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The old reliable

Alignment is a key game element that originated in Dungeons and Dragons. People, creatures, spells, objects, and places can have an alignment. The term is used in other role-playing games whenever characters or NPCs have a simple stat for their own code of conduct. Alignment has spawned more debates and motivational posters than anything else in D&D, and alignment threads now belong in /co/ after we swapped them for Empowered. Post alignment threads at risk of sagebombing.


Alignment is designed to be a rough explanation of motivation for characters in a game (Captain America is Lawful Good, a Rebel fighting against a Tyrannical megacorp is chaotic good, Sauron is Lawful Evil, a crazed stab happy maniac is Chaotic Evil and a hopeless ditherer/shady individual only interested in money is True Neutral, etc) rather than a real world moral philosophy. There is considerable disagreement as to what constitutes Lawful Good or Lawful Evil. Is a cop which follows generally sound procedure to the letter all the time even when it's obviously wrong or a generally principled frontier sheriff who enforces rather brutal but fair justice in a lawless land Lawful Good or not (Lawful neutral, Chaotic Good, etc)? Different people will give you different answers. Both intent and action are factors in the equation, but again the degree they matter is one of contention.

Alignment in Different Editions[edit]

  • Dave Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign has three alignments: Good, Neutral, and Evil. The forces of Good included The Blue Rider, known for "riding hither and yon fighting the forces of evil and carrying off any likely wench encountered." Because of the framework of the First Fantasy Campaign, it's best to understand alignment as "allegiance".
  • Original D&D goes to a less clear-cut list (Lawful, Chaotic, and Neutral), but does not explain the precise meaning of these terms. The reader is left to interpret them from a list of examples. The side of Law includes Halflings, Patriarchs and Treants; the Neutrals includes animals, Dryads and Minotaurs; and the Chaotics are entities such as undead, "Evil High Priests" and Hobgoblins.
  • Advanced D&D (aka 1st edition) combined these alignment systems, with one axis for Good, Evil and Neutral, and another for Lawful, Chaotic and Neutral. Different alignments had their own "alignment languages" to allow them to properly identify one another. Interpretations of alignment language are controversial in their own right. Gygax compared alignment language to religious languages, especially Latin in the Catholic Church.
  • AD&D 2nd Edition made a radical change to the alignment system, by defining alignment as the character's "basic moral and ethical attitudes toward others, society, good, evil, and the forces of the universe in general". While the 1st Edition grid was used, it had gone from being the character's allegiance or team to a personality test. Alignment language was axed.
  • 3rd (and 3.5) Editions made no changes to alignment. Same two-axis method, same class restrictions, same hating people who were on the other side of the chart from you.
  • 4th Edition made a controversial change. Instead of the classic 3x3 grid which has been in place since the 1970's, the alignment system was changed to a single axis with four positions: good, lawful good, evil, and chaotic evil, with the added option of being unaligned (not smart enough to understand alignments, or simply can't be bothered to give a shit - not to be confused with the old Neutral). As with many of the changes implemented in 4E, this has caused much heated, vigorous discussion about the subject.
    • Ironically, the designers felt Good and Evil suffered from opposite problems; Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil were quite clearly defined (Lawful Good: benevolent but constrained by external laws, Chaotic Evil: batshit insane psycho random evulz), but Neutral/Chaotic Good and Lawful/Neutral Evil tended to sort of blur together. The point was that alignments should be a conscious effort on the part of the player, rather than acting as a personality anchor: Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil both represent very specific takes on Good and Evil (equal emphasis on law & order as to good for the former, mindlessly impulsive and often self-destructive evil for the latter). However, Unless you were the kind of guy who really bothered to get into the nitty-gritty of the Law-Chaos axis splits, Neutral and Chaotic Good tended to be interchangeable in terms of being "I do good, no matter what the law has to say about it" alignments; Lawful and Neutral Evil were likewise interchangeable in terms of being "the evil I do serves a purpose and isn't just for random shits 'n' giggles". Moreover, the Morally Neutral alignments were stripped out under the basis that they tended to just be played as extreme parodies for Lawful/Chaotic Neutral (see: Lawful Stupid, Chaotic Stupid) or else made little sense for an adventurer (True Neutral). Therefore, the concept of alignment was changed to whether or not a character actively pursues Good or Evil (hence the Lawful Good, Good, Evil and Chaotic Evil aligments, which cover the "how" of supporting good/evil) or simply doesn't care for greater meta-cosmological implications and is out for their own goals (Unaligned).
  • 5th Edition brought back the old grid of nine options based on Law to Chaos and Good to Evil, but drastically shortened the descriptions (their PHB entries average 2 to 3 sentences, and one of those sentences is usually a description of what critters are usually members of that alignment). It also followed in 4e's footsteps by minimizing the actual crunch-value of alignment (even traditional alignment-requiring classes like the Paladin and Monk no longer need to be a specific alignment or lose their powers) and retaining Unaligned, though this "tenth alignment" is reserved exclusively for the sorts of creatures that are too mindless to have an alignment. In other words, 5e Unaligned is "too dumb to understand concepts of law, chaos, good or evil", whilst Neutral is "deliberately recognizes law/chaos/good/evil and chooses to hold the middle ground between the extremes".

Controversy caused by the 2nd Edition Change[edit]

Making alignment a personality system has led to vigorous debate.

Some argue that taking alignment seriously in any way entails failure because it tries to simplify and categorizes something philosophers, sociologists, theologists and psychologists have been debating for thousands of years with no tangible results. A famous example shows the goddamn Batman in various periods of his comic and his actions and words correspond to pretty much all existing alignments. Recent developments in D&D (Eberron, 4th Edition) have been relaxing and ignoring the old rigid structure.

Others argue that those people don't understand about how the two-axis alignment system is meant to work (even the hyper-rigid structure of the 2nd Edition alignments was eventually softened to more of a Cartesian coordinates system by Planescape, and every subsequent edition has eased off even further from the alignment-as-straitjacket model to an alignment-as-storytelling-tool one) and that using an inconsistent comic book character who has been written by dozens of different people over the course of his existence to try and demonstrate that the system fails is completely missing the point.

Debate continues.

The iconic D&D alignments (and why your party should kill them)[edit]

Alignment Demotivational.jpg

Lawful Good[edit]

Truth, justice, apple pie, and curbstomping. All Lawful Good characters are the same boring boy scout types. Their ridiculously rigid codes of morality will often lead them to betray the party when you kick a bunny or try to use something demonic (I.E. they get angry if you do anything cool). They will also whine constantly about the party breaking the law for perfectly good reasons, and are prone to BS black and white morality. ("You are not doing good, then you must be doing evil! Taste my blade, evildoer!") When they start to complain about the party's "evildoing", have the rogue engineer an "accident" for them, Dwarf Fortress style. Beware of Lawful Stupid, if it wasn't painfully obvious.

Example(s): A textbook Paladin who combats evil wherever they see it, to uphold their religion's core beliefs.

Neutral Good[edit]

The quintessential "nice guy". Is overridingly concerned with being "good", which is extremely vague but generally boils down to mincing around like a useless pansy and trying to talk their way out of every situation. His idiotic insistence on nonviolence is going to TPK the party when he tries to negotiate with Orcus. Tell him to go make friends with a wolverine and head back to the inn for a drink.

Example(s): A peace-loving cleric, who is against the mere thought of violence.

Chaotic Good[edit]

Essentially adopting the credo of: "If you want peace, prepare for war", they will do good deeds and actions using rather unorthodox methods. Though this alignment can respect the law, they mostly break in it efforts to protect people, since to them the "Good" comes before the "Law". This tends to have mixed results. Sure, that cop beat his wife or took drug money… and maybe that bank was run by the mafia. But the fact remains he broke rules - he broke them for good reasons, but he broke them. His well-intentioned extremism is going to get you in deep shit with the man, so be sure to betray him to the establishment at first opportunity. For an apt summary, think Robin Hood. Beware of Stupid Good.

Example(s): A freedom fighter, combating an oppressive regime to free their people.

Lawful Neutral[edit]

Think Paladins without the morality. Lawful Neutral characters are essentially the law-made-manifest. They uncompromisingly enforce the law down to the letter and do not give any unofficial leeway regardless of the criminal's motives or intentions. Stole some food to feed your starving family? Go to jail. Robbed the bank to buy a cure for your dying sister? To the dungeon. Stole a car to save the lives of hundreds? You're under arrest. Equally for evil, you committed genocide? Hanged, drawn and quartered.

At best they're obstructive bureaucrats, at worst they're insufferable Rules Lawyers given the license of roleplay, and will bitch even more about the rules than the lawful goods. They're going to turn on you the second you jaywalk across the street to stop a mugger, so as soon as you get out of town leave them in a shallow grave.Beware even harder of Lawful Stupid.

Example(s): An uncompromising judge who dispenses justice as their codex demands, for better or worse.

True Neutral[edit]

Comes in three varieties: "Dedicated to Balance" True Neutral, "Can't be Bothered to Care" True Neutral, and "amoral animal" True Neutral.

The "Dedicated to Balance" types are types who are not concerned about the morality of their choices, but rather how it will affect the status quo (although what that status quo is, is dependent on the character in question). This means that a true neutral character may allow things like war, suffering, or disasters to continue, if it ensures that the balance of power is maintained. They are not necessarily malevolent, as they see their actions as a completely necessary act for the greater good that would benefit everyone in the long run - but then again they're insufferable dickbags who sees the entire universe as one big chequebook to even out, who will sell you out in a heartbeat if it meant maintaining the status quo.

"Don't Care" types are either extremely uninspired roleplayers, NPC villagers, or bears. However, they'll usually do what seems like a good idea at the time. This means you should kill them, because chances are they're reading this at the same time as you, and will try to kill you preemptively.

The "amoral animal" types are those who's actions lack any type of moral motivation behind them, and instead act upon their own pre-programmed instincts like how an animal in the wild would. Typically reserved for non-sapient enemy NPCs (and gods forbid you actually play as one), these types do what they do, because its just their nature.

They don't really see anything as good or evil nor rationalize that to any extent, they just do it for their own survival. (Murdered a man for food? Its just prey like that goat I slaughtered earlier, only less hairy. Me and my brood have to eat to survive, don'tcha know?) The main distinction between those and the "don't care" True Neutrals is the fact that they genuinely lack the capacity to normalize or rationalize in any direction, rather than refusing to acknowledge their ability to.

Overall, show them the business end of your weapon as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Beware of Stupid Neutral.

Example(s): Amoral druids for the first, filler NPCs for the second, and a wild animal for the third.

Chaotic Neutral[edit]

The original interpretation was the agent of chaos. Characters of this alignment were often random and completely inconsistent as long as chaos was achieved. Anarchistic and individualistic, AD&D 2e notes that they are extremely difficult to deal with due to their unreliable nature. Abandoned 3.X onwards when everyone realized no-one could ever play this alignment longer than 5 minutes before suffering a forced change for the sake of adventure. That is, of course, if the character wasn't killed thanks to AD&D's high character mortality rate.

The current interpretation of this is a perfectly amoral and self serving character. One who isn't necessarily evil, as they don't actively plot to screw people for some higher cause (it just so happens they need to, given the circumstances), but instead believe in maintaining their own self interest (or cause) above all others. As far as they're concerned, they gotta watch out for numero uno and everyone else is just a tool and stepping stone to keep numero uno alive.

The player interpretation of this is "whatever the fuck I want, whenever the fuck I want." Usually used directly after the DM bans evil alignments and directly before the DM ragequits. They're alright to have so long as your goals align with each other, but as soon as that changes, it's highly recommended you introduce them to the business end of your weapon and throw their corpse in a ditch.

Also the alignment of 13 year old edgelord characters with KEWL powers, because the rebellious asshole who doesn't play by the rules is totally kewl.Beware of Chaotic Stupid.

Example(s): A lone, thrill-seeking rogue fighting for his own gains and enjoyment.

Lawful Evil[edit]

Here you have your Fascists, Social Darwinists, contract killers, and anybody else who can be reliably and systematically counted on to be a dick. In real world terms, Lawful Evil would be corrupt politicians, ridiculously wealthy plutocrats who play the system in obviously self serving ways and/or high-functioning sociopaths (ones who are good at hiding their evil and selfish tendencies) , but do it in a socially acceptable manner that sometimes others might applaud as clever tricks, sometimes you might never even know a person is Lawful Evil, since they usually do their utmost to appear integrated in societies. The endgame is almost always multidimensional domination, so be sure to kill them before they get too powerful. Alternatively, kill them before they get the chance to screw you over/enslave you/bind you to some contract that will suck for you.

Example(s): A professional mercenary fighting as his employer demands.

Neutral Evil[edit]

The asshole alignment. Follows the law as long as it helps them, then breaks it. Ingratiates themselves to people, before betraying them. Does good deeds, until they cease to elevate them. Social acceptance never really comes into it with these guys. If he's being an insufferable prick you should probably just kill him, nobody will question you. If he's generally acting like a good guy you should definitely just kill him, he's up to something.

Example(s): A serial killer putting on a facade to continue his deeds.

Chaotic Evil[edit]

A psychopath who's evil for the sake of being evil. There's no driving factor why they're a Satan-incarnate -, not to get rich, not to get revenge, not to set things right in their own misguided way; they just relish in the act of being a total dickwad. They will murder people for kicks, will rape and torture people to get their willies on, and hates everyone else, just because they were there. Some people just want to watch the world burn; those are Chaotic Evil people.

Always on a feud against society and will piss on a book of law just because he likes it, and fuck you, and fuck your law too, and i'll eat your babies. This alignment has no depth at all and is very dangerous to keep around, its only real purpose is to make a quick 2D villain for your party to murder without any qualms, or a fun psycho-type character in a non-serious game. It is highly recommended you give them a good stomping and throw their corpse off the ramparts as soon as possible, because they will be trouble the moment their attention shifts to you. If you start out your party with one, you kinda deserve it, once the inevitable happens.Beware of Stupid Evil or, worse, someone who alternates between Chaotic Stupid and Stupid Evil.

Example(s): An insane doomsday cultist, who fights and kills just for the sake of fighting and killing.

A Broader Perspective[edit]

When creating a character after the alignment system, you can run into the problem of the alignment table being too narrow. After all, in a lot of games and stories, characters aren't just "good" or "lawful" - they can be complex characters with more than one side to them, or with a goal to pursue rather than an ideal, that can lead them to behave very different from what the alignment table offers. This is because the ideals and concepts presented on the table can be interpreted in various ways that might end up harming your character in the long run, and as such may be more viable as a guideline rather than an outright rule, like most elements of tabletop gaming.

Lawful is usually regarded as "I follow the rules of the land", while Chaotic tend to be "I do whatever I want regardless of laws", but it doesn't in fact have to be like that: Lawful doesn't have to mean that your character follow the laws, just that the character has some kind of ruleset or set of morals they follow and generally won't bend from, even if they are self-imposed, while Chaotic might mean that your character doesn't care for these limitations and will change ideals on a whim, or not have them at all. Likewise, Good is usually "I help and protect and doesn't afraid of anything" and Evil "I will kill because I can", but Good could also mean that your character is generally not self-concerned and will happily defend someone else to preserve something (remember, humans are flock animals - We only do good to others if it does good to ourselves, even if that is just the good feeling of doing good things), while Evil can be a character who has a goal she wants to achieve and wont be stopped to do so.

Examples using the above method of making a character could be the Lawful Evil duelist who will happily kill a man on the street, but only if it follows his own code of honor, and who is in a party because he wants to meet stronger foes, or the Chaotic Good mage who one day helps his party with spells, but turns a character into a rabbit the next, just to make sure the spell works properly when he meets an opponent.

Another point is that alignment is meant to represent tendencies rather than hard-and-fast stagnant points. A Good character can be pushed to the breaking point and do something Evil, or a Lawful character can agonizingly choose to make a Chaotic decision that goes against everything he believes in to prevent the unthinkable, or an Evil character might find herself doing something selfless because she's not that evil. Indeed, people acting in ways they normally wouldn't due to pressure and circumstance is where drama comes from. Plus, and this is the important bit, doing one act out of alignment does not constitute an alignment shift. (Unless you're a pre-4e paladin anyway.) The Lawful cop whose heart causes him to make an exception for the hooker who needs to feed her kids, or the Chaotic cop who swears to his dying partner that he'll bring the bad guy in "by the book" don't stop being lawful or chaotic just because they acted out of alignment once.

Just remember that these things aren't set in stone. Talk with your fellow PCs and the DM and make sure they understand how you interpret the system and how you use it with your character. You can have loads of fun with unique characters this way - Anyone can make and play a Lawful Good Paladin who is gonna spare the BBEG, but it is harder to make and play the Lawful Good vigilante who will happily slaughter entire groups of criminals and put them on spires around town as an example of what happens if you mess with the children of the village.

Alignment, Allegiance and Personality in other RPGs[edit]

  • White Wolf's World of Darkness games clearly separate allegiance and personality. For example, Vampire: the Masquerade has Camarilla, Anarchs, and Sabbat for the character's basic allegiance (although unlike D&D, these have no metaphysical consequences). All of the World of Darkness games use a shopping list of Jungian archetypes to describe a character's personal code of conduct, described as their "Nature." The games have much emphasis on social interactions, betrayal, deception and general being a bastard, so there's also the archetype they present publicly, called their "Demeanor." Good or evil can be a bit irrelevant when the player characters are all vampires/werewolves/demigods/dead/half-imaginary. Characters that behaved appropriately to their Nature archetype were gained a stronger self-confidence, evidenced by awarding "willpower" points they could spend later to make tasks more likely to succeed.
  • White Wolf's Exalted has the four Virtues: Valor, Compassion, Conviction and Temperance. All are measured on a scale of 1-5 for mortals, but some beings can go up to ten. It describes, respectively, how brave you are, how nice you are, how good you are at sticking to your guns, and how much willpower you can muster to avoid temptation. Two is considered the human average, but since you're (hopefully!) supposed to be some kind of mythical hero ,you have to at least three in something to start with.
    • Being all the way down at one means you are, respectively, a coward, a sociopathic dick who can't feel empathy, an aimless wishy-washy vagrant, or any flavor of hedonist you care to name. The cosmic spirit of unlikable douchebaggery, the Ebon Dragon, is about the only being with a one in every virtue.
    • Having too much, though, turns you a different flavor of psycho; respectively, a frothing berserker, an unbalanced lunatic who can't stop helping people and won't look at the bigger picture, a zealot incapable of realizing that you're wrong, or an uptight jerk who literally wants to stop everyone else from having fun. Each virtue can override one other virtue, but raising them all high takes up lots of XP and can turn you into a neurotic wreck like the Unconquered Sun, who has a ten in every virtue and has turned into a burned-out wreck of a deity listlessly squatting in his celestial house playing World of Warcraft all day because breaking any virtue would lessen him and it's really hard to function without repressing at least one in a weak sort of way.
  • d20 Modern uses "allegiances" instead of ethics, indicating the character subscribes to an established code of conduct, or the mores of a social group. Dealing with an NPC with a matching allegiance gives the player a +2 circumstance bonus to social tasks. If an NPC witnesses you violating one of their allegiances, that's a -2 for any social tasks with that NPC evermore. Characters can have multiple allegiances, each providing the +2/-2 when appropriate, but not cumulatively.
  • Palladium Fantasy RPG (and all Palladium games that came later) uses three categories for alignment: Good, Selfish and Evil. These break down into seven alignments: Principled, Scrupulous, Unprincipled, Anarchist, Aberrant, Miscreant, and Diabolic. They added "Taoist" for their Kung-fu games, but nobody used it. D&D fans often enjoy noting that these roughly correlate into most of the same alignments as the classic 9-axis. There is no "True Neutral" equivalent alignment in Palladium, however; per word of god, this was because A: Stupid Neutral was, well, a stupid idea, and B: anyone who truly did not give a shit about anything (the other primary description of the True Neutral alignment in D&D) would not be at all inclined to go adventuring. By the game designer's arguments, somebody who's only adventuring to get something they need or want done (your classic "I don't care if the Empire's hurting people, but they'll take my farm if I don't take them out" jerk) would fall under one of the Selfish alignments.
  • GURPS doesn't have alignments. Instead, it's a long list of mental disadvantages you can take during character generation to restrict the character's behavior. Since characters are on a point-buy system, these disadvantages can be traded for other advantages. You could take Compulsive Honesty (-10 point flaw), for enough points to get you Ambidexterity (+10 point advantage), or Kleptomania (-15) for a military rank of Lieutenant (three ranks @ +5).
  • Warhammer Fantasy had five alignments on a linear scale: Law - Good - Neutral - Evil - Chaotic. This was used as a rule of thumb for reactions between people — identical alignments would be well-disposed towards each other, but the further apart alignments are, the more likely things would come to blows. A character's alignment could shift at most one step left or right from where they started. Later editions of Warhammer de-emphasize the alignment system in favor of allegiances and broad personalities.
  • Dungeon World uses alignment as a method for gaining experience points; you choose one of the three offered during character creation. Playing an evil rogue? Get 1 XP when someone else gets in trouble for something you did. Playing a good druid? Get 1 XP when you eliminate an unnatural menace.
  • Sitting somewhere between a D&D alignment and a personality test, Magic: The Gathering has a five color system of magic that also had personality traits wired into make up. For example, red is the color of acting rather than thinking, and they have the most destructive spells and cheapest creatures. Blue, on the other hand, is logical and thinks rather than acts, and they have the most counter spells.
  • The Star Wars Roleplaying Game uses a form of alignment called Morality which has a mechanical effect, but it only applies to Force users and how they activate their powers, so any other character can behave in whichever manner they choose without penalty. Force users move up and down the Light/Dark scale in a fluid manner which can be incredibly difficult to maintain at the same value from session to session. It has an inbuilt tendency to climb upwards, but can be decreased due to actions on the part of the player. The rules incorporate a hard and fast list of what actually constitutes "bad" and how minor or major it impacts your score, and doesn't really incorporate any level of intention or thought process that goes into the act, meaning that the GM shouldn't be blamed for hitting the character with a big alignment shift at the end of a session, but character could swing back in the following session just as naturally.
    • Wizards Star Wars D20 also used a light/dark system which influenced what powers were available to Force users, but the system was incredibly punishing to players, requiring them to have absolutely no dark side points at all in order to get the best out of Light powers while causing them to alignment shift every time they even used a dark-side power, also it risked them losing their characters to the GM if they reach a Dark threshold determined by their wisdom score. Plus while there was a list of what actions accumulate "dark" points, some of them are subjective and call on GM rulings, and those points are quite difficult (but not impossible) to get rid of once obtained.
  • Reality: as long as humans have been around we've tried to sort out ethics, and then put people into category of "good" or "Evil", "lawful", or "chaotic". For much of human history we've used religion and race as the measuring stick of how we figured this out. During the 20th century, though the former is still used by some, societies figured out a much better way than the latter (though some people still use that too) to type people's personality, or "Alignment", thanks to personality tests. Developed by armed forces to ease selection, personality tests are, like RPG game alignments, not perfect; however, they are still a good guide line for describing peoples personality, and some like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory are medically useful when treating mental disorders. One of the most common personality typing systems is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, with a rough description of what it is here. Of course, since people in real life grow and change, so can their personality (and thus 'alignment'), so re-testing is necessary to keep an accurate idea. Myers-Briggs is really a lot like a horoscope, with descriptions so vague and generic they can easily apply to just about any one. Try reading the descriptions and see how many could apply to you.


Did we mention that alignment charts are a meme?

External Links[edit]