Monday, December 22, 2014

Alignment in OD&D and Zylarthen, Part I

From The Dragon No. 39. Guess what alignment he is.

In these posts, I won’t be tracing or debating the changes, variances or related minutia of alignment through the editions—such as the three-point vs. five point vs. nine point systems, or the alignment languages question, etc. Rather, I want to look at the notion of alignment in general.

The basic idea goes something like this (these are my words, not text contained in any edition):
Each player-character must at the start of play choose a moral outlook, called an “alignment”, which will guide and to some degree limit the choices and actions of the character within the game. Alignment, along with class and race will be one of the factors to take into consideration for proper “role-playing”.
I actually think alignment is one of the more consistent things through the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons (again, if one ignores changes at the margins such as whether there are three, five, nine or how ever many of them), so there isn’t any old school vs. new school issue here. True to form, though, OD&D had only a few lines on the matter—as opposed to the pages often spent on it in later editions:
Before the game begins it is not only necessary to select a role, but it is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take - Law, Neutrality, or Chaos…Character types are limited as follows by this alignment. Men & Magic, p. 9.
Oddly, the text then immediately switches focus to monster (not character) types, presenting three lists that outline the alignments of the various intelligent monsters. Here is the full text, including that of the above:

Note that most monsters appear on only one list. A few appear on two—either Law and Neutrality or Chaos and Neutrality—but only one—Men—appear on all three. (Technically, Lycanthropes are also on all three but that’s only because, as we’ll find out later, there are different types of them.) That there is no underline for the "Men" under Neutrality or Chaos is I assume a mistake. 

Precisely what is meant by taking a stance, or perhaps more importantly, what is meant by the labels Law, Neutrality or Chaos is not explained. Obviously, though, the composition of the lists says a lot—Unicorns and Patriarchs are Lawful, Evil Priests and Vampires are Chaotic, etc.* A bit more about alignment will be sketched in later in discussions of some of the spells and the properties of magic swords (of all things). For example, for the spell Reincarnation, we learn that a character may only be reincarnated as a creature of the same alignment.

The major points that emerge from the full text are these:

  1. Law and Chaos appear to at least track good and evil (whether they are precisely equivalent to them is left unsaid).
  2. One's alignment is pretty fundamental to one's being. It might change (perhaps as a result of a cursed item) but that would be a big deal.
  3. For Player-characters alignment is an individual choice, made early—at the time of character creation.
  4. However, for all except player-characters and perhaps some important non-player characters, alignment seems to be a collective thing. For most races, every member of that race will (it is implied) be of the same alignment. And even for those races that can vary, the variance seems to go by group. For example, in the “Men” category, Dervishes are Lawful while Pirates are Chaotic.
What is wrong with this scheme? What is right with it? Did I do anything differently in Seven Voyages of Zylarthen? More in Part II...

*Wikipedia fib alert: the entry for Alignment (Dungeons & Dragons) reads “Dwarves were Lawful and elves Chaotic, while humans could be any of the three alignments. [citation needed].” Actually, as the above makes clear, both Dwarves and Elves are listed as being potentially either Lawful or Neutral (along with Gnomes and Rocs). Good luck on that citation.


  1. I think you are starting out with an assumption here brought on from later editions that alignment is actually "a moral outlook." I personally don't think morality came into it until the Good/Evil dichotomy was introduced in Greyhawk. Before this it was what it literally said it was - an alignment with a faction - whether that was the seelie/unseelie of Andersons' A Broken Sword, the eternal battle of Moorcock's Elric series, or even something as obscure as the reality/unreality of Brunner's Traveller in Black.

    That being said people generally prefer order ("may you live in interesting times" is a curse for a very good reason) so Law often gets equated with being a desirable or good quality. The fact that many "monsters" are in the Chaos list make it inherently bad.

    My personal response to the original OD&D list was to consider Law to be akin to civilisation, and Chaos to be akin to the wilderness. [Although to be more precise the Chaos elements were those who either raided civilisation or directly opposed the expansion of civilisation.] As more and more of the wilderness is conquered and brought to order and settled it moves from Chaos to Law. The traditional dungeons, for example, could be considered bastions of Chaos. [This follows more of the Brunner model.]

    1. That's exactly what I used to think until I looked at the actual text again, :) especially given the military wargames background of the authors, where there were always at least two "sides". But against that, among other things, if it's merely an alignment with a "faction" (that word doesn't appear in the 3 LBBs, by the way) why does it stick to you even when you are reincarnated? That seems like a pretty deep metaphysical thing to me.

    2. I think these are metaphysical factions. As in the comment above Anderson's seelie/unseelie is more than membership in a club it speaks to one's being. Men are all over the place for the same reason race-as-class makes sense: free will is a distinctly human grace.

    3. Jon Peterson makes the point that alignment was originally called "division", a slightly more wargamy term. [you can see one place this change didn't happen on page 12 where it talks about "divisional" languages]

  2. While the post I am linking below wanders slightly afield from OD&D, it is one of my favorite treatments of the topic.

    It is, I think, more or less in line with what Reverance wrote above.

    Interested to see where you with this regarding Zylarthen.

    1. Thanks! Very interesting. The first 1/3 of the post made me dizzy. :) The second 1/3 I agree with, and the last 1/3 not so much. I'll elaborate in the blog post, but Zylathen tries to do something like Anderson in Three Hearts and Three Lions. So, alignments are "sides" but with definite moral implications, links and effects. This isn't quite AD&D or even OD&D, 1976. It might be OD&D, 1974, as Reverance suggests, or at least consistent with the text of it.