D&D Alignment

17 Oct

Non-pony content today. Flee now if you are not interested in a somewhat wandering exploration of a subject that is one of the oldest sources of arguments in Dungeons and Dragons. I absolutely guarantee that this post will do nothing to end any of those arguments.

Okay. Reading the book Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophy had me thinking about alignment. More specifically the ability for spells and magic talents to be able to detect alignment. My brain likes the idea of different magic physics for fantasy worlds, so something just clicked in my brain. What if alignment in D&D was something like radiation? Which isn’t all that good a metaphor but it works as a starting point. The main point is that alignment is a spectrum, not a binary chaos/law sort of thing. Which most reasonable people accept anyway. More specifically let’s say that your spot on the spectrum of good/evil and law/chaos changes over time in response to your actions. Yes, this is probably no big revelation for anyone who thinks about this sort of thing. My point is that in a fantasy world with spells that detect alignment, your actions actually build up energy inside you. A moral radiation, so to speak.

Do a good deed or think virtuous thoughts and ‘good’ energy is added to your soul. Likewise with evil actions and thoughts. Spend a lot of time following the rules, you become more lawful. Do a lot of thinking about how to avoid or get around rules and chaos permeates you. Most humans can build up a small but detectable alignment after just 2-3 decades. Though if a human does a lot of contradicting behavior it will cancel out to a unaligned state. The reason that archons, demons, ancient dragons, and the like are so strongly aligned is not due to any supernatural power. They simply live so long that centuries of dedication allow them to build up such intense levels of alignment energy that it becomes a central foundation of their existence.

The reason I like this system is that it allows traitors even in a world that has alignment detection. A few acts of evil do not undo a lifetime of good, from the perspective of the mystic physics we are talking about. As for Paladins and/or Clerics losing their powers due to alignment violation? That can be handled one of two ways. How I would do it is that divine class powers is a matter between the PC and their god. It’s not an alignment thing, it’s you pissed off your god and they took their gifts back. The other option would be that the divine powers are channeled from the source of alignment energy in your soul and if it gets reduced or tainted the PC just can’t channel through it anymore.

As for what actions and thoughts go with each alignment? Heck if I know. I’m not trying to define good/evil/law/chaos or anything. I wouldn’t worry too much about getting precise about such things. This isn’t meant to be a guideline for game mechanics or anything. Just a framework for thinking about how it works in a mystic-physics sense as underpinnings of a fantasy world.


Posted by on October 17, 2014 in Pondering RPGs


3 responses to “D&D Alignment

  1. inquisitormence

    October 17, 2014 at 9:28 am

    “Do a good deed or think virtuous thoughts and ‘good’ energy is added to your soul.”

    And this is where D&D alignments will always defy any kind of rational analysis. What is the standard for virtuous thought or behaviour? Plus, what happens if you have a life of virtuous thoughts because you haven’t really been challenged, but the first time you are you take the easy way out behave immorally. Would you be a good person who slipped, or a bad person who just had it easy enough not to act on impulse?

    The problem, as far as I can see it, is that like society itself, the D&D good–evil axis revolve around the idea that there are ‘rules’ that determine what is good and bad. In reality, that’s just not the case – it’s just what we’re used to. At best, you’re left with moral relativity, which is just a measure of how virtuous you think your thoughts/actions are. But then you’d have no evil people, because history has shown us that once people truly believe that something is evil, it never really comes back in anything other than pockets of outdated delusions or propaganda (slavery for example). It’s excruciatingly rare for people be be knowingly evil, but it’s comparatively easy (thought often still crippling) to bear the burden of other people thinking you’re evil.

    The most fun I ever have on D&D tables is explaining how the Paladin in the group is logically less lawful and more evil that the supposedly ‘bad’ buy you’re all out to stop. Don’t get me wrong, I love paladins, but you sort of have to take your brain out to play them as D&D intended. Clerics aren’t a lot better.

    The only way to use the alignment system is to just treat it as a mechanic and never think about it again. Anything else is just begging for trouble.

    • Mister Tulip

      October 17, 2014 at 10:05 am

      The way I’ve always thought of it is that the alignments have molded people’s model of morality, rather than the other way around. When there’s an objectively-measurable thing which mostly lines up with what they already think of as good, they’re likely to adopt it as their standard measurement for goodness, because people tend to find the idea of objective morality to be comforting.

      Once it becomes the standard, the points of inconsistency between their original ethical model and the “good” that they can objectively measure start to melt away; people reason that anything which registers as “good” must be morally good, even if it wasn’t labeled as such before they adopted the measurement. Same applies to “evil”.

      In evil-by-default cultures, given the people-don’t-view-themselves-as-evil effect, I’d expect the model to be somewhat different. Depending on the specific culture, there are two ways I could see it going: either they don’t view “good” and “evil” as indicative of morality at all (similar to the way you seem to be writing off law and chaos as ethically-relevant alignments), or their culture latched onto the opposite end of the dichotomy, so their ethics hold “evil” as the morally-right path. And probably don’t refer to it as “evil”, either.

    • Griffin

      October 17, 2014 at 4:27 pm

      I tried very hard not to define the exact ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Just tossing out that in a fantasy world that most of D&D worlds use morality would simply be another aspect of physics. Why does gravity work? Physics. What makes a good act? Magic physics. That sort of thing. In a fantasy world there is no reason to actually put in place ‘rules’ for good and bad as part of the universe. I’d expect that most people running a game would simply set vague guidelines if they were going to use something like this. I mean, if you can condense the wild chaos of 6-10 seconds of melee combat into a single die-roll, no reason you can’t take the murky nature of morality and simplify it for the game as well. It’s no more ridiculous than 80% of the magic or monsters that have been used in games.

      As for Paladins and Clerics, I’ve always seen them as agents of gods rather than morality and ethics. And gods in the classic Greek tradition of just people writ large. So a Paladin might carry himself as a virtuous agent of good, but really he’s just following what he gets told is good by his god.

      Really, it’s a way to make Alignment even more of a mechanic than a moral position. I still tend to lean towards the classic order-vs-chaos alignment nabbed from the old pulp fantasy stories. Easier and more fun than the 9-point D&D alignment.

      And also just expressing this odd thought I had. The idea of ethics as defined as ‘moral radiation’.


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