Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Alignment

As I've stated before, and despite my own attempt to re-imagine it, Alignment is one of the least satisfying aspects of D&D for me. Despite this, one has to deal with it on some level, because there are mechanics within the game tied to the alignment system (Protection from Evil, for example). Unfortunately, Holmes and Cook use two different versions of the alignment system and neither is very helpful. Let me begin with Cook, because he uses the simpler Law-Neutral-Chaos axis:

Law (or Lawful) represent respect for rules, and willingness to put the benefit of the group ahead of the benefit of individuals. Lawfuls respect fairness and justice.

Chaos (or Chaotic) is the opposite of Law. A chaotic is selfish and respects no laws or rules. Chaotics cannot be trusted.

Neutral (or Neutrality) is concerned with personal survival. Neutrals will do whatever is in their best interest, with little regard for others.

I have big problems with this explanation. To my mind, doing "whatever is in their best interest, with little regard for others" is a very good definition for "selfish" — the first word that describes Chaos. What is the difference? To boot, "willingness to put the benefit of the group ahead of the benefit of individuals" can also be selfish and have little regard for the law (especially in places where individualism is codified into the law, as it is in the U.S.). It also very well describes such totalitarian and (I would argue) evil regimes as Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Neither of these "lawful" societies were trustworthy.

Ultimately, Cook's explanation of this alignment system is meaningless. Unfortunately, Holmes is not much better:

Characters may be lawful (good or evil), neutral or chaotic (good or evil). Lawful characters always act according to a highly regulated code of behavior, whether for good or evil. Chaotic characters are quite unpredictable and can not be depended upon to do anything except the unexpected -- they are often, but not always, evil. Neutral characters, such as all thieves, are motivated by self interest and may steal from their companions or betray them if it is in their own best interest. Players may choose any alignment they want and need not reveal it to others. Note that the code of lawful good characters insures that they would tell everyone that they are lawful. There are some magical items that can be used only by one alignment of characters. If the Dungeon Master feels that a character has begun to behave in a manner inconsistent with his declared alignment he may rule that he or she has changed alignment and penalize the character with a loss of experience points. An example of such behavior would be a "good" character who kills or tortures a prisoner.

Once again, there is no real distinction between Neutrality and Chaos. The explanation that Neutrals "are motivated by self interest and may steal from their companions or betray them if it is in their own best interest" sounds an awful lot like Chaotics who are "quite unpredictable and can not be depended upon to do anything except the unexpected." I do appreciate Holmes' take on Lawful, however, because it allows for both good and evil codes. The only guidance for what is good or evil, though, is whether or not one is willing to torture and kill prisoners.

Holmes does provide a diagram of his two axis alignment system. Regrettably, this, too, is mostly useless because the various examples it provides are meaningless fictional and mythical monsters with little cultural or historical reference. The only concrete example he gives is demon, for Chaotic Evil. He further muddles things by the way he assigns alignments to monsters. For example, Brass Dragons (which he uses as an example for Chaotic Good on his diagram) are listed as neutral/chaotic good. White dragons are neutral/chaotic evil while red dragons are chaotic evil/neutral. What is the difference? Further, displacer beasts are neutral (evil) and black puddings have no alignment at all.

Fortunately, Cook is a bit more consistent in assigning alignment to monsters, and this actually helps to clarify a few things. With a few exceptions, animals — normal, giant and fantastic — dominate the neutral monsters. Thus, in practice, neutrality is more about behaving as an animal in nature would. Or, to put it another way, neutrality approximates animal intelligence.

All undead are Chaotic. This strongly suggests that Chaos is related to the unholy and unnatural.

The list of Lawful creatures is very short:
  • Blink Dog
  • Dervish
  • Pegasus
  • Roc
  • Storm Giant
  • Treant
  • Unicorn
Derivishes are described as being fanatically religious and the others can be easily associated with being guardians or symbols of the natural world in balance.

If we accept that neutrality = animal (and therefore jettison the notion that all thieves are neutral), we can glean from both Holmes and Cook the following adjectives for Law, Chaos, Good and Evil:

  • Law: religious, natural, follows a code of behavior
  • Chaos: unholy, unnatural, selfish, untrustworthy
  • Good: merciful
  • Evil: merciless

While still not wholly satisfying, it is still more useful than the explanations provided by either Holmes or Cook while still trying to adhere to those explanations.


  1. I have to agree that alignments are one of the less satisfactory aspects of D&D and roleplaying games in general. My question has always been: do we really need them?

    In my opinion their only functionality is to add metagame content. Things like Protection from Chaos, Detect Evil, etc. strike me as highly metagame in nature. I don't believe that the characters should have any knowledge of alignments in the sense that these spells and the system use them.

    I think the alignment system is a useful tool for describing a character in brief, but as a functional game mechanic, I think it is detrimental to roleplaying and immersion.

  2. This is an excellent analysis of what I think they *meant* even if it wasn't clearly said. :)

  3. @Autsin: If you run a game where you say "all chaos (or evil) characters are controlled by the DM" it can help keep players on the same page and discourage people who intentionally derail games by acting in that manner.

  4. @Stuart: Oh, it's not a particular type of acting on the players' part but a mindset and mechanic that I'm against.

    Characters should not have some easily accessible means to know whether an NPC or monster or whatever is Evil or Lawful or Neutral or whatever. In my opinion, that's metagame knowledge and should not come into gameplay, nor should spells/abilities or mechanics act on these descriptions.

    I'm sure there are plenty of people fine with the alignment system interacting with the game world. It's just one of the things that bugs me about roleplaying games and one of the things I have the hardest time suspending disbelief over. A flaming sword? Sure, I buy it. A mace that deals Lawful damage? Umm... what?

    Let's not get into my preference for painting the world grey, rather than black and white, which really screws with the whole alignment system.

    p.s. So, last time it lets me sign in fine with Google; this time it forces me to sign up for an account to post. o.O

  5. More interesting exegesis and proposals for alignment. Thanks, FrDave.

  6. I only get Law/Chaos/Neutrality when yuo put a face on them. That is, if you go the Poul Anderson or Moorcock route and make them actual capital letter Powers to which one may make a formal allegiance. Otherwise, as a description of behaviour or something...pretty useless.

  7. > there are mechanics within the game tied to the alignment system (Protection from Evil, for example).

    Why not just call it "Protection from Unholy," define that as undead and extraplanar creatures (plus whatever other monsters you think the spell should protect from) and leave it at that? Or, have alignment as a monster but not PC stat - a kind of guide to behavior similar to monster intelligence.

    Anyway, if you feel compelled to use it, in my series of posts last summer I came out arguing that Neutral represents conventional morality "help your friends," Lawful/Good represents universal morality "help everyone," and Chaotic/Evil represents no morality "feel free to screw your friends over."

  8. It is incredible to me that this fiasco never got cleared up and never got edited out (i limit my remark to 2e and earlier - I haven't read 3+). Should we imagine it was all clear to the in crowd at Lake Geneva? Or that they didn't care or bother with it? Countdown to Game Time's had some interesting ruminations here, too.

    My question is, is it fun in play? Specifically, is it fun to have a single axis like this? Might it not be more fun just to state that there are religions, tribes, guilds, nations etc with their own codes of conduct, and violating those codes invites social and maybe mechanical censure (losing your god's favour, for instance, or attracting the attention of bad, undetectable spirits)?

    Chaos is different from neutrality, BTW, because it is a stated code of conduct: you are not allowed to be reliable. How much fun is that?

  9. When I use alignment in a game I usually use it as: Hero, Rogue, Villain... usually with the addition that I (the DM) control all the Villains.

    Rogue covers all the "greyness" of complex characters, anti-heroes, or anyone who doesn't like alignment on principle. :)

    If someone were to have their character act as a real bastard and randomly and indiscriminately do what I'd consider "evil" acts - I'd give the player a heads up that their alignment would switch (and thus the character would become an NPC).

    Law / Chaos / Neutrality can be handled in a number of different ways and are best (imho) when campaign specific in their treatment.

  10. the other game I play that has clear alignment: CoC. And there it works much like Stuart describes.

  11. @Stuart:

    I like that. "Hero, Rogue, and Villain." It captures everything you need in a simple, one-axis alignment system, just the sort of descriptions you'd want to use in a high fantasy world. Rebels, Scoundrels, Empire. Free Peoples, Undecided, Shadow/Enemy. Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic.

    On the other hand, let's say we want the complexity of Holmes or even AD&D. Then we're left with the same obnoxious problem that always plagues alignment discussions. If you're not using the Moldvay/Cook/Mentzer system, where Lawful means "good guy" and Chaotic means "bad guy", what the heck is the purpose of the Law/Chaos axis? Why, we must ask, do we need a transverse axis to cross with Good vs. Evil?

    And I would answer, it should be used to emphasize whatever theme you want to emphasize in your campaign. If your game is about matters of honor, Lawful can mean "honorable" and Chaotic can mean "dishonorable." That gives us the classic (even stereotypic) explanations for the AD&D alignments: the Chaotic Good "rebel hero", the Lawful Evil "honorable villain", etc.

    I hate those stereotypes.

    For my last AD&D campaign, I decided that I wanted Law and Chaos to represent civilization vs. barbarism. It was a good move; it felt appropriate to both pulp and high fantasy. And it explained why, for example, Monks and Paladins were generally Lawful, while Rangers were often Chatoic and Barbarians had to be. (To fit the scheme, I also shifted Druids from "must be Neutral" to "may not be Lawful". That resulted in two factions of Druids, a Neutral group that was ambivalent towards civilization and a Chaotic group that was actively opposed to it.) Made for one of the coolest uses of alignment in any game I'd ever run, and players actually *cared* about Law and Chaos just as much as Good and Evil. It had real meaning, real consequences, and served the game more than just a minor role-playing detail (as in, "I'm Lawful, I obey laws and have a code of honor!" vs. "I'm Chaotic, I break laws and march to the beat of my own drum.")

    It's this role-playing aspect of streotypical Law vs. Chaos, I've firmly come to believe, that makes alignment so problematic at the game table. It's what leads to Lawful Stupid paladins and Chaotic Stupid thieves. And when you use Law vs. Chaos that way, it *always* takes a backseat to Good vs. Evil.

  12. @J.D.

    Thanks for your thoughts. When I have tried my hand at expanding beyond the Lawful-Neutral-Chaos axis (which is, in practice, what I default to), I tend to use your own system of having Law=Civilization and Chaos=Wilderness. Unfortunately, I have never had much luck in implementing it (probably more my fault than the system itself). I must say, though, I really like your take on Lawful=honor, especially in context of an Asian-themed campaign!

    One quibble: Personally, I think Rangers ought to be Lawful in your scheme. They are the vanguard of civilization as it comes into contact with the wilderness and are the natural enemies of Druids, not their allies.

  13. Lawful Good rangers, sure. =) But the only requirement for an AD&D ranger is the Good alignment. So the campaign wound up with Lawful Good rangers who protected civilization (including on of the player characters); Neutral Good rangers who didn't care about it; and Chaotic Good rangers who protected the wilderness *from* human encroachment and occasionally allied with the non-so-nice Chaotic druids.