DMs Corner: The Comprehensive Guide to Alignment in RPGs
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
Wheel of Morality, turn, turn, turn! Tell me the alignment I should learn!
Perhaps the most integral part of making any character for an RPG is determining that character’s behavior. A player should have at least a basic understanding on what drives his character, and be able to distinguish what he would do from what his character would do. To this end and when in doubt, players often turn to the line on their character sheets that reads, Alignment.
But what is an Alignment? How exactly does it govern my play style or my character’s actions? Should I choose an alignment to play, or play and whatever alignment my style happens to be just adopt? Should I make my back story match my alignment, or my alignment match my back story?
First, before we can answer any of these questions, we must define our terms. What is an alignment? To put it concisely, your Alignment should be what your character’s moral and ethical perspectives line up with. In short it should be what your character believes in.
What we also need to understand in terms of Alignment is what exactly it means for a character to be morally or ethically bound. Any character’s Morality is the summation of his ability to differentiate what he considers to be proper and improper, in terms of intentions, decisions and the resulting actions. As far as Ethics go, this is the philosophy that your character adheres to in order to defend the internalized concepts of right and wrong.
Tl;dr: Your characters alignment is how they see what is Right, and what is Wrong.
So then we have to understand two things about so called Rights and Wrongs. The most important concept here is that, within an RPG world there is going to be a major background presumption. This presumption is that both Good things and Evil things exist. After all, there can be no Paladins or Warlocks, no Angels or Demons, no Infernal or Celestial, if there is not something that definitively separates the two. The realms of most RPGs are divided in terms of Alignment and subsequently in terms of Morality, that is in terms of what is Good and Evil, Right and Wrong. For any character to have an Alignment, we must first understand that Alignments are in terms of how the world is, not just how we behave within it.
The next crucial piece of understanding is that every character, including both PCs and NPCs, have only at best a limited and subjective view of their world’s morality. That is, our characters only understand Right and Wrong in so much as they have been exposed to it. For example, if your character was abandoned to a filthy orphanage, used for cheap labor and severely abused, he will likely view the world in these terms and have an appropriate sense of right and wrong, even perhaps a sense of injustice or that might makes right. Conversely, a character raised by loving parents with a strong education from the local clergy may see the world in virtuous, selfless and even righteous terms. Even if you presuppose that every character has a predisposition by their nature, say an angel predisposed to virtue or a fel beast predisposed to acts of chaos, there is a great deal of flexibility when defining how your character views the world around him.
Tl;dr: In your game Good and Evil are things, but every character views Right and Wrong differently.
Thinking About Thinking
So now we have a basic understanding of what the Alignment System is trying to address, but how does that help me choose how to play my character?
Now that you have a grasp on the basic ideas behind the Alignment system you will be able to grasp a better handle on just how your character thinks, and thus how he acts. Let’s presume your character is in a predicament. He’s been backed into a rock and a hard place and has to choose between two options, one that your character considers right and good, and another evil and wrong. Since you have a fundamental grasp on what your character sees as moral and ethical, you should be able to fairly easily determine what your character sees as the Right decision.
So how do I apply these ethics to my characters? Traditionally morality can be boiled into nine categories. It is important to note that not every RPG or Tabletop Gaming System adheres to this formula, nor does it need to. It is entirely arguable that with the vast scope of moral grays and ambiguous situations that nine options are too constrictive, or even too many!
When playing the game, as with any game, remember that the goal is to have fun! If your qualms about morality and ethics that your character struggles with are bogging down the experience and sucking some of the enjoyment out for you and the other players, approach it again with a gentler touch. In RPGs the taverns we burn and the lives we save are purely fictitious, as are the characters whose morality we debate. Try to be consistent, and try to play your character like your character would behave, but not at the expense of the enjoyment factor.
Traditionally in most RPGs a character’s world view of moral rights and wrongs can be summed up by a simple template:
Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral True Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil
Essentially your character is going to lean towards either Law or Chaos, and again towards Good or Evil. Now again we must come to an understanding of what these terms mean before we can continue.
First, when we speak of characters in terms of their Alignment we must realize that Alignments are not rigid, but rather fluid. Characters can fall or be redeemed, villains sanctified and heroes lost. When determining how you’re going to play your character it is advisable to play with a certain degree of flexibility within the confines of Alignment, bearing in mind that certain consequences will of course follow any action. Changing Alignments mid-game should not be done lightly, but rather as the result of an ongoing series of events.
Equally crucial to this understanding of fluid Alignment is that your character does not have to think they are behaving the way they actually are. An Evil character may view his actions as Just, a Good character may be blinded to the harm he causes, a chaotic character may not see how his actions have brought a new kind of order, and a character focused on the rigidly of law may not realize his actions drive many to chaos. You can play a Lawful Neutral character that believes himself to be Lawful Good, but lacks a full understanding of what Goodness is. You can have a self professed Neutral Evil character miss that fact that his actions are much closer to Chaotic Neutral, as he mistakes selfishness for being truly Evil. So remember that what your character is, and what your character perceives himself to be, can be two very different things.
Tl;dr: People can change their minds and so can your characters, and just because you might think you’re a bad person doesn’t mean you are, same with your characters.
Law and Disorder
Now we are going to briefly describe what we mean by the words Lawful, Chaotic, Good, Evil and Neutral, as far as RPGs that use this system are concerned.
Lawful, in common terms, means conforming to what is permitted by legitimate authority, or simply put, not breaking the law, not committing crimes. In RPG terms, Lawful means something closer to one’s sense of self discipline, order and propriety. It is more a term of a proper code of conduct based on reasoning in regards to the stance a character takes on the Good/Evil Axis. Your character is Lawful if you feel that you should have a code of conduct that defines you, and rules you live by.
Chaotic often refers to a state of great disorder and complete confusion. This would not be a very realistic way to play character, but thankfully in RPG terms Chaos takes on another meaning. To be Chaotic is to be the antithesis of Lawful, or more succinctly, you believe in the ideas of freedom, liberty, individuality and potentially even a certain degree of anarchy. Rather than live by a series of ideas or a code, you live by your whims and wherever the wind carries you. You can’t be pinned down on any exact definitions, you choose openly between what you believe is Right or Wrong as your heart dictates, not how your mind reasons.
Good is harder to define, and often can mean something desired, approved, displaying virtue, or just being enjoyable or satisfactory. To be Good as far as RPGs are concerned, rather, is to do the best you can to do what is considered Objectively Right. This would be a definition of Good in terms of existence versus absence, of actuality versus hypothetical. Good characters see the world as Good, and any harm as a perversion of the Good. A tree is Good because it exists, using it responsibly is Good, but destroying it selfishly or needlessly would be viewed as an absence of Good, or Evil. Similarly, Good characters see Life as inherently Good, and murder to be the antithesis of this, or an Evil. Good characters presuppose that there is an Objective Goodness behind their morality and ethics. They define themselves with this understanding, adhering to charity, duty, kindness and considerateness.
Evil, again, is tricky to define. Generally we speak of Evil in terms of malevolence, immorality, depravity, wickedness and a sort of supernatural wrongness to the way things can be or are. In game terms, an Evil character is one that chooses to embrace a world that is not inherently objective, but simply a sandbox of subjectivity. These characters would believe there is nothing inherently wrong with stealing, harming others or glorifying themselves, as they see no greater purpose behind existence other than their own means and ends. These characters often wallow in vice, viciousness, degeneracy, subjugation, calculated desire and even anger. Whats more, an Evil character seldom believes himself to be “Evil” as a so called “Good” character would define it. To him, Evil is just another word used by the self righteous. Most Evil characters believe they are being as Good as one can be in a world without any Objectivity to it, which is where they come most adamantly to odds with the Good characters.
Neutral is perhaps the hardest to pin down in game terms. Normally to be Neutral means that you’re not picking a side in a conflict or disagreement, that you are impartial or unbiased. To an extent this is true of Neutral Characters in RPGs, but in a more complex way. Essentially, a Neutral character picks either the Good/Evil Axis, or the Lawful/Chaotic Axis, and chooses to either strike a balance between the two, or split the difference, adhering strictly to neither. Some would try to make this a balancing act of equal parts permitted, others a harmony of coexistence, still others a removed sense of understanding that those so wrapped in their own emotions fail to see. Generally Neutral Players simply strive to avoid an extreme, and enjoy compromise. A Neutral Evil or Good character does the most to promote their own sense of Good or Evil without regard to the labels or frivolous freedom individuals may approach each with. Similarly, a Lawful or Chaotic Neutral character does their best to follow their brain or heart respectfully, and let others worry about what is so right or wrong about it.
The real trick is how to define a True Neutral character, that is one playing a Neutral Neutral position. These characters can often be misunderstood for their perceived cold, selfish, disinterested and aloof ways. Perhaps there’s a certain acceptance that the character believes fate governs everything, or that all existence has no greater meaning to it and time is all there is. Or, the character may just be a true arbiter trying diligently to find the grand compromise to a world they see tearing itself apart. They could be a student of many philosophies and see a singular truth behind the many supposed human interpretations, or simply are fed up with all the zealots and fools the world is abundantly in supply of. Certainly not impossible to play, but definitely a harder motivation to understand.
So here’s what everything boils down to, what we can say about each Alignment in a Nutshell and what it means to play it. No more beating around the bush, let’s dive in!
First and foremost, Honor. There is an unshakable foundation behind your motivations, and you’re nothing if you do not adhere to it. The just will be exalted, the criminal brought low. You know what is worthy, what is true, and what your responsibility is to it. Yours is a life of justice, and quite possibly one of martyrdom. You are unshakable, a deeply rooted tree grasping tight the rock of truth, and you are one who shall not be moved.
You decided long ago, all you can really do is your best. This is what defines you. You know that Goodness exists, you believe in consideration, humaneness and kindness, but know that the most anyone can do is just that, what they can do. You’ll try your best, see good where you can and face evils where you can, but at your core is the idea that Goodness is not some grand philosophy, it is rather something that begins with you, in small ways, wherever you are.
The greatest Good there will ever be lies in Freedom! You find an unparalleled joy to this life and overflow with warmth, love and mercy. You have all of the best intentions and are quick to forgive, but have a certain disdain for those that try to bridle Goodness with Order. You’d sooner clothe the needy yourself than trust some corrupt temple with your gold. They may be well intentioned, but the harsh teachings and strict structure of organized faiths has jaded too many.
Goodness isn’t found in a text book or in some misplaced sense of Honor, it is found on the road,
and in doing what you can to bring the same Freedom to others.
You admire tradition, you revel in the comforts of a well functioning society. Just like the oiled parts of a functioning mechanism, life can be best explained in putting pieces into order and bringing form from the void. Codes of conduct are all there can be, the best any of us can hope for is to build on what those before us have managed to leave. Your personal ethos is everything to you, and you will go to whatever length you must to ensure your way of life is preserved. A man’s word is all he really has, so you don’t take it lightly. The only right and wrong in the world come from those who keep their word, and those who break it.
The world continues to spin on its axis. The world is what it is, and you are who you are. Time marches on and fate grinds away all there is like sand into the wind. The only right and wrong can be found in understanding these are words, the only true grasp of good and evil being found knowing that they are two parts to the same whole. There cannot be one without the other, and to try to separate the world as humans do is folly. Let the scholars bicker over what it means to be virtuous or vicious, you’ve found truth in nature. The universe is really a simple thing at heart, and you take it for what it is, not what others try to make it to be.
Yolo! Some may look at you and say you’re crazy, unpredictable, even capricious, but you just figured out something they haven’t. You know how to live your life! If only more people would forget their hangups on traditions and the old ways, they’d see how much life has yet to offer. Embrace the arts, try new things, meet new people, and when in doubt trust yourself. The world is full of people with agendas that want a piece of you, and you won’t have any part of it. Some will call what you do slothful, others too generous. Who cares? Maybe if they cared less about their books and labels they could appreciate the flavor of life like you do.
First and foremost, you are ambitious, even if you’re careful to hide this truth. You know that the strong are destined to rule, and rule you shall. It is the fate of the weak to bow to your yoke. All of the world is but pieces awaiting your careful guidance to come to order under your control. Everyone has their own agendas, and ultimately you know that it is every man for himself. You are careful, calculated and decidedly disciplined. Your only real satisfaction comes from the vices you indulge, and the slow but decisive vengeance you sew. At the end of the day only the strong will survive, and you are strong.
You figured out a long time ago there’s only one thing in life that really matters, and that’s you. You revel in your desires, and do what you want, when you want to. Evil is just a word used by stuck up theologians who don’t understand what it means to indulge. You wear your sins like a second skin and show your vices as badges of honor and accomplishment. After all, everyone is only really out for themselves anyway, why should you be any different? At least you’ve had the sense to recognize this truth, and the world in terms of it. You epitomize self interest, and though this often takes you to extremes, your desires console you as they are ultimately fed and fulfilled.
There is only one truth, that might makes right. There is only today, and time’s a wasting. Your whims govern you, though not quite to a fault. They say you’re unpredictable, but you know they are mistaking your honed ability to flow with the chaos around you. You are amoral, brutal and even profane. And why shouldn’t you be? Life is nothing but subjugating what is near you, until someday you too are claimed by another. You are a candle burning brightly at both ends, spinning headlong into the violence the permeates all of existence. You only really feel comfortable around others who have seen the truth like you, but at the end of the day, even they will burn. So let the world burn, while I’m in it, I will make it mine.
What Alignment do you usually play? Do you get enjoyment from playing characters closer to who you are, or do you enjoy breaking into something foreign and exotic? Leave us a comment below and tell us what you think! And as always, for right or wrong, or better or worse, or good or evil, remember the one truth within all RPGs:
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Originally published by Donald