“What’s My Motivation?” – Alignment

Table of Contents

What’s My Motivation?” is intended to be a regular column that uses a variety of methods found in the disciplines of acting, writing, and improvisation to help Dungeon Masters create compelling NPC’s and further flesh out their campaigns.

This week’s installment will look at how the standard alignment system, which many times is derided as a hindrance to roleplaying can actually be a boon, especially for the DM without much time on her hands.

Law or Chaos, Good or Evil? And what in the Nine Hells does Neutral actually mean? In terms of characterization I like to replace these particular terms with synonyms or at the very least related terms so that I can better imagine how a particular character will act on the fly.

For example, Lawful Good might be better understood as “Honorable Selfless”, which might roleplay differently than “Legalistic Benefactor”. In the first case I imagine an honorable character who is willing to sacrifice his own life even though he comes from a place of poverty. The second character I imagine is a noblewoman who follows the letter of the law and is quite generous with her wealth. Both of these characters are expressions of the Lawful Good alignment but lead to two completely different characters. Chaotic Evil might be better understood as “Bloodthirsty Selfish” or “Schizophrenic Sadist”. Those sound like some seriously unnerving NPC’s (and even creepier PC’s). Whether I’m using a pre-generated NPC or if I’m rolling up an NPC from a table I have a lot of other information at my disposal to fill in any cracks.

The following list, using Thesaurus.com, offers a number of synonyms and related terms that can help with this style of quick characterization. If you’re looking for some randomization, use a d12.


  1. authoritative
  2. calm
  3. collected
  4. canonical
  5. commissioned
  6. judicial
  7. official
  8. organized
  9. orthodox
  10. proper
  11. rightful
  12. tyrannical


  1. bloodthirsty
  2. deranged
  3. disordered
  4. disorganized
  5. free-spirited
  6. lawless
  7. non-traditional
  8. purposeless
  9. rampageous
  10. riotous
  11. tumultuous
  12. uncontrolled


  1. altruistic
  2. approving
  3. beneficent
  4. benevolent
  5. decent
  6. humanitarian
  7. kindhearted
  8. merciful
  9. philanthropic
  10. tolerant
  11. upright
  12. virtuous


  1. base
  2. corrupt
  3. depraved
  4. mean
  5. obscene
  6. pernicious
  7. repulsive
  8. selfish
  9. sinful
  10. spiteful
  11. vicious
  12. vile


  1. aloof
  2. balanced
  3. disinterested
  4. dispassionate
  5. evenhanded
  6. fair-minded
  7. impartial
  8. impassive
  9. nonaligned
  10. noncommittal
  11. unbiased
  12. undecided

I find that this technique helps me with the extreme alignments in particular (lawful/chaotic or good/evil) but how does one play “neutral”? I find “personality neutrality” a lot harder to define so I need to ask myself, why? “Why is the character neutral?” leads me towards a sense of the character’s background. But what typically leads me to a much more interesting character history is the question, “when is the character not neutral?” This usually leads to all sorts of interesting character quirks.

For example, in my current Pathfinder campaign I play a Lawful Neutral dwarf bladebound magus. In place of the Lawful I have imagined him as Honorable and Traditional. This has lead him to argue with the party when they tried to sneak up on a party of sleeping kobolds or rebuked a fellow companion who uses circuitous logic to justify a shady course of action. But the neutrality is harder for me to pin down. So I tried to imagine him as Balanced. This seemed to be to be just as hard to wrap my mind around. I began to ask myself what would lead him toward good or what would lead him toward evil. I came up with the following: when he encounters innocence he leans toward good and wishes to protect it and nurture it. When he encounters lying and dishonor, especially towards himself, he becomes extremely irate to the point of spitefulness. This then lead me to envision him as being a victim of some grave lie. Sharing some of this information with the other members of my gaming group lead to another player creating the half-brother of my dwarf magus who joined the party to atone for the grievous dishonor and we have some real fertile ground for roleplaying. And honestly, some of the best roleplaying I’ve been a part of for quite some time.

And that’s my motivation.

11 thoughts on ““What’s My Motivation?” – Alignment”

  1. the way I see it, alignments are basicly a guideline to your characters nature and beliefs. It’s not a strict set of rules. It’s more a label that stays as long as it fits. Alignment can be changed. At least when I play. I don’t enforce alignment except when they were chosen inappropriately. Such as new players choosing evil because “evil is cool”

    If you play as lawfull good in the way that all mybe processed according to law but then come upon the situation where your character breaks the law I will usually allow that one step across the line because people are complex. The worst I’ll do is alert the player that this action has changed their alignment to fit their actions or new view.

    I don’t see why people make such a huge deal out of it, it’s just a guideline. I think this article is great for introducing people to how you can more simply comprehend and categorize people within alignments.

  2. Very compelling and dramatic indeed.

    In fact I’m working on a column in regards to belief, faith, and religion right now…

  3. I think its incredibly interesting story-wise if a a new power starts answering the prayers. Is it just now responding to the player’s call or was this different force really there all along?

    {cue dramatic music}

  4. Rambage, good point that over time a character’s experiences should lead to change and personal growth.

    I find that most problems I have ever had with the alignment system is when either I, another player, or a DM has a restrictive view as to how to roleplay a particular alignment. The famous “lawful stupid” paladin who attempts to slay anything he detects as “evil” is an example.

    But a good DM should encourage conflict outside of the combat map. A chaotic character might be played as “disorganized” until her disorganization leads to the death of a party member. This might mean that the character stays chaotic but her chaos expresses herself in a different way. Or, she may even slide closer to lawful and become neutral.

    With most characters this should not be a problem. But with divine spellcasters this should lead to a greater character conflict. If the character’s alignment change is still within her deity’s wheelhouse there is typically no harm and thus no foul. But if a priest of a chaotic god becomes lawful, this might mean a break from his church. Does this mean the character takes a new class or are his prayers now answered by a different force?

  5. This is a great way to reinvision the alignment system. The normal good/evil/lawful/chaotic seemed so extreme and vague. In some sense this is a good thing because it allows the player or DM to define in what way something is Lawful Evil or Chaotic Good or what have you. It also left the system to be almost too flexible that would make some in game decisions seemingly justifiable, even though it may not actually be what the character would likely do. This is a great way to give a character a more strict set of parameters in how they would react to certain things while still being flexible in others. Thank you for helping me figure out a way to use the alignment system more effectively in my games as a GM & player.

  6. I love the way you look at things, I am going to use this in my game to give a few of the newer players a base to start & maybe rattle a couple of the more experianced ones to admit there is always a differant way of looking at things. Thank you

  7. We use a “shifting” alignment sistem for character which does not need specific alignments, mainly because in our group we often change views about how our character would be or how we would play it. (Also in campaings of 2-5 years irl, 10-20 years in-game your character is likely to change)

  8. Thanks for the feedback, guys.

    Sean, could you elaborate as to *why* you will not use alignment in your campaign?

  9. This was an interesting idea. I think I may introduce it to some of my players who have a hard time with alignment and who play very loose and fast with the whole Neatrality side of things. It might just help them focus and give them role playing hooks to sink into.

  10. Looking to hear from you noble Dungeonmasters out there. Does this help? Are the tables a useful tool? Any other words or synonyms you wish to add to the thread? Let me know.

Leave a Comment