Sunday, January 22, 2012

Alignment in Old School D&D

I posted the other day about a situation at the gaming table that nearly caused a forced alignment change and how I was not entirely satisfied with alignment in D&D.  That got me thinking about the need to come up with a very cool houserule on alignment.  But they say you cannot fix the future if you don't understand the past.  With that, I thought I would see how the very early editions of D&D handled alignment.  Read on!

OD&D (1974)
OD&D offers the classic three alignment choices of Lawful, Chaotic and Neutral.  Fine.  So let's say you're a first-time player and you're trying to decide your alignment.  You open up "Men and Magic" and look up the definitions of each one - but wait! - there IS NO definition!  That's right folks.  Nowhere in the LBBs is the definition of each alignment listed (that will have to wait for Holmes Basic). 

There is, however, a chart that lists restrictions on alignment for all monsters and PCs.  On this chart we learn that Men can be any alignment, Halflings can only be lawful, and Dwarves/Elves can be lawful or neutral.  The moral of the story: if you want to be an evil S.O.B. then you  need to be a human.  By reading this chart, you could infer that baddies are chaotic and goodies are lawful - but again, no definition.

OD&D also introduces "divisional languages," which means alignment languages.  If you speak the "wrong" alignment language in front of a foe of a different alignment, you are likely to be attacked.  (PS: alignment languages suck so f'ing bad!!  OK, that's out of my system).

Holmes (1977)
Holmes introduces "Good" and "Evil" into alignment choices, so you now have 5 alignment choices for the first time (LG, CG, LE, CE and N).  And now we have DEFINITIONS:
  • Lawful characters act from a "highly regulated code of activity."  It also says characters can keep their alignments secret except for LG characters whose code requires them to announce it to the world!
  • Chaotic characters are unpredictable - "expect the unexpected!"
  • Neutral characters are "motivated by self interest."  Furthermore, they may "steal from their companions or betray them."
That neutral definition is definitely walking a fine line between neutral and evil, in my opinion.  It almost sounds more chaotic.  The "self interest" part sounds decidedly neutral, but the stealing and betraying is almost evil.

All five languages have an alignment tongue.  Nothing new here.

For the first time, penalties are discussed.  If a DM feels that a character has "begun to behave in a manner inconsistent with his declared alignment," he may penalize the PC with a loss of XP!

B/X (1981)
Interestingly, B/X goes back to the three alignment choices of OD&D (C, L, N).  Each alignment has a language, but now the language is mostly comprised of "hand signals and body motions."  We also learn that any time a PC changes alignment, he immediately forgets his old alignment language and learns the new one.  Now I get that this is fantasy.  I get that it's not supposed to be realistic.  But seriously!  C'MON!

In B/X, the three alignments are all give a pretty thorough explanation.  I won't list them all out, but suffice it to say they are very much in line with what you would expect from lawful, chaotic and neutral.  In general, the books states that lawful means good and chaotic means evil. 

B/X continues with the concept of penalizing players who act outside of their alignment.  If the DM feels the PC is not acting within his stated alignment, he may "suggest and alignment change" or impose some form of "punishment or penalty."

And then there was the alignment "bloat" of AD&D which offered no less than nine different alignment choices and listed some VERY harsh penalties for behaving out of alignment, such as level losses and loss of class abilities. 

Again, I'm not satisfied with any of this.  It feels like PCs get narrowly restricted in their choices and behaviors.


  1. Agreed. I never use alignment at all. The players are free to write it on their sheet if it helps them imagine their character, but it never comes up in play.

  2. Interestingly, Fourth Edition (PHB page 19) went back to Holmes:

    Good: Freedom and kindness.
    Lawful Good: Civilization and order.
    Evil: Tyranny and hatred.
    Chaotic Evil: Entropy and destruction.
    Unaligned: Having no alignment; not taking a stand.

    Above, Good is approximately Chaotic Good and Evil is approximately Lawful Evil. I actually like the conception of Neutral as Unaligned, as that nips the Chaotic Neutral (do whatever I want with no consequences) problem in the bud.

  3. I don't particularly like alignment (or at least detailed alignment) PCs, but I do think there are some interesting things to do with AD&D style alignment presenting certain metaphysical allegiances of the cosmos with only a loose relationship to human concepts of morality.

  4. @ Gavin - that may be the direction I go (unless I come up with some other brilliant scheme!)

    @ Brendan - interesting, I have only played 4e a few times and I wasn't aware of that.

    @ Trey - I'd like to see some more of this. Do you have any postings on this topic?