Thursday, 14 January 2016

Distinguishing D&D Alignments

Happy New Year, all!

This year my gaming ambitions are:

  • to playtest at least one of the games I've blogged about here
  • to get back to reading and reviewing Call of Cthulhu scenarios
  • to update this blog a bit more predictably

Over the holidays I stayed with a gaming friend down in Oxford. We ended up playing board games rather than RPGs, but naturally we talked about both quite a lot (in fact, I wrote an entire latter based on discussion of the former - of which more another day).

One of the topics that (through a complicated process I won't detail) came up was that old sticking point, D&D alignment. Just in (hypothetical really) case someone isn't familiar with it, the traditional alignments of D&D work like this:

  Good Neutral Evil
Chaotic Chaotic Good Chaotic Neutral Chaotic Evil
Neutral Neutral Good True Neutral Neutral Evil
Lawful Lawful Good Lawful neutral Lawful Evil

There are two axes, morality and law. Their definitions are not constant across editions, but roughly similar.


The morality axis, Good-Evil, indicates how moral you are in a fuzzy, handwavy sense. Partly it's whether your focus is altruistic or selfish. Partly it's whether you respect others' rights and integrity, particularly those weaker or more vulnerable than yourself. Partly it's how you respond to appeals for help. Partly it's whether you act self-sacrificingly or prioritise your own survival.


The law axis, Lawful-Chaotic, indicates your fickleness in various ways. Partly it's your attitude towards rules and regulations. Partly it's the consistency of your own behaviour in different situations. Partly it's to do with having codes of conduct. Partly it's whether you are reliably and trustworthy. Partly it's your relationship with authority.

But what does it mean?

There's always been a fair amount of talk about what these different alignments actually mean. Like the "comic book characters" approach, where Superman is Lawful Good, Joker is Chaotic Evil, and Batman is just about anywhere. It's difficult.

True Neutral is a funny one. In some editions it's a bizarre, cartoonish idea of seeking "absolute balance", a strange metaphysical idea where you essentially always support the underdog, seeking a balance of evil, good, law and chaos. Basically impossible to play, and ironically it's quite hard to distinguish from Chaotic Neutral. Thankfully more recent editions have treated this as the creature simply not having made any firm philosophical commitment, perhaps because they never had to face difficult choices, or never had enough power for their attitudes to make much difference.

Lawful Good is also awkward, and has resulted in a stereotype of the Paladin (traditionally Lawful Good) as a humourless, hidebound puritan joy-killer who will have no truck whatsoever with deception, poison, or indeed tactics, insists on facing all enemies head-on and ideally single-handed, despises the party rogue because they're actually pragmatic about all this, antagonises most NPCs they meet, and is thoroughly unlikeable.

Personally, I think Lawful is the most difficult of the shades to handle, because it can cover adherance to personal codes or your attitude to authorities. A Lawful character can quite reasonably (in my view) routinely go against the normal authorities because they follow a strong personal creed, or they could always bow to due authorities regardless of personal feelings. A Chaotic character is, in many ways, just a character who doesn't consistently follow either of these.

Truth be told they're all a bit awkward - like the decision as to whether "chaotic" means you have to be destructive, arbitrary and frankly silly. And that's really because these aren't absolute models you can follow, or even particularly useful rules: whatever the designer's intentions might be, and leaving aside some alignment-based magical effects, I say they're just useful shorthand roleplaying prompts to make you think about your character's personal attitudes and outlook.

One approach I like to use to visualise these is the Bandit method. This I actually made up purely for handling Evil NPCs, but with a bit of extrapolation you can use this sort of thing to see how other types of alignment might manifest. Here I present three of them. Of course, interpretations of alignment can still differ on the individual level.

The Village

So there's a village run by a miserly but adequate governer, which is beset by bandits.

  Good Neutral Evil
Chaotic Chaotic Good heroes drive the bandits out of town - along with the miserly governor who called them in. They donate half the reward to rebuilding, kiss that one cute villager, and ride off into the sunset. Chaotic Neutral adventurers pick sides on a whim. They throw the governor in a horse trough, befriend a cool bandit and fight everyone who annoys them until they get bored. It's anyone's guess what they'd do with a reward. Chaotic Evil bandits march into town, take all your money, chop a few arms off and set the place on fire, because they can. If there are other bandits, they fight them. They murder the cute villager's family.
Neutral Neutral Good heroes help the miserly governor drive out the local bandits, on condition he renounces his post. They buy the cute villager chocolate. True Neutral adventurers act professionally, and treat defeated bandits as convenience dictates. Or side with them, if it sounds preferable. Neutral Evil bandits march into town and demand all your money. If you cooperate, there's no point harming you. They negotiate with rival bandits.
Lawful Lawful Good heroes help the governor, then give him a talking-to about economic inequality. They sit down with the cute villager for a serious discussion of their sexual and romantic mores. Lawful Neutral adventurers read the bandit contract carefully and pursue it to the letter. They adopt a strict bandit-handling policy, and spend their rewards according to habit, custom, religious obligation and local taxation. Lawful Evil bandits march into town, execute the leaders for resistance, and institute a tyrannical new regime. Other bandits get a choice between assimilation or death. They offer the cute villager the vacant "evil spouse" role.

The Pickpocket

So you're a petty thief who gets by by picking pockets. Not a street urchin, mind.

  Good Neutral Evil
Chaotic Chaotic Good heroes catch you picking their pocket. They clip you round the ear, tell you off, and inspire you to follow their example. They might even slip you some coin; they like your chutzpah. Chaotic Neutral adventurers catch you picking their pocket. They headlock you, criticise your skills, and either buy you a meal or throw you in a midden depending on how you take it. Chaotic Evil bandits catch you picking their pocket. They break your fingers and take everything you have. They don't kill you, because now you can starve to death.
Neutral Neutral Good heroes catch you picking their pocket, but give you a chance at reform by finding you a patron. True Neutral adventurers catch you picking their pocket. They tell you to warn everyone off, and ask if you have any gossip to sell them. Neutral Evil bandits catch you picking their pocket. They rough you up to teach you a lesson, then offer you a job - if you practice harder.
Lawful Lawful Good heroes catch you picking their pockets and take you to the authorities, but plead any mitigating factors on your behalf. Lawful Neutral adventurers catch you picking their pockets. They either take you to the authorities, or punish you in accordance with their own code of honour. Lawful Evil bandits catch you picking their pockets. They make an example of you to ensure nobody else tries it. If you survive, they consider the matter over.

The Dinner Party

So you invite a group of characters to your dinner party.

  Good Neutral Evil
Chaotic Chaotic Good heroes keep food and conversation flowing. They deflate your pompous uncle, but join in ragging on dowdy Miss Frobisher, then apologise when she looks mortified. They distract from her embarrassment by telling a self-depracating anecdote that raises the bishop's eyebrows (and a stifled chuckle). Chaotic Neutral adventurers eat whatever they fancy. They sometimes converse charmingly, sometimes crack embarrassing jokes, and sometimes lapse into uncomfortable silence while they stuff their faces. They insist everyone changes places after the first course, but refuse to do so after the second. Chaotic Evil bandits make sure they get the pick of the food. They start arguments, make snide remarks for no particular reason, and try to get everyone drunk while eyeing up your significant other. They encourage your most embarrassing relatives, then brutally turn on them.
Neutral Neutral Good heroes make sure everyone has a good time. They shut down the Racist In-Laws firmly, pass the cake, and try to chat amiably with whoever's nearby. They are particularly kind to poor Miss Frobisher, and endure your uncle's anecdotes with great patience. True Neutral adventurers keep their heads down and tuck in. They aren't exactly the life and soul of the party, but they're amiable enough. When they realise everyone hates Racist In-Laws, they drive them forth with blunt remarks, hoping to dispel the tension so they can eat in peace. Neutral Evil bandits make sure everyone knows who's in charge here, but avoid causing scenes, as they'd like to be invited back. They tolerate your obnoxious relatives until the awkwardness bothers them, then make crushing comments that cause them to remember another engagement. They contrive to leave your uncle talking to the bishop and wriggle away with Miss Frobisher.
Lawful Lawful Good heroes are polite and attentive. They publicly shame and lecture the Racist In-Laws.; otherwise they speak to immediate neighbours, and never take too much cake. They ensure everyone gets to try the best dishes. Lawful Neutral adventurers chat to their neighbours (but not across the table) and eat neatly. They allow your uncle two anecdotes, then solicit Miss Frobisher's opinions. They never discuss politics or religion. They are excellent dinner guests, though not exactly fun. Lawful Evil bandits exploit social norms ruthlessly. They interrogate neighbours of lower social status, and silence anyone they think is misbehaving. Their elusive putdowns mean victims can't quite prove that they're being rude. They carefully offer the last piece of everything to others to ensure they can eat it themselves.

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