In Dungeons & Dragons and other games inspired by it, one of the most debated aspects in the game is Alignment. By now, the preponderance of alignment chart memes filled with various characters from within or across a franchise should be familiar enough to everyone. However, despite this, arguments about what actions, values, behaviors, or the like constitute what alignment still continue. Is Batman Lawful Good? Chaotic Good? Lawful Neutral?
In some instances, there are characters that regularly appear as clear examples for a specific alignment: Darth Vader as Lawful Evil or the Joker as Chaotic Evil are frequent selections. But at other times, some selections seem to be made for the sake of completeness: the characters from Firefly are a good example of this, because I’d argue some characters depicted with different alignments actually have the same alignment, but the chart-maker had to simply fill out the grid.
This affects gameplay as well: as a veteran of multiple editions of D&D, I can tell you of my disdain for the Chaotic Neutral alignment and the shenanigans pulled by players in the name of it. I can tell you why evil-aligned PCs are a Bad Idea in a collaborative role playing game, especially when played by those not really mature enough or vested enough to keep the game going. I understand why some players hated paladin characters, and how each story spoke about all those involved as gamers.
Playing games with a different system or without any alignment system proved just as telling as well. Ultimately, the player behaviors remained the same—it was the in-game system of accountability that changed. The problem players who had a Chaotic Neutral character in D&D played the same way in the magical post-apocalyptic game Rifts, the Marvel Super Heroes game, the Vampire: the Requiem game, and so on. They would still lie to anyone, cheat, steal, and generally be antiheroic if not antivillainous.
But beyond the play style of the players, having a general consensus on aspects of the game and its play is necessary for success, whether single-session or long-term play. Defining terms, sometimes above and beyond the guidelines provided, can be a part of this process.
The original version of D&D only had 3 alignments: Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. This was due to the influence of Michael Moorcock‘s Elric stories, and the Eternal Champion lore about cosmic forces of Law and Chaos battling each other. Generally, Law was implied to be synonymous with “good,” and Chaos was implied to be synonymous with “evil.” As the game grew and evolved, so did the alignment system. The Law vs. Chaos became an axis of measurement, and a second metric, Good vs. Evil, was an added axis of measurement. Now, in a way, each character essentially had X, Y coordinates on their values, worldview, and behavior. For a while, during the 1st ed. AD&D era, some use of tendency alignments was used (notably for non-player characters); the deity St. Cuthbert was usually deemed Lawful Good with Lawful Neutral tendencies. Furthermore, there were planes in the Great Wheel Cosmology of the game that were in between planes of a pure alignment: for example, the Chaotic Good plane of Olympus was separated by the Chaotic Neutral plane of Limbo by the Chaotic Good/Chaotic Neutral plane of Gladsheim. The Great Wheel is all that remains of this in the current edition of the game.
Yet conflict persists. What exactly is “good,” or “evil,” or “lawful,” or “chaotic,” much less “neutral”? Do these terms vary based on the values of the surrounding culture, or are they meant to be universal? Neutral Neutral, a.k.a. True Neutral or Neutral, had a rough time of it, esp. since some descriptions implied that it was all about balance and maintenance of balance—the black and red in the ledger had to be equal. However, for many players of the game, both starting and experienced, I think it’s important to discuss the alignment system and how it works, based upon how one implements it in the game.
First off, since there are usually deities that exist (yet who withdrew from the world), as well as the existence of angels, demons, and other such entities, I would argue that, in general, D&D settings have universal concepts and forces such as Good, Evil, Order, and Chaos. In prior versions of the game, this had much more palpable effects mechanically than it does in the current edition—some character classes irrevocably lost their class abilities if they violated their alignment restrictions. The alignment restrictions are not present in the current edition of the game, but the idea of beliefs enabling power, and the violation of those beliefs leading to a loss of power, is still present.
So the shades-of-grey morality of reality coexists in a realm where universal absolutes are real and have meaning. But, which part of the 2-part alignment is more important, the first or the last part?
Ultimately, I argue that the last part—the part that deals with good and evil—is the most important part. I have at least two points as to why:
- The nature of the English language, the language of the creators of the game, likes modifiers for nouns placed before them: big house, old Dan, patient Justice. The forms of Law and Chaos, specifically Lawful and Chaotic, reveal that they are describing the term listed after them, like any other adjective.
- Lawful or Chaotic tell how or why something is done or believed; Good or Evil tell what is done or believed.
Order for the sake of Order only easily falls into the purview of Lawful Neutral, as does Chaos for the sake of Chaos falls into the purview of Chaotic Neutral. Good for the sake of being Good, whether by following rules or ignoring them and just doing what is right fits into Neutral Good. Neutral Evil is the opposite: exploiting systems and rules when they can be exploited, and ignoring those same systems and rules when they get in the way.
Neutral, the exact middle of the grid, actually is the bulk of humanity, I would argue: people trying to get by, resisting temptation one day and giving in another, being a bit selfish but having a hard Line which is Never Crossed. They’re not perfect in any sense of the word, for sure.
And, the extremes of the alignment chart—Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Evil, and Chaotic Evil—are still focused on the Good/Evil part first.
A Lawful Good character follows laws and tries to reform and change unjust laws, using the system in place to do so, if that is possible. A Lawful Good character can lead a rebellion because they believe the system is corrupt and a new, legitimate system needs to be installed for the good of all. Think of a hero trying to restore the rightful heir to the throne in place of a usurper or an incapable/unjust ruler.
A Chaotic Good character does what’s right and doesn’t consider laws at all. If they’re following the law at the time—great! If they’re not, then so what? It’s a stupid law anyway, and it just gets in the way or makes things worse. A Chaotic Good character doesn’t care about something being illegal if it yields a genuine good result. Think of a scoundrel smuggling and distributing embargoed harmless goods or running an illegal gambling den in order to raise money for an orphan’s charity.
A Lawful Evil character exploits the system in place. They use and abuse authority. As said before, Darth Vader is a prime example of a Lawful Evil character—his position of power gave him the ability to do horrible things, and he could have plausible deniability or abuse the system to keep the truth from getting out. But on the other end of the spectrum, a simple merchant who uses exploitative contracts, cuts corners, has illegal acts and dealings done through proxies, and bribes officials or those in power fits the bill as well.
A Chaotic Evil character is the easiest to define; the Joker often gets this alignment, though the madness core to the character may make some think that madness is an essential quality of the alignment. A Chaotic Evil character simply doesn’t care about anyone or anything except themselves. Think of the local criminal who always gets in trouble and has a rap sheet a mile long. Even if that criminal isn’t that clever or educated, the criminal still does what they want and doesn’t consider the consequences of their actions. A disorganized serial killer who lives on the fringes of society and acts on whims or opportunities to commit their crimes counts as Chaotic Evil just as much as the two-time loser who always gets drunk, gets fired from jobs, and gets into fights (and, to be honest, there’s many serial killers who began their careers as two-time losers before graduating to more vicious crimes).
Now, I can see the argument for the balanced, 3-by-3 square grid view on alignment easily enough, but I can also see the idea of alignments being a linear progression, with Lawful Good at the “best” end and Chaotic Evil at the “worst end.” How so? Doesn’t that view seem contradictory, or suggests that a Lawful Evil character isn’t as evil as a Chaotic Evil character, or that a Chaotic Good character is less good than a Lawful Good character? Well, I would posit a certain key idea behind the use and implementation of a linear scale versus the 3-by-3 model.
A Lawful Good character focuses on doing good, and prefers doing good through a system in place. Furthermore, the system in place should be designed to bring about the most good for all, be intuitive and easy to abide by, and well, ultimately, be good. A Lawful Good character may abide by a less-than-perfect system, but they’d work through the system to change it and make it better and more benevolent for all.
Conversely, a Lawful Evil character still has limits: they follow a system. Granted, they will abuse a system, and exploit the absence of a system, but it’s still about the system. They’re aware that they are part of a group or society that perceives them and acts accordingly. The restraint that a Lawful Evil character has is about self-preservation, not morality or breaking a law—they just don’t want to get busted breaking a law, punished, and thus gain a social stigma. They are keenly aware that they are outnumbered or can be on the wrong end of things easily enough, and thus are out to save their own necks. In this regard, even Darth Vader knew that he still answered to the Emperor, and that if his actions notably compromised the Emperor’s power or standing, then Vader would answer for it.
A Chaotic Evil character doesn’t care about anything other than themselves, so there is nothing that’s off-limits. While a Chaotic Evil character may not normally slaughter children, for example, they’re fully capable of it when in a rage, or having it occur as a consequence of another action they’ve taken, such as burning down a village. And, to make them worse, they’re just as likely not to be moved by harming others, or they will project their rage and shame at harming others on another party—the classic “look what you made me do!” defense.
A Chaotic Good character, on the other hand, seeks to do good, and feels that laws aren’t necessary or that they get it the way, or that they’re not equally applied, or some other reason. However, a Chaotic Good character may not genuinely consider that a law or rule is in place for a reason, and that it actually is important to maintain that law or rule. Think of individuals who advocate for the legalization of all drugs, often putting forth the idea that individual choice should be all that’s needed for someone to take drugs. That person would argue that arrests based on drugs would decline and prison populations would decrease. Yet, the person may not consider the reality of such a move: the increase of addiction because companies can now sell and market these substances to the public at large; the increase of accidents and crime due to poor choices by the intoxicated and addicted; the abuse of the substances by the underage; etc. While the Chaotic Good person may argue that people have the right to choose what they consume, they still have to grapple with the reality of people exploiting others, people losing the ability to choose due to the power of addiction, as well as people making poor choices and the harm that can arise from them.
And, ultimately, a Chaotic Good character would not break any laws in the ideal society in the hypothetical perfect system created by a Lawful Good character or entity, because those ideal rules would be reasonable and not abusable or unfairly applied. The only difference is that the Chaotic Good character cannot conceive of the potential existence of such a system, or doesn’t think a system is possible to make.
This linear sort of alignment system manifested in two ways in the history of D&D: the Dragonlance setting had a line which charted a character’s progression, moving as such:
Lawful Good—Neutral Good—Chaotic Good—Lawful Neutral—Neutral—Chaotic Neutral—Lawful Evil—Neutral Evil—Chaotic Evil
The idea with this is that the “best” good person follows the system to do good. The “less perfect” Neutral Good person bends the rules from time to time to do what’s right, while the “flawed” Chaotic Good person does what’s right even though that may mean a law is broken in the process.
However, that person who breaks a law to do the right thing is deemed better than the person who just blindly follows the law because it’s the law, like the Lawful Neutral person. The Neutral person is less of a stick-in-the-mud and does a shady thing or two on the downlow, and never means to hurt anyone. The Chaotic Neutral person never means to hurt anybody, but they really want to do what they will or need to do.
And, once again, this lawbreaker who hurts nobody is deemed better than the law-abiding person who abuses the law for their own benefit or to harm others, as per the Lawful Evil person. The Neutral Evil person breaks the law when it gets in the way, but can use and abuse the system just as much as anyone. The Chaotic Evil person is the utter worst, since nothing matters except themselves, and anything is fair game to get what they want, for whatever reason.
The gymnastics of this system was simplified in the 4th ed. D&D alignment system, which met criticism. True Neutral was rebranded Unaligned, to reinforce that those characters had no skin in the game of the big battle between Good and Evil, or that a more mundane thing mattered to them, like following customs or the local law or honor. Lawful Good remained, while Neutral Good and Chaotic Good were simply fused into Good; Chaotic Evil remained, while Lawful Evil and Neutral Evil were fused into Evil. Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral now just became flavors of Unaligned, though some Chaotic Neutral went full Chaotic Evil, perhaps to show their desire to do whatever they want came with an inability or unwillingness to recognize or admit the consequences of their selfish or thoughtless actions.
I would argue the 4th ed. Alignment system didn’t stick because the 9-alignment system was around for so long, and got baked into D&D over the decades that a lot of players had a hard time abandoning it. Perhaps if the simple Lawful—Neutral—Chaotic system of original D&D had evolved into the 4th ed. alignment system directly would it have had a chance. And, oddly enough, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game that evolved from the wargame did have this system, though with just Lawful for Lawful Good and Chaotic for Chaotic Evil.
But, in the current 5th edition of the game, alignment isn’t a necessary mechanism for character abilities or other key elements. Alignment requirements pop up for some magic items, but those are add-on elements instead of core elements. It’s plausible to ignore or ditch alignment in the game, though storytelling aspects, social expectations, consequences, or some other system just fills the void, lest the game merely becomes a tabletop session of a Grand Theft: Auto video game.
Ultimately, alignment is a tool for managing ethical and moral behaviors of fictional characters in a fictional world which is inherently supernaturally influenced. It is a throwback to a worldview that isn’t as common as it may have been in the past, especially since our real world doesn’t hold up to the fictional perfection of cosmic ideals of Good and Evil, or Order and Chaos, or the like. It’s mythic.
As I mentioned in my previous entry, people tend toward a binary classification of things, especially when things are difficult and confusing. The paradox and complexity of life overall makes things difficult, and having some reassurance that up is Up and down is Down can be helpful. D&D is moving away from having groups of beings like orcs and drow as inherently or predominantly evil, because such depictions echo real-world bigotry that enabled and perpetuated injustices against “Othered” groups. But even still, there is the metaphysical realm of angels and demons who are more embodiments of Good and Evil, though they too may experience change (though rarely).
The key thing with having and using alignment in a game is discussing it with the group and having a clear idea of what it is and what it means in the context of the game. Clearing that up will help evade trying to define it later on in the game amidst everyone’s own understanding—and misunderstanding—of just what it means to the game itself, and the game played at the table.