Radioactive Square Pegs in Round Holes–D&D, Inspiration, and Context (Alignment)

One of the most endearing things about Dungeons and Dragons is that it pulls inspiration from every fantasy source you can think of and merges them into one unique entity. One of the worst things about Dungeons and Dragons is that it takes elements from every fantasy source you can think of and slaps them, without context, into a game, right next to a bunch of other out of context items, and sometimes those out of context items form their own context.
It is almost impossible to avoid enjoying some property that has problematic elements. What is always important is paying attention to those problematic elements and not repeating the mistakes of the people that added those elements in the first place.
Root Cause Analysis
Just about every source that D&D draws from has its own problematic elements. What makes these problematic elements even more slippery is that D&D was created by nerdy white men in the 70s, which means that not only were broader perspectives missing in this creative process, but also, a lot of these creators really wanted to prove that their nerdy hobbies had merit, so there wasn’t much of a filter being applied to what was added.
The next thing I’m about to say is going to be probably one of the trickiest things to express in this entire series–when the creators added these problematic elements, they made mistakes. I don’t want to dwell on the degree to which the mistakes can be attributed to a failing on their part. What I mean by this is, I don’t want to dwell on the degree to which someone adding racist elements to a work believes in white supremacy, versus someone that adds racist elements because they are practicing the racism of not trying to see the perspective of anyone from a different background. None of these mistakes are innocent, but I don’t want to dwell on intentionality versus negligence.
Where should we start exploring the mismatched components that go into D&D and how those mismatched components potentially cause more harm than their initial elements might indicate? Hey, let’s start with one of the least contentious and controversial aspects of D&D–alignment!
Sources
While we have the Appendix N books, it’s still tricky to specifically pinpoint what comes from where when it comes to items in Dungeons and Dragons, because it’s clear that some influences never made it to Appendix N, and the trend for early D&D (and thus RPGs in general) was not to give the clearest indication of where influences came from, or how and why those influences were utilized.
Both Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock wrote works of fantasy that feature “alignment,” in the form of the cosmic forces of Order and Chaos, and how the balance of those cosmic forces affected the universe.
Moorcock’s work showed that depending on the world and the era, either Order or Chaos could be out of whack, and that was bad for the universe, and either had to be dealt with, or the universe had to collapse or blow up and start over again. Depending on the book, in Anderson’s stories, Chaos was just rough on mortals. The faerie could adapt and change and revel in chaos, but regular, normal mortals got tossed around like a ship in a storm.
So, it wasn’t so much that Order = Good and Chaos = Evil in these stories. It was “this cosmic force is either out of whack or acting directly in this situation, and people have to deal with the consequences.” Essentially Order and Chaos were two things that both needed to exist, and did exist, throughout creation, but were polarizing. Champions of one or the other tended to be people that needed to sort out an active crisis.
Early D&D took this idea and ran with it, and initially, D&D had Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic for alignments. Early descriptions of alignment also spent a lot of time trying to say there isn’t a direct correlation between Lawful and good or Chaotic and evil. Unfortunately, D&D also tended to present a bit of a “civilization versus wilderness” vibe, where civilization was defined as traditional European medieval cities and settlements. PCs tended to be from this defined form of civilization. Civilization tended to be represented in “Lawful” terms.
The wilderness included any form of culture that wasn’t organized in traditional medieval European terms. People that organized into tribes, that used natural formations for shelter, or were nomads weren’t “Lawful.” Now, if those same people weren’t actively working against the “civilized” people to keep civilization from spreading, they were probably Neutral. If they actively opposed “civilization” of “wild” lands, they were probably “Chaotic.”
If you were an adventurer, and you were worried about “society” progressing and being maintained, you were probably Lawful. If you were an adventurer that didn’t care about society or didn’t think about it, you were probably Neutral. But if you were from a traditional medieval European society, even if you were Neutral, you hailed from Team Lawful territory. Saying you were neutral essentially just let you say you didn’t care about why, but you still pretty much wanted Team Lawful to win, because Team Lawful let you spend gold and do fun stuff between adventuring.
In both Anderson and Moorcock’s stories, Order and Chaos was important because there was an impending conflict. Things had gotten out of hand. Before we start reading the stories, things were not out of hand, now, after conflict happens, we care about the cosmic forces butting together like tectonic plates causing an earthquake. Earthquakes aren’t the norm. Having champions of Order and Chaos clash aren’t the norm.
But now, in early D&D, we have Law and Chaos, and it is the norm. Everything is aligned all the time. D&D may be about stopping a great cosmic imbalance, but it may also just be about finding treasure, because D&D is inspired by Anderson and Moorcock, but also by Howard and Leiber. We already have something that was useful for one form of story being introduced into stories where it’s not the best fit.
Additionally, while “Law” and “Chaos” aren’t “Good” and “Evil,” it is used in monster entries to give you a rough idea of if something will attack you, be friends with you, or be willing to negotiate. Unlike Anderson’s stories, the fae aren’t Chaotic, they are neutral, because we redefined Law as being pro-medieval status quo, and elves kind of like to have cities and houses and stuff despite themselves. Orcs, no matter how much they respect a strong leader, or how many traditions their tribe may follow, are Chaotic, because they don’t want society to look like traditional medieval European status quo.
Sure, Chaos isn’t Evil, but you probably don’t need to feel bad about killing them, because they aren’t likely to negotiate and are more likely to be hostile.
We also just witnessed what was originally presented as big cosmic forces, metaphysical, planar versions of tectonic plates, being reduced to “the more something looks like what a white male recognizes as medieval European in structure, the more it represents Law.” While nothing expressly says that your Neutral thief is low-key still on Team Law, the entire setup of the game is that you come from Law land to find treasure in Chaos land.
Now, it’s time to get Advanced
When we get to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, we now add the axis of Good and Evil to Law and Chaos. I’m sure part of this came from the idea that some bad people obey the law in order to perpetrate their evil, so instead of realizing that the alignment paradigm might be flawed, let’s double down and make it more complicated by discussing simple things like the nature of good and evil.
Now, you could have orcs that respect a strong leader and have strong tribal traditions be Lawful, and Evil! You could have elves that are ephemeral and flighty, but still not overtly hostile, be Chaotic, and Good! Also, elves are still chaotic based on not adhering to medieval European norms, and their goodness is still derived from if they are for or against traditional European structures of government, but on the surface, it looks like a more nuanced treatment.
While this existed in the previous alignment system as well, there was some muddiness over Law being Good, so while it’s implied in most cases, it wasn’t an absolute. But Good and Evil are loaded words. Assigning an alignment is now literally saying that a good person, regardless of mistakes, really does want what is COSMICALLY good for everyone, and an evil person really does want to spread what is COSMICALLY evil for everyone.
This means that when you label an orc as Lawful Evil, that orc isn’t just doing something from their point of view that is detrimental to others, that may or may not need to be opposed by force depending on the severity of the action. It means that the orc is using its sapient thought process to determine how to make the world a worse place, and how to cause misery and suffering, actively, whenever it’s engaging any kind of philosophical reasoning.
This of course leads to the idea that, if you are a Lawful Good paladin, and you are fighting a Lawful Evil orc, clearly it’s okay to kill them, because if they are no longer just “likely to be hostile” and “not a fan of traditional medieval European forms of governance and civic planning,” but actively wanting the universe to be an objectively terrible place.
This also introduced the painful concept of Neutral as CONSTANTLY SEEKING ABSOLUTE BALANCE. As worded, it’s super hard for anyone to be Neutral in AD&D. It went from the original concept of “I don’t really want to be on a team,” to “I want both teams to score the exact same number of points within proximity to one another.”
Order and Chaos got skewed from a being a cosmic expression of elements that should exist in all things in balance proportions to being for or against the status quo, because it was made to be more mundane. But once order and chaos became mundane qualifiers about the status quo, alignment go elevated back to cosmic proportions by adding Good and Evil, but still created the same “mundane” team structure of who was likely to fight who, but then reinforced the concept by giving it objective moral weight.
Sure, cosmic beings that see the big picture, sitting in Heaven or Hell or whatever cosmological higher planes you have, may be plotting to make the whole universe better or worse on a massive scale. But that’s not really a thing mortal perspective can even grasp. Humans do things all the time that they don’t think of as good or evil, and whether that thing is good or evil depends on the broader context–for example, adding in elements from your favorite stories that now seem like they are justifying genocide based on world view, and not realizing how that might be harmful in general, but specifically to anyone that has faced real genocide.
What Went Wrong
I think alignment was a tool that was overapplied to address too many things in the game. It’s one thing to come up with a quick entry in a stat block to show a creature’s default disposition, it’s another to expect that default disposition to represent a greater world view for an entire species of people.
It was also a matter of taking a way to frame a cosmic conflict and reduce it to everyday elements. Good and Evil fighting are a traditional theme, but making the conflict Order and Chaos makes the edges fuzzy, and can create a grittier narrative–sure, maybe Chaos is too powerful, but what if you apply the wrong kind of controls to shift the balance towards Order? None of that assumes you will have the right answer, just that you may need to come up with a decision on how to proceed.

But Law and Chaos have nothing to do with sneaking into an abandoned Thieves Guild hideout that is rumored to still have hidden treasure in it. And that’s as likely a theme for D&D as stopping the ancient artifact from destroying society. “This thing is useful in some stories, so let’s put it in every story” is a big problem. It’s also possibly part of the encroaching problem D&D had with simulationism. If it could come up in some fantasy stories, we better have an answer for how it applies in any given story, just in case.

The problem of overly applying alignment and creating moral absolutes with good and evil are even more compounded when you read the amount of effort put into stressing that you don’t change alignment easily. Once you are on Team Lawful Good, it’s not easy to get traded to another team. Sure, you can, but it involves multiple infractions, and there are penalties for changing teams.
No good person just wakes up one morning and does harmful things to other people. Except that happens all the time, every day, in real life.
My Two Cents
Alignment is both a problem and a staple of D&D now. The way I’ve been trying to handle it is to treat alignment as a trait, like other traits in 5th edition D&D. In other words, if you have lawful good as a trait, you generally want to live a life where you are doing good things for people in an orderly manner that benefits them on a personal and societal level.
That has nothing to do with doing those things in real life or having some metaphysical bond that keeps you from violating that alignment, or even causing you penalties if you don’t live up to your philosophy. Every day, plenty of people screw up the tenants of their political, philosophical, and religious beliefs. Sometimes they even notice when they do this. The fact that they fail doesn’t always mean they don’t want to keep doing those things.
I’ve also become a bigger fan of D&D settings where traditional “monsters” either have a place in society, or where the societies that they make are seen as just as valid as those made by humans, elves, or dwarves–settings like Eberron and Kobold Press’ Midgard setting.

And sure, demons, devils, angels and all of that might have “absolute” alignments. They are immortal cosmic beings, operating on the level that alignment was intended to operate. Tina the orc just knows that she’s pissed off that humans keep cutting past their family cave, and she is worried their horses are going to trample her kids, so maybe she needs to smack a few of them around so they get the idea to cut a wider path around where she lives.

The Future
I’m planning on looking at a few more of these haphazard addition to D&D, and how those mismatched elements caused problems, and I’ve done a few similar articles in the past. I don’t know that I have a set schedule where this will happen, but it’s something I’d like to do more of in the future.

While not originally envisioned as part of a series, I’m going to link a few previous posts that I’ve written here, that start to create shape of what I’m thinking here:

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