Last Updated: September 26, 2021
Despite being a mechanically simple system, alignment is one of the most heavily discussed and debated concepts in the world of roleplaying games. It’s okay if you don’t feel like you understand it well. Alignment can be somewhat subjective, and two people may have very different opinions of what alignment means and how it works.
Alignment is a broad way to categorize your character’s morals. It is a way to develop your character, not a straitjacket. Your character’s alignment can change over time if your character’s morals or personality change. Even if your character never changes their alignment, sometimes people do things which might fall outside of their alignment. Sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes lawful people break the rules.
Each alignment represents a broad range of personality types or personal philosophies, so two characters of the same alignment can still be quite different from each other. All creatures have an alignment. Alignment determines the effectiveness of some spells and magic items. Animals and other creatures incapable of moral action are neutral. Even deadly vipers and tigers that eat people are neutral because they lack the capacity for morally right or wrong behavior. Dogs may be obedient and cats free-spirited, but they do not have the moral capacity to be truly lawful or chaotic.
Good vs. Evil
Good characters and creatures protect innocent life. Evil characters and creatures debase or destroy innocent life, whether for fun, profit, or personal gain.
Good implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of other beings. Good characters often make personal sacrifices to help others.
Evil implies hurting, oppressing, and sometimes killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some evil deity or master. Player Character are rarely evil. If you want to play an evil character, discuss it with your GM before making any decisions.
People who are neutral with respect to good and evil may have compunctions against killing the innocent or performing other evil acts, but may lack the commitment to make sacrifices to protect or help others, or to prevent others from performing evil acts.
Law vs. Chaos
Lawful characters tell the truth, keep their word, respect authority, honor tradition, and judge those who fall short of their duties. Chaotic characters follow their consciences, resent being told what to do, favor new ideas over tradition, and do what they promise if they feel like it. Neutral characters might have some respect for authority and be generally honest, but might lie or cheat if it suits their needs or if they are convinced to do so.
It may help to think of Lawful vs. Chaotic as Dogmatic vs. Pragmatic.
The 9 Alignments
The 9 alignments define the possible combinations of alignments on the two alignment axes. The sections below describe typical attributes of characters of the 9 alignments, but two characters of the same alignment might be very different.
|Good||Lawful Good||Neutral Good||Chaotic Good|
|Neutral||Lawful Neutral||Neutral||Chaotic Neutral|
|Evil||Lawful Evil||Neutral Evil||Chaotic Evil|
Lawful good combines honor with compassion. A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. Many heroes are lawful good. Lawful good characters often actively oppose evil because they feel morally obligated to do so.
Jaded and misguided players sometimes refer to Lawful Good as “Lawful Stupid” because many Lawful Good characters tend to be uptight, and tend to try to reign in the party’s wilder impulses. While characters like this certainly have their place, a Lawful Good alignment is hardly an excuse to impose your character’s morals upon the rest of the party.
Neutral good means doing what is good and right without bias for or against order. A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others, but understands that the rules don’t always apply, and does not always defer to authority.
Chaotic good combines a good heart with a free spirit. A chaotic good character acts as his conscience directs him with little regard for what others expect of him. He makes his own way, but he’s kind and benevolent. He believes in goodness and right but has little use for laws and regulations.
Lawful neutral means you are reliable and honorable without being a zealot. A lawful neutral character acts as law, tradition, or a personal code directs her. Order and organization are paramount.
Neutral means you act naturally in any situation, without prejudice or compulsion. A neutral character does what seems to be a good idea. Most neutral characters exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality.
Chaotic neutral represents freedom from both society’s restrictions and a do-gooder’s zeal. A chaotic neutral character follows his whims. He is an individualist first and last. He values his own liberty but doesn’t strive to protect others’ freedom. He avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions. A chaotic neutral character may be unpredictable, but his behavior is not totally random. He is not as likely to jump off a bridge as he is to cross it.
Many players use Chaotic Neutral alignment as an excuse to be a nuisance. Being Chaotic does not make you an unpredictable distraction at all times, and being Neutral does not justify every unkind, impolite, or antisocial urge that crosses your mind. Chaotic Neutral does not necessarily mean that you are selfish at all times; it simply means that you consider your own well-being before that of others.
If anyone in the party ever steals from another player, they probably have Chaotic Neutral written on their character sheet. Remind them that stealing is an evil act, especially from people who spend most of their time putting their lives on the line to protect you, so they might consider Chaotic Evil instead.
Lawful evil represents methodical, intentional, and organized evil. A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order, but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He is loath to break laws or promises. This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains, and in some cases it may.
Many excellent villains are Lawful Evil: Evil kinds, slave-masters, devils, evil wizards, and Liches are all frequently Lawful Evil. If you are facing down an organized evil organization, it’s likely that most of the members are Lawful Evil.
Neutral evil represents pure evil without honor and without variation. A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with. She is out for herself, pure and simple. She sheds no tears for those she kills, whether for profit, sport, or convenience. She has no love of order and holds no illusions that following laws, traditions, or codes would make her any better or more noble. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.
Chaotic evil represents the destruction not only of beauty and life, but also of the order on which beauty and life depend. A chaotic evil character does what his greed, hatred, and lust for destruction drive him to do. He is vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable. If he is simply out for whatever he can get, he is ruthless and brutal. If he is committed to the spread of evil and chaos, he is even worse. Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are likely to be poorly organized. Typically, chaotic evil people can be made to work together only by force, and their leader lasts only as long as he can thwart attempts to topple or assassinate him.