Let’s hack up Alignment a bit
Dungeons and Dragons has long used a morality system called “Alignment”. It describes 2-axis, one axis is law-chaos, and the other is good-evil. One problem with the system, through all 6 editions, is that alignment has been ambiguous with respect to characterization. While it has successfully acted as a light guide to the general morality, it’s largely failed as a more specific guideline. So, what we’re going to do here is we’re going to define these axis more explicitly, recalibrate them, and look at how they apply during play.
What is Good and Evil
The first axis is the Good vs Evil axis. Good and Evil easily conjure images in our mind with light bearing heroes facing the undead darkness. Death lies on the side of evil and life on the side of good. The most obvious thing to say then might be “Okay, good is life”, but that doesn’t much help us to understand what it means to be good. Good is more easily understood in this context then as being characterized by these three traits: Altruism, Fairness, and Healing.
Here’s where things get tricky. This will align closely with existing source material, but what has dogged Dungeons and Dragons is that humans are actually “Lawful Good” creatures (which I’ll explore in more depth in calibration). So the opposite, Evil, alignment would not simply be the lack of these things but rather their opposites. A character that is “Every Man for Himself!” is not evil, that character is merely neutral. An evil character must actually be malevolent. So the evil corollaries to the three traits are: Taking, Unfairness, and Harm.
Altruism / Taking
A good person feels the need to help those who are less fortunate. This individual will seek to end the suffering of others within reason. An altruistic (good) individual gives alms to the poor, rescues babies from burning building, and bolsters the confidence of the less fortunate.
A neutral person does not help other people who are in need. She is rather inclined to do whatever benefits her most, but (and this is key) does not bring her own needs above others. She won’t give alms to the poor, but she won’t take them either. She won’t rescue babies from burning buildings, but she won’t throw them in either. She may not care for the feelings of others, but she’s not there to put them down either.
An Evil person will do anything so long as it benefits him. He doesn’t care who is harmed in his pursuit of personal gain. He probably wouldn’t throw a baby into a burning building, but might if he found profit in it. He will actively put others down to bolster his own image.
Fairness / Unfairness
A good person seeks cooperation and fairness in all things. She actively seeks to ensure that everyone is equal. She stands up against bullies, she divides wealth equitably, and she never lies or cheats another person.
A neutral individual doesn’t so much care about fairness. He is indifferent to uneven exchange, figuring that each individual should look out for himself, and if someone gets suckered then its their own fault. However he won’t take from the needy. He doesn’t bully, but probably thinks it’s funny. He shares only the wealth that he thinks he absolutely has to, and he’ll lie or cheat someone if he can get away with it.
An Evil person actively seeks to make things unfair, with herself at the top of the heap of course. She will seek to accumulate as much wealth or power as possible, and actively preys upon the weakest members of society in her pursuit of power.
Healing / Harm
A good person tries to avoid harm at all times, and even seeks to promote healing. He doesn’t get into a fight unless he has to, when he’s in a fight he’ll try not to kill. He isn’t necessarily a pacifist, but definitely views violence as a last resort, even against evil.
A neutral person tries to minimize harm, but isn’t adverse to it. She’ll fight if she has to, she’ll kill if she has to, but won’t do it for pleasure. She doesn’t feel the need to avoid violence or heal the injured, but generally isn’t looking to pick a fight.
An Evil individual actively seeks to harm others. He will harm and kill for pleasure, and will often target the weakest individual at all times. He is actively malevolent!
Humans morality universally fluctuates between Good and Neutral on this axis. People who hit the evil part of this are considered sociopaths. People with left leaning politics are ‘good’ on this scale, and those with right leaning politics are ‘neutral’. No actual people advocate evil (though certainly some people are, they don’t express it).
When making your character, pick the level that most closely matches your character on each of these measures. If you pick more some Good and no Evil, you are Good. If you pick some Evil and no Good you are Evil. If you pick some Good and some Evil, or no Good and no Evil – then you are Neutral.
What is Law / Chaos
The measure of Lawful vs Chaotic has often been even trickier for players than the measure of Good vs Evil. We do have some sense that Lawful societies are ordered, and Chaotic societies are more disorganized. We have a sense of right angles and sharp edges as being more lawful, and wild spikes and curves as being Chaotic. However, what really distinguishes them is Social Cohesion. We can attribute these three traits to Lawfulness: Conformity, Authority, and Purity.
Again, here’s where things get tricky. Again, humans are actually Lawful Good creatures, so the bias on alignment has tended to assign things as Chaotic that are actually Neutral. There is a tendency to thing that individualistic people are Chaotic – they’re not. Chaotic people actively seek to disrupt social cohesion, and these corollaries are: Nonconformity, Anti-authoritarianism, and Impure.
Conformity / Nonconformity
A Lawful person will align with her cultures values. She dresses in clothes that are appropriate to her rank and class. She doesn’t show off, and she keeps the customs of her people. When faced with someone breaking tradition she will actively seek to correct that person, and if that persons nonconformity threatens her way of life she will actively seek to put a stop to it.
A Neutral person does what he wants. He’ll generally incorporate the dress and customs of his culture into his own individual self expression. He doesn’t mind other people doing their own thing, because he’s going to do his own thing.
A Chaotic person actively seeks to disrupt conformity. She not only dresses how she want, she dresses provocatively – that is in a way which challenges the status-quo. She doesn’t care about the mores of society, and actively encourages others away from them. Confronted with a custom she doesn’t approve of, she’ll intervene in any way she can.
Authority / Anti-Authoritarianism
A Lawful person follows the laws and show respect for the leaders. This person obeys authority, so long as he thinks it is legitimate. When he is in a position of authority, he takes that role seriously and expect obedience. He follows the laws, breaking them only to serve a higher law – even then he’s likely to turn himself in afterwards.
A Neutral person is indifferent to authority. She obeys the laws and authorities because she has to, because it’s convenient, or because she want to. She doesn’t hold them in contempt, but she doesn’t respect them either. When in a position of authority, she intervenes only as much as she needs to to get the job done.
An Chaotic person actively seeks to tear down authority. He despises the laws, and takes pleasure in getting away with breaking them or pulling one over on the authorities. If an opportunity presents itself to tear the system down, he’ll take it even if there’s nothing to replace it. He rabble rouses if he can, and challenges authority where possible.
Purity / Impurity
A Lawful person seeks to be pure. Exactly what that means is heavily dependent on culture. It could include maintaining ones virginity, only eating certain food, regularly receiving a blessing, tithing, etc. Universally it does include being clean, and taking care of oneself. A lawful person follows these as much as possible. She will do whatever is needed to maintain the things her society views as pure, and is likely to look at others who don’t do these things with disgust. She is not pluralistic in her worldview.
A Neutral person is indifferent to purity. He probably keeps himself clean, and likely doesn’t go around advertising his habits, but doesn’t think much of these mores. He does what he wants when he can. He isn’t bothered in the least by people who keep themselves ‘pure’, however he resents when they lecture him. He has a pluralistic worldview.
A Chaotic person will defile herself. She not only doesn’t care about purity, she’s so convinced it’s nonsense she’ll actively engage in the activity. She does it in public for all to see if she can get away with it – if people are disgusted, all the better, hopefully they’ll realize the prison they are in. This person isn’t pluralistic, she largely thinks all cultures are full of shit. She is likely to work by the pleasure principle.
Human morality is universally Lawful or Neutral in this axis. People who are chaotic in out society end up in prison or mental institutions. Those who are considered ‘conservative’ in our society tend to be Lawful, and those who are ‘liberal’ in our society tend to be Neutral. Chaotically aligned individuals exist, but they keep to themselves or are aligned with radical fringe groups.
When making your character, pick the level that most closely matches your character on each of these measures. If you pick some Lawful and no Chaotic you are Lawful, if you pick some Chaotic and no Lawful you are Chaotic. If you pick some Lawful and some Chaotic, or no Lawful and no Chaotic, you are Neutral.
Some people are so strongly aligned on a particular axis, that it defines that totality of that individual. Such a person would have all the same level in a particular axis, and be neutral by default of the other axis. It’s not that she wouldn’t lean some way on the other axis, it’s that her primary axis completely overrides the other axis. For example a True Good person would be so focused on Altruism, Fairness, and Healing; she would not care about anything on the law / chaos axis except how it helps others. Alternatively a True Chaotic individual is laser focused on disrupting society. He doesn’t care who he hurts, or who he helps, he just wants to tear it down.
This reflects a conflict that can emerge between Law and Good, or Evil and Chaos. The desire to fulfill one can interfere with the desire to fulfill the other. Do you break the law and the long standing tradition of Borlog`mon in order to save the villagers? If you’re True Lawful you most certainly do not!
When a character has True Alignment in Dungeons and Dragons give that person Advantage any time their associated alignment is related to a check in play, or Disadvantage any time the opposite is true. Furthermore, important things directly related to their alignment should grant them advantage. It might be worthwhile to require certain Cleric’s to be True aligned.
True Neutral vs Neutral Neutral
A Neutral Neutral person is just one who has neutral alignment on both Axis. A True Neutral person has Neutral on all measures of all axis. Furthermore this person is not only an absolute individualist, this person must actively seek to alter everyone else to be more neutral or ‘balanced’.
Alignment and Society
Now, having established what the alignments actually mean narratively, we can start looking at what it means for those societies.
The easiest thing to consider is that 34% of everyone will be the exact alignment, another 34% will be one step away, so in the case of humans 17% will be Lawful Neutral and 17% will be Neutral Good. The next 27% will be two steps away, so humans would have True Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral Neutral, True Neutral, Lawful Evil and True Lawful each at about 4.5%. Another 4% will be one more step removed, giving 2% each to Neutral Evil and Chaotic Neutral, finally the remaining 1% would be split between True Chaotic, True Evil and Chaotic Evil.
When one considers this and applies it to non-human races, you find a much more three dimensional image of the societies. Kobolds are listed as Lawful Evil, what that really means is that 1/3 of them are lawful evil, but almost 5% of them are actually Lawful Good! While just as many are Chaotic Evil. Trolls on the other hand are Chaotic Evil, so only a tiny fraction are going to be Lawful Good like humans, but again 5% will at least be Lawful Evil, and 5% will be Chaotic Good.
This should help players and game masters envision much more vibrant societies for these people. Having every goblin town be ramshackle and cutthroat is like having every human town be god-fearing and sleepy. It’s boring. The deviants from the racial alignment serve a very important function in society – they help society change. Whereas once upon a time Slavery and treating slaves poorly was the Lawful activity, society changed and it’s now slavery is no longer a Lawfully aligned activity. Similarly, a Lawfully aligned goblin might help steer a goblin society into building stone walls, or a good aligned one might create a new social system where more goblins survive for longer, thus making them a bigger threat to humans than they ever were before!
Finally, it can be hard sometimes to think of how a society functions for a Chaotically or Evil aligned people. Well, consider that Lawful Good societies are not necessarily great! Yes, a Lawful Good society can be a happy peace loving people where everyone gets along and love their neighbors. On the other hand it can be a rigidly authoritarian welfare state! If you go look at how Good and Lawful are defined, a strictly Lawful Good society could range from a Utopia to a Dystopian Nightmare.
The same reasoning applies to Evil societies. An evil society is going to be one where the strong feed upon the weak; the weak are actively ridiculed and harmed, the sick and infirm are little more than waste. Clearly such a society seems to be a nightmare – but it’s also a sensible society for a people with limited resource and external threats! Maybe this evil society has a system for ensuring that the strongest are made stronger with some objective test. Each person goes through a test, and the winner becomes the ruler, taking everything she can from those who are weaker. While this might not be pleasant, it ensures that the most capable member of society can’t be put down by a lesser member, and that’s good for everyone! Right?
And with Chaotic societies, you can expect those societies to be very pluralistic. On the one hand there no authority, and everyone just does whatever they want with no regard for anyone else. On the other hand, these cultures are likely to be full of creative energy – a dynamic energy defines these societies as everyone is free to do as they please. These societies would have trouble raising legions for war, but the dynamism might make for some extraordinarily formidable mobs.
Even a Chaotic Evil society might be one which most of its members appreciate. These societies have no laws and are characterized by the strong feeding on the weak. Though it sounds like a nightmare to us, the members of this society band together for a reason. There is strength in numbers and strength in constant strife. While it may not feel good to be on the bottom of the heap in one of these societies, it comes with the promise that perseverance can elevate a member with relative ease.
The Role of Heroes
Heroes in the United States have slowly drifted from Lawful Good to Neutral Neutral. Why? It probably reflects a desire for change in our cultural zeitgeist. However, these heroes are always fighting on the side of Lawful Good! Katiness Everdeen wants to tear the system down, but not to have a society that’s completely without a cohesive culture, she wants to bring in a new culture. The Punisher is Neutral Neutral – willing to break any laws and to kill. But why? To protect society, to protect the innocent! He’s a Neutrally aligned character fighting for a Lawful Good cause.
Even evil characters can be heroes by the same token. Just because your Chaotic Evil character does whatever it takes to accumulate as much power as possible, intentionally tearing down every institution, killing innocent bystanders… that character is doing all this to restore the rightful King and keep the witch from destroying humanity. That is a heroic Chaotic Evil character.
Adapting To Your Game
Applying this system as presented to an existing game might require some tweaking to existing characters and races. The greedy thief in your party probably isn’t that evil, and maybe the fairies need an alignment shift. For new games, it’s probably most fun if you take the alignments as listed and figure out how the new understanding affects your understanding of your worlds inhabitants.
The purpose of this was to create a more tractable and relatable alignment system, one that better reflects the range of alignment, and pins down exactly what they mean. However you use it, it’s probably going to help your game to have the sort of clarity I present here.
Note: I haven’t stopped development of Living Myth. In fact I recently play tested it! I’m not quite ready to report on it yet, but there are some exciting developments the play test has inspired.
I received some very helpful feedback from a Facebook group. There’s one point that needs clarification, and distinguishes this from some other attempts to establish alignment. Alignment is not proscriptive to action, instead it reflects values.
This system is not intended to pigeonhole morality. In fact it’s specifically intended to enhance the issue of moral dilemma instead of obviating the need for moral dilemma.
These are not actual moral beliefs, they are moral values. A conservative cares about Purity and Authority, and a liberal cares about harm and fairness. Dungeons and Dragons is a game so shoved to the gills with tropes that it’s hard to reconcile not having a morality system! What makes things interesting is when you, in play, challenge the dynamics of that.
For example: Okay, you value Altruism – but now you’re faced with a starving goblin. You value conformity, but your culture wants to ritually sacrifice a party member. Etc… The alignment system used this way increases drama and choice as opposed to boxing players in.