So what is the D&D Alignment System?
Character alignment is how Dungeons and Dragons measures a character's moral view of the world.
Alignment acts both as a guide for roleplay and as a mechanic for determining the effect of certain spells or items.
Morality tends to be subjective, so I wouldn’t recommend taking the alignment system too seriously in your games!
It's not set in stone either. More often than not I see a characters alignment being determined by the roleplay rather than the other way around!
The alignment chart
The D&D alignment system measures characters personality with two metrics; Lawful Vs Chaotic and Good Vs Evil.
You’ve probably seen a few D&D alignment charts going around but here’s my interpretation, using characters from the Lord of the Rings.
Oh, spoilers for the Lord of the Rings I guess.
So how important is the D&D alignment system?
Well, the answer to that is “not very, except sometimes”. Helpful, I know!
When alignment is used as a roleplaying tool then it’s a useful guide, but not really that important.
I certainly wouldn’t be worrying about the distinction between roleplaying a lawful neutral or true neutral character!
For roleplay, alignment tends to be used as a quick reminder on your character sheet of which way a character’s moral compass is set.
Sometimes though, a character’s alignment becomes important.
Certain spells and items work differently for characters of different alignments.
For example, the Book of Exalted Deeds (DMG 222) requires attunement by a good creature.
Evil creatures who try to open the book take 24d6 radiant damage instead.
Using alignment in roleplay
We’ve seen that alignment is used as a guide for roleplay, but it can also be used as a response to it.
As characters go on adventures they face hard choices and may change their outlook on life.
A character could be corrupted by an evil item or redeemed by their friendship with the party.
Alignment is always a little fluid to my mind.
People make different decisions as their experiences shape them, give the D&D alignment system the same adaptability.
Don’t be afraid to change it if the alignment on the sheet no longer reflects the character’s actions!
I should mention, whilst a characters alignment shifts in response to a players roleplay, try to handle any changes to the evil side with a bit of tact.
If you're going to change a player character's alignment, make sure the player is on board.
It can feel a tad judgemental to have someone straight up tell you "you’re evil" if you think the choices were justified ;)
When looking at how alignment affects roleplay it’s also worth thinking about how character’s alignments will affect the intra-party dynamics.
It’s less likely to be a fun game of D&D when the party has a mix of both good and evil characters.
I’m not saying that it can’t happen.
There are plenty of games out there that can manage it ... and there’s plenty more who don’t.
The difficulty stems from having characters with misaligned goals and values. Constant friction within the party can suck the fun out of things.
That said, if you want to have a party with characters of opposite alignments then don’t let me stop you! Just make sure you think about what you can use to encourage an alliance and collaboration.
Alignment as game mechanics
A character’s alignment can have a more direct impact on the mechanics of the game as well.
A few spells have different effects depending on alignment.
The spell Spirit Guardians does different types of damage depending on the spell casters alignment:
Radiant damage when cast by those good-aligned, and necrotic damage when the spell caster is evil.
Another spell could be Glyph of Warding. The caster can make a glyph that is only triggered by creatures of a certain alignment.
That’s a fun trick that your BBEG might use when setting a trap ;) Just saying ^ ^
Magic items can also be affected by alignment. Some only work for creatures of a certain alignment and others can actually change a characters alignment.
We can see an example of characters changing alignment due to a magic item in the Lord of the Rings.
Boromir turns from lawful good to lawful evil under the influence of the ring, eventually trying to steal it for himself.
It can be a really fun thing to roleplay, but make sure your player is on board. You want to be sure they still feel they have agency over their character.
As long as everyone’s having fun though, a corruption arc can make for a very compelling story!
The final takeaway
My advice for using the D&D alignment system is to not take it too seriously. Ethics can be a pretty subjective topic after all! Use the D&D alignment system as a useful guide and a quick reference place on your character sheet.
It’s pretty rare that alignment has an effect beyond roleplay so as a DM you can afford to worry less about whether a player is sticking to what’s written on their sheet.
Just make sure you keep it in mind when you’re setting traps with glyph of warding! ;)