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Screw Pantheons

In the Church of the Poison Mind

I'm re-reading Moldvay Basic and finding a lot of material that I had either ignored or misunderstood when I first played D&D, back in the heady days of 1982. One aspect that always perplexed me was Moldvay's interpretation of Alignment: Having been deeply steeped in the Good vs. Evil brew, it was hard to understand the Law/Chaos axis.

But having rolled it around for just shy of three decades, I realised it's (yet another) facet of Moldvay's genius, and it has more to do with your campaign's religions than each PC's behaviour.

Alignment as Belief

Everyone in your campaign world--and I do mean everyone--has one overriding, high-level goal: To avoid suffering. It's a vague yet powerful notion, because suffering is relative, and people tolerate it to varying degrees. But whatever it means to a given individual, that guy wants to avoid it.

Belief systems--whether moral, spiritual, religious, or otherwise--are designed to assuage suffering, either by advising coping mechanisms for use while living, or by revealing a path to a pain-free afterlife. To desire to avoid suffering is ethically ambivalent--it is in the methods used to avoid suffering that moral choices are made. To pull old Bill out of context, nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so. And that's where alignment enters the picture.

Think of alignment as a guideline to avoid suffering. In this respect, the objective Law/Chaos axis has more relevance than the subjective Good/Evil dichotomy. While these aren't Moldvay's words, I believe they follow from his descriptions:

  • Lawful: Primary loyalty is to others; capable of self-serving acts, but not at the expense of other people (especially those in need).
  • Neutral: Primary loyalty is to affiliated groups (e.g., family, faction, religion, race); capable of self-serving acts, but not at the expense of affiliated groups.
  • Chaotic: Primary loyalty is to self; capable of serving others, but only to further their personal agenda.

Alignment is about loyalty--not good or evil--and how it influences one's choices. Each alignment provides a path, based on interactions with others, toward a suffer-free life. The Lawful man is devoted to others, and he purges his own suffering by addressing the needs of those around him. He believes that his example can lead to the end of suffering, one person at a time. The Lawful approach is, by default, ordered and consistent: no matter what form your charity takes, altruism requires compassion, which tends to have the same outcome wherever and however it's applied.

The Neutral man is devoted to certain others, and he addresses suffering by strengthening and supporting people and organisations he believes have the best shot of eradicating it--a community, a charity, a political party, an activist group, whatever. The Neutral guy isn't necessarily out for himself, but neither is he objective about how to end suffering: He asserts his conviction in a very specific set of solutions to the problem of suffering. Neither universally compassionate nor wholly self-centred, Neutrality is a targeted approach, with a not-surprisingly varied record of success.

The Chaotic man is devoted to himself, and he addresses suffering by eradicating it from his own life first, maybe a few select others second, and everyone else a distant third. He believes that people must tend their own backyards, either because he values personal responsibility or because he's unwilling to expend effort (or time or money) on others. This is a necessarily selfish outlook that promotes disorder: Remember that everyone has their own definition and tolerance for suffering, so Chaotic folk adopt an variety of self-serving and universally incompatible measures to assure their own happiness--everyone else can solve their own damn problems.

Alignment as Religion

There are a couple of mentions (explicit and otherwise) in the B/X canon of the so-called "Church of Law." It was a convenient organisation to sponsor Lawful clerics and appropriately implied to be a goodly force against the depredations of Chaos (like that untrustworthy priest in the Keep on the Borderlands or the Shrine of Chaos in the nearby caves). Yet "Church of Law" smacks of generic, and my early D&D mind assumed it was a rulebook placeholder for something more specific in an actual campaign.

But I'm no longer so sure. Given the possibilities of alignment as a belief system, there's no reason the Church of Law couldn't be an actual church...of Law. Adherents would be dedicated to the aid of others, and see the best means of providing that aid through compassionate teachings and charitable actions. In a religious context, it's a way of life founded on the Golden Rule, which is stated (fundamentally) in every major religion of the world.

What this means is that the Busy GM doesn't have to create a host of different Lawful gods in his campaign. One basic religion--The Church of Law--whose trappings might be different across cultures and races, but whose message is essentially the same: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In this religion, Lawful clerics--fighting holy warriors--are probably more akin to paladins than to priests.[1] Proper priests would not exist as characters, since they have too many non-secular duties to go adventuring (that's what clerics are for).

On the other end of the spectrum, there is no Church of Chaos. Instead, there are myriad Chaos Cults--disparate covens each dedicated to a single demon, devil, or unfathomable Cthuloid who accepts unholy worship, blood sacrifice, or mortal souls in exchange for worldly succor from suffering (of course, there's plenty of time for that in the congregant's tortured afterlife). Chaotic clerics are warlocks and satanists, spreading the teachings of their immortal patrons as the solution to life's misery, be it in the form of wealth, power, prestige, or domination over the weak.

Neutral churches are trickier--the Neutral belief system advocates an almost surgical approach to excising suffering, and most religious organisations mandate a more dedicated, "all-or-nothing" level of commitment. Thus most groups dedicated to Neutrality are secular--social activists, educational systems, civic organisations, and government instruments come to mind.

However, Neutrality is a good candidate for spiritual movements--something more specific than the broad-scoped Lawfuls, but less selfish than the egomaniacal Chaotics. For instance, Nature worship, which upholds Nature as the example of harmony (e.g., If you dig Nature, you accept that you are part of it, and therefore part of the larger world, which contains suffering. As a result, you are suffering, and with that slice of wisdom, you can better modulate the effect of suffering on your life.).

Final Words

The goal here (obscure as it may be) is to reduce the work required to prepare your campaign's religions (and, from experience, I confess that this can take up a lot of time you won't get back). Consider your campaign's alignments as the starting point--after all, if they guide behaviour, they must be rooted in (or give rise to) a belief system. Since most belief systems eventually find their way into the worshipful tendencies of mortals, why not consider your campaign's religions as extensions of alignment?

  • Law: Don't be a dick, help people out, done.
  • Chaos: Need some bad guys or weird cultists? Make them worship some demon or an alien or a lobster-headed fish-woman--it doesn't matter as long as they're doing it because they believe it makes their lives better.
  • Neutral: think spiritually instead of religiously, and ensure that the practitioners have a lesson that neither hurts the student nor sends his soul to the fire.

So, feedback time--how closely does alignment define religion in your campaign?


  1. Aside from lower hit dice and slower "to-hit" progression, the cleric is a ready fighter: he can wear any armour, and the restriction of "non-edged" weapons only makes a difference if you use the optional variable damage rules--given that, why not give your Lawful cleric a sword and call him a paladin? He casts (non-reversible) spells and turns undead, which make up for the lack of Fighter Combat Options at higher levels. Conversely, make all Chaotic clerics warlocks, change turn undead to control undead, and allow access to reverse forms of clerical spells. Presto: goatee'd satanist!
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  1. deimos3428
    October 13th, 2010 at 19:43 | #1

    I’m not so sure about religion, but I’m reminded of modern partisan politics. (Which are somewhat like religions, at times…)

    Socialists/democrats are all about everyone being equal under the law — but they aren’t necessarily “good”. Likewise I don’t think it’s fair to consider capitalists/republicans “evil”, but they certainly are chaotic by the above definition, looking out for their own affairs first. Somewhere in the middle lie…well, most people. You care about your family/close groups first, then yourself, then the rest of the world. Neutral isn’t represented by any particular party/system/cause because those are by definition at the extremes of the alignment system.

  2. October 13th, 2010 at 20:34 | #2

    @deimos3428 : Yup, you get it.

    I’m reluctant to ascribe our nuanced political system to alignment terms, but hell, let’s face it: three parties, three alignments…I think we can all see how this all maps out.

    Given the above definition (as you stipulate), it does make more sense to position individuals along the Law/Chaos axis than along Good/Evil. Think of it in terms of greed vs. altruism as stoppage against suffering. It’s not hard to think of the Tea Party as the modern equivalent of a Chaos Cult.

    Put it this way: If the possibility of Sarah Palin being High Priestess of Nyarlathotep sounds even a little plausible, then you see how this post might play out in your campaign.

    But your point about “most people” is spot on–Neutral is about practicality. “Most people” would love to be rich, but won’t be. “Most people” don’t object to helping the needy, but they don’t have the means. So “most people” look out for themselves and their family first, and help whomever they can, when they can, however they can, along the way.

    In the campaign, few will have the courage to be strictly altruistic, just as few are so dispossessed of conscience to be strictly self-serving. Neutrality, perforce, is a broad middle ground.

  3. October 13th, 2010 at 20:42 | #3

    My own take on it is that the only purpose of alignment was to provide genre-specific motivations for monsters, a reason to have some “protection” spells, and milieu-specific atmosphere, and that it only developed into a metaphysical clusterfark it is as the game grew.

    I’m reading LL instead the actual Moldvay, but I understand there’s no real difference. I find it a particularly vexing conceptual disconnect that everything alive has an alignment of [Law/Neutrality/Chaos] and yet the spells operate on the level of [Good/Evil].

    So, screw it, says I.

    Alignment now has different meanings depending on whether I’m discussing Men (and the “classed” demi-humans) or Monsters. For men, L/N/C are purely philosphical schools of thought, hard-wired into the various cultures through generations of cultural training, and G/E are metaphysical forces applicable to magic and beyond the full understanding of mortals. There are no alignment languages.

    For monsters, heck, Chaotic can flat out be changed to Evil with no change to the game mechanics. Ditto Law/Good.

    It’s the only way I can deal with this amazingly stupid aspect of the game, which aspect wouldn’t even be necessary except for a few spells and the whole undead/cleric thing.


  4. deimos3428
    October 13th, 2010 at 20:51 | #4

    I thought about it a bit more.

    Alignment works best to describe beliefs, not institutions organized around said beliefs. Institutions (governments, religions, etc.) of any sort tend to be Lawful, even if the underlying beliefs are not.

  5. October 13th, 2010 at 22:02 | #5

    @Bigby’s Left Hand I hear you–the spell thing always bothered me. Protection from Good makes no sense when people are L/N/C. Yet alignment as G/E is too subjective to manage across a campaign. As a side note, most monsters in Chimera have an alignment of “n/a” (animals, constructs, undead, lowlife) because they simply don’t operate under such philosphical constraints.

    But I assert that alignment can have a place in the game. For players, as defined above, it can suggest behaviour, just as much as a randomly rolled social station or bit of character background. It’s not necessary, but it can nudge players into a mode of roleplaying that may be fun or different.

    For GMs, alignment is a tool for forming the motivations of the larger world in which the characters live. In early D&D days, alignment did have a mechanical purpose, what with spells and undead, as you mention. But I think that’s largely unnecessary. Instead, I submit that alignment can help the GM determine the overriding motivations of NPCs, governments, religions, even whole societies. It’s not a crutch, nor is it an absolute, but it can help the GM formulate consistent responses to given behaviour, and in the process, prevent the urbanity of 2-dimensional constructs in every encounter.

    Alignment tends to be terribly subjective, regardless of the framework. But if leveraged by the GM, within his own boundaries, it can be useful. Just a matter of defining it in a way that works within the GM’s vision of his setting.

    @deimos3428 : Yeah, tricky thing, that. The local police are a Lawful organisation, but that doesn’t preclude Chaotic policemen. Conversely, Stalin’s purges weren’t carried out by Chaotic functionaries, despite the premier’s Chaotic state. The problem of alignment–and all the arguments and flamewars that result–occur because gamers try to map a 1-paragraph alignment description to the real world, which is just too nuanced to be completely accurate all the time. It only works on the extremes. Which means that either we confine alignment to being a convenient tool within an RPG setting or that we make the definition of Neutral so broad as to exclude all but the extremes of behaviour.

    For my money, alignment provides a good basis for determining disposition and motivation in the game world. It’s a tool, but not the only tool. Just like in the movies, it’s easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. From an organisational perspective, it’s a helpful gauge for deciding what motivates a group of people (or, rather, the people running that organisation). From a religious perspective, it’s a good way to simpify beliefs. If you need more than that in your game, you’re working with a level of detail that no one-word label can ever accommodate.

    Best to keep alignment as a tendency, instead of an absolute. Fewer problems with consistency–otherwise, everyone (GM and players) find themselves saddled by definitions that can never work properly in every situation.

  6. October 14th, 2010 at 09:33 | #6

    An alignment debate – sweet! Actually, I have always found alignment very easy to explain just by changing the way it is looked at.

    The Good vs. Evil axis is about a character’s morals, and defines WHY they do something. Good characters are self-sacrificing, evil characters are self-serving, and neutral characters fall in between this being largely self-reliant. It describes their general motivations and outlook towards the world.

    The Law vs. Chaos axis represents the character’s ethics, and defines HOW they do things. Lawful characters have a code of honour, chaotic characters will do whatever it takes to get the job done as quickly as possible, while neutral characters will generally balance these two outlooks, balancing their conscience.

    Combined together, together these create a range of alignments which are exceedingly diverse. More importantly, these twin dualities also have some foundation in current understanding of psychology, as based on Freudian psychoanalysis. According to Freud, an individual’s identity is split into two aspects – the ego and the id, which govern their ability to relate themselves to others, which forms the basic “us and them” identification. In most cases, these two parts work in balance, with the ego controlling the sense of self, and the id controlling responsibility to others. This makes most people neutral, although sometimes a person’s ego or id may be stronger than the other resulting in an alignment depending whether this affects their ethical and/or moral axis. Sometimes, however, it is possible that this balance degenerates and breaks down, resulting in mental illnesses like multiple personality disorder, schitzophrenia, and other psychosocial disorders, where the two parts may not work together, or one part may even be damaged or completely missing.

    A big issue with alignment is that for the main part it has always been considered a tendancy for several reasons. Enforcing it removes choice from the player, which is not a good idea, plus the idea of objective alignment implies that we ourselves are not in control of our own actions. Many people find discussions about psychology and mental illness disturbing because it demonstrates that not everything is under an individuals direct control. It reduces that most sacred aspects that makes us us as merely subsequent mechanisms based on biochemistry, electrical impulses, and external stimuli that few really get comfortable with.

    However, it is worth bearing in mind that there are certain advantages to the idea of objective, absolute alignments, if they are handled properly. The idea of angels and demons, of curses and mind control, mental illness and so forth are all common in D&D and other fantasy genres.

    Objective alignment is simple – it is because it is. You have one side labled good and another side labled evil, and things choose sides. Something is evil because it affected by detect evil, and detect evil works on something because it is evil. There is no logic – there does not have to be. Objective alignment is a definition. The same goes with Law and Chaos. Anything that has not chosen a side is neutral.

    The issues all occur when you try to mix these two schools of alignment together, without understanding that they are different.

    The easiest approach is often to keep these two seperate and distinct. Character alignment is a roleplaying aid, nothing more, and objective alignment, if it exists will show most characters as neutral unless they have specifically chosen a side to align with or or atherwise magically influenced. For example, Priests would have the same alignment as their faith. Those possessed by demons or suffering from mental illness might have a detectable alignment. Everyone else is neutral.

    The next level of integration is to have the GM subtly shift the objective alignment of characters in accordance with their actions. The strength of the shift should reflect the relative importance of alignment and faith in the campaign. This means that the PCs may think they are one alignment, but are actually a different alignment when they are detected. The lawful character may have betrayed his code of ethics so much he’s become chaotic, even though he might still think he’s following his code, and it’s just that his rules keep changing. Their evil antagonsit may have assisted the PCs so many times through the campaign dealing with mutual threats that he’s become neutral, if not good, and the option of just slaughtering him isn’t so palatable. The PCs can choose their starting alignment if they wish, but their alignment should be determined by the GM, who controls everything objective about the world.

    This also means that alignment issues can be brought up as a means to provide vital clues. If a PC gets dominated or suggested, they might experience mental illness where they go missing for periods of time and are unable to remember what happened. Maybe they try and do something which they feel is right, but it comes out a different way than they expected. While the GM cannot control the PCs, they can control the world, and having NPCs and other things react differently to an unexpected change of alignment can make for a very interesting plot twist. This is useful if you can get some form of group domination going on, or enjoy a lot of paranoid note passing in your games…

  7. deimos3428
    October 14th, 2010 at 12:57 | #7

    @Erin The idea of alignment as yet another randomly-generated background character stat has merit:

    “Ok, up until now Dinonychus has been a self-serving jerk.”

  8. Greg MacKenzie
    October 15th, 2010 at 08:59 | #8

    I dug out my Moldvay rule box last night to re-read the section on alignment. It’s interesting to take a second look at that. You make good points particularly where I follow your discussion of, and examination of, the text as it is applied by the subjectivity of the Dungeon Master and Players. Back in the day I remember well that the alignment chosen by Players was usually in-line with how they wanted to play the game rather than anything I particularly had in mind. There were numerous debates on the merits of the various alignments and whether or not a LG character and CE character in the same party would “get along”. Alignment was not only picked for escoteric reasons i.e. to fit into the campaign setting, but based also on the “nature” if you like of the player themselves. That led to all sorts of discussions about whether or not Role Playing revealed the real “you”. I would have like to see Doctor’s Freud and Jung playing D&D to see what they made of it. :) My subjective opinion is that, since the game involved suspension of reality (this is a game), the rules presented by Moldvay are an attempt to quantify various concepts into a set of rules which can be moderated. It is a context in itself rather than a “pure” way of canning philosophical beliefs. That is why it cannot easily be applied outside of the game setting. In many places Molvay provides references in the text to figures such as Merlin when referring to the Magic-User. Perhaps more of these needed referencing with regard to alignment to set out examples. As an example of this, I note that the KOTB book accompanied the Molvay rules in the boxed set so you were immediately needing to apply those alignment rules in that setting. As regards pantheons, I always used them myself.

  9. October 15th, 2010 at 10:49 | #9

    I really didn’t want to start an alignment debate here – my intent was to posit the ease with which one could create religion in the setting by using the existing alignment system. In the old days, I would have (and did, actually) created one pantheon for every race or kingdom. Several redundant gods, that. Now, if you dig Order, you’re a member of the Church of Law. If you’re about self-serving behaviour, you worship some Chaos thing. If you’re anything else, you’re more spiritual than religious, or maybe just agnostic.

    @Greg MacKenzie : Screw pantheons.

    When I started, Moldvay alignment seemed woefully inadequate with respect to good v evil. Which is what I thought alignment was about, based on spells that react to good or evil. I like Moldvay’s descriptions, but I think other parts of the rulebook, as well as KotB, could have done a better job of reinforcing those descriptions. In places, the authors seem to exchange Law and Chaos for Good and Evil, which is just confusing.

  10. October 16th, 2010 at 07:03 | #10

    Well, there have been many variants on alignment in different systems over the ages – the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay actually had Law and Chaos as representing extreme Good and extreme Evil respectively. This sort of makes context within the setting, since you have the forces of Chaos which serve as the ultimate evil threatening to consume the world. What was interesting was the Gods of Law, although now dropped from the setting, were originally just as alien as the gods of Chaos – and most of the good races failed to live up to their lawful alignment. This was used, in part, to justify why Witch Hunters were so staunch, unyielding, and crazy in the setting, because they actually swore an oath to these Gods of Law to defeat Chaos wherever it could be found. So in effect, the objective alignment was Law vs. Chaos, and this was wrapped around the subjective moral alignment of Good vs. Evil, where most people had to go through either Good or Evil to get to Law or Chaos. Of course, this did not always pan out – it can be hard to justify how a witch hunter could be considered good and lawful after burning down an entire village of peasants just to wipe out a Chaos cult, and they could inflict such fear and torture to get the information they needed. Seems the gods of Law accepted a lot of rather dubious ethics to get the job done in that setting…

  11. October 16th, 2010 at 10:04 | #11

    @Da’ Vane : Which I submit is another example of why subjective labels like G/E don’t work. Good is relative, Law is not. Alignment (if you’re going to use it) should be as objective as any other game mechanic.

    But really, it’s not an debate that will be decided here, and that wasn’t my intent when posting.

  12. Greg MacKenzie
    October 16th, 2010 at 11:43 | #12

    RE: @Greg MacKenzie : Screw pantheons.

    :) Good chuckle there, I do get your point though Erin and liked your article. Its interesting and thought provoking as usual. Until later.


  13. deimos3428
    October 16th, 2010 at 14:13 | #13

    @Erin Real-world pantheons reflect the society that invented them. That is, each god represents one or more relevant things to that society, and the pantheon as a whole demonstrates how the society carves up the universe into manageable chunks. (That many pantheons have similar characters is due to a) borrowing and b) similar conditions). It’s very hard to create a convincing pantheon for a fictional setting, because you’ve got to strive to be somewhat interesting/original, and yet also retain believability.

    That said, I think the alignment system is one such underpinning. If you’ve got several gods of “law”, “chaos”, etc…you’re just vastly simplifying how society divides the universe. It’s still a pantheon of sorts, though one that suggests the population is very black-and-white in their understanding of the world.

  14. October 16th, 2010 at 17:22 | #14

    @Erin D. Smale I have to disagree with this. Alignment can be considered both relative/subjective and objective depending upon how it is defined. Law is often considered following “the law” but it is relative to “the law” itself – if the law is anarchy, then following the law is anarchy. If ethics don’t mater in “the law” then the law is “unethical”. By virtue, being lawful is always about following an established code of ethics, irregardless of what that code is – it could be a Paladin’s virtue, a Knight’s oath of fealty, the pirate’s code, or honour among thieves. These are all ethics. Ironically, the idea that there cannot be lawful bards and rogues are misplaced because the law is often related to a specific ideal of law – and ideal that is not neccessarily prevailant in any roleplaying setting.

    By contrast, if you can argue that the law is objective by applying it to a static singular set of laws, then you can also apply similar logic to good, making that also objective, by applying it to a singular set of virtues. The PC games series of Ultima features a character called the Avatar that strives to become a paragon of virtue by embracing the ideals of a specific standard of behaviour whhich can be considered good – including Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Honor, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Humility. While there is some cross-over with law here, most of these would make the objective standard definition of good.

    Objectivity and Subjectivity need to be understood before such arguments can be carried out fairly, because you really need to make sure that these are the same, unless they have some specific tie in with the campaign. An objective viewpoint is one where it is the same for everyone, because they can compare it from the outside, and takes two forms – the it is because it is approach, or because there is a standard defination which all viewers can compare agree and compare that to. The former simply has terms such as good and law about as much use as elemental or undead – they are definitions for mechanics, and that’s about it.

    The latter has an established definition which means you should think about who made that definition and why. This is useful in campaign building – defining law as civilzed and chaos as anti-civilized works. If you have an empire that does things considered evil, then anyone doing similar things will also be evil, and any one opposing the empire and going against such actions will be good. It does not matter what the actions are.

    Subjective viewpoints are interpretive, and differ based on perspective. One of the hardest criticisms of social science is that it is not objective. This is true, it is not – because it is hard to be objective when you are studying something from the inside that you cannot escape to see the outside from, to get that objective viewpoint. Studying behaviour on any scale, from individuals to organizations will always be subjective, because the more generalise the subject you are observing the less objective it will be. Observing human behaviour in society when we are humans in society can never be objective. It will only be objective if we study other humans in another society that we are not part of.

    This feature is important because a great deal of the issues covered in social science comes down to debates about subjectivity, and the fact that we differentiate between things in various ways. What two people consider good or lawful are subject to debate, because they have different perspectives, and this will in turn affect what they consider not good and unlawful. When using subjective alignment, you have to ask who is it subjective to – the PCs, their patrons, the citizens? They say one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist – yet both of these have exactly the same alignment, and in many cases, opposing forces themselves might have the same alignment doing what they believe is right as subjective to their own standards.

    The ultimate in objectivity, which relates to pantheons, is the idea that law and chaos are just descriptions, like good and evil. They are teams, and the gods, religions, and eveything else join one faction or another. Whether it is an organized but bureaucratic church of law, or a multitude of hidden sleeper cells of resistance fighter devoted to Chaos cults is irrelvent. This can just as easily be reversed – the forces of Chaos coming together to sweep all before them like the legions of Mordor, while lawful heroes make attacks of opportunity and use sophisticated intelligence and espionage tactics to whittle down their foes. It’s still Law vs. Chaos. It’s still all about as sophisticated as an RTS game – but this is what makes them so fun. Law vs. Chaos, or Alliance vs. Horde? Is there really a difference? This is the true objective apporach to alignment.

  15. October 16th, 2010 at 20:06 | #15

    @deimos3428 The assertion that pantheons based on Order and Disorder are a reflection of social interpretation skews the definition, because society itself requires Order to exist. IOW, any society, by virtue of being a society will trend along an objective definition of Law and Chaos.

    @Da’ Vane We’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m not saying that Law and Chaos are just descriptions–they are, as they relate to social fabric, absolutes. Good and Evil, on the other hand, are just descriptions, because each culture imposes relative requirements on what it means to do good or what behaviour constitutes evil.

    An old-world explorer from an ordered society knows what Order is–the traits that maintain a cohesive social body. When he encounters cannibal savages, who have their own cohesive social body, he may think they’re evil (because they eat people), but the fact that they’re Ordered–by virtue of practicing behaviour that preserves their society–cannot be denied. The old-world explorer may disagree with the cannibals’ social practices, but that’s not about Law vs. Chaos–it’s about Good vs. Evil.

  16. October 17th, 2010 at 18:13 | #16

    @Erin D. Smale Your argument makes no sense, Erin. You are failing to treat the Law vs. Chaos axis in the same way as the Good vs. Evil axis. Interesting for a specific setting maybe, if justified properly, but it’s not exactly logical reasoning – particularly given previous reasoning about ditching Attributes for Abilities because they were treated differently for no real cause.

    If you can treat Law and Chaos as absolutes – that it is following rules or breaking them, then you can also treat Good and Evil as absolutes, because good is putting others before yourself, and evil is putting yourself before others. On the other hand, if you are arguing that Good and Evil are subjective according to their cultures, because they apply different meanings and action to being good and evil, then you can also treat Law and Chaos as subjective because each culture is also established by its laws and customs which define it as a culture – to be lawful is to follow said customs, and to be chaotic is to rebel against them.

    Otherwise you have no argument or logic, you are just saying I like Law and Chaos as objective absolutes and Good and Evil as subjective. Any combination of alignment set ups can make for interesting campaigns, especially when justified and implemented properly, but logic and reason goes out the window other than to say this is what it is because that’s the setting.

    It’s like arguing why there are Elves and Orcs in D&D? You can go on about needing different races for gameplay purposes, but Elves and Orcs specifically exist solely because they exist. They are there. That’s the way it is.

  17. October 17th, 2010 at 20:22 | #17

    @Da’ Vane : Having counted to 10, I offer this reply:

    My failure to treat L/C the same as G/E is because they’re different: the former has none of the moral subjectivity inherent to the latter. Law and Chaos within a society–any society–is objective, because a society exists by virtue of a set of behaviours that preserve it (Law); rebelling against these behaviours erodes society (Chaos).

    It’s true that each society observes different customs to preserve that cohesion, but the act of forming a society–regardless of its norms–is an act of Order. Now, you can argue that those customs are good or evil, but the fact that they exist as a set of value designed to establish community is an objective condition.

    So is a group of self-serving individuals who band together for mutual support Lawful or Chaotic? By virtue of being a community, it’s Lawful. But the community is only as strong as its members’ desire to preserve it, so as soon as someone “breaks the rules” to further his own agenda, or compromises the group’s solidarity because it crosses a self-serving goal, it falls into disorder. Chaos wins.

    Compare to a community comprised of members who see strength in unified goals and shared values, where preserving the society is ultimately more important than personal gain. Again, establishing such a group is a Lawful act, but in this case, the (quite literal) alignment of its members to the community’s goals will work to preserve it. There may be Chaotic members, and these will be defined by inability to adhere or support the community’s customs over their own desires.

    My argument (in the alignment debate I repeated stated this post wasn’t about) is that Law and Chaos are about Order and Disorder. Establishing community is establishing order–grouping individuals within a shared set of values and purpose. Preserving that community, by putting the group’s needs before one’s own, is a Lawful act. Ignoring community, or choosing not to support it over individual needs–is eroding order, or by converse definition, Chaotic.

    Whether that community is good or evil is immaterial–it’s a community. If everyone in it thinks that the community is made stronger by eating babies or promoting genocide, it’s still a community whose members put society’s needs before their individual concerns. That makes it Lawful. Good and evil have nothing to do with it.

    I don’t expect to have convinced you, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. As I said, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  18. October 18th, 2010 at 11:02 | #18

    @Erin D. Smale You are right that you haven’t convinced me, Erin. This is because your argument is flawed from the start (as far as I can see) by the very phrase: “My failure to treat L/C the same as G/E is because they’re different: the former has none of the moral subjectivity inherent to the latter.” Following my previously stated argument that Good vs. Evil represents the moral axis of alignment, and Law vs. Chaos represents the ethical axis of alignment, it is clear to see why the former lacks the moral subjectivity of the latter – this is because the former isn’t about morals at all. The former has ethical subjectivity instead. If you ignore the type of subjectivity each axis has, both axis are capable of subjectivity.

    Ethics are the code of practices adopted by any culture, profession, or group of individuals. These ethics are what give certain people authority over others. Laws in society, even coming together in a community, is just one set of ethics and one set of authority, and over human history what we have considered authority has changed significantly as politics evolves. Various religious groups used to have significant authority, guilds had authority, monarchy had authority, and now science has ever increasing authority.

    It’s how people react to such authority – whether they are team players or rebels that is represented by the Law vs. Chaos axis. It is the how, over the why, that this part defines. Whether it is the ravenous squabbling horde of chaos that you need to whip to get anything done because it’s all pulling in different directions, and can explode and turn in on itself at any point or the military-efficient special forces of insurgents – both can still be used just as easily for good as it can for evil.

    The thing you are failing to grasp is that whether individuals co-operate or not, they can still be regarded as a group for various reasons. Even if they do not co-operate, there does not suddenly become fewer individuals. There are just as many poeple there as there always have been. 100 chaotic individuals can be considered 100 groups of 1, but it is still a group of 100 people, whether they themselves co-operate.

    This is important because in most chaotic groups there is no willing cooperation. The seperate groups either fight amongst themselves, or someone higher up the command chain literally intimidates or beats them into doing the same thing. These generals struggle with each other too in the manner, right up until the top, where you normally have one supreme chaos leader who is strong enough to whip everyone into a horde or a group of squabbling leaders. You take out the leader, and the chaotic horde collapses into the chaos it really is – that one person did not make the entire horde lawful.

    To follow the argument that all groups are inherently lawful, means that all parties are inherently lawful. That all of the individual PCs in a party are inherently lawful, otherwise they would not be in a party.

    As for a real-world objective defination of good vs. evil, I refer you to the theory of altruism, as proven by the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I posted about it on the DVOID Systems blog (not sure you got the trackback for that – check http://www.dvoidsystems.com for it).

    This is very much a debate about alignment, because it’s about handling churches and pantheons of alignment, is it not? The scales simply get bigger, and in the case of many chaotic cults, it is often the strength of the god of chaos that can gather a horde to them in this manner. Of course, then you have to answer why, and that’s where good versus evil normall comes into place. Most settings have good vs. evil as a core conflict, and then set up the conflicting forces as either lawful are chaotic depending upon their setting – the most common being lawful good and chaotic evil, but chaotic good and lawful evil is also popular.

    Why you are counting to 10 I do not know, Erin – I am very much enjoying the thought-provoking debate.

  19. deimos3428
    October 18th, 2010 at 12:48 | #19


    I take your point about Law/Chaos being objective, if only because I’m lazy and the posts between yourself and Da’Vane are far too lengthy for me to consume. (I can only process so much alignment before the brain just displays static and an overlay of “I/O error” in flashing green.) Please don’t mistake the following for any more than random musing.

    Consider an ancient real-world pantheon, like that of greek myth. It must be subjective, because Zeus et. al. didn’t objectively exist. Contrast that with a fictional pantheon, where the deities are objectively real — complete with game stats. (Indistinguishable to the characters in the setting and perhaps even the players, but not the GM.)

    But on top of whatever objective reality exists, there is usually a rather thick layer of subjectivity. Maybe Zeus and Thor are functionally one and the same objective deity of Law. I suppose one could abstract that subjective layer away, but I’m not sure one should. It depends on how much you want to focus on such things in the campaign…Moldvay, and D&D in general, was decidedly less about specific deities than AD&D.

  20. October 19th, 2010 at 11:41 | #20

    @Da’ Vane : This has become an alignment debate because you persist in arguing an untenable point (that, and my proclivity to defend my interpretation). This post was meant to suggest a short-cut to creating your campaign’s religions, using alignment as the basis, whatever those alignments are or whatever they mean.

    Unfortunately, it’s devolved into a pointless and non-tractable debate. This post was neither likely nor intended to convince you to handle alignment in your campaign differently than you’ve always done. Similarly, it’s just as unlikely that you’ll convince me that my interpretation of alignment in my campaign is wrong.

    But to persist in championing your interpretation of alignment when I’ve already conceded that we’ll have to agree to disagree suggests you’re just using this thread as a soapbox.

    As I’ve stated–repeatedly–this is not the place where alignment will be decided. If your interpretation works for you, go forth and use it. If you feel that this post is meaningless because it’s based on an interpretation you don’t agree with, I’m sorry you didn’t find it helpful, and I hope to have something more useful to you next week.

  21. October 19th, 2010 at 16:45 | #21

    I’m sorry I missed the point of the post, Erin. I actually quite enjoyed flexing the old grey matter over the issue of alignment – particularly with regards to religion.

    It may seem like I’ve neglected the latter point in my posts, but I have not – in many fantasy settings where religion is truly profound, the gods are real people, and the religions are made of real people, so is comes back to how the individuals act. In other settings, religion is more abstract anyway – you get some real shock value when ancient terrors or old spill forth to wreck havoc on unsuspecting urbanites who though religion was for the uneducated…

  22. October 19th, 2010 at 17:45 | #22

    @Da’ Vane : I don’t mind discussion, but alignment tends to be a religious debate (no pun intended) that no one is going to win. The best alignment system is the one that works for your setting and your playing group. There are too many variables and interpretations for a one-size-fits-all approach.

    One such variable is revealed in your last reply, and I think it reveals some of where each of us are coming from: For example, alignment is only L/C axis in my campaign–another difference from yours, I think. Plus, gods aren’t real people, though there are real people/entities/beings who have god-like powers. There’s a chicken-and-egg thing quality to it all: which came first–The people who invented the gods, or the gods who invented people, and depending on the answer, who’s really responsible for alignment?

  23. October 20th, 2010 at 07:51 | #23

    @Erin D. Smale Erm, I think you may have missed some of my points about alignment in my walls of text, for which I apologise, but basically, this was my point. Your arguments were flawed because you were not trating Law vs. Chaos and Good vs. Evil equally. There’s nothing saying you have to – if you justify this in the specific setting. It is just useful to be aware that Good and Evil can be just as objective as Law and Chaos, and Law and Chaos can be just as subjective as Good and Evil, and this makes for a lot of alignment configurations based on just these two standard axis.

    Alignment, in itself, is really just a balance between any number of opposing factors. I’ve seen setting use War vs. Peace rather than Law vs. Chaos, and the Legend of Zelda RPG magic system can also be seen as an alignment system that has a triangular system, which has Wisdom vs. Power vs. Courage. Magic the Gathering is a 5-alignment system, with each colour of magic opposing two others, and allying with one of the remaining two to oppose their fores, forming mini-triangles. If red wants to counter blue, it can gain strength by allying with green, which also opposes blue, for example. The later Elder Scrolls games features a trinity based around the conflict between Combat, Magic, and Stealth. There’s a whole franchise dedicated to the duality of Might vs. Magic. Plus, you’ve got the classical and eastern elements as well. These are all examples of alignments that can be used, objectively or subjectively, to define people, dieties, religions, and cultures.

  24. October 20th, 2010 at 09:33 | #24

    @Da’ Vane Fair enough, but given that level of flexibility, I’m entirely unsure as to why my clear definitions above inspired such a stir. Or do you just want me to admit that my argument is flawed? ;)

  25. October 21st, 2010 at 12:45 | #25

    A stir? No, the entire post and the discussion, to which I came in rather late, was quite pleasant and enjoyable. I was not stirred at all.

    Of course, I have to admit that I consider myself old-school, yet I have and played games systems older than I am. Heck, the original printing for AD&D came out two years before I was born! So while I have some familiarity with OD&D, mainly through the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and arther archaic sources from way back, sometimes even the references in this blog confuse me. I have never even heard of Moldvay Basic, as I wasn’t born until 1981 – and being British, some of the lesser known sources just simply didn’t make it across the pond to anywhere where I could get them!

    You, sir, have been gaming for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I find that somewhat astonishing, and thoroughly enjoy this level of discussion. At no point was any stirring intended – except maybe in my tea…

  26. October 21st, 2010 at 13:23 | #26

    @Da’ Vane : You, sir, have been gaming for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

    I am at a loss to determine if that’s cheerful or mildly depressing.

    Moldvay Basic isn’t to be missed. You can find occasional copies on eBay, Half.com, or Noble Knight games. For me, it was/is foundational. The Rules Cyclopedia is close, but not precisely identical, as that tome was built off the compiled Mentzer boxed sets.

    Oddly, TSR/WotC never released PDF versions of either (not that they’d sell them now if they did, of course), but I really encourage you to try and get your hands on a copy of Moldvay’s Basic or Cook’s Expert (“B/X”).

  27. mrmiffmiff
    May 19th, 2011 at 13:33 | #27

    I’m not sure I agree with this. I’m not sure what this Molvday thing is, but I generally have a different interpretation. The two axes are two completely different things. Chaotic people don’t necessarily only think of themselves. I generally think of Robin Hood as Chaotic (he deliberately disobeys the law), and he doesn’t think of himself at all.

  28. May 19th, 2011 at 19:37 | #28

    @mrmiffmiff : I won’t disagree with you, essentially because alignment tends to lose its objectivity from group to group. Robin Hood is a good example–strictly speaking, he’s Chaotic, but only because he’s an outlaw. Given the “spirit” of the descriptions I use, I’d say he’s more Neutral than Lawful (i.e., he’s not entirely selfless, which hopefully doesn’t sound like a cop-out).

    I think regardless of how your group interprets each alignment, the important thing is that you establish polar opposites to depict the behavioural extremes needed to fit in with your campaign. Whether you base that axis on morality, order, loyalty, alliegance, religion, or general philosophy probably doesn’t matter so much as how logical it is to the setting and how accessible it is to your players.

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