After reading some answers to this previous question of mine, I'm realizing that I may not be fully understanding the purpose of alignment, and functionally how it changes.

Generally, should alignment be driving my character's actions, or should my character's actions be driving my alignment?

Sticking with the same example as in the previous question, my chaotic-neutral half-orc barbarian character flipped a boat of racist sailors who were making fun of his swimming. This was characterized as a "purely unmotivated evil act" by my DM, resulting in an alignment change to chaotic-evil.

Should I now be playing my character in a way that more accurately reflects my new evil alignment (eg by performing more evil actions than I normally would have when I was still chaotic neutral), or should I continue to play my character as I was before, and let the alignment change as it will based on my actions?

I ask since functionally, the alignment change was a surprise (you can read more about this in the previous question), and I am unsure how I am expected to act in light of this alignment change.

While to me alignment appears to be something which is determined by my chosen actions (and thus should not necessarily be driving my decisions in-game), given that alignment appears to have objective effects in game (eg it can be detected, class restrictions, etc) I could see the argument for alignment in some way driving my decisions. Similarly, having started my D&D career playing 3.5, I recall that alignment was extremely important, again lending credence to it in effect driving character action (though I am unsure if this is still the case in 5e).

This answer appears to be a start, but I am looking for something more directly relevant to game mechanics and expected social conventions than a DM perspective on how to force an alignment change. I am also not looking for how to determine if an action is consistent with an alignment or what it means to be "good" or "evil". Rather, I am interested in the effect alignment should have on player actions (if any at all).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Possible duplicate of How do you adjudicate what alignment a PC's actions are? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Jun 27, 2017 at 15:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I've edited my question to hopefully clarify why it is not a duplicate \$\endgroup\$ Jun 27, 2017 at 15:33
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ It's not a duplicate exactly, in that it addresses how a DM should assess apparent alignment; it approaches the issue from the DM's side, rather than the player's. However, it goes into considerable detail about the distinction between the abstract description of alignment as a matter to be adjudicated, and the motivation of a PC as determined by the player. So it is directly relevant, and in my opinion effectively answers this question. \$\endgroup\$
    – bgvaughan
    Jun 27, 2017 at 15:46
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is a fine question. The answer is 'this is a matter of playstyle' but the advantages and disadvantages/ similarities and differences of the two playstyles can certainly be reasonably discussed in this format. The current answers are terrible, but that's because a lot of people in the RPG community have wildly inaccurate baseless ideas about this, tied to adherence to a certain playstyle, not because this question is site-inappropriate. I'm voting to reopen. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 27, 2017 at 16:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer There may be a good question in here somewhere, but as it is phrased I think it's going to tend to draw low-quality answers as "should I do X or Y?" is strictly a matter of opinion, and none of us can say what the prevailing opinion is at a table we're not at. If the question were "is X or Y a better way to achieve Z outcome", we'd be getting somewhere, but as it is it'll be tough to answer with anything other than "it depends/it's up to you/ask your DM/do it the way I do it." \$\endgroup\$ Jun 27, 2017 at 18:14

3 Answers 3


Alignment should not impact the choices you make for your character.

The Angry GM wrote a decent article on this, explaining his view on the alignment system. The fundamental points to recognize are:

  1. There is an absolute moral standard within the default D&D universe.
  2. All characters fall somewhere on the scale of these two axes, Good-Evil and Law-Chaos.

Ultimately, your alignment is the 'soul temperature' of your character, an actual measurable quality. Since your DM is in control of the universe, they ultimately decide what the 'soul thermometer' reading is based on the choices your character makes. So, your alignment is a 'reading' of your soul based on your choices, as opposed to being the cause of your choices.

To my knowledge, very little in D&D 5e is based off the alignment system. It practically does not exist, except as a purpose statement for how you envision your character's behavior at creation.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The Angry GM's article is good. I think it's important to point out it starts by explaining that in contrast to other editions, alignment has almost no practical effects in 5e, except for paladins. \$\endgroup\$
    – bgvaughan
    Jun 27, 2017 at 16:17

Actions & Motives drive Alignment

Alignment is a very nebulous concept, open to a lot of interpretation - and there are dozens of different interpretations of good/evil::law/chaos. I won't get into them, because it isn't important.

The important thing is that you're playing a role-playing game, where you act as a character in a world. Your character does things and has motivations, both of which normally account for what your outward alignment specifies. Different actions can cause your outward alignment to shift, or doing things due to specific motives can also cause shifts in alignment (depending on GM).

Given a character which commits a largely evil act (with or without provocation, depending on GM), their alignment may shift. This does not mean the character's motives changed. Another way of putting it: the character's soul is stained with the blood of the slain- thus they detect as evil, as that's what their soul has written on it. However, their mind and motive is the same as it was before. The stain on their soul does not force their hand to do anything, further actions will define their further alignment.

What if it went the other way?

If alignment defined actions, alignment would never be able to change - being Lawful Evil would force you into taking the lawful and/or evil action in any given circumstance. If you are never allowed to commit a chaotic act, how would one ever become chaotic (or even just NE)?


Paladins are often an exception (though in 5e they aren't technically required to be LG), but it's explainable - they took an oath, one of which is to uphold the tenants of law and good. In previous editions this was the same, but with the footnote that paladins had to be Lawful Good in addition to (or sometimes in place of) the Oath.


It is up to the player to determine the character's motivations, not the DM, with limited exceptions for special circumstances (e.g., mind control, demonic possession, etc.) In D&D, alignment can have concrete gameplay effects, so your DM is within their rights to adjust your apparent alignment according to their assessment of your actions. But that doesn't in itself change your character's motivations.

Does your character recoil in horror from what they've just done? Does your character decide that they felt good about it? Does your character feel that it was just another day in their life? Up to you.


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