Alignment has been a controversial game mechanic since it was introduced in the very first version of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. This is easy to understand, since alignment has been traditionally interpreted as a system of ethics and morality. And on the topic of morality, to paraphrase a Jewish saying, ask two people get three opinions. The mechanic has changed a great deal over the decades, and the way modern D&D 5e treats alignment is very different from how it was thought of in the past.
I could detail a history of alignment from 1974 to 2024, but that’s been done elsewhere. What I want to do is discuss alignment as it’s presented in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition; talk about the concept of good and evil races; and detail how I’ve traditionally interpreted and employed alignment in my games. Finally, I’ll explore the possibility of a third alignment axis.
First, let’s run down the actual nine alignments, and how they’re described in AD&D1e. I’ll list them in the order they’re given on page 33 of the Player’s Handbook.
Heroes, Villains, and Bystanders: The Nine Alignments
Chaotic Evil: Interesting one to start with, Gary. The Player’s Handbook says this alignment is about “freedom, randomness, and woe” and that “life has no value.” Dragon Magazine #60 says the Chaotic Evil character “actively opposes law, order, good, and all other sissy constraints on doing whatever he or she feels like doing.” This character is concerned not just with their own desires and power at the expense of others (“evil”), but also with destruction and death (“chaotic”). The Chaotic Evil character has no code, and no honor.
According to The Best of Dragon Magazine Volume 2: “Evil is typified by the desire to advance self over others, by whatever means are possible, and always by the foulest of means possible… Whatever causes the most harm is typically the most desirable course to follow. Pain and suffering are meat and drink to the creatures of evil. Slavery and oppression of all weaker creatures are considered as natural, for these exist only to serve and satisfy the demands of the stronger.” So in AD&D, Evil is more than just selfishness. It’s malevolence, a term that will come up a couple of times in this article. It’s the active production of harm, even if there is no benefit to the Evil creature. It’s storybook evil.
Chaotic Good: In my experience the most popular alignment, since you get to be a good guy and do whatever you want. According to the Player’s Handbook, “creatures of this alignment view freedom and the randomness of action as ultimate truths[;] they likewise place value on life and the welfare of each individual. Respect for individualism is also great.” I never really saw this alignment as about “randomness,” but about placing goodness and kindness above law.
Dragon #60 says “The stereotypical chaotic good character is the white knight who refuses to join any group and goes about on his own, doing good.” Best of Dragon Vol. 2: “The chaotic views good from an individual standpoint… The very stuff of chaos is individual volition, freedom from all constraints, the rights of the person above all else.”
The original sources are really pushing the individualism angle, to the exclusion of the goodness angle. My chaotic good characters have always been heroic. There’s something to be learned here about American attitudes towards individualism and altruism, but that’s another article.
Chaotic Neutral: Uh oh. Does your player want to play a Chaotic Neutral character because they want to play a troublemaker? Or because they, the player, are a troublemaker? The Player’s Handbook says “above respect for life and good, or disregard for life and promotion of evil, the chaotic neutral places randomness and disorder.” Dragon #60: “The almost totally unpredictable non-conformist loner.”
I enjoy Chaotic Neutral as a character concept. I like to think of the character as being like the Norse god Loki, who gets the other gods into trouble through his shenanigans, then gets the gods out of trouble through his cunning, and the situation is improved—creative chaos that ignores morality but is generally productive.
The problem arises when you actually play a Chaotic Neutral character. If the other players can’t understand, or don’t believe, that your chaos is intended to help, things can get pretty unpleasant pretty quickly.
Lawful Evil: Player’s Handbook: “Creatures of this alignment are great respecters of laws and strict order, but life, beauty, truth, freedom and the like are held as valueless, or at least scorned.” Dragon #60: “The lawful evil character is an active ‘advocate’ of evil, although not in quite the same sense that a lawful good character is an advocate of good. In the AD&D structure, ‘evil’ is most easily defined as ‘anti-good,’ so a lawful evil character’s advocacy of evil takes the form of opposing good at every opportunity.” Huh? This description actually supports my view of alignment as cosmic rather than moral, which I’ll explain below.
Best of Dragon Magazine Volume 2 tells us, “Lawful evil believes that the only way to impose the tyranny of their alignment over all creation is to follow an ordered course of action. Their evil society is rigidly structured, each being knowing its place and cruelly dominating all beneath this station, while being just as bullied from those above.” This only works, however, if the other creatures are Lawful Evil and believe your character’s legal structure is the valid one.
Personally, I think Lawful Evil is the most common kind of real-world evil: “I will work within the system to advance my own interests at the expense of others.”
Lawful Good: Player’s Handbook: “While as strict in their prosecution of law and order [as lawful evil], characters of lawful good alignment follow these precepts to improve the common weal. Certain freedoms must, of course, be sacrificed in order to bring order; but truth is of highest value, and life and beauty of great importance.”
Dragon #60: “The lawful good character will be a very faithful member of the group, but if the laws of the group clash with the ethics dictated by his or her moral alignment, the character will probably leave that group and look for a group more closely aligned with his or her ethics.” Um, no. Lawful Good characters are, tellingly, usually played as pious, righteous pricks by gamers, and they don’t leave the group—they stay and cause as much trouble as a Chaotic Evil character.
Best of Dragon Magazine Volume 2: “The lawful perception of good dictates that the order which promotes the greatest good for the greatest number is best. It further postulates that disorder brings results which erode the capability of bestowing good to the majority. Therefore, without law and order, good pales into nothingness.”
This is as good as place as any (no pun intended) to define “Good.” I define “good” as “helping others, even at your own expense.” The thing is, many players (not all) play a parody of goodness with their Lawful Good characters; “I know what’s good for you and you’ll conform whether you like it or not.” This seems to stem from a uniquely American cynicism that says “anybody trying to improve the world must be secretly trying to rule it.”
Lawful Neutral: Player’s Handbook: “The ultimate harmony of the world—and the whole of the universe—is considered by lawful neutral creatures to have its sole hope rest upon law and order.” Dragon #60: “Because the lawful neutral character is not too concerned with questions of morality, he or she will be a more faithful group member and a more loyal follower of his or her alignment than any differently aligned character.”
I always saw this alignment as valuing honor and law above all; the type of character who would take a foolish oath and then absolutely insist on fulfilling it, regardless of who was hurt.
Neutral Evil: Player’s Handbook: “The neutral evil creature views law and chaos as unnecessary considerations, for pure evil is all-in-all.” Dragon #60: “Puts self-interest before all else. Will only cooperate when material rewards are high. Untrustworthy; has contempt or fear for all others.” Well, perfect for a character party, then.
Best of Dragon Vol. 2: “The flexibility of neutral evil creatures enables them to survive and remain relatively free of rule by Hell or by one or more demon lords.”
Neutral Evil is the identical twin cousin of Lawful Evil; the Neutral Evil character is just more willing to break the law to get what they want. If there’s Capitalism in your medieval fantasy world (as opposed to historical Mercantilism), your merchants are going to largely be Neutral Evil.
Neutral Good: Player’s Handbook: “Unlike those directly opposite them (neutral evil) in alignment, creatures of neutral good believe that there must be some regulation in combination with freedoms if the best is to be brought to the world….” Dragon #60: “Often goes along with the laws and desires of the group as being the easiest course of action, but ethical considerations clearly have top priority. May pursue quite abstract goals. Often aloof and difficult to understand.” I’m not sure what John Lees, author of the Dragon article, is thinking on some of these.
Best of Dragon Vol. 2: “Good from the neutral perception is perhaps the purest sort, in that it cares not for order or individual freedom above overall good… Whatever accomplishes the good is acceptable….”
Speaking of cousins, Neutral Good and Chaotic Good go together like the proverbial peas in the pod. Both want to actively help those unable to help themselves, and oppose evil— but the Neutral Good character is willing to work within the system if it’s effective; the Chaotic Good character does not trust the system at all.
True Neutral: Player’s Handbook: “The ‘true’ neutral looks upon all other alignments as facets of the system of things. Thus, each aspect—evil and good, chaos and law—of all things must be retained in balance to maintain the status quo….” Dragon #60: “Not actively for or against anything. Uses whatever means are necessary to maintain a situation to his or her benefit. Has his or her own reasons for doing everything. Usually difficult to understand.” That just sounds like Neutral Evil.
True Neutral has always been explained to me as the alignment of animals and the natural world. Tornadoes aren’t “evil,” they just are. Sunsets aren’t “good,” they just exist. Animals aren’t good or evil, they just do what they do, following natural instinct, ignorant of and free of moral considerations. Thus, it makes sense that AD&D 1e Druids, nature clerics, must be True Neutral.
The problem, of course, is actually roleplaying this. What are the True Neutral character’s goals? When and how do they aid the character party? Somebody who just “qué será, será“s everything that happens is not much fun to play, or to play with.
There are also race and class restrictions for AD&D 1e alignments. In my games, we always ignored these. But let’s take a quick look.
But Ninja Turtles Are Good Guys! Alignment by Race and Class
Modern gamers tend not to like class alignments, and are actually offended (for good reason) by good and evil races. They might be relieved to know that back in the 80s, we didn’t like “good” and “evil” races either.
In one game (not one I was in), the players killed some trolls—but then they found a bunch of baby trolls in their lair. This was followed by a lengthy debate on whether troll babies were evil, which led to the realization that maybe the trolls themselves weren’t automatically evil either. And do you even get to extrajudicially execute people just because they’re evil?
Here are the player race/class restrictions for AD&D 1e. Except for Hengeyokai, races are not strictly limited to certain alignments; but the usual alignment is given below. For a handful of these, 1e provides no guidance, so the alignment information is cribbed from future editions.
|Cleric||Any but True Neutral.|
|Druid||True Neutral only.|
|“Oriental” Barbarian||Any non-Lawful.|
|Paladin||Lawful Good only.|
|Thief/Thief-Acrobat||Any but Lawful Good.|
|Wu Jen||Any non-Lawful.|
|Gnome||Neutral Good or Lawful Good.|
|Hengeyokai||Depends on animal type.|
|Spirit Folk||Neutral Good.|
Some of these make sense, but you can always poke holes and find exceptions. Assassins have to be Evil; but what if the assassin only kills bad guys, like James Bond or Dexter Morgan? Cavaliers have to be Good and Samurai have to be Lawful; but in real life, knights often hurt people and samurai broke the rules. Monks must be Lawful; but doesn’t every single martial arts movie ever made have an evil, dishonorable bad guy?
Here’s the thing: alignment is a role-playing mechanic, not a combat mechanic. It’s a story element, not an ability. If I want to play a Good Ninja, I can easily come up with a backstory for that. And removing alignment restrictions doesn’t break the game.
Feel free to play a Good Thief or an Evil Anti-Paladin. Be an honorable orc or an antitribu Illithid. Have fun!
Do You Speak Flagitious? Alignment Tongues
Along with Henchmen and Encumbrance, Alignment Tongues are one of the most-ignored mechanics in AD&D. This is a shame, because I think the concept is fascinating.
Alignment language is a handy game tool which is not unjustifiable in real terms. Thieves did employ a special cant. Secret organizations and societies did and do have certain recognition signs, signals, and recognition phrases—possibly special languages (of limited extent) as well. … In AD&D, alignment languages are the special set of signs, signals, gestures, and words which intelligent creatures use to inform other intelligent creatures of the same alignment of their fellowship and common ethos. Alignment languages are NEVER flaunted in public. They are not used as salutations or interrogatives if the speaker is uncertain of the alignment of those addressed. Furthermore, alignment languages are of limited vocabulary and deal with the ethos of the alignment in general, so lengthy discussion of varying subjects cannot be conducted in such tongues.Dungeon Masters Guide, pg. 24.
In a bit, I’m going to discuss the idea of cosmic alignment rather than moral alignment, and alignment languages make more sense as part of cosmic alignment.
I’m using them in my current game, and it occurred to me that alignment tongues should have names, so you don’t end up saying “Dude, that guy was speaking Lawful Evil!”
I came up with names, and they’re… okay. I guess. Feel free to suggest better ones in the comments.
Groups are mutually intelligible on INT check.
- Beatific (Lawful Good)
- Beneficent (Neutral Good)
- Benevolent (Chaotic Good)
- Judicial (Lawful Neutral)
- Feral (True Neutral)
- Anarchic (Chaotic Neutral)
- Villainous (Lawful Evil)
- Egotistic (Neutral Evil)
- Malevolent (Chaotic Evil)
These are of course the Common Tongue names of each language, a direct translation of the language’s endonym.
Slavering Madness and Mirth: Moral Alignment vs. Cosmic Alignment
It was obvious to me the first time I read the Player’s Handbook that Gygax and friends were inspired by the works of fantasy legend Michael Moorcock to create the alignment system. And if you read the resources I’ve quoted here and look at how official modules and supplements use alignment as a whole, you’ll see Gygax considered alignment both a moral system and an expression of a cosmic or divine war—the latter producing the very word “alignment.” It’s less “how do you behave” as “what side are you on?”
If you haven’t read Moorcock and his epic battle between the forces of Law and Chaos, then think of a real-world mythology: Christian theology, which posits a celestial battle between Good and Evil. The theology isn’t actually very good at providing real morals and ethics. Pious congregants are on the Good side, even if they own slum property or charge interest; and perfectly ethical people are on the Evil side just because they happen to be gay or Jewish. The battle isn’t between two ethical philosophies as much as it is a case of which deity’s side are you on—Yahweh’s or Lucifer’s?
Likewise, in old school D&D, it’s somewhat about how you behave, but also about which cosmic army you fight for. Is it the angels of Arcadia (law), or the demons of Pandemonium (chaos)? The planetars of Elysium (good) or the yugoloth of Hades? You’re expected to act in keeping with your cosmic alignment, and if you don’t that alignment will change. But what matters is which of nine teams you belong to. And that’s why these “teams” have their own languages, their own magic, and their own planes of existence.
So yes, a Lawful Good character can do an unambiguously evil thing. They may intend good, or maybe they are acting to save a friend or punish a villain. This should not change their alignment; and no DM should ever restrict a player from doing something they want to do to conform to alignment—that’s no fun. But if they keep doing evil things, if it becomes habitual or if the evil increases, cosmic forces are going to notice, and there will be cosmic consequences, including a forced alignment change.
But as referee, don’t do this to punish the player. Never punish a player—if they’re not fun to play with, ask them to leave the game. Let the player do what they see fit, but provide consequences, because that’s roleplaying.
This leads us to…
I’m Not Bad—I’m Just Drawn That Way: Good and Evil Races
In the Legendarium of JRR Tolkien, there is a cosmic battle between two sides. One is the Valar and their servants, who are Wise and Good and make stupid mistakes sometimes. The other is the forces of Morgoth, who are Evil and Bad and make stupid mistakes sometimes. Gandalf, an emissary of the Valar, is wise and good and generally incorruptible. Sauron, the Lieutenant of Morgoth, is evil and bad and generally irredeemable. With some important exceptions, good guys are good and bad guys are bad.
Tolkien’s world is actually more complicated than good Elves versus evil Orcs, but a shallow reading of just The Lord of the Rings might give someone the impression it isn’t. Early D&D settled on an idea that there are good races (Elves, Dwarves, Halflings) and evil races (Orcs, Kobolds, Gnolls), and that these two sides freely murdered each other, each secure in its own philosophical and cosmic alignment. “Men,” or Humans, were somewhere on a continuum in-between.
As I mentioned earlier, my gaming group was never really comfortable with this. But truthfully we still played murder hobos who, whether good or evil, went around killing anybody with green skin or an unusually-shaped sword.
Modern gamers and fantasy fans aren’t fond of “evil” races, and not just because they’re overdone and uncreative. The whole idea parallels real-world racism too closely; and if you’re Jewish, Romani, or East Asian, you know what it’s like for someone to consider you evil or untrustworthy because of your ethnic group.
Games have been dealing with this for a while. Look at World of Warcraft, where the opposing sides were good- and evil-coded (Alliance vs. Horde), but those moral categories really didn’t apply. And Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition alignment has been reduced to purely a roleplaying mechanic, with almost no rules-based consequences.
Defenders of old school fantasy (which I still love, by the way, but I recognize its problems) squeal about “snowflakes,” which is the word sociopaths use to discredit the empathetic. The issue for me isn’t that, as a Jew, I’m offended by evil races; it’s that they’re not fun. Yes, the real medieval world was full of terrible racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-semitism; and a thoughtful fantasy author like George RR Martin can successfully incorporate those things into their medieval fantasy.
But D&D is supposed to be enjoyable. So I avoid those things in my game, and my players appreciate it.
Lawful Good Malevolent: On a Third Alignment Axis
So in my game, there are two opposing pantheons. The Beloved Gods are the “good” coded gods, even though they cover all the alignments. There’s a Chaotic Evil Beloved God, but he’s on the side of the other Beloved Gods, so he’a a protagonist in the cosmic battle.
Then there are the Godless Gods, insane Lovecraftian beings of pure hate and destruction, who seek to unmake the world. “Evil” creatures like Orcs and Drow largely worship these gods; but in the same sense that Germans largely followed the Nazi Party—there are exceptions, and the Orcs and Drow are as oppressed as anyone they attempt to conquer.
This reminded me of an old idea I had, a third alignment axis: Benevolent – Malevolent. It’s an awkward idea that doesn’t always work; but there are some possibilities.
The Norse God Loki (both mythological and the Loki TV show version) could be Chaotic Evil Benevolent, since his machinations often lead to benefit. So could the later version of Missy from Doctor Who. Garak from Deep Space Nine could be Lawful Evil Benevolent; so could Varys the Spider. Your typical televangelist could be Lawful Good Malevolent; so could a number of politicians. True Neutral Malevolent or Benevolent could be a thing—for instance, the Sixth and Twelfth Doctors are somewhat True Neutral Benevolent.
In fact, Malevolent and Benevolent could put a whole tinge on the Neutral thing. Captain Malcolm Reynolds thinks of himself as Neutral on the Good-Evil axis, but he skews towards helping people—so, Chaotic Neutral Benevolent. Captain Jack Harkness, Torchwood version, could be Neutral Evil Benevolent, considering the despicably evil things he’ll do just to save the world.
Anyway, I’ve never used this in a game. It’s just an idea I’m floating. Discuss. If you hate it or think it’s stupid, say so—just please explain why.
Stop Suggesting We Murder the Whole Village: Party Cohesion and Alignment
In conclusion, let’s talk about alignment and party cohesion, because that’s where most of the trouble comes in. Smart (or at least cautious) DMs limit the alignment choices of party members (like all Good, or no at least no Evil for a heroic campaign). I wanted to limit my current game to non-Lawful, so we’d have a mixed group of scoundrels; but I can’t say no to players, and we ended up with all kinds of alignments, good and evil, lawful and chaotic.
This has gotten me in trouble before, and can lead to hours of player bickering, and Evil characters who defy the group will. But that’s not happening in my current game. Know why?
Because the players all like and respect each other, and so do the characters. There’s party cohesion, by choice. The Chaotic Evil character wants to do malevolent stuff, and the Neutral Good character doesn’t. They debate, and then go with the majority. Nobody insists “but my character wouldn’t do that,” because they want the game to be fun.
You can argue that’s a kind of metagaming, and a bit hypocritical for a DM who places storytelling above all. But the thing is, from a story perspective, it works. The characters are loyal to each other, and their alignments influence how that loyalty manifests. It makes the characters complex; more complex than D&D characters often are.
A D&D game needs party cohesion or it’s just not going to be fun. There’s nothing wrong with designing a party as a whole; making sure all the class bases are covered, having complementary abilities, and aligning on alignment. But the truth is, it’s up to the players—and that includes the DM—to make sure everyone enjoys the game.
Alignment works best as a roleplaying tool, rather than a roleplaying prison. It’s a guide, rather than a destiny. And remember the Prime Directive of Tabletop Roleplaying Games: HAVE FUN.
Just One More Thing: Your Alignment in Real Life
I think if most of us were asked what our real life alignment was, we would want to say Chaotic Good. And then if forced to be honest, we’d admit we’re Lawful Neutral.
Just like in D&D, you’re not Good if you just sit around thinking good thoughts—you have to act! Just as having a “rebellious spirit” doesn’t make you Chaotic, you have to actually break the law or cause trouble sometimes.
I waited until a very advanced age to actually start acting Chaotic Good instead of just talking about it, but I’m glad I did. I’m now directly involved in helping the less fortunate and disadvantaged. I’m getting involved politically, outside the mainstream of politics. I’m acting on my convictions, and I have to tell you, it feels great doing your own very small part in making the world a better place.
I suggest you look into it.