Excerpts Archive | 6/2/2008
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Excerpts: Alignment
4th Edition Player's Handbook

In today’s final preview article, we look at the nature of good vs. evil – and more importantly, what these terms mean for your character!


Like everything else for 4th Edition of D&D, we thought long and hard about the alignment system we wanted to launch with the new edition. The struggle of good heroes against evil villains is one D&D’s core tenants. The D&D alignment system possesses a heritage and brand identity we did not want to lose. If we could overcome a couple of issues associated with the traditional alignment system without introducing new problems, we knew that we absolutely had to preserve the system so players could still talk about their lawful good paladin or the chaotic evil demon they vanquished.

As we saw it, several issues plagued D&D alignment, including:

  1. A character’s alignment, chosen at character creation, can become a straight-jacket on that character’s actions. Consider the paladin we’ve all seen in play, “I had to attack the rogue, I’m lawful good,” or the rogue, “I’m chaotic good! That means sometimes I push you off the bridge; come on, don’t get mad!” or some similar sentiment when presented with a role-playing choice. For this reason, many characters stuck with neutral: a nebulous self-serving alignment (as was then defined), a “me first” mentality that didn’t necessarily promote party cohesion either.


  2. In 3rd Edition, choosing an alignment usually had the unfortunate mechanical repercussion of making the aligned player vulnerable to an opposing aligned attack of a foe. It’s not really ideal that being good made you more vulnerable to demonic attacks, for instance. Another reason some players stuck with the neutral alignment of previous editions.


  3. The alignment system was tied to game cosmology, in ways that sometimes translated to physical effects that didn’t lead to fun gameplay.

So we came up with a new alignment system for 4th Edition, though one not completely unlike the previous version. It saves most of the old terms, if not their cosmological or gameplay significance. If any statement can sum up the new system, it is: “Alignment means making an effort.” --Michele Carter.

Thus was born the concept of unaligned. More importantly, the concept that unaligned is benign. Being unaligned is not the neutral alignment of previous editions. Someone who is unaligned is assumed to be an “easy-going” and sometimes even helpful person, especially when it’s easy to be helpful. Just like in real life, where it’s arguable that many people (cocooned in their routines and safe lives provided by a supporting civilization) are unaligned, your fantasy character can enjoy the same freedom from thinking too hard about morality but still be granted the benefit of doubt when they are judged.

Of course, many players will feel benign isn’t good enough, and so declare themselves good or lawful good. These characters are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to uphold a virtue or save an innocent’s life, even if there is the very real possibility they could lose their own life in the process. Such willingness for self-sacrifice is not benign; it is good.
--Bruce Cordell


If you choose an alignment, you’re indicating your character’s dedication to a set of moral principles: good, lawful good, evil, or chaotic evil. In a cosmic sense, it’s the team you believe in and fight for most strongly.

Alignment

A character’s alignment (or lack thereof) describes his or her moral stance:

  • 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.

For the purpose of determining whether an effect functions on a character, someone of lawful good alignment is considered good and someone of chaotic evil alignment is considered evil. For instance, a lawful good character can use a magic item that is usable only by good-aligned characters.

Alignments are tied to universal forces bigger than deities or any other allegiance you might have. If you’re a high-level cleric with a lawful good alignment, you’re on the same team as Bahamut, regardless of whether you worship that deity. Bahamut is not in any sense the captain of your team, just a particularly important player (who has a large number of supporters).

Most people in the world, and plenty of player characters, haven’t signed up to play on any team—they’re unaligned. Picking and adhering to an alignment represents a distinct choice.

If you choose an alignment for your character, you should pick either good or lawful good. Unless your DM is running a campaign in which all the characters are evil or chaotic evil, playing an evil or chaotic evil character disrupts an adventuring party and, frankly, makes all the other players angry at you.

Here’s what the four alignments (and being unaligned) mean.

The Good Alignment

Protecting the weak from those who would dominate or kill them is just the right thing to do.

If you’re a good character, you believe it is right to aid and protect those in need. You’re not required to sacrifice yourself to help others or to completely ignore your own needs, but you might be asked to place others’ needs above your own.... in some cases, even if that means putting yourself in harm’s way. In many ways, that’s the essence of being a heroic adventurer:

The people of the town can’t defend themselves from the marauding goblins, so you descend into the dungeon—at significant personal risk—to put an end to the goblin raids.

You can follow rules and respect authority, but you’re keenly aware that power tends to corrupt those who wield it, too often leading them to exploit their power for selfish or evil ends. When that happens, you feel no obligation to follow the law blindly.

It’s better for authority to rest in the members of a community rather than the hands of any individual or social class. When law becomes exploitation, it crosses into evil territory, and good characters feel compelled to fight it.

Good and evil represent fundamentally different viewpoints, cosmically opposed and unable to coexist in peace. Good and lawful good characters, though, get along fine—even if a good character thinks a lawful good companion might be a little too focused on following the law, rather than simply doing the right thing.

The Lawful Good Alignment

An ordered society protects us from evil.

If you’re lawful good, you respect the authority of personal codes of conduct, laws, and leaders, and you believe that those codes are the best way of achieving your ideals. Just authority promotes the well-being of its subjects and prevents them from harming one another. Lawful good characters believe just as strongly as good ones do in the value of life, and they put even more emphasis on the need for the powerful to protect the weak and lift up the downtrodden. The exemplars of the lawful good alignment are shining champions of what’s right, honorable, and true, risking or even sacrificing their lives to stop the spread of evil in the world.

When leaders exploit their authority for personal gain, when laws grant privileged status to some citizens and reduce others to slavery or untouchable status, law has given in to evil and just authority becomes tyranny. You are not only capable of challenging such injustice, but morally bound to do so.

However, you would prefer to work within the system to right such problems rather than resorting to more rebellious and lawless methods.

The Evil Alignment

It is my right to claim what others possess.

Evil characters don’t necessarily go out of their way to hurt people, but they’re perfectly willing to take advantage of the weakness of others to acquire what they want.

Evil characters use rules and order to maximize personal gain. They don’t care whether laws hurt other people. They support institutional structures that give them power, even if that power comes at the expense of others’ freedom. Slavery and rigid caste structures are not only acceptable but desirable to evil characters, as long as they are in a position to benefit from them.

The Chaotic Evil Alignment

I don’t care what I have to do to get what I want.

Chaotic evil characters have a complete disregard for others. Each believes he or she is the only being that matters and kills, steals, and betrays others to gain power. Their word is meaningless and their actions destructive. Their worldviews can be so warped that they destroy anything and anyone that doesn’t directly contribute to their interests.

By the standards of good and lawful good people, chaotic evil is as abhorrent as evil, perhaps even more so. Chaotic evil monsters such as demons and orcs are at least as much of a threat to civilization and general well-being as evil monsters are. An evil creature and a chaotic evil creature are both opposed to good, but they don’t have much respect for each other either and rarely cooperate toward common goals.

Unaligned

Just let me go about my business.

If you’re unaligned, you don’t actively seek to harm others or wish them ill. But you also don’t go out of your way to put yourself at risk without some hope for reward. You support law and order when doing so benefits you. You value your own freedom, without worrying too much about protecting the freedom of others.

A few unaligned people, and most unaligned deities, aren’t undecided about alignment. Rather, they’ve chosen not to choose, either because they see the benefits of both good and evil or because they see themselves as above the concerns of morality. The Raven Queen and her devotees fall into the latter camp, believing that moral choices are irrelevant to their mission since death comes to all creatures regardless of alignment.