Alan on Alignment

My article on homebrew alignment mechanics to introduce a framework for measuring how alignment shifts during play was well received, but sparked a lot of conversation about what the various terms and elements of alignment mean. I noticed some trends among folks who commented and how they viewed alignment, and I was curious what existed

While, there’s likely no perfect alignment interpretation, I sorta assumed there must be a standardized one based on the text. So I took a deep dive through the history of D&D and alignment to figure out what the most common standardized outlook on alignment could be.

OD&D (White Box)

There are only three alignments here Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. There’s almost no discussion of what the alignments mean in the original three books (the only real conversation is about how they impact mechanics.) The player book does divy races by alignment (which impacts spells), but it tells you nothing

The OD&D White Box Greyhawk supplement applies alignment to classes, and has a discussion about Chaotic as an alignment: “Chaotic Alignment by a player generally betokens chaotic action on the player’s part without any rule to stress this aspect, i.e. a chaotic player is usually more prone to stab even his lawless buddy in the back for some desired gain.”

We could infer that Lawful is the inverse of Chaotic, which would imply well-reasoned, consistent and logical actions that adhere to teamwork, cooperation and stability.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e)

Hey! Good & Evil show up here, and they’ve paired them up with Lawful & Chaos. Rather than discuss Law, Chaos, Good and Evil separately, this book gives us the paired up outcomes only.

Chaotic Evil: “The major precepts are freedom, randomness, and woe. [….] By promoting chaos and evil, those of this alignment hope to bring themselves to positions of power, glory, and prestige in a system ruled by individual caprice and their own whims.”

  • Ok, so we’ve got inflicting harm, inconsistent/ad hoc decision making, and selfish promotion. We don’t know how these split out yet (though the Chaotic Good section does give us some insight into how they separate.)

Chaotic Good: “creatures of this alignment view freedom and the randomness of action as ultimate truths, they likewise place value on life and welfare of each individual.”

  • Ah-hah. So now we can infer Chaos equals freedom and randomness of action, and Good equates to value of life and welfare of the individual. The later next also notes individualism is promoted.

Lawful Evil: “Creatures of this alignment are great respects of law and strict order, but life, beauty, truth, freedom and the like are held up as valueless. […] hoping to impose their yoke upon the world.

  • Hm. It’s interesting here, because while we can see the Lawful bit here, the writer merges Chaos and Good and intermingles them while talking about opposition to Lawful Evil. Notably, Lawful Evil doesn’t mention society or order (like Lawful Good does), but instead is self-centered on the LE individual (it reads to me as a byproduct of the Evil in the alignment, more than the Lawful.)

Lawful Good: “…characters of lawful good alignment follow these precepts [law and order] to improve the common weal. Certain freedoms must, of course, be sacrificed in order to bring order; but truth is of the highest value, and life and beautify of great importance. The benefits of society are brought to all.”

  • Alright, so here we have a strong association of Lawful with society and order, and Good is presented as truth, life, and beauty.

Chaotic Neutral: This alignment simply venerates randomness and disorder, supporting the split Chaotic Good has stated.

Lawful Neutral: Rules above all else.

Neutral Evil: Just pure veneration of evil.

Neutral Good: Pure veneration of good, splitting the middle between law and good.

True Neutral: “Balance above all else”, nature is supreme over humankind’s attempts to bring order to the chaos (or vice verse).

Alright, so what we can pull from the above dissection.

  • Lawful equates to rules, order, and society.
  • Good equates to truth, beauty, life and welfare of those around you.
  • Chaos equates to randomness, individualism and total freedom of the person.
  • Evil equates to harm, disregard for the things good considers essential and selfish promotion.

Part II will drop next week, as I continue some research into previous editions.


One thought on “Alan on Alignment

  1. Back in Junior High when we were really deep into BECMI and then AD&D 2e, we pretty much ignored alignment. Personally it never made sense to me, particularly when they talked about “alignment languages”. Like, how exactly does one “speak” Neutral? None of us were interested in playing bad guys so we were essentially playing L or N characters by default anyway. When we got into AD&D it was mostly NG or CG as we tended to lean towards something like a folk hero archetype.

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