Alignment and D&D (Part 2)

In 1977, the D&D Basic Set and the AD&D Core Rules introduced Good and Evil as a second alignment axis. By 1981, D&D Basic would go back to single axis alignment, but AD&D would stick with two axis alignment until 2008. This would be the alignment system that would permeate into the broader popular culture.

Law and Chaos were pretty straightforward, everyone was familiar with the distinction between order and disorder, organization and entropy, law and anarchy. Good and Evil, though, would prove problematic almost immediately out of the gate. Single societies throughout history couldn’t agree on the true nature of good and evil, let alone the broad global consensus that SHOULD result from good and evil being cosmic forces, as hard-coded into the universe as entropy, gravity, or mass.

Poison was evil – which made every South American society that used tree frog poison on their darts evil.

Slavery was evil – which made every bronze age society in existence evil.

Good got short shrift – in most campaigns, “good” was the absence of evil acts. Paladins who tried to be actively good would face censure from parties for “being dicks” and “having sticks up their asses”. It was hard to reconcile the default “murder hobo” style of play most games saw with the Judeo-Christian morality that was the default morality most players were familiar with.

Tying the outer planes – the afterlives – to this alignment system, cemented the idea that there was an external, cosmic “good” and “evil” that existed above and apart from any society’s viewpoint, and planted the seeds for alignment being seen as a straitjacket.


Alignment and D&D (part 1)

In the original D&D, ‘alignment’ was lifted pretty much wholesale from the works of Michael Moorcock and his Eternal Champion framework. It was just Law – Neutrality – Chaos, and alignment meant you had straight up sworn allegiance to the great cosmic forces, the Gods of Law or the Gods of Chaos. Hence, you had alignment tongues, in the same way any ancient secret society had a private language they could use to exclude outsiders. Hence, you had Clerics who actually had to negotiate with actual NPC angels, demons, saints, and spirits to gain spells*. Hence, breaking alignment saw harsh and immediate penalties for Paladins (once they existed in the game).

Neutrality introduced the first problem of many that alignment would face over the years. Unlike “Aligned to Chaos!” or “Aligned with Law!”, Neutrality covered two entirely different conceptual spheres – there was the element representing Moorcock’s “Balance,” and there was the element representing animals and entities who lacked the intelligence or inclination to be aligned with anything, let’s call it “Unaligned”. Druids were meant to represent Balance, as made evident by a goodly portion of the text. But Elementals were neutral because they simply weren’t on the alignment axis, they were self-evidently Unaligned. But both were nature-themed and both were Neutral, so the faint distinction Gygax applied in the text, assuming everyone playing his game would be totally familiar with Moorcock’s fiction and so would “get it” without being talked down to, began to disappear entirely.

Because alignment was a single axis, it was much easier for a DM to track behavior and simulate a cosmic being actually keeping an eye on their sworn servants. Because it represented belonging to a kind of organization, arbitrary restrictions and weird consequences made sense within the framework. Because Gygax was more concerned with making mechanical distinctions between 23 different kinds of pole-arm than with character motivations and story arcs, there were almost no rules whatsoever devoted to alignment.

And if you just want to kill things and take their stuff, that’s okay. But somewhere along the line, D&D got more ambitious.



* From the AD&D 1st Edition DMG:

“the character is dedicated to this deity and is able to perform as a cleric thereof. It is this background which enables the cleric character to use first level spells. …continued service and activity on behalf of the player character’s deity empower him or her to use second level spells as well, but thereafter another agency must be called upon. Cleric spells of third, fourth, and fifth level are obtained through the aid of supernatural servants of the cleric’s deity… Cleric spells of sixth and seventh level are granted by direct communication from the deity itself.”