Character Alignment
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Basic Information

A character's Alignment is a rough indication of his moral/ethical views. Many roleplaying games have alignment as an explicit game-mechanical property of a character. This always comes with (general) descriptions of what matters to such a character and what kind of behaviour is and isn't appropriate, but often is also accompanied by actual in-game consequences; alignment affects available character options and the effectiveness of some magic effects, and sometimes can be directly detected through magic. This gives debates about just what the alignments stand for and which alignment most accurately describes a given character extra significance. Such debates are very common on rpg-related internet sites.

Alignment in popular RPGs

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Classic Dungeons & Dragons invented the idea of an alignment system, dividing all things on vaguely Moorcockian lines between the lawful, the neutral and the chaotic. These were not exactly the same lines as drawn in Moorcock's work and corresponded in a confused way to good and evil. The "advanced" version of the game then tried to clarify this by introducing a second, explicit scale of Good vs. Evil as an alternative axis to Law vs. Chaos. Thus, a Good character could be Lawful Good, Neutral Good or Chaotic Good; and an Evil character could be Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil or Chaotic Evil. A character could also be Neutral in terms of morality, either Lawful Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, or "True Neutral". Alignment is a palpable and real thing within the D&D cosmos - there's spells and powers that detect, change, or trigger based on alignment - although whether the alignments are actually recognised as specific affiliations in setting is inconsistently handled. Sadly, the actual conduct required for any given alignment is not consistently defined anywhere and tends to be "much debated".

Even more complicated is the tendency to assign alignments to nations and species - which raises all sorts of issues, not least the typically inverse relationship between authoritarian government and self regulation amongst citizens (i.e. that a "lawful" state will lead to "chaotic" citizens) and the oddity of the traditional "lawful good" kingdom ruled by an absolute monarch (despite absolute monarchy being inherently "chaotic", whatever its output). The application to entire species likewise raises all sorts of metaphysical questions (which go back at least as far as Tolkien).

This system with it's 3x3 alignment grid is used by the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Editions of the game.

Dungeons & Dragons 4.0

The Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons jettisoned a couple alignments and streamlined the alignment chart. The new system has five alignments: Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil and Chaotic Evil


Kevin Siembieda's Palladium system divides the moral spectrum differently. The Palladium alignment system has three broad categories: Good, Selfish and Evil; which are broken down into sub-categories: Good into Principled and Scrupulous: Selfish into Unprincipled and Anarchist; and Evil into Miscreant, Aberrant and Diabolic. In the system, each category is given a list of qualities to help define it; how the character regards things like lying, violence, and situational ethics. The list allows the GM and the player to compare the different alignments and get a better feel for them.

All of the systems above have a key feature that they have an inherent presumption of a "good versus evil" - this is not necessarily required as the systems below show:

Other ways of addressing alignment:


In Erick Wujcik's Amber DRPG system, alignment goes beyond just a description. It's given the understated name "stuff", and a character can be a "good stuff" character, a "bad stuff" character, or have "zero stuff". Stuff can be sort of be seen like Karma, and also establishes the characters role in the narrative. Good things tend to happen to good people, bad people tend to get betrayed.

Within this system, the GM is encouraged to use Stuff to influence character perspectives. The bad stuff character will see things from a cynical, pessimistic, or paranoid world view, so the GM colors descriptions with hints of this. The good stuff character is ever the hero and optimist, and so finds themselves in situations where this behaviour is encouraged. Bad things can still happen to good people, but the same calamity befalling an NPC may be presented differently to two characters with different stuff - one sees an opportunity to step up and be a hero, the other gets presented a scenario where that NPC "had it coming" and deserved what they got. Same scene, two different narrations from the GM. Unlike D&D's alignments, stuff is mostly invisible to the characters, even while it's informing the GMs narrations. You know your own stuff total at the start of the campaign, but there's no in-character way to detect relative levels in others.

Beyond this, stuff factors into character creation and advancement. A good stuff character has good stuff because they spent less than their allotted character creation points - that naïve optimism makes them a little weaker. A character gets bad stuff by overspending during character creation - because a bad stuff character is the one who's likely to have striven after personal power no matter what the cost, all throughout their backstory.

Vampire: The Masquerade

This also applies to other World of Darkness games from White Wolf as well, but I know Vampire - The Masquerade best. These games don't seek to pigeon-hole any particular type of behaviour into categories, but have a "Humanity" stat that tracks your remaining morality, and how well you control the beast within. They also tend to contain a list of behaviour archetypes ("caregiver", "defender" "manipulator" etc.) from which the player picks a demeanour (what the character seems to be) and a nature (how they actually are) … which are frequently different.

To a certain extent, this is like combining the concept of Alignment with the notion of a Sanity Trait like they have in Cthulhu. As your Humanity lessens, you don't necessarily go crazy, but you do become hardened, jaded, and violent. In this case the causality goes from the character to the alignment, not the other way around. You can make a character with a high humanity but play them as evil - their stats will quickly adjust to match it. Conversely, you can make a low-humanity character and play them as a saint, but they may find it mechanically difficult to stick to their moral code when faced with temptations such as vampiric bloodlust.

Some Vampire supplements included other Morality Paths than Humanity, which could be viewed as Alignment Categories, though most were more like belief systems. One was even based more-or-less on Catharism.

While a low humanity character was often a disturbing individual, only the most heinous sins and acts left recognizable marks, unlike the "detect evil" paradigm of D&D.

Later editions of the WoD included a Vice/virtue system where the player picked a signal virtue (from the traditional seven heavenly virtues) and a governing sin (from the seven deadly sins) - these would help to define the character's personality and were reinforced by allowing the character to regenerate willpower points by indulging their vice or exercising their virtue.


GURPS somehow manages to do without alignment - the PC acts as the player intends, unless they have bought a disadvantage which obliges them to act in a specific way. These disadvantages could be be anything from bloodlust or drug addiction to pacifism or honesty - anything which restricts the player's freedom to control his character - and at least at character-generation they are all paid for with points that can improve the character in other areas. Individual GURPS settings may have specific mechanics in which good and evil (or blue and orange for that matter) are tangible, supernatural forces but Steve's team have not hard wired anything of the kind into the game.


Unsurprisingly, RuneQuest does alignment differently from D&D, much as it does everything else. RuneQuest's alignment system is less about morality and more about attunement to the fundamental forces of the universe as expressed by the various runes - a character's alignment is expressed by their affinity for individual runes and how that is reflected in their personality, with the added feature that some runes oppose each other (for example "Man" and "Beast" are opposed - a high affinity for "Man" implies a thinking, reasoning nature whilst "Beast" affinity is emotional and instinctual). Characters also have honour and reputation to maintain, but these are understood to be culturally relative and the game rules do not have a built in morality (although the closely intertwined Glorantha setting has detailed descriptions of its inherent cultures and the moral systems of each).


3. An extremely cogent essay on the "logic" underlying the D&D alignment system.

Game and Story Use

  • For other ideas of how to handle or depict alignment and morality, see Morality Tropes.
  • Values Dissonance is only to be expected … but sadly is very rarely accounted for.
  • Quite a lot of the detail of your setting may depend on how much mechanical reality the alignment system has in it. Where alignment is simply used as a summary of your character's morals (as in Siembeida's multiverse) it will probably have far less of an impact on play that - for example - the Gygax/Arneson model wherein Alignments are objective forces that can be detected and targeted by magical effects … and have their own languages … . A trait based system such as GURPS allows players to model a character who sometimes acts against their own best interests but also allows a hard limit to the baggage the character must carry. The worst of all possible worlds is probably one in which alignment has mechanical consequences … and these are unpredictable or inconsistently handled.
  • Excessive "in setting" awareness of alignment may be somewhat dissonant … unless, of course, it's one of those settings where alignment is used as a proxy for religion.
  • One alternative to poorly written systems may be: Good v. Evil being "puts others first vs. puts self ahead of others" whilst Lawful v. Chaos being "has a set code of conduct that they put ahead of their own judgement vs. does what seems right at the time" with neutrals falling between the two stools in each case.
  • Some versions of "neutral" have its adherents deliberately seeking to balance out the universe, doing evil if they perceive an excess of good and vice versa … this can lead to a schizophrenic characterization which can be very hard to carry off…
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