How does Alignment Work in Dungeons & Dragons and other TTRPGs?
The Alignment of a Player Character has long been a key element of Dungeons & Dragons and it has undergone some changes, however minor, with the various versions of that game. This article will not only explain some of these differences but shall also explore the individual alignments and provide some examples of how you might incorporate the Alignment System into your game.
What is Alignment In Dungeons And Dragons?
In Dungeons & Dragons, the Alignment System refers to the general morality & motivations of a Character; Meaning, if a Player Character tries to assist those in need of aid, defends those who cannot defend themselves and generously gives beyond their own means to see others taken care of, they would likely be considered a Good Aligned character. Conversely, if a Player’s Character plots to install a brutal regime to their kingdom and is steadily leaving a trail of corpses of those who oppose them, that character would likely be considered to have an Evil Alignment.
In Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 and 3.5, Alignment was more strict than it is in the newer 5th edition. In the older versions, the actions of a Player Character that transgressed their particular alignment could not only have in-game consequences pertaining to the story at hand but also mechanical consequences; Meaning, if Erik’s character, a Lawful Good Paladin named Argus Tumbleboot suddenly breaks their normal way of acting and instead of simply forcing their opponent to yield in combat, they decide to strike down and slay an unarmed thief. Argus’s God, Bronos Stoutheart does not tolerate unnecessary bloodshed and so, he revokes the divine power gifted to Argus and until the Paladin atones for his transgression, Erik would be unable to use Argus’s Paladin abilities or spells. Such a situation could still be replicated in the newer 5th Edition but it is not expressly written into the mechanics.
The purpose of the Alignment System however has always been to provide a structure that players of the game could easily adapt to in order to guide how they might play their characters. The other player at the table, Karl, decides to play a Wizard with the subclass of Necromancer. Karl’s wizard, Baron Grymval, originally studied the dead for the purpose of science and medicine. Karl originally ascribed a Neutral Alignment to his Wizard but a fateful trip to the graveyard led to Grymval making a terribly dark pact with a powerful Hag. Karl then decides after this nefarious deal that Grymval is no longer just interested in science – he has made decisions to commit acts of evil in his search for greater knowledge for himself with no regard for other living beings. So Karl changes Grymval’s Alignment to Neutral Evil.
This doesn’t affect his character mechanically; he doesn’t lose any abilities for this choice but Karl makes this decision to better guide how he will roleplay the character. In Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, this is one of the primary purposes of the Alignment System; it is merely a guideline on how you might tell your character’s story or reference points for how they might react in a situation. For example, a Lawful Good character would be more likely to intervene in saving a small farming village from raiding Orcs than a Chaotic Evil character would be.
Ultimately, the modern Alignment System is designed to aid in roleplaying and facilitate it. It is not meant to restrict this process. This function is also applicable to the Dungeon Master, who can use the Alignment system as needed to guide their decisions on how to play the various NPCs and creatures of the game. For example, the Dungeon Master decides to make an NPC to act as a quest giver for the party, choosing to create a mysterious Warlock who seldom reveals her true intentions when advising the Player Characters of where to explore next. Deciding to assign an Alignment to this NPC before introducing them to the party would create a point of reference for how they would act during interactions with the party. There is enough guesswork in trying to anticipate the actions of your players, so the Alignment System functions as an effective tool in this instance.
The Dungeon Master in the example decides to assign his Warlock NPC the Neutral Evil Alignment as he considers the character to be keeping the truth from the party and potentially putting them into deadly situations for her own gain. Now with this knowledge the Dungeon Master is prepared when the party decides to interact further; Alignment doesn’t need to be viewed as immovable boundaries or something that even needs to remain in place for any given character, rather it is a guideline to assist in the storytelling at your table. A character does not need to be locked into an Alignment, as they progress with the story of the game, they will likely have had a multitude of interactions that have had an effect on how they view the world.
What Are The Different Alignments In D&D?
In Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition there are Nine Alignments in which a character might be classified as based upon their morality and actions. The Alignment System functions as an axis, gauging how Good or Evil that character may be as well as determining whether they are more Chaotic or Lawful. The Alignments are as follows;
A character with this Alignment is concerned with the general well-being of others, follows the laws of the land, and tries to do what is just and right. Lawful Good Clerics and Paladins can find their divine might in the service of Gods of Justice such as Tyr and use this power to defend the meek from whatever evils might befall them. They tend to be far more selfless and giving than selfish. They champion causes that will do the most good, punish evil wherever it hides, and tries to better their fellow inhabitants of the world through great deeds of courage or even with small simple acts of kindness.
A character of this Alignment can be summarized as someone who doesn’t rock the boat and tries to do whatever might accomplish the most amount of good without having to champion a particular cause or order. These characters don’t feel compelled to follow laws or traditions, so long as the end result of their actions is good. An example could be a Monk who travels from town to town and keeps no allegiance to a lord or deity but aids those he can when the opportunity arises may fall into this category.
Characters of this Alignment tend to break the rules with purpose and good intentions in mind. An example might be a Rogue who decides to steal a powerful magic item from a villainous king who intended to use the item for evil. Did the rogue break the law and commit a crime? Yes but ultimately the Rogue committed this crime to prevent future evils. The way these characters approach a given situation allows for some fluidity in their morales – such as breaking the law to prevent greater tragedy. Chaotic Good Characters might get a little dirty in the process but the end result is usually for the betterment of others.
A character of this Alignment might be represented as someone who follows a code, be it personal or a part of something larger. Law and tradition are hallmarks and must be maintained for the greater good. An example might be a Fighter who has taken the oath of Knighthood and now is sworn to uphold the laws of the Kingdom he serves. In the previous example with the Rogue stealing the magical item – if they were apprehended by this Knight, it wouldn’t matter so much that the thief was well-intentioned; theft is a crime and against the law. To the Lawful Good Knight, the actions of the Rogue could be perceived as harming the greater good of the kingdom as those who break laws threaten the structure of order that brings peace to the realm.
Characters of this Alignment might be surmised as someone who generally cares little for custom, tradition or law; the desire to live by their own rules, with freedom to decide their own course is paramount. They might care little for the sides of good or evil and instead champion a cause that benefits themselves. They are not necessarily concerned with fixing the problems of others but on the same hand, they don’t seek to inflict suffering on others either. An example of this Alignment might be a traveling Bard with incredible skill and talent not just with his life but also with magic. Each town he stops in has its own share of woes and people seeking aid but he never lingers in any one place for more than a night and he avoids getting involved in matters that are not of his own making.
Characters with this Alignment can be described as someone who does what they feel is best in any given situation without thought or care for the world at large. They don’t adhere to codes or laws or even morality. These characters might be trying to find their place in this life, unsure of who they are or where they belong. They might be indecisive or unmoved by the situation at hand. An example of this type of Alignment would be a Druid who cares not about society, laws, right and wrong; they follow the cycle of nature which can be brutally apathetic at times. Such a character might have the ability to help a nearby village with a terrible sickness but the Druid would feel no compulsion to act one way or the other. If the town survives, so be it and if they should fall, so be it.
This Alignment is the prime choice for tyrants and dictators. Characters in this Alignment might follow the laws of a vicious Baron, which even though can be cruel and bloody are still the laws of their homeland. This Alignment respects power and some even seek to claim it themselves.
An example could be a Cleric who worships an evil God and this being directs the Cleric to subjugate the local population of a nearby settlement and force them into the service of this deity. The Cleric follows this command without question and those who oppose him are swiftly punished without mercy – they will do as his God commands willingly or he will force them to by whatever means necessary. The Cleric in this example doesn’t necessarily want power for himself or have a desire to commit these acts of his own free will, rather he is commanded to do so by a figure of power that he respects and serves. He does these acts of violence to enforce the laws of his master.
Characters that belong to this Alignment are perhaps best described as selfish or rather, they do what is best for them regardless of the consequences. This is not to say that they are reckless and incapable of following laws or even serving another; However if it comes down to their own downfall for the sake of a greater cause, they are likely to save themselves.
An example of this Alignment might be a Rogue character who is a pirate. This character is not above breaking the law if if puts coins in her pocket; that’s the point of her line of work. She is not above serving the Captain or assisting the crew when ultimately in the end it benefits herself. One night their ship is boarded by the Royal Navy of a nearby kingdom. A battle ensues and quickly the tide is against her crew, seeing many of her fellow pirates have already fallen and the captain himself is wounded. Instead of rushing in to aid her comrades, she finds her way below deck to take what belongings she can before slipping overboard and living to sail another day.
This Alignment is not simply a wildcard but rather a malicious one. Characters of this Alignment do not care for others, they care only for themselves and whatever their desires might be. They are not above violence and can often be prone to it, whether because they enjoy inflicting pain on others or because it accomplishes what they want.
An example of a Chaotic Evil character could be a fallen Knight. Once they may have protected the weak and tried to fight back the tide of evil but after a great tragedy, they took to inflicting hurt on others as if it would somehow turn fate back. Now they roam the land aimlessly, cruelly punishing those unlucky enough to find themselves in their path. They take what they want and put anyone who tries to stop them to the sword. They forsook their oath and now work as a sellsword, caring little for why the battle is being fought or who the enemy be; to them, it doesn’t matter.
Alignment By Perspective
It is also important to note that Alignment isn’t as cut and dry as some might believe. One must consider perspective, meaning what might constitute as being wrong to one character because of their culture might be entirely acceptable to another Character; Just as people in the real world have vast differences related to their faith, their moral values, and traditions.
An example of this could involve a Paladin by the name of Beogir, who comes from a very strict and harsh distant land. Beogir’s player decides that this Paladin is Lawful Good as they feel the character wants to fight for the side of good in a current conflict. On the battlefield, he has multiple opportunities to spare the lives of downed opponents and each time Beogir’s player states that he wishes to instead dispatch the foes. At this point, the Dungeon Master might question Beogir’s player or depending on the edition of DND that you are playing, they might strip Beogir of their Divine Power if they feel that the Character has committed acts counter to their Faith.
Beogir’s player argues that what they had the character do was correct and should not be deemed as an act of evil because in the culture Beogir comes from, no wounded enemy is ever spared for fear of them surviving to attack again another day. Beogir’s culture is rigid and martial with swift corporal punishment for minor offenses such as theft. In a previous session, Beogir caught the same thief for a second time, and as punishment, he removed the thief’s non-dominant hand with his sword, arguing again that where he comes from and with the God he worships, this conduct is not only expected but even praised.
Alignment By Inheritance
The final point we would like to explore in the Alignment System is the notion that some creatures or even playable races are either inherently Good or Evil. In games like Dungeons and Dragons, Elves and Orcs are prone to Chaotic alignments not simply because of their own free will but because of their race and how their people came into being in the fantasy setting. Throughout Dungeons & Dragons, there are numerous examples of creatures like Gnolls being classified as Evil no matter the circumstance.
In the lore of Dungeons & Dragons, there is a reason for this, as the Gnolls are the evil servants of the demon Yeeonogu and thus they follow his commands; Does this mean that you expressly cannot have a Neutral or even a Good aligned Gnoll? Only if you wish to follow the lore provided for the game by Dungeons & Dragons, which in so doing you limit yourself to potential opportunities for compelling storylines.
Perhaps the Gnoll was abandoned as a child and raised in a monastery for many years, learning the customs of the order and becoming one of their most skilled and trusted Monks. Isn’t that more interesting and complex than simply saying that they are always evil and can never change? Again, all of these rules are simply guidelines, don’t bottleneck your creativity by trying to adhere to every line of the DND books. Create the story that you want to tell with your friends and mold the rules to fit what is most enjoyable for everyone.
What Is Your Alignment In Dungeons & Dragons?
We hope you enjoyed our breakdown of how alignments work in Dungeons & Dragons. What is your current character’s alignment? Let us know on social media!