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On the nature of alignments

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Many articles and opinions have been written about alignment in D&D.  So why one more?  Apart from the stock "why not" answer, there is a slight twist I want to add that may not have been covered elsewhere.  This may not only help understand the characteristics of each alignment choice better, but also help in character creation to define the character's personality in more detail.


Ok... so what's the twist?  Well, I think that most people operate under the concept that there are nine basic alignments.  A more sophisticated look at alignment considers looking at the law/chaos axis and good/evil axis separately, and that the basic alignments are regions on a chart composed of the two axes.  Where a minor fallcy creeps in even here, however, is that there is an underlying assumption that each axis is weighted equally.

In terms of understanding characters and their philosophies, in addition to figuring out where they lie on each axis and deriving the general alignment from it, it is important to determine which axis is more important to the character's personality.  In this respect, each alignment can be represented two ways, with the first category being a modifier to the second -- essentially, the second part is the more core philosophy, and the first part is the means to that end.  For example, a "Lawful Neutral" is someone who is predominantly Neutral between Good and Evil, and decides that Lawful is the best way to ensure this balance; a "Neutral Lawful" is someone who believes in Lawful philosophy over all else, and chooses Neutrality between Good and Evil to ensure a fair and unbiased application of the law.  (Of course, a "Neutral Neutral" doesn't tell you which Neutral is more important, but that's the fault of the game designers for overloading the term.)

The differences can be subtle, but important.  In addition to defining a character concept more cleanly (i.e., why they believe what they believe), it shows which direction the character is more likely to show flexibility in terms of philosophy.  The "Lawful Neutral" would be more easily influenced toward the Chaotic than toward either Good or Evil, if he/she feels that the restrictions of an ordered society, etc., hinders keeping a balance of good and evil; the "Neutral Lawful", on the other hand, would not be likely to budge from Lawful behavior, but could be convinced that taking a stance toward either Good or Evil would help ensure the proper application of the Lawful philosophy.

Of course, it is important to have clearly defined characteristics for each axis so that generic terms like "Lawful", "Chaotic", "Good", and "Evil" have better context.


Lawful charatcers believe in the rule of law and are likely to be well steeped in tradition (though a highly legalistic society may have such an evolving set of laws that tradition is minimized or ignored).  They believe firmly in honor and duty, and expect others they deal with (friends and enemies alike) to abide my the same set of rules.  Society (and individuals) should be ordered and governed by principles than can be set down and followed no matter what.

Chaotic characters think that laws, rules, and regulations are too restrictive.  Each individual should choose his or her own path based on the current situation and the dictates of their own conscience.  Tradition is something that can be learned from, but it should never constrain someone from doing what they think is best.  They are likely to simply ignore or undermine legal structures, depending on how restrictive they are toward the character's goals and philosophies.

Neutral characters, of course, seek a balance of the two.  On one side, things are too restrictive, on the other, too anarchistic.  This person is more likely to believe that laws, rules, etc., are all well and good, but that there are times they need to be set aside.  The phrase "situational ethics" comes to mind with Neutrals on this axis.


I don't know if anything is more misunderstood in D&D than the distinction of "Good" and "Evil".  Specifically on the latter, I think most people envision "Evil" characters/NPCs are those who go around spitting small children on the ends of spears and then roasting them over fires built on their parents' homes.  As a hobby.  I think "Evil" in game terms is just a tad more subtle than that.

Good characters are essentially altruistic.  The needs of society in general outweigh their own needs or desires, and helping out those in distress is simply the right thing to do.  Rewards may be taken, as long as they are given freely and are not an undue burden on the giver.  The helpless must never be harmed, or allowed to come to harm through avoidable inaction.

Evil characters basically concerned about themselves, and themselves alone.  The rest of the world can burn, as long as they get the power, wealth, knowledge, etc. that they desire for themselves.  While the "Evil" category contains true sociopaths, this masks the more typical evil -- those who are quite willing to use, abuse, and discard anyone or anything that gets in their way.  The rest of the time, they have little to no use for people at all.  Putting themselves at any risk had best be counterbalanced by a disproportionate reward.

Neutral characters, being by definition in between the two extremes, can basically be defined as rugged individualists.  They are mostly concerned about themselves, but have some level of social responsibility.  Generally, they feel that people are responsible for themselves, so they expect to be rewarded for helping someone out, and don't expect to place themselves at high risk for doing so (unless the anticipated reward matches the risk).  Acting in such a way as to intentionally hurt innocents is pretty much off-limits, unless a very compelling reason exists.  Inaction that causes harm to innocents is acceptable, especially if the price of action is risky.


Going back to the original example... a "Lawful Neutral" believes primarily in himself or herself, and has some ambivalence about society as a whole.  This person believes that he or she can make their way best in a predictable, ordered system that ensures relatively fair dealing, and therefore, reasonable compensation for any services rendered.

The "Neutral Lawful" on the other hand, is convinced that a rigid code of conduct or legal system is the best thing for himself or herself, and probably society in general, too.  The consequences of following the laws are irrelevant -- they are there for a good reason, and if people get hurt in the process, it is regrettably unavoidable and a necessary cost -- unbiased application of the system is required regardless of result.

The "Chaotic Good" character differs from the "Good Chaotic" character -- the former believes that "Good" is best achieved by freedom from rules, regulations, and laws.  The latter is a generally an anarchist (who can either "opt out" of a rigid society or rail against it) who feels that helping people out will show them that laws and rules aren't necessary as long as good will exists.


More so than anything else, this is intended to help flesh out the character design concept.  As a secondary goal, it should hopefully help characters play their chosen alignments better -- not only staying within alignment, but knowing how to "lean" away from it one way, but not the other.

When creating a character, make sure to define not only where they stand on each axis, but which one is most important to that character.  Then ask yourself the questions of:

Why does the character feels that way?
How much more important is that aspect vs. the other?
How does the secondary aspect follow from belief in the first?
How likely would the character be to change his/her mind on the secondary aspect?

Wow. This one gets the Stephen Thumbs-Up.

I think this would be a good addition to the Character Submission forum. Stickied. Forever.

I like this alignment guide, good work Faldred.

gilshem ironstone:
I just read this and it is some great food for thought.  Alignment has always been the most difficult aspect of Role-Play for me, so I look forward to mulling over these ideas.

So for a class that demands a alignment like the paladin. can the player put the lean more on the good then the lawful (good lawful) or more on the lawful then good (lawful good)?


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