MalcolmLittle in "HardlyLand"

Posts Tagged ‘Alignment

Here are some final thoughts on alignment (here are my previous posts), as it pertains to its original inception in the three little books.

Alignment is so vaguely explained, it borders on unfathomable. There are things we do know however, with greater context.

There is Law and Chaos, and those who do not take a side. Some (most?) fantastical creatures have a bent, one way or another. The inclusion of Tolkien’s interpretation of classic magical and fantastical beings into Dungeons & Dragons (including his own creations such as Ents and orcs) changes the dichotomy of Law and Chaos. We move from Poul Anderson’s ‘humankind vs the supernatural’ into a concept similar to Michael Moorcock’s ‘logic vs passion’. Gary Gygax seems to simplify it further to something akin to ‘order vs violence’. Elves and Balrogs cannot be on the same side in this game and we get the foundation of what Law, Neutrality and Chaos will become in the coming editions.


Something for players of later editions of D&D to observe is the orc. They can be Neutral or side with Chaos in the original edition, which is interesting. It is somewhat of a through line throughout their inclusion in the games moving forward.

The inherent evilness of orcs has become controversial lately, but their alignment has moved around over the editions.

Chainmail: Chaos
OD&D: Neutral or Chaos
The first D&D Basic set (Holmes): Chaotic Evil
AD&D 1st: Lawful Evil
The second D&D Basic set (Moldvay): Chaos

Bear in mind, the list of aligned monsters and creatures in Men & Magic seem to have some inconsistencies. Dragons are for example stated as being both Neutral and Chaotic, but their presentation text later in Monsters & Treasure tell that they are all Chaotic, except for the Lawful Golden dragon. Perhaps the same “error” could have happened to orcs (who can otherwise only be recruited as hirelings by Chaotic player characters).


One of the great attractions of playing earlier editions of D&D is both the sparser rule sets (well, excluding AD&D perhaps) and the willingness to let the players decide what they want to do. With the original edition’s three volumes, referees and players can do whatever they want. What does Law and Chaos represent at your table? Does it even matter? Can wise and powerful Patriarchs be cruel or oppressive? Similarly, spells like Detect Evil might just be defined as simply “detect adversarial magic and monsters”. Or, it could touch on some larger cosmological truth in your shared game world. That is the beauty of role-playing games, and a core feature of OD&D; decide what you think is best.

Alignment is, as I said previously, not directly explained in the original booklets. You get what little that does exist through osmosis while exploring the game, as with a lot in the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

Let’s begin with “divisional languages”, as it is the first instance of alignment you get in box set after the list of which creatures are sided with what.

Every alignment has its own language, and creatures of the same alignment can converse with one another while using it. Even Neutral characters have one (how odd!). Creatures will not understand other alignment languages, though they will recognize them and attack if it is “hostile” (I presume, a Lawful person hearing someone speak “Chaotic”, etc.).

This might be one of the more ignored features of the game, something Gary Gygax himself regretted, but he likened them to religious languages, such as Hebrew or Latin, that can be used for more secretive communication during play.

Moving onto the Cleric class, they are required to declare their allegiance to either Law or Chaos when reaching 7th Level (a peculiar quirk in OD&D), meaning they can have another, even neutral, alignment before reaching that level.

In the lists of alignment, non-player characters called “Patriarchs”, equivalent of an 8th Level Cleric, are grouped with the creature types that are Lawful. “Evil High Priests” are sided with Chaos. When encountering these non-player characters, the third booklet in the box set, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, also says: “Patriarchs are always Lawful, and Evil High Priests are always Chaotic.”

The presence of “evil priests” immediately raises the question of what “good” and “evil” might mean in the context of alignments in OD&D.

Well first, the Law and Chaos dichotomy was decided as a better fit than good and evil in Chainmail; Gygax wrote, “It is impossible to draw a distinct line between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ fantastic figures.”


Then you have the Anti-clerics, who are mentioned in Men & Magic (together with the Cleric spells that have a “reverse effect”). They have their own equivalent named Levels, including the Evil Acolyte, Evil Adept, Shaman(!?), Evil Priest, etc.

Any encountered Evil High Priest inhabiting a castle would generally “slay Lawful or Neutral passersby who fail to pay their tithes”, while Lawful and Chaotic Clerics would enchant the player characters and send them on a Quest.


An Evil High Priest is undoubtedly evil but that begs the question; is the Patriarch good (especially with the aforementioned mind control spell)? And are all Chaotic Clerics evil/Anti-clerics? Nothing definite is said (though Men & Magic does state that Clerics must choose between Law or Chaos at 7th Level), so it is up the players to decide at their table.

There are magic spells, for both Clerics and Magic users, that clearly focus on evil, such as “Detect Evil” and “Protection From Evil”. Their opposites for Anti-clerics, with reverse effects, are mentioned but never specified (could they be “Hide Evil” or “Detect Good”, “Vulnerability To Evil” or “Protection From Good”?).

If we move onto magical weapons, namely swords, alignment is a core feature.

Magical swords have both intelligence and alignment (with a clear inclination towards Lawful in their randomization).

(As a total aside, magical swords were listed in the Lawful army list in Chainmail. This is perhaps a way of restoring some sort of game balance, since Chaos had very powerful creatures in their ranks.)

Magical swords with a distinct Lawful purpose can paralyze their Chaotic opponents, while swords with a Chaotic origin could disintegrate opponents who follow Law.

Powerful swords could change the alignment of weaker non-player characters, and Neutral ones could have them then deceive everyone present concerning the sword’s capabilities. Chaotic swords would have the non-player character attack.

Chaotic and Lawful versions of swords that target fantastical monsters often affect different creatures, for example the Flaming Sword +3 affects either Undead or, if Chaotic, Treants.

Finally, when hiring men-at-arms Chaotic players can recruit orcs. Fun!

If we make a summary of what alignment is in the three booklets:

  • Clerics need to eventually declare an alignment.
  • Most fantastical creatures lean towards Law, Neutrality or Chaos.
  • There are divisional languages for each alignment, a kind of secret yet universal language.
  • Magical swords also have alignments, and Chaotic versions often work differently, and more violently.
  • Evil exists within the game, and it seems to have some relation to Chaos, but evil is only mentioned in connection to “Evil Priests” or “Anti-clerics”, never to “Chaotic Clerics”.

Good is only ever mentioned in that poison is “neither good nor evil” (and cannot be found via Detect Evil). I am not sure that good exists…?

(Last fact: The lists of creatures-per-alignment doubles as a random table for the Reincarnation spell. Fun utility!)

It is somewhat odd how little alignment is commented upon in both the original D&D box set and in Chainmail. Like most everything in the game, what is said is spread out throughout the books.


Originally in Chainmail, three “categories” were presented: Law, Neutral and Chaos. They were meant to signify the two (or possibly three?) army types the different fantasy beings would be aligned to. Neutral types could be recruited to players representing either Law or Chaos, by rolling a die for them. A tie would result in the creature remaining neutral and staying out of the fight.

It has been assumed that the concept of Law and Chaos is taken from the pulp fiction writer Poul Anderson and his book Three Hearts and Three Lions. Michael Moorcock had also cribbed the concept of cosmic forces aligned to Law and Chaos into several of his books, so that is also an obvious additional inspiration (both Three Hearts and Three Lions and Moorcock’s Stormbringer stories were later offered in the recommended reading section ‘Appendix N’ in Gary Gygax’ Dungeon Masters Guide).

Law is connected to mankind, ordered civilization and peace in Anderson’s original conception and Chaos is in turn associated with the supernatural, primal paganism and war.

You can find Anderson’s two descriptions of Law and Chaos from Three Hearts and Three Lions on Dan Collins’ blog Delta’s D&D Hotspot.

Michael Moorcock’s adaption of the concept for his own fantasy books, most notably those about the Elric of Melnibon√©, is one of both personal and cosmic balance within a dualism. Law brings about order, rationality and society and Chaos is the source of creativity, passion and individuality. The concept of Law and Chaos is not one of good and evil for Moorcock. Both are needed and a balance should be struck but Law and Chaos can become harmful if gone to extremes, bringing about stasis or violence respectively.

Neither Anderson or Moorcock are referenced in the original three booklets (Anderson and his book are mentioned in passing in Chainmail, when discussing “true trolls”).

The words Law and Chaos get a new connotation with Gary Gygax, chiefly to incorporate Tolkien’s fantastical beings into this order. Elves can for example be both Neutral and Lawful in D&D and Chainmail, but are considered beings of Chaos in Anderson’s book, as would most faerie and supernatural beings.

The famous fantastical creatures from Tolkien’s works are divided up. Nazgul, Balrogs, goblins and dragons are sided with Chaos, while Ents and Hobbits are Lawful.

In the upcoming post I will discus how the Alignments are described in the small snippets found in the booklets.

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