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We all have seen the charts. Alignment might be the most ubiquitous cultural contribution of D&D to the world at large. People who know nothing of the game engage in discussions of alignment, placing characters from their favorite fictions or even salads between the axes of law and chaos, good and evil. It’s even a popular meme format. But what does it mean, and why is it such a fixture of D&D?
In D&D, an alignment describes a creature’s behavior through the axes of good/evil (morality) and law/chaos (attitude towards rules and society). There are nine alignments between these axes (they include neutral stances), which are metaphysical properties of D&D’s standard cosmology.
Alignments don’t only describe a character’s behavior, being part of the fabric of the universe as they are (meaning there is an objective moral reality). A creature’s alignment determines where their soul goes when they die if they aren’t pledged to a deity or otherwise kept by someone/thing.
It’s a lot, but we’ll break it all down in this article so that you’ll never be stumped by alignment in your game again. Let’s go.
Basics of Alignment for Characters
The nine alignments and their descriptions from the Player’s Handbook (pg 122) are:
- Lawful Good (LG): creatures can be counted on to do the right thing as expected by society. […]
- Neutral Good (NG): folk do the best they can to help others according to their needs. […]
- Chaotic Good (CG): creatures act as their conscience directs, with little regard for what others expect. […]
- Lawful Neutral (LN): individuals act in accordance with law, tradition, or personal codes. […]
- Neutral, or True Neutral (N): is the alignment of those who prefer to steer clear of moral questions and don’t take sides, doing what seems best at the time.[…]
- Chaotic Neutral (CN): creatures follow their whims, holding their personal freedom above all else. […]
- Lawful Evil (LE): creatures methodically take what they want, within the limits of a code of tradition, loyalty, or order. […]
- Neutral Evil (NE): is the alignment of those who do whatever they can get away with, without compassion or qualms.
- Chaotic Evil (CE): creatures act with arbitrary violence, spurred by their greed, hatred, or bloodlust. […]
If you think some of these distinctions are murky, you’re not alone. The topic is contentious for a reason. Still, we can get some useful bits from them:
- Chaos is about unpredictability and disregard for rigid rules, both external and self-enforced.
- Law is about predictability and the notion that more structure (rules) is the right way to go about the business of life on a society-level, as well as a personal one.
- Good is about altruism, going out of one’s way to help people.
- Evil is about disregard for people’s wellbeing. Maybe you hurt whoever’s between you and what you want. Maybe hurting people is what you want.
These pointers are likely more helpful in describing a character’s alignments than the PHB descriptions. Keep them in mind; labels such as LG and NE will make more sense. It also enables you to think of interesting situations with characters of a particular bend being out of their element without contradicting their alignment, like in the following scenario:
Alignment in Practice: An Example
The Steel Griffons are branded a terrorist group by the government of the City-State Llowaya. They act in defiance of the law, intending to overthrow the queen and her council.
The Steel Griffons’ leader is the LG warlock, Kiril. He sees the current ruler as illegitimate because his celestial patron told him in a dream that she only rose to power by poisoning her father, the king, and her sister, who was next in line. Kiril wants the queen and her co-conspirators put on trial and sentenced for their crimes and to have a legitimate ruler installed following the law of succession.
Kiril’s right arm is the CN rogue, Ninet, who’s in this to avenge her brother, executed for publishing a paper criticizing the new monarch. She wants no part in whatever comes after the rebellion and will be done with it when the poisoner queen is hanged.
With them is the NE wizard, Albrecht, who sees the Steel Griffons as a means to become court wizard, which should give him access to all the resources he needs to pursue immortality. The others are unaware that Albrecht intends to kill the court-wizard regardless of whether he conspired with the new queen or not.
What Creatures Have Alignments?
Alignment in creatures is a quirk of sentience.
Beasts and constructs, as well as most elementals, are unaligned. All humanoids and playable races, in general, have alignments. The PHB (pg 122) states that:
According to myth, the good-aligned gods who created these races gave them free will to choose their moral paths, knowing that good without free will is slavery.PHB, Pg 122
Some races are capable of choosing how they carry themselves in the world, but it’s assumed that one’s heritage predisposes one to a particular alignment. Dwarves tend to be LG due to how their societies are structured, for instance. Every playable race has a suggested alignment.
With this freedom comes some volatility. Alignment can change, as individuals do throughout their lives.
Continuing that PHB quote:
The evil deities who created other races, though, made those races to serve them. Those races have strong inborn tendencies that match the nature of their gods.PHB, Pg 122
Yes, this is where a lot of the uncomfortable race stuff comes from. To quote from Wizards of the Coast’s official Diversity in Dungeons & Dragons statement from 2020 (in the wake of the protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd):
Throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.
There are, however, other aligned beings that don’t fit either of the categories I’ve described so far: celestials and fiends are their alignments embodied and personified.
A devil does not choose to be lawful evil, and it doesn’t tend toward lawful evil, but rather it is lawful evil in its essence. If it somehow ceased to be lawful evil, it would cease to be a devil.PHB, Pg 122
Along these lines, creatures animated by energy from the Negative Plane (undead) are almost universally evil. As well, creatures native to aligned planes of existence, such as the Hells and Mechanus, tend to have alignments matching their planes. Speaking of…
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Aligned Planes, The Afterlife, and Psychic Dissonance
As previously stated, alignment isn’t merely a way to describe the behaviors of sentient beings; it’s baked into the assumed D&D cosmology.
Good and evil, law and chaos are assumed to be objective things in D&D, metaphysical as they may be, which leads to the entire planes of existence being aligned as an extension of this moral reality. These are the 16 outer planes laid out in the table below (From page 58 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG)).
|The Seven Heavens of Mount Celestia||LG|
|The Twin Paradises of Bytopia||NG, LG|
|The Blessed Fields of Elysium||NG|
|The Wilderness of The Beastlands||NG, CG|
|The Olympian Glades of Arborea||CG|
|The Heroic Domains of Ysgard||CN, CG|
|The Ever-Changing Chaos of Limbo||CN|
|The Windswept Depths of Pandemonium||CN, CE|
|The Infinite Layers of The Abyss||CE|
|The Tarterian Depths of Carceri||NE, CE|
|The Gray Waste of Hades||NE|
|The Bleak Eternity of Gehenna||NE, LE|
|The Nine Hells of Baator||LE|
|The Infinite Battlefield of Acheron||LN, LE|
|The Clockwork Nirvana of Mechanus||LN|
|The Peaceable Kingdoms of Arcadia||LN, LG|
Note the absence of a true neutral plane in this table. This would be Outlands, which exists between all of the outer planes, incorporating elements of each in a paradoxical balance.
The alignments of the outer planes—which are the homes of the gods—are their essence, and they affect two things:
- When a sentient being dies without pledging their soul to a deity through worship or otherwise predetermining its destination, the soul goes to an outer plane whose alignment is the same as the dead’s. For instance, when you bash in the head of a CE sorcerer who worshipped himself, his soul ends up in Pandemonium or Carceri.
- A sentient being in an outer plane whose alignment is incompatible with their own experiences Psychic Dissonance. This can be flavored as a headache with no gameplay effect, improvised as something nastier, or done according to the Psychic Dissonance optional rule (DMG, pg 59):
At the end of a long rest spent in an incompatible plane, a visitor must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, the creature gains one level of Exhaustion.DMG, Pg 59
This only applies to the dissonance between good and evil, so Mechanus and Limbo do not cause Psychic Dissonance.
5E’s Alignment Weirdness and The Case for Throwing It Out
Alignment used to play a much bigger role in earlier editions of D&D. Some spells and classes were only accessible to characters of specific alignments. In the days of 3.5E paladins and clerics could Detect Evil, as in sensing the presence of evil-aligned creatures, regardless of their type. The equivalent spell in 5E is… not that. The name is actually misleading.
Despite the momentous implications of an objective moral reality, alignment does shockingly little in D&D 5E. Mechanically, you may play entire campaigns without it ever coming up. What remains of this former key feature of D&D design?
There’s the aforementioned Psychic Dissonance optional rule that only comes up when plane-hopping. Some aligned sentient magic items may take issue with their user acting in a way incompatible with their alignment (oddly, the Holy Avenger is not such an item). Also, alignment can be set as a triggering condition for a Glyph of Warding.
The above paragraph is likely not exhaustive, but there aren’t many more instances of alignment coming up and, whenever it does, it’s situational. It does come up when dealing with paladin oaths and the deities they and clerics serve, but only indirectly and in a way that’s easily sidestepped.
In fact, many argue that alignment is a legacy feature that has overstayed its welcome, more often a source of more confusion, pointless bickering, and horror stories at the table than of anything we actually want in our games.
In terms of roleplay, considering a character’s (playable or not) bonds, ideals and flaws beat alignment by a long shot with a lot less hassle. As a DM, I never think of alignment when creating an NPC. You can check out my process here.
For these types of concerns, if you want to run a morally ambiguous game with no clear right and wrong, having objective good and evil baked into the fabric of the universe flies in the face of what you’re trying to achieve, too.
Of course, if you like alignment and find it helpful, I have no authority nor desire to make you stop. One of the coolest things about D&D is how we all build our own games out of it.
Bonus Round: The Literary Origins of Alignment
The ideas behind the alignment system in D&D came from the fantastic literature that preceded it, especially the works of Poul Anderson (Three Hearts and Three Lions, The Broken Sword) and Michael Moorcock (the Elric of Melniboné stories), as stated by Gary Gygax himself.
Here’s a list of the many literary fountains D&D has drunk from. Of particular interest for this subject is Appendix N. You’ll spot Moorcock and Anderson in there alongside other heavyweights.
Before making its way to D&D, alignment was already used in the Chainmail wargame (which Gygax co-wrote) to determine the allegiances of different types of armies based on the law/chaos axis. When the original D&D brown booklet came out in 1974, alignment only considered this axis.
The good/evil axis was only added in 1977’s D&D Basic Set.
Hopefully, this post has answered all your burning questions and enabled you to think about the topic in a more refined manner. As usual, here’s a quick summary to wrap things up:
- Alignment is a property of the assumed D&D cosmology. Good and evil, law and chaos, are objective (metaphysical) forces whose opposition defines the world. This means that there is an objective moral reality in D&D—a fact you can change by throwing alignment out if you wish.
- For characters, alignment is a description of how they behave based on law and chaos, evil and good.
- Alignment is a quirk of sentience. Beasts and constructs are unaligned. Most humanoids have free will to determine their own alignments by how they choose to live their lives.
- The exceptions to the above are beings animated by explicitly evil or good forces, such as undead.
- The outer planes all have alignments, and in them dwell gods of matching alignment.
- The souls of the dead go to the outer planes matching their alignment, if not directly to the gods they worshipped.
- Despite being a big deal in cosmological terms, alignment makes little difference to how the game is played in 5E. It used to be more relevant in earlier editions.
- There is a strong case for not using alignment. Roleplaying is better served by careful consideration of a character’s bonds, ideals, and flaws, among other more mundane things anyway.
And finally, to answer the question in the title: It seems that time has passed alignment by, so the general consensus is: it’s fun to think about, but no, it doesn’t matter anymore.