Understanding Good and Evil A look at D&D alignment

Classic D&D only has three alignments; Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic. While the rules indicate that lawful characters tended to be good, it is not automatic. AD&D on the other hand breaks alignment into two parts, their disposition towards law and chaos, and their morality in regard to good and evil. On the surface, the AD&D system appears to be the more detailed and superior system … but is it?

The issue of Morality

We like to think that morality is a constant, that what we believe to be morally right and wrong is patently obvious. The concept of good or evil is generally defined by morality. A person of good morals is a good person, while those who act in a manner counter to decency is evil. Yet, this perception is heavily coloured by the concept of Law and Chaos. Laws are usually based on what a society considers morally sound.

We might all agree that murder is evil, but what about murdering someone who threatens your own life? How about paedophilia? Despised by most today, but common practice among the height of the Roman empire. In fact, we might look at the Romans as an evil empire, who subjugated nations and slaughtered people by the hundreds; all evil and immoral deeds. Yet, Rome also provided protection, knowledge, wealth, food, safety and countless things which might be viewed as moral and good.

So here is where the concept of good and evil, morality and immorality all comes undone. Morality is a matter of perspective, and that perspective is fashioned primarily by cultural bias and law.

Fallacy of the Lawful Good Paladin

Prior to 5th edition, AD&D required Paladins to be Lawful Good. This made the Paladin a righteous knight in shining armour who always held to the letter of the law while doing nothing but good and noble deeds for the people. Paladins are holy warriors of the church, so it’s important that they be Lawful in order to adhere to the strict tenants of their religion. However, by attaching Good to the alignment requirement, it made the holy church knights completely inappropriate for a great many of the religions. 5TH edition changed this by removing the alignment requirement entirely, allowing the alignment of a Paladin to more accurately reflect the moral disposition of the church they represented.

A good real world equivalent of the Paladin would be the crusading knights. Ideally, the crusading knights were strict adherents to the Will of the church and their king. So, Lawful would be the natural alignment choice for a crusading knight. However, the crusaders are on record as having committed countless atrocities in the name of their god. Their actions were far from good, in fact many would undoubtedly be classed as evil. This is where the AD&D Lawful Good Paladin fails to accurately represent the crusading knight.

Classic D&D only requires that a Paladin be Lawful. While most Paladins are also Good, what is more important is that they obey the church. Chaotic Paladins are instead called Avengers and, while similar to the Lawful Paladin, they are a different type of character. This distinction allows for holy warriors from entirely chaotic religions to still be represented.

So, while the holy warriors in earlier editions of AD&D were restricted to good religions only, Classic D&D allowed for a far wider interpretation of Paladin by dispensing with the concept of Good. Holy warriors are certainly devout, but many can be highly immoral and their religious fervour can justify them performing acts which are obscenely vile.

Morality as a Cultural bias

The key thing to understand about good and evil, is that good is mostly a matter of perspective, and that perspective is generally based on culture. Most people who act within the law of the land tend to consider themselves good people. Only truly aberrant people would identify as being evil, and they would consider themselves evil because of their complete disregard of cultural law. So what if the law of a culture demands acts such as murder, sacrifice, slavery and other base acts? Does it make the culture evil? The answer is both complex and simple. Good and evil are a matter of perspective, and its definition changes depending on the company you keep.

In Phaemorea the Empire of Getica is a classic evil empire based on undeath, fear and dark sorcery. Yet Getica is a Lawful empire, perfectly entitled to field Paladins. Failure to follow the Law can get you killed, or worse. Therefore, in order to be a lawful person, and by cultural definition a good person, then you would commit harm against others if you are required to. Even the cold blooded murder of an entire family might be considered a good act in Getica, even though most other cultures would claim it was entirely evil.

So how would you record your Alignment as a good citizen of Getica? In AD&D you might say you are Lawful Evil, but does that accurately account for people who genuinely love and support their community when that love and support might mean killing a child in its sleep? Lawful Evil fails to encapsulate the scope and breadth of morality, and how each culture contains a myriad of complex moral nuances. However, the Classic D&D system would simply label any good citizen as Lawful, fully understanding the complexities of morality and its relation to the interpretation of good and evil. In fact, any good citizen in any land is simply Lawful, while those who care nothing for the laws of the land, or those who think everything in life is happen-stance, are Chaotic.

Practical definitions for Good and Evil

Take the humble Protection from Evil spell. In Classic D&D the spell description clearly indicates that evil is not a function of Alignment, but of moral stance. So how do you define if something is classified as good or evil when you don’t have the system holding your hand on the subject? There are a few ways to make this distinction.

First of all, someone of opposing moral views would be considered evil. Therefore, a Protection from Evil spell cast by a cleric of Getica should work fine to ward off a noble Paladin of Solmani, and vice versa. When the water becomes muddied by similar but differing moral values, the measure of good or evil is based more on intent.

A more simplified approach would be to look at things defined as evil by the system as things of an entropic nature, while things which preserve life are good. So, level draining undead are always evil, while those devoted to healing and caring for others are good. This however often falls short of helpful. Healing someone so they can withstand more torture is actually evil, while using a Cause Wounds spells for a merciful death is actually a good act most of the time.

In the end it comes down to the GM making a judgement call. Often it’s very clear cut, but when in doubt compare the intent of both individuals and decide if someone is good or evil based not on a spell description or your personal moral code, but on the difference in moral codes between the characters involved. It’s entirely possible that two people can effect each other with the same version of Protection from Evil, simply because from their individual perspective, their opponent is evil.

Alignment Languages

Classic D&D grants all peoples of the land an alignment language. It further goes on to describe that if for any reason you change your alignment, you forget the previous alignment language and acquire the new one. Other than saying ‘it’s all magic’, I cannot find any way to justify how alignment languages are meant to work sensibly. Therefore, in my Classic D&D I have replaced alignment languages with regional languages. There is no real harm in allowing Alignment languages in your game, I just prefer some internal logic to my rules system, and I find it does no harm to my game to drop the rules.

Putting it all together

Classic D&D keeps a simple focus when it comes to alignment. Have a good read of the description of the alignments in the Rules Cyclopedia with an open mind, dispelling preconceived ideas that Lawful means Good. The descriptions in the book are very good and they allow for a very diverse style of play. Good and Evil are highly subjective concepts, however Law and Chaos are not. It’s really important for a Paladin to be the sort of trustworthy person who will adhere to his oaths, however it’s not important whether or not he follows our modern concept of good.

AD&D tries to hold your hand a little by making you broadly describe how good your character is. In practice, I find most players and GM tend to play fast and loose with regards to playing your alignment. The reason for this is that the alignments cannot accurately reflect the vicissitudes of life and differing cultures. In Classic D&D, Alignment provides nice broad clear lines for players to work with, allowing them to freely craft their character as they see fit while still having a useful form of reference in their choice of alignment.

Ultimately the way alignment is used should be up to the GM. I think it’s a useful character descriptor and I encourage GMs and players to embrace it rather than ignore it. However, just be aware that your personal ideals are not the measure by which you define the fantasy world. If you do that, you are limiting the immersion of your world by making every culture a cookie cutter version of your tainted perceptions. Instead, allow each culture to flourish under its own unique understanding of the world. Not all Paladins are nice guys, and not every necromancer sacrifices children on their altar. Don’t get trapped by tired old tropes and let alignment be a source of inspiration, not a tie that binds.

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