What is alignment?
Too often players assume that alignment is nothing more than a template for how their characters might act or interact with other characters in the game. A player who is controlling a Lawful Good character for example may try to play a very straight and narrow, by the books type personality while on the other hand a player who’s character is Chaotic Evil might just try to kill everyone in the party the first chance that they get. While both of these are not “incorrect” it is important to understand that your character is more than just the sum total of their alignment. Just like in real life there will be many exceptions and grey areas that will present themselves during the course of the game. Attempting to rigidly adhere to a narrow definition of alignment will become more of a burden for you than a fun role playing mechanic.
With that said, what exactly is alignment and how should it be used/viewed in game. More importantly how should it be role played?
First we must understand the ideas and concepts at work within a characters alignment. To do this we will first look at the moral aspects of alignment.
Good, Neutral and Evil are fairly easy moral concepts to understand. Neutral is perhaps the most ambiguous of the three and there is much room for the interpretation of neutral I will attempt to give a basic explanation of all three here.
Good – A good person is inclined to obey the law, tell the truth and put others needs before their own.
Neutral – A neutral person will generally obey laws so long as they don’t get in the way, tell the truth but lie if it might benefit or protect them. Help others but isn’t afraid to help themselves.
Evil – An evil person will obey the law but has no problem breaking them, will lie to get what they need or want and most likely won’t help others unless it benefits them directly or there is some personal gain to be had.
With those three basic concepts you have the foundation by which a characters alignment is based. The first part of your alignment should be considered your characters Moral Compass. They may not always adhere to it 100% but they are guided buy it.
Lawful, Chaotic or Somewhere in Between?
It has been my experience that Lawful and Chaotic are far more complex to understand than Good, Neutral and Evil. They are not a moral or ethical ideal as much as they are concepts. To understand them you really need to think about what it means to be Lawful or Chaotic. At first this might seem easy. Lawful is someone who obeys the law while Chaotic is a criminal who is breaking the law. But this is not always true.
Think of an individual like Hitler. While his acts were very evil he was not Chaotic in them. He created laws and “generally” operated withing those laws. As much of a monster as he was he would have been considered Lawful Evil.
On the opposite side of the spectrum a character like Conan the Barbarian or Robin Hood would be considered Chaotic Good. They act with the best intentions however they do so outside the confines of the law.
So with those concepts in mind you can view Lawful and Chaotic more simply.
Lawful – An individual who follows laws or accepts rules by which their life and actions are governed.
Chaotic – An individual who considers laws and rules second when conflicting with their own instincts thoughts or opinions.
Wait! What about Neutral? Isn’t Neural part of this equation as well? Yes and no… Think of Neutral as the pendulum that swings back and forth between Lawful and Chaotic. The perfect example of a character who shows the full range of “Neutral” is Han Solo. Han is a smuggler and a criminal. When we first meet him in the Star Wars movies he has a run in with Greedo. In the original (unbastardized) version of Star Wars, Han has no second thought or misgivings about killing Greedo to save his own skin. At this point in the movie Han could be considered Chaotic Neutral. As the film progresses his character becomes less chaotic and eventually by the end of the film he adopts a moral or personal code of honor and returns to help Luke destroy the Death Star.
Neutral – An individual who comfortably operates on both sides of the law obeying or breaking the laws as the moment or need dictates.
Why Alignment Won’t Always Work
Alignment won’t always work or make sense. Just like in real life there will be times that fall into a grey area that make working within the bounds of your alignment difficult. For example…
Lets imagine your playing a Lawful Good Paladin, this would mean that your character is required to follow the law, be generous and honest. Now take that Paladin to a kingdom where slavery is legal. Immediately a problem occurs with the characters alignment. The LAW says that slaves are 100% legal in this kingdom meaning that the Paladin is facing a moral choice. Slavery is not a morally GOOD but the LAW says that it is legal. Therefore where does the Lawful end and the Good begin for this character? If he tries to free slaves or refuses to capture escaped slaves he is breaking the law and therefore is acting outside of his alignment. A very dangerous thing for a Paladin to do.
The other extreme of this is to believe that all Chaotic Evil characters are raging homicidal maniacs, hell bent on death and carnage from the moment they wake up in the morning until they pass out in an orgy of blood. While that might be Chaotic Evil it is probably more along the lines of Bat Shit Crazy than Chaotic Evil. Thinking about the two aspects of the alignment you can see that Chaotic Evil isn’t just a character hell bent on the death of everyone around them. They are a character that is looking out for themselves and will do anything to make sure they get it. For example…
You are playing a Chaotic Evil character. You join up with a group of Neutral or Good characters because they are searching for the Orb of Ultimate Evil. You don’t like the group but they are your best shot at getting your hands on the object. While in the dungeon where the orb is located the cheerful halfling rogue is about to get killed by an angry orc. You throw yourself in front of him and save his life. Not because you like him or don’t want to see him dead. But at the moment you still need him even if he annoys you to no end. The act of saving the halfling rogue goes against your alignment yet the reason for doing so is very much in line with being Chaotic Evil.
Alignment Interaction Chart
To give you a visual idea of how alignments might interact with one another I have created this handy Alignment chart. While a Lawful Good character most likely won’t play nice with a Chaotic Evil one it’s not as uncommon for them to at least understand or have some level of respect a Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil character. The Lawful Good Paladin in the above example might not like what a Lawful Evil character stands for but they will at least respect the fact that they are operating within some form of structure or code. The same can be said for his opinion of the Chaotic Good character. He might see them as good hearted but misguided.
A Chaotic Evil character probably views both of them a little differently, believing that the Lawful Evil character could get much further ahead if he would stop being such a stick in the mud while the Chaotic Good character is on the right track he just needs to get over his own moral high ground.
In real life most of us are probably somewhere in the Neutral Good range. We obey the laws as best we can but might break the speed limit from time to time if we are in a hurry. We are willing to give time or money to help others but we also have to look out for ourselves and our own families. We might tell a few white lies now and again or try to bullshit our way out of that speeding ticket but for the most part we follow the rules and try to lead a normal healthy happy life. But we are human and from time to time we might get greedy or jealous or even spiteful. We might say or do things that intentionally hurt others or we might even knowingly break the law. Knowing right from wrong and doing bad or good are well within our power every day.
When playing your characters alignment try not to view it as a mold that you must fit into. Instead look at it as a wide path that your character walks down. They may move to the right or left from time to time but they try very hard not to step off the path. Stay on the path and you will be fine. Go exploring somewhere else and you might fine you are in for more trouble than it was worth.