Alignment has been a focal point of D&D – and, in other forms, other RPGs – since its inception. It impacts character background, behavior, and even mechanics. Some items are restricted to characters of certain alignments, and the same goes for abilities, spells, classes, and in-world opportunities.
But what is alignment, exactly? How do you use it? You’ll find everything you need to know in this D&D Alignment Guide. This will be a ten-part series, in which I’ll describe the inner workings of alignment, its history, provide examples for each one. Tips and resources for creating and playing characters of each alignment will also be included.
What is Character Alignment?
Alignment is a heuristic used to categorize a character’s standing on two axes:
- Morality (Good ⇆ Evil)
- Order (Lawful ⇆ Chaotic).
While these two spectrums can never completely describe a character’s personality, they can provide an effective and quick overview. For example, you can expect a Lawful Good character to be one of “the good guys” – they respect the law as well as those around them.
There are nine possible alignments in D&D. Each end of the spectrum (Good, Evil; Lawful, Chaotic) can combine with either end of the other to form one combination. A character can also be right in the middle of one or both of the spectrums, making them neutral in either trait or True Neutral.
While lawful is often associated with good and chaotic with evil remember that these are two entirely distinct matrices. Think of the good/evil spectrum as a character’s motivations or goals, while the lawful/chaotic spectrum describes the methods they employ to achieve them.
Despite these prescribed nine options, it’s important to remember that these choices are not binary. While your character may be Chaotic Good, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the exact opposite of a Lawful Evil character. Alignment is a spectrum, and bringing these values into play is far more complex than writing two words on your character sheet.
How to Use D&D Alignment
While the rules text often references alignment, it is best described as a guideline. When in reference to one’s own character, players and DMs can use it as a foundation upon which to build their background and personality.
In evaluating another character, alignment should be used a sort of quick-reference personality guide — it doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, but it’s a good starting point. The BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) is Chaotic Evil? They probably won’t be persuaded by calls to protect the weak and innocent. The mayor is Lawful Neutral? They probably won’t go out of their way to feed and house the poor unless convinced.
However, alignment is not an either-or one-or-the-other dichotomy. Two Lawful Good paladins may differ in views of justice and the law, while the goals and methods of two Chaotic Good villains may be drastically different. Instead of trying to play or analyze characters based solely on their alignment, use alignment as a lens through which to view your character’s more substantive traits.
For example: don’t ask, “What would a Chaotic Good character do?” Ask, “My character is Chaotic Good, but they’ll do anything for their friends and family. How does that influence their actions, decision-making, and personality?”
Forcing a character through the fine mesh that is alignment leaves so much of the character behind. Characters may not, perhaps should not, always conform to their alignment either. Real people are fluid, and do not respond to stimulus on a prescribed matrix.
D&D uses additional character traits like Bonds, Flaws, and Ideals because they are helpful ways to flesh out a character. They can be more meaningful than a binary Good / Evil distinction. Building a good character requires each of these things in tandem, not in isolation.
Play Your Character, Not Your Alignment
A lot of players fall into the trap of trying to “play their alignment”. DMs, too, will often criticize players for going against their stated alignment. This is not useful. Remember that alignment on its own doesn’t determine anything. You determine it, through background and gameplay.
While it is important to have a coherent personality, players should not be asking, “Is this what an [alignment] character would do?” But should instead ask, “Is this what my character would do?” Alignment is determined by behavior and personality, not the other way around.
There are plenty of horror stories found online describing players who derail the game because “it’s what their character would do.” Remember that at the end of the day, D&D is a game, and players and DMs need to work together to craft a story that everyone enjoys.
Your character is not an independent actor: you control them, and while your actions should relate to the backstory and personality you’ve crafted, it’s important also to be a team player, so everyone enjoys what’s happening.
Disagreements & Flaws
Some characters of the same alignment will disagree on goals or methods. That’s good—it makes for engaging and meaningful conflict. No one idea or behavior encapsulates alignment. Flaws, too, are examples of things that directly compromise one’s alignment. Know the difference between problematic railroading (which can come from players too, “Because I have to follow my alignment”) and healthy, complex storytelling.
On the other hand, DMs, don’t police players too hard, unless they’re derailing gameplay. Applying consequences for character actions is always fair, but try to ask yourself how these actions fit the character, and whether there is room for growth or further story.
Experienced DMs can circumvent some of these issues by taking the responsibility of alignment from the players’ hands. Instead of players acting based on their alignments, DMs will reverse this process by assigning alignment to characters based on their actions. While this requires both a DM who is well-versed in the different alignments and the consent of the group, it can relieve some burden from the players.
Players, if you’re going this route, keep an open mind and allow yourself to just play your character how you want to play it — you’re free from the constraints of alignment! DMs, focus on applying alignments objectively for the sake of gameplay mechanics, and allow some breathing room. Don’t use alignment changes as sanctions for individual actions, unless they are particularly egregious.
Alignment Can Change
Lastly, know that a spectrum implies that alignment isn’t fixed. It can change throughout character creation and even during gameplay as character motivations and actions shift. This is a good thing — embrace it. Growth, good or bad, is interesting, and prevents a character from stagnating.
Building a Character Using D&D Alignment
There are two main methods to design characters with alignment. The first is a top-down approach, where the player chooses an alignment and expands on it to develop a background and personality. A bottom-up approach involves fleshing out those details and choosing the alignment that best fits the description.
A final option eschews the alignment framework altogether and grants players more freedom in character creation. There are benefits and drawbacks to each, and ultimately they fall down to personal choice.
The Bottom-up Approach
The bottom-up approach involves defining a character’s background, traits, and personality first and selecting an alignment based on those details. This is the ideal choice for newer players and those less comfortable with the different alignments because the clearer, more useful aspects of backgrounds are developed first.
When building a character using this method, focus on the other steps of character creation, but think about how those features link into what alignments. Once enough of your decisions seem to point in one alignment direction, you should be able to narrow down your choices and begin developing your character with that in mind.
Questions to Ask
Just like building any character, ask yourself important, defining questions about them:
- What am I passionate about? What drives me forward?
- Why / how did I start adventuring?
- What is important to me? What goals am I working towards?
- What do I value (Friends, family, wealth, knowledge, power, freedom, justice)?
- What are my flaws? No good character is a two-dimensional representation of their alignment. If your character values X, what would make them go against that value?
Once the answers to these questions are decided, even a cursory look should allow an alignment to fall into place.
The Top-down Approach
Recommended only for more experienced players, the top-down approach involves choosing an alignment as the foundation for a character and developing the complexity off that.
New players will often struggle with this, as they tend to fall into the trap of “I must build/play my character the way my alignment says I should.” More experienced players are comfortable exercising more freedom in using alignment as a foundation to build from rather than a set of guidelines to follow — as a sort of bottom-up-approach-in-disguise.
In other words, if a player says they want to play a Lawful Evil character, they don’t just mean that they want to try a different alignment from the Player’s Handbook. They might be saying they want to build a villainous character based on an image, an idea already in their mind. It is this image you should start from with the top-down approach, not a generic alignment choice.
An idea can be simple (“I wanna be bad!” = Chaotic Evil). It can also be more complex (“My family was killed in a violent raid, so my traumatized character will seek out murderous and disproportionate justice” = Chaotic Good).
So once you have an idea in mind, it’s time to flesh out the details and figure out what that image means to you.
Top-down approaches are most useful when that image is more or less defined by a trait (e.g., a lust for power) or a past event (e.g., a vision of a boon from a powerful being).
Questions to Ask
So, ask yourself the same questions of your character, but from that starting, alignment-affecting trait, event, or perspective:
- What passions does this trait / event evoke? How does it drive me forward?’
- How did this trait / event start my adventuring career?
- How does this trait / event affect what’s important to me, and my goals?
- How do my values reflect this trait / event?
- What flaws run counter to my outlook from this trait / event?
By running these questions through your alignment, you develop a character who is ultimately more than just an alignment. Don’t be afraid if your alignment feels different after these questions — it can change! That’s just you getting to know your character better.
Additionally, consider asking those questions about your character before and after this trait or event developed / occurred:
- How did it affect your character?
- Is your character different now?
- Is there room to overcome or grow past it?
- Asking these further questions allows you to build a character who is more than a single, central token.
The Third Option: Ignorance is Bliss
While both of the above approaches are effective for many people, there is another that some may find helpful: eschewing alignment altogether. While “Don’t” may not seem a helpful answer to the question “How do I use alignment?”, many players and DMs find the hyper focus on alignment stifling to creativity.
So, instead of puzzling out how to fit these constructs into your character, you can spend your energy on backstory, personality, and other traits. After all, alignment doesn’t itself decide anything about your character, it’s simply a convenient shorthand for character values. If you simply build your character as you please, you and your DM can come to a conclusion on what that represents later.
What do the Axes Mean?
While people typically discuss the 9 individual alignments, each can be broken down into its respective parts. The extremes of the axes, and “Neutral” in the middle, all describe different things.
It’s important to understand what each mean in order to understand the alignments themselves. Below is an overview of what the axes Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil each stand for, as well as another, separate distinction of Unaligned.
Lawful alignments are all about order. They enjoy structure, procedure, and laws. They will often support clear hierarchies and form social norms. Lawful characters defer to authority and follow tradition. They prefer stability over change, especially rapid, uncontrolled change.
Lawful creatures were originally describes as creatures of habit—their reactions in any given situation can be more or less predicted. Lawful creatures may not necessarily uphold the law or even respect it; Devils are lawful because of their preference for hierarchy, punishment, and organization.
- Teamwork and cooperation
- Structure and organization
- Lack of flexibility
- Resistant to change, even positive change
Chaos is, naturally, the antithesis of law. Chaotic alignments favor freedom, flexibility, and individuality. They prefer change and eschew tradition, considering them stifling. Personal expressions and freedom of thought and of action are paramount to chaotic persons.
Chaotic characters do not usually act randomly or without reason; they simply refuse to be constrained by regulations and norms they feel are irrelevant.
- Flexibility and adaptability
- Passion for freedom
- Creativity and personal expression
- Recklessness and irresponsibility
- Contradict laws and authority, even when benevolent
- Low capacity for teamwork
Good characters are traditionally the heroes. Goodness represents altruism, compassion, and a general respect for life. Good characters are typically willing to help others, particularly those in need and for whom the cause is just, even at personal cost.
They will oppose evil on principle, not just when financially motivated. Their goodness may not be absolute, but it represents a general affinity for the dignity of others and a respect for those around them.
- Others will be willing to help Good characters
- Good characters make strong allies
- What goes around tends to come back around
- Conscience can hinder progress
- Gullibility & abundance of trust, even when undue
- Can be paralyzed by difficult decisions
Evil characters have no respect for others and are willing to cause or inflict hardship, up to and including death, when it suits them. Some take pleasure in harming others, and do it for the sake of exerting their power, while others simply have no qualms about collateral damage in search of their goals.
Evil characters are not bonded to notions of the greater good and justice for all. Instead, they typically pursue personal wealth and power, at great cost to others and little cost to themselves. They aren’t willing to make sacrifices unless there is a high return.
- High levels of personal achievement and motivation
- Few obstacle-causing scruples
- Low trust and high cynicism make for independence
- Allies typically formed through fear, not loyalty, and thus bonds are weaker
- Evil characters have more enemies than friends, and are like to be betrayed
- What goes around tends to come back around
Some creatures in the D&D 5e Monster Manual are listed as unaligned, including animals, due to their natural instinct, and many constructs, due to their being mindless tools and lack of intelligence. This is an important distinction, one that sets it apart from alignments like True Neutral.
Unaligned creatures are not in the middle of the spectrum, nor are they ambivalent; they simply lack the capacity to have a stance one way or another. They have no concept of good or evil, of law or chaos, they just exist in their own way, and act based on instinct or instruction.
What Does Each D&D Alignment Mean?
Combining the Good ⇆ Evil and the Lawful ⇆ Chaotic axes forms a cohesive representation of a character’s personality and world view.
Note that alignment does not describe how much more good than evil a character is, for example, only that they are. This reinforces the idea of alignment as a spectrum, and you should remember to use it only as a heuristic and not as a determinant.
Neutral, or being right in the middle of both axes, is more complicated. It can represent an even mix of the two extremes, a lack of either, or ambivalence entirely. But what do each of these words mean when combined with each other?
The Lawful Good character is the archetypal hero. They value compassion, honor, and duty. They respect law, authority, and order, and pursue equality, equity, and justice. Lawful Good characters work to protect those who can’t protect themselves. They fight evil wherever they can, within the confines of the law.
Contrary to some portrayals, they aren’t necessarily naïve or “Lawful Stupid”—they simply see the value of the organization of society in upholding the greater good. Lawful Good characters can, however, be described as narrow-sighted and inflexible due to their unwillingness to violate laws, order, or hierarchy even in the service of the greater good.
Examples of Lawful Good characters include knights, gold dragons, and unicorns.
You can find more information about the Lawful Good alignment here.
While Lawful Neutral characters also ascribe to values such as honor, duty, and tradition, they don’t adhere to black-and-white views of morality. They instead tend to follow an alternate code or prescribed set of principles, such as a personal dogma or religious doctrine.
Lawful Neutral characters are not averse to helping others, but their first priority is separate from benevolence. Lawful Neutral characters respect credible authority and defer to them especially when in pursuit of the same goal.
Loyal soldiers, myconids, and Sphinxes are all Lawful Neutral.
You can find more information about the Lawful Neutral alignment here.
Lawful Evil characters also enjoy highly structured systems and hierarchies, namely because they are comparatively easy to exploit. Some Lawful Evil characters sit at the top of the food chain as malevolent rulers and warlords, while others prefer to abuse the system from within.
Lawful Evil characters enjoy positions of authority, especially when it allows them to exploit or subjugate others. These characters work only toward their own self-interest. Though they won’t typically go out of their way to harm others for the sake of it, they have no qualms and next to no limits to the pain they’ll inflict if it furthers their own aims.
Lawful Evil characters include slavers, mind flayers, and devils.
The Neutral Good alignment is characterized by a tendency towards benevolence without adherence to strict societal structures, norms, and traditions. Neutral Good characters are altruistic by nature, and typically pursue the most efficient path to the best outcome. They are willing to cooperate with others on that goal, but can just as easily go it alone when the working relationship becomes complicated.
Neutral Good characters are willing to bend or break rules in the service of the greater good, and often perform cost/benefit analyses to decide whether actions are worthwhile.
Examples of Neutral Good characters include bounty hunters, pseudodragons, and most celestials.
True Neutral characters value balance over all else. They do not ascribe to traditional notions of good and evil, of order and chaos. Instead, they follow a personal code which gives them purpose.
True Neutral characters often pursue some form of enlightenment or a personal goal, such as nature preservation. These personal beliefs trump all other concerns, though great injustice and subjugation are often adverse to the True Neutral concept of balance. Often, the natural way of things is considered sacred, and things that upset this path are criminal.
Monastery monks, behirs, and golems are True Neutral.
Neutral Evil represents an entirely selfish alignment, one obsessed with self-success and achievement. Neutral Evil characters will use any means to better themselves. They are willing to sabotage and backstab allies and can easily play the long con by cooperating up until such a point where it’s no longer useful to do so.
Masters of manipulation, Neutral Evil characters often work covertly or at least with subtlety, viewing others merely as tools for their own success. Success often means power and wealth, but may include more nuanced goals such as revenge or spite.
Neutral Good characters include sociopaths, flameskulls, and kuo-toa.
No cost is too great to achieve the greater good in the eyes of the Chaotic Good. They seek positive change towards their ideal society or situation, no matter the collateral damage. Chaotic Good characters believe freedom belongs to all, and that people should do whatever it takes to get it.
They favor violent and decisive action, suggesting taking “the easy way” shows weakness and a lack of commitment. They prefer unique and innovative strategy. To Chaotic Good characters, society, rules, and tradition and limiting. They often employ disorganized, uncooperative methods, making them poor team players.
Chaotic Good characters include revolutionaries, pegasi, and storm giants.
Chaotic Neutral characters deeply value individualism. They believe in personal strength and suggest that it’s every person for themselves. Pursuing personal success is natural and correct, and if one person’s success relies on another’s failure, that’s just the luck of the draw. They believe others are entitled to the same chance.
Laws and rules don’t apply to Chaotic Neutral characters, unless they benefit them. Chaotic Neutral characters love to have their cake and eat it too.
They include thieves, slaadi, and cyclopses.
Chaotic Evil characters are D&D’s archetypal villains. They don’t respect laws, society, nor those around them. They are obsessed with their own hedonistic goals and not only are the consequences of their actions irrelevant to them, but may even take a certain pleasure in causing harm.
Chaotic Evil characters enjoy subjugating others, hurting them, and feeling powerful. They act erratically, with seemingly random impulse and abandon, in order to reach their goals. Chaotic Evil characters will do the opposite of what they’re told for the sake of it.
Some examples of Chaotic Evil characters include serial murderers, black dragons, and driders.
D&D Alignment Guide – Conclusion
It’s easy to simplify the nine alignments into the sum of their parts, but doing so rarely makes such a detailed and complex character as would be possible. Using alignment as a lens through which to view your character and their backstory instead breathes life into your game. It can also be a helpful way to discover and develop the narrative of a character for other purposes, such as creative writing, by refining their motivations.
Overall, remember that alignment is a spectrum, and it’s you who controls your character, not those two words at the top of your character sheet. Alignment is secondary to a detailed and unique character.
If you’re ever stuck, try to re-frame your issue: what does your character want? What drives them forward, and what holds them back? Answering these questions can help flesh out your character as well as determine your alignment.
You can also read more about D&D character alignment in the Player’s Handbook. It contains a ton of other information too.
More D&D Articles
If you’d like to read more articles about D&D, maybe you’ll enjoy some of the following articles: