D&D: Political Alignments

Comments Off on D&D: Political Alignments

One of the many weird things about D&D alignments is that Law vs. Chaos tends to do double duty indicating whether you’re an orderly-minded person and whether you prefer a large, law-bound society or a loose, small-group affiliation. When elves tend chaotic, it’s because of their hippie-style small family groups based on respect rather than a deep legal system. Similarly, orcs tend chaotic because they form tribal warbands where there are no rules beyond those imposed through fear of the chief. So I got to thinking about ways to pull that political component out completely from whether or not you’re inclined to do whatever random thing jumps into your head.

Is a political alignment system actually useful? I dunno. Is the current alignment system all that useful?

Empire vs. Tribe

Individuals that favor organizing people into as large a social structure as possible have an Imperial alignment. Those with a benevolent outlook feel that wars and injustice would end if everyone in the world was bound by the same leaders and justice system. Those with less noble aims still prefer a world where you only have to learn and follow one creed and culture to get along anywhere.

Those that instead favor building society through direct ties of blood and respect have a Tribal alignment. They believe that society begins to collapse the moment justice must be administered by someone that doesn’t have personal knowledge of those being judged. “Impartial” is just another word for “uninformed,” and they’d rather stick with tight-knit groups of no more than a few hundred people with loose ties to their neighboring groups.

In between these two, some split the difference and consider themselves of the National alignment. They reject that you must have a personal relationship with your leaders and judges, but still feel that broader ties of race, religion, and culture can only stretch so far. At a certain point, a society would get too large for everyone to have the same aims and willingly agree to the same structures. They think empires fall not because of communication, but because of an unsolvable difference in subject peoples.

Obviously, all three types tend to have drawbacks.

Those that favor Empires, even without the ultimate goal of subjugating the entire world for their emperor, tend to ignore the personal in the legal. They’ll try to make rules apply when they’re clearly wrong for the situation, or to write laws so broad and well-meaning that they’re useless in practice. They tend to be blind to dramatic cultural differences in needs from the law.

Those that favor Nations can become the worst sort of racists: folk that are too different are seen as basically alien. Even the benevolent among them see many outsiders as unable to be integrated into society, and can easily ignore ghettos and similar injustices because they think “those people” deserve their own laws, even as an island in another nation. The worst among them regularly start genocidal wars with their country’s neighbors.

Those that favor Tribes are not just limited to the wilderness: organized crime, guilds, military units, nobility, and law enforcement can easily inculcate a belief that laws should apply differently within the familial organization than in the society at large. They all can grow to feel that the laws of the larger culture don’t apply to them, and only their personal rules should matter. Even in the wilderness, justice based on bias can easily become extremely unfair when elders are weak to favoritism or cupidity.

Republic vs. Monarchy

It’s really hard to get a democratic regime off the ground, but those that favor it have a Republican alignment. They feel that every person in a society should have input into its laws and governance. Annoyingly, many tend to draw a circle around “persons” that doesn’t include all individuals in the society, but they still prefer a broader base of power than in other forms.

Conversely, the most common beliefs in support of a single strong leader have a Monarchist alignment. For those that have actually thought about it, they think that a single decider is more effective than many special interests all pulling in different directions. Particularly in war, even a tyrant is better than confusion.

There are relatively few in the middle of the two extremes, and they can be considered Oligarchists for lack of a better term. They agree with the monarchists that the masses cannot be trusted with control of society, but they think the risk of a single bad leader is too great. They prefer a small group of powerful and wise leaders that are few enough to get things done but numerous enough to check weakness or madness in one of their own.

These beliefs can reach across all sizes of government.

Those that favor Republics expect rule by the many to apply in an empire as easily as in a tribe. Obviously a tribal republic can easily be a direct democracy, where all individuals in the group offer their input toward rulings. As the society becomes larger, republican sentiment requires more layers of coordination. True republicans are always wary of the representatives they’ve elected as proxies for a democratic nation or empire becoming oligarchs.

Those that favor Oligarchies tend to be happier with the reality on the ground in empires and nations. In a monarchy, the reality of governance falls to important courtiers, and in a republic, elected officials inevitably draw power. Oligarchists just wish these systems could go ahead and abolish the weak link at the top of the monarchy, or the confused desires of the masses of the republic. In a tribe, they tend to favor a collection of elders or deacons rather than a single strong leader, but may be happy with a much smaller number of oligarchs than they would need in a large society.

Those that favor Monarchies are often happiest in a tribal setting, where they can personally know their chieftain. The larger the society they prefer, the more their personal relationship with their monarch is necessarily abstract. Monarchic imperialists often see a narrow difference between emperor and deity: who could truly make laws for the entire world other than someone so abstracted as to have become divine?

Alignment Archetypes


This is inspired by the discussion on Harbinger’s recent post about alignment. They’re more specific codes to differentiate ways of playing an alignment, including specific prohibitions and prescriptions.

You can use these in several ways including:

  • Player-directed XP, action points, or some other reward for notable fulfillment of your tenets.
  • More specific ways to tell if a player is upholding an alignment.
  • Award some kind of persistent bonus that goes away temporarily if any of the tenets are violated.
  • Attach classes that normally have an alignment requirement to a set of archetypes instead.

Example Archetypes are:

Champion (LG)

  • Always have an objective in mind that will improve the world.
  • Never act without considering the potential consequences.
  • Never break a law unless there are literally no other options to save an innocent.
  • Never fight without honor unless doing so would clearly jeopardize the objective.
  • Never break your word.

Justicar (LG)

  • Always know the laws of the societies you visit.
  • Always stay within the letter of the law, and within the spirit of just laws.
  • Always pursue villains that have followed the law through legal channels.
  • Always help the innocent, even if you must temporarily find a loophole in the law.
  • Always work to remove unjust laws.

Hero (NG)

  • Always have an objective in mind that will improve the world.
  • Never stand idly while an innocent suffers, even if the suffering is allowed by the law.
  • Always offer the villainous an opportunity, explicit or implicit, to repent.
  • Always follow the law unless it clearly interferes with your objective and there is no easy alternative.
  • Never allow fear for your own safety prevent you from pursuing your objective.

Healer (NG)

  • Never harm those that have not, themselves, caused unjust harm.
  • Always help those you can, however you can, unless it would keep you from succeeding at a greater mission.
  • Never accept payment from those that have less than you.
  • Always follow laws designed for the greater good.
  • Never let an unjust law prevent you from doing good.

Trickster (CG)

  • Always learn the self-imposed limits and foibles of those around you.
  • Never allow a friend to avoid a necessary task out of fear or self-doubt.
  • Never grant anyone respect, but grant those that deserve it aid and loyalty.
  • Always take advantage of opportunities to force those around you to improve themselves.
  • Always turn your best efforts on those that have no sense of humor and refuse to become better people.

Outlaw (CG)

  • Always break unjust laws whenever doing so won’t endanger your mission.
  • Never stand idly while an innocent suffers, even if the suffering is allowed by the law.
  • Always steal everything you can from villains.
  • Always donate whatever you can to the good and innocent.
  • Always repay both loyalty and betrayal.

Ascetic (LN)

  • Never antagonize the legitimate authority of the land or refuse their requests without a conflicting obligation.
  • Never act without considering the potential consequences.
  • Never own more than you require to perform your duties.
  • Never fight dishonorably.
  • Never break your word.

Prosecutor (LN)

  • Always know the laws of the societies you visit.
  • Always stay within the letter if not the spirit of the law.
  • Always make best use of loopholes or little known rules to accomplish your goals anyway.
  • Always ensure you’re in position to punish lawbreakers.
  • Always know what laws your enemies have broken.

Pragmatist (TN)

  • Always have an objective in mind.
  • Never cause harm to another thinking being, particularly those that haven’t harmed you, unless absolutely required to achieve your objective.
  • Never let sentiment prevent you from doing what needs to be done to achieve your objective.
  • Never break a law or otherwise antagonize the powers that be if you can achieve your objective without so doing.
  • Never let predictability or conservative behaviors endanger your objective.

Guardian (TN)

  • If you don’t have a ward (person, place, ideal, etc.) you must find one as soon as possible.
  • Always punish, without regard for law or morality, those that threaten or harm your ward.
  • Never harm your ward or allow your inaction to enable harm to your ward.
  • Never break laws or harm the innocent if doing so would not serve your ward.
  • Always help and reward those who are acting in service to your ward.

Scoundrel (CN)

  • Never give your word but always repay loyalty in kind.
  • Never allow long-term objectives to stand in the way of short-term goals.
  • Always do whatever is necessary to stay free.
  • Always take a risk if the chance of profit outweighs the chance of danger.
  • Always break the law if doing so wouldn’t hurt anyone and improves your situation.

Visionary (CN)

  • Always embellish the truth to make it more interesting.
  • Never do something conventional if the unconventional choice is just as good.
  • Never avoid doing something just because it’s “illegal” or “immoral.”
  • Never hurt your friends unless it’s absolutely necessary for your own safety.
  • Always return gifts and insults in kind.

Schemer (LE)

  • Never get caught in a lie.
  • Never tell more of the truth than is absolutely required.
  • Always have one or more goals.
  • Never take an action that you couldn’t argue contributes toward one of your goals (unless given favors or money).
  • Never avoid doing something to forward your goal if it’s immoral but legal.

Enforcer (LE)

  • If you don’t have a boss, you must find one as soon as possible.
  • Never contradict your boss in public.
  • Never betray your boss unless you were betrayed first.
  • Always carry out your boss’ orders to the letter and spirit as far as you are able.
  • Never allow disrespect and betrayal to go unpunished.

Assassin (NE)

  • Never kill without a contract unless it’s for self defense.
  • Never give up on a contract as long as the situation remains what you agreed to.
  • Never betray your employer except in self-defense.
  • A misrepresented contract or failure to pay for a successful contract must be punished.
  • Never show mercy to the target.

Slaver (NE)

  • You do not have peers, merely pawns, obstacles, and targets.
  • Always give targets and obstacles a chance (at least an implicit one) to become pawns before you kill them.
  • Always attempt to eliminate pawns you can no longer control.
  • Never forget a slight, and never forgive unless it puts the target in your debt.
  • Never do anything illegal yourself if you can get someone else to do it instead.

Pirate (CE)

  • Never spend more than a week in the same place.
  • Always take anything you want if you can get it without consequences.
  • Never hesitate to kill if that gets you closer to your goals.
  • Always place your personal comfort above all other concerns.
  • Always answer threats to your power with overwhelming force.

Beast (CE)

  • Always challenge your superior as soon as you think you can win.
  • Never leave a challenger capable of challenging you again.
  • Never permit an insult to stand unpunished.
  • Never make an oath unless you think you’ll gain an advantage from breaking it at the right time.
  • Always choose the option that makes you scariest to your enemies and followers.

Evil… but D&D Evil


I recently started running the Pathfinder adventure path Curse of the Crimson Throne, which is set in a city that’s technically Lawful Neutral but really trends Lawful Evil. And so you get to benefit from my rambling thought process as to what that even means.

The History of D&D Alignment

Original D&D only had one axis of alignment: Law vs. Chaos. Law represented civilization, order, and all that was right in the world. Chaos represented the dark gods and their minions that wanted to tear it all down. It was a fairly simple way of organizing the world cribbed from a lot of early 20th century fantasy series, particularly ones that featured bastions of culture in a sea of barbarism. Chaos was bad because it was all about pulling down the works of humanity (and demihumanity) for selfish and psychotic reasons.

At some point (was it the divide between D&D and AD&D?), another alignment axis was added: Good vs. Evil. Maybe there was a miscommunication as to the point of the Law vs. Chaos axis, or maybe someone felt that it unfairly equated rightness with imperialism and wrongness with indigenous cultures. Either way, suddenly the issue was terribly muddled in a way that’s been hard for gamers to wrap their heads around for decades. Chaos isn’t Evil, because Evil is Evil. But Lawful Good is still the kind of Good that gives you paladins. Chaotic Neutral characters are an excuse to play psychopaths. Most PCs without an alignment restriction are just Neutral Good anyway. It’s a mess.

The D&D cosmology evolved to embrace this new arrangement, however. Each alignment represents a different constellation of afterlife dimensions. The devils from the Lawful Evil Hell hate the demons from the Chaotic Evil Abyss. The Lawful Neutral Mechanus has robot people while the Chaotic Neutral Limbo has crazy lizard people. Lawful Good beings are traditionally angelic, while Chaotic Good beings are more animalistic angels. So despite still not making a whole lot of sense, alignment is deeply tied to the cosmology of many D&D settings in a way that makes it impractical to ignore.

Evil’s Ultimate Destination

Before even trying to conceptualize what Evil might actually mean in a dual axis alignment system, one must first consider the major ramification of all of this: to quote Ringworld, “There ain’t no justice!” No matter what one’s actual beliefs, modern human cultural norms inherit a hugely pervasive concept from many religions: if you’re a bad person, you’ll suffer for it after you die. Whether it’s being tortured in hell or just getting a bad reincarnation, humans have long justified that people that are terrible in life, no matter how much fun they seem to be having, will pay for it when they die.

In D&D, this is manifestly untrue. The core concept presented in the Great Wheel cosmology is that, when you die, you’re reborn as a spirit in the plane that best matches your living alignment. If you were Evil, you do, in fact, go to one of the hellish dimensions. But you don’t go there to be punished for all eternity: you go there to become an entry level devil or demon. Maybe it will be terrible for you for a while, or for all eternity if you aren’t strong willed enough to rise in the infernal hierarchies past Lemure, but over the centuries the best evil guys will get to become the awesome Balors and Pit Fiends of the world. Life is essentially a sorting hat for what kind of afterlife you’d prefer.

In D&D, when you finally kill off that terrible bad guy, from a certain point of view you just did him a favor. He was at the top of his game and went out doing something memorably villainous, and his soul is burning with a thirst for revenge that will potentially propel him downwards through the unholy ranks until he’s a mover and shaker in the Blood War. About the only thing you could do to actually make him pay for his crimes would be to capture him and make him suffer through a long and boring incarceration until he finally died broken and old. Once he dies, the only thing that’s bad about where he ends up is that it’s full of jerks just like him. Jerks who will promote him if he pays his dues and proves ruthless enough.

D&D villains aren’t failures of socialization, they’re the inheritors of a completely valid worldview trying to get in a good practice run before moving on to the real game of eternity.

So What is Evil?

With all that in mind, it seems like the natural response is: an Evil character is someone you could easily see becoming an Evil outsider when he or she dies.

Devils get characterized as the suave, manipulative evil. They want you to sell your soul, but that may just mean they want you to commit to being a direct report on their org chart when you die. They’re the evil of slavery, of belittlement, of deprotagonization: they get what they want not necessarily by killing you, or even hurting you, but by making you subservient. They yoke your potential and bend it towards their own whims, treating anyone weaker as chattel to be used and discarded without a second thought as long as the trade is profitable. Lawful Evil means that the world doesn’t really have people, it has tools and it has obstacles, and the former are merely there to get past the latter.

Demons get characterized as the raging, brutal evil. They don’t care about your soul in particular, except maybe as a snack. They’re the evil of mindless destruction, of the strongest destroying the weakest, of pure inevitability: they think it’s fun to hurt you, to have their way with you, to devour you. Their insidiousness is that it’s hard to fight them without in some way becoming them, as they won’t stop for anything other than superior, ferocious force. They see what they want and they take it, leaving a path of broken bodies on the way. Chaotic Evil equally means that there aren’t people, but simply playthings and threats. Playthings tend to break. Threats are best dealt with by main force and then maintained in their place with constant reinforcement.

Daemons are the hardest to characterize. If Devils own your mind and Demons destroy your body, Daemons exist to rend your very soul. A Devil will draw you into his sway gently, or at least without obvious malice, bending you to his worldview. A Demon will come after you with furious abandon, forcing you to become like him or die. But a Daemon will hurt you. A Daemon isn’t making you into tool or a toy, but is simply trying to break you. He’ll come after you with charm if he can, but not to recruit you. He’ll come after you with force if he needs to, but not for his own pleasure. Neutral Evil means being at the nadir of the cosmos and wanting to cut the whole world down to your own level of depravity. They’re potentially the only Evil that recognizes the concept of “people;” that’s because it’s hard to succeed in the goal of making people inhuman like you without recognizing their humanity in the first place.

A City of Devils

Thus, a Lawful Evil city is an almost literal Hell on Earth. It’s enviably efficient. The bureaucracy is competent, the rules are firmly established, and crime is firmly dealt with. But a lot of things that are criminal aren’t necessarily wrong. Gaining power is a labyrinthine process that digs one deeper into a web of favors. Becoming obligated means constantly working to avoid being expended. It’s a place where, when you finally lean back on your throne of respectability and wealth, you barely care anymore about all the people you crushed beneath your boots to get there. And, in a few more years of using up your employees to fend off your rivals, you won’t even care at all.