Alignment is a rule in Dungeons & Dragons which describes a character or creature's moral and ethical outlook.
The rules for alignment vary considerably between editions of the game's rules. The roleplaying game community has long debated the exact definition of various alignments, and the concept of the alignment chart has entered the wider internet community.
In the original Dungeons & Dragons (1974), all characters and monsters are either Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) introduced a second axis, allowing characters and creatures to additionally be described as Good, Neutral, or Evil. These two axes have nine independent combinations.
Law vs chaos
Law and Chaos represent the opposing principles of order vs entropy, control vs chaos, society vs the individual, and stability vs change. Law and chaos are neither good nor evil; they simply are.
- As originally conceived, lawful meant that you were a creature of habit, not that you wore a badge. You could be predicted to react in a familiar way given a familiar situation, time and time again. You weren't a kender or an elf who was constantly flitting off, okay, that's chaotic.
- The personality that can't focus, or won't focus on something, or you literally have no idea how they're likely to react at any given provocation, even if they reacted one way before, they might react a different way. That's chaotic.
Good vs evil
Good and Evil represent the familiar moral divide of altruism vs harm, kindness vs hatred, and mercy vs malevolence.
The best-known version of D&D's alignment system is the three by three grid, giving nine valid alignment combinations.
A lawful good character is a protector. The iconic example of lawful good is a paladin, a holy knight who protects the weak and destroys evil.
The D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook, p.104-106, which provides nicknames for each of the nine alignments, refers to this alignment as "Crusader".
A neutral good character believes in altruism over all else.
The D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook nicknames this alignment "Benefactor".
A Chaotic Good character believes in freedom as the highest virtue. The iconic example of chaotic good is Robin Hood, who rebels against authority as a way to protect the poor from poverty and suffering.
The D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook nicknames this alignment "Rebel".
A lawful neutral character obeys principle as the highest virtue. For example, a judge who treats all fairly and equally would be considered lawful neutral.
The D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook nicknames this alignment "Judge".
A true neutral character is neutral on both axes, and cares not for any stance of alignment. This often describes someone who cares only for their own personal needs, neither inclined to hurt or harm others, nor to obey or rebel.
A few true neutral characters rather follow an intentional philosophy of balance. One such example is Mordenkainen, an archmage on the world of Oerth, who uses his great power to maintain the status quo and prevent any one force from becoming too powerful. D&D creator Gary Gygax preferred this definition of true neutral.
In Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition and earlier, this category included unaligned animals, who have no sense of ethics beyond their own survival needs, and so cannot really be described as good or evil in human terms.
In D&D 5th edition, animals are instead considered unaligned, a separate category for creatures which lack an alignment.
The D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook nicknames this alignment "Undecided".
A chaotic neutral character follows their heart, but without the willingness to self-sacrifice as a chaotic good character might. A great many adventurers are chaotic neutral, doing what they wish and rejecting all forms of authority. Some chaotic neutral characters follow a deliberate philosophy of destroying the old to make way for the new.
The D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook nicknames this alignment "Free Spirit".
A lawful evil character is a tyrant. They have no moral qualms about punishing individuals for the greater goal of furthering society. A lawful evil villain is often easy to deal with, as they can often be trusted to keep their word.
The D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook nicknames this alignment "Dominator".
A neutral evil character is selfish, and has no problem harming others to get what they want - if they can get away with it.
The D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook nicknames this alignment "Malefactor".
A chaotic evil character is malevolent. A villain bent on revenge might be of this alignment. Where the most powerful lawful evil villains might aim to conquer the world, this might be preferable to their chaotic evil counterparts, who would destroy it.
The D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook nicknames this alignment "Destroyer".
A creature without the ability to make rational moral choices may be considered to have no alignment at all. In Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, creatures such as animals fall into this category and are considered unaligned.
In Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, unaligned referred to all creatures who were neither good nor evil, including what other editions of the game would consider to be neutral alignment.
In Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition and earlier, the unaligned status did not exist, and such creatures were simply considered neutral or true neutral.
Basic D&D (1977)
The Basic Set (Holmes) (1977), developed before the nine-alignment system was introduced in the Players Handbook (1e) (1978), featured five alignments: Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Neutral, Chaotic Good, and Chaotic Evil.. The Basic Set (Moldvay) (1981) reverted this back to the original three-alignment system (Lawful, Chaotic, Neutral).
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition (2008) introduced a simplified set of five alignments: Good, Lawful Good, Evil, Chaotic Evil, and Unaligned. "Good" characters support freedom, most closely resembling the Chaotic Good alignment of earlier editions, while Evil characters are described as tyrants, most closely resembling what was previously called Lawful Evil. Unaligned is equivalent to True Neutral.
This system did not appear in any other edition of the game, and the traditional nine-alignment system was restored for D&D 5th edition (2014).
Various official D&D products have defined additional alignments, often as a joke or to fill some niche use. These include:
- Hungry (WG7 Castle Greyhawk (1988), p.126) - an alignment given to 10% of creatures created with the Random Monster Generator, defined as "the creature has only satisfying its appetites in mind".
Alignment may be influenced by the character or creature's lore. For example, in D&D 5th edition, halflings are described as typically lawful good. This does not mean that all halfling characters must be lawful good, only that this is typical. Players may, in general, choose any of the alignments for their character.
However, many gaming groups have prohibitions on playing evil characters. For example, the Living Greyhawk organized play rules forbade players from choosing any of the three evil alignments, and disqualified characters who were ruled to have become evil, such as by committing an evil act or being transformed into a werewolf.
A player character's alignment is not fixed. A player may change their alignment voluntarily. How easily this is done varies between rules: in AD&D 1st edition it is difficult, while in 2nd edition it can impose an experience penalty.
In rare cases, the DM may insist that a player who has acted outside of his stated alignment must change it, such as if a character claims to be lawful good but frequently commits theft and murder.
Certain cursed magic items may force someone to change their alignment. For example, the Hand of Vecna turns users evil.
Many extraplanar creatures, such as demons, do not merely possess alignment as a matter of personal belief, but embody it as a cosmic force. It is almost impossible for those creatures to change alignment. Similarly, undead, animated by dark energies, are nearly always evil.
Effects of alignment
For the most part, alignment is merely a way of describing a character. However, certain things, usually magic, are affected by a character's alignment.
Spells and powers like detect evil are able to sense creatures of a certain alignment. Other spells, like protection from evil, protect against innately evil extraplanar creatures like demons, but have no effect against evil humans.
A small number of offensive spells, magical weapons, magic items, and special abilities of monsters are more harmful to creatures of a certain alignment.
Certain planes of existence have an innate alignment, and visitors of an opposing alignment may find themselves weakened while in such a world. In a similar manner, visitors to a kingdom whose alignment opposes their own may find themselves shunned by a society who disagrees with their ways and beliefs.
In early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, creatures of a certain alignment spoke a language only known to that alignment. These were known as alignment languages, or divisional langauges.
For example, lawful dwarves might speak not only "Dwarf" as a language, but also "Lawful", and could converse with other Lawful creatures, such as halflings.
D&D creator Gary Gygax imagined that alignment langauges were akin to how mediaeval Christians spoke Latin, and thus were able to converse with other people who shared their philosophical beliefs.
During D&D's development in 1973, alignment was referred to as "division". The term "divisional language" used in the original box set to refer to an alignment language appears to be an accidental holdover from this usage.
Alignment languages were discontinued in AD&D 2nd edition.
Variant alignment systems
Variant rules for D&D 5th edition suggest that campaigns may exist where some belief dichotomy other than law/chaos or good/evil is more significant. For example, in a seafaring world devastated by an aquatic tarrasque-like beast for the past thousand years, the people might be divided into those who believe religious faith will eventually bring peace, while others reject those beliefs and research forbidden ancient weapons technology instead.
Characters are occasionally given imaginary alignments as jokes. For example, a paladin who needlessly risks his life is often described as lawful stupid, while a dog who causes mischief while attempting to help his owner is described as a chaotic good boy.
The original Lawful/Chaotic alignment system was inspired by Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, which Gygax cited as inspiration in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1e) (1979), Appendix N. According to D&D history reference Playing At The World:
- "The former work, aside from appraising the fantasy community that a paladin is resistant to sorcery provided he remains virtuous and that trolls are regenerating green brutes, also introduced the conceit of a cosmic battle between the opposing forces of "Law" and "Chaos," which would be appropriated by several future fantasy authors and also some games of note."
The exact meaning of alignment has long been a subject of debate in the Dungeons & Dragons community. There is a great deal of disagreement over the perceived alignment of historical figures or fictional characters, especially those who do not fit neatly into the alignment system's categories.
For example, the comic book character Batman could be considered lawful, because he obeys a strict code of justice, but he could also be described as chaotic because he operates outside of the law as a vigilante. A popular alignment chart, placing Batman plausibly within all nine alignments, demonstrates the subjective nature of alignment. A joke article by Wizards of the Coast resolved this by creating a tenth alignment: Batman.
Roger Moore's article It's not easy being good, Dragon #51 (Jul 1981), discusses a catch-22 situation in which a paladin killing captive werewolves may be evil act, but the alternative of allowing them to go free and terrorize the region might also be an evil act.
Gamegrene article When The Moral Compass Goes Haywire (2003) discusses various issues with D&D 3rd edition's alignment system, which the authors describe as "maddeningly ambiguous". DMs may have different interpretations of alignment; killing and harming others is evil, despite being a core activity of the game; a paladin is described as mercilessly destroying evil, but helpless innocents may appear detect evil.
With the rise of web forums and blogs in the 2000s, numerous players discussed the topic of racial prejudice in D&D, including the drow, a usually evil subspecies of elf whose dark skin led to comparisons with real-world African Americans, and the orcs, an often evil species whose depiction as dark skinned in the 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings movies invited similar comparisons.
From around 2016 onward, the English-speaking roleplaying community experienced a growing sentiment that D&D's core concepts of race and alignment also suffered from intrinsic racial prejudice. Regarding alignment, some commentators criticized D&D's concept of a race tending toward good or evil, drawing comparisons with real-world negative stereotypes regarding people of color in the United States. This coincided with the growth of the Black Lives Matter political movement, which raised awareness of racial prejudice against African Americans.
In June 17, 2020, Wizards of the Coast made a blog post titled Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons, in which they announced an ongoing diversity initiative which would revise stereotypical depictions of drow and orcs. Later that month, Jeremy Crawford announced that, as part of an initiative to remove racist tropes from D&D, future sourcebooks would change their depiction of alignment, including removing suggested alignments for player character races. Alignment was retroactively removed from the PC race listings in the current printings of the Player's Handbook (5e) (2014) and Volo's Guide to Monsters (2016) in errata released on December 13, 2021.
In Tasha's Cauldron of Everything (2020), Candlekeep Mysteries (2021), and Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft (2021), monster statblocks also no longer included alignment. However, alignments continued to be described for NPCs in Candlekeep Mysteries, and alignment returned to monster statblocks in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight (2021).
- The Curmudgeon in the Dungeon #10, 4:10, Youtube
- "I think my definition of Neutral alignment in the DMG is sufficient, and the neutral isn’t a generalist but one who belioeves in the harmony of creation and a balance between all of its forces. It’s up to you to rationalize any changes you wish to make in the alignment for your own campaign." - Q&A with Gary Gygax, Dragonsfoot forum, 2005.
- "A dog, even a well-trained one, is neither good nor evil, lawful nor chaotic. It is simply a dog." - AD&D 2nd edition revised Player's Handbook (1995), p.65.
- AD&D 2nd edition revised Player's Handbook (1995), p.64-69.
- WG7 Castle Greyhawk (1988), p.126.
- Dragon #151 (Nov 1989), p.64.
- Dragon #276 (Oct 2000), p.51.
- Basic Set (Holmes) (1977), p.8.
- Basic Set (Moldvay) (1981), p.B11.
- "An alignment language is promarily keyed to the religious subjects that would be discussed or read about by those of that persuation. One might think of such a tingue as being similar to Latin for Roman Catholics or Hebrew for Jews." - Gary Gygax, Q&A with Gary Gygax part 13, ENWorld, 2007.
- A Playtesting Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (1973). Playing at the World blog, Sept 10, 2012.
- Unearthed Arcana: Variant Rules (2015).
- Monster Manual (3.5) (2003), p.102.
- Monster Manual (3.5) (2003), p.203.