Thinking Through Alignment in D&D

So you’re sitting down to your first game of Dungeons and Dragons with your nerdiest friends — or maybe you’re returning for 10,000th time– and a choice has emerged! What is your character’s alignment? While this is, and has been, a core element of building a character, what does it mean? And why is it so important? And, perhaps more importantly, does it have any use beyond the table?

Two Main Factors (Alignment as Listed)

The first thing to know about alignment is that there are two major factors of an alignment: good vs evil and law vs chaos.

Neutrality is an aspect of both those sliding scales: you don’t have to be good or evil and you can also be fairly centered between structure and randomness.

Also worth noting: this isn’t a system which works well in measuring outcomes. If you use it in this way, no character has any true alignment. However, when you think about alignment, this is the basis for the character’s decisions; several alignments may choose to take the same action.

Law and Chaos

Let’s start with the easy one: Lawful does not mean Good. A character wanting to bring the fantasy equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition doesn’t get to be considered Lawful Good because they follow a god (especially a non-good god).

When thinking about the difference between law and chaos, the biggest thing to think of is where the “impulse” for the action is coming from.

Is the “impulse” not an impulse at all, but a direct law from a deity, government, or philosophy? Then the character is Lawful. Most depictions of paladins are lawful, even if they are neutral or evil, because they ascribe to following a specific code of ethics. More than a connection to a deity, this code of ethics seems to guide their actions. The Assassin’s Creed games offer great examples of this on both sides as the Assassins and Templars are both following competing ideologies which directly conflict.

Is the “impulse” more of a person code of ethics? Perhaps taught to them by a family member, but largely a sense of what they ought to do in the situation to meet their aim (as laid out with good vs evil)? Then they are Neutral. A great example of this is Geralt of Rivia from Witcher (Neutral Good); most of his actions follow what he calls “the Witcher code,” but those who know the lore know that he made that up so people wouldn’t press him to do things he did not want to do. Not to mention he breaks even that code regularly when it feels necessary.

But true impulse? Just “I felt like it” or “I thought it was a good idea at the time” sort of characters? Chaotic. Best worst example of this: Joker from Batman (Chaotic Evil). Acting almost entirely on impulse to fulfill his selfish whims (which vary depending on how “kid-friendly” the depiction), he commits crime in Gotham with no bigger goal than having fun and spending time with Batman himself.

Good and Evil

The harder of the two scales to deal with in D&D is the Good to Evil alignment.

When thinking about a character, think about how far outside themselves they regularly think and what they think is a reasonable level of violence to create the best outcome.

Are they selfish and self-centered — perhaps barely thinking outside of the bounds of biological family and/or a friend? When thinking of these sorts of characters, we’ll think of characters who manipulate a situation to the best benefit of themselves while taking little to no flak in the meantime. Take Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars (Lawful Evil). He worked within the laws of the empire to manipulate situations so that he could have an entire universe go to civil war so that he would be voted emperor for life. Selfish motive, hiding in plain sight while his apprentices do all the work. Typical.

Or perhaps your character thinks as far beyond themselves as possible — they have a cause which not only affects them and those dearest to them, but perhaps a whole region or the world. This may also be done with great personal risk. Gandalf from Lord of the Rings (Lawful Good) goes about using his magic primarily to inspire and aid those of Middle Earth to fight supreme evil. Throughout this quest, he places himself in as much danger as he asks others to enter, if not more so. He fights a literal embodiment of darkness and eventually makes the sacrifice of his power in the quest.

But perhaps they don’t think quite that far out. They think of their family, their friends, their co-workers— more or less those they directly interact with (and on a regular basis) and they really don’t care beyond those bounds. There are actually a lot of these characters in fantasy — but we don’t pay attention to them. After all, they’re the characters who generally are not doing anything interesting: they’re townsfolk, not heroes or marauders. If we’re trying to think of this, the general depiction of the halflings of Tolkien’s Shire would be neutral. They’re very invested in their community, their families, their friends, and don’t care much beyond that. (This is one of the things which makes the heroes from the Shire exceptional.)

“But what if my character thinks it’s good to be selfish?” Then they’re still evil. Everyone justifies their actions; one of the first rules of writing villains you learn is that no villain thinks they’re the bad guy. (Outside of villains who seem to embody evil rather than be actual people.) Thinking a bad quality is a good one usually doesn’t make it so; if you saw them do it on a show or movie and would think “That character’s a terrible person” then it’s probably still an evil character.

Scenario: A Monster Attacks

A monster ascends from the swampy depths just outside of a quiet village. A band of adventurers are having a drink and dinner at the tavern. Villagers begin screaming, running, crying — what is everyone going to do?

Almost all are going to attack the monster.

Lawful good: “My deity says it is wrong to let a monster eat people– I must put myself in bodily harm to save them!”

Neutral good: “It is wrong to let a monster eat people. I have to help those I can!”

Chaotic good: “It is wrong to let a monster eat people — and I was bored anyway!”

Lawful neutral: “I want to keep the peace for this village which I am in.”

True Neutral: “I want to make sure that my companions don’t fall in battle.” OR “This is MY village– I have to keep my friends and family safe!”

Chaotic Neutral: “I want to kill the monster who threatens the people I met today because they were nice.” OR EVEN “Whoa! I’m going to kill this monster because I’m the BEST! And it’ll also save people and stuff…”

Lawful Evil: “If I kill this monster, I will look better and be able to manipulate things down the line. But I won’t get too involved. After all, only the living can negotiate.”

Neutral Evil: “If I kill the monster, there will be a reward– but I won’t stick my neck out too far to get it.”

Chaotic Evil: “If I fight the monster, I’ll be the first to loot the bodies of the villagers who have already fallen. And maybe I can use fireball — since I just got it? I wanted to burn the place down anyway.”

The motives are all different, but the actions are generally the same.

Except you chaotic evil. You’re the worst.

The Sliding Scale and Changing Alignments

Much like anything psychological, take the alignment as a bit of a sliding scale. Most evil characters (and people) are not going to do anything which directly incriminates themselves or endangers those closest to them. They probably aren’t going to murder the party in their sleep, even if it’s only because it would make adventuring through the adventure more dangerous for themselves (though you should maybe keep an eye on them). Most good characters in the kind of heroic fantasy D&D promotes will resort to fighting as much as anyone else — though they’ll do their level best to keep collateral damage down and to only kill when necessary. Those who are lawful will have certain qualities which break even their own laws — such as a drunkard cleric whose deity may not mention sobriety as a distinct requirement, but who would not consider that a worthwhile activity. Those chaotic will largely see reason from their fellow adventurers who they care about — the impulse changes from what they want to what their best friend or lover wants.

Changing alignments can happen, but should be a major part of a character’s story. A single action shouldn’t dictate if a character is lawful good or chaotic evil, but the overall motivation (which is going to show up in a lot of actions). A character who becomes a major partisan for a government or swear an oath at a temple may shift to lawful. A character who gives up such a responsibility may become neutral. A character who decides to think for a minute might become neutral — or at least “less” chaotic.

Changes, just like in real life, happen largely due to relationships. Your character’s choosing a deity dictates at least a part of their alignment. (By recommendations, you should share at least one of the alignments of your chosen deity as a cleric or paladin.) Your character’s choosing to serve a particular king or queen dictates at least a part of their alignment. Perhaps the culture has a say — but definitely those around the character do. If you make a character who starts off evil, it’s unlikely they’re going to end that way considering they are surrounded by a bunch of do-gooders. Perhaps they won’t shift all the way from neutral evil to lawful good, but there’s a good chance their shift to at least true neutral (or even lawful evil) is a part of their character arc.

Remember that your character in a long-enough campaign ought to be dynamic and change as the story progresses, just as we all grow through life.

Use Beyond the Table?

The question which is nearly as old as the game of D&D itself: can the game be used beyond the table? Often, I fail at things I know I should succeed (aka, rolling natural 1s); I would say a lot of what happens at the table could be applied to real life.

It isn’t a great idea to try to use this system to judge others. There are certainly ways to judge the outcomes of situations— but the motivations of others are often difficult to divine. You probably want to avoid the people who you’d classify as some kind of evil — though perhaps your influence would benefit them. But, it is also important to note that all the frustrations of your good or neutral character with evil characters will likely be amplified when the it is no longer a character, but a real person.

More than any kind of judgement on others, the best use of this system comes from introspection. I think most of us want to aspire to some kind of good and thinking about how far beyond ourselves we think is a great place to start. It is obvious that the world needs good people to do good things; it is really easy to be neutral and inert because you feel powerless or problems are outside of your particular circle. (It is also easiest to be selfish and do nothing because you don’t care about others, but this is definitely the worst of options.)

But, just as a character’s alignment is not necessarily set in stone, neither is yours. There’s as much wiggle room as there is in any psychological test like the Meyers-Briggs and life might change you in ways you can’t imagine now. Similar to such tests, it is less of a simple self-improvement tool, it can help you think about HOW you think. That kind of meta-cognition often helps us grow. And once you start thinking about how you can help others, you just might find a way to actually get out there and do it.

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