D&D Alignments vs Real Characters

Quick confession: I have never played actual D&D. I played quite a few other things, but D&D and AD&D have always somehow evaded me. I knew a lot about these systems. I would often scan through their adventures and modules in magazines (you know, back when they would actually print and sell RPG related magazines on dead trees – those were the good times). To this day I always like to page through D&D monster manuals when I see them in a hobby store. They always have awesome pictures and awesomely ridiculous monsters. The old versions had the best creatures though – like the dreaded Duckbunny.

The one thing that everyone seems to know about D&D, regardless of whether they have played it or not is the alignment chart. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the latest and greatest edition changed the way the alignments work recently. Is that correct? I’m not sure how they work now, but I want to talk about the classic two axis chart: law vs chaos and good vs evil. If you have no clue what I’m talking about, let me explain this to you via a picture. This is essentially what the D&D alignment boils down to:

Bassic idea behind the alignments

The X axis represents your attitude towards law and order. If you always play by the rules, and do things by the book, you fall to the left of the chart. The Y axis is concerned with your general morality – whether you go out of your way to help people, or whether you take pleasure in actually hurting others. Combine the two and you get a shorthand for describing a wide variety of characters. For example, Robin Hood is a quintessential Chaotic Good character because while he breaks the law, and robs rich people, he does this to help the poor and the downtrodden. So his heart is in the right place, even if his methods are questionable. Similarly Conan the Barbarian or Han Solo would probably be smack dab in the middle, classified as a True Neutrals because they are mostly self-serving anti-heroes. They don’t care about breaking the laws of men, and they don’t do anything that does not benefit them. Of course it could be argued that Han Solo moves to the Neutral Good territory at the end of New Hope – but I guess that’s just character development.

I must admit that I love this little system – it is a really helpful tool that lets you pinpoint what your character is supposed to be all about. In fact, I often find myself using it as a mental crutch when trying to explain various characters and their motivations to people. And I’m not the only one. One of the popular internet memes became grabbing popular characters from TV shows, or movies and pasting their faces onto the D&D alignment grid like this one:

Empty Alignment Grid

Sometimes this works fairly well. Most of the time however, everyone involved in the discussion will have their own version of the grid. Particular character can jump from the Lawful Evil to Chaotic Good spot and there will likely be a good argument supporting either placement. The alignment system is so vague that it completely falls apart when you try to apply it to sufficiently complex and nuanced characters.

Batman is a perfect example here, as he is infamous for neatly fitting into every single spot on the grid:

Batman is an alignment

Batman has his own alignment named Batman.

Dexter, has a similar problem. I have seen him described as lawful evil (because he has a code of conduct), chaotic good (because he breaks the law, but for a good reason), true neutral (because he has no scruples about breaking the law, or his own code, but still manages to be a semi decent husband/father figure) and anything in between. Then again, I guess this is to be expected for a character who has five full length seasons under his belt. Same goes for Batman, who has been drawn and written for by countless people, had cartoons, movies and video games about him.

It is really hard to pinpoint such characters on the D&D alignment grid because their personality varies so much over time? Or is the grid too vague and simplistic to accommodate complex and nuanced characters that organically grew and changed over the years? Perhaps the vagueness is the strength of this system, because it allows us to have these wonderful arguments about alignment of fictional characters.

What do you think? What alignment is Batman? How about Dexter? Where would you place him on the grid? Can you think about any other fictional characters equally difficult to categorize?

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16 Responses to D&D Alignments vs Real Characters

  1. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Only in nerd bizarro land is not playing DnD a confession. :)

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ jambarama:

    Nerd bizarro land == real life. That other realm where people don’t know about RPG’s, don’t play video games and can’t quote internet memes at the drop of a hat is boring. I just work there.

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  3. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    There’s a land without internet memes?
    Where is that strange place?

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  4. Adrian BELGIUM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Imho, the D&D system is only good to label a specific action. A whole character demands more: an evolution variable and a willingness variable.

    A character who might do hideous things (“for good”) only when he sees no other way is neutral for me, as for him, the end justifies the means. But a character who does the exact same unspeakable things simply because it’s the quickest/easiest way, that’s a whole other thing.

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  5. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    “It is really hard to pinpoint such characters on the D&D alignment grid because their personality varies so much over time? Or is the grid too vague and simplistic to accommodate complex and nuanced characters that organically grew and changed over the years?”

    Both! The first should be obvious; characters change overtime just like real people so of course their status according to a system meant to describe them should change. The later however, the deficiencies in the D&D alignment system, stem I think, from the difficulties in defining the axis.

    What does it mean to be ‘lawful’ for example? Clearly we mean he abides by the law, but which law? The law of the land? Of the Church? Of God? (or whatever constitutes ‘god’ in his world.) Of Nature? Of his own devising? I get the impression that what is mean is ‘conventional’ law, that is, the law of whatever is perceived as the legitimate authority, but that’s just my impression.

    The problem is even murkier with good vs. evil. What is ‘morality’ but an adherence to a set of rules (aka laws) which are more fundamental or universal than governmental laws? If we use that understanding, what is the difference between this and lawfulness? The depth or importance of the law system? If we mean the depth of someone’s kindness however, we end up with a whole other set of problems; even evil people are kind to their friends and loved ones.

    The problem though, isn’t so much with the system, it’s with people’s different understandings of not only what constitutes right and wrong, but what these words even mean. There’s about three thousand years of philosophical dispute here. I wouldn’t expect Gary Gygax to get it right the first time around.

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  6. I think we need Augmented Reality tabletop games… I know I just bitched at someone else for not contributing to the blog at hand… but I was thinking about this all last night. This would be the coolest thing ever.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    My 8pm class on Wednesdays apparently. There are memes, video game jokes and movie references all over my slides and only one girl from the back row seems to be getting them. :)

    @ Adrian:

    Agreed. In most cases the whole system requires some contextualization – as in stating what your character believes to be “good” and what kind of law does he abide by, ignore or break with impunity.

    @ astine:

    Very good points. Perhaps this vagueness and lack of concrete definition for alignments is an unintentional strength of the system. By keeping things vague it allows everyone to define their own sets of values for good and lawful alignments. In a D&D setting though, you can make it rather clear cut by simply inventing a few deities representing law and morality and then say lawful good individual would follow their proscriptions and then extrapolate other alignments from that.

    @ Travis McCrea:

    Can you elaborate? How exactly would that work?

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  8. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    You teach classes?
    Why do we never hear of them?

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    You do! I actually blog about my teaching experiences from time to time.

    Some of my projects tie into that too – like my Google App Engine experiment which I used to host student websites.

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  10. Instead of painted characters, they could be on little tokens (or paper for cheap) people can go onto blender and customize their charaters (more than just paintjobs, but actual physical features) or use stock. the table would also just be flat and the environment can be generated by the device OR it would just look like the flat table but there would be additional tokens which would generate walls or dungeons and such.

    When battling you could actually watch your charaters attack each other on screen (watch the YuGiOh augmented reality for the idea for this) you could call various attacks by sliding the attack token onto the board and hit points or other factors could actually be tracked on the phone/computer.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Travis McCrea:

    Ah, ok. Makes sense now. None of the groups I have ever been in actually used miniatures or dungeon map type things.

    The GM would usually just describe the scene, and if we were in a dungeon one of us would be tasked with drawing a map as we went. Or the GM would draw it in real time based on his notes. We used imagination for everything else. :)

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  12. Now you could have fully 3d immersed experience… no more NEED for “imagination”

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  13. Also the example might work better for a game like WH40k

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  14. nerd BRAZIL Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    An alignment chart doesn’t need to be a straitjacket to limit characters actions, when they start becoming too restrictive it’s time for an alignment shift, as often nobody is always lawful good or neutral good, and playing in a alternate dimension is better than following the rules of DnD most of the time

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  15. Calvin Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The dnd alignment system is meant to be the sum of a characters normal actions. This means that even though someone might be neutral good most of the time in one instance maybe emotions will take over and cause the character to act out of alignment.
    When it comes to batman i would say that this is due to many different writers.

    With Dexter you have to ask why he acts how he does.

    To help understand the system you should think of it as a balance between lawful and moral restriction. The moral axis can be though of as (Good-Urge to help others, and kills only if the death helps others) (Nuetral-No Morals) (Evil-Urge to harm others (completely nonspecific))
    The law axis can be thought of like this (Lawful)-almost always follows the law (Nuetral- follows the law if it meets his or her moral code) (Chaotic- Does not recognize the law, and would only follow it if absolutely necessary)

    Therefore a completely neutral character is hard to fit, the character would have no moral urge, and have mostly inhuman ideas. For example animals are nuetral in DnD.
    Druids can be neutral in DnD as well and this is due to the fact that some have feral like nature.

    Firstly, having your own code of morals isn’t lawful in DND. Being lawful literally means following the laws of your state, for instance if a devil helped an angel he would be committing an unlawful good act, but a human paladin doing the same act would be doing a neutral good act because he isn’t breaking or following the law, just doing something good. A chaotic character only follows his own moral code. This is why chaotic neutral can be thought of as the most random, the character has no moral or lawful restrictions and can act in a way that benefits his survival most.

    Some would argue that chaotic evil has the most freedom, but this cant be true because a chaotic evil alignment would mean that most of the time the character would profit more from harming others than profiting materially.

    Anyway so when it comes to dexter.

    Dexter (NORMALLY) kills serial killers who escape justice to satisfy his hunger for killing. though the killing might end up helping people this is not his purpose it just happens to turn out that way. Think of it as a poacher killing a bloodthirsty cheetah about to kill you. He didnt kill the cheetah to save you, he killed it to make a profit and not to satisfy a need to harm others which is an unlawful neutral act.

    This means Dexter is killing because he wants to harm others which is an evil. Whereas he only follows the laws that dont conflict with his moral code which is neutral.

    I would deduce Dexter as NORMALLY neutral evil. This does not however mean that Dexter’s alignment cant change throughout the series after learning (people change).

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  16. Pingback: More Granular Alignment System | Terminally Incoherent UNITED STATES WordPress

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