Pondering Alignment, in the D&D / Pathfinder sense

14 September, 2012

So, we have been messing around with the D&Dnext playtest and we have a new player in that group, both of which led to a discussion of alignment in D&D (and similar games) and what it means.  These sort of debates is why my Sea of Stars campaign (which uses Pathfinder rules mostly) just ditched alignment entirely.

However, I thought that I would post up about what the various D&D alignments mean to me, I am making no claim to universal applicably in this, but this is how I interpret them:

Lawful GoodFor the Good of All

Lawful good is all about harmony and working together to build a better future.  Everyone should be able to contribute to the advancement of the society and achieve their person goals, within the framework of what is accepted by society.  At its best, it is the Federation or realized Mohism, at its worst is it the crude utilitarian calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Lawful NeutralThe Law is the Law

The philosophical path of legalism gets you this sort of alignment.  The law is the absolute core of this society and its members either internalize that law or they suffer extreme punishments (or flee).  The best exemplars of this alignment are the Judges of the Judge Dredd series.

Lawful EvilYour papers please

Authoritarianism at its best, choose your favorite flavor: communism, dictatorship, fascism, whatever.  The people in power manipulate the laws to ensure they stay in power though they may drape those laws in nationalism or building a utopia, as Orwell said in Animal Farm, some animals are more equal than others.

Neutral GoodIt never hurts to help

These are the genuine nice people in the world, willing to help others even (sometimes) at a cost to their self, bending rules (slightly) if necessary, not stepping on another’s freedom (if they can help it) and generally seeking to make life better for everyone.

True NeutralA Balance in All Things

The rarest alignment, those called to the service of the cosmic balance which seeks to maintain the equality between the otherworldly factions.  Best suiting to annoying NPCs or building a campaign where all the characters share this alignment.

NeutralGo along to get along

Or just everyday folk, people with no strong commitment to a philosophy or way of living, they just bend with whatever winds blow through their land, coping as best they can under whatever regime is in place.  Most people fit here.

Neutral EvilAmbition in its purist form

These people want what they want and woe to anyone who gets in their way, they will use the law when it suits them or naked force when it is more effective.  No tactic is off the table if it advanced them and their endgame.  While lacking the ability to subsume themselves into an organization or the raw unpredictability of the other evil alignments, they can blend into either of them for a short time as long as it move their goals forward.  I consider this the most dangerous of the alignments, social chameleons making deals, gathering power and betraying those who no longer can aid them.

Chaotic GoodLiberty for All!

This alignment seeks the best for all by giving people the freedom to seek their own best path, they will form loose organizations to solve problems and accomplish tasks but are suspicious of large organizations that try to control people.  They can be needlessly aggressive in their attempts to secure freedom from potential threats and to expand into new areas and find new opportunities.  The American frontier mentality is my model here.

Chaotic NeutralThere is no fate!

To this alignment freedom is the only goal and their freedom is usually so broadly defined that to gets in the way of other people’s freedoms.  The chaotic neutral being wants to do what they want to do when they want to do it, as such, they are often dangerously impulsive balls of ego and ill-manners.

Chaotic EvilGive that to me!

All that matters is being at the top, take what you can and hold it, crush anyone who tries to take it from you.  The Hobbsian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish and short.  No long term planning, just rule of strength and the mob.  What passes for societies that are chaotic evil are ugly and unpleasant places, unless you are at the top, and even there you are one fight or knife in the dark away from the trash heap.

How do these line up with your views on the classic alignments?  Do you think I am totally off base with any of them?

Edit: I talked about playing evil characters some time ago.


  1. I think about alignment a lot, mostly because I think Alignment gets a lot of flack from most people when it shouldn’t. A lot of people complain that alignment feels like a straight jacket that keeps your from playing your character — on the contrary, I think that Alignment serves as a guide to what’s important to your character and shows you where the interesting stress points are.

    My biggest complaint is that there’s a lot of unnecessary baggage in the terms “Good” and “Evil.” People smarter than me have spent lifetimes thinking about what those words mean, and I don’t think anyone’s found the right answer yet. For my interpretation, I prefer thinking of them as “altrustic” and “egoistic” — the Good character does what’s best for others even if he must risk himself, and the Evil character does what’s best for himself regardless of how it may affect others. Law and Chaos essentially stay the same: order, honor, and tradition against liberty, passion, and so on.

    My notion of Alignment also tends to be a bit more extreme — Good characters aren’t just “good people,” they are committed to Good as a core value of who they are. They do what’s best for others because doing otherwise violates their sense of self. Chaotic characters don’t just think people should be free, they have Liberty (even radical liberty) as a core value — Authority isn’t wrong because it keeps people from having fun, it’s wrong because it’s inherently offensive to the way people should live. It isn’t that a Lawful character *can’t* break the rules, but that doing so shakes him to the core. Most people are Neutral not because they don’t care but because they lack the dedicated conviction required for an alignment. “Good people” who try to play nice and follow the rules, even if they can be mean or dishonest at times, are Neutral.

    What I like about this is that it allows for a lot more role playing, and a lot more interesting characters. It frames moral deilemmas for you. And it also lets you have Lawful Good villains — people who are going to do what’s best for everyone, whether they like it or not.

    • Agreed, alignment implies being aligned with something and most people do not have that level of commitment. That is why I placed most people in the “go along to get along” of Neutral. But again, everyone must be on the same page as to what alignments means for it to be a useful tool. Which was part of the reason I did this exercise, showing my biases in how I see the alignments.

      • “everyone must be on the same page as to what alignments means for it to be a useful tool.”

        Agreed. That’s pretty much true of every structure and mechanic.

        • Yes, but there is not much moral ambiguity to “Roll a D20 add modifiers, equal or exceed target number”. Alignment on the other hand . . .

          • -laughs- Well, some of the groups I’ve had…. Seriously, though, especially when you’re talking about Cha- or Wis-based skills, there can be some argument about the meaning of the die roll vs the player’s narration. And I’ve had non-trivial issues with things like 4E’s Powers. In the end, I think you have a point, but only because mechanics become contested in as much as they bleed in to role-playing. Alignment arguably does that more than other mechanics, but then alignment is also a lot less of a “mechanic” ever since they removed penalties for breaking type (a good removal, I think).

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