Friday Favourite: Does Alignment Matter in D&D?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 11, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From November 2, 2010, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Does Alignment Matter in D&D?.

How important is alignment? Does it serve a practical purpose in D&D , or does it just take up room on the character sheet? The alignment mechanic underwent significant changes when 4e D&D was launched. The traditional or classic view of alignment was turned on its head. Nine alignments were pared down to only five; and two of the remaining alignments are, for the most part, off limits to players. So with only three real choices remaining does alignment even matter? Is this just a carryover from previous editions that no longer has a place in D&D?

As a player and a DM I believe that alignment is a vitally important part of every character sheet and that it doesn’t get nearly enough attention. In fact I’m extremely dissatisfied with how alignment is handled in 4e D&D.

In the early editions of D&D alignment was a big deal. You choose an alignment and were expected to play to those ideals. Some classes offered very little flexibility (like the old-school Paladin who had to be lawful good or else) while others had choices curtailed with some restrictions (Rogues had to be of non-good alignment). Now players can choose any alignment, regardless of class or race. It’s unfortunate that as the reigns loosened the choices disappeared.

Missing Alignment

Until D&D 4e we had nine alignments: lawful good, lawful neutral, lawful evil, neutral good, neutral, neutral evil, chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and chaotic evil. Now we only have five alignments: lawful good, good, neutral (now called unaligned), chaotic evil and evil. So what happened? Are there no more good characters with chaotic tendencies? Are their no more evil characters who believe in order?

In a system that provides more choices for feats, classes, races and powers than any previous editions of D&D they’ve eliminated choices for alignment. I think this is a powerful (albeit subtle) statement from Wizards of the Coast that alignment isn’t as important in 4e as it once was in previous editions.

These simplified alignments now cover so much ground that it’s nearly impossible for a player to stray outside of the boundaries of his chosen alignment. Good and evil are so all-encompassing that you’d have to do something pretty extreme to be called for not playing your alignment.

Changing Alignment

When you create your character you choose an alignment. The alignment is intended to be a guide and not a straight-jacket. It’s a moral compass that should help you when role-playing your PC. That’s not to say that you can’t act outside of the boundaries of your chosen alignment, but these instances should be the rare exceptions and not the norm.

Choosing an alignment isn’t as permanent as choosing a race or a class, but it’s pretty close. The alignment you choose represents the accumulated experiences of your PC before you begin running him at level 1. In most cases this represents 20 or more years in this character’s life. Beliefs and morals learned and developed over a lifetime aren’t usually changed lightly or quickly. But sometimes alignments do change. Here are the three most common ways for a character to change alignment.

By Force

This is the most extreme method of change. Donning a cursed item, being dominated by an evil creature or inadvertently taking part in a ritual are all examples of how an unwitting PC could have his alignment changed forcefully and against his will. It’s rare, but it happens.

By Choice

After choosing a starting alignment, the player intentionally decided to change his PC’s alignment by playing the character differently. This isn’t something that usually happens right off the bat. It’s a gradual shift based on this PC’s experiences during the campaign. The things they’ve seen, the people they’ve met or the deeds they’ve done have opened their eyes to a new way of looking at the world around them.

By Accident

Although you’ve chosen a particular alignment for your PC, the way you’ve chosen to role-play the PC is more in keeping with a different alignment. This is usually due to carelessness by the player. They either don’t realize they’re acting outside of their alignments comfort zone or they just don’t care. After crossing the line one too many times the DM informs the player that his character must change his alignment to match his actions.


In 4e D&D there are no in-game repressions for changing your alignment. Whether your alignment has changed because you want it to or whether it’s changed because you haven’t been playing the one listed on your character sheet, there is no down side.

In previous editions of D&D there was a substantial penalty if your alignment changed by choice or by accident. A PC who changed alignment in AD&D 2e needed to earn twice the normal amount of XP before he could advance to the next level. In the original AD&D 1e you lost a level and were reduced to the minimum number of XP of that lower level. Until recently it was a huge deal if you didn’t stick to your alignment. Now it’s not even worth noting.

The idea of penalizing PCs for changing their alignment seems pretty harsh given the say yes mentality of 4e D&D. Rather than punishing players who don’t play to their alignment I prefer to reward players who do. For example, those who play within the framework of their alignment and work it into the role-playing gain significant bonuses to relevant skill checks during skill challenges. On rare occasions I’ll even award additional XP for making tough decisions and playing your alignment despite pressure not to.

Alignment in Your Game

Even though alignment has been diluted in 4e D&D, it’s still a part of every character. It may not resonate as all that important to players, especially newer players, but it should. When you’re creating a new character his alignment should be the first place you look when figuring out how to play this PC. Obviously there’s a lot of flexibility within a given alignment, but a PC that’s lawful good and a PC that’s unaligned (neutral) should look at the world differently. They don’t have to be at odds, but there should be some opposing view points.

The importance of alignment needs to be emphasized by the DM. Remind players that they have an alignment (many forget, believe it or not) and be sure that they play within the boundaries that alignment represents. Ensure that your NPCs have an alignment and be sure to work within that framework as they interact with the PCs. Not every NPC need be evil, but even those that are will behave very differently if they’re chaotic evil or just plain evil.

What are your thoughts on alignment? How important is alignment is your game? What rewards do you think are appropriate for role-playing your alignment correctly? What about suitable penalties for not playing your alignment correctly? Do we even need alignment beyond just good and evil in D&D?

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1 Cent October 11, 2013 at 11:20 am

Alignment has always been a tricky thing in D&D.

Is slaughtering an enclave of kobolds to spare a human village considered an act typically associated with the Lawful Good alignment? Are all orcs Chaotic Evil? How often or how sizable an act contrary to the characters alignment must a player perform in order to change alignments? I’m Chaotic Neutral, so I really need to act like a lunatic at times and the party just has to deal with it. Right?

These are a few examples of the questions that typically came up when discussing the actual role of alignment within our games of 2e. At the end of the day the groups I played with typically used alignment in a pretty broad way. Kind of like 4e in fact.

There’s a nice blog post at Wizards from 2008 that addresses why and how the creators revamped the role/importance of alignment in 4e.

2 dan October 11, 2013 at 7:26 pm

I am a fan of the 9 alignment chart, as I see a lot more use for it than the 4e spectrum. Chaos and law are not related to the abstract concepts of good and evil. If a law is evil, but you are sworn to uphold it, and you choose not to break it because you are lawful, that is your alignment. If the law is evil, and you are lawful good, your approach to dealing with it would be different than a chaotic good or neutral good character. You may try to get the law repealed through legal channels, while the others would rather ignore it, fight it, or overthrow the corrupt government.
Lawful could also deal with your personal or religious code. An evil character may only bring harm to those who would oppose him, while still treating the common folk well.he may have no problem slaughtering a village’s men who fight back, but he’ll spare children.
The point is that there are a number of variables. Alignment should not be a spectrum, because it implies that evil inherently becomes chaos, and good becomes law. It implies that a structured government with established order cannot be evil.
I don’t believe that playing against alignment should have such drastic penalties, nor do I believe there should be restrictions on class based on alignment, or vice versa. A rogue can have his own moral code (robin hood style), or a paladin may take risks and think outside the box, bending rules along the way, as long as his god’s ideals are met. The only times I would restrict alignment would be with divine characters, and that would be based on the alignment of the deity (though not necessarily exactly the same).
I guess I am very much a ‘say yes’ kind of person. So long as there is a good in-game explanation as to why they are this way. I use alignment as a role play guideline, but rather than saying ‘you obviously aren’t this alignment if you want to do that’ I say ‘what alignment are you? Is that really what he’d do?’ And let the player correct himself. I don’t like punishing for a character changing alignment. I’ve often had characters outgrow the original character concept. It seems to show progress, rather than something worth punishing.

3 Edward Wilson October 12, 2013 at 10:07 am

I would think that any penalties for changing alignment should be something like having to make a Will save. Any time the character has a situation tempting them to revert them must save to avoid reverting. And whenever they need to act according to their new alignment, where that act is in contradiction to their old ways, they need to make the save to proceed. They would have to do these saves for a level, or maybe until they passed a certain number of them.

4 Gwyn October 12, 2013 at 1:44 pm

I like the idea of shifting alignments organically—will saves and XP penalties make for really stilted and implausible storytelling. I acknowledge that not every player can get deeply into character enough to roleplay their alignment as it pertains to their backstory or in-game events, but I think that’s where the DM should come in, asking people to check their alignments or replace them if it seems like they’re going in a direction opposed to their stated alignment. When I play a true neutral character, I often feel her being drawn into another alignment—when she finds that extreme measures get her more of what she wants, she’s pushed towards evil, when she’s exposed to something that truly “crosses the line,” she trends toward good. And I can roleplay that, and having the full original nine spread available makes that kind of thing more fun for me. But again, not every player wants that kind of roleplaying.

In a rare towards-lawful example of this kind of externally influenced shift, I recently asked a player (from a table I’m also playing at) to really consider his “true neutral” character, whom he was playing pretty abundantly lawful good: he consistently sticks up for commoner NPCs (even to his own detriment), his character has no patience for the intrigue of the politics in the story (utterly rejects the faction leaders’ arguments of “greater good” and all that), and his character is holding out for a true happy ending. But he wrote down “true neutral” because his character was discharged from the military for ignoring a direct order. I had to convince him that a neutral character probably wouldn’t have done that, and a neutral good character would probably have worked more behind the scenes to get the right thing done without showing their hand. He (the player) eventually agreed, and changed his alignment, and the result has been that his character is behaving exactly the same as he has been all along, albeit now with more confidence, and that’s really making it more fun for everyone.

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