The Millionth Rant about D&D Alignment


I won’t be the first, nor last to say this, but the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system is horribly broken. In an attempt to capture the fact that people have different motives and various virtues and vices, the makers of D&D (most likely Gygax himself) introduced the notion of alignment, which was intended to reflect your character’s basic values and moral inclinations. There were nine options: a combination of choosing whether your character was Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, and then Good, Neutral, or Evil. By now, everyone is familiar with what the choices mean, so I won’t belabor it. The point is that your character must fit one of these categories.

The problems come when you try to actually stay true to your alignment. Some of the alignments are very restrictive, while others give characters a lot more leeway in their actions. For example, characters who are lawful good end up being practically saintly. They follow a moral code that requires them to condemn almost any act that is not completely altruistic or pure. This leads to attacking demons on sight in many cases, even if such an act is suicidal. It also means, at least in theory, that paladins should not even be in the same party as a thief. On the flipside, chaotic evil characters are downright nasty, and there’s no reason why a party of adventurers should ever allow one to accompany them. They do not follow any rules, and they are very likely to kill you and take your stuff at the first opportunity.

The very middle between these two extremes is also restrictive. The true neutral (neutral/neutral) alignment, often embodied by annoying druid characters, must seek total balance in the world between good and evil. Many players take this to mean that they must join whichever side is losing in a conflict (or outnumbered, or declining in the world, or…you get the idea!).

In practice, this leads a lot of people to select the more open-ended alignments, such as Neutral Good or Chaotic Good. These two alignments allow you to be a good person, but one largely free to interpret this however you see fit. You are willing to break the rules for the greater good, but you might follow them too. Many of my characters followed one of these two alignments, and frankly I rarely thought about alignment in those cases. I just did what I felt like doing at the time (as noted in a previous post, I tend to play good guys by default), and ignored the alignment system.

Thieves, on the other hand, might play Chaotic Neutral, which is basically the selfish alignment. Such a character will steal or kill, but not for no reason at all. They do it because they benefit from it. As a player, this alignment allows you to do bad things from time to time (morally speaking), but also allows you to cooperate with the group, for Hobbesian reasons. Thomas Hobbes writes that we are basically all egoist, but that our egoism gives us good reason for cooperating with others and forming a society. We all benefit from cooperation, and thus it’s in our own best interest to avoid murdering and stealing from people that could do the same to us.

Of course, Lawful Neutral also fits this somewhat, since this is the alignment of people who follow the rules for their own sake, and not because of the good it creates. While some people argue that this is the best choice, since it allows one to be lawful without being a zealot about it, I think it’s a completely empty alignment. This is the alignment of people who follow the rules simply because they never bother to question them. Such characters strike me as intellectually lazy, and that’s not particularly praiseworthy.

Lawful Evil and Neutral Evil characters have their own oddities. Lawful Evil represents something like the corrupt fascist, who uses law for evil means. I guess Hitler falls into this category; so if you want to play as Hitler, this is the one for you! Lucifer (the devil) would also fit, since apparently devils have to uphold their agreements, even if they twist them to evil purposes. Neutral Evil characters are out for themselves in a way similar to Chaotic Neutral, but they are a bit more bent on evil. Maybe serial killers follow this, assuming they are crafty and not just psychotic killing machines (chaotic evil). I honestly don’t think about the Evil alignments that much, because I don’t like playing that kind of character. I just don’t see why a party would ever allow any of these alignments to join them in an adventure.

However, I still haven’t really explained why I think the system is broken. The reason is simple- none of these alignments seem very realistic. People are complex moral beings. They rarely fit into easy categories like this. Hitler may have been Lawful Evil as a politician, but I bet he skipped school as a kid. And I hear that he liked puppies. Truly evil people, who do nothing but evil, are pretty rare in the real world. The concept of pure evil might make sense in a game about a fantasy world filled with monsters, but offering them as choices to player characters means that they will be caricatures at best.

Perhaps this is the general problem with D&D, and other class-based, alignment-structured systems. While some people are able to transcend the system and create truly interesting characters, the system itself does not encourage it. It encourages you to play a very two dimensional role. There is a reason why D&D has so many video games modeled after it. Part of it is popularity, of course, but part of it is that the system already feels like a tabletop version of a video game (I’m aware that D&D predates video games of the sort I’m talking about here). Sometimes, when playing D&D and similar games, I feel like I’m playing an MMORPG that requires me to pick an alignment in order to decide which magic items I’m allowed to use.

The concept of alignment is meant to encourage roleplaying, but ultimately stands in tension to good roleplaying. Still, other attempts to capture the idea of values and moral standards might fare better in this regard. So in future posts, I will explore some of these other attempts, including Palladium’s approach and even Lucas’s Light Side/Dark Side approach.

2 thoughts on “The Millionth Rant about D&D Alignment”

  1. Many of these issues regarding alignment were brought up in Dragon magazine back in Sept 1985 in the form of Paul Suttie’s “For king and country” (Dragon #101)

    “In the real world, good and evil are invented concepts. Societies label their own values as good, and those of the enemy (or the threatening or the unknown) as evil.”; “No one has ever decided that certain values are good, and then chosen to oppose them and be consciously evil, and there is no possible reason why any sane person ever would, even if he is just a character in a game.”; “No wonder characters who take on evil personae find themselves appalled by their own behavior”; “No wonder the typical paladin hypocritically preaches respect for all life, while a value system he would more realistically possess, that of religious intolerance, determines his actions. Subconsciously, if not consciously, we know that a paladin is not good in the sense of the definition we have been given”

    The tension you brought up appeared in the July 1981 “It’s not easy being good” by Roger E. Moore (Dragon #51) where he points out “Not all of the problems Paladin-players encounter in this area of whether killing is right or not are the player’s fault. Sometimes a DM will set up a situation in which, for example, the Lawful Goods have slain all the males of a tribe of Werewolves, and all that’s left are the females and young, who cower in the rocks and refuse to fight. Civilization is hundreds of miles away and no means exists at the moment to render the captives free of lycanthropy. If released, the young will grow up and terrorize the neighborhood again. If they are kept as captives, the party will be severely hampered and may meet new monsters at any moment. Killing the captives could well be the only alternative the Paladin is left with, yet if done the DM might say it was evil and remove the player’s alignment and status as a Paladin.”

    I should mention Paul Suttie effectively threw out the alignment system in favor of something akin to trait based systems like GURPS. For example, King Arthur and his knight can be BOTH benevolent to its people AND lethally intolerant of pagan religions (ala the only good pagan is a dead one)

    I have found that trait based systems to have more flexibility and lest debate then alignment.

    1. Wow, I knew these issues had been raised many times before, but had no idea they were THAT old. Thanks for the citations!

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