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Field Notes Reviews

A History of Alignment in Dungeons & Dragons

Your Understanding of Good & Evil is an Illusion

The core rules speaks to ethos in OSR+ and how it functions in the game, but I wanted to expand a little on why it’s there, and how it got to be there. As I wrote at length in Drowning the Orcs, ethos is a way to make sense out of the moral dispositions of your characters in the game world, as well as a way to reward you for playing them consistently against that disposition.

I first wrote about ethos in a post called On Ethics in Roleplaying Games, which you can find on my website, The goal there was to see if we could transform the traditional nine alignments in Dungeons & Dragons into something that more closely resembles a real philosophy of ethics. I also talked about the evolution of alignment in D&D across editions in a premium episode of Worldbuild with Us. I was surprised to find that after writing my article way back when, there really is something revelatory underlying that late 1970s view of good and evil.

The alignment grid is so ubiquitous in pop culture that people who don't even play roleplaying games understand what it refers to. My wife shares alignment memes with me all the time, and she despises games of all kinds. The original nine alignments have become crystallized in our parlance, so much so that when someone says, "Wow that guy is fucking Chaotic Evil," everybody knows what you mean!

So why try to re-define alignment in OSR+ if the way it's been laid out by trad games is so well-understood?

Well, because it's not well understood, and nobody actually knows what you mean when you say "Wow that guy is fucking Chaotic Evil."

Oh really? Really.

Ask ten people what "Chaotic Evil" means, and I guarantee you, they'll give you five to ten different definitions. And they're not to blame, to be fair: across the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the definitions of each alignment have changed (sometimes wildly) to mean different things.

Let's take a walk down memory road. I'm borrowing from my notes that I wrote for that episode of Worldbuild with Us above, wherein I spent a few hours palming through the various editions of D&D to review references to alignment. Here's the benefit of my "research":

Chainmail, 1971-72, OD&D 1974-76

In its earliest days, D&D used Law, Chaos, and Neutrality as a means to create factions for play with miniatures. They were described simply as "what stance the character will take." There was no good and evil, or even a definition for Law, Chaos, or Neutrality in the text. From the text: "It is impossible to draw a distinct line between 'good' and 'eviI' fantastic figures. Three categories are Iisted below as a general guide for the wargamer designing orders of battle involving fantastic creatures." Back then, D&D was still emerging from its wargaming roots, and the roleplaying aspects of the game were still mostly undefined.

In these editions, the alignments affect other aspects of the game world like magic, reincarnation, the behavior of swords, and gods, though the text doesn't say exactly how.

BX BECMI 1977 Basic Set

Here we finally get a defintion of Law, Chaos, Neutrality (emphasis mine):

  • "Lawful characters always act according to a highly regulated code of behavior, whether for good or evil." 
  • "Chaotic characters are quite unpredictable and can not be depended upon to do anything except the unexpected—they are often, but not always, evil."
  • "Neutral characters, such as all thieves, are motivated by self interest and may steal from their companions or betray them if it is in their own best interest."

We also get good and evil (so a total of five alignments), but neither words are well-defined, outside of evil meaning "torture and killing." Alignment languages a la Tolkien are a thing, and mechanical effects are introduced, such as losing levels for changing alignment and magic items that can change alignment.

1979 AD&D, 1981 BX Moldvay Cook (Basic/Expert), 1983 AD&D 2e & BECMI

The nine alignments we recognize start to emerge. In the 1981 BX Moldvay Cook (Basic / Expert) set, we only get three of them, but the definitions are helpful in understanding the designers' top-level view of the axes that the nine derive from:

  • "Law (or Lawful) is the belief that everything should follow an order, and that obeying rules is the natural way of life." For this edition, law means natural order, as in, not lying, preserving life, and adhering to selflessness (ethical altruism).
  • Chaos "is the belief that life is random, and that chance and luck rule the world." Laws are made to be broken, implying ethical egoism.
  • Neutrality as "the belief that the world is a balance between Law and Chaos. It is important that neither side get too much power and upset this balance. The individual is important, but so is the group; the two sides must work together." Notions of balance are expressed as personal survival, self-reliance, enlightened selfishness.

In these editions, the GM is encouraged not only to incorporate alignment as "guidelines for behavior" that "describes the world view of creatures and helps define their actions/purposes," but also to track alignment with charts that graph character behavior. Alignment languages get expanded upon and are represented in the fiction as coded words or body language communicated in secret, but not a complete lingua franca. (In fact, in the BX set, if you switch alignments you forget your language! Weird.) In the Immortals high-level play in the 1983 BECMI set, the outer planes are described as reifying alignment in the cosmos among the "Spheres of Power," and that "Neutral" is the most common alignment to be found in the multiverse.

Some choice text about alignment as a whole:

  • "Alignment describes the broad ethos of thinking, reasoning creatures—those unintelligent sorts being placed within the neutral area because they are totally uncaring."
  • Alignment is "a general description of a character's behaviorial and ethical tendencies noted by a combination of Law, Neutrality, or Chaos with Good."
  • "You act out the game as this character, staying within your 'god-given abilities,' and as molded by your philosophical and moral ethics (called alignment)."
  • In these editions, law vs. chaos starts to mean: the group vs the individual and the individual vs the group. Good becomes associated with "human rights, freedom, [and the] pursuit of happiness;" whereas "evil does not concern itself with rights or happiness, purpose is determinant," suggesting a carelessness and disregard for individual rights.

In AD&D 2e, we start to see a distinction between ethos as a moral code that regulates behavior and morality as referring to good and evil. Neutrality on the one hand is expressed as a "sense of cosmic balance." The game rules are inconsistent about good and evil, expressing that the words have no inherent meaning, but even so, there's enough text on each alignment to get a sense of what each one is supposed to be about.

Below is a mix of the evolution of each alignment's definition across the editions within this time period. I've paraphrased here, to be succinct:

Aligment1979 AD&D1983 AD&D 2e
Lawful GoodUtilitarians who adopt lots of rules regulating moral behavior that results in the sacrifice of individual freedoms.Basically, utilitarians who like government regulation.
Neutral GoodA character whose primary motivation is the pursuit of personal happiness, and who is OK with some outside "regulation" of their behavior.Such characters possess a vague notion of social structure being ultimately meaningless, and that they have a duty to "balance good and evil" in the world.
Chaotic GoodLibertarians who strive to create personal happiness for everyone. Notably, the Player's Handbook reinforces that the welfare of others is important in this regard.Benevolent libertarians who care about individual human rights.
True NeutralCharacters who possess a vague notion of maintaining a "wheel of nature" where "everything serves a role in the cosmos."A kind of irrational flavor of the Neutral Good character, who blindly aligns with whomever is on the "losing side" because they must maintain "balance in the universe."
Lawful NeutralA character who believes that "order and rules" give meaning to life, independent of a concept of good/evil, but who stresses that regulation of moral behavior is important above all else, to maintain that order.Characters who derive their entire raison d'etre from laws.
Chaotic NeutralMore or less anarchists with a total disregard for welfare of others.Totally unreliable, insane nihilists. This is where the "I did it for the lols" kind of murderhobo take on Chaotic Neutral comes from.
Neutral EvilA harsher version of the Neutral Good character: vaguely described as someome who believes in survival of the fittest, but the Player's Handbook is mostly incoherent on this.More or less the same as a Lawful Evil character, except they don't care about the law in a legal sense.
Lawful EvilA character who believes that survival of the fittest is a moral law (think Ayn Rand). In the Player's Handbook, this alignment is described as valuing order but otherwise being nihilistic with respect to meaning (there is no inherent value to life).Such characters use the law for their own selfishness, but only out of fear.
Chaotic EvilAggressive libertarians, except they don't care about anyone else or any other groups than their own; the Player's Handbook describes them as nihilists who are only interested in the pursuit of power.Essentially the same as Neutral Evil, except slightly more psychopathic and Ayn Randian.
As you can see, even within the same edition, definitions varied.

It's no wonder that over the years, our view of what each alignment means has been skewed. Across all the editions in this five-year period, we're given multiple definitions of not only the axes, but of each alignment!

Third Edition in the new millenium

Third Edition, despite the massive gamification it introduced into the hobby, oddly included the most robust definitions in all of Dungeons & Dragons. It explicitly defined alignment as both "forces that define the cosmos" and "general moral and personal attitudes," while stressing that while alignment is a straightjacket for fantastical beings who are instruments of those forces, individuals aren't beholden to those forces in the same way. As for the axes, we get some pretty clear definitions:

  • Good is explicitly defined as altruism, and the desire to preserve innocent life.
  • Evil isn't defined as selfishness, instead it's described as a desire to hurt, kill, or oppress.
  • Neutral is described as enlightened self interest, or a "lack of commitment" to other alignments.
  • Law is defined as sense of "duties" toward right action (a suggestion of its connection to deontology!)
  • Chaos, as a sense of personal responsibility and conscience over ideals (so we see that libertarian streak shifting away from Neutral characters and into Chaotic ones).

Interestingly, Third Edition didn't want players playing evil characters. It explicitly notes that evil alignments are intended for villains and monsters.

Let's take a look at the alignment table in Third:

Aligment2000 Third edition
Lawful GoodA "crusader" described as caring about virtue, who has a commitment to justice, and who fights oppression (your Basic Bitch Superman).
Neutral GoodThe definition provided is so vague as to be meaningless. Neutral characters are more or less "not beholden" to anyone, but are generally nice altruists, like Wisconsin voters.
Chaotic GoodRebellious altruist characters who follow their own moral compass (your Basic Bitch Batman).
True NeutralDescribed as someone bored of moral debate who lacks commitment to any morality, or genuine nihilists (in a philosophical sense) who don't care about morality in an "abstract or universal way."
Lawful NeutralSuch characters derive their morality from laws (cultural or otherwise)—the closest facsimile to the Judicator's definition OSR+!
Chaotic NeutralA big departure from the random murderhobo of earlier editions: Third's C/N is your typical hermit apocalypse prepper who values his own liberty and doesn't give a fuck about anything else.
Neutral EvilAkin to a murdering robber or totally selfish criminal out for himself.
Lawful EvilEquivalent to a selfish crook operating within the parameters of the law, but who also has a sense of moral imperatives.
Chaotic EvilStill a psychopath: selfish and unpredictable, and arbitrarily violent.
Things get Dumber with Third, But THey're At Least More coherent!

Fourth Edition in 2008

Probably out of a desire to gamify and "streamline" things even further, Fourth Edition really fucks things up by reducing the nine alignments to only Good, Lawful Good, Evil, Chaotic Evil, and Unaligned.

  • The text stresses that the alignments represent your joining one of several cosmic "teams," if you choose an alignment at all, returning the game's representation of the concept to its wargaming roots.
  • As a most people haven't "picked a team," people are by default "unaligned."
  • The two types of "good" boil down to what we had previously understood as Lawful and Chaotic Good. "Good" means a sense of personal responsibility with respect to altruism, and "Lawful Good" takes that a step further, as if such characters were utilitarian bureaucrats.
  • The two evils equate to Neutral Evil and Chaotic Evil: "Evil" means opportunistic egoism and a selfish willingless to do harm, whereas "Chaotic Evil" is a form of megalomaniacal psychopathy, that enjoys being nasty just for the sake it.
  • Whereas "Unaligned" encompasses everyone uncommitted to a "team" on the sidelines, who value enlightened self-interest.

Fifth Edition in 2014

If I had to be impolite, I would describe Fifth Edition's take on alignment as the "Fisher-Price toy version" of Third Edition, or like a Cliffnotes version of Third's text. The intent is there, but the meat is not.

Fifth Edition, at the time, begins to outline what it means for races to be derived from aligned gods (almost like a biological essentialism variation on alignment). Alignment is a "moral compass that guides decisions" and the two axes have specific purposes: the good and evil axis as representative of one's individual morality, and the order axis (law and chaos) as representative as one's relationship to society, like in AD&D 2e. Fifth doesn't specifically define what good and evil means, but you can read between the lines.

I will spare you a table here, since it's basically a watered-down version of Third Edition's.

Closing Commentary

Wow, so that was a lot, wasn't it? It sure was for me, to transcribe all that crap from my notes.

Anyway, I think it's important to see, firsthand, how our consensus-understanding of alignment is actually illusory. D&D invented the first gamified concept of morality in the RPG medium, but it did so in a fractured sort of self-contradictory way. Obviously, I always found alignment super interesting, because it says something about who our characters can be and can be helpful in our attempts to portray them in the fiction.

Hence why I tried, with OSR+, to give very clear definitions to each of the nine alignments in my reinvention of them. Your feelings or opinions about what a Lawful Good character believes are informed by the coagulated mess of definitions D&D left behind in the public's consciousness. And your ideas about what "good" and "evil" mean are informed by your own personal views. But in OSR+ (and I would argue, in roleplaying at large!), the point of ethos is to set all that aside, and consider what "good" and "evil" mean from different points of view, so you can get into the habit of thinking like that.

This way, it's possible to rationalize the behavior of the "evil" BBEG from his own perspective, which will make him more realistic, and therefore, the game more immersive for you. You can have interesting arguments between characters, as characters, about moral dilemmas, without your own personal biases as players getting in the way.

I encourage you to check out Drowning the Orcs, which puts some of this into practice in a thought experiment where each of the nine ethos have to decide how to handle a sticky moral dilemma. And while you're at it, make yourself a hero with our Character Creator and choose an ethos that's totally the opposite of your own!

D. James Quinn

D. James Quinn is your friendly neighborhood Game Master and the creator of OSR+. His favorite holiday is Halloween and he is a fan of Oxford commas.

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