Thoughts on Alignment

Ah, alignment, the bane of every player who wanted his character to be “chaotic greedy”.

The inital spectrum of alignment, Law-Neutrality-Chaos, probably stems from Moorcock’s Elric books, although Zelazny’s Amber novels came out starting in the early 1970’s, so it’s entirely possible that Gygax et al were influenced by that as well. (I don’t recall ever seeing him asked where the idea of an alignment system came from; if he answered it on a Q&A message board thread, I’d love to see it.) From there, of course, it was a natural step to expand the system along another axis, thus giving us the familiar good/evil law/chaos grid seen in AD&D. The notion that the Outer Planes follow the same system, seems to flow naturally (at least in retrospect).

From the standpoint of a wargame, whence the original D&D game comes, having “law” and “chaos” makes perfect sense. One side of the battle represented the forces of law, the other the forces of chaos. They could just as easily be “red” and “blue”. But in an RPG setting, what purpose does alignment serve?

On one level, alignment is a quick-and-dirty way of encouraging role-playing. It gives an instant motivation and the beginnings of a sense of morality and ethics for a character who might otherwise be nothing more than six stats and a name. When that same character has an alignment, he has guidelines. Goals. A modus operandi. When you don’t have a ton of time (or motivation) to develop a full-blown history and personality for a character, alignment is a convenient way of doing so, albeit in a very perfunctory manner. The same goes, of course for NPCs; alignment makes the game master’s job a lot easier.

On the level of the campaign, alignment can be used to create conflict on a metaphysical level. This is best seen in Gary Gygax’s “Gord the Rogue” novels, where the forces of the Lower Planes are very clearly delineated by their (AD&D) alignments. It is also possible to use alignment as a shorthand for the behavior of entire kingdoms, as when we see in the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting that, for instance, the Theocracy of the Pale is predominantly Lawful Neutral. Personally, in my own AD&D campaign, I use alignment to influence the general types of tactics that different types of humanoids employ. Orcs, being lawful evil, attack and defend in very well-ordered ranks, deploying pole-arms, using shield walls, orderly retreats, etc. to great effect. Others of chaotic evil alignment attack in less organized fashion, tending to attack in hordes.

However, there are downsides to alignment as well. It is all too easy to turn alignment into a straight-jacket. “You can’t do that, you’re lawful good” is something that we heard all too much of in my younger days, and in retrospect it was the worst possible way alignment could be interpreted. That said, if one can simply trip merrily from one alignment to another without consequences, then what’s the point in having an alignment system in the first place? (This doesn’t include the obvious cases such as paladins etc. for whom specific behaviors are required to maintain certain powers and status.)

AD&D did have a system for such consequences. Training to The original AD&D rules regarding alignment and its impact on training and level advancement are a logistical nightmare, and I’ve never heard of anyone actually using them (photocopy the alignment chart and plot each player’s behavior in each adventure???).

In some ways, even the ninefold alignment system is too simplistic to accurately plot behavior. Each individual approaches the sorts of moral questions covered by alignment from a standpoint of relativity. It is entirely possible to self-consistently behave “evilly” (in game terms) to outsiders and “good” (in game terms) to members of one’s family, clan, tribe, or species. From the standpoint of defining objective behaviors, the alignment system seems doomed to faiure.

That said, is there a way to capture the handy shorthands that alignment gives in terms of being able to paint PC and NPC behavior with a broad brush where needed, while at the same time allowing for a more realistic portrayal of human behavior? Your thoughts on the subject are welcome.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on Alignment

  1. Coincidentally, I have just been wrestling with the same topic, specifically in re the dark Sun conversion I'm working on.

    I'm similarly torn. An idea I am playing with is replacing Alignment with an elemental Allegiance, meaning the one thing that the character always turns to: Safety, Sex, Violence, Money, etc. It would give a very short-hand description of behaviour in a slightly more concrete fashion.

    But I'm still undecided.

  2. I also made a post about the alignment system where I talk about using a character's alignment as a starting point.

    When I do a campaign, I do what the Eberron campaign setting does with alignments. While good and evil still exist, they are as clear as in other settings.

    To me, that's the easiest way of handling alignments and has worked for me so far.

  3. Hackmaster 4E has an absolutely brilliant alignment audit system and radial chart.

    It's hilarious and horrifying and also would probably work if you were actually crazed-hardcore enough to play Hackmaster by the book.

  4. Moorcock, naturally, must have been a major influence on D&D alignment, but Law/Order vs. Chaos seems to have been a popular topic with science fiction writers of the '50s and '60s. For example, Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos (published as separate stories in the '50s and '60s,) Gordon R. Dickson's The Dragon and the George (originally published as a story in the '50s.) I think it was part of the English and American zeitgeist.

    My own solution to the alignment problem is to just dump alignment as a measure of personality entirely. For me, it's a matter of loyalty to a cause. A character's behavior may loosely fit the ideals of that cause, or it might diverge widely.

  5. I have abandoned alignment in my campaign except for beings such as demons or angels which are the physical embodiment of metaphysical concepts. I have been playing around with using D20 Modern-style allegiances but I have not instituted any rules based on them yet.

  6. I've developed a system that I use to generate NPC personality. It's based on the deadly sins/cardinal virtues opposition, with the addition of an honour/treachery category. (The system is described on my website,, along with some examples and a nifty javascript generator a friend whipped up for me). I've found it to work pretty well, and it returns NPCs with a touch more moral depth than the old 9-axis alignment system. Its down-side is that it's less easy to describe than just saying "he's Lawful Good"

  7. I'm pretty sure Gygax was asked about it and answered it on the Kenzer threads back when he took part, but I think they've thrown away all those old posts. I can't find anything older than 2006.

    I do think that if you're going to include an alignment of good and evil that means anything in the game, you're going to have to postulate that an absolute reference exists in the game world.

  8. Personally, I much prefer the C&S system where they use Piety rather than alignment. This is simplified for me because my campaign is basically the traditional heroic fantasy good vs evil. There are no neutrals.

  9. IIRC, some of Steve Marsh's early contributions to D&D included a significant influence on alignment—likely between the publication of OD&D and Holmes Basic.


  10. Although in another post you mentioned you didn't like the system I'd recommend taking a look at the Palladium alignment. I've used it as a substitute many times and think it works well.

    It rejects neutrals in a rather prentenious way using good, selfish, and evil in a 2/2/3 combination. However, the Mystic China supplement for Ninjas and Superspies adds a third good alignment, Taoist Good, which is arguably a whimsical neutral.

    Each alignment has roughly ten rules such as "will never lie", "will torture someone to gain knowledge but not for pleasure", or "will not kill an innocent". There is enough to be enforcible but not to straight jacket.

  11. I'm from Switzerland and english isn't a familiar tongue.My point of view about alignment is quite simple : the nine alignments are a basic ground for players characters.Alignment isn't a straight jacket is more a general ethical orientation. All discussions about the subject can be resumed by absolute or relative ethic. If you take a relativistic point you'll enter in a never ending discussion because what a human believe about law, good, neutral will be obviously different from an orc. If you take an absolute point (eg religious- christian, muslim, buddhist) you'll enter into dogma which lead you to relativism. For me solution is quite simple, alignment is a wonderful idea if you build the system upon the golden moral rule (don't do to others….) From the cultural side of PC (eg in Greyhawk world baklunish or aerdi setting), his or her beliefs (religious, atheist) PC's explain to DM what they understands and therefore acts in reference to golden rule. PC can build interesting character for example an altruistic chaotic neutral or an selfish lawful good. Believe me or not but theses combinations are possible, consistent and coherent. I know i'm lengthy but replacing alignment with allegiance lead or to postpone the same problems or to confuse ethics with moods (eg you can be tolerant and evil, irascible and good). Last example anglo-saxon culture,(eg.modern USA),have big complexes, prejudices about sexual behaviour, well you play a character in a medieval-fantasy world and is a devout believer of a fertility goddess NG during sacred times the character (men or women) engage in a liturgy like sacred prostitution or orgy. If she/he does these action with a complete adhesion of golden rule it's good, if he does these action because she/he indulge her/himself because she/he's a raving maniac and also want to hurt physically or psychologically his/her partners it's bad and I don't see how matters sexual or money allegiance.

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