Friday, April 23, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 60

The topic of alignment has been coming up a great deal on this blog of late. I suppose that's understandable, considering how many players of Dungeons & Dragons loudly take issue with the very concept. Consequently, I take a great deal of interest in reading about how Gary Gygax conceived of alignment, if only to get a better handle on how he thought it might be used in the game. Today's entry in the Random Roll series isn't directly about alignment but rather a related topic that provides some additional clues to the bigger question, namely the detection of evil and/or good.

Gygax begins by making a distinction

between character alignment and some powerful force of evil or good when this detection function is considered. In general, only a know alignment spell will determine the evil or good a character holds within. It must be a great evil or a strong good to be detected. Characters who are very strongly aligned, do not stray from their faith, and who are relatively high level (at least 8th level or higher) might radiate evil or good if they are intent upon appropriate actions.

From what Gygax says above, it would seem that a character's alignment is a description of his moral/ethical tendencies and little more. For most characters, alignment has nothing to do with cosmic allegiance and is thoroughly mundane. However, Gygax implies that there's some connection between being strongly aligned and being devoted to one's faith, a connection that is explicit in Empire of the Petal Throne. He also suggests a linkage between level and the ability of one's alignment to be detected by magical means. He expands upon this last bit by reference to potent monsters.

Powerful monsters such as demons, devils, ki-rin, and the like will send forth emanations of their evil or good. Aligned undead must radiate evil, for it is this power and negative force which enables them to continue existing. Note that none of these emanations are noticeable without magical detection.

This all makes sense to me and I have no qualms with it. Even if one understands alignment more as a function of one's metaphysical "team," as I tend to do these days, what he says here works fine. His discussion of magic items offers up some additional points. He states that

powerful magic items which have some purpose as respects alignment will radiate evil or good – unless they are aligned with neutrality, which is neither, of course. Most other magic items will most certainly not, even though their effect might be for evil or good.

Purpose seems key here. An intelligent sword forged to "overthrow evil" would clearly radiate good, while a sword that merely grants a bonus to attacks against a specific type of creature, like lycanthropes or reptiles, would not (generally) radiate any alignment, even if using it inflicted harm on an individual example of that specific type of creature. He makes this more explicit when he says:

Likewise, items which are not magical but which have powerful effects will probably not give any evil or good aura. Poison is a prime example. It is perfectly neutral and has no aura whatsoever. 

On the other hand, both holy and unholy water radiate good and evil respectively, since their creation involves "some deity of evil or good" – again connecting alignment to religion, or at least the action of a divine being. Curiously, Gygax says that traps are generally neutral. However,

if the … trap leads victims to the lair of Juiblex … there will be an aura of evil about it; while if it brings victims into the realm of Bahamut, it will send out an aura of good.

This section baffles me somewhat. I can see how a trap intended to send a victim to the lair of a demon lord might be evil, but in what sense would a trap that sends someone to the Platinum Dragon be good? Presumably, such a trap would only be a trap if the victims were themselves creatures whom Bahamut might harm, but, if harm is the trap's purpose, how can that be good? This then makes one wonder how Gygax could have claimed just a sentence earlier that most traps are neutral and thus do not radiate good or evil. What is it that differentiates a trap that takes one to the lair of Juiblex or Bahamut from one that simply drops a party into a pit of spikes? Is it the connection to extraplanar beings of great power? That's a reasonable extrapolation of his earlier comments, but it's far from clear that that's the case.

I'm increasingly coming to feel that alignment is one of those topics that becomes less coherent and useful the more one attempts to explicate its precise workings. Rather than coming away with a better sense of how Gygax understood alignment, this section raises many more questions.


  1. I've always used that DMG passage as a guide especially with your standard paladin who wants to detect everyone for evil. I figure the spell or ability detecting a cosmic sort of evil (or good) makes a lot more sense. Know Alignment on the the other hand is pretty much the worst.

  2. Maybe he’s just implying that gates to good/evil planes will radiate the corresponding aura. It is confusing to mention this as only as part of a trap, though.

    1. That was my take on it as well. I'd extend it to anything that has a strong planar connection of some kind - gates are obvious, but also an artifact that draws power from or originated on an aligned plane, the remains of a powerful extraplanar creature (assuming they're not one of those that just respawn on their home plane on death), sites of ritual magic strongly connected to a given plane, etc. The outer Planes ought to leave their mark on things and creatures that derive power from them.

    2. I think I see why he mentions it as part of a trap. He really does want to talk about traps to begin with, as another example of something that won't be detected by Detect Evil. Someone might argue that a trap is evil, and hence detectable, because it is deceitful and injurious: that's evil, right? But of course a trap is not evil, any more than poison is, because it's non-sentient and therefore has no moral dimension in and of itself. A trap associated with some strong good or evil force (such as Bahamut or Tiamat) would radiate good or evil, though, because of that association.

  3. I have a further thought, in response to James's confusion about the morality of traps. James says, "...if harm is the trap's purpose, how can that be good?" I would say that harm is not the trap's purpose, but its maker's (yes, I am aware that I'm using "purpose" differently than James did, but bear with me). A trap has no sentience, and cannot have any good or evil intentions. The trap's maker may intend harm, but the trap cannot. The imagined trap leading to Bahamut radiates good only because Bahamut is good; that his goodness may cause harm to evil creatures encountering the trap is irrelevant.

  4. Chalk me up as one who (still, after all these years of trying to understand old-school D&D on its own terms) doesn't find alignment to be a particularly useful concept in running campaigns. Gygax calls it downright essential to AD&D in the DMG, but as near as I can tell, all it really does for players is constrain their characters' prospective actions (and in that capacity it also serves as a trap that can cost them XP or more).

    To the extent that Gygax's own Greyhawk campaign had a healthy dose of Michael Moorcock serving as one of the key ingredients of the sword & sorcery mélange — a fact that alignments, planes, and sapient swords make plain, I should think — then I can see why alignment would be important to Gary. But if you're not out to ape either Michael Moorcock or Poul Anderson in your own game, the value of explicit cosmic alignment seems all the more dubious.

    1. I respectfully disagree. PC alignment is central to a campaign.

      A key reason why the adventures of Sir Galahad, Conan the barbarian and Elric of Melnibone are so different is because they have different alignments.

      Gygax is right. It's downright essential.

    2. >A key reason why the adventures of Sir Galahad, Conan the barbarian and Elric of Melnibone are so different is because they have different alignments.

      And I would argue that Galahad and Conan, at least, are different because of personal codes, not anything resembling Moorcockian alignment.

    3. >Galahad and Conan, at least, are different because of personal codes,

      We agree. Because personal code is just another way to say alignment. :)

      >Moorcockian alignment.

      Gygax says 'alignment' is downright essential to AD&D, not 'Moorcockian alignment.'

      Moorcock's alignment philosophy doesn't include Good and Evil, and AD&D does.

      But you can say a PC's personal code is downright essential to AD&D if you like. And that would be perfectly aligned with Gygax's philosophy towards alignment. :)

    4. "all it really does for players is constrain their characters' prospective actions"

      But that is part of the point, no? If there is no alignment, PCs will quite happily fall back on doing whatever takes their fancy to get money and XPs ie they will simply act in a chaotic evil (to one degree or another) fashion all the time and justify it as "being realistic". In games where there are no alignments, the same thing happens unless there are other constraints that work pretty much the same way as alignment eg mission objectives and high-ranking NPCs who can find out (eventually) how the PCs acted.

    5. >We agree. Because personal code is just another way to say alignment.

      I disagree emphatically.

    6. @Jihn Higgins I agree with your disagreement. Personal codes of behavior are just that, personal. They might be informed by experience, upbringing, and the culture you're operating in, but ultimately they're yours and yours alone and only their practitioner can define when they've been kept or broken. Alignment is at best a failed attempt to use simplistic labels on complex subjects, and at worst just an shallow excuse for slaughtering people who aren't playing on the "right" team.

    7. I'll try to explain.

      In general, Galahad's "personal code" would not disagree much with this: Order and law are absolutely necessary to assure good, and that good is best defined as whatever brings the most benefit to the greater number of decent, thinking creatures and the least woe to the rest.

      It's also Gygax's definition of the Lawful Good alignment from the DMG.

      Conan's personal code is to bristle against the corrupt authority of civilization, and embrace personal freedom above all.

      Sounds like Gygax's Chaotic Neutral to me.

      "Personal code" was how pulp magazines talked about alignment. Doc Savage had a "personal code" that equates with Lawful Good. Hard-boiled private detectives like Sam Spade often have a "personal code" that is mentioned alot because (like Conan) it differs sharply from the society in which they operate.

      A product of the same pulp magazines, Conan is a Chaotic Neutral barbarian often moving through corrupt 'civilized' societies that are Lawful Neutral or even Lawful Evil.

      In AD&D, mechanical traps and bottle of poison don't have an alignment. Because they can't have a personal code.

    8. @Dick McGee: I still agree with Gygax that alignment drives the campaign.

      It doesn't get more old school than Keep on the Borderlands.

      Galahad would lead a quest against the festering evil at the Caves of Chaos.

      If the temple of Evil Chaos is devoted to Arioch, Elric might rally the monsters of the Caves and sack the Keep. (Gygax's Keep is so detailed as to anticipate such a possibility)

      And, on a whim, Conan might be inclined sack the Caves or the Keep, depending on how the civilized folk at the Keep treat him.

      One adventure module. Wildly different campaign paths. All dictated by PC alignment.

    9. @DickMcGee: "Personal codes of behavior are just that, personal."

      Alignment IS personal. Which is why every PC can have their own different alignment.