Morality Systems in RPGs Part 1: D&D Alignments

Morality trats: are they useful? Are they effective? Should a character’s morality be tracked with a stat, or simply left as a role playing element? Can morality be objectively quantified? Let’s look at some systems. This will be a multi-post topic, and we’re starting with the most well known morality system, D&D’s alignments.

As in all things D&D, I’m most familiar with 3.5 edition. In that version, an alignment has two parts, Law vs. Chaos, and Good vs. Evil, with each part having a neutral option. This gives us nine alignments, Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Good, True Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, and Chaotic Evil. Even if you aren’t a D&D player, you’ve probably heard these terms thrown around on Facebook; whether it’s a meme picture showing the alignments of characters from a franchise, or a quiz that tells you what your alignment is.

I almost never agree with these conclusions. For example:

Taken from

The good and neutral examples, I suppose, make sense, but as far as I’m concerned all three of the mentioned Sith here are Lawful Evil, especially Palpatine. Why? Here’s how the alignment is defined in the 3.5 players handbook:

Lawful Evil, “Dominator”:
A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises. This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds.

Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains. The scheming baron who expands his power and exploits his people is lawful evil.

Some lawful evil people and creatures commit themselves to evil with a zeal like that of a crusader committed to good. Beyond being willing to hurt others for their own ends, they take pleasure in spreading evil as an end unto itself. They may also see doing evil as part of a duty to an evil deity or master. Lawful evil is sometimes called “diabolical,” because devils are the epitome of lawful evil.

Lawful evil is the most dangerous alignment because it represents methodical, intentional, and frequently successful evil. (3.5 Player’s Hadbook pg. 105)

If you know your Star Wars EU, than you know that Darths Sideous, Maul, and Vader are all part of Darth Bane’s Rule of Two, a thousand year long tradition of having only two Sith Lords at a time, existing in secret, working to destroy the Jedi and conquer the Galactic Republic. These three (plus Darth Tyranus, a.k.a. Count Dooku) are the culmination of a plan that results in the formation of the Galactic Empire. There’s nothing Chaotic, or even neutral, about anything these guys do. Palpatine is the epitome of “dominator”, and all of them ” represent methodical, intentional, and frequently successful evil.”

That’s just one example. Almost any discussion by gamers over what alignment a given character should be is going to end up being a debate. The alignments are confusing and difficult to wrap one’s head around. Why is that? Basically, it’s because their bullshit. The alignment system is designed to be used in a fantasy setting with black and white “morality” that basically comes down to which side of a conflict one is on, and not what one actually does or thinks. I mean look at Paladins. They’re required to be lawful “good”, but running around smiting “evil” creatures left and right. Smite Evil is a level 1 class feature. How does someone who’s job is to kill people (orcs and goblins are people, and don’t you dare deny it) get away with being called good?

More importantly, any realistic summary of a person’s alignment will lead to true neutral, as almost nobody fits into one of the extremes.  I took one of those alignment tests floating around the internet, and it told me I was lawful good, even though:

“Law” implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include close-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability. Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behavior creates a society in which people
can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should. (3.5 Player’s Hadbook pg. 104)

For the record, I’m an atheist and an anarchist (kinda, sorta, it’s complicated). I think traditions are stupid, and I find the very concept of authority offensive. I find most of our laws to be at best pointless and at worst terrible. I consider myself very open-minded to different kinds of people. I certainly don’t think adhering to laws makes a society in which people can depend on each other, I think a society like that comes from people choosing on their own to be dependable.

Ok, I don’t want to get too off topic here, I wasn’t intending to make this a political post. My point is,  why did this test peg me as lawful when I clearly am not? I think because the test asked a lot of questions about family, like “do you include your parents’ advice in decision making”. Things like that, which I do agree that my saying yes to makes me sound kind of lawful.

But I’m not. I’ve talked to some  gamers who describe themselves, not their characters, but themselves, as Chaotic Evil… even though they have a personal body count of exactly zero. But they’ll insist, because, sure they aren’t “destroyers” (see 3.5 PHB pg. 106), but they are misanthropic, perhaps even nihilistic, or maybe even some other words encapsulating concepts more complex than what these nine alignments represent.

So basically what I’m saying is that D&D oversimplifies the whole morality thing. Can it be done better? Next week I’ll talk about the mechanics from my favorite systems, White Wolf’s Storytelling system.



One thought on “Morality Systems in RPGs Part 1: D&D Alignments

  1. In my Pathfinder games (“D&D 3.75”) I’ve begun figuring ways to change, or negate alignment to suit the stories and settings we more like to tell. This is no longer the 80’s where you go stab the clearly marked bad guys for XP and loot. The best villains are often Bond type, where they have a goal that they feel will fix the world or right some wrong etc. Very ends justify the means sort. This first started when I had a true neutral lych (or a council of them actually). The problem is this alignment is built into many spells and effects within the game – so axing it is not simple. The law vs chaos is simple enough, and I don’t think needs changed, but Good vs Evil – I’ve been looking at making that “write down your code/gods/details on morality” and if something is pretty opposite that – then your “smite evil” or whatever would work against it. If it isn’t pretty opposite/incompatible, then it wont work.

    Still a work in progress.

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