Alignment, like (at times) the whole hobby, is heavily polarized (which suits it); you either like it or you don’t. An enormous amount of the rpg section of the Internet is filled with it: get rid of it, it’s fine like it is, 3 point, 5 point, 9 point, Paladin, Cleric, Druid, how to deal how to use how to chuck, Palladium system, GURPS system, World of Darkness paths, Nazi.

And of course, every RPG blogger that I’ve read has posted about it at least once. Variations on ‘D&D alignment’ are the search terms that make up just over half of my 19 ‘views reached by googling -foo-‘.
So I suppose it’s time to finally speak my mind.

Bear in mind that this post is largely based on my own moral upbringing, which is non-church-going judeo-christian as dictated by parents who love Bob Dylan and the Grateful dead, flavored with Tolkien, Dennis Schmidt, Joss Whedon, Heinlein’s ‘the moon is a harsh mistress’, south park (gradually less and less), and conservative grandparents, all taken with a grain of salt.

It is also influenced by Jeff Rients’ Threefold Apocalyptic Alignment System.

First, there is nothing inherently wrong with an alignment system. Of course, the BEST I can say about the concept is that it may inspire you to think about morality, and that’s probably a slim chance- I’m no example, I was interested in morality before I started playing.

The main thing that CAN be wrong about an alignment system, or rather, the people who write it and the people who read it, is that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Of course, I can offer nothing more either.

And my opinion is that there are no grey areas. One of the problems, I think, with the alignment system we have is moral relativism. Most ‘good’ characters are perfectly willing to kill for the greater good. Would you kill a man for the murder of your entire family? What about just your wife? Your pet? Someone else’s pet? A squirrel?
“Does dog have soul? How about cockroach?”
Harm no one. Anything else is haggling over the price.

Is it right to imprison a mass murderer for the rest of his life, either? What about a pickpocket?
By these standards, even batman is guilty of imposing his will upon others, claiming that the ends justify the means.
Yet how can you draw a line between right and wrong between ‘hit a man in self defense’ and ‘hit a man many times with a chair leg in self-defense’? How can you be sure that someone else’s line will match? Which one of you is wrong? What can you do to prevent the wrong without falling yourself in someone’s eyes? How do you know if they’re wrong?

This is why alignment is such a touchy subject. There are many tough questions that people don’t want to ask, because the only answer can be, ‘Be Buddha, or be bad’. However, if we actually live by these rules, it goes against everything we learned about living, ever- and there will always be someone who doesn’t. Is killing a cow wrong? How about a lettuce? I believe that we should all simply do our best, in whatever way we think best, but that we should all be prepared to take full responsibility for our actions. It isn’t your fault if someone kills 32 people, and you knew and had a chance to kill him- you aren’t responsible for his actions. You are responsible for yours. Do you have proof of what he was planning to do? How do you know he wasn’t just joking? Maybe one of the people he killed would have done much worse if they had lived.
The ends still never justify the means, but it is entirely up to you to decide, as is always decided on some level, on a case-by-case basis, what should be done and be prepared to take full responsibility rather than insisting thar you were justified.

It’s called ‘flawed heroism’. The world isn’t perfect, and nobody of this world can be anything but less than perfect, and accepting that is one of the most worthwhile things you can do. What really counts is what you’re trying for, and therefore what you do when the chips are down.

With that in mind, let’s reexamine the 2 axis alignment system. As Jeff Rients said, what really matters is where you are when the chips are down. It’s Ragnarok. Which side do you fight on? Do you protect everything without stop? Do you run and hide? Do you aid the fire-demons of Muspelhiem in burning the world? Do you only save certain people, and leave the sinners to burn? In OD&D, good and evil are relatively synonomous with law and chaos, respectively. What we need to do is examine exactly what we mean by law and chaos, before we can get right down to this. The 3.5 SRD says that

Lawful characters tell the truth, keep their word, respect authority, honor tradition, and judge those who fall short of their duties. Chaotic characters follow their consciences, resent being told what to do, favor new ideas over tradition, and do what they promise if they feel like it.

“Law” implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include close-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability. Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behavior creates a society in which people can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should.

“Chaos” implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility. Those who promote chaotic behavior say that only unfettered personal freedom allows people to express themselves fully and lets society benefit from the potential that its individuals have within them.

however, I feel that these descriptions are inherently reliant on opinion- specifically, the DM or other arbiter’s. Laws are made by people, who are chosen because they have the most powerful (possibly also the largest) group on their side- this does not imply that their laws are good, or even coherent. As such, one’s adherence to law should not be necessarily involved with the ‘Law’ alignment.

The belief that forms the base of these alignments seems to me to be, rather, Routine/Change. The Lawful character changes only what needs to be changed (in their mind), always aiming towards the point where everything is as it should be, and reacts badly to changes that they do not see as necessary. The Chaotic character enjoys doing things not normally done, and revels in the new, rather than the comfortable, even when it may not be for the best. the Neutral character usually doesn’t care, thinking that it won’t make a difference either way- this may be because of a ‘big picture’ mindset, or simple apathy. unlike Good and Evil, these alignments seem to represent an underlying personality type, rather than a goal. Of course, characters will not follow any alignment to an extreme, they simply are assigned an alignment based on where they fit best. A chaotic character ALWAYS would prefer to be someplace else (more or less), anything else is simply Neutral. If it seems to you that this seems like a little extreme qualification for being of an alignment, my thought process is that it makes it much simpler to separate Chaotic from Neutral to have a hard, and probably only seems extreme because most people aren’t of that alignment; Most creatures are probably Lawful, or Neutral erring that way slightly, simply because of natural selection, as it’s the best strategy for survival, usually, to stay in one general area; usually Chaotic alignment implies either mental trauma or an incredibly secure life under this definition. Of course, someone who is Chaotic simply because of boredom and a sheltered upbringing may change alignment at some point.

So, now going through every alignment with notes and behavior during a Ragnarok scenario:

Lawful Good   when the chips are down, every Lawful Good will fight to protect others and slay the enemies of the universe (if possible- I’m not implying that they should all be suicidal).

Lawful Evil   will protect themselves and their universe, likely even teaming up temporarily with other Lawfuls, but they will not stop to save anyone. They may stop to harm the innocents cowering from the armies of hell, but that would probably, under the circumstances, imply mental instability. Lawful Evil doesn’t mean they will tell the truth, keep their promises, keep the law, rule with an iron fist- it just means that they are resistant to change brought about by others.

Neutral Good, Chaotic Good will behave essentially the same as Lawful Good under the circumstances; They may be distinguished from Lawful Good by their reactions to change.

Chaotic Evil   is ‘the destroyer’- it is C’thulhu, The end of the world, Cloverfield, destroying everything and everyone, at the most extreme. beings of less-than-godlike power are limited to acting only MILDLY Chaotic Evil, simply because they cannot easily be both alignments at the same time. An example is The Joker from The Dark Knight- he is obviously largely a traveler, but he has to stay in single places for long periods of time in order to also satisfy his taste for Evil. A wanderer occasionally stopping for some mayhem by the side of the road. A good way to distinguish Neutral Evil from Chaotic Evil is to ask yourself what they would do given infinite power. Chaotic Evils will probably aid in Ragnarok and the destruction of all that is holy and unholy alike. Again, if there are Chaotic seeming personalities that wouldn’t aid in Ragnarok given infinite power, then they are more likely just Neutral erring on the side of Chaotic, but of course with less-than-godlike power they would be likely to fight the destruction, if only to save their own skin (they may fight the fighters of destruction at the same time) More so than other Chaotic alignments, mortals need an extremely abnormal adolescence to assume a Chaotic Evil alignment.

Neutral Evil is Evil indiscriminately (more or less). It isn’t really so much ‘its own brand’ as it is shared territory between Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil. Neutral Evil may fight on the side of good (temporarily) come Ragnarok, or fight everyone- they will not fight on the side of Loki completely.

You will notice I have said nothing about Neutral Good/Evil- this is because there is hardly any such thing to my mind. When the chips are down, a hero fights. If you aren’t fighting for others, then you are fighting for yourself. I believe that it is wrong to kill ANYTHING, and if you kill for yourself when worst comes to worst, then you are Evil. Mildly Evil, maybe, but still Evil. The only way to truly be Neutral in Ragnarok is to hide in a hole and wait to be eaten, and that isn’t even flawed heroism. As such, if there is such a thing as ‘Neutral’, I don’t allow it to my players. Animals are always listed as Neutral, since they can’t comprehend morality, but Personally, I think that there shouldn’t be an alignment that says ‘misc’.

I appreciate any feedback very much, because alignment is always a subject that can be interpreted many different ways- I’m just trying to find an interpretation that is logically self-consistent.


-Isaac Murphy


4 Responses to “Alignment.”

  1. I’ve had “issues” with the alignment system myself, but slightly different ones. The alignments I don’t think really exist are lawful good and lawful evil.

    “Lawful” exists in the limited (but densely populated) area of moral development that sits in the “conventional” slot in between the stages of “pre-conventional” and “post-conventional” in the research of such psychologists as Lawrence Kohlberg.

    To be VERY brief, the stages go like this:

    1. Pre-conventional. I do whatever benefits me.
    2. Conventional – I follow a social code.
    3. Post-conventional – I follow higher principles that may contradict the social code.

    Both pre and post conventional can appear “chaotic”, but for different reasons. Post-conventional people defy the social order because the social order is wrong. Pre-conventional people defy it because “no one tells me what to do”.

    Lawful good? If I TRULY value the good, I will eventually be in conflict with the social order. Because no order is completely good.

    Lawful evil? If I am TRULY selfish, I can’t follow a social order except on the occasions where is coincidentally benefits me.

    • Hmm- that could make an alignment system of it’s own!

      I think that Lawful Good would be more the type to try to change the social order in ways that could eventually create a stable society-
      e.g. ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ ending.

      I think that your interpretation of Lawful is more ‘community’, or ‘society’, whereas mine is more ‘stability’ (am I getting you right?)

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