Players of D&D have been annoyed and confused by alignment for many years. Across every version of the game, despite countless articles and online debate and argument it is still an issue. In some ways this has been strange to me. After all, it was never a problem in any of the older campaigns I played in dating back to the mid-70's (nearly 40 years now). I think that was largely because we (that is, myself and those whom I gamed with) simply didn't give more than superficial thought as to the origins and purpose of alignment - it just was and we took it in stride without really thinking about it. As I continued to play through new editions I still did not find it more than an occasional and superficial problem and most of the time it was a complete non-issue. If it did become a problem in some fashion then it was dealt with and we moved on. Only later still, after the internet began allowing me to connect with others online and engaging in discussion and debate outside of my own gaming group did I discover that it was a frequent, and heated topic of discussion. It interested me then and now not only because of where the discussions lead regarding real-world morality and philosophy, but because it so bothers people in so many ways in the game - sometimes in that it merely exists at all. Alignment is easily the one part of the game that is misconstrued most often and it is frequently re-defined, altered or omitted - and then re-defined again and again in attempts to deal with the issues that arise from using it. According to a March 2006 poll on EnWorld it is second only to "broken" rules as the topic that people most like most to argue about. Newer editions since then have not lessened the debate a whit.
What follows was actually originally written when 2nd Edition was at its peak, but I looked extensively to 1st Edition rules for working things out. Third Edition incorporated some ideals of what I had originally written but still didn't even put a dent into the issues people had with alignment. If anything, 3E's attempt at minimalizing alignment discussion of it created new areas of difficulty for those still wrestling with it from before. People still just don't have a good handle on what it is and how to work with it.
The biggest reason for that, in my own estimation, is that alignment lacks a "mission statement" - a clear and concise explanation of its purpose in the game. Though rules as written in any particular version might be sufficient for those new to the game (who are more likely to take it, as I did, at face value) it clearly just isn't as simplistic a topic as some might think because it remains a thorn in the side of a vocal segment of players. The biggest problems with alignment started to become known as the internet allowed greater communication among gamers, but the principles discussed below haven't really changed since 1E. They just have never been properly, thoroughly examined and expressed. It's now so eviscerated and lacking in purpose in current editions that it's a waste of ink.
Getting Your Education Started
Your first step in dealing with the subject should be what Ive been advocating for years now - just read the rules! The most vocal opponents of alignment and those who advocate changes in how it could or should work, repeatedly seem to be people who have either NOT read the relevant sections, read them only once in passing, or they repeatedly MISread it. To begin to understand how (1st Edition) AD&D is intended to handle alignment you need to read the whole PH and DMG sections. Hell, read the rules for alignment given by every edition you can get your hands on so that you can better appreciate the perspectives of those who are coming from other editions. However, I would insist that you keep your Book of Vile Darkness and Book of Exalted Deeds quotations to yourself unless directly discussing those books. Those are options; they are supplements. Use them if you like, but keep what they say out of the heart of discussions of Core Rules alignment topics as they do not bear relevance except AS optional suggestions.
Now unfortunately, parts of the all of the books are just plain wrong. For the older versions those difficulties seem to be more in the examples rather than the other guiding principles that are laid out. For 3E the stumbling block is that it is an incomplete re-conceptualization of what alignment is and how/why to use it. As I said, it still lacked a "mission statement". Having once again failed in this regard, the rules for it were still easily misread, misunderstood, and unproductively subject to wide ranges of interpretation. Alignment needs a boldface, unarguable, inescapable description of WHY it is there and then follow up information as to how it works to accomplish its task.
Still, reading up on the "official" rules is the best first step you can take. Take notes while you're at it, or for that matter use a highlighter. I initially drafted this article by doing just that - taking extensive notes of all the official takes on alignments from every edition I could grab, and then I also spent months noting what problems people kept mentioning in online discussions: where they were disagreeing amongst each other, with the rules, with the overall purpose, and then I put in a lot of thinking time on the subject. Months... no, years of thought, observation and research have gone into this. I don't expect everyone to agree with every detail, and really I can't even insist that my conclusions are unarguable, but I urge you to not dismiss it out of hand.
Its astonishing the number of people who say, "Alignment does this and that's why I don't like it," or, "Alignment does that when it shouldn't and doesn't do the other when it should." Often they have been patently incorrect because they never even read that part of the rules. The problems presented in misunderstanding alignments really haven't changed over forty YEARS. They may never go away. Accordingly, everything here should be applicable to every variation of D&D. After you've done all the reading and note-taking you can stomach, come back and read (or re-read) this article. You may find much of it is just a rephrasing of what you will have just read. In all modesty Ive phrased it much better here and applied it properly to the most common problems people have. These problems are often the things about alignment that never have been dealt with clearly and directly in the rules. I can only hope youll agree with me in those areas where I might actually diverge from official rules, (which as much as possible I've tried to limit to where the rules are clearly insufficient or actually contradictory of themselves and thus are effectively moot). Even if you dont, this should assist with a better understanding of what alignment was originally supposed to be and how NOT to use it. At the very least it should help you come to grips with what you think it should be and how you want to use it - which is more to the point in any case.
So what IS the mission statement of alignment? Alignment is a concept included in the game for players to use as a guide in roleplaying their characters by drastically simplifying what would otherwise be burdensome amounts of detail of religion, philosophy, morals and ethics for a PC. It simultaneously is useful for a dungeon Master in suggesting behavior and attitudes of monsters and NPC's. As for how it's meant to be used, well what I've come up with is mostly declaration of what it isn't, but...
Where did this idea of "Alignment" come from in the first place?
Predominantly it came from the fiction of Michael Moorcock (who actually borrowed the concept from Poul Anderson if I understand correctly). In their stories Chaos expresses the principle of possibilities unfettered by rules. The effects of Chaos can be beautiful but if unchecked become too disruptive for sustaining life. The concept of Law provides order, structure, and justice to the world and without it nothing material could exist. However, too much of either Law or Chaos actually results in stagnation. Moorcock also includes the concept of The Eternal Champion who generally fights for Law against Chaos, but then is effectively fighting to keep a neutral balance between these two extreme forces. NOTE WELL: this is the original fictional concept behind alignment - that these are forces which directly control the very functions of the universe. D&D actually handles alignment rather differently because it only is intended to affect the behavioral choices of characters and does NOT control the fabric of existence itself.
You can see how people have difficulties trying to map alignment to REAL-WORLD morals and philosophy when alignment is an entirely fictional, cosmological arrangement in the first place.
The stories which included the Law/Chaos concept were among many that were enjoyed by Gary Gygax (and others responsible for the development of D&D) so it is no surprise that he should eventually try to incorporate it (or something like it) into the game. However, the way it was presented in D&D was hardly how it was presented in fiction. This is also not surprising as D&D is not the same thing as fiction and while they share many rules with each other they also must use surprisingly different rules on occasion. Its original presentation in "White Box" D&D - the little brown books - was also so minimalist as to be useless. There it was presented somewhat closer to Moorcock's take but not a single statement was made about what it was or what players or DM's were supposed to do with alignment. Unless you had read Moorcock or there was somebody around to explain it to you then it was a complete non-sequiter.
Alignment was ultimately adapted beyond just the two extreme camps of law and chaos into nine separate combinations of Law, Chaos, Good, Evil and Neutrality which would impact or directly govern individual behavior. I don't see that it was ever actually thought about much as to what purpose it would REALLY serve in the game. Gygax just wanted to include it as something from fiction that he thought was cool. Only as time went by did it actually prove to have real use as a game mechanic as opposed to something more of a campaign-design flavoring element. In my considered opinion it needed and deserved to be further adjusted to better fit its purpose - a purpose that wasn't necessarily intended at the start but filled a need anyway. However, every subsequent rules take on alignment failed to establish clearly what it was for and what it wasn't for - how and even WHY to use it.
Rule #1 of Alignment
Actions determine alignment - alignment doesn't determine actions. It has to be that way or else alignment cannot work the way it's intended. One of the things people keep trying to do with alignment is use it to determine which of the nine alignments that a specific action is assigned to. "If my character does this is his alignment that?" or, "What alignment is it to do that action?" It's a discussion that constantly reappears. But trying to make such judgments is trying to run alignment backwards. If you take a characters specific action and say, "That's a LN action," or, "That action will make you CG," then you ARE effectively assigning specific actions to a specific alignment and almost always ignoring all context of the action. But get this hammered into your thick skulls - alignment isn't supposed to dictate your actions, so specific actions cannot be designated directly with a given alignment. If it did, players would have no say in any morally significant acts that their characters perform. Their characters choices would be removed and certain behavior and actions would be routinely dictated to them - forced upon them. Any time that a decision involved morals or philosophy, alignment would take over and make decisions for you, assumedly until such time as you intentionally decided to break with your characters alignment. In that case, nobody could ever be accused of having their character NOT behave according to alignment - they could only accuse the DM of failing to enforce alignment-dictated behavior. Players could even just have their characters do whatever they please and leave it up to the DM to keep their characters within a chosen alignment by allowing or disallowing any given action.
The spot-application of alignment to isolated incidents is a problem. You need to look at a characters behavior over a period of time; to look at trends, the pace of changes in behavior, and at a characters developing motivations rather than pick an isolated example action and from that alone decide what the alignment is. Single, specific, egregious examples can commonly apply in deciding whether a characters alignment changes, but don't try to determine what a characters alignment currently is with them because except in a few extreme cases a single act CANNOT sufficiently describe a characters overall behavior, and thus his alignment.
Players and DM's may be experienced enough that they don't need to use alignment. The more experience a player has with a given character the better he will know how he wants him to behave because he knows how hes acted in the past and has more deeply developed what specifically he believes and why. The longer a player has had opportunity to do this with a number of characters in a variety of situations the less he may need the assistance of alignment for guidance in better roleplaying a given character. The moral and ethical decisions made in role-playing a character come more easily with experience. That doesn't make alignment any less useful in general, nor does it mean it actually ought to be dropped from a game. Even an experienced player could use a little guidance or "attitude" adjustment from time to time and alignment should still be there for that. Not to mention that alignment still has uses to the DM for guiding NPC's and monsters behavior, even when it's become unnecessary for guiding role-playing from the players. There are rules and elements written into the game that assume the use of alignment and which leave something of a "blank spot" in the game if alignment is just yanked. If understood and applied correctly, alignment cannot interfere with how a player runs a character, though it can interfere with how a DM thinks a character should be played.
Alignment can, and does change. In 2E it was specifically indicated that a new character should be given two, perhaps even three levels as a grace period during which the player can adjust his characters behavior (or adjust his alignment to suit how hes playing the character) without drawing any penalty for it. The reasoning is simple: sometimes a player comes to find that the alignment he chose just doesn't fit the character as it is actually developing. He started out thinking of his character in one way, but after events have taken place in the campaign he finds he has had his character reacting differently than anticipated, or the concept for the character changes entirely. This is a natural result of unconstrained roleplaying.
In 3E there are no penalties for changing alignments unless your character class requires a specific alignment. It is simply acknowledged that alignments do change. The only questions are "when", "why," and what happens afterward. Even under 2E rules, after the initial grace period alignments should be allowed to change, without penalties, when it is a natural result of reacting to events in the game. Role-playing the changing morals and ethics of a character because of game events is good role-playing. It makes the game and the character more fun and interesting because the characters are not static but reacting understandably, realistically to the world they live in (even if it is occasionally inappropriate and unexpected reaction, given the characters past behavior and current alignment). Punishment of any kind for that is just stupid. If the characters behavior changes enough to qualify as a different alignment then just change it.
There is a slight addition to this. If a player decides that his characters alignment will change, the way he goes about it is to have his character ACT according to his intended new alignment. Simply deciding that he wants the alignment to change is not enough to actually change it. The phrase, "actions dictate alignments," also means that changes in alignment are not effected simply by what a player has decided for his character. What his character actually does in the game is what ultimately indicates a given alignment.
Deviations from a characters alignment are what demonstrate that his alignment may be changing. An alignment deviation would be an action that might be considered to be inconsistent with a characters professed alignment and thus inconsistent with his past behavior and/or his required behavior in the case of classes with alignment requirements. Alignment deviations are common occurrences even for such behaviorally restricted characters as Paladins. Perhaps especially for them because a LG alignment is so restrictive when added with "Paladin Codes". Not every deviation indicates that the characters alignment is actively changing. One of the reasons alignment is left so vague is to allow a range of behavior for all alignments. Characters need room to occasionally be inconsistent in their behavior because they are not automatons. A simple acknowledgement of trends is all that is generally needed. Characters must be allowed an occasional step outside their normal behavior without penalty (albeit within reason). This, again, was in the rules even back in 2nd Edition. (2E at least tried to correct some of 1E alignment's insufficiencies but did a poor job of it and thus only fostered more unfocused application and misuse by both players and DM's.) If characters of all alignments aren't allowed those deviations then they become robots that are forbidden to be fallible or to change. That makes for very boring as well as highly unrealistic characters because they cannot react to in-game events in any but the narrowest, dictated, range of actions.
A character that never shows signs of deviating from his alignment can be static, even robotic, and very likely is not being allowed to react properly to the events of the campaign. Now that doesn't mean characters should be allowed to constantly change alignment or push the limits without repercussion, just that occasional changes of alignment and deviations without actual change are to be expected, are normal, and are not to be penalized. A character like a Paladin that requires a specific alignment may have a little less leeway than others in how far "out of bounds" he can get without consequences, but he does still have leeway.
I advocate adopting the position that regardless of what edition you're playing, when alignments change they require only a recording of the change on the character sheet but not a punishment to go along with it. Moving one alignment place at a time, over the course of time - especially as a reaction to campaign events - is even to be encouraged to a degree. The exceptions, of course, are those character classes whose alignment is restricted in some way. If the DM still wishes to use some form of penalties for alignment change he ought to do so with vastly greater tact than was suggested in older editions (talking about 1E and 2E).
What to Do When Violations Occur
If the DM decides that a PC action constitutes a "violation" of alignment then he should first warn the player right then and there before the action is even considered to have taken place and certainly before play proceeds any further. If the player still insists, the DM ought to give a second warning making clear mention of consequences that could be levied. Only then, if the player remains committed to his characters course of action, should he be allowed to go through with it, but consequences that the DM warned him of should be applied if the situation still warrants it.
The reason for following this procedure should be clear but I'll explain it. As has been noted, alignment is not a hammer to hit the PC on the head with at every turn, and the DM is not the one who makes decisions for player characters. Players are always the ultimate decision-makers for their characters. Alignment changes should never, ever take anyone at the table by surprise short of magical influences. When the alignment of a PC changes in the game it should happen because everyone understands and agrees that this is what should happen long before it ever takes place.
Any penalties a DM does levy for alignment violations (such as when using rules for older editions) should further be adjusted according to severity. This is not specified within the 2E rules, for example, but it damn well should have been because it's a sensible, logical implication. It's a detail that should be there, and needs to be there. The one example they give in 2E of applying a penalty is clearly WRONG and excessive under 2E's own rules! Again, go back to the mission statement: The purpose of alignment is to act as a guide for players to better role-play their characters, choosing reasonable, and reasonably consistent actions. Thus, penalties ought to be necessary only when a player is deliberately being disruptive by abusing the vague boundaries of alignment.
The need to apply penalties at all is a meta-game response to an in-game situation. You want players to run their characters with reasonable consistency and the tool that is supposed to be there for their use in doing so is alignment. Players that cannot or will not make those "reasonable consistency" adjustments to their characters behavior need to be handled on the basis of being problem players rather than problem characters. It's better anyway to reward characters for having been played well than to penalize them for being played badly. Roleplaying characters badly often brings its own punishments within the game. Rewards encourage greater achievement; penalties may only tend to create bitterness for failure or be perceived as needlessly judgmental.
Alignment, as I said, should be measured over the course of time. An alignment doesn't tell you specifically what a character should do in all situations. It isn't supposed to be able to define a characters behavior down to a 'T' so don't try to make it do that. It's not that accurate of a gauge to be using it for that purpose anyway. Alignment is primarily to be measured in the light of trends in behavior rather than specific actions.
Why Communication is Not Just Important, but Irreplaceable
DM's should explain clearly BEFOREHAND how they expect characters of certain alignments to behave, and explain why as well. There's no reason to keep the justification for a DM's interpretations a secret and every reason to make it widely known to the players. If you are a player then you have the obligation to ASK when the DM doesn't volunteer this information. You also then need to inform the DM that you will hold him/her alone responsible for failure to be thorough and clear ahead of time. Neither you, the player, nor the PC you play should be penalized because the DM can't or won't tell you what they think is correct or required. Players must refuse vehemently to accept punishment for GUESSING where necessary; for applying their own interpretations in the absence of the DM's. For the same reason that you'd explain your house rules in other parts of the game, and for all the reasons noted here, a DM's interpretation of alignments is very often NOT taken straight from the rules and in many ways it CAN'T because the alignment rules are so badly done. Even if the DM does claim to "play it by the rules", some of those rules (as noted) can be incorrect, contradictory, or easily interpreted in multiple ways. Beyond that they still wont likely address many problem areas. Players deserve to know the DM's solutions for all this - if they have them. They will all be house rules once they ARE made clear. If the DM has no such solutions prepared in advance they deserve to at least know that the DM is aware of the problem and that he vows not to start punishing characters ad hoc in areas for which he has no rules. Failing to do this constitutes having a DM waiting silently for a character to violate his alignment, without the player even knowing what constitutes such a violation, and then inflicting consequences out of the blue. That is unacceptable. Any DM who does so should be flogged because that is sooo not what alignment is for. It's supposed to be there to help players, not to set them up for punishment at the DM's whim. Any DM who does so after having this explained to them is an obtuse jerk.
Suppose a player has difficulty with his DM's interpretation of alignment and in his DM's view can't seem to stick with his chosen alignment? If the character is not of an alignment dependent class (such as a Paladin or Druid) then there's a good way to handle it. Have the player simply play what he or she thinks is a consistent alignment and just let the DM decide what that alignment IS according to his personal interpretations. So long as the characters behavior remains reasonable and reasonably consistent then alignment is serving its purpose for all concerned and the specific two word alignment code assigned to the character is generally irrelevant.
Changes in alignment, when it does come down to that, need to factor in things like the severity of the alignment deviations, the suddenness of the change, and the degree to which it is supported by game events as opposed to arbitrary changes. The degree to which the campaign may be needlessly and detrimentally disrupted because of a big alignment change of a character is also to be considered. Here's where specific actions may be used to judge that a characters alignment should change but do not dictate what a characters alignment IS before and after that moment. For example, a good aligned character committing a cold-blooded murder for no viable reason is easily labeled an Evil act and the characters alignment might change to Evil as a result, but could similarly change to just a non-good alignment as well depending on circumstances.
Alignment changes by PC's should nonetheless be VERY well-considered. An alignment-of-the-week character is not believable or tolerable for a decent DM. They are not much fun for other players to have their characters interact with either, and the player himself risks being unable to ever get a proper fix on how his character should behave.
"Lawful" as an alignment element is NOT to be equated with crime-and-punishment, courts-and-jails, and king's decrees kind of laws. The opposite of Lawful after all is not "Lawless," nor "Criminal". Its opposite is Chaotic. So what we're talking about here is more general and abstract. It's a belief in, and often a promotion of order and structure in the universe (though that is not necessarily a given.) The enacting and enforcement of written laws in a society is perhaps a common outcome of that Lawful alignment perspective, but the mere fact that written laws exist and the activity of sticking to them is NOT what keeps a lawful character lawful. It would be hoped by a Lawful character that the written law reminds and compels people who are NOT of Lawful alignment to behave appropriately. The Lawfully-aligned character, however, would ideally act that way whether such written laws were in place or not. It therefore cannot be the written law and how a character reacts to it which in any way defines a Lawful alignment.
Also, legal systems of Medieval, much less pseudo-medieval societies are not very cut and dried. They are rarely, if ever, going to be as comprehensive and bureaucratically codified as modern legal systems. This is not to say that they couldn't be/weren't sophisticated - just that you shouldn't assume they were all that close to modern legal rights, or our modern moral and ethical perspectives. WAY too many players make the mistake of thinking of them that way (in terms of modern legal code, law enforcement, politics and philosophy) and I encourage them to actually look into the evolution of modern legal systems. Even if an in-game legal system were approached as a modern system would be, such things are still highly subject to the personal whims and goals of those in power who create and apply that legal code. You just can't be making blanket statements such as in 2E where it stupidly says: "Lawful characters believe in laws, live in organized societies, and believe the relationships between governments and people exist naturally." Alignment is simply not that precise, and the philosophical doctrines that form the basis for creation of societies are far more complex than what alignment could possibly hope to represent. In any case it would be alignment exceeding it's mandate - doing things it wasn't intended to do.
Lawfulness implies neither a lack of individualism, nor a guaranteed preference for organized groups.
"Chaotic" as an alignment element is NOT to be equated with bizarre, irrational, nonsensical, and intentional law-breaking behavior. As with Lawfulness it indicates more about how the character sees his place in the world. It would suggest that the character sees little or no consequence for his actions, but that doesn't mean that he will then act insanely, without reason, self-direction, or personal control. Chaotic alignment is not about performing random actions any more than Lawful alignment is about obeying traffic laws and faithfully paying your taxes. Alignment is never going to be permission to actually disregard reasonable and reasonably consistent behavior. It has been my argument that insane characters do not have alignments because they are by definition acting without reason or according to the implications of a personal philosophy or ethos. 3E simply says that characters incapable of moral action (such as the insane) are neutral. I'll buy that. So, everyone who thinks that Chaotic Neutral characters are all intended to be random, unpredictable, utter nutburgers clearly don't have a freakin' clue what alignment is for or how it works.
Chaotic-ness (for lack of a better word) does not mean a character believes only in anarchy rather than a formal government, nor imply that he despises all organization.
Neutrality is not an independent alignment element; something separated from the extremes such that the three elements might be represented by a triangle each pulling away from the other. Instead, it should be thought of just as it has always been graphically represented - as the midpoint on a line segment with the extremes on either end. Neutrality is the middle ground between the extremes, not a completely separate philosophical element. It often will represent indecision or a lack of contemplation of morals and philosophy, much more than it will ever represent actively choosing the middle ground. This applies to the axis of good-neutral-evil, as well as lawful-neutral-chaotic. This misunderstanding seems to have resulted from the utterly bizarre interpretation/proposition from earlier editions of True Neutral and Druids where the character was supposed to balance good, evil, law, and chaos all at once. An interesting position for a character in a written story (and as such is actually close to Moorcock's use of alignment where the Eternal Champion fights FOR Law against Chaos, and thus effectively maintains the desired neutral balance between the two) but this is a frankly stupid approach anymore for general roleplaying guidance much less character class requirements.
Perceptions of what is good and evil are is at least somewhat subject to what the socially accepted norms of those extremes are. However, what is Good in one society should not be possible to be perceived as Evil in another. Alignment in D&D is NOT structured to be, or intended to be morally relative, where no universal standards exist by which to assess moral/ethical truth. In D&D, morality is, for most intents and purposes, absolute. What is good, what is evil, and what is in between, is clearly understood and unchanging regardless of how alignment applies to characters. A classic hypothetical situation has two paladins supposedly coming to blows because their social norms clash so violently that one thinks the other is actually evil. I can't see how if either is in no danger of losing their paladinhood for their beliefs and actions that they could accuse and even attack the other as evil. Problems with alignment only arise when you have bent your understanding of it so outrageously that two strictly LG characters CAN view each other as evil.
It was always intended that characters should be able to rest reasonably assured in the knowledge that certain creatures are inherently Evil. It was intended that paladins CAN slay known evilly-aligned critters without concern for violating their alignment and losing their class as a result of doing so (though that also DOESN'T necessarily give them the mandate to do so at any time, any place). Player characters should understand that often as not they, the PC's themselves, make their own authority, and that creatures who only moments before were doing their best to kill them are no less Evil or deserving of execution for having surrendered. If one Good society perceives an Evil where another Good society does not, one of them is almost certainly going to be correct, and the other will be incorrect. And again, this doesn't mean that there aren't going to be social constraints or consequences, only that there won't be alignment consequences. As emphasized before, when the DM presents a player with a so-called "dilemma" and expects the player to choose between right and wrong then the player has the unequivocal right for the DM to openly, immediately state what the correct choice is according to the DM's interpretation. If the DM says there is no inherently correct choice then the DM CANNOT interpret the players choice of options as any kind of alignment failure, and cannot punish or penalize on that basis. Oh, there can be consequences all right - just not alignment-related consequences.
It is, however, very common that a DM does not take the above view, perhaps believing instead that orcs, for example, are not guaranteed to be evil and therefore slaughtering them without thinking is almost guaranteed to be treated as a non-good and non-lawful act for being reckless. Indeed 3rd Edition started to make the distinction by assigning monsters alignment qualifiers ranging from, "always," to, "usually," and, "often." In my opinion they seriously erred in doing so in a couple of ways. One was that even a creature that was supposedly "always" evil was noted as being capable of changing alignment - which is a contradiction; a decidedly non-dictionary definition of "always". The other qualifiers only increased the possibility of alignment being something other than what was dictated and all of this was quite a step away from the moral reliability of previous editions, and instead moving towards significant moral relativism. This particularly affected paladins who now, by actually following the dictates of their class routinely, found themselves treated as criminals - and that is a seriously stupid state of affairs. That change is only worse if my understanding is accurate that the addition of these qualifiers was only done for purposes of having monsters being used more frequently as player characters.
In my experience the embracing of this moral relativism in D&D indicates two possibilities. One is that the DM is looking to pointlessly pounce on unsuspecting players who fall into moral/ethical traps the DM has laid for them by intentionally not informing them of his alignment interpretations. This is BAD DM'ing and a misuse of alignment. It is not there to be used to bash PC's with and the DM should be explaining clearly ahead of time where he personally draws moral and ethical boundaries for various alignments. The other is if the DM enjoys running his game as an endless morality play or ethical struggle. If that's the DM's style I can't tell him he's actually wrong (to each his own), but a little of that goes a long way. If that's all that there ever seems to be in their game it's going to quickly become very tedious and players should not hesitate to express any dissatisfaction they might have with that. Hopefully then the DM and players can come to a mutual understanding or agreement on the subject.
As mentioned there is a difference between being Neutral/Neutral and the alignment of True Neutral used in older editions. True Neutral is a distinct, very narrow, and in my opinion a silly and bizarre interpretation of a NN alignment. It essentially says that the four extremes of Law, Chaos, Good and Evil are (or should be) perfectly balanced. The True Neutral character must therefore balance any good behaviors he exhibits with evil behaviors, chaotic acts with lawful. While this is obviously possible under NN it is neither the definitive interpretation of NN, nor the definition that necessarily needs be used by Druid characters as was once indicated in older editions. It also, again, assumes that specific acts can and should be assigned alignments, which as explained before indicates a misunderstanding of how alignment needs to be used given its purpose in the game.
Alignment does not dictate the laws, customs, or attitudes of a large, complex society any more than it can dictate these things for an individual PC. The most it can do is imply and suggest and that only to a limited degree since it must generally suggest a consensus among a multitude of individuals (and both fictional worlds and the real world are rife with societies with rulers and laws which DO NOT match the attitudes and beliefs of their general populace). The alignment of a society is only a very rough approximation of the alignments of the people in it. More often it only reflects desires of those VERY few who created or influenced its laws. I prefer to say that a society doesnt really have an alignment and applying alignment rules to a society, must as a whole be done on a extraordinarily superficial basis since they are meant to be descriptive of individual characters. It would be a highly unusual society indeed that actually would be labeled with an extreme alignment and not merely a neutral alignment which is merely weighted in one direction but otherwise remains neutral as a result of a lack of universal agreement on all matters of religion, morals, ethics, philosophy, etc.
The "alignment" of a society just cannot dictate what type of government it uses or how it is run. There are too many variables; too many very different alignments of the individuals in a nation playing off each other on a large scale to make logical predictions. And remember that alignment in and of itself is a very generalist guideline in the first place! It is as silly to attempt to draw specific conclusions about a society, about its laws and its government based upon a single alignment as it is to draw specific conclusions about a characters personality based upon their alignment. Alignment is taken from the viewpoint of the individual character, so characters from different societies may be of the same alignment yet easily be opposed to each other on many subjects.
Knowingly introducing a PC with an alignment that is diametrically opposed to others in the PC party is possible, but is a very bad idea for reasons that should be obvious. A player who attempts this is always (in my experience at least, with but one or two exceptions) simply being an ass. They are looking for kicks by creating trouble, or attempting a power trip through being able to have their character "permitted" to misbehave or disrupt the game. Nobody has the right to needlessly disrupt a game this way much less to use their characters alignment as the excuse. It is not asking too much of the players to insist that they be reasonable about their choice of alignments so that PC's are reasonably compatible. Playing a game with severe PC alignment conflicts can be done of course, but unless all concerned are mature people as well as experienced role-players it's not worth the trouble it will undoubtedly cause.
Players must be made aware that just because their characters alignment allows or even encourages certain behavior doesn't mean that they should or must go through with it. Just because your character and an NPC have conflicting alignments is not good enough reason for you to decide your character MUST behave in an openly antagonistic fashion towards them disregarding all other considerations. Even if character 'A' can kill character 'B' because his alignment is suitable isn't a good enough reason to disrupt the game by needlessly killing off another player's favorite PC or an important NPC. While inter-PC alignment friction is almost inevitable (and a certain amount makes a more interesting game) players MUST understand that screwing up the game for one player, much less for everyone based on such a shallow, pathetic excuse for role-playing is not acceptable. Alignment is a guideline for deciding on your characters behavior, it is not, however, an excuse for disruptive and irrational behavior. "I'm not a jerk, I just play one in D&D," doesn't fly very far. If you choose to play a character who consistently is an irritation, a jerk, a disruptor of game-play, then YOU, the player, are being an irritating jerk trying to derive enjoyment out of disrupting the game for others.
Even behaviorally restricted characters like Paladins should not be obsessed with alignment - their own or others. Some people play paladins by doing little more than constantly examining all the other characters behavior as compared to their own and in turn compared to their alignment. This hyper-focus on alignment is bad for two reasons. First, it replaces the characters personality with his alignment, as if that alone determines who the character is from a role-playing view. Second, it again falls into the trap of attempting to use alignment to dictate what the characters actions and attitudes should be.
Choosing a wholly new alignment out of the blue might be tolerable but should understandably be discouraged at best. It's likely better to require that the player simply generate a new character if he's so dissatisfied with his current character that he has to immediately and so drastically alter his character concept. It probably isn't going to happen often enough to really consider, but it isn't unheard of. Sudden, unsupported changes in behavior suggests and promotes bad role-playing. If the reason for the change is that the old alignment is disruptive to the game somehow then there may be good enough reason for just choosing a new direction and running with it. Again, just remember that the purpose of alignment is to guide role-playing. Sometimes as a result of occurrences in the campaign a character just goes in a direction that isn't satisfactory for the player or the game. That's not necessarily an indicator of bad role-playing or a bad campaign, just something to be mindful of.
Players need to be willing to bend in their dedication to what they are convinced is the correct choice of behavior for their character. I've seen too many players have their characters acting like jerks and worse and when asked about it respond with, "That's what my character would do," or, "I'm just being true to my character." Bullshit. It's a pathetic excuse to use for being an ass. If you simply cannot adjust your character concept to play well with others then do the right thing and take the character out of the campaign entirely rather than disrupt it.
Having a characters alignment forcibly changed, such as by a cursed item, is NOT an alignment violation of any kind. Such a forced alignment change is utterly beyond the player's control unless a player has been clearly warned and has the choice to avoid it. It's something inflicted upon a character by a DM, and it is the DM who is solely responsible for even allowing the possibility if not actively engineering it to happen. That means that a DM who then further punishes the PC for the change that the player cannot control in the first place is being just about the biggest jerk and ass that he can be. 3E rules may disagree with this as I seem to recall it being said that a forced alignment change for a paladin, for example, is effectively treated just as if the player made the choice to change alignments out of the blue. If so, it's a BAD way to handle it and must rightfully be ignored. Note that it would also directly conflict with the 1E clear statement that paladins only fall when they intentionally do things that are chaotic or evil and wrong. Now, a character who ignores clues, warnings, and omens and the player still stupidly chooses for his PC to put on a Helm of Opposite Alignment might deserve what he gets (solely as far as the change itself goes), but no matter WHY it is done, inflicting an alignment change upon a character is no less than the DM directly offering a role-playing challenge to a player. "Bam! Your characters entire moral and ethical philosophy has just changed. How do you handle it?" If a player accepts that challenge then he better be able and willing to accept the consequences. If the DM tricks or traps a character into that challenge then he'd better be prepared for the player to decline the invitation.
An alignment-restricted character (paladin, monk, druid, ranger) who through absolutely no fault of his own is tricked or forced into putting on a Helm of Opposite Alignment or otherwise having his alignment altered to where it interferes with his class restriction is NOT at fault for what the DM has inflicted on him and should not be punished further for having had his alignment changed, much less for electing not to keep that change and play it appropriately. A player who is not seeking such a challenge, who (understandably) strongly objects to having his characters concept uncontrollably altered, or who is simply not up to the challenge in his roleplaying skills should never be punished by the DM (by way of punishing the PC) for failure to meet that challenge. If the player so desires or is not up it, then the PC should be allowed to quickly work his way back to the class and alignment he was forced out of with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Introducing the possibility of a forced alignment change into the game is a serious step for the DM to take. It is a major roleplaying task to present to any player who finds himself on the receiving end of that situation. The DM should not do such a thing lightly and should work out alternatives beforehand if it fails to fall into place the way he's anticipating. Or better yet, at the start of the campaign discuss this possibility with players and then do not let it happen to a player who opposes it.
The whole thing about a cursed item like a Helm of Opposite Alignment shows how the game has changed and how the purpose of alignment has developed. In the "old days" getting zapped by such an item would be a cause for amusement in the vein of, "Aha! Gotcha!" or, "Yep, I walked into that one. Guess that'll teach me." But now alignment HAS a purpose which makes those kinds of attitudes and approaches inappropriate and actually counterproductive to a good game.
No discussion of the abuses of alignment would be complete without again specifically talking about Chaotic Neutral. There are those who believe that CN characters should be, or at least are permitted to be utterly random, arbitrary, unmotivated, unfathomable LUNATICS. It's a common misconception, and also commonly used as an excuse (misconception or no) but the entire purpose of alignment is to help prevent characters from just doing ANY random thing they wish to do in any given moment. If CN did indeed allow that then alignment itself is completely meaningless. A character could have CN on the character sheet as his alignment and then do whatever they want including acting exactly like a LG paladin for weeks on end, or exactly like a serial rapist/murderer, "because he feels like it". What keeps him then from BECOMING a LG paladin or a CE fiend if he can still be CN and act all the time in however manner he chooses?
As mentioned before Chaotic alignment is not about being random, or acting insanely. The opposite of Chaos is Lawful, not, "Predictable," "Stable," or, "Sane". Alignment is supposed to be acting as a guide for a player to use in deciding his characters actions - not as a blanket permission to simply disregard any and all semblance of reasonable and reasonably consistent behavior. Players who try to insist that CN allows them to be complete whackjobs are simply being an ass. Like players who try to get evil characters into good parties, they are commonly looking for kicks by creating trouble, or attempting a power trip through being able to have their character "permitted" to misbehave or disrupt the game. Nobody has the right to needlessly disrupt a game this way. Unlike those using the "evil" tactic, however, this CAN be caused by a genuine belief that this is how CN works. This misguided understanding has its roots in the 1E capsule definition of CN. I think I may have mentioned before that those things were terrible. This is why.
The specific wording of that CN capsule description is: "Above respect for life and good, or disregard for promotion of evil, the chaotic neutral places randomness and disorder. Good and evil are complimentary balance arms. Neither are preferred, nor must either prevail, for ultimate chaos would then suffer." The key words that are focused on there are "randomness and disorder" as if that's all that matters about this alignment. While this might be adequate for written fiction, it is not even close to the concept as written by Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock, and it's a STUPID thing to suggest for a roleplaying game which doesn't even adhere well to that original definition of "Chaos" from fiction. 3E actually states specifically, "A chaotic neutral character may be unpredictable but his behavior is not totally random," yet still makes the mistake of also stating, "A chaotic neutral character follows his whims." So, you still get people thinking honestly that a CN character is a barely-coherent lunatic despite trying to tell them that it's more about individuality and being self-indulgent than being a whackjob.
This is a touchy area for me given the outright fallacies presented by alignment capsules in the past and the disagreements that swirl around these finer points of alignment. Everybody seems to have their own personal interpretation of how a particular alignment should be played, or what the components of a given alignment represent. Unless a DM is willing to go along with the "definitions" (right or wrong) presented in his chosen edition they all have to write up something like alignment capsules for their own campaigns. These interpretations MUST be available to the players before they are ever presented with moral and ethical dilemmas with which the DM might threaten their alignment standing or especially their class.
The capsules in Third Edition were perhaps generally better than either 1E or 2E, although I would take issue yet with certain nuances presented there. There are a few things I'd still pass along. This section is how things are treated in my campaigns across ANY version of the rules. You might note that rather than describe the nine combinations I instead describe the component elements of those combinations.
I don’t go into further detail for each possible alignment combination. It would not only be tedious and unnecessarily add to the interpretational noise that's all over the internet regarding alignments, but you should be quite capable of combining the above into descriptions for each of the nine alignments that you can apply to your characters behavior. There’s plenty of room for individuality among like-aligned characters yet sufficient differentiation for each specific alignment combination to stand out from the others.
Paladins and their LG alignment go hand in hand. Questions about one invariably reference the other so here are some notes about how paladins should behave; what they can do, must do, or should do and the distinctions between them.
It's a little surprising that 1E AD&D never had a formal "code" for paladins, nor did 2E. The Paladins code in the 3E PH consists of the following elements:
There is no reason that a DM should assume that this is the be-all and end-all of Paladin Codes. The DM can add, delete or modify such a code to his liking. Heck, he can even let players write their own paladin codes as part of letting them design their own paladin order. Even if he uses the above code, however, there is no reason to assume that these are tenets graven in stone that must be followed to the letter without a hint of wavering lest the paladin be deemed impure. Paladins have enough roleplaying challenges to face without DM's insisting that they be infallible saints rather than just good guys that are expected to try harder. [NOTE: The following is oriented around 3E paladins since 3E is what I was running at the time of writing it, but it describes the behavior I would expect of paladins of ANY edition of D&D in any game that I run.]
Lawful Good alignment as described in the 3E PH suggests the following elements:
The potential downsides of Lawful alignment include:
Let me say again that choosing a Paladin as the class for your character is choosing an inherently greater role-playing challenge than any other character class. Paladins more than any other classes have their behavior restricted not just by their alignment but by an additional code of conduct. That's important to remember and should be a first and foremost consideration in choosing to play a paladin, but it is too often ignored (by DM and player alike) until it becomes a problem.
Going over the above bullet lists let's start with questions of authority. As I may have mentioned before, a Paladins place is generally as a substitute for authority, or an active agent OF authority. This is certainly the original concept of the class in older editions even if it isn't openly stated, and though 3E has watered that down a great deal it is clear that so many of the Paladin/alignment related problems spring from their being placed into campaigns where their CORE PURPOSE - to kill Evil things - is actually treated as itself being a near-crime in the eyes of a LG alignment. They are SUPPOSED to be judge/jury/executioner and the tenets regarding respect for authority stem directly from the general style of such a character being patterned upon a real-life crusader, a knight, a templar who existed in a society that stressed obedience to their kings as well as their God. Their respect and obedience to legitimate authority means that if they are in a society of comprehensive, just laws that are well-enforced by a police force (i.e., a poorly disguised version of a modern day legal code and law enforcement organizations) then the paladin has little or no place in that society and it's no wonder that he comes to be treated as a deplorable vigilante instead!
Often it is assumed that if a paladin then does something so simple as follow the dictates of his class that he is usurping that authority rather than reinforcing it, that it is illegal and not in accordance with a lawful alignment to actually perform as the class indicates. Paladins have almost nothing to do within such a society; the lack of need for them begs the question of how the class could even develop, much less how they could continue to exist rather than be executed/incarcerated for their sundry crimes and cease to be an actual CLASS in the game. Paladins are said by many (myself included) to be judge, jury, and executioner [JJE] because they take the place of authority when legal codes, law enforcement organizations, or social norms fail to suffice. If the authority in question is NOT legitimate in the paladins eyes, the paladin is unrestricted in being JJE. If the authority is simply too distant or untimely the paladin takes its place and again is JJE. If the paladin does act as JJE in areas where he already recognizes legitimate authority, that legitimate authority should likewise recognize him! It should be EXTRAORDINARILY unusual for the paladins actions to then be considered even REMOTELY criminal except when it takes place in a society that directly and openly opposes ALL that a paladin can and will do. Where an authority has jurisdiction, and the paladin recognizes its legitimacy, but that authority still contradicts or overrules the paladins place as JJE then the paladin is restricted in what he can do insofar as the authority in question does actively restrict him. That is, there should then be specific laws or understandings in place that the paladin has good reason to accept in denying him the right and ability to exert the INNATE authority granted to him by his class. All of this should be understood by the character and well-explained to the player long ahead of time.
Out in the wilderness any Evil creature, regardless of age, helplessness, etc. is a legitimate target for being killed outright and without hesitation by a Paladin. An Evil alignment DEFINES those creatures as being worthy of such treatment and the paladins class actively promotes their elimination. It doesn't mean a Paladin necessarily MUST or even SHOULD get Medieval at every ping of an Evil alignment but it is certainly within the realm of allowability for a paladin character concept unless the DM says specifically otherwise for good reason. In a city, however, the paladin can't just stand on a street corner Detecting Evil, and then killing those who "ping" as being Evil. They have to commit crimes, and even then the paladin might not have the authority to enforce the punishment for those crimes without a trial, and so forth - IF, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, the society already has little or no need for the JJE paladin. Paladins are NOT described as being the Thought Police. Thus, in a city a Paladin is often going to behave rather differently. His word alone may (at least should!) suffice as evidence of a crime in a formal court necessitating little change in his behavior, or he may be zealously prosecuted as a vigilante if he kills rather than captures criminals within certain geographic boundaries. As DM you must detail how you perceive the differences and explain them well beforehand to players of Paladins. Paladin characters are NOT ignorant of these nuances and would never be caught blundering into committing a crime "by accident" or endangering their class as a mere result of FOLLOWING their class.
Paladins also must act with honor, and in particular it's noted that they do not lie, cheat, or use poison among other behaviors. The fact that they don't lie doesn't mean they are necessarily forbidden from deceiving their enemies. It's a possible interpretation; one that could be fun to play out in a game, but generally it's just a shockingly stupid and impractical one. Acting with honor does not mean that you MUST put yourself at a disadvantage, particularly with those Evil opponents with whom Honor cannot be exercised in the first place. Honor is a two-way street - you give honor because you expect to receive it back as appropriate. Seldom would a paladin extend honor with an expectation of it NOT being returned or appreciated for what it is. Honor and respect are things that must be continually earned, not things that even Evil people are actually automatically entitled to. Lawful Evil opponents might be relied upon to adhere to at least their own Code of Honor but being honorable doesn't make you stupid (necessarily). If you can't reasonably anticipate your own honorable behavior to be respected; if an opponent can be relied upon to only turn honorable behavior against you, then you have no honor obligation to them. You may still extend it to them, and maybe you should under some circumstances, but you don't have to by default. And lying or omitting full-truths is UNDOUBTEDLY the most common way in which paladins deviate from their LG alignment. They would constantly need to strive to uphold this particular commitment - but even consistent failure in this regard is hardly going to make any paladin NON-LG nor cause him a moments concern for his standing. Now you can play your character or run your game such that it IS a paramount, unbreakable part of a paladins commitment from which there can NEVER be deviation, but that's YOUR affair. It should never be promulgated as being the only correct way to handle it.
Paladins help those in need, respect life, and punish those who harm or threaten innocents. If someone who harms or threatens innocents suddenly becomes a person in need - even begging for assistance - their past behavior is not suddenly excused. If you're holding an Evil Overlord over a pit of certain death and he begs for mercy you do NOT have to give it to him. You possibly could, but in the VAST majority of cases it would be your overriding duty to ensure his immediate lethal punishment.
Nonetheless, paladins do not torture prisoners, nor knowingly allow their torture or mistreatment. Indeed, simply suspecting that a prisoner for which they are in some fashion responsible is being tortured they would be obligated to put a stop to it and then appropriately punish the offender. For a paladin, once you ACCEPT an individual as a prisoner you have automatically extended them your protection as your honor would dictate. Note that this does NOT preclude altering their ultimate fate. In other words, if you take a prisoner you can't casually torture him for idle information, but you CAN inform him that unless he gives information you'll execute him, and then follow through without a moments hesitation or regret. You can also inform him after capture that he WILL simply be executed. Simply allowing him a brief respite on his ultimate fate does not alter the fact that only moments ago he may have been trying to assassinate you. It would be the honorable thing to ensure swift, painless execution since LG does still imply concern for dignity, but execution is nonetheless warranted. Accepting surrender only means that you are agreeing to not kill him that very moment. Nothing more. Perhaps it is to allow his last moments to be less violent, to allow brief religious preparations, or to actually allow an enemy to negotiate for a fate other than death. Accepting surrender means that you are granting the possibility of such things. It never, ever is the equivalent of agreeing NOT to ultimately execute your prisoner.
Paladins are also quite often inserted into settings (or rather settings are built outside of them, not considering their function) where there isn't an appropriate background that gives them a proper foundation for their strict code of behavior and encouragement to openly enforce their beliefs in a society - which was always the entire point of the class. Chivalry, knightly orders, and even genuine feudal governments all help to establish a setting where they belong and where their strict behavior codes wouldn't mistakenly imply using alignment alone to constantly justify those codes. Problems arise with paladins not so much because they are judge/jury/executioners, but because they are placed in game settings where being judge/jury/executioners is inherently problematic, even illegal in a society, despite that being the raison d'etre of the class - the very purpose of their existence. To sternly uphold and enforce their own beliefs, even violently, is what paladins are meant to do because it is accepted by the society that creates and allows them that it needs doing and it is thus permitted, no matter what else the written law may generally say.
Regardless of whether you agree with any/all of the above or not, as a DM you should inform your players about what YOU think paladins should or should not be allowed to do, and almost more importantly the consequences for it. As a player of a paladin you should maintain an awareness of the goody-two-shoes restrictions you have voluntarily accepted in choosing to play a paladin. Do not have your character act unthinkingly in situations that have moral and ethical consequences. You have clear role-playing restrictions that you CHOSE as a player, and thus ought to be mindful of and adhere to (unless your intent is to explore the roleplaying possibilities of error, the loss of abilities, and usually the eventual redemption). If you have ANY question in these matters then ask your DM. If the response from the DM is vague, noncommittal or, "As a paladin you're not sure," then your DM cannot legitimately enforce severe consequences for your making a good-faith effort to simply guess at the correct action, or apply your own interpretations as being the correct ones for your character. Tell him so right then. If you turn out to be "wrong" in guessing then the worst that should happen is a very temporary loss of status, easily restored with an Atonement spell (which should NOT require an accompanying quest). Losing paladinhood is NEVER done through ignorance, chance, or especially through good-faith attempts at doing what's right, but only through deliberate evil or misdeeds in defiance of consequences.
The notes above about how to use and NOT use alignment should end your difficulties with the alignment system. If there’s something you think I’ve missed that isn’t covered here, by all means e-mail me.
If, after all this, you remain unconvinced of the usefulness of alignment then theres generally two approaches. Dropping it altogether is the first and probably most reasonable course. As I said earlier, good players dont have as much of a need of an alignment system because they are more likely to be able to restrict their characters behavior to what is reasonable and consistent without a written reference. Their past experience as players with a variety of characters and situations provides all the reference they need - if they are responsible enough to stick to it. After all, plenty of other RPGs make do without anything resembling alignment and simply anticipate that the participants in the game will handle the topic as they see fit. Just dont be surprised if you get a player who simply cant or wont run a consistent character because he's got no reference for how or why to do so. Its going to be far more likely to happen in a game without an alignment system than with one, and my own personal experience over the last 40 years of roleplaying backs that up unquestionably. (For example, most sci-fi game settings have nothing like an alignment system for monitoring and to a degree controlling character behavior. Those games have overwhelmingly gravitated toward criminal activities and even utterly amoral serial murder - all in good fun, of course.) If you can say any part of the arguments about alignment produces some good it's that it does focus players attention on their characters behavior. Even if they disagree on details they are using alignment to try to follow a reasonable and consistent pattern and that's all that alignment is supposed to be doing.
Expanding or replacing the system altogether is the more mystifying approach to me. Unless the intent IS to use it to dictate what a character may or may not do in certain situations, a highly accurate and comprehensive system of tracking moral and ethical actions is a waste of time. If the intent is to do what alignment is already intended to do to act as a guideline for behavior then why do your guidelines need to be so comprehensive and fiendishly accurate? They are only guidelines aren't they? Youre not trying to make the players choices for them are you? High accuracy in an alignment system has no purpose other than to do just that. It's meant to categorize and more narrowly pigeonhole characters so that they may behave only according to a very restrictive range of possibilities selected by the DM, and to prevent them from ever altering that range of behavior or drawing severe punishment for exceeding it regardless of circumstances that occur within the campaign, especially at the DM's whim.
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