Few things in D&D and Pathfinder have made players cringe than Alignments. Alignments have changed a lot over time, but never got much better with each new iteration; just more vague and confusing. So, how do you use Alignments and what type of impact do alignments have on your games?
The birth and growth of the Alignment systems
Let’s start from the beginning, where alignments come from. Before AD&D and D&D there was a little thing called Blackmoor. Blackmoor was created by some who was close with Gary Gygax (I hope you know who this is). Blackmoor was the precursor for Greyhawk. Blackmoor was the first incarnation of alignment as a game mechanic, but that may be giving it too much credit. Alignments in Blackmoor were more a mechanic of which side you were fighting for.
The idea of Alignments as a rule of fealty than a code of morality and ethics was the same in the original D&D and Advanced D&D’s first edition, but Good, Evil, and Neutral were replaced by Lawful, Chaotic, and Neutral. The concept was fealty was the same. Examples of each alignment were given, but they were only names of races, or the vaguely mentions “Evil High Priests”.
In AD&D’s first edition the two alignments from Blackmoor and D&D were combined to the matrix we know today. The idea of allegiance was still the same. Gygax took it even a step further in AD&D’s first edition by given each alignment their own languages.
It wasn’t until AD&D’s 2nd edition that got a change. The change was rather drastic. This change gave us the concept of Alignments we know today. Alignments in AD&D’s 2nd edition chanced from the defining a moment of Good versus evil to defining a character’s moral and ethical relativity within the adventuring world. Gygax’s creation of alignment languages was removed. Restrictions on certain classes were given: A paladin could only be Lawful Good, a Druid only Neutral.
From 2nd edition to 3rd edition nothing changed. The descriptions of each Good/Evil and Lawful/Chaos combination got a little wordier, but still just a vague.
AD&D 4th edition made another big change, some would say controversial. The matrix of alignments was taken away and make into a linear description with only four alignments: Good, Lawful Good, Evil, and Chaotic Evil. Another category was added called unaligned. Neutral was removed. Chaotic/Neutral Good, Chaotic/Neutral Evil and True Neutral was removed.
True neutral was removed because it didn’t make sense for adventures, true neutral adventurers felt forced or out of place.
Chaotic Neutral (That leaned more towards good) and Chaotic Good were very similar in that they don’t do evil and they aren’t concerned with laws. These were combined into the new Good alignment. The same for the Chaotic Neutral (That leaned more towards evil) and Chaotic Evil but for the new evil alignment.
The unaligned category was created. Here is Wizards of the West Coast reasoning:
So we came up with a new alignment system for 4th Edition, though one not completely unlike the previous version. It saves most of the old terms, if not their cosmological or gameplay significance. If any statement can sum up the new system, it is: “Alignment means making an effort.” –Michele Carter.
Thus was born the concept of unaligned. More importantly, the concept that unaligned is benign. Being unaligned is not the neutral alignment of previous editions. Someone who is unaligned is assumed to be an “easy-going” and sometimes even helpful person, especially when it’s easy to be helpful. Just like in real life, where it’s arguable that many people (cocooned in their routines and safe lives provided by a supporting civilization) are unaligned, your fantasy character can enjoy the same freedom from thinking too hard about morality but still be granted the benefit of doubt when they are judged.
This change to AD&D 4th editions as not well received. Any people ignore it and when with the old system. And they were able to do this because ALIGNMENT DID REALLY MATTER.
The Alignment system today
In 5th edition, Alignment went back to the 3×3 alignment system of 3rd edition with unaligned remaining but earmarked for creatures of low intellect that does not have a concept of good/evil and law/chaos. But the description for each of the nine alignments was stripped down to 2 or 3 sentences.
Pathfinder (which is largely taken from AD&D 3.5) using alignment in the same way. The Player’s Handbook says there are a few rules for an attack, and magic items that use a character’s alignment but outside of that it is just a guide for developing a better character. It is even mentioned in the rule book that is no hard and fast way of measuring alignment. It’s all left up to the interpretation of the GM.
Outside of the alignment language in 1st edition, the classes restrictions in 2nd and 3rd and a few spells or abilities Alignment were without any real rules or mechanics.
My opinion (for what it’s worth)
The alignment systems are largely just fluff. A lot of the ambiguity mostly gets ignored. I played many games in 2nd and 3rd edition with paladins of various alignments. Most of us have seen or heard the parody alignments: Chaotic Greedy, Lawful Stupid, Evil insane.
So, where does alignment fit into a game? Anywhere you want it to, or nowhere at all. Most podcasts or YouTube videos of gameplay for D&D or Pathfinder rarely, if ever, mention their character’s alignment.
The fact is if you have a good character concept and role play that character well, you will stay consistent with their moral and ethical outlook. An evil character can even have a moment of good, but it is the consistency that defines them. More importantly sometime morales and ethics are situational and fluid. If you ever read the Dragon Lance book series, the character Raistlin Majere is a classic example of the fluidity of morals and ethics. Raistlin may be an extreme example. His sister Kitara is a more reasonable example.
In my games, I don’t put too much focus, if any, on alignment. If there were a situation that requires alignment being involved, I’m not going to the character sheet, I’m going to the character and their actions. A GM should be able to easily define a character as inherently good or evil, law or chaos by their actions. And if they cannot, well I think you have an unaligned or (doubtfully) a true neutral character.
Players in games without strict adherence to alignments should do their best to roleplay their character to their concept and think about how events in the game may have changed a character personality or perception. A cleric of a Lawful Good God from a rural area who venture into the big city or the first time and see the poor and hungry all around the temple might begin to question some of the lawful ideas when they see this kind of suffering.
Another good rule for GMs and players is to not let the alignment define anything. Remember, with the exception of the extreme zealots, characters should remember even if they don’t prescribe themselves to good or evil, law or chaos they cities, villages, and towns will and should behave according. A paladin who attacks a rogue because he is evil, and has done nothing wrong that can be proven will be the one in trouble. With the exception of chaotic evil, people will act rationally in a given situation. Chaotic good characters will find ways to bend the rules before breaking them outright.
If you plan to use alignments or want to just use them as a guideline or starting point I’ll talk about the 9 (10) alignment types and give a few examples of characters from popular tv, movie, and book that fit into the alignments.(The Office cast is creditited to Matthew Couri Jacobs from his reddit post) (
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