Understanding Alignments 101 Mar 8, 2022 1:48:37 GMT -8
Post by Mari on Mar 8, 2022 1:48:37 GMT -8
Heyo! It's me again, writing another guide just because I can. Having trouble deciding which alignment is appropriate for your character? Looking to get some more insight into the D&D alignment system from someone who's been there and studied its intracies? Give this guide a read and you should have a better understanding of alignment than most actual D&D players by the time you're done.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
| - The Basics |
- The five forces of alignment
| - Advanced Learning: Alignment Mechanics |
- Advanced Learning: The Super Alignments
What is character alignment?
In D&D, the character alignment chart split into nine alignments exists mostly to show how many steps removed a character is from their chosen deity. Which is mechanically important for divine spellcasters because you don't want an evil cleric worshipping a good deity. In the good old days the rule was that you should only be one step removed from your chosen deity, meaning if your deity was lawful good, you could also be neutral good or lawful neutral--but the rest of the alignment chart was off-limits if you wanted to be say a cleric of that deity and get your spells from them. On our forum though, we don't technically have any mechanical reason to use alignments. They mostly serve the purpose of giving staff insight into how someone views the character they're apping, just one small part of the app review process serving to give us a warning if it's very off from the source material. If someone wants to app a good aligned Infinite, we're not necessarily going to deny them but we are going to ask questions to try and make sure it isn't crack RP y'know?
Onto alignment itself, though. Alignment describes two things about your character: It describes a fundamental part of their approach to solving problems (Law vs Chaos) and their proclivity toward making the world a better or worse place for others. (Good vs Evil). And the underlying concepts there aren't just a D&D thing. They're fairly important thematic elements of writing in general. And if you scroll down to the sections where I go into what each alignment represents, you'll see how. For now though, it might be helpful to think of it as two separate scales: The Morality Scale (Good vs Evil) and the Principality Scale (Law vs Chaos)
Wiggle room and subjectivity
If you discuss alignment with D&D players, you're going to discover an easy trap to run into. The issue of moral subjectivity. You'll hear this brought up a lot by people taking the piss out of anyone trying to question their actions. Was killing that random man really evil? He did glow all red and evil-like when I cast Detect Evil. (See Advanced Learning: False Positives for more on why that's a bad idea) The correct answer to situations like that is to say "Okay, a new target just registered on Detect Evil. It's you. Because what you just did was pretty messed up." They then get the choice to learn from their screwup or get forcefully alignment shifted to match the character they're actually playing if they keep playing that way. The DM decides what is good or evil, with the game offering plenty of clues as to what is intended. But back to subjectivity.
We don't have a single DM governing morality, so that does introduce unavoidable inconsistencies. As a general rule of thumb though, there is enough subjectivity that you can use your own judgement to determine what is good and evil. But not enough wiggle room that your character's personal opinion matters. Thanos is still evil even though he thinks he's doing something absolutely necessary for the greater good. Bowser is not good or neutral even though he frequently helps stop other villains. It gives them nuance as characters, but it shouldn't complicate their alignment. They're both very easy picks for Lawful Evil because of their principled personalities. And if that subjectivity is taken far enough that we have players trying to justify why they set that orphanage on fire, it falls to the staff to set things back on course and correct questionable decisions regarding alignment. And y'know, we're not going to do that unless our arm is being twisted. We want people to be able to tell stories where morally questionable things happen without having a staff member breathing down their neck telling them to change their alignment. It would need to be something pretty bad for staff to even consider stepping in.
So, let's talk about the idea of changing alignments. In D&D, this is a fairly well known concept, but not one that usually comes up. That's because it's really a last resort and a failure state for someone who just isn't playing the alignment they chose for their character. It's less about "Oh you did an evil thing, you're evil now" and more about a pattern of behavior that indicates they simply aren't interested in playing the alignment they chose correctly. And honestly, alignment changes really aren't supposed to be normal. That's not to say they can't happen, but they would represent extreme character development. Here's an example of what kinds of character development would be implied by an alignment shift:
Good --> Neutral: A shift from caring about helping people to being anti-social and only really caring about your friend group
Neutral --> Evil: A shift from just being anti-social to actively seeking to make people's lives worse.
Evil --> Good: A grinch like transformation from someone interested in making people's lives worse to a charitable philanthropist
Law --> Neutral: An abandonment of some of your deeply held principles in favor of being more flexible
Law --> Chaos: An abandonment of all your principles.
Chaos --> Neutral: The discovery of several new lines in the sand you are no longer willing to cross
As you can see, these are not subtle shifts in character. If your character's alignment actually shifts and you're not just correcting a choice you made that you no longer agree with, that should represent a pretty major turning point in character development. For example: If Bowser shifted from Lawful Evil to Chaotic Evil, he would stop performatively designing castles for Mario to traverse and his numerous kidnappings would probably become a lot different because seriously hurting Peach or using her as a hostage would suddenly be on the table. You can thank Bowser's principles for dictating things he simply won't do because assumedly in his view there's a correct way to be evil and he's sticking to it. They're what's keeping those games suitable for kids, basically. And if you're thinking wow, that makes Law sound like aa force of good! Remember that Thanos was the other example. It can be a restraining force that prevents more evil from being done, but that's not inherent to it.
Good, like its evil counterpart, is part of the moral axis of alignment. It is informed primarily by the consequences of your characters actions. Thanos can believe he's doing a good thing by snapping half the universe out of existence, ... but he's not. He simply has a poor moral compass. And we don't live in and shouldn't seek to create worlds where things like omnicide are morally ambiguous. It's not that you can't physically write a story that does that. It's that such a way of viewing the world would be rightly alienating to most readers. It goes against the goal of keeping your writing enjoyable for others.
What makes a character good? Fundamentally, the good alignment is different from the evil alignment because a good character has a tendency to take actions that directly make life better for people and it's different from the moral neutral alignment because a good character doesn't necessarily have to like a character or consider them a part of their friend group to want to help them. The good alignment also has some level of altruism to it. A character that helps a lot of people, but exclusively for their own personal game, is just a neutral character that has decided helping the forces of good is better for business. That isn't to say that you need to be super altruistic to be good aligned. (See the Exalted or Super Good alignment for more on extreme altruism) But you do have to be at least a little bit altruistic to be good. Just a bit.
A weirdly philosophical chaotic good character might say to a lawful good character: "My axiom is making people's lives better, and I don't care what I have to do to make that happen." whereas the lawful good's character's retort might be "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions".
Evil is the other half of the moral axis. Evil is fundamentally about cruelty. An evil character may have many reasons for why they engage in cruelty. They might be a sadist, or they may be driven by hatred to make certain types of people suffer unjustly. Evil is distinct from neutrality because they do not need to have an actual relationship with someone to wish harm upon them, whereas a neutral character--even one that leans toward evil--tends to only engage in evil actions when pushed to do so or otherwise provoked somehow.
Petty criminals are usually not evil, as the amount of suffering they cause is often less than or comparable to the circumstances that lead to them to resort to such behaviors in the first place. Murderers, however, are far more frequently evil aligned, as taking a life outside the context of self-defense is typically a more polarizing action.
However, other actions you might expect to be evil really aren't. It's important to keep in mind our cultural biases and not to conflate cruelty with things that are offensive to our sensibilities. For example, it's generally considered poor form to take a bite out of your neighbor in our society, but animals do that all the time and they're always neutral aligned by virtue of not having the capacity to engage in moral decisions. It's really the implication of killing your neighbor outside the context of self-defense that would make that evil. Yoshi, however, did nothing wrong. And such shenaniganry isn't exactly rare in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Are Pokemon battles evil? By the standards of our society, making your pets fight each other is a bit evil yeah. Even if we're working with the assumption that we have magic medicine that can make wounds go bye-bye like in the pokemon world, the difference between pet fighting and boxing is a matter of consent. And without it, coercing them to fight without a really good reason is going to have a pretty negative effect on their quality of life and generally be considered evil. But that's really not the way that fictional world works. Pokemon aren't animals. They're not only typically smarter than animals, but have an uncanny ability to understand humans which means they actually can communicate they're okay with battling. And while it's definitely weird and morally ambiguous, it's not evil.
If you're dealing with weird stuff like this and you need someone to help you work through the context and analyze it critically to determine whether it's actually evil or just weird/ambiguous, it might not hurt to ask for help. Remember, MOST actions aren't inherently evil without additional context establishing their indefensibility. That's not true of all actions, but the list of actions that are absolutely indefensible is pretty small.
Law is one half of the principality axis, the other being chaos, and in my opinion order would've been a better name of it. Reason being, it has nothing to do with actual laws as we know them colloquially. This is not an uncommon misconception among D&D players, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. If Lawful Good implied subservience to the law and by extension the state that makes and enforces the law, the existence of corrupt politicians and government would make it impossible to be a Lawful Good character in their region. And that's just not the intent behind the Lawful alignment.
What being lawful actually represents is a commitment to order. Which in practice means having and abiding by principles. There is a way the world is supposed to work and a way problems are supposed to be solved, and you'll go out of your way to do it correctly even when it's inconvenient.
Take note, being lawful does not necessarily imply enforcing your principles on others. A lawful character can co-exist with non-lawful characters. They may judge them for failing to live up to their standards, but they can also have a level of tolerance for it. Lawful characters that join parties and then ruin them by being really aggressive about enforcing their principles upon others are often called Lawful Stupid, because their moral codes are so polarizing as to make life difficult for themselves and everyone around them. That makes their moral code a bit dumb, yeah? Lawful characters aren't lawful without reason. They're lawful because they believe there are benefits to living their lives that way. Bowser probably thinks his elaborate castles and corny, over the top plots make him look really awesome and he probably enjoys being that way.
Chaos is the other half of the principality axis, opposite of law. Again, much like law, this has nothing to do with actually following the law. A chaotic character can easily be convinced to obey the law simply because of the existence of law enforcement. Being chaotic doesn't mean you're irrational and will do whatever you want even if you know it's going to put you in jail for years or get a hand chopped off if you're living in that kind of society. (For more on that, see Spite aka Super Chaos)
A chaotic character is defined by a lack of principles. They will turn their backs on everything they claim to believe in if it becomes a burden upon them. If they think they can get away with it and it benefits them enough to bother they'll break promises, burn bridges, and turn the house upside down in an effort to get their way.
Prince Arthas from Warcraft 3 prior to his fall from grace would be a good example of the prototypical chaotic good character. When he learned that the people of stratholme had consumed tainted grains and would soon die, only to be raised as undead slaves to a demon, he entered the city and slaughtered his own people, many of which before they were even dead or turned, because he believed it would be better than allowing them to be raised as undead slaves, who would need to be slain later anyway. And while he was basically correct about that assessment, his hatred borne of being forced to do something so horrific later drove him down a path of revenge that caused him to turn evil, ultimately doing far more harm than the good he did by giving his people a somewhat merciful end. That kind of story where the path to hell is paved with good intentions is typically the reason lawful characters view chaotic characters with distaste. In comparison, chaotic characters typically view lawful characters as ineffectual, snobs, or tyrants depending on the flavor of lawful, unwilling to do what needs to be done.
And to some extent, that criticism isn't unwaranted. Chaos does not necessarily lead toward evil, and sometimes it takes someone willing to be flexible and to do what needs to be done to make the world better. But at the same time, Chaotic Evil characters are probably the prototypical monsters of the alignment chart, those guided by an urge to cause suffering and a willingness to do anything to make it happen. Psychologically speaking, chaotic evil is the alignment of the insane and the cartoonishly/stupidly evil.
Chaotic Neutral gets a bad rap for being the alignment of 'do whatever you want'. And while it can certainly be used that way--...and is used that way fairly frequently, it doesn't have to be that way. (See more on neutrality below) A more coherent analysis of Chaotic Neutral would be someone who is loyal to their friend groups more than any overarching concept of good or evil, and whom is only interested in being able to co-exist with the people they like on a personal level.
There are three valid interpetations of neutrality. The first is the concept of being unaligned. You're somewhere inbetween good and evil or between law and chaos, or perhaps between them all, and you simply lack the moral agency or a commitment to any particular way of approaching problems. This is typical of animals and other creatures who don't really have the intelligence to comprehend morality the way we do and act only in their self interest.
The second is selfishness. Some characters always act out of their own self interest by choice. Note that everyone acts out of self-interest sometimes. It's only when that's their modus operandi that it becomes an argument for neutrality. Also note that when I say self-interest, I am speaking from an externally consistent view of doing what's best from themselves. Not whatever goals they have interest in pursuing. A subset of this is people whose actions are informed by their friend/in group. They might tolerate evil just because they have friends they like who engage in evil behaviors, or half-heartedly assist good characters for similar reasons. And their relationship with principles is inconsistent. They may try to hold onto their principles when it's not much of an inconvenience to them (Ex: refusing to fight girls) but then break them once they're actually pressured to. (They get attacked by a girl or threatened with being fired from their weird co-ed boxing job if they don't).
The third valid interpretation of neutrality is a focus upon philosophical balance. They might view the four corners of the alignment chart (Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Evil, and Chaotic Evil) as being extremists, and they might see themselves as being enlightened by their commitment to flexibility, able to hold to their principles when it's important or bend them when it isn't, or able to engage in evil behaviors when they believe it's subjectively called for. Does that sound a bit pretentious? Yeah, but there are definitely people like that.
The original lore behind alignments
Originally in D&D Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos were not just concepts but forces of the universe. You could hurt people with energies aligned with them; think burning undead with holy water only there's evil water, lawful water, and chaotic water. You could have swords aligned with these elements, or in some cases you could become such a force for your alignment that your very fists became aligned weapons.
Actions aligned with these alignments could stain your very soul like ink. And the more strongly aligned the action is, the greater a stain it creates. This is how one "becomes" good, evil, etcetera, as babies aren't typically born with the capacity for moral agency. While one stain isn't (often) enough to change the color of your entire soul, they add up, and one has to do opposed actions to repent for them and cover that stain.
Not only that, but more severe alignment stains can stain the world itself. That's how things like haunted houses after a grisly murder happen. And when gods of certain alignments come down from the heavens, they tend to stain the world around them. A lawful god might cause the clouds to become orderly squares in the sky, for example. An evil god might cause it to start raining blood. And of course, horrifically largescale events corresponding to a certain alignment such as say genocide have alignment footprints so large that they can permanently taint large areas and anyone who witnesses them, sometimes with grisly effects. If you've got a heavy enough taint you might start to burn people with your touch. Or you might outright die only to come back in an undead form!
Neutrality, in comparison, leaves no stain on anything.
There are two methods of detecting alignments. The first and arguably easier method would be to detect the aforementioned stains left by aligned actions and energies. It's like turning on a blacklight to search for forensic evidence. There's just a few problems with this method. For one it's prone to false positives (See below) and two it can't detect neutrality. So if you're trying to detect evil, chaotic neutral won't register at all. And there isn't a way to detect neutrality. You can only surmise neutrality by the lack of other stains. But that also leaves room for false positives.
The second method is divination and mind-reading. These are more reliable (though not completely) but are less readily available. In D&D they require higher level spells typically. But even these can be fooled by countermeasures. For every spell that detects alignment, there's another that hides it. And how are you supposed to know the difference between that and simply being neutral? You could attack them and find a way to peel away whatever's protecting them from being analyzed, but at that point you've already played your hand and seeing theirs probably isn't going to help you much.
So, as mentioned before, the stain of alignments can taint anything, including the world itself. That also includes innocents nearby. Imagine this. You're people's champion Freddy Fazbear slaying demons to protect the world from an invasion from Hell for weeks, only to come back and get mobbed by the very people you were trying to protect because you've developed a powerful evil aura that made them think you were a demon in disguise. How'd that happen? As it turns out, wading through an ocean of demon blood you spilled while fighting them left a bit of a stain on you and it's going to take a while to wear off. You didn't do anything wrong. It just takes a bit more than soap and water to get that blood out.
The same goes for being hit by an evil spell. Oh the villain blasted you with blackfire and you survived? Congratulations! Just don't act surprised if your neighbor who happens to be a paladin seems to know something's up and won't stop giving you funny looks until you tell him.
Heck, there are even spells that can just... falsify your alignment instead of hiding it. Ultimately, there isn't a way to be sure of someone's alignment. And a player who runs around killing people because they detected their alignment is absolutely asking for any punishment you give them. These aren't mechanics we see too much on site though, mostly because we're a bit skewed toward combat rather than puzzles and social missions. But you certainly could!
Remember how I said enough alignment taint could kill you? That mostly applies to evil taint because of its relationship with undeath. But the fact remains that copious amounts of alignment taint can have supernatural effects upon witnesses. When genocides happen in the world of D&D, nobody is spared the consequences. Entire regions of the world become barren, with persistent evil weather hovering overhead. Witnesses go mad. Sometimes they deform in a horrific fashion. Animals may intuitively begin avoiding the perpetrators, as if they have secret knowledge of what they've done. It's basically the D&D equivalent of nuclear fallout.
Although it is not detailed in any official D&D books, you can sort of surmise that other alignments could have mirrored effects upon the world in excess. Good in particular is hinted to be able to do some pretty crazy things in excess, though not to the same extent evil is. And obviously less horrifying by our standards.
Yeah yeah, D&D this D&D that, how do you apply this to the site? ...Well, the starvia for starters. It's an evil corrupting force. Can you have a good corrupting force? Yeah technically. Lawful? Chaos? Yup. Have you considered how a corrupting force could inject a little fun into your roleplay? Perhaps as a problem in need of solving? What if you had a chaotic corrupting force that caused someone to discreetly start losing their inhibitions and violating their principles without necessarily acting evil? Imagine how troubling that could be for people who knew them well enough to understand the difference.
In addition to the stock alignments most people are familiar with, there are also Super Alignments! These are lesser known and aren't in every edition of D&D. Just the good ones. And frankly, they aren't really important! They offer some fun roleplaying options and feat choices if you're playing D&D though. Basically, the super alignments are all the regular alignments taken to their extremes. Only Exalted Good and Vile Evil are official, so I wound up making up Super Lawful and Super Chaos just to complete the alignment chart, since conceptually there's no reason they couldn't exist. Super variants of all alignments except True Neutral exist. Though you cannot combine multiple super alignments.
Super Good (Exalted)
Super Good, or Exalted Good as it's known, is good taken to its most extreme. And it does that introducing a heavy emphasis on altruism and a bit of emphasis on reform, sacrifice, pacificism, and the greater good as opposed to killing all your problems. In D&D you can become a saint by taking this path, which grants incredible holy powers. Other exalted paths include having powerful bonds with fey, becoming an outsider/celestial, serving celestial powers for benefits, gaining holy powers to smite evil, and enhancing your already existing abilities with new thematic ones, as well as holy vows such as vows of poverty, chastity, peace, all that good stuff.
Super Evil (Vile)
Super Evil, or Vile Evil as it's known, is evil taken to its most extreme. It does this by leaning into some combination of themes of corruption, deformities--sometimes intentional, disease, perversion, sacrifices, undeath, and using souls as fuel. To put it concisely, by the nature of being as evil as possible, Vile Evil conceptually touches on topics I couldn't even broach on this forum. The book that introduced it is one of the few official D&D books marked for adults only and for pretty good reason. But what we can talk about is the general theme of deteriorating humanity, body horror and desecration of souls. Destroying souls is considered the greatest individual evil possible in D&D, meaning it's the worst thing you can do to a single person. Why? It denies them their afterlife, stealing them from the gods. Body horror ranges from your typical super ugly syndrome to a diseased appearance to glowing green (the designated color of corruption of course), to grafting other body parts onto your body. Ever wanted four arms? ...That's messed up, but you do you man!
Super Law (Purity of Heart)
Super Law, or as I've dubbed it purity of heart, is law taken to its most extreme. Someone who is pure of heart will never compromise on their principles no matter how hard they are pushed. Generally speaking, we think of good-aligned people when we think of purity of heart. However, it's helpful to ask the question "Pure What?" and remember that even beyond that, there are a great many stories about supposedly innocent and pure-hearted people being manipulated into doing bad things without realizing it. And there's also the issue of them simply being wrong. You could make the argument that Thanos was Pure of Heart. Pure Evil, of course. But pure none-the-less. He definitely believed he was doing the right thing on some principled level, and he was so committed to his principles he sacrificed, in his own words, everything to do what he thought would make the universe a better place. In the end, it is simply a matter of his principle beliefs being incorrect that led him toward evil.
Super Chaos (Spite)
Super Chaos, or as I've dubbed it spite, is chaos taken to its most extreme. Someone of the spite alignment is motivated by contrarianism and, well... spite for the world around them. Dogs are popular? Congratulations, they hate dogs now. Most of the wealth is owned by the wealthy elite? Let's break into their homes and steal it. And then break into several other poorer people's homes just to plant it there and give it to them. They are the source of endless hipster gags and endless contempt for the status quo, often going out of their way to mess with people's expectations just for the sake of it. By their nature, super chaos aligned characters tend to be easily manipulated and a tad pretentious if you ask me. And yet, of all the super alignments, this one is probably the closest to being common in real life! You probably know multiple people strongly motivated by spite. It is a famously powerful motivator, after all. It's also kind of a goofy super alignment as compared to the others, with plenty of comedic potential. Fey are prototypically disposed to this alignment.
Last Edit: Mar 8, 2022 8:05:01 GMT -8 by Mari