Check for Traps
All About Alignment

Alexander Macris | 30 Nov 2010 21:00
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Finally, Evil characters have narrow moral circles that encompass themselves and perhaps their closest friends or family, and then sharply slope into total disinterest; many Evil characters may indeed have a circle of one, with others valued only as useful tools or object of affection rather than as moral ends. For D&D's Evil, we can look to Friedrich Nietzsche, who claims that to achieve greatness, a man must "lack congeniality and good-naturedness" and "consider everyone he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and obstacle;" such a man, with a "strong and domineering nature" "want[s] no sympathetic hearts, but servants and tools."

Good is Good, Except When its Bad

The above passage comes from Nietzsche's book, Beyond Good and Evil, which raises the interesting point: In the real world, people who would be Evil in D&D tend not to think of themselves as "evil". Our friend Nietzsche explained this by arguing that there were two basic ways of labeling moral behaviors. The first system of morality, associated with the Heroic Age of Greece, contrasted "good" (strong, healthy, wealthy, powerful) with "bad" (weak, sick, poor, pathetic). The heroes of the Iliad or Odyssey, who can seem downright sociopathic to modern readers, were paragons of heroic virtue under their ancient moral code. The second system of morality, associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition, contrasts "good" (restrained, kind, charitable, humble) with "evil" (aggressive, cruel, greedy, proud). Nietzsche's belief was that Judeo-Christian "evil" morality leads to what the ancients called "good" behavior (powerful and rich), while Judeo-Christian "good" morality leads to what the ancients called "bad" behavior (meek and slavish).

Because it's a game produced by writers from the Judeo-Christian tradition, it's not altogether surprising that Dungeons & Dragons has assigned its metaphysical Good and Evil to approximately correlate with Judeo-Christian "good" and "evil" - indeed, the game's alignments can probably best be understood as being written from a Lawful Good perspective.

However, in your own campaign, you should probably consider how societies that aren't Lawful Good label the alignments. Here are some suggestions:

  • Chaotic Evil societies might translate the Good/Evil axis as the Unreasonable/Reasonable axis, and the Law/Chaos axis as the Dogmatic/Pragmatic axis. A Chaotic Evil dread lord would see himself as Pragmatic and Reasonable, while his Lawful Good foe is Dogmatic and Unreasonable.
  • Lawful Evil societies might translate the Good/Evil axis as the Slavish/Masterful axis, and the Law/Chaos axis as the Honorable/Dishonorable axis. An Honorable Masterful noble would have little time for a Dishonorably Slavish rabble rouser and his priggish peasant uprising.
  • True Neutral societies might translate the Good/Evil axis as the Vainglorious/Virtuous/Vicious axis, and the Law/Chaos axis as the Rigid Morals/Proper Morals/Loose Morals axis. They'd consider themselves Virtuous and Proper, Lawful Good paladins to be Rigid and Vainglorious, and Chaotic Evil blackguards to be Loose and Vicious.

Fair and Balanced

Having fielded this system in play, I'm fairly confident it's a workable approach to understanding alignment both in theory and practice. My challenge for you, my readers, is to help me test it by naming a major fictional or historical character, or moral code, and assigning it an alignment using the system described above. Let's see if consensus can be achieved!

Your Honorable Master demands it.

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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