The alignment system has been a part of Dungeons and Dragons for the better part of half a century. The 3×3 grid has infiltrated popular culture of all kinds from memes to online quizzes. You can even take an alignment quiz on Wizard’s site here!
What Is Alignment?
Put simply, the alignment system is a way for DnD to categorize the morality of characters, NPCs, monsters, and even races and societies. The Basic Rules PDF from Wizards.com has this to say about alignment to players building their characters:
Alignment in the Multiverse
For many thinking creatures, alignment is a moral choice. Humans, dwarves, elves, and other humanoid races can choose whether to follow the paths of good or evil, law or chaos.
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.
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. Most orcs share the violent, savage nature of the orc god, Gruumsh, and are thus inclined toward evil.
Even if an orc chooses a good alignment, it struggles against its innate tendencies for its entire life. (Even half-orcs feel the lingering pull of the orc god’s influence.)
Alignment is an essential part of the nature of celestials and fiends. 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.
Most creatures that lack the capacity for rational thought do not have alignments—they are unaligned. Such a creature is incapable of making a moral or ethical choice and acts according to its bestial nature.
Sharks are savage predators, for example, but they are not evil; they have no alignment. (Page 36)
Alignment is described as having its origins in the foundations of the DnD universe, in the divine and the essential nature of beings across its many planes of existence.
But for something so foundational to the DnD universe, alignment can be tricky to use and is hotly debated.
- When should it affect the game? How?
- Are some races really destined to be bad?
- Who decides if a character is good or evil?
- No one sees themselves as a villain after all.
If you’re confused by alignment or simply questioning its role in your game this guide will explain not only how DnD’s alignment system works but how you can use it to make your characters, NPCs, and monsters better.
The 2-Axis System
DnD 5e uses a 2-axis alignment system. Each alignment is either Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic as well as being either Good, Neutral, or Evil.
This produces the following chart, which you may find familiar.
|Lawful Good||Neutral Good||Chaotic Good|
|Lawful Neutral||Neutral||Chaotic Neutral|
|Lawful Evil||Neutral Evil||Chaotic Evil|
As you can see there are nine alignments that a person can be. In a moment each of these will be explained, but first, it’s important to clarify what the two axes mean.
For further thoughts on and analysis of the alignment system both RPGBot’s guide to alignments and this site dedicated to a much longer analysis of the meaning of each alignment are excellent resources.
The first axis is Law and Chaos.
The Lawful alignments believe in order, hierarchy, and the bonds of society. Someone who believes that personal morality can be too changeable and one needs to follow a higher authority or set of laws in order to be properly just is Lawful. Lawful characters are honorable and reliable.
In contrast, Chaotic characters believe in freedom, independent thought, and adaptability. Someone who believes that what is just depends on the situation and that moral decisions will be different every time is Chaotic. Chaotic characters are flexible and follow their hearts.
Neutral characters lie between these poles, either choosing neutrality over both Law and Chaos or simply being disinclined to both options.
The second axis is Good and Evil.
Good characters can be difficult to define because morality is an incredibly subjective trait. However, Good characters generally believe in the sanctity of life, the right of other people to exist, and dislike cruelty and oppression.
A Good character might decide to save a child instead of 5 other people, or save those 5 people instead of the child, but they will always make their decision based on what they believe is moral.
Evil characters can be difficult to define because few people, if any, see themselves as evil. Generally, Evil characters believe in their personal goals and are willing to sacrifice others to achieve them.
An Evil character might decide to save a child instead of 5 other people or vice versa, but they will always make their decision based on what they see as best for them and the goals they represent.
Neutral characters believe that moral terms like good and evil only pretend to be objective. They might believe in the sanctity of life, but not so much as to endanger themselves.
Neutral characters see Good as having the right idea but wasting energy trying to change what can’t be changed. They see Evil as having admirable qualities like determination, but as going too far in the pursuit of their goals.
Certain neutral entities like Elementals might not even understand what it means to be Good or Evil, and might make decisions based on an entirely alien mode of thinking.
Below is a brief summary of what a person of each alignment believes in and how they might behave. It’s good to remember that these descriptions are not rules you have to follow, only general descriptions to give you a sense of what it means to be Lawful Good or Neutral Evil.
Someone who is Lawful Good believes in discipline and their obligation to do the right thing. For them, the right thing includes the laws and traditions of their society.
A Lawful Good person sees it as a moral failing to reject one’s parents for example and considers attempts to do the right thing that make a mockery of the laws and culture of their land to be not worth it. A Lawful Good person would refuse to kill a villain because it would make the hero just as bad.
Lawful Good people consider those who are Neutral or Chaotic good as having their heart in the right place, even if they don’t agree with their methods. In particular, they consider Chaotic Good characters as irresponsible.
They consider Lawful, True, and Chaotic Neutral people to be unmotivated and failing to meet their moral obligations. They see Evil people as extremely dangerous but have trouble dealing with those who are Lawful Evil as they are difficult to fight within society’s rules.
Someone who is Neutral Good believes in doing good for its own sake, regardless of what anyone else says on the matter. Such a person is difficult to motivate by authority; they will go against the laws of society if that is what is right.
A Neutral Good person would weigh the cost of breaking the law against the value of stealing bread for a starving beggar. If they decided it was right to steal then they would only worry about getting caught and not about morality.
Neutral Good characters consider those who are Lawful Good to be too rigid and those who are Chaotic Good too wild. Neutral Good people consider Lawful, True, and Chaotic Neutrals to be sensible but a little too loose with morality for their tastes.
They see Evil people as dangerous and in particular those who are Chaotic Evil as reckless forces of destruction.
Someone who is Chaotic Good believes in doing what is right according to their own beliefs and values. They believe in their own sense of right and wrong and will follow that regardless of what society or the law thinks of them.
A Chaotic Good person would go out of their way to break a law that they see as unjust and would ignore others advice if it went against what they thought they should do.
Chaotic Good people see those who are Lawful Good as uptight, and consider even those who are Neutral Good as a little too restrained. They consider the Evil alignments as dangerous and the Lawful, True, and Chaotic Neutral alignments as boring.
In particular, they consider those who are Lawful Neutral as their own kind of horrible bureaucratic evil (though obviously not as bad as the actual Evil alignments).
Someone who is Lawful Neutral believes in order and discipline. Such a person might consider following laws, tradition, or their personal code as the best way to act honorably and morally.
They might value order above morality, and consider it much more important to follow their code or the law than to be concerned about what “the right thing” is. A Lawful Neutral judge would consider a case based only on the law as it is written and refuse to change or bend the law regardless of the circumstances.
Lawful Neutral people consider True Neutral people to ignore the importance of order and Chaotic Neutral as unreliable or even dishonorable. They see those who are Good aligned as pursuing impractical ideals and those who are Evil as being dangerously determined.
In particular, they consider those who are Lawful Evil as being an inevitable part of society.
Someone who is True Neutral might believe in pragmatism and sensible decision-making above all else. While people who are good generally make for better neighbors than those who are evil, a True Neutral person doesn’t have strong feelings about honor and justice.
A True Neutral person might also be personally committed to neutrality above morality. They might believe that “not getting involved” is the best decision to make.
A True Neutral person would probably save a child from drowning but decide not to get involved if they saw someone being robbed.
True Neutral people consider those who are Lawful Neutral as too bound up in the way things ought to be and Chaotic Neutral people as too relaxed. They consider the Good alignments as impractical and the Evil alignments as bad for business, especially the Chaotic Evil alignment.
Someone who is Chaotic Neutral believes in doing what they want. This person makes decisions according to what suits them best and hates being told what to do. Those who are Chaotic Neutral are not interested in killing everyone they meet, but they also are unlikely to join any crusades for justice.
Someone who is Chaotic Neutral will make the decision to slay a dragon because it will get them something they want (money, adventure, reputation, etc.), and not because the dragon is terrorizing the nearby village.
Chaotic Neutral people see those who are Lawful Neutral as unnecessarily shackled to society and those who are True Neutral as afraid to be Chaotic.
They consider the Good alignments to be bold if a little strange, and the Evil alignments as having ambitious goals but unreasonable methods. In particular, they see Lawful Good people as oppressive and self-righteous forces.
Someone who is Lawful Evil believes in getting whatever they can out of society. Such a person believes in order and will work within the laws as best they can to get what they want.
They are not above breaking the rules to gain power, but will do so only rarely, believing their best path to their goals is one that uses the rules to suit their own purposes.
A Lawful Evil nobleman will plant rumors and manipulate others in order to gain power and wealth but will refrain from going against their personal sense of honor or flagrantly breaking the law.
Lawful Evil people see Neutral Evil people as unprincipled and unreliable, while those who are Chaotic Evil are simply untrustworthy and gauche. They consider the Lawful, True, and Chaotic Neutral alignments as ordinary and the Good alignments as hypocritical.
They consider the Lawful Good alignment to be particularly easy to manipulate.
Someone who is Neutral Evil believes in getting what they deserve. They do not care much about either laws or life and consider both to be either obstacles or tools to use in pursuit of their goals.
They see morality as fundamentally relative and do not consider it an obstacle to getting what they want. A Neutral Evil crime lord would find nothing contradictory about the necessity of killing rivals for trespassing on their territory and the importance of donating money to charity for tax purposes.
Neutral Evil people see those who are Lawful Evil as politer versions of themselves with more scruples, and the Chaotic Evil alignment as impractical wildcards.
They consider those who are Lawful, True, and Chaotic Neutral as pragmatic but unmotivated. They consider the Good alignment to be slaves to morality, and in particular, find those who are Chaotic Good to be weak and lack discipline.
Someone who is Chaotic Evil believes that the satisfaction of his desires is more important than anything else. A Chaotic Evil person enjoys cruelty for its own sake and revels in destruction.
They make decisions based on how they feel in the moment. A Chaotic Evil villain might believe that they alone are truly free from the rules of society and morality, and consider random acts of terror as a hobby.
Chaotic Evil people consider both the Lawful and Neutral Evil alignments to lack the strength of character to be who they truly are. They see those people who are Lawful, True, or Chaotic Neutral to be boring.
They consider the Good alignment to be weak, and in particular, see Lawful Good people as opportunities to prove their beliefs right.
Unaligned entities are those without the capacity to make moral judgments. They have no particular beliefs, only acting on instinct as they were designed to do.
Most animals, plants, fungi, and other creatures are unaligned. A bear that fights a hunter in the woods has no thoughts about justice and acts on instinct and its own pragmatic decision-making process.
In DnD 5e alignment has almost no mechanical function. While you may wish to homebrew magical swords that respond to alignment, many of the explicit references to Good or Evil do not actually interact with the alignment system.
For example, the spell Protection from Evil and Good actually protects its subjects from certain creature types (aberrations, celestials, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead).
While these creatures certainly have alignments (fiends are Lawful Evil for example), not all of them are Evil or Good. Elementals and fey are neutral for instance.
If you wish to create a Chaotic Good elemental or a True Neutral fiend, these spells will have the exact same effect.
Controversy Around The Alignment System
Consider the following character concepts.
A Wizard who has designed their own philosophy and code of conduct that they rigidly adhere to, but that requires them to take actions that seem arbitrary like giving all his money to the 8th person he sees every first Tuesday of the month and only helping strangers if it’s an even-numbered month.
A Druid who believes that life is a sacred gift and that anyone who turns forests into farmland should be killed.
A rogue who steals from the rich to give to the poor, but who assassinates anyone he finds out has been stealing from the people he’s been donating his wealth to.
How would you classify these characters? Is the Wizard Lawful or Chaotic? Is the Druid Good or Evil? What about the Rogue? Is someone who kills people for stealing from the poor being Good, Evil, or Neutral?
You have to pick one.
The alignment system is controversial for a number of reasons.
First and foremost is the simple fact that there are many modalities of morality it simply cannot cover.
The above examples are not just confusing to categorize. The alignment system simply does not have a single correct answer for them. Strong arguments can be made for a multitude of positions, and in the end, like many things in DnD, the final decision will have to lie with the DM.
The alignment system has also come under fire for the way it forces certain creatures to tend towards specific alignments. This isn’t about celestials and fiends, but rather about the playable races in DnD.
Are Drow and Orcs really created to be Evil with a capital E? What about free will? DnD is, after all, a game about being able to make whatever decisions you want. There seems to be something fishy about condemning entire races to savagery and Evil.
Because the alignment system is imperfect, and because it has little mechanical impact, and because declaring whole races to be Evil seems fishy, alignment has fallen out of favor in recent years.
In Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, a recent sourcebook, the stat blocks of various monsters and creatures did not include their alignment, not even to say unaligned.
And this tweet by Jeremy Crawford, the principle rules designer of DnD, states that suggestions for alignment for player characters (including those based on race) will no longer appear in future DnD sourcebooks.
These changes, though welcome, do beg the question. Does alignment even matter?
While it cannot be denied that alignment cannot cover every perspective on morality with two simple axes, alignment is still a useful tool for DnD. It is not the only tool, but it is reliable and widely discussed which are both valuable traits in something complex.
In the following sections, I will demonstrate how alignment can provide a useful guide despite its failings for players and DMs navigating the complex world of character decisions.
How to Use Alignments: Player Characters
Players are primarily concerned with alignment as it affects their characters. For players, alignment is important to not only building your character but also role-playing them effectively and believably.
You can of course decide to help people one minute and rob them in the woods the next, but real people rarely act like this. Such behavior makes your character a little more boring as there seems to be no real motivations behind their actions.
Alignment provides a general guide to how your character should act, as well as providing a way to consider how you want your character to act.
The character creation process is fundamentally a creative process. As a player, you have full control over what your character wants, thinks, feels, needs, and believes in.
That can be a lot to consider. Once you understand the nine alignments your character can be, you can pick which one best fits how you want to play and how you want your character to behave.
For example, say you decide to make a swashbuckling pirate captain turned adventurer. Such a character probably won’t be lawful, but outside of that, you have to decide how she might act.
If you wanted to play someone who lives a free life on the high seas robbing from the rich to give to the poor, you might decide that your pirate captain is Chaotic Good.
If you want your pirate to be a cynical woman who cares only about gold and her crew, you might pick the alignment True Neutral.
Once you have a rough idea of your character concept and you’ve picked an alignment, you can use that alignment to guide your decisions in-game. Consider the first example.
If your Chaotic Good pirate encountered a traveling circus that had been repeatedly robbed, you might not be sure what to do. But you could use your alignment with Good to determine you should help the circus.
You could additionally use your Chaotic alignment to determine that the best way to help them would be to protect the circus yourself instead of contacting the law.
If you had made your pirate True Neutral, you would be led to completely different decisions. You might decide to have your character try to get the circus to pay you to guard them, or perhaps simply rob them yourself.
A person’s alignment can also change as time goes on. In DnD, you can use this change to create compelling story moments with your fellow players.
Maybe your True Neutral pirate becomes such good friends with the other players that she begins to see the inherent worth of others.
She starts to make decisions that go against her alignment, like helping others when she doesn’t have to or trying to avoid causing harm.
When these out of alignment decisions pile up and your DM determines her alignment has changed from True Neutral to Neutral Good it can be a cathartic moment for everyone at the table.
When designing your character and picking their alignment keep in mind your fellow players! A True Neutral character can get along with a group of Neutral and Lawful Good characters, but there might be some tension involved. Make sure everyone at the table is ok with that potential conflict in motivations.
Playing characters whose motivations conflict with other PCs at the table can be a fun roleplaying experience, but it can also lead to conflict in real life.
It probably wouldn’t be fun to play in a party of all Good characters with one Chaotic Evil who wants to kill and steal everything that can be killed or stolen. If DnD feels more like babysitting a particularly stabby toddler, it’s probably time to make a change.
The trick is to make sure that while your character has distinct values from the rest of the group these values wouldn’t really make you enemies. If your campaign is playing villains, Evil and Neutral characters are probably fine, but Good characters will just lead to fighting.
However you decide to play it, the important thing is talking with the rest of your group to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
At the end of the day, DnD is a storytelling game. That story isn’t always as simple as “my character kills 15 goblins and a beholder”. Character growth and development is rooted in change, and assessing what needs to change and in what direction can be a lot of work. For players, alignment makes that a lot easier.
How to Use Alignments: DMs
For DMs, alignment is not only a guide to how NPCs and other characters should act and behave, but it provides a way to understand the motivations and role of certain kinds of creatures in the DnD universe.
In the passage quoted from the basic rules at the start of this article, it is mentioned that for some creatures alignment isn’t just a moral choice reflecting their personality and beliefs.
For celestials and fiends alignment is an essential part of what they are. This idea, that some creatures can be essentially Good or essentially Lawful, provides a wealth of narrative opportunities for a DM.
For example, while a Lawful Evil person isn’t obligated to always honor his word and keep his oaths, Lawful Evil fiends are. Being essentially Lawful means that fiends can be particularly predictable, and that allows the DM to create challenges around outsmarting or manipulating a fiend.
If the party tried to trick an evil Duke into honoring an oath even if it destroyed him, the Duke could always simply say no. But a Fiend would have to honor that oath because of its Lawful nature.
Such creatures with essential alignments provide opportunities for DMs to create non-combat challenges that retain an element of predictability while still being engaging for players.
A DM could also easily create a storyline that raises questions about this essential nature, allowing players to see what would happen if a fiend could indeed be turned away from Evil.
In addition to opening up, questions of destiny and what it means for a being to have an essential alignment, the quality of some kinds of creatures to be this way or that can provide directions for a DM designing the culture and society of such beings.
While some monsters may not have an essential nature they still have a generic alignment. In such cases, that alignment can be used to design a culture rather than an individual.
What would a society of elementals look like? Their True Neutral alignment can help provide an answer to such a question, pointing to an aloof society that values not getting involved in other being’s problems.
Of course, alignment can be helpful to DMs in exactly the same way it helps players. DMs must design a plethora of characters for their players to interact with, and fully developing each and every one of those can be extremely difficult.
The guide alignment provides to NPC decisions can be extremely useful, especially if the NPC was never meant to be more than a side character!
As is hopefully clear, DnD’s alignment system is not a system of hard rules for how everyone ought to behave. It is instead a guide that you can use to help determine how you want characters, NPCs, and even whole societies and cultures to behave.
The 2-axis alignment chart is DnDs way of categorizing the spectrum of morality for both players and DMs.
The internal decision-making process and values of everyone from PCs to monsters is an important part of an RPG like DnD, and the alignment system is an important tool for streamlining that part of the game.
But the fact remains that the alignment system cannot be perfect. The complexity and range of perspectives on morality and ethics defies simple explanation by DnDs ten categories.
Many people have suggested alternatives. Both guides I linked at the beginning of the article suggest alternate or additional axes for the alignment chart. To my mind, this is a fix that fails to understand the point of the alignment system.
No amount of additional complexity or alternate systems will be able to appropriately encompass the breadth and depth of how people approach the morality of their lives.
No system should even try.
The alignment system is a guide to the world that you explore. When it helps players make in-character decisions and helps DMs quickly design worlds, societies, and monsters it is doing its job.
When it becomes a hindrance to the complexity of emotion you want your character to experience or your world to represent it should be abandoned.
The twists and turns of morality are yours to explore, should you wish to go that far. The alignments will always be there to fall back on. Good Luck!