It is still a work in progress.
This article proposes an “alignment system with teeth” for D&D.
For ease of implementation it reverts Alignments back to the “old school” single axis of “Lawful” and “Chaotic”, but splits “Neutral” into a passive “Unaligned” and an active “Balanced”. It then defines “Law”, “Chaos”, and “Balance” as cosmic forces looking to recruit new footsoldiers and knights.
Mechanically it uses percentile scores to represent each character’s allegiance to Law, Chaos, and Balance. “Lawful” behavior increases the Law score, “Chaotic” behavior increases the “Chaotic” score, and “Balanced” behavior increases the “Balance” score. Behaviors can also decrease a score when they emphatically violate the tenets of that Alignment. Players also receive (dubious) benefits from one cosmic force if its Alignment predominates.
This mechanic was already implemented as “Allegiance” in Chaosium’s Stormbringer, Elric!, Basic Roleplaying (2008), and Magic World (2012). A DM may rename the Algnments to “Light” and “Shadow” (as in Magic World) or any other cosmic duality that makes sense for their campaign world.1 With a few tweaks the same mechanic can represent a Cleric’s relationship with their god (as Devotion in Mythras), a Paladin’s adherence to their oath, or a character’s zeal for a mundane faction, cause, or organization (as Factions and Righteousness in Renaissance).
Never have such minimal rules caused so many arguments as Alignments in D&D.
The alignment system in Original D&D borrowed Michael Moorcock’s “Law” and “Chaos” to separate the “good guys” from the “bad guys”, and added “Neutrality” for creatures that were uninvolved, nonsentient, or actively opposed to both. From the moment Gygax included two-axis alignments in AD&D 1st edition the arguments about “good” and “evil” and “law” and “chaos” began.
Modern versions, especially 4th and 5th editions, have removed Alignment from the mechanics of spells and class abilities, for the most part. But it still remains in the game, and still provokes arguments and justifies antisocial behavior in what should be a fun game about elves and dragons.
I propose this mechanic for a few reasons:
Questions of morality are beyond the scope of the aforementioned fun game. Thus I removed the “Good” and “Evil” axis entirely. “Law” is mostly but not completely “good”, “Chaos” is mostly but not completely “evil”, and “Balance” is the author’s idea of good but has some problematic parts.
Declaring an alignment does not ensure that one adheres to it. The old cliché is that D&D parties declare they’re Lawful Good but act Chaotic Neutral. These mechanics measure how each player character acts and derives an alignment from that.
Players can gain minor rewards for picking an alignment and sticking with it despite temptations to do otherwise.
Every Alignment (save Unaligned) has an ethos, both in terms of the sort of people drawn to it and the wider goals it strives to achieve.
As a cosmic force, the Powers of Law seek to reduce the multiverse to a set of absolote laws that every person and every particle must obey. The Angels, Archons, and Aeons who serve Law believe their creator, whom they call the Most High, ordained that they serve Law while maintaining strict hierarchies where the lower obey the higher without question.
As a philosophy, adherents of Law believe that civilization, social structures, and laws provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people. While most Lawful beings believe in helping the fortunate, they believe help should also guide those helped into becoming model citizens. A minority of Lawful beings believe an orderly society requires subjugating or eliminating the weak, although most organizations disavow this philosophy as “uncivilized”.
Canonism, or the Church of Law, exists in many worlds as the Angels’ instrument to spread Lawful behavior and philosophy among mortals.
As a cosmic force, The Balance attempts to rein in both Law and Chaos, ultimately neutralizing both. The enigmatic Justices have instituted an informal network of agents, mortal and immortal, to monitor the progress of Law and Chaos and counter both when they grow too strong on a world.
Adherents of Balance have no formal religion, but informally pass down a “Way of Balance” from master to disciple. This “Way” advocates harmony with the natural world, encourages development of “natural” abilities over arcane or divine magic, and attempts to resolve both human and nonhuman conflicts peacefully. Agents of Balance also organize into cells or cover organizations that take orders from superiors, human and otherwise.
Many have characterized Balance as fence-sitters, appeasers, contrarians, eco-fanatics, or misanthropes, occasionally at the same time. It is true that many in Balance seem to care more about their devotion to nature, art, or abstract principles than about mortal lives. It is also true that agents of Balance consistently value mortals more than Law or Chaos, locked as they are in a bitter, endless war.
As a cosmic force, the Powers of Chaos emphasize the randomness and cruelty of the natural world, including those forces that can destroy a world in an instant. The “leaders” (i.e. strongest) of the faction include the incomprehensible Great Old Ones and the sinister, unseen Eldest Evils, who can command (i.e. intimidate) hordes of daemons, devils, evil jinn, and eldritch horrors.
Adherents of Chaos prize freedom, living in the moment, and following one’s dreams. (Or whims. Or moods.) This has led to a majority of Chaos followers committing atrocities because they felt like it, because they were breaking rules, or because they wanted to prove their power over “lesser beings”. That the leaders of the faction are demons, devils, and eldritch horrors certainly does not help. Yet a small niche of “good chaotics” take the opposite tack: because life is fragile and meaningless in a pitiless, random cosmos one should preserve it for as long as possible.
Chaos is organized into innumerable small cells or “cults”, each centered on a charismatic leader and/or powerful supernatural patron. Canonists can crush each cell with relative ease once they have identified it; crushing all the “cults” is night impossible.
This section presents common actions characters may take, and the effects on their three allegiances to the Alignments. It is by no means complete.
|Opposing agents of Balance.||+2||+2|
|Opposing agents of Chaos.||+2||+2|
|Opposing agents of Law.||+2||+2|
|Giving to charity.||+1|
|Giving a lot to charity.||+2|
|Aiding law enforcement.||+1|
|Defiling a Temple of Law.||+2|
|Defying an authority figure.||+2|
|Defying a law one doesn’t agree with.||+1||+2|
|Defying law enforcement.||+2|
|Escaping law enforcement.||+1|
|Obeying a law one doesn’t agree with.||+1||-2|
|Telling a lie.||-1|
|Breaking an oath.||-2||-1|
|Upholding an oath despite personal hardship.||+2||+1|
|Doing what one wants despite personal hardship.||+1||+2|
|Sticking to one’s principles despite personal hardship.||+1||+2|
|Building a non-magical house, shop, etc.||+1|
|Building a Temple of Law.||+3|
|Building a temple to a god.||+1|
|Creating a work of art.||+1|
|Founding a Cult of Chaos.||-3||+3|
|Founding a non-magical school.||+2|
|Founding a School of Balance.||+3|
|Inventing an anti-magic countermeasure.||+1||+2|
|Inventing an arcane spell.||+1|
|Inventing a divine spell.||+1||+1|
|Inventing a magical potion or device.||+1|
|Inventing a non-magical medicine or device.||+3|
|Starting a business.||+2|
|Writing a book of useful knowledge.||+2|
|Cutting down a tree.||-1|
|Destroying an ecosystem.||-3|
|Falling in love (DM’s judgement).||+3|
|Planting a tree.||+1|
|Rescuing an animal.||+1|
|Saving an ecosystem.||+3|
|Using magic unnecessarily (DM’s judgement).||-1|
|Quests of Balance|
|Abandoning a quest of Balance.||-1d6|
|Refusing a quest of Balance.||-1d3|
|Seeing a quest of Balance through despite outcome.||+1d3|
|Succeeding at a quest of Balance.||+1d6|
|Quests of Chaos|
|Abandoning, refusing, or failing at a quest of Chaos.||-1d8|
|Succeeding at a quest of Chaos.||+1d8|
|Quests of Law|
|Abandoning or refusing a quest of Law.||-1d10|
|Executing a quest of Law successfully.||+3|
|Executing a quest of Law unsuccessfully.||+1|
|Persevering in a quest of Law despite hardship.||+1|
|Stealing to survive.||+1||+2|
|Stealing to give to the poor.||+1||+1|
|Stealing for profit.||+2|
|Stealing for fun.||+3|
|Defending the weak.||+1||+2|
|Harming an animal.||-1|
|Harming a plant.||-1|
|Harming a sapient being.||-1|
|Killing an animal for food.||-1|
|Killing in cold blood.||-3||-3|
|Killing a convicted criminal.||+1|
|Killing in a fair duel.||+1||+1|
|Killing in self-defense.||-1|
|Killing a stronger opponent.||+1|
|Killing during a war (per war).||+3|
Players who want to opt out of this system can simply mark their characters as Unaligned and tell the DM they don’t want their characters’ behavior tracked.
Players who opt into this Hard Mode Alignment system tell the DM whether they want to be biased toward Law, Chaos, Balance, or none. They write their desired Alignment on their sheet, but it may change depending on how well they conform to their desired alignment.
The DM keeps a sheet of paper2 to track the characters’ allegiance to each Alignment throughout the campaign. For each PC the DM enters “25” for their desired alignment and “10” for the other two, or “15” for all three if the player wanted no bias. These scores reflect the character’s behavior before the start of the campaign.
Increasing and Decreasing Scores
The DM assesses each action the PC takes in-game and increases or decreases the character’s allegiance to one or more of the three Alignments. Modifications should reflect the ethos of the Alignments. A handy behavior chart provides example modifications for some common situations, but as usual the DM should use their judgment.
For example, Karkul the Chaotic murders a peasant in cold blood because the peasant witnessed Karkul’s other murder. The Behavior Chart suggests a -3 to Law and Balance cold-blooded murder, and as Karkul committed two of them the DM doubles the modifiers: -6 to Law and Balance.
All conditions should be considered. If Karkul had killed a stronger opponent in a fair duel, Chaos would award him +2: +1 for defeating a stronger opponent and +1 for doing it in a fair duel. Law would award a net +0: the duel was fair, but he still brought harm to a sapient being.
If the player asks, the DM should only tell them their dominant Alignment. (I.e. which Alignment has the highest allegiance score.)
Serving an Alignment
Serving an Alignment has its benefits. Once per game session the PC may ask for a Boon from an Alignment. These boons may include:
Temporary hit points equal to 1/5 (rounded down) of the character’s Alignment score.
A one-time skill bonus equal to 1/20 (rounded down) of the character’s Alignment score.
Once the character’s spell slots are all expended, a refresh of spell slots equal to 1/10 (rounded down) of the character’s Alignment score, from lowest to highest.
A chance at a “divine” intervention equal to 1/10 (rounded down) of the character’s highest Alignment score. The player rolls percentile dice and, if the score is under the intervention chance, the DM must arrange some “lucky” break to get the PCs out of their current predicament.
Help from an Alignment isn’t free. Each request for aid reduces the associated Alignment score by 1d6 points. Agents are also expected to carry out small (or not so small) “quests” to assist in the ongoing Cosmic Struggle.
Acknowledged agents of an Alignment often receive “quests” to prove their loyalty and to tilt (or right) the balance of Law and Chaos. These tasks may be as simple as delivering a message to a far-off place to killing a person. Mortal agents never truly see the subtle strategies at work, although the DM should have an explanation ready if the PC insists on asking their quest-giver.
All Alignments look favorably on completion of the quest, less favorably on failure or complication, and disfavorably on abandoning or refusing the quest. Each has its own criteria, however. Balance rewards questers just for trying, and typically show less disfavor for refusal than abandonment. Chaos only considers results: success receives praise (of a sort), failure receives blame. Law considers refusal or abandonment unconscionable, but acknowledges hardships or extraordinary effort on their behalf.
Score changes for abandonment, refusal, success or failure are random to reflect the unknowable importance of the quest in the grand scheme. The DM can retcon quests with low bonuses or penalties as not that important and those with high bonuses or penalties as unexpectedly important.
A character who reaches a score of 100 in an Alignment receives a visitation or vision from that Alignment’s Powers That Be asking them to fight for their Alignment in their world. Having accepted the invitation, the new Champion receives some extra abilities befitting their Alignment and role as Champions:
Champion of Law: The character gains a knighthood, baronetcy, or equivalent, including a grant of land appropriate to their station. (The DM may substitute any other material benefit as long as it keeps the PC financially independent and tied down.) The local Churcn of Law presumably arranged things behind the scenes.
Champion of Balance: The character always has Temporary Hit Points equal to 1/5 of their current Balance score. These recover at the same rate as normal hit points after a Short or Long Rest.
Champion of Chaos: If the character is killed, they rise again from the dead after 1d8 days as if Resurrected. However, they react to Cleric and Paladin powers as if undead, and lose 1 point of Charisma after every resurrection in addition to normal losses.
A character can only serve as Champion of one Alignment.
Champions become the pawns of their Alignment, and must go (or stay) wherever the Alignment wants them. Representatives of the Alignment will provide them with quests to undertake, missions to accomplish, and sometimes trivial tasks to execute.
Alignments and Clerical Domains
Clerics of an Alignment must choose a god (or antigod) of the same Alignment. Below are the multiversal “lords” of each Alignment.
Powers That Be
A Cleric may dedicate themselves to the unnamed Powers of their Alignment. Below are the alternate names for the Powers of each Alignment and their primary Domains.
|Powers That Be||Alternate Name||Symbol||Domains|
|Law||The Most High||Circle or Disc||Grave, Life, Light, Order, War|
|Balance||The Tribunal||Balanced Scale||Knowledge, Life, Nature, Peace, Twilight|
|Chaos||The Dread Lords||8-Pointed Star||Arcana, Death, Tempest, Trickery, War|
Lords of Law
Law can accommodate every Domain except the forbidden ones of Arcana and Death.
Each Domain is the province of one of the Virtues, an order of Angels.
|Azrael||Grave||spade, point upward|
|Siëliel||Life||twig with five branches|
|Aniyiel||Light||stylized sun with four rays|
|Gadriel||Nature||stylized leaf with five veins|
|Adriel||Order||equilateral triangle resting on its base|
|Lahariel||Peace||open hand, fingers downward|
|Hamsariel||Trickery||open hand, fingers upward, with a stylized eye|
|Maniel||War||sword, point upward|
Each angel is portrayed as a human face with its eyes closed surrounded by four wings, with the symbol of their Domain on their forhead.
Lords of Balance
Balance can accomodate every domain but the forbidden ones of Death and Order.
Despite the legalism of the doctrines of Law, the three primary entities of the Balance have roles akin to a court of mundane law. While conceptually impartial, one “Justice” accuses a soul, one defends the soul, and one weighs the evidence to break the tie. The fourth “Justice” is, by this analogy, more like a court reporter.
|Amah||The Advocate||Forge, Light, Peace, Trickery|
|Ma’at||The Arbiter||Knowledge, Life, Nature|
|Zepha||The Prosecutor||Grave, Tempest, Twilight, War|
Despite their relatively few domains, Ma’at is the most honored Justice, for it is their responsibility to weigh the evidence and declare which way the Cosmic Balance tilts, both in a world and in a mortal’s heart. Their name allegedly means “truth”, “order”, and “justice” in an ancient language.
Their symbol is a pair of scales or a stylized representation of scales. The same symbole represents the Powers of Balance, leading some to believe Ma’at is the true Power of Balance.
Amah is the Justice of mercy, compassion, art, eloquence, and peace. Their role is to counsel little or no action and to give mortals and worlds alike the benefit of the doubt. They are also the patron of those who “shade” the truth and bend the rules.
Their symbol is a stylized smiling face, usually white or silver.
Zephna is the Justice of retribution, harsh measures, and final sanctions. Their role is to counsel swift and decisive action and to give no quarter. They are the patron of those who defend their worlds and their hearts against Chaos and who sometimes use the tactics of the enemy to defeat the enemy.
Their symbol is a stylized frowning face, usually black or iron.
Quaranthunë is allegedly a minor Chaos antigod who threw in their lot with Balance. They oversee the formerly forbidden domain of Arcana.
Many proponents of Balance view all forms of magic as disruptive to the natural order as untempered Law or umbridled Chaos. Not all Masters of Balance welcome users of magic into their ranks, but the Judges, supreme leaders of the faction of Balance second only to the Justices, allow judicious use of magic as a way to combat hostile magic.
Quaranthunë’s symbol is a conical wizard’s hat with a brim and a single eye in the center.
Lords of Chaos
Chaos accomodates all Domains except the forbidden ones of Order and Peace.
The antigods of Chaos oppose all stasis and all order. They take on the aspects of human tragedies and fears so as to oppose Law and Balance. Their nature and role in the ranks of Chaos beings is unclear, as is typical for Chaos.
|Axas-Mastu||Bringer of War||Grave, Forge, War|
|Gadyarabat||Great Calamity||Life, Nature, Tempest|
|Ulanabar||Speaker of Lies||Light, Trickery, Twilight|
|Vephalgorith||Deathless||Arcana, Death, Knowledge|
|Xaphnethor||Avatar of Chaos||Arcana, Death, Tempest, Trickery, War|
The symbol for each Antigod is a complex sigil.
Alignment, Multiple Axis
Adkinson, Peter, et al Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handboook 3rd Edition Revised (3.5), Wizards of the Coast (2003).
Cook, Dave, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook 2nd Edition Revised, TSR, Inc. (1995).
Gygax, E. Gary, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook 1st Edition, TSR, Inc. (1978).
Holmes, John Eric, Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, TSR Inc. (1977), pp 8-9.
Mearls, Mike, and Crawford, Jeremy, Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook 5th Edition, Wizards of the Coast (2014), p 122.
Alignment, Single Axis
Allston, Aaron, Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, TSR, Inc. (1991), p 10-11.
Goodman, Joseph, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG 10th Printing, Goodman Games (2012), p 24.
Gygax, E. Gary, and Arneson, Dave, Dungeons & Dragons Book I: Men and Magic, Tactical Studies Rules (1973), p 9.
Heinsoo, Rob, et. al, Dungeons & Dragons Players’ Handbook 4th Edition, Wizards of the Coast (2008).
Mentzer, Frank, Dungeons & Dragons Players Manual, TSR, Inc. (1983), p 9.
Moldvay, Tom, Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook, TSR, Inc. (1981), p 11.
Raggi, James, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Rules & Magic, Lamentations of the Flame Princess (2013), p 8.
Allegiance and others
Durall, Jason, et al., Basic Roleplaying, Chaosium (2008), pp 315-318.
Monroe, Ben, editor, Magic World, Chaosium (2012), pp 28-32.
Nash, Pete, and Whitaker, Lawrence, Mythras revision 3, The Design Mechanism (2018), p 178.
Walton, Ken, and Cakebread, Peter, Renaissance SRD, Cakebread & Walton (2011), pp 20-26.
Willis, Lynn et al., Elric!, Chaosium (1993), pp 34-36
The author, however, does not recommend using “Good” and “Evil” directly as morality is a complicated and messy judgement call. Is killing one to save many good or evil? Is a starving man stealing a loaf of bread good or evil? Do circumstances matter? It’s less confusing to use metaphorical standins like “Light” and “Darkness” for what basically amounts to “good guys” and “bad guys”. ↩︎
In the D100 versions of these rules the player tracks their character’s allegiance to each Alignment on their character sheet. While this distributes the DM’s bookkeeping it also makes players aware of their current scores. Making Alignment scores the DM’s responsibility keeps Alignment firmly in the background. Players are less likely to try to min-max their allegiance scores if they’re not right in front of them. ↩︎