There has been thousands of articles written about alignment and millions and millions of conversation about its uses, what each alignment meant or if alignment was even a good idea in the first place. A perfect reason to add yet another alignment article to the pile.
After a quick look at the history of alignment and its memetic role, I examine the two most common uses of alignment.
First, as an objective and prescriptive mechanic, as we used to be able to measure alignment through spells and other features, and players had to conform to their alignment. Which as you know or as you can guess, yielded many conflicts, in table and out of table.
Secondly, making the mechanic subjective and descriptive, as a way to give back control to the player. It also keeps its benefit of being a short-hand, and still allow for nuance. Yet, we should not limit ourselves to nine labels only. After all, “duty-bound” is more explicit than Lawful Neutral, and “Altruistic Rebel” more evocative than Chaotic Good.
And last but not least, something that we often forget, for it is simply too natural to us. We are all moral beings, even way before we sit at a table, no matter who we are, no matter how little our interest in such questions.
Let us get to it.
The definition on Alignment
Alignment is a way to measure or represent a character’s moral inclination. Gygax designed it by considering two axises of the moral landscape: at first, only Law, Neutrality and Chaos (with Law being Good and Chaos being Evil). Then in AD&D it was extended with a second axis to good, neutral and evil, making the nine-grid alignment we know today. Beyond this generic definition, no one can agree exactly what it means and how to use it.
Glimpses of the past
Preparing this article, I also had to consider the historical side. I traveled thirty, forty years into the past, when I browsed through some of Gygax writing (as well as others who wrote on the topic). D&D and what Dungeon Master meant as a role was quite different back then. Alignment was taken much more seriously, and was a key aspect of the game. Paladins could not be of certain alignments, Clerics needed to stick to their deities range of alignment, Assassins were evil, or at least not Good. And going against any of those constraints meant falling out of your class, and losing certain benefits.
Paladin was especially constrained by this, and there has been more blood and salt spilled by paladin debates, than actual Evil creatures being slain by Lawful Good paladins. If a Paladin unwillingly failed their alignment, they would fall. The fallen paladin played like a fighter. In AD&D that was a severe loss of power, as paladins progressed more slowly in XP than fighters. The rules of old editions suggested or out-right said the DM should fail them immediately. Eventually, they could go on a quest of atonement to regain their power. And what if they did really commit an evil act? What if anger got the better of them? Well no luck, paladin-hood over.
“A paladin who willingly and deliberately commits an evil act can never regain her paladin-hood.”
Description of the spell Atonement in 3e
Of course, DMs applied those rules differently. A few ignored them, some gave warning or displayed clemency, while others were as harsh or even harsher than the rules themselves. Fortunately, the game is ever evolving, and with it, how we play alignment.
Mechanical impact in Fifth Edition
Players are less readily accepting that such and such creatures are evil by default. We love Orcs now, and to heck with Gruumsh. We do not mind classical archetypes of evil turned into decent folks, and vice versa. A drow armed with two scimitars who escaped the tyranny of his culture; a chaste succubus that worship neither gods nor fiends; a vampire who wants to enjoy her quiet library, afar from the world’s affairs ; a dragon who managed to control his lust of power, now living peacefully. Examples are countless in fiction, and even in D&D. The Tieflings and Aasimar are a good example, perfectly free to be of any alignment. This has seeped through the mechanics in very obvious ways. Fifth edition made Detect Evil and Good show creature type, not alignment anymore. Paladins can be any alignment, and as a matter of fact almost never fall. In fact, few DMs mind the tenets. The book does not even mention Clerics losing their powers.
The Orcs of Tolkien. Corrupted beings. Primal, savage. Barely alive.
Alignment has never had such a weak presence in the game, as this complete list from magical features from players book show:
- Spirit Guardians (PH278), its description says that for good or neutral aligned casters, the spirits appear angelic or fey (damage type: radiant), and for an evil aligned caster they appear fiendish (damage type: necrotic).
- The Sprite (accessible through Pact of the Chain, PH310) has the heart sight feature, which allow them to read alignment from creatures.
- Ceremony (XGE) has an atonement option, that allow a willing creature to return to their original alignment.
Few magical items use Alignment, and only one (very cool) creature of note, the Rakshasa (MM257). To replace those mechanics, the player can make the choice in the case of Spiritual Guardians, and the DM (or the DM and the player together) can determine the rest. An example: the heart sight feature of the Sprite.
The sprite puts its gentle hand on the boy’s chest, reading his heart. His emotional state is one of profound peace and serenity. You are unsure what kind of being the boy is truly, for he has an infinite well of courage, and a want to care for others so powerful, that it overwhelmed your sprite with its sweetness.
Yet, Alignment goes beyond those small and barely noticeable mechanics, it is more than the game features which mentions it. It is a moral compass, and given that conflicts abound in the game, is far from invisible.
The memetics of Alignment
Alignment still permeates a lot of discussion about d&d character creation. If you hang out long enough on d&d forums, you are likely to read debates about some of the following subjects: can PCs really be evil ? Should you allow Chaotic Neutral? What is the difference between Lawful Evil and Neutral Evil ? Can torture be Lawful Good, or even Lawful Neutral? Is chaotic neutral the same as being whimsical? What count as a code for Lawful Neutral characters? Should a True Neutral character bring balance, and slay some good folks, possibly their own party, when they win too much? In the rules of old, the answer to this last one would be yes.
And let’s not forget the memes.
The cast of Arrested Development. Do yourself a favor, and watch it if you never have.
Alignment has a heavy memetic weight, that is the concept easily propagates in the community, and to newcomers. The seed was planted in the system from its inception; Gygax has always been a staunch defender of it and its rigidity. It spreads in the community and to newcomers like wildfire. Outsiders know of it. We have online questionnaires about what alignment we are. Figuring out the alignment of a particular fictional character is a pastime of some — and by the way, Batman is Lawful Evil. Do you suddenly feel the urge to start a conversation about comics character alignment, or to tell me that I am flat-out wrong? That is precisely my point. I believe this kind of conversation and memes represent the vast majority of the alignment talk.
The secondary use of the mechanic however is a sort of moral compass.
Good versus Evil, Prescriptive and Objective
A large part of why Alignment became so prominent in D&D is the perpetual war between Good&Evil. First in the realms of Greyhawk (with Law versus Chaos), but very quickly throughout all the planes. Angels are Lawful Good and Devils are Lawful Evil; that is the objective reality in this version of Alignment. Moreover, you can support those statements with tools like Detect Evil and Good, even in 5e.
This line of thought culminated with Planescape. Sigil, the city of doors, and that was also (somewhat) at the center of sixteen planes. One for each alignment, and a bit more. This is what the Player’s Handbook call the Cosmology of the Great Wheel, and here is a nice image to represent it:
In the past, there were even alignment languages, secret languages used by members of the same alignment to communicate with each other! But let’s step back a little and see what is going on in all this hotchpotch.
Alignment as Factions
Angels are Lawful Good and Devils are Lawful Evil — what does that mean? Well, Angels are Lawful Good because they follow the divine edicts of their gods (one way or another), and help the good folks out there. They might have various views on big picture vs small picture, and pragmatism vs idealism, but that is the general gist of it. Devils are Lawful Evil, because they abide by their contracts and believe tyranny should reign over the material plane, and slowly corrupt mortals through their shenanigans. This is no surprise. It is both a classic trope in fiction, and an established trope in d&d. There are many ways to convey that information to your players. A lore check, social encounters, showing the factions actions and their consequences, etc. Most of the time you will not need to, given how strong this trope is.
Now, suppose the DM say “The Talsim are Lawful Good”. What does that mean? Do they execute their prisoners? Are urchins who steal food forgiven? Do they send their armies against dangerous countries? There is no general consensus on what a Lawful Good character would do in each of those situation (even if there might be a majority). Unlike Angels and Devils, the Talsim are not part of that common shared culture of tropes we have. But once the DM has shared the information, everyone understand what it means for them to be Lawful Good. Not however because of the label, but what is hiding behind.
Slave of Bolas, by Steve Argyle
Without that information, the alignment of those entities are meaningless, if only because of the internal contradictions of the system. Hence, alignments for general faction conflicts are at best a short-hand (which I address later) to describe the various sides. And what if two Lawful Good factions are at war with each other? Should a Lawful Good character then start to fight itself? No, what matters is your allegiance towards those two factions. Not their alignment.
Hence, although many traditional and untraditional factions are built on ideals and a strongly defined moral views of the worlds, telling you the alignment of a faction does not in fact communicate to you any useful information about its behavior. What matters is the faction identity, its name and your degree of allegiance to it. This might seem obvious, and antiquated to some, but it is important to dissect this use of Alignment as it is so prominent.
Kill them all and let the gods sort them out
Things get more interesting when you apply the alignment mechanic not to factions, but people and creatures with diverging interests.
In D&D, it seems that everyone has an objective proof the afterlife exists, and that no adventurers can escape the fight between Evil and Good. This kind of consideration led Gygax to write the following:
Paladins are not stupid, and in general there is no rule of Lawful Good against killing enemies. The old adage about nits making lice applies. Also, as I have often noted, a paladin can freely dispatch prisoners of Evil alignment that have surrendered and renounced that alignment in favor of Lawful Good. They are then sent on to their reward before they can backslide.
I will state unequivocally that in the alignment system as presented in OAD&D, an eye for an eye is lawful and just, Lawful Good, as misconduct is to be punished under just laws.
(From a Gary Gygax AMA, back in 2005, source)
In other words, if a Paladin manage to redeem Orcs, then it is their duty to slay the poor bastards before they can fall to evil again. It is also the Paladin’s duty to kill enemies of Evil alignment. In the end, the argument is too simple, and religions and theologians have since long addressed that kind of thinking — Gygax is not the first one to think of this heaven loophole.
We love Orcs, right? The Orc baby dilemma.
Another example : the infamous orc babies. A party of adventurer slay a group of orcs for reasons. After investigating, they find the village with all the children. Do they slay the children? The argument starts, the pizza arrives, everyone take a slice; critical success, the molten cheese leave trails of greatness behind as it meets its end. The players exchange without passion, and the fate of those fictional children hangs in the balance.
Now, this might seem that Alignment is doing its job there. Characters start to interrogate their alignment as a mean to resolve the moral dilemma. The mechanic is doing its job, everything makes sense.
But the issue is that, no one can agree on what each alignment would do here. This a point I want you to keep in mind during the entirety of the article. There is no consensus on what a particular alignment would do in a particular situation. For almost every situation, one can find good arguments for an alignment to act in opposite ways. And more importantly, that the alignment squabbling is occulting the real source of conflict and character development that is happening here: their own morals, not the two words on their character sheet. The mechanic has achieved the opposite of its goal.
The Dungeon Master, Judge and Arbitrer
In such a disruptive conception of alignment, the table needs a judge. Who else than the DM? If they want to take your sheet and change your alignment, they are free to do so. If they want to stop your character and say “A chaotic good character would not do that.”, they can do so. The DM now enforces their own view of alignment and d&d morality, leaving little room for objection.
“Mercy is to be displayed for the lawbreaker that does so by accident. Benevolence is for the harmless. Pacifism in the fantasy milieu is for those who would be slaves. They have no place in determining general alignment, albeit justice tempered by mercy is a NG manifestation, whilst well-considered benevolence is generally a mark of Good.”
-Gary Gygax 2005
This has led to many arguments, and sometimes ones that ended badly.
Hiding your alignment
In this section, I reference an article written by Gygax on alignment in September 1977, titled “Varied Player Character and Non-Player Charucter Alignement in the Dungeons & Dragons Campaign” (link). Many still played like that in the 00s, and to this day, some still share and apply this original view.
The conflict aspect of Alignment go even further, as the mechanic is often key in inner-party discords, a fact the designers were aware of very early.
The most common problem area seems to lie in established campaigns with a co-operating block of players, all of whom are of like alignment. These higher level player characters force new entrants into the same alignment, and if the newcomers fail to conform they dispatch them. In such campaigns, the DM should advise new players that the situation exists.
Since players still wanted to play a different alignment than the party, then Gygax suggested the player hid their alignment from the party “until the character rises in level and strength”, if not the DM themselves:
As an aside to players, I stress that this planned alignment change must be carefully concealed — perhaps even from the DM. This is fair, for the DM is supposedly absolutely disinterested and impartial, and if the DM is biased, it is up to the players to balance the campaign on their own initiative.
Those schemes could sometimes make for great games, but also often lead to tensions at the table. D&D design has evolved enough that now we agree this aspect of Alignment was a mistake. “Don’t be that guy” has become a mantra of the community.
I would like two pounds of Lawful Evil and a zest of Chaotic Good, please.
I have not addressed in detail the objectivity problem of Alignment. If there are objective ways to measure it, and if everyone must conform to their alignment, then the in-world consequences are extreme. You can find that kind of black&white thinking in many of Gygax writing: a Lawful Good paladin must slay their evil prisoners. As we saw when we discussed factions, what matters is your allegiance to the faction, not the alignment. And all of those are key features of Alignment in the mind of its creator, not accidental bugs. I do not think it is controversial to say that the vast majority of players do not abide by this view at all. By the way, you can still play a black&white game, even without alignment.
In this view, the mechanic is dm-faced, that is the DM makes the determination and the players have little control over it. Another popular view is Alignment as descriptive, not prescriptive, as a way to make it player-faced and give them back the control.
Descriptive, not prescriptive. Empowering the player.
I have read many times “Descriptive, not prescriptive.” In this view, the player write their alignment on their sheet, but the DM can never prescribe an action to the player, just because of those two little words. The mechanic is used as a shorthand, it reflects the general morals of the character, but not necessarily their ethics (how we try to act morally). It is also flexible, and does not result in conflicts. E.g. a Chaotic Evil character can decide to save their peaceful home country from the threat of an army of undeads, without the DM taking away their character sheet.
The limits of Chaotic Evil
However, why limit yourself to nine labels?
Why not use noble, generous, caring, helpful, self-sacrificing, disinterested, charitable, altruistic; selfish, self-indulgent, stingy, narrow, egocentric, greedy, egotistic, narcissistic, lowly, unjust, devious; honorable, trustworthy, honest, law-abiding, truthful, upright, impartial, dutiful ; virtuous, chivalrous, righteous, angelic, ethical, sinless ; treacherous, crooked, shady, deceptive, two-faced ; nefarious, cruel, vile, wicked, hateful, ignoble, depraved, diabolical. Just do like me, look up synonyms, and be inspired. And you can combine those! There are no limits but the thesaurus.
All of those carries nuances, something that reflects plainly your character subjectivity. In a way, bonds, flaws and ideals accomplish some of this work. But Alignment is still on the forefront of your character sheet, and if you are going to use a short-hand for the moral of your character, why not use your own words?
Alignment as a shortcut to moral thinking
A last argument, both in favor of objective and descriptive alignment, is that alignment removes that step where we need to think. Indeed, when the player is confronted with a moral dilemma, they can skip figuring out what the character would do, and think about what the alignment would do . It is perfectly valid to play a game of monster slaying, or murder-hoboing. It is perfectly valid to be bored at the thought of spending one hour to decide if you are going to spare a prisoner. But once you decide to role-play a character, it is much more interesting to think about what your character would do. It is part of the challenge, and one of the best experiences that D&D can bring us.
Just like it is hard for us, if not impossible to stop breathing on our own, we cannot detach ourselves from all moral considerations. Even if we claim to be amoral, or to be sociopaths. Humans — the players, not the race — are both social animals and moral beings, and there is no escaping that.
Our morality as players
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.”
Hogfather — Terry Pratchett
Death is right, as always. We are all moral beings, and we construct theories and concepts that allow us to make the human world spin, so to speak. In fact, our moral education start very early, and various experiments done on children, and even babies as young as a few months, show we have preferences certain behaviors that later become the foundations for our morals and sense of empathy. And so are the characters we play. They grow in a culture where every being is a moral being.
Our modern culture feeds us so much fiction, fiction that utilizes moral conflict to drive its story, that we are even more well equipped than our predecessors. We have this constant web of values and tropes in mind that give us examples on which we can build further decisions. As such, we are perfectly equipped to make those choices in D&D. Even if they are simplistic or senseless choices, even if those choices are just made for wreaking havoc, we know how to make them. And this is so natural to us, that this does not even come to our mind when we start debating the pros & cons of Alignment.
Small aside on video-games
How many of us have reloaded a save when a choice we made in a game led to a path that felt , if not wrong, distasteful? To the point that sometimes, we even plan a careful play-through, to get the “best possible ending”. And how many of us have enacted bloody massacres and razed cities, just because we could?
Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong. — Mordin Solus
Even though we know it is a game (and so we experiment), we also can’t help but feel bad (or good!) when we make certain choices. In a way, d&d might be a bit similar. But I am of those who believe that roleplaying games are more fun and interesting when Actions Have Consequences. D&D has an infinite and precious advantage over video games: it is alive. You cannot scum your save till you get the perfect result. Yet the Alignment mechanic effectively restrain this liveliness in some kind of script. If you look back at what I said during the Objective section of the article, I hope now you can see how hard it is to treat prescriptive objective Alignment as anything else than a video-gamey mechanic.
What about other ttrpgs?
Good versus Evil, Good and Evil is by no means a specificity of D&D. Almost all other ttrpgs do not use a mechanic alignment, and yet none is suffering because of it.
The legacy of Alignment
If Alignment is still in the game, it is simply because of legacy, not because of its utility. And it is not the only mechanic in that situation, an example are ability scores. Unlike your modifiers, the game rarely use ability scores. But the designers wanted old players to feel at home when they looked at a character sheet, with all those nice numbers. 18, 13, 7, 10, 11, 8. Ouch, that Constitution.
However, unlike alignment, this does not result in conflicts and this never ruins player fun. A mechanic that has little utility, that can be replaced easily, and that does more harm than good, should be gone.
The meme Alignment is good fun. The mechanic Alignment is an unnecessary evil.
See you next week for an article about a topic I’ve not yet chosen! And Tuesday for some more homebrew as I present to you yet another subclass. This time, a Paladin with an Oath to defend the Arts!