A creature's general moral and personal attitudes are represented by its alignment. All creatures have an alignment. Alignment determines the effectiveness of some spells and magic items.
Animals and other creatures incapable of moral action are neutral. Even deadly vipers and tigers that eat people are neutral because they lack the capacity for morally right or wrong behavior. Dogs may be obedient and cats free-spirited, but they do not have the moral capacity to be truly lawful or chaotic.
The alignment system is a two-dimensional grid, one axis of which measures a "moral" continuum between good and evil, and the other "ethical" between law and chaos. Those characters that fall on one of the extremes are "good" or "evil", "lawful" or "chaotic"; in addition, there is a middle ground of "neutrality" on both axes, describing characters that are indifferent, committed to balance, or conflicted about the struggle between good and evil (or law and chaos).
By combining the two axes, any given character has one of nine possible alignments:
- Lawful good
- Neutral good
- Chaotic good
- Lawful neutral
- True Neutral
- Chaotic neutral
- Lawful evil
- Neutral evil
- Chaotic evil
Law vs. Chaos is an interesting concept - it reflects something about the nature of the universe which the Good vs. Evil dynamic doesn't, in my opinion. Good and Evil may or may not exist, depending on your worldview, but there's nothing particularly profound about the opposition between the two; it's essentially QED. Law vs. Chaos, on the other hand, hits on something deep and true about the lives of human beings.
That is, our lives as we live them are to all intents and purposes governed by Chaos. In the naivest terms, we never know, when we get up in the morning, what is going to happen that day; in the more complex sense, the world is governed by a multitude of random factors and quasi random factors (like the weather, which may not strictly be random because there is some method behind the system even if it is beyond our ken, but which is random in the only sense that matters - we can't really predict it) which make it impossible for us to adequately understand as a whole. This is true for the most banal situations (my train may be late tomorrow but I can never know in advance, and if nobody tells me why, it may as well have been because somebody rolled a dice and decided it should be so); it's also true for the most important ones (the economy, your own physical and mental health, earthquakes; we don't know why earthquakes happen when they do and we don't know why one smoker will develop lung cancer where another doesn't, so the reason may as well be randomness).
But the universe itself is a profoundly Lawful place; indeed it is the very essense of Lawfulness - this is why we talk about The Laws of Physics when we discuss the fundamental nature of things. Again, this is true in both very banal and very important senses. If I drop an apple and there is nothing to stop it, it will fall to the floor. If you add two to two you will get four. If you mix sodium and water you will get an explosion.
This dynamic - the interplay between Law and Chaos, Predictability and Randomness, Known and Unknown - also has more interesting philosophical dimensions than Good vs. Evil, because Law and Chaos are both neutral propositions. It doesn't make sense to say that Chaos is Bad, just because a sudden snowstorm delays your flight and makes you late for a meeting, because next year a sudden snowstorm might delay your flight and lead you to meet the love of your life. Similarly, it wouldn't make sense to curse the laws of physics and call them bad if somebody dropped an anvil from a sixth floor window onto your head - Damn you, Gravity! - because the laws of physics, indirectly, might be what save your life; knowing about them is what allowed human beings to construct the combustion engine and thus the ambulance that takes you to the hospital.
The idea that there might be Gods of Chaos and Gods of Law and that they are locked in conflict therefore doesn't strike me as a preposterous notion - it makes sense in my gut, because it reflects the nature of life as we know it. (To make it clear, I don't actually believe it to be the case; just, if somebody told me that people in Timbuktu did, I wouldn't find it counterintuitive.) There is such a thing as Law and there is such a thing as Chaos and they interact in all manner of ways, and it is a short step from there to the preposition that they are in dynamic conflict.
Good vs. Evil is a different kettle of fish. We know that we like Good better than Evil. More importantly, we also know that Evil is always what the other person is doing. I'm of the opinion that, objectively, some acts are Evil, but the perpetrators of those acts never think in those terms. The Final Solution didn't come about because the Nazis wanted to be Evil. It came about because the Nazis thought that Jewish people were Evil. The act itself was an Evil one, but it didn't arise from any diametric conflict between two fundamentally opposed philosophical schools - it wasn't about the Nazis fighting for the cause of Evil against Good. In their own twisted logic it was the opposite.
The idea of an explicit Good vs. Evil conflict in the world, then - that there are Gods of Good and Gods of Evil and that they battle for the cosmos - seems fundamentally ridiculous and unbelievable in a sense that Law vs. Chaos doesn't. Because what God, and what follower of a God, would explicitly campaign for the cause of "Evil"? It makes no sense; it's artificial; if you think about it for even a second it just doesn't seem like anything approaching a fit for how the world works and what motivates people.
Now, I can sense some of you forming an argument in your mind that goes something like this: "Good and Evil can still exist even if they don't have explicit proponents. Maybe Sauron doesn't believe he's Evil and thinks he's Good; that doesn't preclude the existence of Evil and a conflict between it and Good - Sauron is just mistaken." You're right of course. But I think you'll recognise my fundamental point, which is that followers of Law and Chaos (if they existed) would be able to announce, outright, that they are a Follower of Law or a Follower of Chaos in a way that makes sense, whereas nobody no matter how steeped in sin would ever be able to openly claim themselves a Follower of Evil and be believable as a person. This in my opinion makes Good vs. Evil a weak and artificial conflict of forces for a fantasy cosmology, and Law vs. Chaos a compelling and believable one.
In Early Germanic Law, a similar problem (how to deal with the patchwork of wildly different cultures found through the Holy Roman Empire) was circumnavigated by treating every man in accordance with the laws of his own people. Even if a Frank and a Burgundian committed identical crimes, their treatment would vary according to their specific 'racial' law. It wouldn't be hard to imagine a similar system existing in a fantasy state in which elves, dwarves, humans and halflings lived side by side. What follows is a dreamt-up overview of a set of legal systems for a place called Sachsenpiegel, which I've just made up. It is an ordinary bog-standard fantasy kingdom in which the population is equally divided between humans, elves, dwarves and hobbits.
Because humans are the least well educated of the four races in Sachsenspiegel and most of them are illiterate, their law is also the least codified and it relies heavily on custom and precedent. It is enforced by traveling judges, who move from town to town and village to village, hearing complaints and making decisions according to their own analysis, and according to precedent set in similar cases which they have heard about and memorised. They enforce their own decisions, and they are usually very powerful wizards or clerics who are strong enough to carry out required punishments, whatever form they take. Once a year every judge in Sachsenspiegel gets together at a great moot, where they exchange experiences, ideas and judgements.
Dwarfish Law is based on the concept of the 'Maegth' - everything is regulated by laws of kinship, and everyone within an extended clan is responsible for everybody else. If a member of a clan has committed a crime, all the members of his clan pay restitution and accept punishment. Likewise, if a crime is committed against a member of a clan, all the other members get together to demand (or enact) retribution. This system can result in very harmonious relations if clans are prepared to keep their members in line. But it can quickly spiral into tit-for-tat blood feuds spanning generations if justice is not perceived to have been done in a particular case.
Elven law consists of a set of simple guidelines for behaviour, based heavily on the concept of harmony. Because elves consider each other basically trustworthy and incapable of intentionally committing a crime, any transgression is viewed as having been accidental and repentance and forgiveness are expected on the part of the transgressor and victim respectively. Punishment is only enacted for refusal to repent or refusal to forgive; refusal to repent can result in anything from a fine to ostracism, whereas refusal to forgive generally results in milder sentences.
Hobbit Law is molded by the character of hobbits themselves. The little people like nothing better than poring over books, holding long and intricate discussions, and taking their time mulling over decisions. This makes hobbit law highly codified, extremely arcane, and almost inexplicable to outsiders. Trials typically last for months or even years except in the most clear cut cases, as the two parties, their representatives, and the judges argue the cases and discuss fine (extremely fine) details. Often the two parties (transgressor and victim) will compare notes and ideas very civilly over the existing statutes, precedents and records and what they all mean, and will reach a mutually acceptable decision together with the judges. Clouds of pipe smoke and the the thick smell of beer accompany almost all hobbit legal proceedings.
Interaction of the different systems
In the case of a crime in which the transgressor and victim are of different races, the guilty party is tried in accordance with their own law. This often results in problems, particularly in cases in which an elf 'accidentally' commits a crime against a human or dwarf - as people of those races are unlikely to accept the route of forgiveness.
Such cases are resolved by a council of eight legal elders - two from each of the races, appointed by their respective communities. Together they hash out decisions regarding inter-racial crimes, and generally speaking their decisions are abided by. In the case of further argument, both parties to a case have recourse to the king, whose decision is final.
In understanding the Nine Alignments (Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Good, True Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Evil), one must first understand one, simple, basic concept: Motive. This is often overlooked. One cannot assign alignment to a person or action without knowing motive. For instance, stealing is usually considered 'evil.' But what if you steal bread to feed your starving family? What about Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor? These distinctions can only be made with motive in mind.
If you remember nothing else about alignment, please remember that.
The second biggest problem in understanding alignment is to properly define the five cores: Good, Evil, Neutrality, Law, and Chaos. All of the nine alignments are made of some combination of these five. The first word in an alignment deals with Law and Chaos. The second word in an alignment deals with Good and Evil (e.g., Lawful Evil).
You would think these five cores would have deep, complex definitions. They do not. They are so simple, I will post them right here and now.
Law - To live by a set of rules (Order) Chaos - To live by whim and choice (Freedom) Good - To help others (Altruism) Evil - To help yourself at the cost of hurting others (Selfishness) Neutrality - To maintain the balance between the other four cores
Pretty simple, huh? The real confusion comes with the word 'neutral,' however. Because really, it has two definitions: The one given above only applies to the True Neutral alignment. In any of the other alignments, if you see the word 'neutral', it means, basically, 'not applicable.'
Remember I said that the first word in alignment regards Law and Chaos, and the second word regards Good and Evil, right? So Neutral Good is not someone who is both good and neutral. That makes no sense. No, it is someone who is neutral regarding Law and Chaos, but is still good. In other words, Law and Chaos hold no meaning to a Neutral Good person. Likewise, Good and Evil hold no meaning to a Chaotic Neutral person.
Another way to look at it is that the four 'partially neutral' alignments (Neutral Good, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Neutral and Lawful Neutral) are actually true alignments. Think of them as True Good, True Evil, True Chaos and True Law.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's take a look at Law. Law is order. It brings civilization and peace. However, too much law takes away choice and free will. One of the biggest misconceptions with Law is that it only applies to government law. This is not the case! A lawful person simply lives by a set of rules. Whether they be the laws set down by the government, the dogma of a church, the rules of an organization or simply a personal moral code--if a person lives by a set of detailed rules, they are lawful.
There are three Lawful alignments: Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, and Lawful Evil. Lawful Neutral is the easiest alignment to play, in my opinion, because it leaves no room for moral dilemmas. There is a clear cut, set of rules that state what is right and wrong. Morality doesn't even play into it. For instance, a person who believes smoking marijuana is wrong only because it's illegal but would change their mind if it was legalized would be Lawful Neutral. For a LN, the law (in whatever form it takes) is always right. If the law says its okay to have slaves, then it is. If the law says murder is wrong, then it is. Good and Evil do not come into play.
A Lawful Good person is someone who believes that law and good go hand-in-hand. Laws are created with people's safety and well being in mind. It's against the law to park in front of a fire hydrant, because it blocks fire engines and they need those to save lives. Judaism states its wrong to eat pork because pork was not all that safe to eat back then. To a Lawful Good person, society needs laws to grow and prosper, but these laws must be there to help people. A law that hurt people would not sit well with an LG person. LG can be hard to play, because so often the conflict of doing what is lawful and what is moral often creates dilemmas.
A Lawful Evil person, however, abuses the law or simply abides by laws that benefit himself. A mafia lord may ignore government laws, but he would strictly follow the laws he set down for his criminal buddies (hence the term, "organized crime.") A priest who hates a particular group for personal reasons and tries to use the teachings of his religion to persecute that group also would be LE.
Think you have the idea so far? Let's try an example. Look at the three examples below. Then decide whether they are Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, or Lawful Evil.
- A lawyer who defends his client with all of his might, even though all of the evidence shows he clearly is guilty of murder.
- A traffic cop who insists on ticketing every offense he sees, no matter how minor or trivial it might be.
- A pastor who attempts to legislate laws from his own religion, so that everyone--even those who don't follow his faith--will have to obey his god's dogma
So which is which? Figure it out yet? Is it really easy or really difficult? If you found it very easy, then guess what? You haven't been listening to a damn word I've said. Why? Because all ready you've forgotten the one thing I told you not to forget. MOTIVE. You cannot apply alignment to any of those three examples unless you know why they do what they do.
Does the lawyer honestly believe every man, regardless of evidence, should get a chance to defend himself? Or does he just want to earn some cash and prestige, even if it means letting free a murderer? Or is he just doing his job, seeing that the law is followed to the letter, not caring whether the man is really guilty or innocent? Is the traffic cop so meticulous because he believes someone might get hurt if the law isn't followed to the letter? Is he just doing his job? Or did he have a bad day, and now he's making himself feel better by punishing others? Does the pastor really think he's saving people's souls? Or does he just think his way is the right way and he wishes to stomp out all dissention? Or does he see his dogma as 'the law' and just believes that 'the law' should always be followed, regardless of faith?
Now back to the essay. Next up is Chaos. What is Chaos? Chaos is Freedom. Chaos is Choice: The ability to do what you want, to think what you want, to feel and believe as you wish. However, too much chaos brings anarchy. Society crumbles and it's every man for himself without any Law at all.
There are three Chaotic Alignments: Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, and Chaotic Evil. A Chaotic Neutral person believes that no set of rules or laws can possibly apply to every given situation. Laws are rigid and binding and take away freedom. He acts on whim, on instinct, or even on the roll of the dice.
Chaotic Good is someone who believes in freedom and in helping others. While LG believes that laws are good for society, CG believes they hinder. The forces of good should not be tied down by a set of arbitrary rules. If Good is in anyway hindered, then Evil might just get the upper hand. Thus, CG dedicates themselves to helping people regardless of what any law, dogma, or code states.
Chaotic Evil is someone who takes freedom to a twisted extreme. As Evil itself is more or less, pure selfishness, throwing Chaos into the mix really makes a volatile combination. A Chaotic Evil person believes that they should be allowed to do whatever they want to help themselves, even at the cost of hurting others. They abhor rules, and always want to do everything their way. This, of course, makes it difficult for CE characters to work together.
Now let's talk Good. Good is, very simply, helping others. Many people will have different definitions of 'Good.' But when you cut out all of the politics, Good at its core is just helping as many people as possible. It is pure altruism.
There are three Good Alignments: Lawful Good, Neutral Good, and Chaotic Good. Neutral Good is True Good--pure benevolence. A NG does not care about law or chaos, order or freedom. These things do not get taken into account. All a NG cares about is whether people are healthy, happy, and well treated. For instance, let's say a NG came across a slave. Even if slavery is illegal, if the slave were being well-treated, if he was happy, and if he would have no chance of surviving on his own (he has no skills, no one would hire him), the NG would not try to release him. Yes, the slave has no freedom and cannot make choices--however, he'd probably die if put on the streets. Therefore, it would be immoral to free him. On the flip side, if slavery were legal but the slave was being beaten, starved, or worse--the NG would do everything in his power to free the slave.
Evil is the very opposite. Evil is helping yourself by hurting others. Note the second part. Simply helping yourself alone is not evil. Only if it brings harms to others can it be called that. For instance, 'lying' is traditionally thought of as being 'evil', but if I feel miserable while standing in line at the store, and the checker asks me how I am doing and I reply "I'm fine,” obviously I'm lying. But it hurts no one, so it cannot be called "Evil."
There are three Evil Alignments: Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil. Neutral Evil is True Evil, that is, pure selfishness and greed. All they care about is themselves and how to better that. A NE might have friends, not because he cares for them, but because he needs them. Everything an NE does is done with a 'What's-in-it-for-me?' attitude. Law and Chaos do not come into play. An NE would follow a law to the letter or outright break if, whichever would be in his best interest.
That just leaves True Neutral. Neutrality is all about balance. A TN would believe that good and evil must be balanced, as should law and chaos. Too much of either is bad. Law requires Chaos; Good requires Evil. Too much Law is boring, rigid, and omits free will. Too much Chaos is anarchy. Too much Good brings prejudice and intolerance. Too much Evil brings death and suffering. Thus, the TN takes the side of the underdog.
Let's say, as an example, a TN learns of a robbery that will take place that evening at the museum. What does he do? If there is too much Law in that city, he might aid the criminals. If there is too much Chaos, he might alert the police. If there is a perfect balance, he would do nothing and simply ignore it.
And that about covers it. Lengthy, I know, but hopefully it makes things much easier to understand. However, one should always keep in mind that our characters, like people, are very complex things and sometimes these broad labels cannot do them justice. Alignment is not a straitjacket, after all. It's very possible for a LG to slip and break his code or for a NE to fall in love and put someone else ahead of themselves. It is these situations that cause the moral quandaries that help develop our characters--the dilemmas we must all struggle with in our daily lives. However, if the changes become the norm (the LG starts to ignore his code completely or the NE starts caring about everyone), then an alignment shift occurs, which results in a nasty XP penalty.
So what happens if your character is caught up in a situation that simply cannot be narrowed into such simplistic terms as Law, Chaos, Evil, Neutrality, and Good? What happens when you have no idea what you should do to stay within alignment? Easy. Just ask me, your friendly neighborhood DM. I'll help you figure it out.