When I first proposed this game, I wanted to run it without alignment. Unfortunately, I didn’t prep the world, or even choose and read up on a specific one to base it on and then modify, and removing alignment from D&D is a rather demanding task.
That said, I need to define what I am using for alignment, because a lot of conflicting ideas have worked their way into D&D. Part of this is because there are many, many writers for even the official D&D material, and part of it is because none of those writers seem to be even passingly familiar with any actual philosophical thought.
Law and Chaos
Law and Chaos suffer from the problem that, as they are described in the Player’s Handbook, they aren’t actually opposed to one another. The people they describe are not mutually exclusive. There are a lot of things that D&D assume Law and Chaos to mean. When they were first used, they were cribbed from Poul Anderson, who used them as code for Good and Evil, meaning chaos really described “the villains,” or, at least, “the antagonists.” Some D&D writers used Law to mean Organization and chaos to mean Disorganization, which, as the Tome of Fiends points out, means that a war against Chaos is essentially going around rolling hobos. Some D&D writers have used Chaos to mean Insanity, and Law, of course, then means Sanity. This means that fighting the forces of Chaos is walking into an asylum and beating the patients, and that Eladrin are essentially well-meaning schizophrenics. While this means that demons sort of get to be The Joker, it still feels bad to talk about your paladin basically going around killing neuro-divergent people.
The closest you get to Law and Chaos being workable is a matter of subscription to external codes.
Law is really, then, about conformity. A lawful person has a philosophy they live by which they think is so awesome that everyone should follow it, and they will tell you. Loudly. This may be something they came up with themselves, or something that someone else told them and they bought into, the important thing is that they believe everyone should live one specific way. This is fine when that one specific way is “have clothes, shelter, and as much food as they need to survive,” but when it’s “abstain from sex until a special social ritual has been performed, and then only with a pre-approved category of partners, and don’t get too kinky, and don’t try to prevent conception” a lot of people are going to have a problem with it.
Lawful extras, that is, npcs of little to no plot importance, are people who keep their heads down and follow the laws they live under as best they can, without complaint or protest. The only reason they might not follow the law of the region they live in is if they’ve decided some other law, perhaps a divine law, supersedes it, and even then, they are following someone elses’ laws. A lawful luminary, that is, PCs and npcs who are important to the plot, are people who try to get other people to live by the same code as them.
Lawful characters are likely to take prisoners and try to convert them. Killing an enemy is essentially admitting that you could not convince them to change their ways.
Chaos, in contrast, is about independence. A chaotic person believes that each person gets to chose their own way, and what’s right for one person might be right for another, but not necessarily. This does not, necessarily, mean that chaotic people are Anarchists. A chaotic person can agree that laws are necessary, but they may prefer that laws be restricted to only necessities. This all fine when applied to things like “Well, I personally think it would be detrimental to have sex before I’m married to someone, but I’m not going to assume the same is true for you,” but problematic when applied to things like “Well, it’s cool that you want to go on living and all that. Good on you for choosing that. Personally, I think I’d really like to stab you and take your shiny necklace.”
A chaotic extra is a person who probably generally follows the laws to avoid legal repercussions, but flouts minor ones, like going to another county to buy alcohol to bring back to their dry county, or hiring a prostitute despite it being illegal. A chaotic luminary however obeys the laws they see the necessity of, but breaks laws they find inconvenient, like owning a weapon in a land where such is illegal.
Chaotic characters usually only take prisoners if it furthers their goals, not to convert. They may seek information, believe the person is a danger, or simply need to turn them over alive to collect a bounty. They will seldom try to tell a person they should change ideologies, at least apart from advocating the independence of chaos. They respect the demon’s right to choose to murder and rampage, but that just means they won’t try to change the demon’s mind, just kill them to protect others.
Good and Evil
Good and Evil suffer from the problem that, at its core, Dungeons and Dragons is a game about wandering around without a home, going into monster lairs, stabbing said monsters, and taking their shit to pawn for booze and weapons. Considering how many of those “monsters” have, at least, near-human intellects, if not superhuman intellects, there is no practical difference between the iconic D&D adventurer and a hobo who walks into peoples’ homes, stabs them, and makes off with the silverware to buy booze and weapons.
Good also suffers from the fact that when a book was written about it, WotC let a former evangelical minister write it, and so we got concepts that have a lot more to do with conforming to the commands (and commandments) of a supernatural authority figure than actually being good in any definable way. The book gives us feats that require adherence to arbitrary vows to abstain from things and hazardous substances that affect only evil and soul imprisonment that brainwashes you, and treats it all as the highest magnitude of goodness.
Evil, on the other hand, suffers from the fact that it is often used to label things that people find distasteful. A lot of people consider cannibalism to be evil, and the Book of Vile Darkness goes so far as to call evil sex with non-humanoids, and sexual gratification from receiving or inflicting pain. Certainly, killing someone for the express purpose of eating them is evil, and having sex with something which cannot, due to limits of intellect or communication, consent, or inflicting pain on someone who doesn’t consent are all evil. But if that corpse was already there, or tried to kill you before dying, and you haven’t seen anything else edible in days, or that dragon takes you up on your offer of coming back to your sleeping bag, or that young woman eagerly consents to you pouring hot wax on her back, there is no harm done and no particular reason to call any of that evil.
This is further complicated by the fact that D&D frequently treats all sacrifice of sapients as evil, which flat out ignores both the fact that real world cultures engaged in human sacrifice under the belief that it allowed them to survive, and the fact that in a fantasy world a person really might be faced with an avatar of Erythnul demanding they kill a person or else his army is going to slaughter their town. This is a classic paladin quandary, but the paladin is a hero of light and goodness and is held to a higher standard, expected to either find a way that neither the person nor the town must die or, failing that, sacrifice themselves. Joe Schmoe Commoner isn’t a hero and he should not be demonized for acquiescing to the god of slaughter’s demand so that his town might be spared.
What makes infinitely more sense is for good and evil to be a matter of priorities.
Evil prioritizes the self above others. An evil person is interested first and foremost in their own well being and benefit. Given a scenario where an person must choose to save themselves or any number of other people, they will generally choose to save themselves (this of course isn’t universal—suicidal evil people, evil people who suffer from chronic debilitating pain, and evil people who stubbornly dislike ultimatums and seek a third option all might defy this generalization). This is not to say that evil cannot have friends. All social creatures mentally benefit from friendship. The evil person is just the person who, when chased by a zombie, is more concerned with outrunning their friends than the actual zombie. Some evil creatures, however, do actually hold a circle of people in regard that is close to or even equal to that which they hold themselves in. They may see the continued existence and well being as a preferential outcome, or they may see the people as a part of themselves, in a way, and consider the well being of a friend as they might consider the continued function of a major, if not vital, organ. Some particularly social evil creatures will even see people in something like concentric rings of “closeness to self,” with friends and at least some family occupying a conceptual ring that is either close to or containing their own, then a circle which encompasses their immediate community, then their city, their nation, and so on, to the point where they might even protect their world from threats to it. “I’m saving the world because that’s where I keep my stuff/that’s where I live/that’s where the people I care about are” is not an uncommon motivation for an evil “hero.”
Evil will usually pursue the course of action which best furthers their goals, which actually means that they are quite likely to work in groups, at least if they understand combined efforts at all. The fact that working by yourself both gives your enemy fewer targets, and means that you have no one to fall back on when your own talents fail, means that evil creatures will try to have minions if not allies. This does mean, however, that those an evil creature surrounds themselves with may be coerced if they cannot find people willing to join them.
Good, then, prioritizes others first, and considers the self either secondary, or only important as part of others. The typical aim of a good character is to ensure the best outcome or further the interests of the greatest number of people. A good character put in a scenario where they must decide between the death of themselves and one other person will frequently volunteer their own life so that the other may live, but, if put in a position to decide between the death of one person, or their own party, may decide to offer the life of the one that more may live (they may or may not try to offer their own life that their party and the other may live, and a party of good characters might collectively offer their own lives, but these are tangents).
The most important thing to good is to protect others. This leads to problems when a good character fails to respect another’s right to make their own decision about their life, such as a man telling his wife to stay at home where it’s safe while he goes to war when perhaps the wife wants to fight too.
Good, almost paradoxically, may try to work alone. Rather than out of social ineptness, or arrogance, it is because they feel that having allies or followers endangers others. However, the best of the Good will respect others’ right to risk their lives, and so a good person with followers or allies likely has not coerced any of them (enemies press ganged into service for their talents not withstanding), and a good person without allies or followers is probably a jerk who actually can’t keep friends.
Basically, Chaos means you think everyone should be free to choose their own way, Law means you think there is one right way to do things everyone should follow, Evil means you care about yourself first and others later and Good means you care about the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people, even at the expense of your own interests.
H1. Further Reaches of Alignment Matters
So, now that what Alignment means has been hashed out, the consequences and tangential concerns need to be handled. A lot of D&D material assumes that Negative Energy is inherently evil, and thus so to are undead. Outsiders are creatures that are literally composed of the plane-stuff their home is made of, and as most outer planes are physical representations of an alignment, that means that the nature of Good and Evil have meaningful consequences for Outsiders.
Negative Energy, Undeath and Alignment
To start with, we’ll address the idea of negative energy being inherently evil. Negative and Positive Energy are similar to air, earth, fire and water, in that they are the building blocks of, at least, the prime material plane. They are different, however, in the fact that rather than representing concrete substances, they represent states of existence- Positive Energy is the energy of life, and Negative energy is the energy of death. It would be natural to see them as source and vacuum, Positive energy gives and Negative energy takes. However, if that were the case, Negative energy wouldn’t be a place, or even a thing, it would simply be the opposite of being. But Negative energy is a thing in D&D, not just a concept. You can reach out to its source and take some. It may not exactly be tangible as we are accustomed to, perhaps more akin to electricity or fire, a thing you can touch, and be affected by, but not pick up in your hands. Notably, Positive energy is the same way. There are exception,s Negative energy can condense down into a tangible substance called voidstone, and Positive energy condenses down into small, translucent spheres called lifepearls.
But, all of this comes down to the fact that Negative energy is just an impersonal facet of the multiverse. It may be harmful to life, much as fire or lightning is, but in a way it is also vital to life, as it is the force behind rot, decay and deterioration. If things didn’t degrade, they would just sit around forever, and digestion would be incredibly difficult. Notably, Positive energy is not any nicer to life, it just kills you by over filling you with life instead of making you decay.
So, because Negative energy isn’t inherently evil, neither then are undead, and neither, necessarily, is Necromancy. Being a vampire or ghoul isn’t necessarily evil in and of itself, as there is no real requirement that you kill people to feed yourself, but most do, and thus most are.
However, undeath is inimical to life, and so gods of healing are about as fond of it as they are smallpox.
Alignment is here primarily predicated on philosophies and priorities. An evil person looks out for number one, and a good person looks out for others. A chaotic person wants you to keep your principles to yourself, thank you very much, and a lawful person wants to tell you all about how great the person they’ve pledged themselves to is. You will note that this means alignment isn’t actually dependent on actions, per se, but the intent behind them. This means that it’s actually entirely possible for an archon, an eladrin, a devil, and a demon to sit down and play poker and not necessarily come to blows by the third hand. They may have prejudices, but that’s not a matter of alignment (or rather, it amounts to bigotry). The demon is chaotic evil because it looks out for itself first and doesn’t much care to submit to the standards of others, not because it spends its days raping and murdering. I mean, it might do that, but it’s not compelled to by its alignment.
Codes of Conduct
Now that alignments actually mean one specific thing, when a class has an alignment restriction, that actually tells you something about the people who have levels in the class. It also means that some of the alignment restricted classes probably shouldn’t be. Tome did away with most alignment restrictions. There’s little to be gained by forcing people who use anger as a weapon to be chaotic, or saying that all monks must be proselytizers.
Paladins retain their Good restriction, since they’re specifically holy warriors. What this means, however, is that paladins are selfless, and seek the highest good for the greatest number of people. Sacrificing one innocent to save more than one person does not constitute a breach of alignment for a paladin, but they should generally seek a method that does not involve killing an innocent. They are said to be usually lawful, and this makes sense, as they gain their powers by submitting to a higher power, and usually will believe that the highest good to the greatest number of people will come from more people being good.
The druid alignment restriction is actually a bit odd. Basically, at least in this model, it means that they can only care about either independence vs conformity, or self vs others, but not both. A druid who has a opinion on whether their own life or the lives of others is more important cannot have an opinion on whether those people should be free to make their own choices or submit to a single way of life—which makes some sense for a druid, really. Nature uses diverse means, some animals are hivemind socialists, while others are fiercely independent. If the druid has an opinion on whether its better to be independent or conformist, they cannot have an opinion on whether their own life or that of others is more important. They believe that all life is equally valuable to an absolute amount. More lives are not more valuable than fewer lives. The life of one is exactly as valuable as the lives of many. This also makes a certain amount of sense, as nature doesn’t exactly mourn mass die offs or individual deaths. All life and death is equal in the dispassionate eyes of nature. The iconic druid is true neutral, dispassionate about life and death, and accepting of single-minded communities and independent solitary existence, just like nature.
Tome introduced a Jester class which is restricted to non-lawful alignments. This means that jesters must be opposed to submitting to one particular viewpoint. This actually makes a certain amount of sense, as they are primarily concerned with being entertaining, to themselves at the very least, and senses of humor are subjective, but more than that, it also speaks to the tradition of fools being given free rein to critique the rulers they entertain.
Sohei are restricted to any good based on the idea that they are supposed to be virtuous, enlightened warrior monks. However, they should really be something like “Any lawful or good,” as they were, historically, specifically Buddhist warrior monks, and the two main paths of Buddhism focus on becoming one with the universe through following a prescribed path (nearly the definition of the highest form of law) or staying in the world and helping others become awakened (a good attitude).