While the system of alignment in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is outlined and discussed in both the Player’s Handbook (PHB) and the Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG), I’ve found that new players and veterans alike occasionally have a hard time fully understanding the intricacies of the system. I will discuss each point on the axis and each combination individually. I’ll do my best to provide complete information, however, I still suggest you take a peak at the descriptions in either the PHB or DMG. Keep in mind while reading these descriptions of alignment that they refer only to the tendencies of the character. A normally good person may, for example, accidentally steal a pack of gum but not return and pay for it when they realize it.
Lawful: A character of this alignment follows the laws of their society by default. Two important points should be made about my first statement. First, they follow the laws of their society, and thus are not always acting in what would be considered a lawful manner. For example, Shirley is a Lawful aligned American that travels to Iran and wears shorts. She is considered to be acting unlawfully to the society she is currently in, but remains true to her societies laws and morés. Secondly, Lawful refers to the social beliefs and morés of a society just as much as it does to actual law. Most people are Lawful.
Neutral (law-chaos axis): A character of this alignment has a balance between lawful and chaotic behavior and opinions. They probably think approximately half of the laws and moirés in their society are wrong and do not follow them. For example, they don’t think marijuana should be illegal (chaotic), but they think you should have to be 18 to smoke cigarettes (lawful). Neutral is the exception to the rule of alignment indicating tendencies, not a rigid box that you can’t leave. While your actions don’t have to balance perfectly between law and chaos, it should be pretty close. The degree of freedom one gets from a Neutral alignment actually tends to impose more rigid behavior. Many players will keep a running tally of lawful and chaotic acts and will make decisions to keep them in balance.
Chaotic: A character of this alignment doesn’t agree with a majority of their societies laws and morés. This does not mean though that they are always breaking the law. For example a man believes you should be able to drink alcohol at the age of 16, however, he didn’t drink at the age of 16 and he does not permit is 16-year-old son to drink. An important distinction to make here is the difference between laws and morés, and morals.
Good: A character of this alignment generally acts in a manner that is considered morally upstanding. There is a difference between social beliefs and morés, and morals. For example, moirés in American state that homeless are to be ignored and are not important. However, murdering a homeless man is still morally repugnant (at least to most people). Most people are good.
Neutral (good-evil axis): A character of this alignment has a balance between good and evil actions and opinions. Approximately half of their actions are morally good and half are evil. For example, Randy saves a child from the middle of a raging river (good), and then sells the kid crack (evil). Neutral is the exception to the rule of alignment indicating tendencies, not a rigid box one can’t escape. While the balance between good and evil doesn’t have to be perfect to remain Neutral, it should be pretty close. The degree of freedom one gets from a Neutral alignment often ends up being more rigid than the ends of the spectrum. Many players will keep a running tally of their good and evil acts. They use this to influence the decisions they make in an attempt to remain balanced.
Evil: A character of this alignment goes against what most people would consider morally correct. I’d like to note again here that alignment are tendencies, and thus to be Evil a majority of a characters actions and opinions must go against common morals. For example Fiona routinely robs her local supermarket, however, she is in all other actions and beliefs good. Thus, Fiona is not Evil. Fred, enjoys torturing girl scouts, injection babies with Meth, robbing the elderly, and spying on women in the dressing room, however, Fred thinks murder is sickening and would never commit one. Fred is still Evil.
Lawful Good (LG): Characters of this alignment are generally altruistic; doing what’s right (and lawful) for the greater good of people. They fight for good, but only in ways that the law allows. Superman is Lawful Good.
Lawful Neutral (LN): Characters of this alignment are normally the most adherent to their laws. While lawful good characters will occasionally do unlawful things in pursuit of justice, lawful neutral characters tend to place greater importance on the law then morals. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is Lawful Neutral.
Lawful Evil (LE): Characters of this alignment commit evil acts through structure and the law. For example, a police chief hates gay people so he uses his influence to have anti-gay legislation passed and has his officers target them for random stops and searches. Hitler is Lawful Evil.
Neutral Good (NG): Characters of this alignment are concerned with helping people and serving the greater good by any means necessary. They volunteer at soup kitchens and break into labs that test on animals and release them. Gandhi is Neutral Good.
True Neutral (NN): Characters of this alignment are mostly concerned with the balance of life. They tend to not view evil as bad, or good as good, they are merely diametrically opposed decisions. Nor do they view law or chaos as being superior to the other. This is arguably the most difficult alignment to play since it is difficult to justify actions that have a profound impact of the scales of life, such as adventuring. While it can be done, it’s not for the faint of heart. No one (that I can think of) is True Neutral, it goes against our nature.
Neutral Evil (NE): Characters of this alignment are most concerned with carrying out their evil deeds, not how it’s done. They will use both lawful and unlawful means to achieve their goals. If they want a rival farmer to sell his farm to him, he’ll sue him just to exhaust the rival’s funds so he can’t afford his farm and kidnap his wife to intimidate the rival. The Mafia is Neutral Evil.
Chaotic Good (CG): Characters of this alignment want to help people but believe the laws are unjust or prevent them from acting in peoples best interest. They are often found in Lawful Evil run societies. Malcolm Reynolds is Chaotic Good.
Chaotic Neutral (CN): Characters of this alignment are mostly concerned with their own interests. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or evil, lawful or not chaotic as long as they come out ahead. Capt. Jack Sparrow is Chaotic Neutral.
Chaotic Evil (CE): Characters of this alignment are mostly concerned with their impulses. They are the sociopaths of the world; committing evil acts without reason or provocation. Buffalo Bill is Chaotic Evil.