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.
- 1 NOTICE
- 1.1 Alignment in Different Editions
- 1.2 Controversy caused by the 2nd Edition Change
- 1.3 The iconic D&D alignments (and why your party should kill them)
- 1.4 Alignment and Society
- 1.5 A Broader Perspective
- 1.6 Alignment, Allegiance and Personality in other RPGs
- 1.7 Gallery
- 1.8 External Links
Alignment is designed to be a rough explanation of motivation for characters in fiction, rather than a real world moral philosophy; e.g. 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, etc.. 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 methods are factors in the equation, but again the degree to which they matter and the specifics of what adds up to what is one of contention.
Alignment in Different Editions
- 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".
- The 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 some middle ground between the extremes".
Controversy caused by the 2nd Edition Change
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.
The iconic D&D alignments (and why your party should kill them)
The title of the section alone should be a giant neon sign to take its contents with a shaker full of salt grains (or a vat of skub, we're not picky).
"Where men gather, a bustle of chaos ensues. I would save them all if I could"
- – Keldorn Firecam
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.
Expected Personality: A "nice guy" at best. Chief of the Fun Police at worst.
"I don't care if it is legal; it's wrong"
- – Lord of War
The quintessential "nice guy". Unlike the Lawful Good types, Neutral Good types draw their morality from simply being a good person, not because a book or the law told them to. Its vague, and usually boils down to trying to do whatever helps the most people, ignoring but not acting against traditions and laws. They differ from Chaotic Good in that they don't go out of their way to shake things up or "stick it to the man." Perhaps the simplest form of good, as it doesn't have as many complications as Chaotic or Lawful variants.
Example(s): A peace-loving cleric who is against the mere thought of violence, or a wandering adventurer who visits small towns and helps with various problems.
Expected Personality: An actual nice guy, a friendly child, or an all-loving cleric.
"A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely."
- – Ra's Al Ghul
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 variant 2 (good consquences no matter the actions) Stupid Good.
Philosophically, it has been mooted - in the words of Curtis "Mencius Moldbug" Yarvin, 2007 - that "there's no such thing". For him, chaos is what "evil" means; by which definition, anyone who serves chaos is evil. People who believe that trend Lawful to the extreme of monarchism.
Example(s): A freedom fighter, combating an oppressive regime to free their people.
Expected Personality: A hotblooded asshole with a barely functioning moral compass.
"Justice is not blind, for I am her eyes."
- – Vhailor
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 circumstances. 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 are a murderer? Firing squad. Rapist? Hanged, drawn and quartered. You committed genocide? Burned at the stake. If they aren't actively enforcing the law, they are instead following it to the letter and will insist to other people to do the same. The reasoning varies, but it usually boils down to them respecting and upholding order, which the law represents. Upholding order isn't always simple or easy, sometimes you have to make the hard call and have morality take a back seat a few times for the bigger picture.
At best they're obstructive bureaucrats who will get through almost anything by ruthlessly exploiting every legal avenue and loophole they can find (They probably legally ruined a few lives along the way, but the law's the law, not their problem.). 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. Or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory when he isn't scheming (Lawful Evil) or being Lawful Good to his friends.
Expected Personality: The first half of the neutral jerkass duo, who wants to stop people from having fun.
Comes in three varieties: "Dedicated to Balance" True Neutral, "Can't be Bothered to Care" True Neutral, and "amoral animal" True Neutral (AKA 5e Unaligned).
"So you remove excess of both good and evil? How can you tell which is which?"
- – Yoshimo
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 (paradoxically defeating the purpose of their supposed moral neutrality) - 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.
"Good, bad...I'm the guy with the gun."
- – Caleb
"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.
"Nature is what she is, persistent and amoral"
- – Stephen Jay Gould
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 both variant 1 (passive/don't care) and variant 2 (active/cosmic checkbook fanatic) Stupid Neutral.
Example(s): Amoral druids for the first, filler NPCs and/or civilians for the second, and a literal wild animal for the third.
Expected Personality: The most bland person you can meet.
"Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me"
- – Rage Against the Machine
"You wanna buy some batteries?"
- – Rocket Raccoon
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.
Example(s): A lone, thrill-seeking rogue fighting for his own gains and enjoyment.
Expected Personality: The other half of the neutral jerkass duo, this time having fun at the expense of everyone else.
Two types, The Corrupt Tyrant and The Honorable Villain(tm) (aka the Bipolar Dick)
"Do you know the oldest lie in America, Senator? It's that power can be innocent"
- – Lex Luthor
For type 1: You have your Fascists, Stalinists, Social Darwinists, contract killers, organized crime, corrupt officials, corporate/business sharks 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.
"When your enemies defy you, you must serve them steel and fire. When they go to their knees, however, you must help them back to their feet. Elsewise no man will ever bend the knee to you."
For type 2: Think of a ruthless warrior that nonetheless holds himself up to some sort of code; they might despise weakness and will show no hesitation at slaughtering innocents, burning villages, etc., but will sometimes let those innocents arm themselves first, as they consider killing an unarmed opponent "dishonorable". While they might care little for virtues such as mercy and compassion, they still take giving their word very seriously, and once they've been forced to make a promise you can usually count on them keeping it. However, as soon as the innocent picks up that sword, their opponent shows cowardice, or they've fullfilled their word, they’ll show no pity or hesitation and immediately resume slaughtering. Usually they are dedicated to some cause higher than themselves, and often that cause is serving the type 1 Lawful Evil villain; just as often they are also the type of disgruntled servant that will turn on said villain once they've developed some sort of respect for the hero's strength and/or realize that their boss is a dick with no honor. There's a 50/50 chance of them either switching teams or taking the BBEG's spot for themselves, and they tend to do a better job at it. Kill them as soon as you can because in either case you'll have to put up with a cliche redemption arc or you'll have to deal with a more dangerous bad guy leading the opposing team later on.
Type 2s tend to be more prone to Lawful Stupid. Both types can borrow elements from the other to make for a more complex character such as a Type 1 who behaves Type 2 because they believe that kind of behaviour better serves them personally or a Type 2 who behaves Type 1 because they think selfish behaviour is what they must do, probably because their culture, religion, philoshopy or simple life circumstances dictate so.
Example(s): Type 1: A corrupt Baron with an eye for the throne. Type 2: A dark knight in the service of an evil god. Type 1 borrowing from Type 2: A Barbarian Chieftain who wishes to keep his authority and not be labeled a tyrant while doing so. Type 2 borrowing from Type 1: An orphan who did what they had to survive and would have ended up a good man if they had a better upbringing.
Expected Personality: A smart man with legitimate grievances against the powers that be, or a smart asshole.
"I think my mask of sanity is about to slip."
- – American Psycho
The asshole alignment. Follows the law as long as it helps them, then breaks it when it doesn't. 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. There's some variety on how willing they are to act on their evil impulses, on one hand you can have someone that slits people's throats and purses for a living but on the other you can actually have a NE individual that goes through his entire life without directly killing someone, not because they haven't thought about it, but because they know the circumstances they find themselves in make getting away with murder flawlessly more trouble than it is worth. The latter are also the reason why Paladins can't just go around using their "detect evil" ability and throwing everyone that tests positive into jail, not everyone who has the potential to be a murderer will do it (in fact, most won’t, they'll just be garden variety assholes instead).
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. Beware of Stupid Evil if they are of the more impulsive variant or are arrogantly confident on the current situation.
Example(s): A greedy merchant that would rather let someone die on his doorstep than give away his coin for the more restrained version, a serial killer putting on a facade to continue his deeds for the more unhinged one and a lowlife thug who doesn't have any moral qualms about murdering people for money but is restrained enough to know doing this is a bad idea most of the time for a more balanced variant.
Expected Personality: High functioning (selfishness helps prevent impulsiveness to some degree) sociopath.
"Blood for the Blood God! Skulls for the Skull Throne! LET! THE GALAXY! BURN!""
A psychopath who's evil for the sake of being evil. There's no redeeming/remotely sane factor why they're Satan-incarnate — not to get rich, not to get revenge, not for survival, 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, 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 little-to-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 bloodthirsty warlord indiscriminately spilling the blood of whomever is unlucky enough to be in their visual range, just to constantly feel the thrill of taking people's lives.
Expected Personality: Low functioning (impulsiveness is completely unchained) sociopath, "For the Evulz!" in full effect.
Alignment and Society
Let's say you're an adventurer and you arrive at a citystate ruled by a count and his personal cronies, who extort the local populace for money and resources, drafts anyone who can't pay their fines into the army and has a secret police that roots out dissenters. The remaining low nobles and merchant class play to his vain nature and do their best to claim political and economic power in the absence of the old ruling family. How do you react? Well, depending on your Alignment, you may feel like...
- Lawful Good: This city is corrupted by greed and ambition! The common people are being preyed on by the powerful and the civil society crumbles from fear and self-preservation. I could try to support to the poor and help with any issues they may have, or maybe go on a quest to find the real heir to the city. There are no reason to go out there and attack them in the open - they're cruel, but I won't help by adding to the chaos.
- Neutral Good: This is just not right... These poor people can't live on like this forever. I have no relation to anyone here, so maybe I can help the resistance movement, or make life difficult for the bureaucrats and nobles on a case-to-case situation. Even if I can't make a change now, I won't submit to their cruel system.
- Chaotic Good: Oppression of the worst sort! These tyrants gotta get what's coming to them... I could ruin their parties, sabotage their movements and maybe even assassinate the count himself! I need to support the people who dare stand against him... And if his cronies and goons come, I'll treat them like the traitors they are! Freedom has a cost after all...
- Lawful Neutral: Not the nicest city, this... I better listen to the city guard and keep my business to myself, so I can avoid problems. I shouldn't get involved; I can't know if all these harsh measures has a point. How would I like it if someone came and made a ruckus on my hometown, after all?
- True Neutral: Another city. I've seen so many by now, it's difficult to tell them apart. Someone on the top, some at the bottom and walls and guards to keep it that way. I better just finish my work and move on.
- Chaotic Neutral: How come there's so many of these wretched hives around? Who cares, there's opportunities here that others may miss... But not me! I'm sure there's someone who needs something smuggled, someone beaten up, something moved out of sight... I'm sure there's loads of options for the enterprising man, such as myself. Still, maybe I should just get what I came for. I'm sure those indentured workers are hungry and may part with the information I need for my quest in exchange for a bit of bread. Poor sods... But hey, they could just go do something about it all.
- Lawful Evil: It's always a wonder to see an efficient state like this. Sure, it could be prettier, maybe a little less... Direct, but hey, beggars can't be choosers, and they get things done. The Orcs are gone from the forest, the corruption of the old dynasties gone, it's amazing what one can do with a coherent society! Maybe I should see if I can't move up the ladder here... There's got to be some options for an ambitious, loyal and efficient supporter of the realm.
- Neutral Evil: You can't make an omelet without breaking a some eggs, and eggs sure are broken here... But why stop there? This prissy "My-First-Government" should just throw out the pretense and begin marching that army on the countryside. If anyone should object, they can draw their swords and let their arms do the talking! Now that the people are following the count, why not promote him through propaganda, make public executions mandatory and reward loyal citizens? The sky is the limit!
- Chaotic Evil: So many think they can be safe by banding together behind a large wall, giving some clown a crown and quilting a flag. This city just shows that it only helps the weak and ambitious who uses words and threats to induce fear... That is pathetic, and I'll prove it. I could walk up to the castle, kill every poor, traitorous guard they throw at me and lob of the count's greasy head with a lob of my sword. But of course I could just let them play around with their castles and shit, get an ale and move on. There's fatter rewards to reap elsewhere.
All that is to say, Alignments make sense when seen through the lens of what is normal in society - and in most games, what is considered to be normal comes from our precognition. We expect freedom as good, cooperation to be normal and exploitation as evil, so that's what we call Alignments. That isn't bad; it's just important to understand that it isn't a system that allows for the sort of "Well from my experience, the Orcs are good!" discussions because, from our view, they're clearly evil. In fact, you could replace "Good" and "Evil" with "Normative" and "Divergent" - do you consider sapient rights, morality and general decency, or do you follow your own conceptions of what is right or wrong?
A Broader Perspective
Alright, salt shakers and skub cans aside now.
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 follows 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. Similarly, 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 they want to achieve by absolutely any means necessary.
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. That said, every alignment also has generally agreed-upon points where you would be wise not to push too far.
Alignment, Allegiance and Personality in other RPGs
- 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.
- Mutants and Masterminds avoids alignment and replaces it with the motive category of Complications, of which each character must have at least two. While these can encompass weaknesses (shards of your home planet being deadly to you or your powers not working on wood) and things to protect (most commonly secret identity and friends/family), one must be a Motivation for why you're out being a hero. These force a character to act a certain way or let the GM hose you when he wants to but, in exchange for the inconvenience, give a Hero Point when it comes up. For most heroes in the intended genre the motive isn't much of an issue, if you aren't protecting the city/fighting evil/whatever variant you call it, you aren't playing the game. Further Complications can be based on personality like being unable to resist the request of a pretty girl and/or flying into a rage at a certain type of criminal.
Alignments in Real Life
As long as humans have been around we've tried to sort out ethics, and then put people into categories 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 have largely 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 a person’s 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 anyone. Try reading the descriptions and see how many could apply to you.
Philosophy also offers concepts that resemble alignment. Two major branches of ethics, deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics, broadly resemble lawful and chaotic alignments respectively. Deontologists believe that actions are right or wrong, and that the consequences of the action are irrelevant. Conversely, consequentialists believe that the morality of an action is based on the outcome, that "the ends justify the means". Naturally this tends to be used to justify actions that are clearly harmful to some.
Did we mention that alignment charts are a meme?
We are all agreed on this then: A rock is not a sandwich.Somebody mentioned Skub?