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General Alignment in D&D

Alignment is, on some level, the beating heart of Dungeons & Dragons. On the other hand, it’s sort of a stupid rule. It’s like the hit point rules in that it makes for a good game experience, especially if you don’t think about it too hard. Just as Magic: the Gathering has the five colors that transcend any world or story, so alignment is a universal cosmic truth from one D&D world to the next. The deities themselves obey the pattern of alignment.

On the story side, the alignment rules contain the rudiments of roleplaying, as in portraying your character according to their personality. On the game side, it conforms to D&D’s wargaming roots, representing army lists showing who is on whose side against whom.

The 3x3 alignment grid is one part of AD&D’s legacy that we enthusiastically ported into 3E and that lives on proudly in 5E and in countless memes. Despite the centrality of alignment in D&D, other RPGs rarely copy D&D’s alignment rules, certainly not the way they have copied D&D’s rules for abilities, attack rolls, or hit points.


Alignment started as army lists in the Chainmail miniatures rules, before Dungeons & Dragons released. In those days, if you wanted to set up historical Napoleonic battles, you could look up armies in the history books to see what forces might be in play. But what about fantasy armies? Influenced by the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Gary Gygax’s rules for medieval miniatures wargaming included a fantasy supplement. Here, to help you build opposing armies, was the list of Lawful units (good), the Chaotic units (evil), and the neutral units. Today, alignment is a roleplaying prompt for getting into character, but it started out as us-versus-them—who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Original D&D used the Law/Chaos binary from Chainmail, and the Greyhawk supplement had rudimentary notes about playing chaotic characters. The “referee” was urged to develop an ad hoc rule against chaotic characters cooperating indefinitely. This consideration shows how alignment started as a practical system for lining up who was on whose side but then started shifting toward being a concrete way to think about acting “in character.”

Another thing that Greyhawk said was that evil creatures (those of chaotic alignment) were as likely to turn on each other as attack a lawful party. What does a 12-year old do with that information? One DM applies the rule literally in the first encounter of his new campaign. When we fought our first group of orcs in the forest outside of town, The DM rolled randomly for each one to see whether it would attack us or its fellow orcs. That rule got applied for that first battle and none others because it was obviously stupid. In the DM’s defense, alignment was a new idea at the time.

Law versus Chaos maps pretty nicely with the familiar Good versus Evil dichotomy, albeit with perhaps a more fantastic or apocalyptic tone. The Holmes Basic Set I started on, however, had a 2x2 alignment system with a fifth alignment, neutral, in the center. For my 12-year old mind, “lawful good” and “chaotic evil” made sense, and maybe “chaotic good,” but “lawful evil”? What did that even mean? I looked up “lawful,” but that didn’t help.

Holmes Original Alignment Diagram.png

Our first characters were neutral because we were confused and “neutral” was the null choice. Soon, I convinced my group that we should all be lawful evil. That way we could kill everything we encountered and get the most experience points (evil) but we wouldn’t be compelled to sometimes attack each other (as chaotic evil characters would).

In general, chaotic good has been the most popular alignment since probably as soon as it was invented. The CG hero has a good heart and a free spirit. Following rules is in some sense bowing to an authority, even if it is a moral or internalized authority, and being “chaotic” means being unbowed and unyoked.

Chaotic neutral has also been popular. Players have sometimes used this alignment as an excuse to take actions that messed with the party’s plans and, not coincidentally, brought attention to the player. The character was in the party because the player was at the table, but real adventurers would never go into danger with a known wildcard along with them. This style of CG play was a face-to-face version of griefing, and it was common enough that Ryan Dancey suggested we ban it from 3E.

The target we had for 3E was to make a game that doubled-down on its own roots, so we embraced AD&D’s 3x3 alignment grid. Where the Holmes Basic Set listed a handful of monsters on its diagram, 3E had something more like Chainmail’s army lists, listing races, classes, and monsters on a 3x3 table.

When I was working on 3E, I was consciously working on a game for an audience that was not me. Our job was to appeal to the game’s future audience. With the alignment descriptions, however, I indulged in my personal taste for irony. The text explains why lawful good is “the best alignment you can be.” In fact, each good or neutral alignment is described as “the best,” with clear reasons given for each one. Likewise, each evil alignment is “the most dangerous,” again with a different reason for each one. This treatment was sort of a nod to the interminable debates over alignment, but the practical purpose was to make each good and neutral alignment appealing in some way.

If you ever wanted evidence that 4E wasn’t made with the demands of the fans first and foremost, recall that the game took “chaotic good” out of the rules. CG is the most popular alignment, describing a character who’s virtuous and free. The alignments in 4E were lawful good, good, neutral, evil, and chaotic evil. One on level, it made sense to eliminate odd-ball alignments that don’t make sense to newcomers, such as the “lawful evil” combination that flummoxed me when I was 12. The simpler system in 4E mapped fairly well to the Holmes Basic 2x2 grid, with two good alignments and two evil ones. In theory, it might be the best alignment system in any edition of D&D. On another level, however, the players didn’t want this change, and the Internet memes certainly didn’t want it. If it was perhaps better in theory, it was unpopular in practice.

In 5E, the alignments get a smooth, clear, spare treatment. The designers’ ability to pare down the description to the essentials demonstrates a real command of the material. This treatment of alignment is so good that I wish I’d written it.

My own games never have alignment, per se, even if the game world includes real good and evil. In Ars Magica, membership in a house is what shapes a wizard’s behavior or social position. In Over the Edge and Everway, a character’s “guiding star” is something related to the character and invented by the player, not a universal moral system. In Omega World, the only morality is survival. 13th Age, on the other hand, uses the standard system, albeit lightly. The game is a love letter to D&D, and players have come to love the alignment system, so Rob Heinsoo and I kept it. Still, a 13th Age character’s main “alignment” is in relation to the icons, which are not an abstraction but rather specific, campaign-defining NPCs.

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Jonathan Tweet

Jonathan Tweet

D&D 3E, Over the Edge, Everway, Ars Magica, Omega World, Grandmother Fish


One aspect of alignment I find hard to understand is how evil works in conjunction with spells that detect alignment. What does the "savage humanoid" shaman or witch doctor make of the fact that every member of his tribe is evil, while humans and demi-humans are mostly non-evil? Do they know that they worship evil gods? Do evil beings know they are evil? Do they misunderstand their own alignment in a way that good beings do not?

I imagine that different lnguages have different words for the alignments with different connotations. I imagine a lot of them use a different word for 'Good' the alignment than they do for 'good' as in desirable

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Minor suggestion to the ENWorld admins - when there's a guest 'luminary' writing an ENWorld article, it would help catch attention to include their name in the title of the article, like: "Alignment in D&D by Jonathan Tweet." Rather than "Alignment in D&D" by Jonathan Tweet. Not noticing, I almost skipped the article.

No, I'm arguing that while you can assert that "good" is an objective force in the imagined world, characterizing what "good" is - in terms of its actual qualities - is still inevitably subject to lensing by the players and DM.

Forty years of conflicting edition definitions, and thousands of pages of speculation on ENWorld suggest to me that "good," "evil," "law" and "chaos" - and their various permutations - are less than clear-cut categories in terms of rules.

Has it been conflicting though?

It's always seemed pretty consistent to me.

the Jester

I hated 4E, but the one thing that I like which came from it was the concept of "unaligned" in D&D.

I think if I were designing the next edition, PCs could be "unaligned" if they wanted to, but to stay true to the game's history of alignment (which I like), I would either let them choose to be unaligned or have an alignment as desired.

That's exactly what I do. To have an alignment means that you are seriously devoted to that ideology. Most people are unaligned. To be, for instance, LG, you have to actually intend to be LG. If you just happen to be a nice, law-abiding citizen, you probably have LG tendencies, but unless you actively intend and act to be good and lawful, you're not LG.


I'm fine with the standard nine alignments in my D&D games. What I could never wrap my mind around, though, was the concept of alignment languages from the AD&D days. That always seemed weird to me.


One way to think about it is if there are cosmic forces of the universe and you align with them you connect into those forces and things supernaturally happen to you as a result of connecting to a cosmic force. One of them is you connect to others who are similarly aligned and you can recognize and communicate with them.

I think it works better with the three alignments and if you equate neutrality with Moorcockian Balance and leave lots of stuff unaligned (like animals in OD&D).

Aaron L

One way to think about it is if there are cosmic forces of the universe and you align with them you connect into those forces and things supernaturally happen to you as a result of connecting to a cosmic force. One of them is you connect to others who are similarly aligned and you can recognize and communicate with them.

I think it works better with the three alignments and if you equate neutrality with Moorcockian Balance and leave lots of stuff unaligned (like animals in OD&D).
Yup. I actually love Alignment Languages and their weird cosmic implications. Quasi-magical philosophical/political jargon, with connections to the languages of the afterlife.


Then a second axis was added to make a fivefold (Holmes) and ninefold (AD&D) alignment system. (IIRC it was J. Ward who suggested adding the Good-Evil axis.)

When was that. Because as I noted before the Principia Discordia proposed the idea that Order Vs. Chaos and Good Vs. Evil were distinct axes of behavior and explicitly rejected the identification of good with law or chaos with evil all the way back in 1963.

"To choose order over disorder, or disorder over order, is to accept a trip composed of both the creative and the destructive. But to choose the creative over the destructive is an all-creative trip composed of both order and disorder. To accomplish this, one need only accept creative disorder along with, and equal to, creative order, and also willing to reject destructive order as an undesirable equal to destructive disorder.

The Curse of Greyface included the division of life into order/disorder as the essential positive/negative polarity, instead of building a game foundation with creative/destructive as the essential positive/negative. He has thereby caused man to endure the destructive aspects of order and has prevented man from effectively participating in the creative uses of disorder. Civilization reflects this unfortunate division.


As a sidenote, the Warhammer universe adapted these metaphysics from D&D and Elric but collapsed it more into a twofold, binary the Realms of Man vs. Chaos dynamic, and brought in a Lovecraftian element to Chaos.

The really interesting thing about Warhammer 40K is that its alignment is basically decapitated, as it were. The top of the alignment chart is gone, leaving only the lawful evil Imperium of Man and Eldar Craftworlds, and the chaotic evil Ruinous Powers, Orks, and Dark Elder (EDIT: Which I suppose makes it the system most closely representative of that Anthroposophy thing you mentioned, since it identifies both Order AND Chaos as Evil)
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Goblin Queen
I'm seeing arguments over the existence of Alignment, not the definition of the Alignments.
Go back and re-read the post where I said I saw it happen and participated in those arguments during the 3e era. We weren’t arguing about whether or not alignments should exist, we were arguing over our differing interpretations of alignment.

I’ll give a specific example. I once made a multiclass monk/rogue. My DM at the time warned me when I made the character that this combination was likely to result in the loss of my monk abilities because monks have to be Lawful. I argued I didn’t see that as a problem because rogues don’t have any alignment restrictions, so I could be a lawful rogue. She agreed this was the case, but said that the things rogues tend to do are not generally compatible with a Lawful alignment. I tried to point out that it should work fine with lawful neutral, because the description of lawful neutral said that acting according to a personal code was valid, and that if my character’s personal code allowed for roguish behavior, I was not violating the alignment according to the way the rules described it.

The argument did not end there. We went around in circles for what felt like hours at a time, on and off, over the phone, between classes, basically any time the subject of D&D came up, until that character died.


I specifically did not play paladins in a lot of games because I expected to have a clash of how I wanted to play my characters and how I expected to be told to play LG by particular DMs. I played one in a 3e game only after I got assurances from the DM beforehand that how I planned to play the character was fine and that I would not have to be worried about playing to their view of LG or "no evil actions".


In my games we use alignment very differently. The characters do not select an alignment In the beginning. Instead their alignment is determined by their actions. Like most people their alignment fluctuate somewhat over the course of their characters career. Much truer to how people develop. That way I am not always trying to prompt a character to follow their alignment as much as discussing with theM the changes as their characters makes decisions.


I hated 4E's system because it no longer made sense; it omitted combinations which clearly existed and basically turned "lawful" and "chaotic" into intensifiers; lawful good was just "more-gooder" and chaotic evil just "more-eviler" without actually making sense.
While 4e was being developed, a group of us used to discuss this at some length on Andy Collins' message boards. From what I can remember, the team felt good-aligned individuals would inherently respect laws and traditions and were especially puzzled by the traditional CG "frontiersman" example in older PH editions which they felt elevated the individual above the common good.

Most of us on the player side of the discussion didn't agree, for a wide variety of reasons, but Andy was unfailingly polite and took the criticism in stride, which I always appreciated despite not liking what 4e did to alignment.

No, I'm arguing that while you can assert that "good" is an objective force in the imagined world, characterizing what "good" is - in terms of its actual qualities - is still inevitably subject to lensing by the players and DM.
I guess I don't understand what you're getting at, then. I don't think anyone here would disagree with this argument. Even a hardcore moral absolutist is going to acknowledge that people in fact have different opinions about what good is due to their individual perspectives and biases -- humans are fallible, after all, and some people may be wrong, or maybe everybody is wrong in different ways. Where you lose me is how this insight applies to the fiction of D&D or the experience of playing it. Like I said, in D&D we actually do have an arbiter who can answer these questions for the world they're describing. The "lensing" is kind of the point, right?

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