Alignment: Heresy and a Reformation


(approx. 2500 words)

This essay originally appeared in multiple parts on the Pen and Paper Games Forum. Only some markup (markdown) has changed.

D&D’s various alignment systems provoke a lot of discussion, partly because they have multiple interpretations and multiple purposes. To quickly review changes across editions:

Original D&D and Basic D&D had only three alignments: Law, Neutrality, and Chaos.
(One version of Basic, I forget which, added “Good” and “Evil”. Not Lawful Good or Chaotic Good, just “Good”.) Essentially it represented which “side” a character was on in an epic struggle, and spells could detect alignment. If I recall correctly, in OD&D Clerics could only be Lawful or Chaotic, and Chaotic clerics had “evil” replacements for a Lawful cleric’s “good” spells.

AD&D introduced the familiar ninefold alignment system: one from column A (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic) and one from column B (Good, Neutral, Evil). Alignment restricted available classes, and the number of alignment-sensitive spells and class abilities grew. Debates about the meaning of Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil abounded, and explanations in both AD&D and 3.5 official publications were maddeningly vague in some respects lest someone take offense.

D&D 4e pared down the list of alignments to Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, Chaotic Evil; Lawful and Chaotic became intensifiers and not powers in their own right. For the first time, alignment had no mechanical ramifications except for choice of deities, and even then a cleric or paladin of any god could be Unaligned. Alignments became moral stances or ideals, and official publications strongly discouraged (Chaotic) Evil PCs.

To sum up, the original designers of D&D borrowed an idea from Michael Moorcock solely to arrange “sides” in a wargamey sense, and subsequent editions “fixed” it by expanding it to encompass philosophy and ethics. After several attempts at exegesis by players and game designers alike, alignment is now a vestigial system, D&D’s equivalent of an appendix which does nothing. At least 4e alignment doesn’t randomly kill people, as far as I know.

Alignment as it stands is fairly useless, but my relatively new interest in old school gaming unearthed two interesting uses of OD&D alignment:

  1. Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role Playing (whew!) explained alignment as a cosmic affinity, not a moral or philosophical choice. Lawful beings believe the universe had a plan, and they have a part in that plan. Chaotic beings see a universe shaped by vast uncaring powers that could wipe out this island of safety and order at any moment. Neutral beings, the vast majority, might swing one way or the other depending on circumstances, but lack the certainty of Lawful and Chaotic individuals. Spells detect Chaotic alignment and ward off its influence. Interestingly, all Clerics must be Lawful, and all Magic-Users and Elves must be Chaotic.

  2. Carcosa, an OD&D supplement now published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, uses a similar but more specific scheme. Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors – and things like them – are very real in Carcosa. Chaotic beings worship them, Neutral beings try to avoid them, and Lawful beings staunchly oppose them. As in LotFP, Lawful isn’t necessarily good, although Chaotic is either evil or insane.

These definitions, harking back to Moorcock, got me thinking about what alignment could mean. Below are three thought experiments.

Pruning the Nine Alignments

D&D 4th Edition assumes that the most important distinctions are between Good and Evil, for some definition of Good and Evil. What if we consider Law and Chaos as primary? Three of our alignments then become Lawful, Unaligned, and Chaos.

Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil could round out the set … but really, people follow the Law always think of themselves as doing so for the Greater Good, and there’s little difference between capricious and malevolent. Let’s try something interesting.

Using the LotFP/Carcosa versions of alignment (again), here are our five alignments:

Lawful: The Powers that Be have chosen you for a great destiny. What that destiny is, you don’t know, but you have faith they will lead you to it. It’s all part of the Divine Plan. (Examples: Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, Buffy Summers.)

Lawful Evil: The Powers that Be have chosen you for a destiny … as a monster, an object of terror, a warning to others. You are the Left Hand of the Gods, but nevertheless you do Their will. (Examples: The Operative from Serenity, Leto II from God-Emperor of Dune, the Angel of Death)

Unaligned: Sometimes you believe someone is watching over you, and sometimes you think it’s all random. But you don’t know, really, and the answer doesn’t really matter in your daily life.

Chaotic: We live in a huge, uncaring universe, where incomprehensible powers could extinguish what we call “reality” at any moment. All one can do is gather power and survive as long as possible. (Examples: almost every H. P. Lovecraft character, Elric of Melnibone, Roy Batty.)

Chaotic Good: In an uncaring universe, nobody will save us but ourselves. As the vampire said, “If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do.” Justice, peace, and happiness are all the more precious for being transitory, so preserving a small portion even one day is a victory. (Examples: Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, practically all hard boiled detectives, agents of Delta Green.)

Shades of Neutrality

In Moorcock’s writing the Cosmic Balance is a force unto itself, albeit less forceful than Chaos or Law. Agents of the Balance battle Chaos’s attempts to dominate worlds. (Law, apparently, is too lawful to violate the Balance, which doesn’t ring true to me.) AD&D had a similar concept in True Neutral, a notably tenet of Druids. Unlike regular neutrals, who for the most part don’t care about things that don’t affect them, True Neutrals are neutrality extremists, intent on correcting any tilt towards Law and Chaos. One could take this to absurd levels – for every new Church of Law, build a temple to Nyarlathotep – but crusaders against the encroachment of Law who reluctantly ally with Chaos sounds like a great premise for a campaign.

Within neutrality one can posit several shades between Law and Chaos. “Lawful Neutral” and “Chaotic Neutral” sound boring. Let’s use more descriptive and flavorful names.

Imagine, for example, that Law doesn’t have a monopoly on benevolent deities. “Neutral” deities have no allegiance to Law and Chaos, but they have their own biases and purposes.

So, how does this matter? Bacchus and Menrva are both Neutral, but their goals and philosophies are diametrically opposed. Their cults might not include clerics and paladins, but their members have distinct motivations, ready-made allies, and potentially weird and unexpected abilities.

Alternate Alignments

Law and Chaos might have no relevance in some campaigns. DMs may decode to forego alignments completely, or create an alternate system. A new system should include a Neutral or Unaligned option, and at least one active alignment.

Monopolar alignments contrast with Unaligned, but have no true opposite. Spells detect merely its presence or absence. Examples in gaming include Shadow from Midnight and Chaos from Warhammer. One could also make this force positive, like Gnosis, a knowledge of how the world really works. An alignment toward the “Uncanny” would imply an affinity with magic, faerie, the supernatural, or however one describes it; it’s neither good or evil, but it might upset psychically sensitive folks and animals.

Bipolar alignments work similarly to Law/Chaos: Good/Evil, Man/Nature, Sky/Earth, Matter/Spirit, just about any duality that a GM can clearly articulate and players can understand.

Multipolar alignments might follow any theme: the elements (three Hindu, four Western, five Taoist or Buddhist), the colors of Magic: the Gathering, the principles of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, or just about anything else meaningful. Each should be independent and atomic, although some might oppose each other more strongly: Fire and Water are mortal enemies, but Water and Earth might form an alliance of convenience.

Note, however, there’s no point in alignments unless they have some meaning in the game world. By this I mean more than spells and game mechanics. If a campaign doesn’t revolve around Good and Evil, if both aren’t palpable forces in the cosmos, then don’t use them. Think of Chekhov’s gun: if you introduce Good and Evil in the beginning, you’d better use them before the end.

The Temporal Alignments

Here’s an alignment system I’ve been toying with. In addition to the standard OD&D three, there are three others representing three factions fighting over the flow of time.

Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic: See the LotFP definitions.

Entropic: Entropy devours all. Time grinds mountains into dust, dust into atoms, atoms disappear in a brief burst of light. Only a fool opposes the inevitable decay of all things. Chaos understands change, but deludes itself into thinking their dance will continue forever. History tells itself stories to make sense of time, but it knows where the story ends. Law and Flux spread false hopes of escaping oblivion; only by accepting one’s doom can one find peace.

Fluid: Time is always in flux. Only the eternal Now exists; the past is a story, the future unwritten. Blink and the world can change completely, quite literally, and the old world is a half-remembered dream. Sometimes the new world makes sense, sometimes it’s cruel and random, but there’s always the next one. Law and Chaos can play their games; to be free one must shed fear of the future and chains of the past.

Historic: Time is a chain of causes and effects, not always predictable at the time but sensible in hindsight. Entropy is but the tick of the clock, Law but the perception of the future implicit in the past. Chaos is but order unrecognized, and Flux the delusions of poets and mystics.

Imagine them arranged on a five-pointed star. Neutral lies in the center. On each point, clockwise, sit Fluid, Chaos, Entropic, Historic, and Lawful.
Points next to each other sometimes ally against a common enemy, but each point is an implacable enemy of the two opposite points.

So great, but what’s the point? The notion of a Time War and time travel as a weapon crops up in a lot of science fantasy: the new Doctor Who, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and related stories, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the infamous Temporal Cold War plotline in Star Trek: Enterprise. I also happened upon Super Genius Games' Time Thief and Time Warden classes for Pathfinder. Add to the mix John Wick’s “The Flux”, a “meta-RPG” in which players shift universes, characters, and game systems while pursuing the same goals and facing incarnations of the same antagonists.

So, imagine among the pseudo-medieval and gothic shenanigans three powers vie for the future and past of the world. The Historic faction wants a clean timeline with no paradoxes or loose ends, employing academics and time-hopping Men in Black alike. The Entropic faction are nihilists who know the cosmos will end with a whimper and a gulp, and just want to cut to the chase. The Fluidic faction sees Entropy chomping and History dragging out the inevitable; its outside-the-box strategy involves shifting between universes to find a solution, or failing that escape.

The PCs stumble upon this struggle while killing things and taking their loot, probably by experiencing the Flux for themselves. In the process they face Time Wardens of History and Corruptors of Entropy (whatever they end up being). Maybe the PCs gain Time Thief allies, or new/replacement PCs choose that class.

Maybe this is too high concept for an Old School D&D game, but some AD&D players killed gods and took their stuff back in the day. This Time War campaign doesn’t rely on characters reaching high levels, since opponents are either humans with gimmicks or godlike beings with limitations. Players need only venture through gates to other times and worlds and follow clues to stopping the apocalypse … which is pretty Old School in my book.