I’ve always been mildly puzzled, and, because I am a geek, mildly annoyed, by the ‘Alignments’ in Dungeons and Dragons.

For those of you who never played Dungeons and Dragons, I gaze with covetousness upon your good sense spending time outdoors or playing chess or collecting stamps or something clearly more useful to God and man. But I have to explain that when you invent a character to play in this game, you are asked to assign him an alignment.

Gary Gygax, the co-inventor of the game, establishes nine alignments: Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Good, True Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, and Chaotic Evil.

Good basically means being altruistic and helpful to others, and Evil basically means being selfish and cruel and Objectivist. Lawful means obeying the letter of the law whether it is just or unjust, and Chaotic means anything from being free-spirited to being an anarchist to being insane.

Lawful Good are paladins and white knights; Lawful Evil are Nazis in snappy uniforms; Chaotic Good are loveable rogues like Robin Hood or Han Solo; Chaotic Evil is the Joker from Batman.

The first thing to notice about alignments is that Gygax is trying to stuff into his game the moral quality from legends and stories ranging from tales of Arthur or Charlemagne to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and also stuff in the amoral quality from Moorcock’s Eternal Champion cycle.

So, for example, the Holy Grail in the Arthur stories is profoundly good, whereas the One Ring of Tolkien is profoundly evil, and part of the drama of the story is the evil things cannot approach the one, and good men cannot use the other without being corrupted. In order to put that drama into a tabletop miniatures roleplaying game, if the party is on a quest seeking the One Ring sitting in the Holy Grail next to the famous Head of Vecna (, and the party is trying to decide whether to send the thief Gray Mouser or the paladin Roland forward to pick it up, then you have to say whether this character or that is good or evil.

But many a player character wants to play characters like Elric of Melnibone or Conan of Cimmeria or Fafhrd who do not really fit on the good-to-evil spectrum.

In fact, I will bold enough to say that High Fantasy by its nature fits on the good-to-evil spectrum, whereas the rather more grim and gritty, cynical and blue-collar flavor of Sword-and-Sorcery needs a different spectrum, and Order-to-Chaos fits nicely.

In Elric’s world and in Conan’s there is no innate and cosmic good nor evil. Instead there are arbitrary gods and ghosts and monsters, and crumbling civilizations and healthy barbarians. In a pagan world, it is perhaps reasonable to call certain of the gods patrons of civilization, gods of harvest and oathkeeping and justice and trade, Zeus and Apollo and Hermes, and others patrons of dark and sinister forces from the wilderness outside the city, or the corruption within, Dionysus and Cybele and Hecate.

The only other option to having the player declare his alignment is to have moderator take notes and stand in judgment on the character’s moral actions and internal thoughts, and since most moderators are geekish fellows without much insight into human nature, most players would rather not have the moderator make these decisions. The moderator is not always the paragon of objective justice, especially if the moderator’s girlfriend is playing. And since your character is going to die at 4th level during a random monster encounter with a Heffalump, it is a waste of time to put that much thought and effort into it.

I suppose yet another option is to avoiding having One Rings and Holy Grails in your game, but what is the fun of that? You might as well play Traveler.

Gary Gygax can perhaps be faulted for making a somewhat complex dice mechanic system with many awkward ad hoc things bolted on like Frankenstein’s Monster’s head (I am looking at you, psionics rules); but, if so, anyone making that complaint has to admit that Gygax is the genius of the kitchen sink approach.

Everything and its cousins can be stuffed into a D&D game. A glance at the now-out-of-print copy of Deities and Demigods shows from how many sources a moderator can swipe material, everything from the Dirdir Hunting Preserve of Jack Vance to Cthulhu of Lovecraft to Arioch of Moorcock. The first D&D game I ever played, the party consisted of a Romulan Psychohistorian, a Leprechaun Wizard, an Ent Martial Artist, A Wookie Man-at-Arms, A Pierson’s Puppeteer Ranger, An Aztec warrior of the Jaguar-Knight phylum, and we were on the planet Rigel VII, and at the core of the world was the Krell Machine.

Admittedly, this moderator allowed far more player character races and classes than Gygax ever allowed, but the spirit of the game was the same: if it was cool, it was in the game.

So if the only way to have Corum and Aragorn on the same quest, or, for that matter, the superheroes Hawk and Dove on the same quest with the Specter and the Demon Etregan, is to have both a law-to-chaos spectrum and a good-to-evil spectrum.

And then of course players insist on not giving one side or the other any playing advantage, so if you have paladins, you must have antipaladins, and Holy Knights must be counterbalanced by Unholy Knights, and Evil Lawful gods must be just as numerous and potent as Good Lawful gods, and the Neutral-Neutral gods cannot grant their followers any less powers and privileges than the Neutral-Good or Lawful-Neutral alignments.

When assigning various gods to various alignments, some calls are pretty clear (Manwe is Lawful Good, Mephistopheles is Evil, Arioch is a Lord of Chaos, and Cthulhu is Monstrously Chaotically Evil, and so on) but some are a little difficult to assign. Maybe Taoists are True Neutral? What is a Confucian? Lawful Neutral? Odin is clearly a pro-Second Amendment Democrat, since he gains the Nibelung Ring by theft, pardon me, appropriating it for the public good, but he also demands his followers die with weapons in hand.

Other things are not clear. Suppose you are playing the twin sister of a samurai of a shamed family of sea pirates that worships undersea monsters, but who have recently been forgiven by the Emperor, provided the family sends the brother to court, but he falls sick, and you have to take his place by dressing up as a boy and tucking your Rapunzel hair into a big shapeless bag of a hat. You are completely devoted to a concept of family honor, and will lie, cheat and steal to maintain family name, and do not give a tinker’s damn about whether your behavior is right or wrong provided you do not get caught. You are not lawful, since you are breaking the law, not chaotic, since you will do nothing to infringe on the strict honor code of your ancestors, not good, since you do not care whether anyone gets hurt if it hinders your quest for family honor, and you are not evil, since your motives are entirely selfless and self sacrificing, indeed, giving up your entire life for the sake of your brother and your clan. And this is a rather common trope.

And, besides, while I understand evil (mostly by looking into my own heart) and I can dimly imagine good, the idea of Lawful and Chaotic simply make no sense. These are not moral codes, and not even personality types, they are decisions on how far to obey the local laws currently in force without reference to any higher principles. Is Benedict Arnold lawful for obeying the sovereign laws of the British Empire, or chaotic for betraying the laws of the Continental Congress to whom he swore loyalty?

Michael Moorcock’s idea in Eternal Champion cycle is that of a war between two opposite principles, but the victory of either one would be deadly for mankind, since total chaos is a pandemonium and uproar, and total law is all-suffocating totalitarianism. The Gods of Order and Change in M.A.R. Barker’s intricate and excellent EMPIRE OF THE PETAL THRONE follow the same idea. To serve the gods is hence choice between dying in a vacuum and dying trapped in a chunk of hardening amber. The point here, drama-wise, was to put the Champion in a situation where he always had to betray someone or something in order to preserve the human (or other) races.

According to the storybook logic of the Eternal Champion, Arkyn Lord of Law would have been against the Communist Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution; but he would also be a Strict Constructionist upholding the Constitution, uphold Napoleon’s Code, and uphold the all-encompassing and ubiquitous regulations of the Communist Commissars. So he would be in favor of everything and against everything. And Arioch of Chaos would have been the opposite.

In real life, no one actually fights for law for the sake of law without any concern for the goodness or the evil of the laws being enforced, and no one opposes law without some concern for what is to replace it.

In real life, anarchy is the opposite of tyranny. I will even call it s a silly dichotomy. Anarchy is the absence of law in the subjects, but tyranny is the absence of law in the king, not the overabundance of law. The reason why an overlawyered and overregulated society is a Bad Idea with a capital B is not because the lawyers and regulators produce too much law, but because they produce too much uncertainty, unpredictability, risk, and, in a word, too little law. A society strangled by a myriad of regulations is one where no one knows what laws he has broken, and no one can tell what the creaking and corrupted Rube Goldberg machinery of justice will reward and punish.

Michael Moorcock’s idea is a one-trick pony. It is a good trick, don’t get me wrong, but anyone who has gotten over the teen angst of being forced to betray one bad guy as opposed to another to aid the human race sees no more drama in it.

And you cannot fit it into the same universe where there are good and evil gods in any case, because then the argument that too much law is deadly to mankind makes no sense: it is only too much BAD law that makes it bad.

I suppose if you ran a campaign based on the Dark Ages, you might have an alignment system that lines up nicely with the factions involved: The Roman Empire in the East is Lawful Good, and worships Christ and serves the Caesar in Byzantium. The Mohammedans to the South are Lawful Evil, since they adhere strictly to their Alcoran and their prophet Mahound. The pagan Vikings to the North are Lawless Evil, since they are lawless corsairs. The Knights and Bishops trying to hold together the fragments of civilization in the West are (through no choice of their own) Lawless Good, since they worship Christ but the practices of law and order have been replaced by a Norman honor code, an amateur form of military government based on personal oaths. Chaotic here would not be reckless and roguish, but controlled by an unwritten law.

A campaign set in more modern times might have to redefine the alignment matrix this way: Anyone devoted to civilization versus barbarism is a conservative, and anyone devoted to good and helpless victims versus evil and all-powerful oppressors is a liberal. The conservatives regard the liberals as barbarians attempting to undermine society, and the liberals regard conservatives as the establishment caste-system attempting to suppress the longsuffering proletarian.

And then you get together with a thief, a monk, a wizard, a ranger, a barbarian, and a cleric and kill goblins in a cave filled with traps.

You might ask, well, what would you do instead Mr. Smarty-Alignment? That answer will have to await for another day.