Many role-playing games involve a system or code of morality for characters to follow. While there are differences between game system terminology and functionality, I refer to all of these morality systems as alignment. Dungeons & Dragons uses a very well-known pattern for building a character's alignment, and this pattern is frequently used similarly by other role-playing games. Any game's alignment system can be enhanced by using the lens I'll describe below!
A character's D&D alignment is often mistaken for a set of rules that the character has to obey and that the player has to work around. In reality, the opposite is true. D&D alignments should be moral tendencies on the part of the character that are determined and acted upon the player. In this article, I hope to explain why that is the case and give advice about how to better envision and role-play your character alignments.
What is a D&D Alignment?
If you are at all connected to literature, television, or pop culture elements in the present day, you've likely seen a chart like this one with some of your favorite characters assigned D&D-stylized alignments:
The ideas suggested in these charts can provide an additional way to look at and analyze a known character's traits and behaviors. Also, they're fun to make!
The moral alignment system that D&D uses presents a matrix of characterization options to the players. During the character creation process, the player chooses where the character's ideals, morals, and objectives rest on a scale of good to evil and law to chaos.
This system has its roots as far back as D&D's immediate ancestors with Gary Gygax's medieval war-game Chainmail. Produced in 1971, it included fantasy supplements that involved creatures fashioned after J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth works. In order to create a scenario for warring armies to clash over, Gygax created a system that pitted the forces of Law against the hordes of Chaos. [This opposition was inspired by the writings of authors like Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson, among other fantasy novelists of the 70's, whose works highlighted the conflict between Law and Chaos within their story settings.] Gygax then assigned creatures to each side based on their canonical tendencies in literature and mythology.
In later writings produced through war-game fan-published magazines, Gygax followed up on his system by clarifying that Law and Chaos were not by any means representations of the concepts of Good and Evil (as many had mistaken the distinctions between creatures as between their good or evil tendencies). Gygax explained that, while there are many Lawful creatures that are Good, there are also Lawful creatures, (such as devils) that are clearly and blatantly Evil; and likewise Chaotic creatures that are Good, such as elves or gnomes.
In the following years of game development, testing, and revising, a new dimension was added to the Law/Chaos system by adding the axis of Good/Evil, as well as including a position for Neutrality on each of the two spectrums. This went on to morph into the nine options that are used in D&D today, inviting players to plot their character's position as Good, Neutral, or Evil, and as Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic.
So how do I know if I'm playing my character's alignment correctly?
The problem comes when a player uses their character's alignment to cause havoc or unrest within a party. Everyone has heard of the player who constantly asks if he can pick the pockets of everyone in his party because "I'm chaotic, and it seems like something I would want to do" And we've all encountered that lawful character who immediately positions themselves as the arbiter of party justice. D&D and other TTRPG's are about collaborative world-building, so its no good if only one person is making decisions. Some players may want to play that way in their individual consenting groups, but most players with whom I have spoken appreciate that adventurers such as these are the exception rather than the rule.
Ideas like these come from the misconception that a character's alignment governs their behavior. If you want to be "allowed" to play a certain way, you have to choose a particular alignment that "lets you" do what you want to do. Understanding this mindset gives us an idea of why those players behave this way: they feel as if they have to take their alignment to an extreme in order to follow the "alignment rules," and so, logically, they choose and exaggerate alignments that seem as though they give them the greatest ability to play the way they want.
This is, of course, not the purpose of an alignment. D&D's alignment system should not be a means to achieve an end; nor should it be viewed as a concept that governs how your character behaves and reacts to situations.
How to Envision Alignment
I define a D&D character's alignment as follows: a moral tendency on the part of the character that is determined and then acted upon by the player. This definition emphasizes the two essential parts of an alignment: (1) it is a tendency on the part of the character, meaning that an alignment is only as strict of a guideline as the player decides it should be (although if you go too loose, your GM might suggest you switch alignments based on your behavior); and (2) the player determines how their character operates within their alignment and makes decisions based upon their perception of their alignment.
Even more simply, a character's alignment should be how the character views their individual role in the world. In order to play a character well, the player should be willing to put themselves into the shoes of their character and think about situations and problems from the perspective of the character. In order for this to work, the character needs to have a fleshed-out moral standpoint that factors into their decision-making process. This moral outlook is what should be represented and summarized by their D&D alignment terms.
We should also be sure that we understand what the term "tendency" means in reference to a character's actions. A character is almost always in a state of change, whether from a gameplay perspective (spell slots or hit points), a storytelling perspective (character experiences and quests), or a meta perspective (levels and abilities). Why then, is it so strange that a character's perspective on the world in which they exist should change and grow as they gain experiences and learn? It makes sense that a character's planning, choices, and alignment standards should be influenced by what they have gained from their adventures.
Occasionally players assume that there is only one way to be lawful and good, or to be chaotic and neutral. They never deviate from these assumed base concepts, in effect creating a rule system around their alignment. For instance, a Lawful Good paladin may decide that in order to be both Lawful and Good, they must uphold the law and serve the common good. That's a fine starting place for a paladin's moral ideals. Perhaps the character helps thwart the bandits along the trade highways and spends their downtime serving the poor and needy. The problem comes when a player thinks their alignment is a rigid demand that they must always follow blindly without allowing adaptation to new or different situations?
Perhaps this character obtains knowledge of a law that has been broken by an individual who is their superior. But what about if the superior broke the law in order to further the common good of the kingdom? A character who takes both halves of their alignment to extremes and doesn't allow for variance cannot grasp the idea of UN-lawfulness being Good. They may classify the entire thing as Evil just because it opposes their understanding of Good. When that happens, we get a prime directive situation like Miko Miyazaki from The Order of the Stick. (Side note: If you haven't read this awesome D&D/RPG webcomic, you should. Link below article.) As humans, we can't view things as black and white. Nuance and shades of grey are very important tools in the way we see the world. Why shouldn't we allow for the same variation and subtlety in our characters?
Just because a character with a particular alignment should have a tendency to behave in a certain way, it does not mean that a character must follow a specific line of behavior. It means a character that behaves a certain way creates one example of how to play that alignment. The flow of direction is important to understand. A Lawful Good character remains Lawful Good by exhibiting a tendency to usually do things that are Lawful and Good when a choice is presented. This means that occasional actions that lean towards Neutrality or Chaos don't invalidate a character's Lawful alignment, depending on how seriously the character takes their Lawful bonds.
Great. We've deconstructed a fairly elemental concept prevalent in character creation. So what do we do with this information?
How We Should Use Alignment
This gives players no small degree of freedom in making decisions for their characters. Because actions should have a tendency to (rather than "only ever") match one's alignment, it's okay for players to come up with creative solutions that work within the wide boundaries and interpretations offered by their chosen alignment. And it's okay for two characters with the same alignment to differ vastly in the way they demonstrate their alignment! What's important is the long-term trends that the character's actions represent, and how closely the character adheres to their core ideals.
Players who want to add greater depth to their characters can work with their Game Masters during the character creation process to establish how and why their characters exemplify their alignment, and determine where the character lies on the dual scales that compose the alignment chart. GMs can build depth in their worlds by adding conflicts into their campaigns that force the players to make hard decisions from their character's perspective and then determine the course of action that is most moral for their character in a given situation. Characters' behaviors will also be influenced by the situation that they are currently in, as well as everything they have learned from every other situation in the past. And when it all comes together during the game, it will make for a pretty nifty story!
This ends part one of this discussion about alignments. In upcoming articles, I will move from a general perspective on alignments to writing more specifically about how to play particular alignments. I'll also be including some do's and don't's and general ideas for moral conflicts that can test or prove a character's chosen alignment.
I'd like to give a huge thank you to Zero Session for hosting this blog article on their website! If you're searching for a social connection through virtually hosted tabletop RPGs during these unprecedented times, Zero Session cannot be recommended highly enough as a resource for finding quality games and Game Masters efficiently and affordably. And if you, like myself, are a GM looking for a way to find players for your games, they're very open to helping you get started on their platform. Check out Zero Session!
This blog article was originally posted on my own website as part one of a series deconstructing alignments. If you enjoyed this article or found it interesting, please consider sharing it with others who you feel could benefit from my perspective!
Have you ever known someone who role-played their character's alignment really well (or not so well)? Do you have any tips for role-playing alignments? What else would you like to hear about? Let us know in the comments!
Alignment System Creation History
Peterson, Jon.Playing at the World: a History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games. Unreason Press, 2012.
Harry Potter Alignment Chart
D&D Alignment Chart
Miko Miyazaki (Character)
Whole comic (makes the most sense in context): https://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots.html
Relevant episode (Spoiler warning!): https://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0406.html