at the same time.
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Big J Money

IV. Dynamism
Can a creature’s Alignment change Dynamically or is it Static? A fully mundane alignment system is also at least somewhat dynamic by virtue of its free will nature; the level of dynamism determining how rapidly and easily one may change their alignment.

A mythical alignment system can be set anywhere along a spectrum of fully static vs fully dynamic. In a dynamic and mythical alignment system, the cosmic influence of alignment changes periodically, according to some rationale as prescribed by the DM. Individual beings do not have the power to change their alignment nor act outside its boundary, but forces outside their control can change it for them.

N.B.: I have never heard of a campaign with a dynamic mythical alignment system, but it seems intriguing.
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Big J Money

V. Reliability
Do beings act Reliably according to their Alignment or Unreliably? A strongly reliable alignment system means that creature behavior is dependable and predictable. A strongly unreliable alignment system still means that creatures act according to their alignment more than half of the time (else they would cease to be aligned), but not by much.

A wholly mythical and wholly exclusive alignment system guarantees 100% reliability, but this is of course not how most alignment systems go, and probably would not be very interesting or perhaps would even be too high of a bar for perfection.

A wholly unreliable system is similar to having a wholly subjective system, it is a system with no meaning; however, one could have only some creatures acting completely unreliably.
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Big J Money

VI. Categoricity
Is the Alignment of a being wholly determined by a Category it belongs to, or are the traits of the Individual the only factor? A wholly categorical alignment means that the being has an alignment because it is part of a group. A wholly individual alignment means that no group informs any being's alignment.

This feature can be binary or scalar. A strongly categorical alignment system means most member creatures in a group can be expected to share an expected alignment, but a few may not.

Most editions of D&D monsters by default present a strongly, or even perhaps wholly, categorical alignment system for monsters. Some older editions include categorical alignments for PC demi-human races, as well.
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Big J Money

VII. Consequence
Is Alignment deeply Consequential and connected to the rest of the campaign world and cosmology, or is it Inconsequential and isolated? A very consequential alignment means that player character action carries a moral and ethical weight that creates ripples of reactions from the environment and its inhabitants as a result. A wholly inconsequential alignment system serves the purpose of guiding a player’s role-play, but it never prompts any kind of reaction from the DM.

This feature is scalar, from an alignment system with 0 consequence up to ones with deep, frequent and/or immediate consequences.

Older editions of D&D implemented rules to enable consequence in specific scenarios. A Paladin can lose their holy powers granted by their deity by not upholding their alignment values, for example. Certainly there is fertile ground for interesting ideas here, if handled well.
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Big J Money

VIII. Dimensionality
Is there one, single Dimension that represents the Alignment, or are there myriad possibilities? A one-dimensional alignment is upheld and portrayed only by the one, true way. A multi-dimensional alignment can be represented by any one of a list of various possible guiding principles.

This feature is scalar, from 1 up to a potentially unlimited number of dimensions.

Examples of one-dimensional alignments are: the idea that Law always means obeying the law of the land, that Chaos always means acting randomly, and that true neutrality always means to be perfectly balanced between Good, Evil, Law and Chaos.
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Big J Money

IX. Transparency
This is a two-parter:

Firstly, are the overall features of an Alignment (that we’ve discussed here) known by the players or kept secret?

Secondly, are the Alignment ramifications of individual actions, as carried out by the PCs, known by the players or kept secret?

In a fully transparent alignment, players would be told how alignment works in the setting; and every time one of their characters takes an action, they would be aware of which alignment that action corresponds to. A wholly opaque system is left completely mysterious to the players at all times. Note that we are referring to out of character DM to player communication. An opaque system precludes neither in-fiction consequences of PC action from arising, nor players drawing conclusions from said consequences.

This feature can be binary or scalar. A partially transparent system may reveal the overall rules of alignment, but not the results of individual actions, or some actions but not all. Or it may always reveal the results of any given action but keep the overall underlying system a mystery.

N.B.: If you are to have any opaque aspects to your alignment, I recommend communicating to the players specifically which pieces you are revealing openly and which pieces they do not know for sure, and what the implications will be in your campaign. Even in a wholly opaque system I recommend the nature and procedure of alignment consequence to be transparent.
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Big J Money

X. Facades
Characters also needn’t be aware of how alignment works in the setting. If we say that a given Alignment System is a description of how alignment works in a DM’s campaign setting, then a Facade is how any given character thinks alignment works in the world around them.

Characters may be unaware of alignment and unaware that they are so. They may know alignment is significant, but realize they are unaware of exactly what is good vs bad, or lawful vs neutral sometimes. Or they may possess their own moral code; one that is untrue, or only partially true, but be convinced they are right. An NPC could be an omniscient deity that knows all these secrets; or, is posing as one and has convinced a PC of its lies.

“Facades” is plural because a DM can place different facades upon various individuals or groups in the setting. She may use an opaque alignment system and place a facade on the PCs (this may warrant two alignments -- revealed/believed and hidden/actual). Or make the alignment system fully transparent and allow the players to make up their own facades for their PCs, if they wish.

A facade is also in two parts:

Firstly, it is the meta-knowledge a character has about the nature of alignment. This ranges from 100% ignorance about the ways of the cosmos, to holding strong personal views about the nature of morality and order; whether correct or incorrect. A character may believe that evil is absolute (and be right or wrong about that), that law is subjective, be undecided on what they believe about anything, or choose not to have any opinion at all.

Secondly, a facade is the actual moral or ethical principles that the character espouses. A creature belives that X is the way they wish to live. X may be good, evil, lawful, chaotic or neutral. A creature may also mis-identify. They may believe X is the way they wish to live, and that X is good; while in actuality, X is neutral or evil.

Facades are optional. If there are none, it generally is because your objective alignment system is known and understood by the general populace. If alignment is fully subjective, in a sense everything is a facade; but nothing matters.

N.B.1: The most immediately significant facade for the DM to create is the status quo. This is what the PCs will rub up against on a regular basis, and perhaps will determine their own outlook.

N.B.2: Imagine a mythically chaotic evil creature with the facade that it is lawful good. Or that it believes it knows the nature of the cosmos, but incorrectly believes that nature to be pure subjectivity.
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Big J Money

Picking, Choosing, and Combining
In addition to the binary and scalar attributes of the features listed above, it's possible to combine opposite features within one alignment system. You can pick where such combinations are contrasted: between individual to individual, group to group, or even alignment to alignment.

For example, one might give monsters a mythical alignment while giving players a mundane one. One could treat Good and Law as mostly mundane and alignments, while treating Evil and Chaos as mythical ones. One could set the axis of Law / Chaos to be purely objective while making the axis of Good / Evil subjective.

Distributions Thereof
Finally, it’s necessary to indentify not just how the alignment system functions, but where it’s applied. How common is the existence of evil beings, and where are they found? Are most people good or neutral? Does it vary from location location? Group to group? After determining the distributions of actual alignment, remember to determine the distributions of facades, if there are any. Perhaps most peoples’ of the realm are neutral but believe themselves to be good. No wonder their benevolent gods grew silent.
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Big J Money

Various Definitions of Alignment
In addition to how alignment behaves, every DM and player possesses their own definition of what each of the different points on the alignment diagram mean.

These interpretations need not be merely stances that we have about alignment. They can also be beliefs that characters have about alignment. In other words, in your setting there can be a “true” definition for each alignment, as well as multiple “working” definitions held by characters that match or contradict the truth. I’m really just rehashing facades, from above.

I list neutrality first because I believe this clearly and immediately shows how radically different an individual campaign’s definition of the Alignments can vary from another, since often people see neutrality as simply “the middle of an axis” and give it no further thought. It’s hardly that simple (but it can be if you want).

Again, I do not claim these to be exhaustive; merely many I have encountered. Add your own to the lists below.

Possible definitions of Neutrality
  1. To be neutral is to not care whether one acts for good, evil, law or chaos; inevitably acting according to any of them for various personal reasons
  2. To be neutral is to actively avoid being good, evil, lawful or chaotic
  3. To be neutral is to work to balance out one’s own diametric* actions
  4. To be neutral is to work to balance the consequences of the diametricality of others (perhaps sometimes joining one “side” or the other to maintain balance on a large scale)
  5. To be neutral is to have no opinion or care for others, neither positive nor negative, unless it would impact oneself (self-centeredness)
  6. To be neutral is to swear allegience to neutrality itself as its own “side”, and be equally aligned against the other 2 alignments (picture a ternary plot instead of a line axis; a 3-way conflict)
  7. Neutrality is an illusion, or perhaps an untraversable void between the poles at the end of the axes
  8. Neutrality is best represented by more than one of the definitions above, combined (see, Dimensionality, above)
* -- The opposing poles of Law vs Chaos or Good vs Evil

Possible definitions of Good versus Evil
  1. Good vs Evil is going out of one’s way to aid others versus going out of one’s way to harm others
  2. Good vs Evil is selflessness (helping others at cost to oneself) versus selfishness (helping oneself at cost to others)
  3. Good vs Evil is improving society for all its members versus making it worse for some
  4. Good vs Evil is determined by judging one’s actions against a set of qualifying moral and/or ethical criteria (actions are determined to be good or evil by said criteria; ex: accepted mores of a society)
  5. Good vs Evil is doing what you believe to be right versus what you know to be wrong (conscience)
  6. Good vs evil is acting according to the angel versus the devil on your shoulders, as role-played by other players at the table
  7. Good vs Evil is best represented by more than one of the definitions above, combined
Possible definitions of Law versus Chaos
  1. Law vs Chaos is obeying versus disobeying external authoritative stricture(s) placed upon one’s actions
  2. Law vs Chaos is following any consistent stricture (even internal) versus following no strictures
  3. Law vs Chaos is consistently ordered behavior versus random behavior
  4. Law vs Chaos is servitude versus freedom
  5. Law vs Chaos is conformity versus non-conformity
  6. Law vs Chaos is society versus anarchy
  7. Law vs Chaos is inhabited territory versus wild territory
  8. Law vs Chaos is might versus magic
  9. Law vs Chaos is (wo)man versus beast
  10. Law vs Chaos is knowledge versus ignorance
  11. Law vs Chaos is conviction vs apostasy / agnosticism
  12. Law vs Chaos is best represented by more than one of the definitions above, combined
Further possible definitions for either, or both, of the axes
  1. The axis poles are opposed ideals one aspires to
  2. The axis poles are opposed “sides” in a greater conflict that one pledges allegience to; whatever side you are on is the “right” side
  3. The axis poles are opposed magnets one is inexorably drawn to
  4. The axis poles are inherent, innate and opposed properties of beings (see Mythicality, above)
  5. The axis poles require each other (necessary paradox)
  6. There is no axis; the poles are not in opposition, but rather different perspectives
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Big J Money

Closing Notes
It’s futile to contemplate the question, “how do the D&D rules expect me to adjudicate or roleplay alignment?” -- and foolish to be convinced that one espouses “the correct” answer -- because, as it turns out, the rules fail to include but a slice of the complexity that players and DMs have mulled over throughout the decades of this hobby. Therefore, go with a system that is fun to you and your group and run with it. Hopefully this information will help you idenitfy one or more that make you happy, or serves to solidify your own reasons and justifications for interpreting alignment the way you already do (or perhaps cause you to question it).

My only piece of advice is for DMs: if you do clearly identify your position on the alignment system for your campaign, share that position with your players. If your system is transparent, be forthcoming about its features and definitions in a way they understand intuitively. I wouldn’t break it down like I have here, at least in some places, since this level of clinicism can ruin any sense of immersion. And I do recommend your system be transparent unless you know what you’re doing! I haven’t yet played with an opaque system, but I’m sure it could be fun if run properly.
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Creator of the Elfgrinder Mech
So, I read through your essay, and I must say that it is a well-written and fairly complete analysis of the ontological, and, in fact, tautological variance betwixt alignment philosophies and interpretation of alignment on a different basis depending on the point of the campaign or the story you wish to tell.

The incorporation of arguments for mythical versus mundane alignment variance for PCs and crisis is particularly intriguing.

It's a nice little article, not all of which I agree with, but it's fairly well reasoned and analytical.

The perspective is refreshing.
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Ok, wow. You didn't go where I thought you were going to go, and that's really cool. Typically a person that posts tries to define what alignment is. What you've tried to do here is define a map for all possible alignment systems that could be in play, and that is refreshing and highly original. Someone give this man about 500 likes.

It's going to take me a few hours to even respond adequately to this post. The first thing I want to try to do is describe how alignment works in my game using your system, and see if your universal map can actually fit what I'm doing. But that's going to take a lot of thought in and of itself.

Big J Money

Thanks, I'm glad my intention is coming across here. Celebrim, yes, working out whether you are able to functionally paint up your alignment system using my colors is the kind if thing I'd love to see attempted. I wish you good luck.

Aebir, I agreee the mythical vs mundane feature in an alignment system is an interesting point to pivot upon. It is a property that has caused raging debates between people who cling to one side or other, and I find it interesting to step back and observe its possible implications in a setting, non-judgmentally.

Edit: Perhaps my own alignment is neutral. :ROFLMAO:


Goblin Queen
I adore this analysis and think it could make an extremely valuable tool for discussing alignment. It tends to be a very controversial subject, and I think this reveals a big part of the reason why: many of us are unknowingly working from different assumed parameters of alignment, yet we discuss it as if we are all using the same system. I might run my own way of handling alignment through this and see what I come up with.

Enrico Poli1

A great post!

My impression is that you wanted to help us to better understands what Alignment is, by building a system of categories that clarify a number of aspects. In that you were rather successful, for example I gained new insights thanks to you!

My first objection: your approach is purely hypothetical/essentialist/platonic, because the abstract categories try to absorb the concrete behaviour. In fact, you never mention concrete freedom.
That is the weekness of ethics in analytic philosophy (IMO): they want to clarify thought, but haven't any power to clarify and help practical ethics, concrete free choices...
In the game, that means that your (excellent) essay helps DMs and players to better classify/clarify Alignment, but it doesn't offer any help to put in action a better Alignment in concrete play.

Thank you for your effort. I tried my best to put together a strong objection, I hope it'll help.