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February 4, 2016

Alignment in Dungeons and Dragons

Old and messy as it is, the D&D alignment system can still be an excellent tool for roleplaying.  I love that the 5th edition D&D Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws are subtly connected to character alignment.  Even in 2nd, 3rd, 4th edition and Pathfinder, you can still get a lot of profit out of alignment as a DM and as a player.

First, for alignment to have value, it has to mean something.  Here's the very basic point you should understand about alignment:  The alignment that lets you do the expedient, convenient, logical, tactical, strategic, reasonable thing is True Neutral.  The other four options (Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil) occasionally require you to make sub-optimal or unreasonable choices in character.  In effect, those four alignment choices are "flaws," in the RPG sense of the word.  They're voluntary restrictions on your behavior.

Flaws in RPGs

A "flaw" is a common roleplaying game mechanic that gives you some game system reason to have your character make a decision that is different from and worse than the decision that you, the player, would make.

In a roleplaying game, players take on the role of people different from themselves, but RPGs are usually about problem solving.  Consequently, players spend a lot of time working out the most sensible solutions to problems.  But if you spend all your time having your character, Jordak, making the decision you, Joe, would make, what makes Jordak different from Joe?  Jordak is just Joe with a magic dagger and 45% Find and Remove Traps.  The character of Joe is the same as the character of Jordak.

So I've come up with a way to explain Alignment that Dungeon Masters and players can use to best understand it.

It's a really simple distinction; there are only two kinds of alignment:  There's Neutral, and there's everything else.

You act lawful/chaotic or good/evil when it makes the most sense for you.  You don't make a point of honor.  You don't make a point of defying authority.  You don't make a point of altruism.  You don't make a point of selfish greed.  If it's foolish to stick to strict rules, you break them.  When it's comfortable to let someone else continue to suffer while you drink fine wine, you drink fine wine.  When defying authority would cost you, you go along to get along.  When helping others improves your own life, you give freely.  Just because the players of Neutral characters have no limitations on the choices they make doesn't mean they should just play their character as an avatar of themselves.

You choose to act in a particular way, when an average person would not.  Chaotic characters choose to defy authority, even if it costs them.  Because they flout honor, they have flexibility.  Lawful characters choose to obey an honor code, even when it costs them.  Because they uphold a code of honor, they have trustworthiness.  Evil characters choose to satisfy their urges at the expense of others, even if it destroys their community.  Because they never spend a thought for others, they have to rely on their own strength and dominate those around them.    Good characters choose to sacrifice their own needs for the needs of others, which often hurts them to no profit in the mortal world (but that's the point, of course).

Nine vs. Three vs. Five...
If you're playing with the 1e, 2e, 3e, Pathfinder, and 5e "nine alignments" system, you really have eight flawed character types and one with total freedom to act as the player would.  Other editions of D&D had different systems of alignment that made this easier to understand:

  • Original and Basic D&D:  Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic
  • 4th edition D&D:  Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, and Chaotic Evil.

When placed on a simple continuum like those editions, it's easier to see Neutral (or Unaligned) as the "normal reasonable person" alignment, and the others as deviations from it.

But the most popular D&D editions are Pathfinder and 5th edition, so let's look at the Lawful/Chaotic and Good/Evil axes independently.  And let's look at them as "flaws" in the classic RPG sense -- opportunities for the player to have their character act in a surprising way.

With RPG flaws, the player is not at fault when the character makes a bad decision in line with their flaw.

Bill:  "Joe, I can't believe you hid from the Reeve.  He just wanted you to pay a tax you could easily afford.  What if he'd caught you?  We'd all be in trouble over a few gold pieces!"
Joe:  "If it were me, I would have paid the tax.  Jordak, on the other hand, gives nothing to the sneering autocrats who think they can take whatever they want by right of birth."  

Flaws are an RPG mechanic that helps players make those decisions that they know are inexpedient without carrying the blame themselves -- it's not Joe's fault.  Joe doesn't have a chip on his shoulder about authority.  Jordak the Thief does.

So here are the kinds of inexpedient decisions you might make when roleplaying your alignment.

You demand your enemies surrender before attacking, removing the element of surprise and maybe giving them a moment to collect their wits and prepare for battle.  You let fleeing enemies escape unless there has been a warrant issued for their capture or their death.  You won't disgrace yourself by pretending to be someone else.  You will find a way to do what you said, even if you were forced or tricked into it.  You refuse to promise anything except to trustworthy people, because you know you will be bound to your word.  You demand apologies or satisfaction by violence from those who insult you.

Non-Traditional Honor Codes
D&D and Pathfinder assume a world similar to our own, with similar ideas about honesty, integrity, fairness, courage, and temperance.  Even honor codes in vastly different real-world cultures have similar ideas about those things.  But this is fantasy!  It's OK to play a character from a culture with a dramatically different code of honor, but it should be just as restrictive as the default Earth-like code of honor.

Example of a Dramatically Different Honor Code
Traditionally, a Lawful character would demand justice before attacking a humanoid.  "Repent your ways and surrender, or I will slay you where you stand!"  But maybe your character's culture is comfortable with attacking people without warning, if they deserve it.  If you commit a serious offense in that culture, you can expect to be ambushed and killed at any time.  Think about what effects that would have on a culture.  That culture would have strict rules about when it is OK to draw a weapon and what it means to bare steel.  If you take out a weapon in the presence of others, you might be attacking them - there is no cultural penalty to doing so, after all.  People carrying spears or other weapons that could not be sheathed would be immediately suspected of homicidal intent -- more so than just "he's carrying a deadly weapon" but "her choice of weapon signals that she intends to kill without warning."  Wizards would keep their hands visible at all times.   A culture that did not demand justice before administering punishment might also have no concept of repentance.  In a way, it would be more strict than a culture that did.  No repentance.  No forgiveness.  No surrender.  Retreat is only delaying the inevitable.  Such a culture would demand that its warriors fight to the death, even against overwhelming odds.  They might still retreat -- everyone gets scared -- but they would never surrender.  Such a culture would be very careful to never give even the slightest offense.  Politesse and manners would be much more important to them than they are on Earth.  Another thing about this culture -- accidentally hurting an innocent person or administering punishment harsher than was deserved would be strongly censured, or else it would quickly get out of hand.  This supports the culture's obsession with politesse.  If someone hurt you, it is safer to act like the offense is less than it was than it is to over-react.  That's not forgiveness so much as forbearance, dignity and patience.  Truly revered people in this culture would appear to ignore all offenses -- even attacks on their life.

Lawful isn't just Orderly
Discipline and temperance are part of the traditional honor code, but not all of it.  A lawful character is more than just organized and logical.  They have a code, expressed as laws or principles, that they follow.  Typically it reflects the traditional codes of honor we have on Earth, but see above for variations.

Lawful isn't just Obedient
Pro-social deference and humility are part of the traditional honor code, but not all of it, either.  A lawful character isn't just a person who obeys the law and custom.  They internalize the ethical virtues that underpin law itself - the honor code.

You won't give a copper piece to authority figures unless you get something for it.  When you meet The High Queen Jorella Moonflower, Her Highness, Defender of the Realms of Elvenkind, you might lean against a column and call her, "Jorella" like you would with a casual acquaintance, instead of taking a knee and calling her "Your Highness."  You show no respect to toadies or people who slavishly adhere to honor codes.  You don't want a trustworthy reputation - better to be unpredictable and unknown.  You never promise anything because you don't want to be held accountable; and if you are forced to make a promise, you make a point of breaking it somehow.  You sabotage and undermine authority figures, even if they're on your side.  You see no point in chastity or temperence - your character might get blind drunk just for the fun of it.  You're not hurting anyone.  And if you are, is it any worse than the teetotaler refusing to go carousing to gather information because of some abstract ideas about dignity and principle?

Unreliable slob or mysterious rebel?
Chaotic characters might appear to have a chip on their shoulder because they constantly undermine even legitimate, good-intentioned authority.  They see feudalism as an inherently unfair and broken system.  They might appear as lazy, over-indulgent, distasteful slobs because they see no reason to be industrious, abstemious, and dignified; they would rather do what they want without people judging them.  They might appear conceited and unreliable because they don't need to maintain a reputation of humility and trustworthiness; instead preferring to be proud or mysterious.  Charismatic Chaotic characters come across more positively:  A charismatic Chaotic character might be respected for going their own way.  Their confidence and charm make them seem more mysterious than untrustworthy; more revolutionary than undermining; more independent and spontaneous than lazy and unreliable.

(This goes for Lawful characters, too:  An uncharismatic Lawful character might seem like a hide-bound, sanctimonious bore with a death wish; while a charismatic one might come across as trustworthy, honorable, and courageous.)

Chaotic isn't Convenient
Chaotic characters don't obey laws and customs until it's convenient to ignore them.  That's Neutral.  Chaotic characters directly flout or undermine them.  To portray a Chaotic-Good character, it might help if the DM provides examples of how authority, law, and custom have flaws.  They don't have to be huge flaws, but even a few small problems with the social structure will help the C-G character justify their disdain.

You might give your resources away to those in need, even if costs you effectiveness in combat.  You might risk your life for just a 1% chance to save or help an innocent person.  You might use your down time helping others instead of earning money or brewing a potion.  You might let enemies get away because you show them more mercy than they deserve.  When you get no benefit from helping others, only pain and suffering, you don't need excuses.  You know you didn't do it because it made you look good.  You did it because it was good.

Good is Easy to Act and Hard to Choose
It may seem like Good characters have to make more hard decisions than Evil ones.  And that's sort of the point.  Good is all about hard choices.  Evil is easy: Me.  On the other hand, most D&D players are pretty good-hearted folks.  It's hard to play Evil and scoff at an NPC's suffering, abuse your character's henchmen, and manipulate people to do what you want rather than persuade them of the social good of your mission.  So playing Good requires your character to make hard choices.  On the other hand, playing an evil character is going to challenge your acting skills.

The philosophy of evil is that you only rely on yourself.  Everyone is completely responsible for their own life.  Because everyone is expected to take care of their own life, it doesn't matter if you hurt others - if they couldn't keep themselves safe, they deserved it.  It doesn't matter that you hurt others and gained a reputation as an abuser - you're strong enough to avoid the repercussions.  Evil people can be cowards.  They won't take a risk if they don't think they can avoid the hazards.  They don't trust that others will help them out of kindness or friendship.  They trust that others will help them if they have leverage over them, though.  Evil characters are abusers who get power over others through blackmail, bullying, corruption, lies, and dependence.  Evil characters would never believe they could persuade someone to help them out of a sense of decency.  They would immediately resort to finding leverage to force the person to do as they want.  Evil characters would never expose themselves to a hazard they couldn't survive or force others to endure in their place.  Evil characters would automatically push to gain the greatest reward or greatest share of the reward, only backing down if it would cost them more to persist.  In a party of other adventurers, an evil character would take only their fair share of loot unless they could get leverage over other party members, which is probably not possible if they're all the same level.

Social Contract: Don't Be a Dick
If you're playing an evil character, it is important to talk about your character's penchant for abusing others out of character with the GM and other players.  They might decide to collaborate with you to decide how your character got leverage over their character, so that they could later roleplay how their character turned on your character and punished your character for their manipulation.  Never abuse and manipulate your friends in real life -- make sure they know out of character that your character is doing it. If they want to play along, good.

If the other player is not OK with it, you have to back off and come up with an in-character reason.  Maybe your evil wizard is too afraid of the barbarian to try manipulating him.  Sure, his low Int makes it easy to trick him; but if he ever snapped and turned on you, a single blow from that +2 Keen Falchion would be the end of you.

Over the Top Evil
Some aspects of Evil in D&D are just plain awful.  Cannibalism, soul-stealing, consorting with demons, wanton slaughter, destroying the world, genocide, despoiling things out of hatred for purity, torture for the fun of it -- these activities are horrible and disgusting.  They're "over the top" evil.  An evil PC in an otherwise non-evil party may not get away with these acts.  And they don't have to try -- you can be really evil without doing these things.

Keep it PG-13 (or Whatever)
Alignments are ultimately moral choices, and moral choices can lead to mature themes.  Make sure you understand the "MPAA Rating" of your table and keep from taking things too far.  If your table is playing a PG-13 campaign, then choosing to run an adventure about sexual abuse might be pushing it too far, even if you treat the subject in a mature and educated manner.

Final Thoughts

Mixed Alignments
Lawful and Good seem to go hand-in-hand in a lot of ways.  Honor and honesty seem altruistic and good; and charity and kindness seem honorable and lawful.  The same goes for Chaotic and Evil.  So mixed alignments, like Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil create contradictions.  Some editions didn't have these mixed alignments (Original, BECMI, and 4th edition).  This might be hard to roleplay spontaneously, but the GM can make use of your conflicting alignments to create dramatic choices for you.

A lawful-evil character might find a situation that makes them choose between putting themselves at risk with no expectation of gain, and breaking their word.  One or the other has to give.  You might expect them to break their word and then cover it up; or keep their word and then take revenge for being forced into the situation.

A chaotic-good character might find a situation that makes them choose between helping people and supporting an authority they especially dislike.  The Duke rewards them by bestowing a hospital on them and giving them title Lord Hospitalier.  As long as they don't piss off the Duke, they can do a lot of good for the people of the duchy.  The character would have to grit their teeth and serve a Duke, or else undermine the Duke more subtly.

Neutral as Balance
In some D&D settings, Neutral is more than just "not law/chaos/good/evil" but instead a concept of balance between them.  In Dragonlance, for instance, the world is at risk when it is not balanced.  Neutral alignment in those settings can also mean "my character is aware that the world needs to remain balanced, and I intend to restore that balance."  Ultimately, that character has a strange (alien to us!) philosophical idea that some amount of cruelty and abuse is necessary to the cosmological underpinnings of reality itself, but too much is just as bad.  Same with order and chaos.

True Neutral Still isn't Just "You"
If you play True Neutral, try to invent some important ways in which your character makes decisions differently from you.  In a way, Neutral can be more challenging than the other alignments, as a result.  It helps to pick a driving goal for your True Neutral character, and seek to achieve it no matter the cost.

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