Updated: Apr 1, 2021
WHAT IS ALIGNMENT?
What is alignment in Dungeons & Dragons? This has been the source of raging debates for as long as I’ve been playing the game, some 40 years, and it doesn’t appear as though the debates are going to let up anytime soon.
What is it that makes alignment such a hot topic amongst gamers? I think, and I may be wrong, that at times the meaning of a particular alignment is unclear, portrayal of that alignment can be difficult, and sometimes alignment can be seen as a straight jacket.
So, what is alignment? I like to see alignment as that character’ s particular morality. It is their moral code, the code of ethics. In addition, it’s a personal attitude towards any given situation, it’s also the way that character views the world and their interactions within it.
Alignment is a tool, this tool is used to help you to define your character, their identity, and the broad range of personalities that exist in the world. It is how you explain the personal philosophy of your character. Keeping this in mind, two characters of the same alignment can act very differently from one another. How is this possible?
Alignments are not cookie cutters. Not every lawful good individual behaves in the same way. Their philosophies may be quite similar in some areas but could be very different in others. Do not use your characters alignment as a straight jacket.
Alignment is something that is in flux. Think of your alignment as how you're character behaves most often. We all have an ethical code that we follow, based on any number of things from our upbringing to our religious affiliation and a bunch of things in between. We don’t always stay within that code of ethics, sometimes we slip up and we go from lawful good to chaotic good briefly.
GOOD VS EVIL
Good versus evil, the eternal struggle. This has been the foundation for many a story since the beginning of our history as humans. Good versus evil is something that is ingrained in us, we all love a story where the hero triumphs over the wicked. But what is good, and what is evil?
Good characters will generally have respect for life. They may strive to preserve the dignity of all intelligent life. Good characters will make personal sacrifices. These sacrifices may be financial in nature or they may place themselves in harms way to protect others.
Evil characters will harm, kill, and or oppress other creatures for personal gain or for their own sick pleasure. Many individuals and/or creatures that are evil may have no compassion at all for others. They may gain delight in the suffering of others. Evil characters may hunt other intelligent beings for sport, and they may be under the employ of more powerful evil beings.
Good and evil are eternally linked like light and darkness. Without one, there could not be the other. All that is good will work towards the eradication of evil and vice versa but both philosophies know deep down that you cannot have one without the other.
The debate rages on whether or not good and/or evil is a matter of choice or are some creatures are just born evil? This is the nature versus nurture argument that has raged in our real world for a very long time. I will not begin to tell you how you should determine this at your own gaming table, you are the dungeon Master or the player portraying your character. However you determine this, whether or not good and evil is a choice or it is simply the nature of a particular creature or being, I do hope that my definition of good versus evil has helped you in managing your table or in playing your character.
LAW & CHAOS
Law and chaos like good and evil are polar opposites and are a component to many alignments. While the difference seems to be little more than common sense, there is a wonderful complexity to the differences between law and chaos. Let’s define those, to better help you manage your table and player character.
Lawful characters behave in a certain way. They will keep their word when it is given and will work very hard to not deviate from that. If the lawful character does deviate from their word it is often times not because of a conscious decision but because of a series of circumstances that occurred preventing them from doing so.
Lawful characters will tell the truth, sometimes to a fault. They will respect authority even if they disagree with that authority. Tradition is very important to a lawful character, so you see, a lawful character does not necessarily have to come from what is commonly referred to as a civilized land but rather can be a barbarian from some savage lands.
Lawful characters can be at times, obnoxious for they will be judgmental of other characters and NPCs for their actions.
Chaotic characters will follow their conscience, preferring to do what is right over what authority, rules, or tradition dictates. Like the lawful characters, chaotic characters will keep their word as long as they feel like it though. Their word is in flux and may or may not be kept depending on the situation at hand.
Keep in mind, the lawful character does not necessarily mean that they are a good person, they can be quite the opposite, blindly following the instruction of someone in authority. There is an implication that a lawful character possesses honor and trustworthiness. They are reliable individuals but with their rigid adherence to law, tradition, and individuals in authority they can also be close minded and can, in the process of adhering to all of the aforementioned, be blind to the plight of others.
Chaotic characters are free. They feel no need to adhere to any code other than their own and this code may change from situation to situation. They are adaptable and flexible but, they may be unreliable as well. The chaotic nature of these individuals may make them reckless and irresponsible. They may hold resentment towards any individuals in authority.
Unlike good and evil, one’s devotion to lawfulness or the freedoms of chaos, is sometimes a conscious choice and not necessarily related to nature or nurture. Most often, devotion to lawfulness or chaos is a matter of personality and very little else.
Neutrality. Neutrality can be a tricky alignment. What is it and how do you play a neutral character? The simple answer to the question is that neutrality is your middle-of-the-road alignment. An individual who is of neutral alignment has a moderate respect for authority, laws, and tradition. They don’t entirely throw it out of the window and ignore it like those devoted to chaos do. Nor do they have a blind or rigid devotion to authority, laws, and tradition like lawful individuals do. They are very simply, middle-of-the-road. Most of the people you meet in the real world are probably of a neutral alignment.
For the neutrally aligned character, there is no compulsion towards one side or another. They don’t necessarily believe that law or chaos is a better way nor will they espouse the superiority of neutrality. For someone who is neutral though, they may see some drawbacks to law and chaos. They may find it far too rigid, causing some individuals to be blinded by their devotion to either.
Many animals will be neutrally aligned, back in the old days of D&D this was common, now with fifth edition, we see notations that say unaligned which is probably the more accurate means of describing alignment amongst animals. Those of us that came from the early days of D&D and are used to neutrally aligned animals may understand that they were given that alignment because there is no moral compulsion for a dog, cat, or sheep to act in a certain way. They merely act as they act. While this is too simplistic of a definition for something as complex as a player character it can provide a foundation for a character’ s behavior, particularly where certain sects of Druid are concerned.
Neutrality can be one of the more difficult alignments to effectively portray for your character but this does not mean that you should shy away from it. They can be just as complex, just as interesting as any of the other alignments. You should give it a try, embrace the neutrality, you may enjoy it.
See you next time in the dojo.