We all know that the most important function of alignment is ranking celebrities and fictional characters on a nine-square grid, but what if I told you it was also a morality system in a tabletop roleplaying game? That’s right, this week we’re talking about D&D’s alignment system. What does it even mean? What’s its purpose? What makes a character turn neutral? We discuss all that and more, plus a history lesson on how the alignments have changed over the game’s many editions.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously Transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Wes: Hello, you’re listening to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is…
Wes: We were a little surprised we didn’t have a podcast on this already. It seemed a little chaotic of us to have not systematically gone through our readership and realize that Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) alignments might be a topic worth discussing until now.
Oren: Normally we are very lawful, and so we would fulfill the unstated law that any RPG-related podcast has to have some kind of episode about alignments.
Wes: So here we are, teetering into lawful territory and adhering to tradition and discussing this topic with all of you today.
Chris: Honestly, I thought we hadn’t covered it cause we were lawful good, and D&D alignments are clearly just too evil and chaotic.[laughter]
Oren: That’s true. They are actually, correct. Good joke.
Wes: We should probably cover the alignments really quick, even though they’ve been covered time and time again. It’s an axis. There’s lawful and that’s opposed by chaos, and then there’s good, and that’s opposed by evil with the neutrals in the middle, there’s nine of them.
Oren: Or so you think…
Wes: I guess I’m just going with what’s published here.
Oren: Surprise, but the best part about D&D alignments is how different they are over each edition.
Wes: Ooh, yes. I do love that. The only thing that seems to be the same are the names.
Oren: But even that’s not true. In Fourth Edition, they changed the names.
Wes: Oh, I thought we didn’t talk about Fourth Edition.[laughter]
Chris: Does this mean we get a history lesson in D&D alignments?
Wes: Oh no.
Chris: It reminds me of our haunted house podcast that ended up being about the history of haunted houses because Wes had so many interesting things to say about the history of haunted houses.[laughter]
Wes: This’ll be a little shorter than that one.
Oren: This one’s a lot shorter. I promise. Back in the day, this is as far back as I could find an actual PDF of the book to look at the alignments for, I’m looking at First Edition of advanced D&D. You had the ones that you’re familiar with. Those were all still there. They are real weird. Chaotic good had a line about how freedom and randomness of action is the ultimate truth. [laughter] I don’t know what that means, but I kinda love it. You can see where the reputation of lawful good Paladins as actually being evil comes from because it has this line. This one is all about how certain freedoms must be sacrificed. It’s like, “Ooh, Ooh, Hmm. I have concerns.”
This is also the absolute best version of true neutral I’ve ever read. Because most editions that I’ve seen interpret true neutral to mean you just kind of don’t care. But now back in First Edition advanced D&D, true neutral was all about the balance between good and evil. It’s the Star Wars prequels. They’re back, and they somehow followed me into D&D.
Chris: I kind of liked that because now people can’t just opt out of the system. Nobody’s like, “I don’t want labels, so I’m just going to be neutral,” which everybody does because let’s face it, D&D alignments need work. Like haha jokes on you, you thought you could be free. But no, you care about balance.[laughter]
Oren: Then there’s this whole confusing mess of First Edition and Second Edition advanced and basic D&D that ran in parallel for awhile. But the next book that I have a PDF for is 3.5 and 3.0, and that’s when we took alignments really seriously back then. They have long descriptions. Pretty familiar, but this was also when the mechanics were really heavily influenced by the alignments, and you had things like “detect evil” and “smite evil.” Your alignment was really important to the actual dice of the game. It really mattered.
Then there’s Fourth Edition. Fourth Edition’s attitude was, “we don’t know how to make good changes, so we’re just going to make changes and hope that works out for us.” Fourth Edition pared it down to only five. You have good, lawful good, evil, chaotic evil, and unaligned. And I admittedly kind of understand this because in both 3.5 and Fifth Edition, the difference between neutral good and chaotic good was extremely unclear. Both of them were, “you do good regardless of what the law says.” That actually sounds like the same alignment. Evil is basically unlawful evil in this version, and then they have unaligned for people who don’t want to deal with it. So that happened.
And finally we get to Fifth Edition, which is the edition that does not care about your alignment. You can just read the resentment in the alignment section where each alignment is one line of text now and they’re like, “Oh God, we really have to write this…uggggh.”[laughter]
They wrote one line of text for each alignment, and it’s things like, “lawful good can be counted on to do the right thing as expected by society.” I have concerns.
Chris: You’re conformists, you lawful good people. Sheep, all of you![laughter]
Oren: Neutral good: “[do the] best they can to help others according to their needs.” And then we have chaotic good: “creatures act as their consciousness directs.” What if their consciousness wants them to kick a baby? What’s their consciousness? Who told them what to do? I’m confused.
But Fifth Edition is great because Fifth Edition has basically made all the alignment arguments pointless because they don’t matter anymore. They’ve been completely removed from the mechanics or almost completely. The only mechanical alignment thing I could find in Fifth Ed. is that certain items require you to be certain alignments in order to use them, certain high level magic items. Detect Evil is gone. Protection from Evil is gone. Technically it still has spells with those names, but those are actually for all different kinds of magical creatures, not alignments. Smite is just “Smite” now. It’s not Smite Evil.
Wes: Turns out anybody can be smited.
Oren: Congratulations, nobody cares what your alignment is anymore. We’ve solved that problem.
Chris: People really only want alignment so that we can take celebrities or fictional characters and put them on the alignment chart for giggles.
Oren: That is the most important part of the alignment chart now.
Wes: Arguably the most useful and valuable one. [laughter]
It is funny, Oren, you’re so right to point out how those sentences are so boring. They really threw it in, which I also have 3.5 open in front of me and yeah, there’s a lot of text in there, a lot of unnecessary text. But I like [in] 3.5 how they end each section with saying why that alignment is the best alignment. I feel like they should have only written that. “Lawful good: Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion.” Okay, that’s fine. I’m fine with that. Everything that came before that was a little odd. Why would you over-explain this?
Or “Chaotic neutral is the best alignment you can be because it represents true freedom from society’s restrictions and a do-gooder zeal.” Just somebody who’s looking out for themselves and not- What did one of the editions say? “It’s the purview of unstable people.”
Oren: That was back in AD&D that was “freedom and randomness of action as the ultimate truth.”[laughter]
Chris: Wait, so does it have lines advocating for chaotic evil then?
Oren: It switches them because it assumes that only villains are evil. So instead it says, “this is the most dangerous alignment you can be for this reason.”
Chris: “Lawful evil is the most dangerous alignment because it represents methodical, intentional, and frequently successful evil.”
Oren: I do think lawful evil is kind of an interesting one because all of the other alignments are nonsense and mean nothing, but we all instinctively know what lawful evil is. Of all the alignments, that’s the only one that translates into the real world.
Wes: I’ve gotten into discussions with friends. Chris mentioned the celebrity alignments and things, or you talk about, “Oh, well I think this politician is definitely chaotic evil.” And pushing back on your point, we know what lawful evil looks like. There’s an idea that if it’s chaotic evil, then it is the most evil. Successful evil is bad, and systematic evil things can be far more prevalent and pervasive.
But I think you’re right that if alignments were real, lawful would be the dominant one because I feel like chaotic alignments depend on actual personal strength. Because, if we’re going to do a Baldur’s Gate reference, Minsc is a chaotic good ranger, and Boo, and he’s strong. He’s a very strong guy who sometimes gets a little too zealous in his pursuit of justice and starts chopping things up with swords regardless of whether or not he’s in the middle of a city with you and you don’t really want to take on all those guys right now, but he flies off the handle because they’re slavers. There’s a personal strength aspect with chaotic alignments in that game that suggests you’re the individual, you are the Bhaalspawn, and you are chaotic, and you can do what you want. And that world lets you do what you want because personal strength can overpower lawful order.
Oren: I love that, and I think that is a beautiful interpretation. I’m going to have to be a dick about it though, because I don’t think that that is necessarily an alignment thing. I think what you have described is character traits, which are good, and those are beautiful traits to have, but a lawful good person could just as easily be the guy who flies off the handle and attacks the slavers because they’re just so zealous about the law and maybe these slavers are illegal somewhere.
Part of the issue with it is that the whole law versus chaos is a very interesting dynamic, but not at an individual level. We’re basically talking about order and freedom is the question. Those are legitimate questions about how we should organize a society and how should we make our laws to promote freedom versus order. There are a lot of those that don’t necessarily have a correct answer, but at an individual level, it just gets weird. The idea of some guy who breaks rules, not because the rules are bad, but just because they like breaking rules. That’s just a character flaw. That person’s not an alignment. That person is just kind of an asshole.
Wes: It seems like it was wrong to have your characters be assigned an alignment in D&D. Arguably, maybe a way to guide you for role playing or whatever. Planescape Torment – that game did it right. You just start the game off as true neutral, and then things shift over time based on actions and dialogue choices. Humans are mutable. I’ll accept that. It’s more interesting if you’re talking about the devils and the demons. They exist as that alignment. I’m weirdly more on board with that. A character that you’re playing in that world who has agency. I think you’re right. It’s a trait. There doesn’t feel like there’s a larger thing going on.
Oren: The whole issue of good and evil as supernatural forces as opposed to alignments makes way more sense because that’s what Lord of the Rings is. That’s what Star Wars is. These evil things that, we define them as evil. They don’t always define themselves as evil. Sometimes they do, but that’s actually kind of beside the point. What matters is that we define them as evil and they are a categorizable thing that exists as opposed to in the real world where we have a set of concepts that determines what evil is. Whereas in Lord of the Rings, we can say that Sauron’s not the only kind of evil, but Sauron is by definition evil. That’s one thing we define as evil. That just works better than the idea of a person having an alignment because a person can be evil. Evil is a real thing, but it isn’t baked into their soul. There are a lot of reasons a person might do bad stuff, and the idea of having it be a label is just kind of silly. If you actually tried to roleplay your character that way, you’d just come off really stilted and weird, which is why Fifth Edition doesn’t care. It’s why they stopped making that important. Incidentally, it’s still bad to give whole races an alignment. Fifth Edition, I’m talking to you. Goblins being evil is bad. Please stop.
Wes: That’s something they just seem to have trouble shaking. In Baldur’s Gate II, you can pick up Viconia, who’s a Drow character in your party, and she’s lawful evil in the alignment spectrum. And then you can also pick up Keldorn, who is a lawful good Paladin. For the most part, he’s very likable until you put him in the same party as Viconia and you realize, okay, they just had to make him racist. She is Drow, and eventually he just attacks her. You can’t stop him. He will do that. Lawful good means just accepting that all Drow are evil and beyond redemption.
Oren: According to the setting, he’s right. Aside from the occasional weird exception, Drow are inherently evil. The explanation for them is very confusing. I have an article coming up on Drow and how they make no sense at all. The bottom line is that according to the setting, he’s right. Viconia is evil. Verconia is her name, right? Am I saying it right?
Wes: I think it’s a Viconia.
Oren: Viconia has a great character, but it’s not because of her alignment. Her alignment is just the closest thing that they could come up with to describe what her character is, which is a pragmatic and ruthless character. That’s what she is. She doesn’t go around causing suffering for the heck of it because she likes causing suffering, but she is very amoral when it comes to other people being hurt to get what she wants. And that’s a consistent and strong characterization that makes her interesting. And the fact that she’s labeled as lawful evil as, “Well, she breaks laws all the time and I have no idea if she’s breaking Drow law cause no one knows what Drow law is. But certainly she doesn’t seem to mind that she’s breaking the laws of whatever city you’re in.” In Baldur’s Gate II, when you find her, the lawful evil alignment is just what they gave her to try to match this character they’d actually already made with this bizarre and arbitrary nine alignment grid thing.
Chris: That brings up the question of what neutral is supposed to be. In this setting, I guess if they’ve already defined all the Drows as evil, they might be doing the best they can. “Okay, we have this character. She’s supposed to be alignment evil. We can’t really ignore that, but we also don’t want her to just be despicable because she’s a party companion, so this is what we’re going to do.”
But to me that sounds like a description of what a neutral character should be. The problem is people like to choose neutral because they don’t want to be part of the system or what have you. They don’t usually think of a neutral character as a character that doesn’t care about hurting people. But really if you’re not aligned with good, then isn’t that how you would feel? You hurt people if it’s convenient and you don’t flinch at that. But neutral never seems to work out that way.
Oren: That’s what it would be if we were consistent with what evil is. If the idea of evil as being something that causes suffering because it desires to cause suffering, the suffering is the point. As opposed to being willing to cause suffering in order to acquire something. If that was what evil was, then yes, neutral would be, “I’m willing to hurt people to get what I want.” That’s what neutral would be. It isn’t because that’s a terrible kind of character. A lot of people don’t want to play that character.
People pick neutral because alignments are bull. I appreciated having that option back when the game actually cared what my alignment was. In Fifth Ed, no one cares. I sometimes forget to put down what my alignment is. Doesn’t matter anymore. And when I do put it down, I never look at it again. I played a campaign with my brother where he ran us through the whole Curse of Strahd campaign, and at the very end I remembered my character was technically chaotic good, and I had been working this whole game to build a coalition against Strahd and construct a new order. Doesn’t sound very chaotic, but who cares? Literally nobody. And so that was a fun thing to realize I’d written down on my character sheet when we started the game.
Wes: It only really mattered with the “find familiar” spell. You only got a certain type of familiar depending on your alignment and in which that case everybody was chaotic neutral cause then they could get a cool cat.[laughter]
Oren: It’s like, I guess I’ll just be neutral because then I can do whatever I want and get the cool magic thing that I need.
Chris: The issue is if you define evil as being willing to hurt people for your own ends then it just doesn’t make sense for there to be any neutral on the spectrum.
Wes: I really like how you described Viconia because, to make another Planescape Torment reference, late in that game, when you’re confronted with some previous incarnations of yourself, there’s three of them. It’s good, and then there’s one that’s unfortunately named the mad incarnation, and then there’s the pragmatic incarnation. They moved away from just evil. This is the pragmatic incarnation. Oh, I see what you’re doing here. That character was just ruthless and self-serving, but had specific goals in mind.
Oren: Part of the reason we keep running into problems when we tried to define what evil is is much like genre, evil is a collection of associated aesthetics or traits or what have you. It’s a collection of things that something can be more or less like. And so that’s why we can recognize evil in the real world when we see someone yelling that immigrants are rapists. We know that’s evil. We don’t have to consult a weird chart to find out. But at the same time, we run into problems if we try to reverse engineer it and be like, “okay, well now evil must be these things,” because it doesn’t work that way because evil’s not one specific set of things. It’s a collection of things and the more like those things you are, the more evil you are. That’s why the whole alignment label system is just never going to create good fiction and why most of the time you end up ignoring it except for when suddenly it really matters if you can smite it or not, then suddenly you need to know.
The whole concept of a setting in which you can not only smite but detect evil, that’s just so bizarre. Because on the one hand, that would definitely lead to discrimination where anyone who was evil would be discriminated against, but also they would definitely deserve it for being evil. It completely destroys the way that we actually think about the world and the way we experience it. It’s similar to how in most D&D settings, the afterlife is just known to exist and when you die, you just go there and you can be brought back if you have a large diamond. The level to which that will change a society is comparable to how much actual alignments and having people be able to tell them would change a society. It’s just completely bizarre. People don’t give D&D enough credit for its surreal weirdness, how bizarre this world is.
Wes: The afterlife stuff is interesting and the multi-verse aspect of it. I kind of wonder how the multi-verse related to the whole alignment thing. And they say, “well, if we’ve got all these extra worlds, we’ve got like a good place and a bad place, but maybe we need more places to multi-verse.
We can’t just do some kind of heaven and hell binary. What are some other ways we can throw in? Oh, I know. We’ll do a lawful world that’s basically a giant clock called Mechanus, and people will go adventure there and enjoy pure order maybe.”
Oren: I’m probably lawful good to the extent that I think that laws are important and that we should probably have them. This gets weird because obviously if someone tells me the law now is that we are going to cut off everyone’s toe because that’s the law. That’s wrong. [laughter] I don’t have any compulsions about saying that’s wrong because I also think taxes are good. That’s one of the reasons why it just doesn’t fit on any character to try to figure that out.
There are interesting conflicts to be had over more gray areas where there might be a situation where one person who is fundamentally a good person would be willing to break the law and another person wouldn’t. But that often has as much to do with fear of consequences as it does with, “is it morally wrong?” If someone was like, “Would you like to steal from credit card companies?” I’m like, “No,” but that’s because I don’t want to go to jail, not because I think it’s wrong. But that’s a different scenario entirely. It requires care and attention to detail and knowledge of how the characters work, not a chaotic neutral label on your character.[laughter]
Chris: I think the issue with the whole lawful label…I only wish it was more of an order versus freedom label, but calling it lawful versus chaotic… The idea seems to be that if you’re lawful, that you will just follow laws for the sake of following laws. You will follow rules because you’re supposed to follow rules, and the rule is automatically good regardless of the context, and most people don’t really identify with that: “I’m just going to follow the rules because they’re rules.” Then it gives the whole lawful good a feeling of being a stick in the mud, and nobody wants to be a stick in the mud.
Wes: Substituting order, that makes sense because you’ll see in incarnations of D&D how they talk about that, that by lawful they mean laws that a city has approved or tradition or a personal code of honor that sets a code of conduct. So a free spirit can have a personal code of conduct that is, “I am a free spirit. I shall follow my whims.”
Chris: I think the base problem is that the whole alignment system was extracted from supernatural mechanics, from Lord of the Rings, like Oren mentioned, and wasn’t a way of actually categorizing real people and their different belief systems and their way of approaching things.
If you’re creating an epic conflict in a fantasy setting, like good versus evil, it has some use. But if you’re trying to give player characters options, it doesn’t really have any use because those are just not what divide people or at least not the way that they’re characterized. And so asking players to make decisions between different options when either one option is the obvious option that everybody should take, or they’re kind of equally unpleasant doesn’t work. Whereas it does work better if you have a story that you’re preplanning, like Lord of the Rings, where you can just decide, “No, there’s no ‘detect evil’” and we have an actual metaphysical manifestation of evil that’s in the world that we have to struggle against, and we’re not deciding that Legolas is chaotic good versus Gimli’s lawful good or something like that.
Oren: Something like “detect Sauron” for lack of a better term. That’s what Gandalf actually seems to have. It’s really not clear to me that he has “detect evil” because then we would have to determine what evil is. And in Lord of the Rings, Sauron is evil, but not all evil is Sauron. Then it gets even weirder and more complicated. And don’t even get me started on alignment-based deities. Why would anyone pray to anything but a good god since you can be a good person and also get super powers? What kind of person wouldn’t take that deal? A tiny minority maybe.
Wes: It’s all about power. And it’s about the churches trying to get the faithful to follow their ways and tithe for their gods. Because sure you might see Ilmater as being the god of sacrifice and looking out for your best wellbeing, but really you need to look to Torm and you should patronize Torm’s temples cause only Torm will defend you.[laughter]
Oren: That makes actual sense as opposed to what’s in the book, which is that some gods are good and some are bad. [laugher] Hot take alignments: they don’t actually work very well. That’s my big takeaway from this podcast.
Fifth Edition made the right choice. Fourth Edition tried to do something similar but messed up because it changed things, and people don’t like change, and if you’re going to change stuff, you need to have a really good replacement or a really good justification, and D&D fans just weren’t excited to hear that actually alignments are bad. So instead Fifth Edition changed it without anyone even noticing because it was so subtle. They’re all still in there. The game is just designed in such a way that they no longer matter. And I actually find that kind of brilliant.
Chris: It’s a good way of phasing it out, weaning people off of it without making waves or inspiring backlash.
Oren: If there ever is a Sixth Edition of D&D, which I don’t know if there will be, but if there ever is, I wouldn’t be surprised if it just doesn’t have alignments at all, if they’re just gone.
Wes: Well, and how they introduce the ideals, the bonds, the flaws gave far more options to flesh out your character a little bit instead of something as abstract as lawful neutral, whatever the heck that is. “Must follow all laws.”
Oren: All right, well I think that will about do it for this podcast, but before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who is a urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. Talk to you all next week.
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