Alignment and Dungeons & Dragons

So let's talk alignment. For decades now, Alignment has been one of the most hotly contested aspects of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Many people consider it to be either extraneous or some sort of limiting factor for playing characters. Some think it's "stupid." Many simply eschew it entirely, removing it from their game.

Others do use it as a hard definer as to how one is supposed to play their character. Both of these approaches fail to take into account the purpose of alignment in D&D...which, granted, is a difficult one to wrap one's head around.

Alignment is both an inherent and important part of the D&D cosmology, and an important descriptor of who your character is, what they believe, and how they view the cosmos. The key word here, however, is descriptor. Alignment describes your character; it doesn't lock them in a box.

Alignment in OD&D

Alignment first appeared in the earliest version of the game, but had only one axis: law and chaos. It originated (as most people are likely aware) in the Eternal Champion / Elric of Melnibone works by Michael Moorcock. In those works, the entire universe hinges upon an eternal battle between the forces of law and chaos, order and entropy. Originally, Alignment showed simply where your character fell in this struggle. Where did they side? 

Too many (admittedly and unfortunately, reinforced by a number of published materials at the time) assumed that law meant "good" and chaos meant "evil," when in fact, morality never came into the picture of law and chaos. Possibly because of this (though that's speculation on my part) in the first Holmes Basic Set, a Good and Evil axis was added to the alignment structure, and by the time of AD&D, we had the 9-alignment setup we have today. 

So What Is Alignment?

This is the million-dollar question, and I strongly suspect that those who are dismissive of alignment simply don't understand its intent, or the role it is intended to pay within the scope of the game. The AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide has a detailed section on exactly what Alignment is, and how it works in game. Indeed, there is discussion of a graph with a large range of possibility within each alignment; that is, there's a near-infinite set of possibilities regarding what counts as, for example, chaotic good, and even a gray area between neutral good and chaotic good. The DM is advised to essentially start each character at the center of the graph on their given alignment, and monitor their shifts as the game progresses from extreme to gray area, and even into other alignment territory. 

It's not easy for a character to betray their alignment or change alignments. Alignments are not a simple list of "do" and "don't." They are, however, an important aspect of game play. A Paladin, in AD&D, without the Lawful Good alignment, becomes nothing more than an unfettered superhero. By the same token, however, people tend to play lawful good characters as "stupidly heroic" and unbearable to be around--a lawful good character does not have to be this way to fall within the realm of lawful good. They are simply those who champion goodness and order. Indeed, in the graph itself, the four "extreme" alignments--Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Evil, and Chaotic Evil--have the largest area of wiggle room of all the nine. 

To use the terminology fromt he graph, not all LG characters are saintly. Not all CG are Beatific, not all LE are Diabolic and not all CE are Demoniac. 

Chaotic neutral characters, by contrast, are not chaotic stupid. They don't live their lives by rolling dice to determine whether they use a fork or a spoon to eat breakfast. They are simply free spirits who value personal freedom and individuality above any concept of law, order, or concern for others. While the graph may show them possessing somewhat less space, existing in the gray area between chaotic good and chaotic evil, characters in this area still have some room to play with the interpretation of their alignment.

AD&D Alignment Graph

Functioning Evil

Another important factor to consider: not every evil character is a non-functional, unreasoning, violent bastard who never thinks about other people. If they were, evil wouldn't be remotely a threat to good because it couldn't work together. Even the most evil characters can form relationships. They can like people, they can even fall in love. They can do things that seem selfless, though it's likely they have an agenda for why they do such things somewhere. 

The difference between a good character in love and an evil character in love can be seen when the object of affection declares they wish to leave. The good character wants only the happiness and well-being of their object of affection. The evil character wants their beloved in their life. Period. They may try anything to stop their beloved from leaving. They could kidanp them, coerce them, hold them hostage, or even attempt to kill them, believing that, "If I can't have you, no one can." Yet up until that time, they may treat their beloved every bit as kindly and generously as the good aligned character, even showering them with gifts in an attempt to maintain their love. 

Thus, evil characters can adventure with good-aligned characters, so long as they have a reason to do so, and that reason can simply be that they like their companions and want to have them around. 

Within the context of D&D, the drow are a primary example of a chaotic evil society that, quite simply, functions. It functions because while the drow embrace the chaos of change, and the selfishness and decadence of evil, they form relationships. They understand that certain people are important to their plans, or even their lives. Will they discard such people when they become angered, view themselves as having been wronged, or no longer need them? Certainly, they will. That doesn't mean that they cannot function by creating personal connections. 

In the end, all of us, even sociopaths and misanthropes, need other people. Any psychologist or mental health therapist will tell you that. So yes, you can have an evil character that functions within the bounds of an adventuring party. It just takes a really good player to pull off the nuances required to make it work. 

For a great look at alignment specifically within the context of D&D, and evil alignments in particular, see the third D&D movie, The Book of Vile Darkness, which I personally think is quite underrated as a D&D film, and is worth a watch as it's not only a great example of how evil parties work together towards a common goal, and develop interpersonal relationships, but it is at the same time an outstanding exploration of what a Paladin really is. 

True Neutral

True neutral has often been stated to be the most difficult alignment to play, and in many ways, it is the most restrictive. A true neutral character has the least amount of "play" regarding what they believe; they exist at the very center of all the other alignments, and they campion absolute balance in the cosmos. Some choose to play true neutral as a completely unaligned character who doesn't have a stake at all in the battle between good or evil (and indeed, 5th Edition offers an unaligned option, though it's usually applied to animals rather than sentient beings). The problem is, again, that sentient beings make a choice to value something, at some point in time, which means they must step outside of being unaligned. 

A True Neutral character (like a druid) is difficult, as they seek to maintain the balance at all times. In general, such characters will stand against the forces of darkness, as these represent more of a lack of balance--more destruction, more tyranny, etc.--than that championed by good characters. If, however, the scales tip too far, the true neutral character will be inclined to switch sides and turn on their former allies, as all good quickly becomes corrupted towards evil and the unbalance begins again. The best result, in the eyes of a true neutral character, is to maintain the delicate balance of all things at all times. 

Alignment Language

Another aspect of alignment of which people tend to be very dismissive is that of alignment language. Again, in the context of the role alignment is intended to play in the game, where the PCs are pawns who progress to major players in a grand conflict between cosmic forces, alignment language makes perfect sense. In a game that is less concerned with cosmic forces and balance, alignment language can easily be dropped with no ill effect. 

Can Alignment Be Dumped?

Of course it can. It's your game, and nobody is telling you that you're playing it wrong. From where I sit, however, alignment when properly used can be an important part of the AD&D experience that adds a great deal to the game. It's not a box or a set of chains to tie your characters down to a specific list of behavioral codes. It is, rather, a broad descriptor of your character's general moral and ethical views. It's a shorthand for the way they look at life, at law and order, and at the universe in general. If nothing else, it's a sort of anchor point that you can look upon when trying to consider how your character would react in an unfamiliar situation. 

Alignment is a character trait, when it comes right down to it. For some classes, such as the Paladin or Druid, it's more essential than it is for others, like a fighter or even a magic user. Even still, it exists because the AD&D game was created with certain cosmic assumptions in mind, which Gygax and Co. assumed would be in play across a wide range of campaign milieu. Certainly it's more essential to a game set on Melnibone than one set in the Hyborian Age, but even still, the descriptor aspect of it, I think, is vital to fleshing out a character within the scope and boundaries of the game.

Addendum: Law vs. Chaos--What Gygax Said

Addendum 12/11/2018: I have just discovered a gem I'd forgotten about, while going through my old copies of The Strategic Review for purposes of my next blog (on spell components). In the Feburary 1976 issue (Vol. 2, issue 1), is an article by Gary Gygax entitled, "The Meaning of Law and Chaos in Dungeons & Dragons and Their Relationships to Good and Evil." It's worth noting that this article addresses alignment in the original D&D rules, and features the expanded 5-alignment system that would later appear in Holmes. Still, it offers insight as to the intent of these forces in the D&D paradigm, which is something we should consider. 

A number of people on social media have (some vehemently) argued that "Law," in terms of D&D, does, in fact, equate to "good," and "Chaos," does, in fact, equate to "evil." These people, according to Gygax himself, are simply wrong. It is in this article that Gygax said, "had I the opportunity to do D&D over I would have made the whole business very much clearer by differentiating the four categories, and many chaotic creatures woudul be good, while many lawful creatures would be evil." (TSR, Feb. 76, p. 3). 

This is the first appearance of what would later become the alignment graph above, this one featuring law, chaos, good, evil and neutrality, with Heven existing at the upper left of Lawful Good, Paradise at the top of "Good," Elysium placed at the upper right corner of chaos and good, Nirvana at the far left of Law, Limbo at the far right of Chaos, Hell at the lower left of law and evil, Hades at the center of neutrality and evil, and the Abyss at the lower right of chaos can evil.

Gygax goes on to say the following:

"Now, consider the term 'Law' as opposed to 'Chaos.' While they are nothing if not opposites, they are neither good nor evil in their definitions. A highly regimented society is typically governed by strict law, i.e., a dictatorship, while societies which allow more individual freedom tend to be more chaotic." (TSR, Feb. 76, p. 3). This statement expressly identifies chaos with a value on personal freedom. 

Gygax then goes on to list a number of traits that can be associated with each of the four axes (law, chaos, good, and evil). Law is associated with such traits as reliability propriety, righteousness, regularity, methodical, predictable, uniform, prescribed rules and order. Chaos is seen as associated with being unruly, confused, turmoil unrestrained, irregular, unmethodical, unpredictable, disordered, lawless and anarchy. 

Again, law-oriented characters tend to be bound by a very ordered, somewhat rigid, look at the cosmos--things have their proper place, and they are creatures of habit. Chaotic individuals tend towards more personal freedom and, yes, to a degree, randomness. This doesn't mean they can't make decisions or that they just behave foolishly. It means, rather, that they are highly adaptable and behave as the situation seems to best require. 

Good characters tend to be kind, honest, sincere, helpful, and beneficial, while evil tend to be mischievous, dishonest, bad, injurious, wicked or corrupt.

The article goes on for awhile, and if you can get your hands on a copy, is a very good read, but it does a great job of explaining alignment, in terms of the way Gygax viewed it, while admitting to his own shortcomings in its original conception in OD&D. 

Comments

  1. I'm sorry but your interpretation of alignment, while not bad is not at all consistent with what the books say. Personally I like the idea of equating chaos with freedom and that's what I did in the last few years that I was still using alignment. But the book plainly states that chaotic characters value "randomness" which is just stupid. The description of Chaotic neutral says "randomness and Disorder so Chaotic Stupid is playing it by the book.
    I'm not suggesting anyone play it by the book.
    I usually tell people that I don't use alignment in my game but anyone who plays my game will quickly realize that good and evil are still very important in my game world. It's law and chaos I dropped entirely because even when I tried to reinterpret them as Law and order vs individuality and freedom the simply didn't work or fit into the world I was making.
    Seriously, it's impossible to play a lawful good or chaotic good character believably because the the demands of being lawful or chaotic with always come in serious conflict with the much more important demands of being good, and the idea that law or chaos are just as important as good and evil is both ridiculous and offensive.

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    1. Anyone can find a single quote out of context to support their own bias. My article takes a broad look at alignment as it is presented in OD&D, Holmes, B/X, BECMI, AND AD&D, throughout all of the books, as it's clarified, explained and extrapolated.

      You chose to list a single quote from a 2-sentence description of Chaotic Neutral. Because you don't want to think about the issue, but would rather just be dismissive.

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  2. I agree that alignment can be useful. My issue is with the specific formulation of alignment on the good-evil and law-chaos axes. There was a suggestion in a Dragon magazine to change those to for and against a religious structure and for or against a national structure, so that a character might be rated as pro-Catholic and anti-English instead of "Chaotic Good". This allowed for more subtlety in the game, such that French Paladins (Pro-Catholic, Pro-France) could fight against English Paladins (Pro-Catholic, Pro-England) without the weirdness of having Lawful Good fighting against Lawful Good. Or whatever was appropriate for the particular setting.

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    1. I mean, like you I agree that whatever is best for the setting is the best way to go, but I don't know that I'm sold on that take. I actually like the ethical/moral axes for alignment and think they closely mirror the way people actually behave in the world.

      I did once briefly play with an alignment system that was literally based on light and dark. Not as in good and evil, but literally "in the light" and "in the dark." I can't for the life of me remember how it worked out and I've no idea where my notes got to. I should dig them up at some point.

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