While many things continue into modern times from the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, most of them have either disappeared or shifted so much that anyone who played back in 1974 would find the modern iteration all but unrecognizable (and likely complain about how it had been ruined). Gone are the charts required to determine if a certain roll hit a certain armor class (and the incomprehensible design choice of making lower AC’s better–why did it take 25 years for someone to reverse that particular logic?). Saving throws have been consolidated down, simplified, and modified to actually take into account how dangerous the thing causing the saving throw is. Nonhuman races are no longer classes, the level caps for nonhuman races are gone, and the races a person can play aren’t taken directly from a Tolkien story. And a longsword, shield, and plate armor are no longer the clearly superior combination of equipment for all fighters. —
One thing that still exists, largely unaltered in 45 years of revisions and play, is the alignment system. Though originally just one axis (lawful through chaotic), the alignment chart has remained essentially unchanged since the second axis (good through evil) was added almost 45 years ago when Advanced Dungeon & Dragons came out in 1977. While it got a significant overhaul in 4th edition, like most things from 4th edition, the changes were abandoned by 5th edition. In fact, it has been such an integral part of the game for so long that people who have been playing long enough start seeing the abbreviations everywhere. For example, I always wonder for a moment how something can be Chaotic AND Neutral AND Good when I see the Compressed Natural Gas logo on the back of a car.
The crux of the alignment chart is to determine a character’s attitude about themselves, society, and the world along the two axes. Simple enough in and of itself, and an idea that is so popular that versions have popped up in both tabletop RPGs and video games, in one form or fashion. The Palladium system had alignments, for example, though they were standalone rather than on axes. These alignments were even more limiting than those in the “standard” alignment system, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to find one that fit a character concept.
There was an entire line of Star Wars video games that tracked whether or not a character was drifting toward the light or dark side, including advantages and disadvantages for being on one end or the other or right in the middle.
I always wonder for a moment how something can be Chaotic AND Neutral AND Good when I see the Compressed Natural Gas logo on the back of a car.
The ubiquity of the alignment system is strange, because it is arguably the least well-defined and least functional system in D&D or any of its numerous offspring. If you got nine different gamers together and asked them to describe the alignment system and define the alignments, you would get nine different answers. Perhaps ironically, you could then place these nine different answers on an alignment chart (and get nine different answers about whether or not your placements were accurate).
Even determining which alignments represent the best and worst possibilities is up for debate. While the neutral alignments are just that and no one would suggest they’re paragons of right or wrong (though some might suggest the middle path is the best), the question of whether a person who obeys all laws and is good (Lawful Good) is better than someone who cares more about the greater good than following all the rules (Chaotic Good) is a matter of opinion. We’ll call this the “Superman vs. Batman” question. Just as questionable is whether it is the person who eschews all order with no care for others (Chaotic Evil) or the person who only wants there to be laws that they control and that benefit them (Lawful Evil) is the worse sort of villain. This would be the “Joker vs. Darkseid” argument.
And the cultural norms underlying morality are constantly shifting, so even examples made at one point in time are no longer considered viable in another. For example, the creator of the alignment chart, Gary Gygax, apparently said that it was acceptable for a Lawful Good paladin to kill kobold babies because they were just going to grow up to be kobolds, an idea that is horrifying to most modern gamers and would be considered Chaotic Evil.
None of this would be an issue, were the alignments firmly established with objective rules in place the way things like spells and weapon attacks are. But since what a player may think fits with a particular alignment and what a game master thinks fits with a particular alignment could be completely different, a player could be subjected to a ruling with no real recourse to rules–which might be surprising to both. Debates about rules are common, and the usual rule is that the GM has final say, but this system is almost entirely objective.
This would also not be an issue if the alignment system only existed as an aide to role playing, but that is not the case. Several mechanics–from the damage weapons do, to how spells affect targets, to whether or not a character is even eligible for some options–hinge on a character’s alignment, and if a character has chosen a certain option then behaved in a way the GM thought was opposed to the character’s alignment, the character could lose out on abilities and become unbalanced compared to other characters.
Yet there is something so evocative and inviting about being able to break down a person’s whole personality into a couple of dimensions. All sorts of alignments get made up. Lawful Annoying, Neutral Jerk, and my personal favorite, Chaotic Stupid, which was once used to describe a player whose Chaotic Evil character went through an entire dungeon with a 10-footladder strapped to his back but didn’t use it until the characters got back to town and never once did anything even rude, let alone chaotic or evil.
I would say they’re the Myers-Briggs charts of memes, but Myers-Briggs charts are the Myers-Briggs charts of memes.
Perhaps this is the very allure that explains the otherwise baffling fact that the system has not only stayed a part of Dungeons & Dragons so long but also has wormed its way out into other systems and beyond into the larger world of pop culture.
You can find an alignment chart for pretty much anything. A quick search pulls up ones for gift-giving, what components are required to make something a sandwich, and texting techniques and etiquette. I would say they’re the Myers-Briggs charts of memes, but Myers-Briggs charts are the Myers-Briggs charts of memes.
And they are commonly distributed by people who not only have never touched a polyhedral die, let alone actually played D&D, but would likely consider D&D some form of devil worship and would be horrified to know that they’re passing on anything based on such satanism.
But then, it is probably the same things that makes the alignment chart so troublesome in a complex game system bounded by specific rules that makes them so appealing in the wider world. They are a way to quickly and visually break things down into finer components than just “there are two types of people in the world” generalizations, but not actually detailed enough to truly analyze things. The fact that there’s at least some aspect of them that is invariably thrown in as a joke (usually what is defined as Chaotic Evil) only makes them more popular.
So, the next time your Aunt Marjory sends you an alignment chart meme, ask her if she wants to join your Thursday night game session and find out if she’s Lawful Cool or Chaotic Clueless.
*If you have comments or opinions about alignment charts, or thoughts on your aunt Marjory being chaotic evil, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.