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 13 August, 2006

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Alignment in D&D

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Catherine’s Treatise on Alignment in D&D

Alignment in D&D is not just a game rule, it’s a role-playing aid.  It is a simplified expression of your character’s world view--not your mood of the moment, or the character’s demeanor when the character is not being challenged. 

While the Player’s Handbook gives you contrasting examples of how characters with different alignments act under a given circumstance, it doesn’t really give you an idea of how to pick your alignment to match your character’s specific motives and outlook.  I’ve come up with some philosophies to help players find the alignment that best suits the character, not necessarily the class, that they want to play.  I view alignment along two axis, and pigeon-hole some of the “in between” behavior.  The first axis is labeled Good-Evil and the second Law-Chaos. 

The Good-Evil axis is an expression of how well your character empathizes, or shares emotion, with others.  No character or person wakes up in the morning and says to himself, “I’m going to be more evil today.”  Being Evil happens when characters with no empathy for others do whatever is expedient or guaranteed to get them closer to their goals, and it happens to hurt someone.  Characters who share and understand the emotions of people around them do what they can to make the people they meet feel better.  Those mutual feelings of happiness and well-being feel nice for both parties. Cooperative, empathetic characters are perceived as Good.  Looking at your character’s basic emotional ability-- how well and often you connect emotionally with your party members and with the NPC characters that you meet--will give you an idea of how Good or Evil your character is.  If you intend to role-play a character who is interested in bettering the well-being of the other characters in your party and actively seek out NPCs with the intention of improving your lot by improving their lot in life, then you should label your character Good.  If your character is interested in getting along with the party, and having decent relations with the NPCs you meet, you should label your character Neutral.  If your character has powerful motives or intense emotional problems that completely over-ride your character’s ability to care about how even your companions feel about your actions, you should label your character as Evil. 

Consider a character’s connectivity to others on a 5 point scale:  “1” being a character who tries to listen with all his heart to everyone he meets, “3” being emotionally linked to the party and reoccurring helpful NPCs, and “5” being psychologically linked to no one at all—caring exclusively about himself.  Most players will find their characters in the middle range of 2-4.  Solid “3s” should choose Neutral while “2s” and “4s” should take a look at the rest of the party and upgrade themselves to be in line with the majority.  Keeping in line with the majority of the party is meant to reflect that most characters to go along with the party.  If you are nearly always inclined to disagree, move yourself the other direction.

For the Law-Chaos axis, consider your character’s belief in how society operates and how he operates within that society.  Lawful characters believe in societal values and structure; further, they believe that those structures need to be upheld and that those who do not conform to the values need to be penalized.  Chaotic characters believe that society is incidental; individuals meet to get what they need from one another—be it companionship or to satisfy base needs.  Neutrals generally understand the values of their society and follow them for simplicity and security, but only single out individuals for punishment when their society’s most prized values are violated.  Once again, you can create a mental five point scale, and then move your stated alignment towards that of the party.

The above philosophies will make it more likely that you choose an alignment that suits your character—unless you have a “special” personality.  There are two “special” alignments:  True Neutral and Chaotic Neutral.

Let’s handle the True Neutral first.  You can’t try to be Neutral.  Doing a rotten thing to a PC or NPC because you participated in saving the world last week is not Neutral.  It’s mean and contrary and apt to make the other players at your table dislike your (the player’s) behavior, not your character’s behavior.  Characters that are True Neutral are rare.  In fact, if you asked the character, he would probably say that he’s a Good person, but Neutral on that whole society issue.  That’s because player characters are passionate.  Characters who are True Neutral are simply passionate about something outside society.  Nature, scripture, literature, and magic are common subjects about which the True Neutral may be passionate--so passionate that people outside their immediate surroundings or circle of friends are not considered.  In order to keep this focus, these individuals tend to isolate themselves and immerse themselves in their passion.  Druids, cloistered monks, and sages are the professions we often associate being Neutral in their own environments.  However, if you can get their attention away from their passion, you are likely to find that they are Good at heart!

The Chaotic Neutral is the most hated and loved alignment by players and DMs alike.  Once again, I must state:  You can’t try to be Neutral.  Doing a rotten thing to a PC or NPC because you participated in saving the world last week is not Neutral.  It’s mean and contrary and apt to make the other players at your table dislike your behavior, not your character’s behavior.  Chaos does not justify anarchy.  You like anarchy?  Great.  Write Chaotic Evil on your character sheet now and be honest.  Your DM won’t let you play Chaotic Evil?  Find another personality to play or another game to play and save everyone, including yourself, the frustration. 

Many players will write Chaotic Neutral on their characters when what they really want is to be Chaotic Evil.  They want to play a character who is out for himself and gleefully willing to trash the world and the other characters to do it.  Hey!  I can’t give these guys too much grief over wanting that.  I want it too, sometimes.  But here’s the deal— those characters are not appropriate for most campaigns.  Most campaigns consist of multiple players and DMs playing out a story of struggle and triumph in effort to reach a certain goal.  In general, this is constructive play.  Characters who are destructive in nature frustrate the other players and the DM as it prevents play and creates hostility between players— something that few people find relaxing.  Most DMs that outlaw Evil characters are really trying to tell you that they, and many of the other players, are actively playing out a constructed story that is likely to change in unexpected ways, but is still working toward a climax that includes all the main characters.  Please respect this unstated, but important, point of view and take the anarchy to another table!

With that said— there is one special character type that should be labeled Chaotic Neutral; the character with the really short attention span. This type covers a number of character concepts, everything from the consistently impatient character to the character who is just plain loopy crazy.  Most of these characters would be Good, but well, extreme impulsiveness often leads to less than the desired outcome.  This is not the impulsiveness that kills half the party because the player forced his character forget or miss-read the obvious facts of the games and the situation; that’s anarchy, see the rant above.  Also, don’t artificially dumb these characters down— think of this more as sudden genius that hasn’t really been thought through completely.  This is the impulsiveness that tries to save the day or gain glory by leaping on unknown artifact, or over the chasm, or at the too-tempting jewels, or headlong down the alleyway. . . .  These characters are fun to play, because they bring out the unexpected and the heroic.  Better than half the time, these Chaotic Neutrals will get themselves killed without even disturbing the rest of the party.  This isn’t personal, it’s just part of living in a dangerous world.  Now, there are a fair number of DMs that don’t want to see this Chaotic Neutral, either.  They are the most anal of the plot constructors, but should still be respected, if for no other reason than they’re the DM and that’s the nature of that game.  If you find yourself dealing with one, try a new character concept or a different game.

Using the ideas that I outlined above, using the two axis of alignment or picking one of the two special Neutrals, you have probably picked an alignment that suits the character concept that you’re going to play.  Most people think that alignment is a done deal at this point, and in some campaigns it is.  However, in most campaigns there are two other things that influence and are influenced by alignment: your character’s class and the actual play of the character.

First, if you’ve defined, or at least outlined, a personality for your character, and it is not one that your character’s class allows, take a hard look at the character.  You probably need to make some adjustments, either by changing your character’s class to reflect the role he’ll actually be playing or by changing the character concept to one more appropriate to the class you want to play.  Players in this situation— with a character personality concept that, with honest alignment labels, is not allowed to have the class the player wants to (ab)use— are often tempted to pick the alignment nearest to the one they’re going to play that’s allowed by class instead of reworking the character.  This is a poor choice.

The reason to create a personality whose alignment is in tune with the character class is pretty simple, but sometimes overlooked.  Most classes with an alignment stricture are meant to simulate some of the things that, with practice, follow naturally for the character as he develops.  The practice is assumed to come with some basic behavior patterns that translate into particular alignments.  The paladin is a good example; if he is outgoing, connects well with others, and is concerned that the community involved flourishes then he’s likely a good leader and representative of his faith; good leaders of men in faith are rewarded by their deities with the power to protect himself and others as he undergoes dangerous missions to protect the weak and innocent faithful of the deity.  Clearly, using the axis defined above, this well connected and community oriented person is Lawful Good.  Anything else doesn’t fulfill the deity’s need for a champion, and therefore doesn’t get the powerful benefits of the class— even if the character is personally passionate or inclined for danger!  Likewise, druids get their amazing abilities to interact with nature because they are so focused.  They’re not just pet lovers or animal trainers with performing bears— they are passionately focused aficionados of nature and all of it’s complex glories, passionately soaking it up, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, until they are so infused with it that they can transform themselves. 

The second thing that may change your character’s alignment is game play.  Like any plan, your character’s intended personality will change as soon as there is contact with the other players and the game.  Many times the changes are small, but sometimes they can be quite significant.  After the third regular game session, look at the character sheet and consider how you’ve really been playing the character.  Sometimes, a character intended to be conservative turns out to be rather more ego-centric and impulsive than first envisioned.  Conversely, a character intended to be solitary in nature ends up the clear leader of the party and its main liaison between the group and the NPCs.  If you’re having fun with the character as you’ve been playing him, ask your DM if you can revise your alignment “for free”.  If you have to change your character’s class as part of the alignment change, you may find that it’s not that difficult— most of the classes that are restricted in alignment are much like another class.  Special benefits, powers, or feats that may be part of your character’s goal can be added with either a second class or, better yet, a prestige class.  In the long run, you’ll find that you can tailor the classes to your well defined character just as well as some classes seem to dictate alignments.  This concept of using a combination of classes to nearly mimic, but with a greater flexibility, a restricted class is also one to keep in mind when you are setting up a character but run into an alignment conflict. 

In most campaigns the advice given above will yield accurate alignments.  Play with accurate alignments will give both the DM and other players in your game a tool in judging the likely behavior of your character.  Hopefully, this measure of behavior will help everyone to build character that others can find a way to work with (or around).


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This page was updated on Sunday, August 13, 2006