From time to time I find myself revisiting alignment. Many people have attempted to present descriptions of the various alignments. Some descriptions are better than others but I have yet to see anything that I could get behind 100%. It’s been a while since I addressed alignment so I thought I’d give it another go.

What Is Alignment?

Alignment is the cross-section of two traits. The first trait describes the individual’s tendencies with respect to good and evil. The second relates to the individual’s tendencies with respect to order versus chaos. The intersection of these two traits has been mapped to a chart containing nine alignments:

Lawful GoodNeutral GoodChaotic Good
Lawful NeutralTrue NeutralChaotic Neutral
Lawful EvilNeutral EvilChaotic Evil

What Criteria Determines Alignment?

This is the core of the problem. How do you determine whether a creature is good or evil, lawful or chaotic? There are no absolutes. Everyone is good and evil (as well as lawful and chaotic) to varying degrees. To make matters worse, where each person falls within each scale varies with circumstance.

Good & Evil

We all “know” the difference between good and evil. Defining the difference is an entirely different matter. One method of determination is to evaluate the actions of the individual. This presupposes that certain actions are inherently good or evil. I hope that everyone will agree that murder is a heinous act. But I do not believe it is the act itself that is inherently evil. As a species, we murder all the time.

  • We slaughter animals daily (or have them slaughtered on our behalf) in order to put food on the table.
  • Our military kill enemy soldiers.
  • Policemen occasionally have to shoot dangerous criminals in the line of duty.
  • The government executes criminals convicted of certain crimes.

These are all examples of murder. But does that make those who carry out the acts evil? Certainly there are some who will say yes. However, as a people, we have accepted and condoned these acts as part of our way of life. Therefore, I believe that it is the intent behind the act (opposed to the act itself) that is or is not evil. It is the difference between a policeman shooting a dangerous suspect and a psychopath shooting into a crowd. If a person kills people for the sake of killing people, I can’t imagine any interpretation that would not define the person as evil.

Conversely, performing acts that are beneficial to the recipient are not, in and of themselves, inherently good. If a person runs into a burning building to rescue an unconscious victim (thus saving the victim’s life), the act is generally viewed as beneficial and good. What if the victim was the leader of a merciless band of cutthroats and the rescuer was a minion who saved him in order to continue their murderous way of life? The act was certainly beneficial (at least to the victim) but it was done in order to allow them to continue to cause harm. Therefore, I wouldn’t see the performance of the act as anything that would redeem the rescuer. Perhaps that’s still a bit of a grey area. What if the victim had escaped from a torturer before falling unconscious in the burning building and the torturer had rescued the victim from the building, not as an act of kindness but in order to continue the torture? In my opinion, it is the motivation, not the act itself, which determines whether an action is good or evil.

In the context of Dungeons & Dragons, we have a serious problem with the question of good vs. evil. Characters (in most games) are considered to be basically good. However, as adventurers, the main theme is to go kill things and take their stuff. This is rationalized by the faint impression that all those adversaries are “evil”, when realistically most of them are simply defending themselves from the roving bands of merciless adventurers.

Order and Chaos

As difficult as it is to define the criteria for good and evil, finding a solid definition of order and chaos is even harder. Notice that the alignments include the word “law” or “lawful” whereas I have been saying “order”. There is a reason for this. Many people believe that lawful individuals obey the law while chaotic individuals do not. I consider this to be a terrible definition and frequently untrue. The term “lawful”, at least within the context of the game, does not mean “law-abiding”. Within the game, at least to my way of thinking, lawful refers to order and stability. It may be desirable to have laws that lead to that end but that may not be the case. I would contest instead that lawful individuals pursue orderly, well thought-out approaches to problem solving whereas chaotic individuals rush in and work out the details as they go (or simply start swinging and let fate take its course).

Character Alignment

Traditionally, the way DMs deal with character alignments is to provide descriptions of the nine alignments and tell the player to pick one and run her character according to that description. This creates all sorts of problems. First off, you are telling the player how to run her character. Second, unless the alignment descriptions span multiple pages per alignment (which no player would read anyway) the description will be inadequate to properly define what actions a character of a given alignment would taken in various situations. That creates a grey area where the player must make the call as to what would be in line with her alignment. However, her view and the DMs view of the alignment will certainly diverge from time to time. That has the DM again telling the player that “a character of your alignment wouldn’t do that”.

An alternative is to simply monitor the character’s alignment and have her deity react accordingly. However, if alignments are based on the motivations behind the actions, instead of the actions themselves, then it is impossible for the DM to accurately determine what alignment a character is playing. But why is it necessary for the DM to know what alignment the character is? There are only two reasons that immediately come to mind. First, if the character is a cleric (or paladin) then the character must act in a way that is reasonably close to the alignment of her deity. Second, there are various spells that affect creatures of certain alignments. It is necessary to know the character’s alignment in order to determine if those spell affect the character.

In most games, about the only time alignment comes into play at all is when the party wants to kill off a captured orc and the paladin has to turn her back so she “doesn’t know what’s going on”. First off, let me say that I would not allow that sort of thing to happen. If the paladin isn’t allowed to kill off captured orcs, she can’t just pretend to not know it’s happening. Her god would still know she willingly allowed it to happen and deal with the paladin accordingly.

But really, worrying about alignment is a great deal of bother with no significant benefit. Realistically, character’s alignments are going to be all over the place, changing from situation to situation. They can’t be easily pigeon-holed (as they are constantly changing) nor is there much benefit in attempting to do so.

As a result, I have done away with character alignments. Each god has certain tenets that his or her followers must adhere to. Those that don’t follow those rules may lose any abilities granted by the deity (either temporarily or permanently). Similarly, most monsters no longer have alignments (for exactly the same reasons).

Who Has Alignments

Only deities, and other creatures who live on the divine planes (angels, devas, demons, devils, etc), have alignment. Only these divine creatures (which includes the deities) may be affected by spells designed to affect aligned beings. It is possible for some of these creatures to invest a portion of their aligned power into magical items. Those items then radiate power that may be detected by spells designed to identify divine power.