Making Sense of Alignment in D&D 5e
Updated: Feb 21
Alignment is important. Its task, and it's a big one if you think about it, is to capture in a few words the moral and disposition baseline of your character, so that you can be guided, at least at a fundamental level, when roleplaying. Here I review and elaborate upon but also simplify the issue of alignment in Dungeons & Dragons 5e in order to make it more workable and interesting.
Existing Alignment Framework
According to the Player's Handbook p. 122: "A typical creature in the game world has an alignment, which broadly describes its moral and personal attitudes. Alignment is a combination of two factors: one identifies morality (good, evil, or neutral), and the other describes attitudes toward society and order (lawful, chaotic, or neutral). Thus, nine distinct alignments define the possible combinations."
The table below sets forth the nine alignments:
With respect to the morality axis, good, evil, and neutral are not expressly defined. The above summaries shed a little light – helping others makes sense – but what does it mean to "do the right thing as expected by society" or to act as one's "conscience directs"?
The above summaries also provide some guidance on the "attitude toward society and order" axis. Being lawful generally means being more "methodical" and conscientious toward "law," "tradition," and "order." Being chaotic is essentially the opposite. The Monster Manual p. 7 has helpful language, providing that "a chaotic evil monster might be difficult to reason with and might attack characters on sight, whereas a neutral monster might be willing to negotiate." The Monster Manual describes the lawful-chaotic axis in terms of disposition. MM p. 7 provides: "A monster's alignment provides a clue to its disposition and how it behaves in a roleplaying or combat situation. For example, a chaotic evil monster might be difficult to reason with and might attack characters on sight, whereas a neutral monster might be willing to negotiate."
Revised Alignment Framework
The two axes are defined above, but we can clarify and in fact simplify things a bit.
Good. Here is my first clarification and simplification. Any good character – lawful, neutral, or chaotic – would, I believe, want to "do the right thing" and "help others according to their needs." These are core values of all three good alignments.
The second clarification attempts to shed light on what it means to "do the right thing" and to help with the question as to which "others" you would be willing to help.
I suggest that to be of good alignment, you do not have to dedicate your life to bringing comfort to the poor like Mother Teresa, or dedicate your life to eradicating evil like a paladin. If you are, that is awesome - you and few others stand at the apex of the good alignment spectrum. But such callings cannot be the test for having a good alignment. Most of us would fail.
I think that individuals of any good alignment would generally exhibit a moderate if not greater concern for the well-being of others. Although more attention would usually be paid to family, friends, tribe, or polity, the empathy of good-aligned individuals would generally extend, to some degree, beyond this circle. Good-aligned individuals would never be happy to see the unjust treatment of others, no matter who the others are.
Good-aligned individuals are not perfect. They can stray at times from their core values, exhibit pettiness, boast, and so on. They can make grievous mistakes, even intentionally commit an evil act; but this should be rare and engender regret. And being of good alignment does not mean that an individual is stupid or gullible in the face of unscrupulousness or evil. Being of good alignment does not mean that an individual lacks a survival instinct.
A saint, a good but opportunistic adventurer, and a kind but lazy tavern worker, all can have a good alignment. This moral category reflects a range of goodness.
Evil. Following the approach with the good alignments, I believe that individuals of any evil alignment – lawful, neutral, or chaotic – would generally not be concerned with the well-being of others. The causing of serious harm or death to others when there is no proper justification would not, in and of itself, present a moral problem for them. Some are capable of non-evil acts that serve their interest or the interest of a more powerful authority to which they serve, and some are capable of exhibiting genuine concern for particular family members or friends. The evil alignments, as with the good alignments, cover a range of intensity and behavior.
Neutral. Looking at the various references to neutral morality in the rules, I think being morally neutral can mean one of two things.
1. Neutral individuals generally care only for themselves and possibly for those within their circle of family, friends, or tribe, narrowly defined, and treat all others with wariness. Respect given to outsiders is utilitarian.
2. Neutral individuals have a developed understanding of good and evil, believe that a balance between the two is proper, and act or refuse to act in an attempt to maintain their understanding of such balance. This version of moral neutrality is philosophical and rare.
I focus on the first category.
Attitude toward Society and Order Axis
A point of clarification is that lawful-aligned individuals – whether they are morally good, neutral, or evil – are generally more deliberative than neutral and especially chaotic-aligned individuals, the latter being more impulsive, emotional, and reckless, and thus, for better or for worse, more prone to spontaneous action. Some individuals are lawful due to careful reflection and intellectual examination, but some could be lawful due to tradition, culture, or acquiescence.
Of course, lawful evil characters and lawful good characters will not respect all laws and all traditions in the same way. They will be on opposite ends of the spectrum substantively. But what we are focusing on here is disposition, not morality.
Morality Axis is Dominant
A major point of clarification here, and one not addressed by the rules, is that the morality axis is, or should be, dominant. Lawful good individuals are generally more committed to following social mores, protocol, the chain of command, the terms of contracts, and the law, as long as this does not conflict with their core good values. Chaotic good individuals are more willing to disregard these "rules," although they, like their lawful good counterparts, try to avoid doing anything that would violate their own understanding of what it means to be good.
A lawful evil individual feels more inclined to follow the law, social protocol, the chain of command, etc., with respect to his or her own evil community, but feels no compunction to follow the laws of society in general unless it suits his or her purposes. Chaotic evil individuals are difficult all around, given their lack of concern for law and the chain of command or the legal and cultural dictates of more rule-oriented society.
Revise Alignment Matrix
Based on the foregoing, here is a revised alignment matrix:
Lawful Good is not More Good that Chaotic Good
One final definitional point. I see no reason why the lawful nature of a lawful good character should elevate this character's goodness over the goodness of a chaotic good character. It is more accurate to say that one's particular placement on the lawful-chaotic axis influences the manner in how one's goodness is acted out. A chaotic good fighter may have no qualms about charging into a dungeon to liberate an unjustly imprisoned villager. A lawful good wizard may feel it appropriate to first explain to the magistrate that the local sheriff is a scoundrel who imprisoned the villager simply because she refused to pay his extortion demands. Different approaches. Both are motivated by good. One may or may not be more effective than the other. It just depends on the circumstances. Sometimes throwing caution to the wind is a good thing. Sometimes it backfires. But let's give chaotic good characters their due.
Determining a Creature's Alignment
In the last few years Wizards of the Coasts' D&D team has started to fix alignment with respect to the non-player character humans, elves, dwarves, and other humanoid races. These fixes are in the errata.
The PHB currently states that: "For many thinking creatures, alignment is a moral choice. Humans, dwarves, elves, and other people can choose whether to follow the paths of good or evil, law or chaos. According to myth, the gods who created these folk gave them free will to choose their moral paths."
Beforehand, the PHB stated that: "Most races have tendencies toward certain alignments. . ." (PHB p. 17.) For example: "[Dwarves] tend toward good as well, with a strong sense of fair play and a belief that everyone deserves to share in the benefits of a just order." (PHB p. 20.) "Elves love freedom, variety, and self-expression, so they lean strongly toward the gentler aspects of chaos. They value and protect others' freedom as well as their own, and they are more often good than not." (PHB p. 23.)
But the D&D has jettisoned all of the "tendency" language. This is a great move. I can't help but chuckle at the notion that dwarves have a greater sense of fair play than do humans and elves. I don't think I've ever met that dwarf in literature, movies, D&D sessions, or D&D source books. Likewise, to say that elves "value and protect others' freedom" is puzzling. These descriptions are not only wrong, but unnecessary. And now they are no longer part of the rules.
The MM also states: "The alignment specified in a monster's stat block is the default. Feel free to depart from it and change a monster's alignment to suit the needs of your campaign." (MM p. 7.)
I do have a point of clarification. Although the issue of alignment is trickier for, say, orcs, given their traditional identification as "monsters," even here, we are talking about doing away with inherent traits, not with the notion that orcs are generally more hostile to humans, elves, dwarves, and so on, for historical or cultural reasons.
Also, it is important to remember that a good or neutral aligned creature can be hostile to you. I think it is easy in a fantasy setting to blame all conflict on an overblown notion of evil. Evil is certainly sometimes present, but to uncritically attribute all conflict to evil lessens the real-world hustle, bustle, jostling, competition, and friction, and sometimes deadly conflict, that accompanies all living creatures and communities of the world.
Good is a realistic range of behavior that will always include some general level of respect for others. It does not require sainthood or naïveté. The lawful-chaotic axis describes temperament as well as a general attitude toward following the rules in a legal and social context. But a lawful good character will not sacrifice his or her obligation to good because of the law. Also, contrary to tradition, lawful good is not the apex of the good alignments. Good can be served equally well by the paladin or the short-tempered, rough-hewn, good warrior.