Alignment and Your Place in the D&D Multiverse

Alignment and Your Place in the D&D Multiverse

Alignment in D&D can determine what kind of character you are playing, and also your place in the D&D multiverse. we talked to Mike Mearls about the importance of alignment.

Mike Mearls: So alignment is essentially a cosmic shorthand for which team you're playing for, but it stops short of being a cosmic force in the sense that you can cast spells. We don't have a spell that's like, no alignment, or we don't have a rule that says, "Oh, you changed your alignment. Suddenly, there's an XP penalty," or something like that.

Mike Mearls: We very specifically, in Fifth Edition, tried to position it more as a roleplaying descriptor and a shorthand for ... In terms of the D&D cosmos, there are these certain ... And this goes back to Planescape. There are these certain ... like, beliefs can shape things. And so there's this idea that on a cosmic level, there's a tension between law and chaos and good and evil, and creatures pick sides.

Mike Mearls: It's no different than saying ... Oh, well, then the idea is, then, you pick a side that reflects how you act. And I think there's a lot of ways you can approach it, right? As a DM, you can decide, is alignment ... like, does it describe someone, or does it define someone? And you can say, "I'm Lawful Good, because I act lawful and good." Or you can say, "I've chosen to be lawful and good, so now I have to act lawful and good." And we actually don't try to answer that in the game, because I think that's something that's really up to the players and dungeon masters.

Mike Mearls: And I also think it's something that, cosmologically ... on one hand, it's very useful just to say, "Orcs are Chaotic Evil. That means you can beat them up and not feel guilty." And I think in D&D's history, that worked. But now that you have, like, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings on TV or movies, there's a lot more nuance now coming into fantasy.

Mike Mearls: Fantasy used to be all about those mythic archetypes. Loki is the trickster. That's what he is. He'll always be the trickster. If Loki stopped being the trickster, he'd stop being Loki. He'd be a different character. But now, I think, especially with Game of Thrones, people now are more used to a more science fiction or modern-day story approach to people, like that people can change, that evil is relative. Not absolutely relative, but some ... it is about point of view.

Mike Mearls: And the way I see alignment in D&D is the further you get out into the cosmic ... the Outer Planes, the more alignment is almost this elementary force, that ... Mount Celestia is a realm of law and good, but law and good isn't necessarily the answer to every question, that evil has a place in the cosmos. Being selfish has a place in the cosmos. And evil might not be very good for a group in terms of its prosperity ... like, that it's good for all. Good would say, "Hey, everyone should prosper." Evil can say, "The individual should prosper."

Mike Mearls: But in a cosmos as vast as the cosmos of D&D, there's no one right answer. The way I like to think of it is this. Like, you'd think, "Okay. So why don't ... What if Mount Celestia just ... the forces of law and good just conquered the entire cosmos?" Well, they're lawful and good. They'd expect everyone to be lawful and good. It's like the Chaotic Good people would be the last ones put into the prison, right? That's how I think of it, right? Like any alignment, if it gets out of hand, will start doing things that the opposing alignments would see as awful, that they'd fight against.

Mike Mearls: You can imagine that world where it's like, "No, everyone's going to be lawful and good. If you break the law, this is where we send you to reform you," the Chaotic Good person would obviously rebel against that. Like, that's not your place to tell me how to act, and you would put that ... Even though you're both good, you've now put them in a position where they will probably have to fight you to stop you from imposing a viewpoint or environment that you don't want or find repellent. Like I said, you'd be the last in line to rebel, but you would eventually rebel.

Mike Mearls: And so it's about having these point of views that are very strong and specific, and then to kind of define the conflicts in D&D, law and chaos, good and evil. And I think in most campaigns, it's pretty much good versus evil. And the nice thing with law and chaos is it lets you have conflict within the party. That's why I think it's useful. And I think it's a little bit harder, if you don't have alignment, to get people used to the idea that, "It's okay for your characters to disagree and to argue."

Mike Mearls: That it's okay for someone to say the characters roll into this town. It's being ruled by this lawful evil guy. He's kind of a jerk, but he is the rightful ruler. And you can say, "Well, he's kind of a jerk, but he's also ... Like, he's forcing people to serve in the militia, and if they don't serve, he throws them in jail. And if they're unfit to serve, like someone's injured, he taxes them or he forces them to work in the weapon shops."

Mike Mearls: Well, the Lawful Good guy might say, "Yeah, that's not just, but this town is facing Orc attacks constantly. So if they don't enforce this iron discipline law, the town risks destruction." The paladin, Lawful Good paladin, might say, "I don't agree with the means, but I agree with the end. So I'm not going to just go out and try to kill this guy. I might go reason with him. I might argue with him, but I'm not going to fight him." Where the Chaotic Good person might say, "No, we need to lead an open rebellion. Like, this is wrong, right? This guy needs to be thrown off, thrown out as leader."

Mike Mearls: And so therefore, right there, you've got your Chaotic Good ranger and your Lawful Good paladin. They can have a deep, important disagreement on how to do things, without one being good and one being evil.

Todd Kenreck: And Chaotic Neutral is the most hotly debated.

Mike Mearls: I don't ... See, I think the thing is, when you start thinking of the alignments as these elemental forces, you start taking them to the absurd extreme. So I think that's one of the things which we've also tried to think about, is alignments being a range.

Mike Mearls: The most Chaotic Neutral thing in the cosmos, which might be a Slaad, is just seemingly totally random and insane. But a human who's Chaotic Neutral is more your wanderer, your person who doesn't want to be ... who's self-centered, like "Hey, it's about me. I take care of myself first," but not to the point of being evil, where I hurt ... now, I don't hurt other people to get what I want, because I'm neutral. I don't seek out to harm people, but I will ... But I do put myself first.

Mike Mearls: And I'm chaotic in the sense of, like, I just don't want to obey rules. I want to be left alone, however that might ... I don't believe in hierarchies. That's like your classic Conan or your thief, right?

Mike Mearls: And I think what's kind of happened is that those things got taken to extremes, because I think in a lot of ways, you have this language, and it didn't necessarily get ... It didn't necessarily get translated into things that people could really understand in a very concrete way. And so you thought, "Chaotic Neutral? Okay. I'm just unpredictable. I'm crazy."

Mike Mearls: The Second Edition Players' Handbook kind of did that. It had this example of play and one character of each of the nine alignments. They're confront ... They have to fight an evil fighter with a Gorgon, who has a peasant captive or something like that. What does each character? And the Chaotic Neutral character's like, "Who knows what he'd do? He ended up just charging at the Gorgon because why not, right?" Even as a kid, when I read that, I'm like, "That doesn't ... That's just crazy. That's not Chaotic Neutral," right? But that's always been something that's been kind of interpreted at different times.

Mike Mearls: Now, it's also ... we have to remember, too, is in the context, '89, TSI was under a lot of fire for the sort of RPG scare. So not coincidentally, in the description of the alignments ... oh, the good alignments, clearly these are the three you play. And you can kind of play Lawful Neutral too, and True Neutral if you really have to. But Chaotic Neutral and the three evil alignments ... straight-out, you don't play those.

Mike Mearls: And I think today, in 2017, with things like Game of Thrones, you could ... well, no, you can play the Lawful Evil character, or you can be the Hound, right? Is he Lawful Evil? He obeys orders, and does ... Maybe he's not. Maybe his alignment changed, right? Things like that. But I think people are much more open to that and much more kind of ...

Mike Mearls: Because I've always favored the idea ... like, evil in terms of alignment says, "No, I'm self-centered. I put myself first." Neutral is ... you know, "I put myself first to the detriment of others." Neutral being, "I put myself first, but I don't want to harm anyone else." And good is, "I put others before me." Law and chaos being ... law, "I believe in hierarchies and organization and groups," and chaos being, "I believe in myself, and I think other people should be free to do as they wish."

Mike Mearls: True Neutral would just be someone who is ... It's like the tepid water of alignments, right? They don't really have any particularly strong beliefs either way, right? They're just basically, "I look out for myself. I don't wish harm to others, and I just go with the flow." I always thought of Neutral Good being, "I don't really care how we do it. I just want the most good for the most people."

Mike Mearls: So go back to our early example, the tyrannical baron, let's say, who's been forcing people to join the militia. The Neutral Good character could go either way. He might say, "Well, on balance, people are more miserable now under this rule than they would be if the Orcs were attacking, so I think we should get rid of this order." Or they might say, "No, on balance, while people are miserable, it's better that they're miserable and toiling away than having the orcs overrun the city and kill them all or enslave them all." It's not ... Their view of good is just, "What path gets us to the most happiness for the most people?"

Mike Mearls: I kind of think of law and chaos as the method, how do you do things? And good and evil being, what do you do?




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