DnD 5e - Practical Guide to Alignment
Last Updated: March 11th, 2021
Since its earliest editions, Dungeons and Dragons has included a system known as "Alignment". This system provided a way to describe a creature's moral outlook in extremely broad terms; general enough to get a broad idea of a creatures' worldview but not detailed enough to provide specifics about their personality.
While Alignment originally featured just the law-chaos axis, the good-evil axis was introduced in the 1977 Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set, and Alignment has continued to work in basically the same way ever since with occasional changes in wording or mechanics. However, as the community has grown and the game has evolved, Alignment has become a weird, archaic holdover from previous editions which players view with increasing scepticism.
In this article, we'll examine Alignment with a critical eye. We'll explore the meaning behind the alignment system, the philosophical and moral implications, the mechanical aspects, what 5e's alignment system does well, what it does poorly, and what we can do to make 5e's alignment system useful without being stifling or problematic.
A Brief history
The original edition of Dungeons and Dragons (sometimes called "OD&D") featured alignment in three flavors: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. In 1977 the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set introduced the second axis: good, neutral, and evil.
The alignment system remained largely unchanged for a long time. 4th edition made the first significant change, rearranging the two-axis system into a one-axis system.
- Lawful Good
- Chaotic Evil
This was a confusing departure, doing away with both Lawful Evil and Chaotic Good alignments. 4th edition also removed the mechanical impacts of alignment, so this may have been done to simplify the alignment system. However, it unintentionally introduced the implication that lawfulness was somehow inherently good and chaoticness was somehow inherently evil.
With the release of 5th edition, Wizards of the Coast returned Alignment to the two-axis system. However, like 4th edition, 5th edition has largely done away with the mechanical implications of alignment (though there are some exceptions which we'll discuss below).
What is Alignment?
Alignment is an extremely simple two-axis system used to describe a creatures' general "moral attitude". While this doesn't portray the minutae of philosophy, it can be a quick shorthand to determine how a creature might behave. For example: a lawful-good creature will generally by just, kind, and orderly, while a chaotic evil creature will often be selfish and unpredictable.
Alignment is descibed using the creature's positon on each of the two axes. A creature who is lawful and evil will be described as "Lawful-Evil". A creature who is neutral and good will be described as "Neutral-Good". A creature who is neutral on both axes is described simply as "Neutral", though previous editions have used the term "True Neutral".
Alignment doesn't go into more detail than that, and to some degree it's not intended to. Intelligent creatures are complex, and there's no way to perfectly describe a creature's philosophical outlook in a space small enough to fit on a character sheet.
While alignment is listed using discting steps (lawful, neutral, chaotic. good, neutral, evil.), a creature might lean in one direction or another. Alignment is somewhat clumsy in cases where a creature doesn't fall neatly into one category, so an evil-leaning lawful-neutral character can be difficult to describe in the broad strokes used by the Alignment system.
Law and Chaos
The first axis of Alignment is the "Law vs. Chaos" axis.
Creatures which are "Lawful" tend to be orderly and organized. They often value rules and structure, and therefore value systems which support those ideals: laws, traditions, systems of honor, etc. At its best, being Lawful means honesty, trustworthiness, reliability, and stability. At its worst, being Lawful means being rigid, stagnant, judgemental, and tyranical.
Creatures which are "Chaotic" value freedom and flexibility. They value freedom of choice, individualism, and adaptability. At its best, being Chaotic means a readiness to accept change, to explore new ideas, and to explore new ideas. At its worst, being chaotic means being disorganized, unreliable, irresponsible, and sometimes even destructive.
Law and Chaos are intentionally separated from Good and Evil because being lawful or chaotic aren't inherently good or bad qualities. There are plenty of stories about heroes who you might describe as chaotic, and there are plenty of stories about villains who you might describe as lawful.
Good and Evil
The second axis of Alignment is the "Good vs. Evil" axis.
Creatures which are "Good" tend to be altruistic, generous, and peaceful. Good characters often give of themselves to help others.
Creatures which are "Evil" tend to be selfish, greedy, and sometimes even malicious. While 5th edition doesn't specifically say so, previous editions have stated that "implies hurting, oppressing, and killing others". The exact published definition of "evil" has changed somewhat over the game's history, but in general evil creatures are willing to harm others in order to get what they want.
The good vs. evil axis is perhaps the heart of the controversy around Alignment. We'll discuss this more below.
The Ten Alignments
The ten alignments are described below based on their descriptions in the 5th edition core rules with some elaboration based on previous editions. The Player's Handbook contains brief descriptions of each of these alignments, but I also encourage you to read the Wikipedia entries and the entries below.
We'll revisit alignments later in the article to expand on what we can do with these alignments.
Lawful Good creatures act how a "good person" is expected to act. They follow rules, respect legitimite authority, and treat others with kindness, honor, and respect.
Lawful Good has long been considered the alignment of idealistic heroes. Paladins were locked into lawful-good alignment until late in 3rd edition, and paladins have long been a beacon of moral certitude. However, characters who are lawful good are frequently seen as morally rigid and stubborn, so the alignment is often derided as "lawful stupid".
Neutral Good creatures do their best to do what they consider "good", but don't cling to rules or stricture so much as Lawful Good creatures. A Neutral Good creature might still obey the law or society's expectations most of the time, but they are not rigidly bound by them, and they view doing right thing as more valuable than obeying some strict doctrine.
Chaotic Good creatures do what they believe to be right with little regard for the opinions of others. They are guided by their own sense of good and evil rather than the prevailing opinions of society, and they do not feel bound by rules, laws, or other creatures' expectations of behavior.
Lawful Neutral act in accordance with the law, tradition, or with some code of behavior. While this code can often be external (the law, a religious tradition, etc.), it can also be self-determined.
Neutral creatures do what seems like the best option in any given situation. These creatures might lack strong moral convictions, they might be indecisive, or they might simply be unoppinionated. Such creatures typically act based upon their momentary needs and desires rather than based on a moral philosophy.
Perhaps the hardest alignment to play, Neutral implies that a character either can't, won't, or hasn't performed enough self-reflection to align themselves anywhere else within the Alignment system. In a party of characters who are usually not also Neutral (even if alignment is selected at random), it's difficult to remain Neutral while your party is murder-hoboing or leading a divine crusade.
Chaotic Neutral creatures follow their whims, valuing their own freedom and self-interest above other concerns. Such creatures dislike being ordered to do things, and pay no regard for rules or other creatures' expectations. And, while they are not always selfish to the point of harming others, they feel no compulsion to help other creatures in need.
Many new players fall into the trap of "Chaotic Neutral" as a universally permissive alignment. Innumerable adventurers have been made Chaotic Neutral as an excuse to murder, pillage, and rob their way through life. Remember: within the confines of the Alignment system, harming others for personal benefit (murder, robbery, etc.) is evil. There's nothing wrong with playing an evil character, but let's not lie to ourselves and pretend that "Stabby the Burgler-Arsonist" is Chaotic Neutral.
Lawful Evil creatures act within a code of behavior, but are otherwise self-centered. They are often tyrants, or would be if they could, seeking to use their code of behavior to advance their own interests.
Neutral Evil creatures are self-interested, and do whatever they can get away with to advance their own interestes. They might follow rules if it serves them, but they do not feel bound to do so. At the same time, they aren't to unpredictable as Chaotic evil creatures.
Chaotic Evil creatures are motivated by arbitrary and often malicious whims. They are typically greedy and selfish, and are often violent. They give no thought to the wants or needs of other creatures, and pay no heed to rules or expectations. Such creatures will typically only bow to authority when threatened.
Chaotic Evil's description has been weird since at least 3rd edition. 5e's description starts with "creatures act with arbitrary violence", which sounds a bit harsh. But compared to the 3rd edition entry, that's pretty gentle. 3rd edition describes such creatures as "hot-tempered, vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable", and goes on to describe other evil stuff like spreading evil and chaos.
Unaligned creatures (yes, "Unaligned" is an alignment) lack the mental capacity to make philosophical judgements, and therefore don't have an alignment. Such creatures include beasts and unintelligent undead. While these creatures may still exibit alignment-like traits (squirrels dillignetly collect and bury good; dogs might act sympathetically toward a sad or injured humanoid), these behaviors are considered less about moral judgement than they are about conditioning, and unaligned creatures lack a capacity for self-reflection which would allow them to examine the moral implications of their thoughts and behaviors.
What is Wrong With Alignment?
Perhaps the largest controversy within the alignment system is the "good vs. evil" axis, which prevents a gross oversimplificiation of morality. The easiest way to expose the problem is simply to ask "who decided what is "good" and what is "evil"?"
Dungeons and Dragons has historically followed a simplistic good-evil philosophy which real-world people may find familiar: Greed is bad, generosity is good. Respecting others is good, treating others with disrepect is bad. Honoring commitments is good, breaking them is bad. Harming others for selfish interests is bad, protecting the vulnerable from exploitation is good.
But who decided that those things are good? The real world has a long history of philosophers, religions, and laws which have gradually steered humanity in various directions, and I'm nowhere near qualified to explore them in any serious level of detail.
But why do our real-world ideas of a good and evil apply to characters within our games? Those characters don't have the same world history that we do, and it seems silly to assume that a fictional world with dragons and magic would somehow naturally evolve the same moral philosophy which you or I might consider familiar. Fictional worlds would necessarily have different views of good and evil, just as different real-world cultures have different views of good and evil, and societies at different points in their histories have different views of good and evil.
So, again I ask: "Who decided what is good and what is evil?" If you examine a game setting (your own or someone else's), you can likely find an answer. In many settings, the same answer is the same: good and evil are often defined by the setting's gods.
Settings like Forgotten Realms have polytheistic pantheons with deities who are often directly involved in the word, and access to those deities via magic or interplanar travel means that mortals can directly ask the gods to weigh in on what is good or evil. The DM, who is presumably portraying the gods in their own game, is therefore the ultimate arbiter of good and evil.
How to Use Alignment
The simplest answer is "don't". To some degree, Alignment is a relic of the 1970's, and its difficulties and inherent philosophical problems can be frustrating, and it can feel as though there is little payoff for putting your character's complex belief system into a neat box. It's perfectly fine to play without alignment. Almost nothing in the game cares about creatures' actual alignments, so there's essentially no cost to doing so. But, assuming that you're still open to the possibility of using Alignment, I'd like to lay out some concepts that may make alignment appealing.
Alignment is "The World"'s Opinion
Alignment is not determined by the character; it is determined by the general views of "The World". That doesn't mean that everyone in the world gets a vote; it means that your characters alignment is based on the moral opinions of the world around them.
For example: Goofus lives in Puppyville, but hates puppies and scares them away from his house whenever he sees puppies. The people of Puppyville love puppies, and treating puppies with kindness and generosity is viewed as "good". Therefore, within the moral opinions of Goofus's world, he could be considered "evil" because he is doing something that the world sees as cruel or selfish.
By comparison, Gallant lives in Peanut Butter City, a city where things are made from magical peanut butter. Puppies love Peanut Butter City, but have a nasty habit of eating the buildings made of peanut butter, thereby rendering people homeless. Gallant makes his living by scaring puppies away from Peanut Butter City. Because he is protecting the vulnerable citizens, he could be considered "good".
Goofus and Gallant are doing the same thing: scaring away puppies. Niether act is inherently good or evil, but based on context and the prevailing moral opinions of their world, we can measure a character on the alignment scales.
Alignment is Descriptive, not Prescriptive
Perhaps the best advice I've ever read on alignment is that Alignment is "descriptive", not "prescriptive". This means that alignment describes a creatures' behavior, but it does not dictate their behavior.
For example: Gallant is Lawful Good. He is in all ways considered a great person, and he is widely respected. However, Gallant has a sweet tooth, and one day he has a weird moment and decides to steal a candy bar. Gallant will likely feel bad about it later, but he's not magically incapable of non-good acts. If he were a player character, his Dungeon Matser should never say "Gallant would not do that because he is Lawful Good!" Instead, the Dungeon Master might ask "This seems like an unusual choice for Gallant", and allow Gallant to contnue. If Gallant continues to deviate from his alignment, the Dungeon Master might change Gallant's alignment to reflect his new normal.
Alignment Can Change
People can change, and characters are no exception. Innumerable stories feature good characters falling to evil or evil characters redeeming themselves. Player characters are not somehow exempt from this phenomenon. A character's experiences over the course of a campaign might change their outlook on the world, so changing alignment over time can be a very interesting way to portray character growth beyond more mechanical stuff like gaining levels.
"Reimagining" may be an over-sell. "Re-label" may be more accurate. Simply by changing the terminology of the Alignment system, we can hit the original intent of the system while also removing some of the complicated moral philosophy stuff.
First, replace the chaos-law axis with dogmatic-pragmatic. Dogmatic characters adhere to a set of principals, while pragmatic characters behave according to what they think is practical in a given situation. This maintains the core concept, but removes the sometimes confusing association with actual law since a dogmatic character can still be opposed to the law of the land, local traditions, or other rules systems with which they disagree.
Second, replace the evil-good axis with selfish-selfless. Selfish characters act based on their own needs and desires, while selfless characters act based on the needs and desires of others. This removes the judgement that acting in your own self-interest in inherently "evil", and breaks away from the implied morality written into the game. It also separates the notion of "evil" from the implied maliciousness and violence.
These two changes allow players to explore less-heroic personalities without the stamp of "evil" on their character sheet. A player could play a pragmatic-selfish character (the equivalent of chaotic evil) without being judged as an inherently murderous, violent monster.
A Third Axis
Adding a third axis can add additional nuance to the Alignment system without massively increasing the complexity. I propose adding a new "antisocial-prosocial" axis. This indicates how the creature behaves toward other people and toward society, which tells us a little bit more about how the creature applies their Alignment to the world around them.
Antisocial creatures are rough, hostile, standoffish, and generally unwilling to associate with society in a friendly way. At best they are impolite, demeaning, disrespectful, or insulting. At worst they are aggressive, pushy, or even violent.
Neutral creatures are often indifferent or ambivalent toward society and toward other creatures. They are not outwardly hostil unless provoked, but also are not immediately friendly or helpful.
Prosocial creatures are friendly, polite, and generally choose to participate in society. At best, a prosocial character is helpful, charming, and pleasant. At worst, a prosocial character is manipulative or conniving.
Some examples: A lawful-good-antisocial character (or selfless-dogmatic-antisocial) might run a charity or a hospital or some other broadly kind service while in-person they constantly make demeaning remarks to those around them. A chaotic-evil-social character (or selfish-pragmatic-social) might make their living as a thief, but they're charming to speak to and they always offer directions and to local tourists.
You might reasonably think "that doesn't feel like a meaningful addition to my game", and honestly you're probably right. Alignment is already an extremely minor part of the game, and adding more stuff to it isn't necessarily an improvement. Use what works for your group.
Initiative is at the same time complicated but overly simple, confusing yet a helpful abstraction, and overly-rigid yet flexible enough to be useful. It's a strange beast. You don't need to use it, so if it's a problem it's totally fine to do away with it. But at the same time, taking a moment to fit a creature into an alignment may be helpful to convey basic information about a creature's moral standing.