Sunday, May 03, 2009

Player Alignment in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook as Examined through the Frame of the Ethic of Justice

Player Alignment in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook as Examined through the Frame of the Ethic of Justice

Michael Lorenzen

There are many ways of looking at ethics in the world. Most people are first exposed to ethical thinking by their parents at an early age. Most of us take this for granted until we are challenged to think about these issues later in life in ways that we are not used to thinking. For many adolescent boys (and some girls), this first exposure to a different ethical perspective comes for the fantasy role playing game Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Playing the game forces many players to rethink their own ethical viewpoints.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game is now over 30 years old. It has generated a vast library of hundreds of books and several spin off games. One of the keys to its success is probably due to the complex game play that allows for players to assume the identities of characters in a medieval fantasy setting. This includes the options to play wizards, fighters, and pagan priests. The game rules are complex but once they are mastered it allows for a very elaborate and time consuming game the draws a player into the fantasy world.

One of the most important aspects of the game is use of alignment. Players are required to have their characters follow an ethical code based on the moral outlook of the character. This alignment may be radically different from the one that the player may have in real life. However, to be successful in the game, the player must do his best to play his character to fit the appropriate ethical and moral view of the character.

Surprisingly, the ethical framework that the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook presents can best be understood through the ethical theme of justice as described by Starratt (1991). It is heavily dependent on the interpretation of law. It requires the player to examine how individual actions impact the common good (or common bad) of the whole community. A complex system of alignment possibilities helps the player interpret and consider his actions during the game. There are a total of nine different alignments that a character can have. These are based on the intersections of three outlooks on law and three outlooks on morality.

For law, a character can be lawful, neutral, or chaotic. A lawful character holds the law to be paramount. No matter what, the law must be upheld regardless of justice. A neutral character sees value in the law but believes that it must be interpreted (or critiqued) as the situation warrants. A chaotic individual is contemptuous of the law and will only abide it when it fits his goals and will discard it when it does not.

For morality, a character can be good, neutral, or evil. A good character attempts to look out for the common welfare and openly seeks to defeat evil. A neutral character believes that free will is the most important consideration and that society should allow people to choose their own path in life be it good, evil, or neither. (This is a tough alignment to play!) Evil characters do what is best for themselves or their patron god or nation without regard for the best interest of all.

What complicates this all (and brings into play the ethic of justice) is how law and morality interact. An evil character can be lawful. A good character can be chaotic. Any combination of law and morality is possible to explain all possible ethical viewpoints. This creates situations were evil characters are upholding the law and bringing criminals to justice. It also puts good characters in situations were they are outlaws resisting and fighting against the lawfully constituted authorities of an area.

This can be a mental challenge for many players. Most of the players would have grown up thinking that authority (such as the government and law enforcement) is good and that those who opposed them are evil. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game challenges this assumption. It becomes clear from game play that evil can thrive under the aspect of law and that sometimes the only recourse for those who are righteous is rebellion and chaos.

It also brings into question areas dealing with genocide and religion. Is it alright to kill and exterminate a race which is perceived as evil? For example, Orcs and Goblins are portrayed as evil races in the game. Is it OK to exterminate these races when they are found including children and other noncombatants? Is killing those who are evil or who are likely to be evil in the future acceptable? Is there a possibility that the option of redemption should stay the hand of the good? Is it also possible that the very view of good and evil is racially based? Do Orcs see justice differently than humans and elves? This also impacts the view of religion. Does opposing the followers of an evil religion equate to goodness? Normally we are taught to respect religion even if the viewpoints differ from our own. But what if a religion is thoroughly evil? How does reverence fit in this case?

Although it may surprise those unfamiliar with the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is based on ethics and requiring players to interpret and role play their characters accordingly. As such, the chapter on alignment in the Player's Handbook is worth looking at and reviewing in the light of the Ethic of Justice.


Cook, D. (1989). Advanced dungeons & dragons 2nd edition player's handbook. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin: TSR, Inc.

Starratt, R. J. (1991). Building an ethical school: A Theory for practice in educational leadership. Educational administration quarterly, 27 (2), 185-202.

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