Saturday, November 18, 2017

Socialist-Selfless vs Libertarian-Solipsistic: A Descriptivist Approach to Alignment

Alignment can be a tricky nut to crack, but it can be a very rewarding sort of symbolic language and a good system for tracking (rather than dictating) characters' moral and ethical inclinations. It therefore can serve as both a predictive tool for the DM in creating adventures that will appeal to the players and their characters, as well as a shorthand for determining concrete effects on characters (per Detect Evil or whether an evil artifact damages the PC who picks it up). Below is my write-up for descriptive rather than prescriptive alignment, as laid out in the Player's Handbook I'm assembling for my hexcrawl. Let me know what you think!

*Apologies for the formatting. This was written to be part of a document rather than a blog post.


A character's alignment is his basic moral and ethical ideology. Alignment is very fluid and is likely to change over the course of play, and so effects (primarily spells) that target specific alignments may impact you on one occasion and not the next.

Alignment is a strictly meta concept. Characters in the world have no awareness of alignment and do not define morality in these terms. For most players, a character's alignment can be treated as merely a guide to their general proclivities. It need not be treated as a strait-jacket to contain your choice as a player. Indeed, alignment is fluid precisely because it describes the actions you tend to take rather than prescribing what options are available to you.

Alignment is best visualized as a graph with a Law/Chaos axis and a Good/Evil axis. The intersection of the two axes is Neutral. Your character's alignment is categorized by proximity to the edge of the graph on each axis, so it may be described in two words, such as "Neutral Good," "Lawful Evil," or "Chaotic Neutral." When a character is Neutral on both axes, she is "True Neutral."

The Law/Chaos axis is best understood in terms of a conflict between the necessity of the social contract (Lawful) and one's personal liberty (Chaotic). A common misunderstanding is that a Lawful character is obligated to obey the law and a Chaotic character is not, but this is not the case. All things being equal, a Lawful character may be more inclined to follow the law in a given situation, but he is under no special compulsion to do so. In fact, a Lawful character is likely to despise and combat a law which is arbitrary or unfounded. Lawful characters will happily throw their lot in with a revolution against a fickle king or autocrat, but their intention will most likely be to replace the facade of order with the genuine article. A Lawful character therefore believes in an underlying and pervasive structure to the universe--or feels the need to facilitate or create one where it is absent.

In contrast, a Chaotic character is primarily concerned with individual liberty and the freedom to stand on her own with neither the protections or the obligations of a society to hinder or help. She is under no special compulsion to violate a law (although it may humor her to do so if she is particularly fickle), but neither is she inclined to obey it simply because it exists. On the Good spectrum, a Chaotic character believes in freedom for all. On the Evil side, she cares only for her own liberty and feels entitled to oppress others as an expression of her own freedom to do as she pleases.

A neutral character can approach this axis in one of two ways: indifference or conflict. The indifferent character does not particularly favor one situation over the other and simply takes the world as it comes. Such a character is a moderate, and is likely to believe a reconciliation and synthesis of the two attitudes is possible and preferable. The conflicted character can see the strengths of both sides of the axis, but has not settled on one or the other. He wrestles internally with the philosophical problems inherent to the question; sometimes behaving as Lawful, and sometimes as Chaotic. As a result, he tends to "balance out" on the axis, orbiting the middle.

The Good/Evil axis is somewhat more clear, but it is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of characters see themselves as the protagonist in their own story. People very seldom consider themselves evil, and instead justify their actions as means to a good end. The Evil alignment therefore is separate from simply "being a bad person." The two are often related, but they are not isomorphic.

In the simplest terms, Good characters endeavor to be honest, upright, and fair. They worry over the welfare of others, and are frequently spurred to action by unselfish motives. Evil characters, on the other hand, are largely motivated by self-interest and tend to view other people as chess pieces to move about in an attempt to achieve their personal ambitions. Evil characters are seldom openly malicious or simply out to hurt others, but neither do they agonize over the eggs they break in the process of making an omelet.

A character who is neutral on this axis may fit into one of several types. First, the character may lack the capacity to make moral judgments, as is the case with animals, small children, and people with certain psychological or developmental disabilities or disorders. Second, a character may be actively neutral--inclined to disregard both the virtues and the vices, usually in favor of some conception of internal peace or balance. Finally, a character may be struggling against his nature, upbringing, or other limitations. A fresh recruit to a mercenary company who works to steel his heart and swallow his guilt after a bloody job is a good example. Another might be a reformed criminal attempting to settle down and resist the temptation to return for one last job.

A character's alignment can have a number of effects. As mentioned above, there are many spells, supernatural powers, and magical items that might interact with characters of different alignments in interesting ways. For some characters, class abilities or membership in certain organizations may depend upon maintaining a particular alignment. Although the player chooses the starting alignment for his character, he is thereafter incapable of knowing where he stands on the chart (barring special circumstances), and can only reap whatever results come of his actions in play.


  1. It's fascinating for me to see someone else arrive at the same location of assigning law v. chaos to a collectivism v. individualism axis and good v. evil to a selfless v. selfish axis. I stressed this quite heavily with my players for a time, asking them to consider their character's attitudes and behavior in this light. Even developing a scheme of XP bonuses and penalties around staying within and straying from their declared alignment. Ten years later, I've dropped alignment from my game. My players often select an alignment, but I don't comment on it and it has no bearing in our play.

    1. I recently removed alignment myself, although I'm still a fan of the concept (mostly due to my Planescape obsession). I'm using a replacement that is tied into a core mechanic of my rule set that I hope to post about soon. Basically though, it's a spectrum (well, sort of) with a sliding numerical value between Kismet and Decadence. Does your character fulfill their obligations to certain abstract criteria (like a code of honor, meticulousness in magical research, refusing boons from "corrupt" sources), or do they take the easy way? How tempted are you when the Dark Side offers to help? For wizards in particular, that's a very important question with a lot of repercussions.