Hello students. Welcome back to my series on alignment. In this article, we will talk about the mechanical development of alignment in a few editions of Dungeons and Dragons. As I’ve said many times on the podcast, I learned to play RPGs with 3.5 D&D, so I’m going to start there. Then we’ll travel forward through time and talk about 4E and 5E.
In the 3.5 Players Handbook, there are about 3 pages devoted to alignment. This is the most content between all three subjects of this article. This edition outlines nine alignment options and the alignment axis. Each option is defined by how they fall on the intersecting axes of good to evil and law to chaos. These options are: lawful good, neutral good, lawful evil, neutral good, neutral neutral (or true neutral), neutral evil, chaotic good, chaotic neutral, chaotic evil.
The PHB provides an explanation of what alignment means, defines good vs evil and law vs chaos, and details guidelines for how to play each alignment option. While all of this content is very helpful, it contains lots of conflicting information. It starts by stating that alignment is a creature’s general moral and personal attitude. It further explains that alignment is not consistent. Alignment is a way to develop and understand a character and his or her interaction with the world. But in a later section, it states that evil alignment is restricted for use by monsters and villains, not player characters. Furthermore, in each detailed breakdown of the alignment options, the six good and neutral options are each stated to be the best alignment and the three evil options are stated to be the most dangerous.
There’s also an incredibly brief section on nature vs nurture, which concludes that nurture is more important.
This version of alignment is most noted by its strict boundaries. Good and Evil are defined as absolutes. This is one of the aspects of the game that must be accepted. When gods and demons wander the world along side regular people, moral absolutes are part of how this game world functions. Whether or not you agree with such absolutes, playing this game means you are willing to accept them for the sake of the game. It’s not only possible, but necessary to make declarative statements such as “that action/person/monster/item is good and this other one is bad” in the game.
But within the ways these extremes interact, grey areas exist. This is how Law and Chaos enter the equation. These concepts define how a character chooses to live his or her life. In the most simple terms, Lawful characters follow the rules while Chaotic characters favor spontaneity. That is of course an over-simplified definition. The text in the PHB gives a wide range of what it means to Lawful and Chaotic, as well as positives and negatives of both options. These ideas flavor how a character not only understands Good and Evil, but bodies these principles through their actions.
It would seem that this system of alignment is solid. There’s a wide range of options. Even though the text in the book is a little confusing, there is also acknowledgement that alignment is not a static, defining choice. But in reality, this system is very restrictive.
In my opinion, I don’t think this restriction is based purely on the intent of the written text. With such clearly defined options that are picked at the time of character generation, it’s very easy to make this choice and forget about it. And it’s just as easy to make a choice and use it to justify future actions. How many times have we heard the argument “this is what my character would do”? Or what about the defense of any action based strictly on alignment? “This is what I have to do, I’m Chaotic Good.” I think that with so much going on in 3.5, alignment was easy to ignore for the most part. It became one of those things that only is important when the plot needs it to be. If a spell or magic item shows up that’s keyed off alignment, suddenly it’s important. If a prestige class or multi-class option had an alignment component, suddenly it’s important.
I can specifically recall that I had an argument with a DM about a cleric of mine being Chaotic Good and thus not being allowed to enter a prestige class with the requirement of my alignment being within one step of my deity’s. My point was that my role playing indicated an alignment that was compatible and his point was that my character sheet said otherwise. After he outlined the penalties of changing alignment and the steps it would take to recover, I abandoned my desire to enter that prestige class.
Moving forward to 4E, There are now only five alignment choices, but the PHB makes it clear that players do not need to make a declaration about their characters’ alignment. This is not a core factor of the game. But the game does say that if you make an alignment choice, you should only pick between Good and Lawful Good unless the entire campaign is decided at the start to be devoted to Evil characters. The PHB continues the trend of identifying the absolute moral principles of Good and Evil, but now adds in a slightly different context.
The difference between Good and Lawful Good is now identified by a belief in authority. Good characters will generally do what’s right and be heroes. If those actions are selfless or for profit, that’s up to the player. Good characters follow rules and laws, but understand that such laws can become the source of future problems and thus are encouraged to make their own decisions as needed. Ultimately, Good characters are expected to fight evil in whatever what they see best. To me, this is a combination of Chaotic Good and Neutral Good from earlier editions.
Lawful Good adds in the concept of being part of the system of authority. A character with this alignment believes that following and enforcing laws, rules, codes of conduct, and government is the best (if not only) way to do Good. Furthermore, Lawful Good characters are morally obligated to fight in situations where the established system has become a source of oppression or tyranny.
In my opinion, this alignment choice is now based upon a sense of justice instead of morality.
Opposed to these are Evil and Chaotic Evil. Both alignments are focused on selfishly looking out for themselves. Evil characters might work within an established system or take exploit laws and rules to maximize personal gain. Chaotic Evil characters take this point of view to the extreme and have a complete hatred for life itself, as well as any other inhabitant of the world. These characters do not care who or what is destroyed provided they get what they want. While this stays true to the older definition of Chaotic Evil, this version of Evil is much more like Lawful Evil.
Lastly, 4E includes the idea of being Unaligned. There are elements of Neutrality, in that a character with this alignment values personal freedom above all. Interestingly, there is a note about Unaligned characters supporting laws as necessary according to personal benefit, which is another nod towards the concept of justice instead of morality. This alignment choice includes both characters that are undecided and those that consider themselves above such moral principles.
The core environment of 4E did not change, so the idea of moral absolutes is still the same as well. By not giving more support to alignment, 4E is either depending on existing player knowledge or downplaying the importance of this part of character generation. This is very unfortunate, especially because 4E was so monumental in attracting new players to the game.
Interestingly, 4E moved away from associating alignment and powers. This reflects the very correct idea that actions themselves are not aligned and associates moral judgement on the users of such actions. There was also no stated restriction on evil alignment for player characters. However, the general tone of 4E was one of heroic action, so that seems to favor the alignment choice. Without any mechanical impact, alignment in 4E was truly a role play choice.
This brings us to 5E. We find the same nine alignment options as existed in 3.5. But less than one page is devoted to them in the PHB. For each option, players are given a one sentence definition and then a few examples of classes, races, or monsters that have the alignment. It is unfortunate that so little content was given to something that is ultimately still very important to the game. And considering that 5E is hailed as the return to role playing, it seems odd that alignment is not given more attention.
Just like 3.5, 5E uses alignment mechanically for certain spells and effects. But it lumps both types of Good and Evil together for the purpose of such things.
With all of these facts summarized, what can we observe? The concept of alignment has changed drastically, evolving from one defined by moral absolutes to one that incorporates justice and responsibility. The focus that different editions give to alignment tells us what priority this concept has in the game. On a negative note, alignment is very structured even though it deals with a topic that changes frequently. On a positive note, no part of any of these editions is so rigid that alignment cannot be changed to fit what happens and what is necessary in a home game.
In conclusion, there is no version of alignment that is clearly right or wrong. It is a fundamental part of the game, but like many other rules, it can be changed as needed. We can discuss the philosophical meaning of alignment endlessly. But since we are talking about a game, we need to focus on the interaction between alignment and mechanics. That will be the content of the next and final article in this series.