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In the dark under-city below the caverns of Celadon, desperation gripped the hearts of heroes. “If we don’t find the Black Balm of Beelzebub by dawn, the City of Falcondale will be destroyed!” exclaimed Ariel.

“We’ll do what must be done, then,” the paladin replied, his voice like steel. He slammed his warhammer down, shattering like walnuts the fingers of his hapless Drow captive. “There’s more where that came from,” the grim knight said. “Now tell me where the Balm is!”

For a moment, there was nothing but agonized wailing in the air, but it stopped suddenly, and the Drow looked thoughtful. “You know, actually, you can’t do this, Bob.” The dark elf’s Midwestern accent was out of place in the catacombs. “See, you’re Lawful Good, and Lawful Good people don’t torture. In fact, I think you just lost your Paladin status for doing an evil deed. Let me check the Player’s Handbook.”

“What? That’s ridiculous. What would be evil would be for me to let hundreds of thousands of people die for the sake of a few mashed fingers that a Heal spell will take care of in 6 seconds,” the paladin snorted.

“Well, I disagree. Torture is always evil, and it doesn’t matter if you heal the wounds. I mean, in Gitmo, those guys they were water-boarding didn’t drown, but it was still torture.”

“What are you talking about? Water-boarding wasn’t torture. And even if it was, that doesn’t make it evil…”

Ah, alignment. Has any rule in Dungeons & Dragons caused more arguments? Ever since Gary Gygax first decided to make paladins the most powerful fighters in the game provided they followed a strict alignment code, the problems of alignment have bedeviled players and gamemasters alike. In this column, we’re going to tackle the thorny issue of alignment and try to make sense of it all.

There Really Is an Axis of Evil

For those of you unfamiliar with the D&D alignment system, it divides moral behavior into two axes: The Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic axis and the Good/Neutral/Evil axis. A character’s alignment is composed of one element from each axis, creating combinations such as “Lawful Good” and “Neutral Evil”. According to the d20 rules, these encompass “a broad range of personal philosophies” that are “a tool for developing your character’s identity.” The dual axis system remains widely popular, with a whole line of t-shirts and homages in everything from Warhammer to Fable II’s dual morality and purity axes.

That sounds well and good; yet most gamers, having not studied moral philosophy, simply lack the vocabulary to assess what good or evil means, let alone law or chaos. Even the simplest assessments often lead to long arguments: If a Lawful Good hero tells a lie in order to save someone’s life, has he violated his alignment? If Luke Skywalker really did restore order to the galaxy along with Darth, would that have been Evil? Is Highlander’s Kurgan being Chaotic when he madly drives down the wrong side of the road in New York City, or is he just being an idiot? Confusion is nowadays so great that TV Tropes has pages documenting and ridiculing the problems of Lawful Anal and Chaotic Stupid characters. To avoid the Stupid, some modern gamers eschew alignment altogether, consigning it to the trash bin of game design.

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Despite the problems of alignment, throwing out alignment is the wrong move for most campaigns. The classic struggle of good versus evil appears repeatedly in myth, legend, and fiction. To ignore alignment is to ignore the most powerful themes that underlie gaming’s popular genres. The Lord of the Rings is hardly a gripping story if the Reign of Sauron and Aragorn are morally equivalent. Even the most deconstructionist of epic fantasy works – George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones – still offers us examples of true D&D-style Chaotic Evil.

With morality hardcoded into the genres they emulate, Dungeons & Dragon’s alignment system is worthy of use in play. So can sense be made of it? The answer is yes! The past 3,000 years of moral theory may not have led us to world peace, but Aristotle, Bentham, Kant, and Nietzsche have at least provided us some answers to our D&D dilemmas.

Let’s start with the basics: A moral code is a system of values that differentiates between good and bad, right and wrong. Over the past three thousand years, moral philosophers have developed a staggering amount of moral codes based on differing assessment of the objectivity, perspective, scope, and substance of moral codes. Of the vast range of possible moral questions one can ask, however, solving our alignment dilemma really only asks us to answer two questions: How do you judge the “goodness” of an action? And who are the proper beneficiaries of “good” behavior, i.e. whose “good” are we talking about? The answer to the first question will establish a person’s place on the spectrum of Law and Chaos; the answer to the second question, their place on the spectrum of Good and Evil.

It’s All Clear Once You Realize Lawful Just Means Deontological

So our first question is “how you judge the ‘goodness’ of an action?” Moral philosophy offers us three main answers: By the action itself (deontological); by the consequences of the action (consequentialist); and by the character of the action (aretological). These three map nicely to Lawful, Chaotic, and Neutral, as will be shown below.

Deontological, or rules-based, ethics judge the goodness of an action based on whether the action itself adhered to a set of principles developed in advance. Most religions include deontological ethical systems: When the Ten Commandments say “you shall not steal,” it means that you shall not steal, period. It doesn’t matter if your family is starving and you need the bread; stealing is wrong because the Commandment says so. Some secular systems are also deontological. During the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant developed his incredibly influential deontological system based on Categorical Imperatives, or maxims for rightful action. Murray Rothbard’s non-aggression principle is a famous libertarian deontological system. As a result of their philosophy, deontologists generally believe that rules should be obeyed; promises should be kept; processes should be followed; and that ends never justify means. They are, in short, Lawful!

In contrast to the strict principles of deontological ethics, Chaotic characters believe in consequentialist or act-based ethics: They judge the goodness of an action based on the consequences of the action. To a consequentialist, rightness or wrongness is judged by the result of the deed, not the deed itself. Jeremy Bentham’s act-based utilitarianism, which instructs its adherents to act to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, is the most famous consequentialist moral system. Consequentialists are results-oriented. They believe that promises can be broken, rules ignored, and laws overridden, because the end always justify the means. They are the essence of Chaotic, prone to answering claims that they’ve broken a contract by saying “I am altering the deal – pray I don’t alter it any further.

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In between these two positions is a third way, which could be called aretological, or character-based ethics. To an aretologist, the goodness of an action is judged based on the character trait which motivated the action. While they ultimately judge the rightness or wrongness of deeds in their totality by their consequences, they believe that it is impossible to predict what the consequences are likely to be in most circumstances. Instead, we should generally behaving in accordance with particular character traits (the “virtues”) which tend to promote these desirable consequences overall. John Stuart Mill’s rules-based utilitarianism and Aristotle’s virtue ethics both lead to similar reasoning, leading to moral “rules of thumb” or “habits” which should be followed unless there is a strong reason for not doing so. Such people will generally follow the rules and keep their promises, but not so strictly as Lawful characters, but may act on a case-by-case basis when circumstances dictate, though not with such disdain for custom and law as Chaotics. They are, in short, Neutrals. When you ponder whether it’s permissible to drive through the stop light when there’s nobody around, you’re thinking like a Neutral. (The Lawful person would never consider it, and the Chaotic person drove through as soon as he knew it was safe.)

Is it a Circle of Life, or a Circle of Strife?

Having identified how we judge the “goodness” of actions, and thereby identifying Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic philosophies, the second question we must answer is who the proper beneficiaries of “good” behavior are. In short, whose “good” are we talking about? The answer to this question will correlate with an element on the Good and Evil axis.

To frame this discussion, let’s turn to Peter Singer’s theory of the “expanding circle of morality,” in which each individual has a different circle that he takes account of when evaluating what’s good. At its narrowest point, this simply means a man asking “what’s good for me?” A broader circle might include “what’s good for me, my family, my neighborhood, or my tribe?” A vastly broader circle might include “what’s good for all mankind” or even “what’s good for all life on earth?” Within the circle, the individual may treat everyone equally, or may elevate certain interests above those of another. An individual who treats everyone equally within his circle has a flat circle, while one who discounts the interests of others the further away they are on the circle has a sloped circle.

This concept of the expanding moral circle elegantly maps onto the Dungeons & Dragons alignments. Good characters have very broad, flat moral circles that generally encompass all other Good creatures. Such a character feels an obligation to help, serve, and benefit others, even at the sacrifice of their self-interest.

Neutral characters have modest, sloped moral circles that encompass themselves, their loved one, and their tribe, city, country, or race, at an increasing slope of disinterest as the circle expands. The ancient Arab maxim “me against my brother; my brother and I against our cousin; my brother, my cousin and I against the stranger” expresses a Neutral sentiment. Objectivism,, which demands that “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for man,” is another expression of Neutrality. (A Good person would live for others; an Evil person would have no compunction against asking another man to give his life for him.)

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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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