Third Rails of the OSR: Alignment

Every once in awhile, I find myself drawn to a topic that's largely considered taboo among the OSR community for one reason or another. Maybe it dredges up bad memories. Maybe there are irreconcilable  differences between different schools of thought. Maybe everyone's sure that their interpretation is the right one and yours is crap. In fact, these "third rails" of the gaming community (not even just the OSR) are becoming so widespread that the list of things we agree not to talk about is ending up way too long. Not being one to stand on ceremony, or to continue to do things because "that's the way it's always been done," I'm opening a can of worms by talking about alignment. 

Right, so let's talk about alignment.

It's not unsurprising that few things bring about as much disagreement in the gaming community - much less the OSR community - as alignment. Looking back at OD&D, we can see why. On page 9 of Volume 1, it pretty much just says "pick an alignment" without any explanation of what that means. And thus, forty years of bickering and argument over just what each alignment means and whether Father Joe the Pious would engage in the wholesale slaughter of orc babies along with the rest of the party.

I think it's somewhat inevitable that every gaming blogger eventually tackles the subject at some point or another. I've actually done it once before, but not conclusively. I can't say that I'll rectify that issue today, but I will take a stab at it. First some ground rules.

I: Alignment As Alignment

I think of alignment as quite literally that which the character has aligned himself. The essential dichotomy between Law and Chaos is not universal and membership in one camp or another is not guaranteed. In order to be considered "Lawful," an individual must side with Law against Chaos and vice versa. One must align oneself with either of these forces or neither (Neutrality), and thus alignment is precisely "that with which a character has aligned himself."

II. Alignment Is Justification, Not Behavior

Think of every time someone calls an act "a Chaotic act" or "a Lawful behavior." Nope. Law and Chaos are reasons to do a thing, the justification behind the deed, not the deed itself. An agent of Chaos and an agent of Law may do the exact same thing but for completely different reasons and still be acting "within their alignment." Yes, this works in favor of spurious logic, but I don't expect PCs to be champions of virtue.

III. Alignment Is Ethics, Not Morality

I will come out and say right now that I do not understand alignment systems that include "good" or "evil" as components. If anything, I believe that they cheapen and limit player choice to narrow categories of worthy and acceptable behavior. Without "good" and "evil," player choices take on more weight and consequence as they become unburdened from these artificial (and uninteresting) distinctions. After all, not even Hitler would have described himself as evil, right? Instead, alignment should be composed of a general ethical stance, one largely determined by the character's choice in alignment, one that provides justification not only for a character's behaviors, but also for aligning oneself with one or another pole of the Eternal Conflict.

So, basically, what I want in an alignment system is one that defines itself as an ethical stance (not a moral one) that justifies character behavior (but doesn't seek to define it) and that represents an actual alignment of the character's identity with either Law or Chaos or even neither (but never both). In short, I eschew the "ninefold alignment" and "five point alignment" models in favor of the original, classic alignment model of Law, Chaos & Neutrality.


The ethical basis for Chaos is a deep seated nihilism and self interest, the core of which is a belief in the Will to Power. That is, any action is justified in that it results in the actor taking it to attain more power. If he attains more power thus, his action is justified. If he fails and either attains no further power or loses power, he is punished for not having a strong enough will and resolve to accomplish the task. Thus, Chaos is really Chaotic because ever adherent of Chaos is constantly acting in a manner that brings himself (rather than any other) the greatest possible power and happiness. It is ethically incumbent upon each individual, the ethics of Chaos suggests, to act always in his own best interest and that one's own best interest is the ultimate motivator and justifying force. Thus, a true Chaotic being may justify betrayal or kindness whenever each best suits his own best interest.

Lords of Chaos

Commonly referred to as "demons" or "devils" or other epithets, the Lords of Chaos are beings for whom few mortal distinctions and names actually apply. These Lords have learned to shape space and time to suit their whim, rejecting any limitations placed upon them by other beings or even the laws of reality. Chaos Lords often begin their existence either as mortals, or emerge from mortality as the manifestation of a collective desire or a rebellious expression of repressed urges, and through extreme or gratuitous exercise of will become much more. Lords of Chaos are often willing to share their power with those they seek to subvert, pervert and convert to their cause, empowering sorcerers and wizards who, they hope, will ultimately become willing agents of chaos.

Chaos Is Not

Unjustified randomness. A euphemism for "entropy." Cute. Analogous to the scientific concept of "chaos" presented in emergence theory. Insanity, especially of the "krazy is kewl" variety.


The ethical basis for Law is the basic imperative that an action taken benefits someone other than the actor. It may benefit the actor as well, but as long as he is acting toward the benefit of another, he is acting in support of Law. Ultimately, Law views, enough people acting toward the benefit of enough others leads toward the betterment of society and civilization. If the ethical question for a Chaotic is "do I benefit from doing this?", the question for a Lawful is "Who else benefits if I do this?" Often, the person benefiting will be a liege lord, a religious entity or some other sort of authority. Thus, the justification of Law stems not from the authority to which a Lawful is connected, but rather from his connection to that authority. Similarly, some Lawfuls seek to make their actions benefit as many as they can; in the end, it matters not whether the action benefits one or one thousand, so long as it is done in the name of another.

Lords of Law

The most common title taken by Lords of Law is "god," "goddess" or "deity." These worthies have risen to power by supporting each other and by the support of others. A universal order, a reality-spanning society created by a network of beneficial interactions, is their ultimate goal. Bear in mind, however, that gods do not always consult those who supposedly benefit from their actions as to exactly how they'd like to be benefited, nor do they actively encourage others to view betterment as the fulfillment of wishes and dreams. The Lords of Law do not seek to debate what is best for society, they seek only to act towards its perfect balance. It is important to note that a primary point of disagreement between the Lords of Law is whether this universal order they seek is a goal to be attained or a process to be enacted; some gods see the world as innately imperfect and in need of constant improvement, but utterly incapable of ever being truly perfected. These older, wiser gods often serve as council to the younger, more headstrong gods who seek to purge disorder and Chaos from the world.

Law Is Not

Stupid. "Good." The right side, the good guys. Wussy. Overly concerned with people's feelings. Nice.


Every other ethical philosophy that rides between the extremes of "whatever's best for me" and "as long as someone else is better off as a result" is fully the territory of the Neutral alignment. While Neutrality often gets written off with the term "balance," few terms adequately express the depth and breadth of the middle ground between Law and Chaos. Few Neutrals actively concern themselves with the balance of power between Law and Chaos, but rather they seek to balance the desire to look out for oneself with the love of friends, family, faith and nation; the true pursuit of balance is within, not without. Of the three alignments, Neutrality is the most widespread, despite the lure of the more extreme ethoi, if only because your average person cares little for things beyond his immediate purview. Who has time to worry about the cruel rise to power or doing good on another's behalf when you're more concerned with your own (and your family's) immediately survival? Neutrality is less an organized ethos, but rather a mode of being, a balance that is struck within oneself as often out of necessity as out of devotion.

Lords of Neutrality

As different as the philosophies that make up the Neutral middle ground between Law and Chaos are, even more different from one to another are the so-called Lords of Neutrality. Whether they are called Old Ones, Nature Spirits, Elementals or Ancestor Spirits, this disparate body represents a wide array of beings that often have conflicted and conflicting motivations. Rarely do the Lords of Neutrality interfere directly in temporal affairs, even through mortal agents, for mortal concerns are typically beyond them or beneath their notice.

Neutrality Is Not

"Wishy washy." Boring. Gray. Just for Oe thieves and druids. Overly concerned with "doing chaotic things" to balance out "doing lawful things."