Another Rant About Alignment


My perspective on the most steadfast rule of D&D that isn't used anywhere else.

I was cleaning my house this afternoon, and thinking about the Top Secret game I'll be running tomorrow at a local con. For those that must know, I've started running games that were forgotten in the 80's. I know that there are some games that are still being played but some of them have had massive rules changes, D&D for example. Others haven't changed much except possibly to update technology to keep it two steps ahead of reality (You hear me talking Shadowrun?)

So there I was vaccuumming, and thinking about character creation and I start thinking about bureau. This is not the dresser in my son's room, but which department the agents in this Top Secret adventure will be in or why they have to choose at all. I'm tempted to say phooey and not make them choose, because all the rule requiring a bureau actually does is change the rate at which characters advance. For those requiring clarification, characters must belong to one of 3 bureaus, Confiscation (taking stuff), Assassination (taking lives), and investigation (taking information). There's a fourth, administration, but only certain GMPCs get that. During the adventure characters from any and all bureaus partake in whatever mission the GM has created. It is possible that 19 assassins will go on an intel mission, it doesn't matter for play. But at the end of the session, when experience points are doled out, everyone gets points for everything done, but different amounts depending on their bureau, and the classifications require different amounts for level advancement.

Now, my thoughts leap to, how can I tell them to ignore it when there's a big spot on the character sheet asking for it? I consider saying that it's like alignment: That it's really just sort of a flavor thing that isn't really important except to keep all the characters from being the same, but that nobody really uses it or cares.

Skipping along merrily, my mind now asks if really nobody cares about it. It is one of the few things that remains entirely unchanged from the first edition to the 3.5 edition of AD&D. Yet everybody's understanding of it is somewhat different, few people think that it adds to the flavor of the game and (almost) nobody thinks it adds to the fun of the game. Additionally, why is it the only game that uses it, at least in its unintelligible enduring form. Villains & Vigilantes has alignment in the good or evil sense, but primarily so heroes can tell who the villains are. A few other games have it primarily as "side", but the fact remains that even in its heyday, TSR did not use this concept in any of it's other games such as Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, Gangbusters, Gamma World, or Marvel Super Heroes.

My take on alignments

Good vs. Evil

This is the easier axis to define, so I'm starting here. I think the axis is misnamed. It's actually the Society or Me axis. Basically, if doing or not doing a certain action is beneficial to myself but not to society in general or the other way around it's a all vs. me decision. This is illustrated by the noble sacrifice. If the hero dies, the world is saved, but if the proto-hero runs, his life will be relatively unchanged (or improved) at the cost of suffering for the masses. Soldiers put their lives on the line so that a society may have (in theory) a better life. The same applies to fire-fighters, police, and emergency medical staff. Sometimes the sacrifice is less, second and third shift workers sacrifice day-shift convenience so that others have greater convenience.

Inversely, most of the characters perceived as evil are really more selfish. The slum-lord does not WANT to see widows and orphans suffer, it's just that he wants the rent more than he wants them to not suffer. A mean act is only evil if the villain doesn't gain from it. All of the mean things committed by Boss Hogg (Dukes of Hazzard) were done so that he might have more wealth. In Wayne's World, Rob Lowe did not set out to destroy Wayne and Garth, but to make money.

In between the Society and Me positions are choosing between 2 bads or 2 goods which really come down to value judgement. Which good is greater, which bad is lesser. This is a giant gray area and different aspect of the good or bad will carry different weights with different folk, and any that disagree will say the decision was evil, and those in agreement will applaud.

Law and Chaos

This axis is only half misnamed. The choice ought to be Law and Anarchy. To go further than anarchy away from law (into chaos) requires intentional constant law-breaking, that is murder, rape, theft, and arson with every breath. Not happening. Shooting sprees are about the closest one can get.

Law is adherence and obedience to the law, even the stupid, pointless, or arbitrary laws. At the other end is anarchy, which contends that any law is bad because it restricts freedom of choice. As an example, I submit myself. I am basically lawful. I pay my taxes (and don't gripe too much), don't use illegal substances, and pretty much don't kill or steal. On the other hand I think the freeway speed limit ought to be as fast as your car can go, and as a result, tend to get places quicker than the law allows.

Neutral with respect to the law/anarchy axis is not really possible. It would essentially mean that you'd favor laws that favored you or your causes. I do think you can be somewhat lawful, such as my case, but that's not really neutral, at least not be the D&D definition.

Applying the new definitions

Instead of a square alignment map with each side defined by one of the alignment definitions and the corners by the combinations I see more of a half ovoid. The horizontal axis would have Me at one end, and Society at the other. Anarchy would be the horizontal axis and Lawful would be the upper vertical limit. Ideally the top edge of the mapable area would be a half circle with the tangent directly above the center of the Me/Society axis. Because no society's laws are perfectly neutral with respect to that axis, the area will be lopsided, usually toward good in a democracy and toward me in a dictatorship. The flaw in this model is that the laws in a dictatorship favor HIM, rather than ME, but they are still individual-centric. In this situation the degree of lawfulness will generally be less.

2nd Edition AD&D actually went more with the evil = selfish route, which I was always a big fan of. It's a much more human distinction to say you are selfish than to say that you are interested in hurting and killing others. That's not evil; it's psychopathic.

What I thought was interesting is that D&D changed its idea about Chaotic Neutral completely from AD&D and D&D 3.0. Instead of being a madman, you were now a free spirit.

For some reason I thought the basis of D&D good-evil alignment had to do with the consideration of the sanctity of life with a caveat for intelligence. For example the "Law of the Jungle" worked for animals, but Kobolds and Orcs were branded evil due to having the capability to discern the difference between gratuitous or selfish violence and survival. Once defined by this basis "good" could smite evil at their leisure because "evil" invalidated its own existence. Or something along those lines.

"Instead of being a madman, you were now a free spirit."
It is a fine line they tread here.

On the other hand I think the freeway speed limit ought to be as fast as your car can go, and as a result, tend to get places quicker than the law allows

If I were to play Devil's Advocate here, I would say that this also fits (perhaps even better) your description of Good vs Evil. In order to arrive a mere 2 - 3 minutes earlier, you are putting the lives of dozens of people driving around you at greater risk of serious injury or death in the event of an accident.

Society has determined that the safety of the public depends on speeds kept within a certain range. There is plenty of evidence that as those speeds increase, the risk of death or severe injury increases. However, the "Me" benefits from greater speed.

So, basically, the two axes you describe appear to be aligned (pun unintended).... which just goes to show how slippery the whole concept of alignment is.

When I think about it, the D&D alignment system is, in a sense, a measure of how much of a sociopath the character is (or is not). Thinking about it that way, there are really multiple axes:

Selfishness -- Self-explanatory, similar to your Me vs Society take on alignment.

Empathy -- How much or how little does the character take the plight of others into account with his or her actions?

Conscious -- Does the character try to do the "right thing" in terms of morals or ethics? Does the character feel guilt or remorse when doing the "wrong thing"?

If I were to revamp alignment for my own use, I might try to use these 3 "ideals" as a measure (although it's still hard to quantify) but most of us just muddle through with the approximation of what D&D gives us, if we even use it at all.

So what is the purpose of alignment? We are distilling down a vague idea into one of nine values to classify our character and then use it as a yard stick for future behaviour. Why not just keep the core premise? Why not have a list of characteristics that interact with the notion and purpose of the character? Why do motives need to be simple? Here we have a couple of chapters above -- and a couple of books elsewhere on the forum -- for the very same topic. If you are talking about it you want to do something more than slap a "chaotic evil" sticker on a kobold and be done with it.

Killing the kobold can't be justified by the sticker he wears; can it? Isn't he mean-spirited, fearful little creature who delights in seing others suffer? Doesn't that tell you more? If we apply the label we get into a debate over what the label means. If I tell you that they have a perverse delight in killing even when they do not use (eat) what they kill and go out of their way to do so, you will know more about them. I could create a set of games that they play where they exhibit these characteristics. The label confuses. The label categorizes. Labels are used for grouping things by similarity. What purpose does grouping the inhabitants of a world by ethics serve? Does it mean that the Lawful Good are always morally more correct than the Chaotic Good? No. MORALS HAVE CONTEXT! Applying a label without context is like saying that H2O is a solid -- true in the arctic, not in Jamaica. Eliminate prejudice, eliminate critical thinking, eliminate debate -- make way for alignment, the all-knowing moral compass that allows me to ignore context and skip over regret and reflection.

Oh, in case you missed it, I don't like Alignment rules. (Rant done -- phew!)

The problem I've found with revamping alignment, is that it is not just fluff. It is entwined in the rules at a fairly fundamental level, so the revamp is a pretty big job.

I'm interested to hear ideas on modifying the mechanics of D&D to fit a modified alignment system.

Yep - that's pretty much been my experience with alignment rules as well. It's probably the least cool aspect of D&D.

In D&D, I think the game function of alignment is to interface with various good/evil law/chaos spells. In a KISS game, it's easier to do "protection from evil" where evil is a contextless label slapped on to a faction, than it is to do a "protection from surly and/or sadistic beings" spell. But from a RP perspective, I'd much rather have personality traits isolated to differentiate behaviors.

Moreover, I've always been conscious as a GM of the workaround to make sure the goblins are up to no good when the players encounter them, because I really don't find the "what do we do with the goblin babies?" questions to be fun, nor supported by the general settings. I don't see examples of goblins rising above their heritage in that game universe, to become productive members of any kind of society. Do they have an economy? What do they want?

I much prefer conflicting goals or viewpoints that are tied to the setting, which make sense at least from that character's POV. Why do some factions follow evil deities, for instance, especially en masse?

I cope in game - I do the workarounds. I try to always make something else more immediate, urgent or interesting than asking that kind of question, but I don't appreciate having to do it.

Detect Evil, Protection from Evil -- magical powers for creatures who draw from the "dark side" of the force. Two kinds of mana, but thousands of shades of gray in motivation and ethics. Just a thought.

Also, the thing about alignment being hardwired to particular races: you had Drizzt who was a dark elf and was supposed to be Chaotic Evil because of his race, but he was a good guy. Then they invented a Faerunian goddess who handled all of the good Drow, as though it were some sort of freedom fighting force of Drow that surfaced from the Underdark and were leading the rest of their kind into the light.

Like some kind of messed up underground railroad, I mean c'mon. That's taking alignment rules a little too far. You'd think after 30 years, they'd say, "You know, this whole alignment thing, I'm not sure if it fits realistic paradigms of behavior."

I've gone back and forth on alignment my whole gaming career. The current trend seems to be to use it wholeheartedly, but mainly because there are things (such as damage reduction, spells, items, etc.) that need it to be their as a game mechanic in order for them to be useful or function at all. There was a time when I resented that fact and tried to rework the whole system to remove that element from the game.

I found it to be too much work though. Me and my players have found a way to be more philosophical about the whole thing by having a list of jus cogens...crimes against the notion of "good" itself laid out by the gods. Anyone that would be okay with those things is pretty much evil, no questions asked. It helps though that good and evil are palpable forces in my a setting or world that has a more "moral relativism" approach to good and evil problems start to crop up and debates begin.

The thing I try to keep in mind when determining alignment or trying to adjudicate it's effects in game is this: Law vs. Chaos is *how* you act, Good vs. Evil is *why* you act. With good and evil being actual tangible forces in my setting, you'd think that would cause some debates over "is this action *really* evil, or does the context change the outcome?" It doesn't though. My players don't need to think about alignment or it's effects, that's my job...LOL. They are free to do whatever they want for whatever reason. If they think that to save the village they had to burn it, and they can sleep at night after doing it...they are free to feel that they did a good deed if they wish. If down the road they get upset when a paladin Smites them because they didn't know they were evil...well, in the real world most villains don't think they're evil either. Most think they are doing the right thing for the right reasons. If in the final reckoning they come out more on one side than the other that's between them and the God of Judgement to argue about, not the GM and the players.

I'd say my biggest beef with alignment is in fact the Paladin class. It's the only class in the game where a roleplaying choice made by the player can actually affect the game mechanics. Even a monk or cleric can turn evil and keep their abilities (or choose new ones based on a different deity or what have you in the case of the cleric)...but not so for the Paladin. All he has to choose is Blackgaurd or no powers at all. I know that's one of the things that makes Paladins Paladins, but it's always rubbed me the wrong way. (Though, how a chaste and noble Paladin would learn to rub someone the *right* way is also a matter for debate ;) So, I use the class differently by having their powers tied directly to a god rather than "the cosmic forces of Good". Fallen Paladin? Now like the cleric, you can choose a new master so to speak thus opening up a few more options for anyone crazy enough to play such a restrictive class in the first place.

Alignment does not determine action...action determines alignment.

Just look at D20 Modern...
It's relatively easy to remove the crunch of alignment if you take appropriate actions with the fluff. It's not that hard removing Detect Evil or Protection From Chaos spells, for example, if you change the conflict between Heaven and Hell, or extirpate creatures that "embody chaos".
Try changing a paladin's Smite Evil to Smite-anathema-of-the-specific-church-belief, think of the gods much like the ancient Greeks and the coast is more or less clear to a subjective moral system.

The Paladin class has always been the primary focus of alignment in the homebrew campaigns I've been involved in. When someone chooses the class it is signing up for all the temptation-challenges a GM can think up. A special difficulty challenge so to speak, adding a little spice to playing the character.

I've lost track of the "official" rules, but the second in line for the difficulty setting was the monk. Temptations came in the non-Lawful category. Very little was actively done for Rangers who I thought were stuck with Good and could fluctuate between Law and Chaos, but that was because non-Evil was the accepted norm.

I like the "Smite-anathema-of-the-specific-church-belief" approach. And man what I wouldn't give for a Smite Stupidity ability.

Note that there have been several publications (Dragon? Unearthed Arcana? I forget) that tried to add different flavors of paladins: Aspects depending on other alignments (I seem to remember a Chaotic Good one called Paladin of Freedom) or sets of beliefs.
While I think getting rid of Protection from Evil is easy, balancing the system to remove DR #/Good may be more work than it's worth.

Other than the mechanical angle, how about using alignment as guidelines and not straight-jackets (a.k.a using them as descriptors, not measuring devices)

Join the church Intellectual Superiority, then. :)

Non-evil was the accepted norm because of Aragorn. LOL. Poor poor ranger could have been so much more. I use Monte Cook's variant Ranger rather than the PHB variety. As for Paladin's...each church has their own variety of Holy Warrior with their own strictures that must be followed lest the paladin lose their standing. I stole the idea from the Book Of The Righteous.

I like the idea of alignment as a descriptor rather than a measuring device. That's basically how we've been doing it in our campaigns anyways. It's always an after thought it seems...we don't generally think about alignment until someone pulls out a Holy Avenger. Luckily, there's only one of those in the whole setting anyways.

In an odd way, I think there's a small chance that alignment ended up the way it is beause of solipsism. I believe (not whole-heartedly, but at least part-heartedly) that Gygax and company assumed that all gamers would be like them and likeyl would have read the same books etc away from the gaming table. Alignment is not as difficult a topic if you've read alot of philosophy, or even if you've just spent a good deal of time pondering the nature of good and evil in real life. Sadly, not everyone is Gygax and Arneson...wait wait, that should say *luckily* not everyone is Gygax and Arneson. A good deal of these solipsist affectations were done away with when 3.0 came's just too bad that alignment wasn't one of them.

I really do not see the problem with alignment. If you have a goblin that breaks from the chaotic evil mode then describe that. Tell your paladin player that his smite evil didn't work. You are not automatically required by the rules to make every goblin evil. If you want to muddle the stereotypes then that is totally up to you as a gamemaster. Take the extra time and flesh it out. Then again is it so hard to believe that an entire race could be naturally aggressive or predatory in nature. Take for example the tiger. The tiger is not evil you say, however a tiger raised in the wild will attack a human. Even if you raised that tiger from a kitten it will still be wild at heart and too aggressive to keep as a pet. You can take the cat outta the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the cat.

Then there's the recasting of evil as "sociopath." This is nothing, but a psychological label for something that has been thought of as evil for thousands of years. D&D is played in a medieval setting. Psychology hasn't been invented and in no way applies. They're not sick, they're evil.

If you want gray morality, then you're extrapolating your modern ideas of ethics to a setting where the gray doesn't exist. This is a world of angels and demons, heroes and villains. If you want something in between well then there's neutral.

That all assumes that all settings are the same. My modern ethics would clash hilariously with the ethics of my campaign world. LOL. Oh, the horror were that so.

As for psychology...psychology has always existed, it's just the modern quantifiation and terminology (inclusing calling it "psychology") that didn't exist in medieval times. Crazy people are not a new thing. To say they are not sick but rather evil forms an oversimplification that removes genuine moral confusion (a great plot device) from the world.

I think the issue with alignment doesn't stem from *what races* are evil (ex: in my setting ors are LE and hobgoblins are NN), but rather the philosophical question of *what actions* are evil. Even a world with clear cut sides (angels and demons, heavan and hell) people would still attempt to interpret scripture in the most favorable fashion for themselves. Not everyone is a Cleric that can cast Commune, and not every Cleric that casts Commune is communing with the deity he thinks he is.

As they say, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he didn't exist. Transferring that onto a fantasy setting is easy as pie, and leads to genuine moral confusion that can be a great plot motivator until someone stands up and says, "not fair! why doesn't my Smite work! I quit!" And it's those types of outburts that are the problem with alignment. It's the execution, not the content, that causes the problems.

Note that in D&D, the Tiger is always Neutral...

BTW, I think Keith Baker did some nice work with religion in Eberron, paving the way both to different flavors of religions (central churches vs. secret cults vs. loose affiliations) and religions' opinions of one another ("Why I am right and They are wrong") without the usual cliche`s.

Sadly, not everyone is Gygax and Arneson...wait wait, that should say *luckily* not everyone is Gygax and Arneson

Actually, you may give them too much credit. :) Since D&D originally grew out of tactic miniature combat games (ie - Chainmail), alignment was probably tacked on to give a sense of the "teams". Are you a good guy or a bad guy?

When you think about it, D&D is only a slightly more sophisticated version of Cops and Robbers, or Cowboys and Indians, except that the DM plays all of the opposing side rather than two "teams" of kids.

sacrosanct writes:

This is a world of angels and demons, heroes and villains.

That hits the nail on the head. Aligment pretty much sucks because it wasn't intended to model the real world. D&D was a 4-color comic book with swords and spells instead of super powers... There are good guys and there are bad guys. But those of us who have been playing it a while have moved on to morality scenarios with more complexity than that.

Of course, after 30 years of shelf life for the game, you'd pretty much expect that.

As a guy who loves to play monks, I gotta say, the lawful thign is difficult to maintain. Good vs. evil is usually somwaht believable, you tend to work for either the greater good or you own gain. Good works to help others. Neutral really means you're somewhat indifferent, but still pay your bills and the like. An evil person is someone who consciously decides to better their own lot at the gratuituous expense of others.

Those are admittedly vague. But it's worse to be lawful. Exactly what law am I folllowing? My own Martial Code? The rules of my monastery? The laws of the land I'm in, the laws of my homeland? Truth is, although not being lawful can screw over a monk, it's next to impossible to prove a monk isn't lawful. I've layed sevral lawful neutral monks. One had a bushido-style honor code, anohter was a loyal nationalist to a coutnry with a Chaotic Evil dictator. He willignly followed his orders, not out of pleasure or self-preservation, or even ignorance of his kng's wickedness. He did it because he felt it was the proepr duty of a countryman to obey even a corrupt and wicked king. He was still not Lawful evil, in my opinion. It's also interesting how undead with no consciousness are evil, while constructs are always neutral, yet they are both merely brain-dead pawns following orders.

I think the earlier quote represents it best: Evil and Good are more liekly jsut moderately good game mechanics for spells, sources of energy. A necromancer can be good, and even his undead can be used for good, despite their being termed as evil.

I don't push alignment as much more than flavor text. And I don't let "detect evil" spells function all that well as a DM, either.

Neutral Lawfully yours,

Since alignment information is scattered throughout the rulebooks, over three different editions, and also found in other non-D&D sources, I've compiled all of the alignment information I have in my library and put it on a website. It may be helpful. Most of the time a rulebook or a source will only give a paragraph or two describing the alignment. This is hardly enough to describe an entire metaphysical, ethical, and social philosophical viewpoint. However, when all of these individual paragraphs are put together on one page, it is easy to see what each alignment represents.

I haven't found anything yet that delves deeper into each alignment, so I have to be content with my borrowed paragraphs and lists. I'm still adding more content and I'm working on referencing everything. It's a work in progress.