What does a good alignment really mean in D&D?
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
I know, the question probably sounds mundane to you. But I invite you to read on. 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 dispositional heart and soul of your character, so that you can be guided, at least at a fundamental level, when roleplaying your alter ego. Here I expand upon the bare-bones treatment of good alignments in 5e in order to bring them to life, to inject them with some realism, and ultimately to make them more fun and interesting to use.
Let's begin by looking at the three good alignments as briefly summarized in the Player's Handbook 122:
Lawful good creatures "can be counted on to do the right thing as expected by society."
Neutral good "folk do the best they can to help others according to their needs."
Chaotic good "creatures act as their conscience directs, with little regard for what others expect."
This is a good start. We can build on this. Here is my first clarification. Any good character, lawful, neutral, or chaotic, would, I believe, want to "do the right thing" and want to "help others according to their needs." These are core values, in my understanding, of all three good alignments.
But what does it mean to "do the right thing"? And which "others" would you be willing to help? The PHB is silent on both questions. We could just stick with the "I know it when I see it" rule. That seems to be 5e's current approach. It invites players to think on their own about these big issues, without the D&D design team loading the dice, so to speak, on possible answers. The topic, however, is not an easy one. I think it is worthwhile to provide some guidance.
I would suggest that you do not have to be Mother Teresa, or a paladin dedicated to eradicating evil and bringing comfort to the poor, to be of good alignment. If you are, that is awesome. You are located at the far upper end of the good alignment spectrum. But as a practical matter, such callings cannot be the threshold test for having a good alignment. Most of us would fail.
The following is a more realistic, workable, and interesting definition of good:
Individuals of any good alignment will exhibit a moderate if not greater concern for the well-being of others.
More attention will usually be paid to one's own family, friends, tribe, or polity. But the empathy of good-aligned individuals can also extend, at least to some degree, beyond this circle.
Good-aligned individuals will never be happy to see the unjust treatment of others.
Good-aligned individuals can, of course, stray at times from their core values, exhibit pettiness and other unpleasant behavior, boast, and so on.
Good-aligned individuals are not perfect. They can make grievous mistakes, even intentionally commit an evil act. But this should be rare and engender regret.
A saint, a good but opportunistic adventurer, and a kind but lazy tavern worker, all can have a good alignment. This moral category thus reflects a range of goodness.
There is also the lawful-chaotic axis. According to the PHB p. 122, this axis "describes attitude toward society and order." For example, a lawful good character's actions reflect a concern about the expectations of society while a chaotic good character's actions do not. The Monster Manual, however, describes the lawful-chaotic axis not in terms of attitude toward society but more in terms of temperament. The 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."
In order to get a better understanding of these two components of the lawful-chaotic axis, let develop each of them with respect to the good alignments:
Temperament: Lawful good individuals are generally more reflective and deliberative than neutral good and especially chaotic good individuals, the latter being more impulsive and thus, for better or for worse, more prone to spontaneous action.
Attitude toward society: 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.
One further point is worth mentioning. I see no reason why the lawful nature of a lawful good character should elevate his or her 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 which 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 good. One may or may not be more effective than the other. It just depends on the circumstances.