While the base rules of Dungeons & Dragons have changed over the years, one character creation rule has remained constant - players must choose some manner of moral alignment for their characters before game-play can begin. Yet the rules behind the alignments, and exactly what they mean, is a frequent source of confusion for players and game-masters alike.
The 1st edition of D&D in 1974 had a simple alignment system based on Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné saga, with players describing themselves as Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic. Lawful characters were inclined to follow tradition whereas Chaotic characters followed their own whims. This idea was expanded in 1977's Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which introduced a second axis of Good versus Evil. Good was defined by acts of altruism and thinking of others before yourself, whereas Evil was defined by selfishness and a lack of respect for lives beyond your own.
This two-axis system of Law vs. Chaos and Good vs. Evil gave rise to 9 core alignments which defined the D&D ethics system for several decades. The game's 4th edition, released in 2008, attempted to streamline the classic alignments, but the simplified system proved unpopular. The current 5th edition restored the classic 9 alignments, while adding a 10th Unaligned designation for animals and other creatures that lacked the intelligence to make moral judgments. Here is a rundown of the classic 9 Dungeons & Dragons alignments, with examples of characters who define each alignment.
Lawful Good characters in Dungeons & Dragons believe that a codified system of rules is the best way to bring about the greatest possible good for the largest number of people. Builders of societies and defenders of order, they are best exemplified by King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, who tried to turn the court of Camelot into a beacon of hope in a dark time. Lawful Good heroes often find their idealism tested, but they stand firm in their righteousness, making the world move around them rather than yield their principles.
Like Spider-Man, Neutral Good characters believe that those who have power have a responsibility to use it to help others. They can work within a system or against it, so long as the bottom line is a focus on the preservation of life and doing the right thing. While a Lawful Good character may get tied up in red tape trying to figure out the proper way of doing things, a Neutral Good character won't hesitate to break the law when lives at are stake. Most heroic Dungeons & Dragons characters fall into the Neutral Good category.
Mark Twain once wrote "Laws control the lesser man. Right conduct controls the greater one." This could be the mission statement for the Chaotic Good alignment, who believe that freedom is more important than security and that laws are more often a weapon of the wicked than a shield of the weak. Chaotic Good heroes, like Oliver Queen on Arrow and his spiritual predecessor Robin Hood, work outside the strictures of society to see justice done. Rebels, iconoclasts, lovable rogues and anti-heroes of all stripes may be found among the ranks of the Chaotic Good in Dungeons & Dragons.
Lawful Neutral characters are devoted to structure and the systems that uphold them as a means unto themselves. Good and evil do not enter into the world view of a Lawful Neutral person - the Law is the Law and that is that. For Lawful Neutral characters in Dungeons & Dragons, the letter of the law is all that matters and determining the spirit of the law is above their pay grade, at least until they are promoted to where such things are their concern. The various judges from Judge Dredd, including Dredd himself, are fantastic examples of the Lawful Neutral alignment in action.
True Neutral is perhaps the most varied and complicated of the 9 core alignments of Dungeons and Dragons, making up several different philosophies. Most ordinary people are True Neutral, not thinking much of the ideals of Law and Chaos or Good and Evil in their day-to-day lives and having no concerns beyond what allows them to survive another day. Yet True Neutral is also used to describe those characters who are devoted to maintaining a cosmic balance between extremes or those who seek oneness with nature, such as druids. Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider games and movies is a good example of a True Neutral protagonist, as Lara's chief concerns are acquiring artifacts and outlasting her enemies, but she does not go out of her way to break the law or kill people to get what she wants.
"The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do." Such is the philosophy that Captain Jack Sparrow imparted to Will Turner in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film and it might be the guiding principle of the Chaotic Neutral alignment, if any Chaotic Neutral person were inclined to have a guiding principle. While not every Chaotic Neutral character is a criminal, it does seem to be the default alignment for those, like Captain Jack, who live on the dodgy side of the law, but go out of their way to avoid causing needless suffering while doing as they please. Dungeons & Dragons' Chaotic Neutral characters believe in freedom for the sake of freedom and fight anything that would impose limits upon them.
The Lawful Evil character in Dungeons & Dragons seeks to build a perfect order above all else, not caring how many people will be hurt in the process. Their philosophy is best summed up by a saying that has been attributed to many tyrants, but is most often linked to Genghis Khan; "I will make peace between these people, even if I must kill half of them to do it." While some Lawful Evil characters may regret the necessity of their work, none question that, in the end, it is necessary and preferable to the chaos that would reign if everyone just did what they wanted. Darth Vader from Star Wars is perhaps the most famous Lawful Evil villain in cinematic history, giving all to maintain the strength of the Empire.
Neutral Evil characters in Dungeons & Dragons are concerned only with satisfying their own desires and don't care who has to suffer for them to get what they want. Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter novels and films is a prime example of their philosophy. While other villains from the series used Voldemort's reign of terror to satisfy their own love of mindless killing or to twist the government of wizard society into something reflecting their own elitist values, Voldemort cared only for Voldemort. So long as he was feared and was allowed to do whatever he wished in the pursuit of extending his life, Voldemort didn't care what crimes were committed in his name.
"Some men aren't looking for anything logical... Some men just want to watch the world burn." When Alfred Pennyworth spoke those words in The Dark Knight he was describing The Joker, but he may as well have been describing the Chaotic Evil alignment. It vastly oversimplifies Chaotic Evil characters in Dungeons & Dragons to dismiss them all as lunatics and anarchists who want to tear down the establishment because it is there. The alignment also includes soldiers who revel in destruction and enjoy killing for the sake of killing and petty tyrants who seek power for their own sake.
- Dungeons & Dragons (2021) release date: Nov 19, 2021