The nine alignments are an exercise in storytelling. At one point in Dungeons and Dragons history, they were actually tied into the mechanics, but now in Dungeons and Dragons 5e, they are purely roleplaying assets. That is not to say you can’t work them into your build, though!
This post is all about Neutral Evil; although, many such characters would balk at the idea of being called evil. They wouldn’t say they were evil, per se… just, personally invested. They have a goal and an agenda. If they can achieve their goals legally, great. Sometimes illegally is simpler, but sometimes it isn’t.
Whatever works, the end justifies the means and all that. If people get hurt along the way, they probably deserved it for not having situational awareness. Survival of the fittest, right?
We will start our discussion with examples from fantasy, science fiction, and the real world. After that, we will get into some of the underpinning ideas behind this box in the alignment chart, and then follow up with advice on how to use the rules to create a character whose Neutral Evil alignment is reflected in their build. Finally, we will propose two scenarios and compare how Neutral Evil characters would act to other characters along the Neutral and Evil axes.
What Is the Neutral Evil Alignment?
Neutral Evil is an alignment choice that reflects characters who are driven to their personal betterment and are willing to make sacrifices to meet that goal.
Neutral Evil Characters in Pop Culture
Before we get into the details of the Neutral Evil alignment, I’d like to start with a list of examples to give us all a big-picture view of what Neutral Evil can look like in stories. I’ve chosen a few popular franchises. Hopefully, we can find someone you are familiar with and not cause any controversy.
From Star Trek, Kahn is Neutral Evil. In Into Darkness, Kahn is willing to sacrifice the entire crew of the Enterprise just to get his own people back. While he may say he just wants to take care of his family, the truth is that he wants to bring back his crew so he can be the captain of a warship.
His character has no arc; most villains don’t. He has one goal, and while he is not against allying with the “good guys” to see that goal through, he will also betray that alliance if necessary.
“Khan: Well, let’s play this out logically then, Mr. Spock. Firstly, I will kill your captain to demonstrate my resolve. Then if yours holds, I will have no choice but to kill you and your entire crew.
Spock: If you destroy our ship, you will also destroy your own people.
Khan: Your crew requires oxygen to survive, mine does not. I will target your life support systems located behind the aft nacelle. And after every single person aboard your ship suffocates, I will walk over your cold corpses to recover my people. Now, shall we begin?”
From Star Wars, Darth Vader is Neutral Evil. Anakin tries to submit to the authority of the Jedi council, and he submits to the authority of both Obi-Wan and Palpatine. That alone is why he isn’t chaotic.
However, he feels no obligation to the institutions he follows and the spirit of their laws. He aligns with them so long as they grant him what he wants: a chance to save his mother when he is younger and then a chance to be with his wife when he is older.
When the Jedi order gets in his way and stops him, Palpatine convinces Anakin to become Vadar by giving into his own rage, selfishness, and lust for power. Vadar works parallel to the Empire’s authority structure, answering to none but Palpatine and flouting all of the laws and rules within its military body.
“Well, doing what the council says, that’s One Thing. How we go about it, that’s another idea made by myself. That’s what I’m trying to teach you, my young padawan apprentice.”
From the DC Universe, Falcone is neutral evil. Falcone is the head of a major organized crime syndicate that operates on one rule: make money. Falcone will work around laws and legal systems to succeed in illegal businesses and black markets; but at the same time, he understands and uses the law to his advantage through bribes, lawyers, tax accountants, and more.
He can navigate both the surface world of legal politics and the underworld of crime. Like Batman, who can do these things (and is Neutral Good), Falcone takes that power and uses it only for selfish gain and the ability to use and abuse other people. This is why he is evil – not because he breaks the law, but because he does so when it suits him and lets innocents suffer.
“Carmine Falcone: Only those who know me, kid. Look around you: you’ll see two councilmen, a union official, a couple off-duty cops, and a judge.
[points a gun at Bruce]
Carmine Falcone: Now, I wouldn’t have a second’s hesitation of blowing your head off right here and right now in front of ’em. Now, that’s power you can’t buy! That’s the power of fear.”
Other Neutral Evil Characters include:
- Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter is neutral evil. Myrtle is a tragic figure who simply craves connection and affection. Sadly, her desire for connection leads her to violating boundaries and endangering children.
- The Villain from American Psycho is neutral evil. As a sociopathic serial killer, he was able to use social expectations to lure in his victims and literally get away with murder.
- Neutral Evil villains last longer than chaotic evil villains, who are so wild they tend to get put down early. However, they do not last as long as Lawful Evil villains do. The Neutral Evil villain tends to play the rules only when others are looking, but eventually, they slip up and show their disdain for the law, leading to their downfall.
- One of the best phrases for this outlook comes from the band TOOL, in their song Opiate: “If consequences dictate / my course of action than it / doesn’t matter what’s right / It’s only wrong if you get caught”
Neutral Evil Organization in the Real World
To be Neutral Evil in this world, you would have to be a person who lets other people deal with the consequences of pursuing your own agenda. Legal means, like court orders and property laws, can be inconvenient but useful so long as they give you more authority to claim what is yours.
A landlord who evicts his tenants with no notice simply because they can get more money from a new tenant is Neutral Evil, particularly if they know the previous tenant can’t afford the court fees to enforce their renter’s rights.
A business that uses migrant labor and abuses its workers because they have no rights as citizens is Neutral Evil. A multinational corporation that lays off thousands of their domestic employees because they can treat foreign workers worse for less pay is Neutral Evil. An organized crime ring that uses violence and extortion (illegal means) to coerce business contracts and property laws (legal ends) is Neutral Evil.
What Do We Mean by “Neutral” and “Evil”?
From the examples above, it is pretty clear that “Evil” concerns itself with personal advancement at the expense of others, and if those others are legally or physically unable to defend themselves, even better.
Evil does not necessarily mean selfish, although it can. Many times “selfish” is often seen as the litmus test for evil, but an evil person can have a personal agenda that doesn’t end on them.
For example, an evil person could seek the advancement of an institution, business, enterprise, or religion. As the institution benefits, so do its employees and stakeholders. This would be a fairly lawful version of evil.
To be neutral, such an evil person should be willing to abandon the business or enterprise when it ceases to be valuable.
Neutrality can shift back and forth between organized social hierarchy and autonomous anarchy. So a Neutral Evil person is just as comfortable in a riot as they are in an abusive boarding school.
Therefore, Neutral Evil pursues an agenda of self-advancement and self-preservation. When Neutral Evil has a goal, that goal is typically tied to their own success and reward. They are willing to make investments in the future through social organizations but do not dedicate themselves completely to them.
A synonym for Neutral Evil is personally invested.
Alignment in Previous Editions
In 1st and 2nd editions, Alignment was a way of dictating character behavior in order to control the adventure. It was a storytelling tool for both DMs and Players. This had benefits and drawbacks.
It was good that the DM could place limits on who characters were in the story. If the story is about saving the world from a tyrannical overlord, it would be very difficult to get a Lawful Evil player to stand up for what was “right” if that meant breaking the law for no gain.
Similarly, a heist adventure would be hard to pull off with a Lawful character overly concerned with legality, but it could also be used as a way to bludgeon players into certain actions, and this was not good. At the same time, players could be real dicks and say, “It’s what my character would do.”
Neither action demonstrates maturity or respect at the gaming table. To tamp down on this, 3rd edition made alignment into a mechanical tool reflected in languages, energy types, and sources of power via planar energy.
You could speak languages called Lawful or Good when interacting with entities from the planes of Law (Mechanus) or Good (the celestial heavens). The different alignment distinctions were philosophies made manifest in those planes, and their common languages reflected this.
These philosophies made flesh also came about in the types of energy you could use in your magic. There was a thing called Lawful damage, or Lawful magic. Certain weapons dealt extra “lawful” damage to creatures considered “chaotic.”
Good and Evil were represented by “positive” and “negative” energy. Each plane of existence was maintained by that type of magical energy, and they all came to rest here in the Material Plane. In Eberron, during 3e, the planes existed in an orbit, and during certain times of the year, your magic could be boosted or penalized depending on how close or how far that planar energy was to your time and location.
Fascinating stuff, really.
How To Play a Neutral Evil Character in 5e
Alignment in 5e is not an exact science, nor is the alignment chart reflected in any mechanical decision — unless you want it to be. Each player will have a slightly different interpretation of how to play Neutral Evil, and that is to be expected since Neutral Evil is the most personally motivated in the lot.
If alignment is something you do at your table, try to make your Neutral Evil character concerned with social norms and authority structures only so long as those structures make following their goals simpler. If it is easier to break the law and skip the consequences, do that.
This does not mean a Neutral Evil character is impulsive toward their selfish greed. Rather, when a Neutral Evil character wants something, they are willing to be patient and calculate if it means they will be able to keep what they want. There is no sense in stealing art if the law will find it and steal it back. Better to steal the money, launder it, and then buy the art legally.
A Neutral Evil character can be calm, calculating, analytical, pensive, patient, greedy, disruptive, subtle, arrogant, or none of these things, depending on your interpretation.
It is important to remember that just because a Neutral Evil character is personally motivated doesn’t mean they will fall victim to their own desires and impulses. They will follow social protocols if it means they can have a better claim to their heart’s desire.
The Most Common Misconception of Neutral Evil
Neutral Evil is not the heartless, evil-for-evil’s-sake kind of villain. They can have motivations beyond selfishness and a desire to watch the world burn.
Perhaps they’ve decided that there is a person in their life who is more important than they are, like a lover or a Warlock patron. They will be willing to go behind that person’s back to do something beneficial for that person, even if that person would have disapproved. They do not recognize that person’s authority as absolute.
If you play a Neutral Evil character, it is perfectly fine to play as a selfish, petty, bully of a child who also tattle-tales and gets their peers in trouble while escaping their own consequences, but at some point, your character will hopefully grow up and start working toward a life where they have fingers in many cookie jars, so to speak, with varied resources to see their investments through.
Neutral Evil as Mechanics
In Dungeons and Dragons 5e, your alignment does not have to represent your build in any way. You could make a Neutral Evil Cleric of Life if you wanted. Just be a bit judgemental about what people do with their life. Do they take too many risks? Do they harm others? Then maybe they don’t deserve life.
If you want to reflect your Neutral Evil alignment into your character’s build, there are several things to consider at each stage in the building process.
Neutral Evil Races
When choosing your race, consider picking a species that is known for their cut-throat sensibilities, respect for power, and ability to cross between levels of society — races such as humans, half-elves, half-orcs, goblins, kobolds, tieflings, yuan-ti, dark elves, githyanki, goliaths, dragonborn,
For several reasons, the yuan-ti are the best race for Neutral Evil.
Yuan-Ti as Neutral Evil
In standard D&D lore, the yuan-ti form a cabalistic shadow government that infiltrates existing governments for the purpose of breaking them down and creating a future vacuum the yuan-ti can someday fill with their own empire.
They infiltrate these governments using blackmail, deceit, drugs, or magic or sometimes just by giving good advice. There are many yuan-ti advisors, and politics is drilled into the yuan-ti way of thinking.
However, they are pragmatists first and foremost. Laws are a tool that can be used when necessary and then disregarded when they become too cumbersome. For this reason, yuan-ti makes the best Neutral Evil characters.
Consider a yuan-ti Bard, Warlock, or Sorcerer to take advantage of their Charisma-related abilities and magical acumen or a yuan-ti Druid to contribute to their snake- and poison-related abilities.
My personal favorite is a yuan-ti Monk of the Ascendant Dragon multiclassed with Druid Circle of Spores. Their unarmed attacks can deal poison damage, and they give na aura of necrotic damage that can eventually turn fallen enemies into zombies.
Neutral Evil Backgrounds
Any background can work for Neutral Evil characters; however, some are better than others.
Give consideration to the following backgrounds when making your Neutral Evil character. All of these can easily work in and out of different social and criminal organizations as necessary to achieve their long-term goals.
- House Agent
Pay special attention to the Flaws, Ideals, Personality Traits, and Bonds section of the background. You will use these to help develop your backstory that, in turn, will help you develop your personality, and personality is the key to expressing alignment.
Neutral Evil Classes
When choosing your class, you will mostly need to consider what activities your character will engage in.
Are they committed to the ideals of a particular institution beyond their own well being? Do they avoid legal means of solving their problems at all costs? Would they put aside their desires for those of another, even if it means they would have to wait or abandon their goals? If the answer is yes to any of these, you’ll need to do some work around how and why you are still Neutral Evil.
Of course, the simplest Neutral Evil classes to play are the Rogue, Warlock, and Wizard.
Neutral Evil Clerics, Rangers, Aasimar, and Other Questionable Combinations
When it comes to playing Neutral Evil protagonists, you certainly have your work cut out for you. For religious types, it is easy to say that “my god is evil, so I can be, too.” However, if you are a part of a religious institution, you will have trouble taking orders for too long before you chafe at the silliness of all the rules.
When that happens, you don’t have to throw the rules out. You can seek a way to legally maneuver yourself into a social position where you make the rules. If you have to break a few of the rules to do it… just don’t get caught.
Rangers are just social enough to acknowledge the power structure that exists in civilized spaces but just cynical enough to know that all of society is a veneer that can break down after just a few hours without food or water.
Aasimar have their own subraces dedicated to evil versions of them. Check those out, if you like. However, if you would rather keep the Celestial blessing but still be evil, then make sure that you are pursuing the vision of the Celestial overlords but taking shortcuts where they can’t see.
Neutral Evil Magic
If you use magic, you’ll need to consider what your power source is. Remember, in 3e there was “positive and negative” energy to represent good and evil. Generally speaking, those energy types have been replaced with Radiant and Necrotic.
If something is good and magical, it deals radiant damage. If it is evil and magical, it deals necrotic. This is not true in all circumstances (for example, Topaz dragonborn need not be evil); it is a good general rule.
As a Neutral Evil character, definitely consider necrotic damage as a power source. For this reason, I recommend Sorcerer, Wizard, or Circle of Spores Druid as your spellcasting class.
Other options to consider would be psychic, to represent your will overcoming the mental obstacles they face concerning following or breaking the law; poison, to represent your patience and cunning; or cold, to represent the place emotions have in seeing through long-term goals.
Neutral Evil Spells
Neutral Evil magic users will want spells that maximize practicality with as much unfair advantage as possible. Compulsion spells like command, suggestion, enthrall, crown of madness, and enemies abound would be great for that reason. You can turn one enemy into an unwitting ally and gain a numerical or social advantage.
Illusion spells such as phantasmal force, or phantasmal killer would also be very useful as their effects can be hidden from observers. Blur, dimension door, misty step, and invisibility will allow your Neutral Evil character to escape combat if need be in order to regroup and try again from a superior tactical position. Summon spells will allow you to hire extra muscle yet keep your own hands clean.
In general, you will want subtle spells that can be disguised or unobserved. This way you can get what you want from people without revealing your position as a lawbreaker. You can easily deny casting any of the spells above.
How Does Neutral Evil Relate to Similar Alignments?
One of the best ways to understand your alignment is to compare it to the others. In this section, we will compare Neutral Evil to those alignments that are separated by only 1 degree.
The following are several possible ethical dilemmas you could either face or put in front of your players. Each scenario is followed by a chart of how Neutral Evil would most likely react compared to the other neutral and evil alignments.
This is a classic hostage situation.
A Warlock of The Great Old One has been lying to people for long enough that they were able to create an entire church of good and innocent people with many connections in the city. After a time, the Warlock has been able to gather enough followers and resources that they can enact a ritual that will actually summon an aspect of their elder god to the material plane.
The ritual is taking place now, and the congregation believes they are simply engaging in a traditional ceremony. The Warlock, however, is planning on feeding everyone present to the god’s aspect when the ceremony is complete. Everyone in the party agrees the Warlock must be stopped. But what to do about the congregation?
Neutral Evil: “Fireball. It will disrupt the ritual and damage the Warlock. Even if it takes out some innocent bystanders, that’s necessary. They were fools anyway, and I doubt they would believe us anyway. Better to take a few out now and intimidate the rest than have to fight them all when they turn on us.”
Neutral Neutral: “Shoot the Warlock and then try to talk to the congregation… but keep the fireball ready.”
Neutral Good: “We should burst in and tell everyone what’s going on and give them a chance to leave! If the congregation turns on us, we are strong enough to stop the ritual without hurting any of them.”
Lawful Evil: “Fireball the roof of the building and then call emergency services to help evacuate. This will disrupt the ritual and give us the time we need to make our case and present it to the proper authorities.”
Chaotic Evil: “At least two fireballs are needed here.”
There is a plot to overthrow the king and assassinate the entire royal family. Your alignment is a good predictor of your relationship to the plot.
Neutral Evil: “There is a plot. I engineered it. Either the king will see reason and meet the demands of the plotters or he will be replaced.”
Neutral Neutral: “There is always some plot or another. Personally, I think the king is a fool, so I won’t get involved unless I have to.”
Neutral Good: “Maybe the king should listen to the complaints of the rebellion. It might help him be a better king and avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”
Lawful Evil: “Either the king needs to put them down like the dogs they are or I need to be in a position to advance when his head rolls.”
Chaotic Evil: “Why stop with the king? Let’s take out all of the nobles. This system has to go!”