Dungeons & Dragons is known for a lot of things. Elven Warriors fighting against floating eyeballs. Magical musicians that want to sleep with any living creature. Edgelord orphans who’s parents were killed by orcs, and was raised on the streets, and can never trust anyone again. But one of the most common things from this game that has reached the public consciousness, is the alignment chart.
Of course, just like everything in this game, eventually it was seen as an unnecessary aspect of character creation, and even a hindrance to the stories we could tell. So let’s take a look at where Alignment began, and how it can be used today.
In the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the alignment chart was less of a chart, and just three options: Lawful, Chaotic, and Neutral. At this point, the classic fantasy characters that Gary Gygax was trying to emulate were characters that weren’t necessarily good or evil. Characters like Conan, who’s mission was to fight monsters, and get treasure, to become more powerful, to fight bigger monsters, and get better treasure. So the goals and mission of your Player Character wasn’t a notable point, but instead the question was How did you go about doing it? Did you follow a law of honor and ethics, or did you rebel against the laws of man, caring only for the laws of nature?
With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax added the Good vs. Evil spectrum, making the alignment chart the 5 categories: Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil, and Neutral.
Many questions continue to arise regarding what constitutes a “lawful” act, what sort of behavior is “chaotic”, what constituted an “evil” deed, and how certain behavior is “good”. There is considerable confusion in that most dungeonmasters construe the terms “chaotic” and “evil” to mean the same thing, just as they define “lawful” and “good” to mean the same. This is scarcely surprising considering the wording of the three original volumes of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. When that was written they meant just about the same thing in my mind — notice I do not say they were synonymous in my thinking at, that time.Gary Gygax, The Meaning of Law and Chaos in Dungeons & Dragons and Their Relationships to Good and Evil, 1976
It wasn’t until 3rd Edition that we got the nine squares we are so familiar with today, including the Neutral Good, Neutral Evil, Lawful Neutral, and Lawful Chaotic, which elevated Neutral to True Neutral.
Interestingly, along with many of the other radical changes made in 4th Edition, Alignment was brought back down to five options, Lawful Good, Good, Neutral, Evil, Chaotic Evil. This, along with many other aspects of 4e, were disliked by fans, and left behind when the 5th Edition was made.
As mentioned before, a lot of modern D&D fans don’t like the alignment system, as it constricts a lot of available player choices (like Chaotic Paladins), and can prescribe hurtful stereotypes (those people are always evil). I don’t want to completely abandon alignment, so I use alignment as two different systems, which both use the same word.
To be fair, how many different parts of D&D call things “Levels” (character progression, spell strength, dungeon depth, etc).
The first part of alignment, and how it was more often seen in classic D&D, was the idea of a Cosmic Energy. In almost every D&D setting, there are multiple deities, or gods, who rule over the world, and have even created alternate planes of existence, each inhabited by creatures native to that plane. When a god creates a plane, and the creatures within, they are naturally infused with a cosmic energy that resembles that god. So, when a demon is Chaotic Evil, it is because it was created using Chaotic Evil energy, from a Chaotic Evil god, and is from a Chaotic Evil plane of existence. It isn’t necessarily about the individual demon’s worldview, though it is usually safe to assume that the demon will follow their respective god.
This is why there are spells like Detect Good and Evil, or Detect Law and Chaos, because you are identifying the Cosmic Energy itself. Similarly to this, some magic items require attunement, and that attunement may be restricted. For example, the Moonblade requires attunement, and is restricted to either an Elf or Half-Elf, and they must be of Neutral Good Alignment. In this case, I would consider this to be someone who is infused with Neutral Good Cosmic Energy, perhaps a Paladin or other person of faith of a Neutral Good god, or maybe someone who has spent significant time in a Neutral Good plane of existence.
The other way to use Alignment, which is more along the lines that most people think of alignment, is in a description of your character. Some people think that if they have a “Lawful Good” character, that they cannot do anything that is not within the lines of that alignment, but I think of it another way.
The way I see Alignment, is if when you created your character, and they started on their adventuring career, if you notice that you are doing things that aren’t Lawful Good, why is that? Perhaps your worldview has been altered as you’ve traveled the world and see the horrors that lie in the darkness. After a while, acknowledging that your character has a new alignment would be a fun way of bringing to light the challenges you’ve faced in the campaign, and how it’s changing who you are as a person.
Also, there are Curses in D&D that affect alignment, as well as a variety of other characteristics. Well, if you describe your character as Lawful Good, and you are cursed to be Chaotic, it’s easier for you to know what to change, rather than just “being” more chaotic.