Friday, 17 June 2016

Distinguishing D&D Alignments (again)

So following my previous post on the matter, a rather different way of thinking about alignment occurred to me.

This alternative perspective is, once again, just a way of viewing it that might be helpful sometimes.

As a reminder, here's how the alignments are modelled:

  Good Neutral Evil
Chaotic Chaotic Good Chaotic Neutral Chaotic Evil
Neutral Neutral Good True Neutral Neutral Evil
Lawful Lawful Good Lawful neutral Lawful Evil

There are two axes, morality and law. Their definitions are not constant across editions, but roughly similar.


The morality axis, Good-Evil, indicates how moral you are in a fuzzy, handwavy sense. Partly it's whether your focus is altruistic or selfish. Partly it's whether you respect others' rights and integrity, particularly those weaker or more vulnerable than yourself. Partly it's how you respond to appeals for help. Partly it's whether you act self-sacrificingly or prioritise your own survival.


The law axis, Lawful-Chaotic, indicates your fickleness in various ways. Partly it's your attitude towards rules and regulations. Partly it's the consistency of your own behaviour in different situations. Partly it's to do with having codes of conduct. Partly it's whether you are reliably and trustworthy. Partly it's your relationship with authority.

Thinking about morality

Although I'd like to find a better option, I still think the best way of regarding Good and Evil is whether your focus is internal or external.

In a situation where interests clash, a Good character will tend to prioritise the interests of others over their own. You can view them as a funnel pointed outwards, channeling their resources to others. They consider the needs of the wider community rather than their own desires, and use this assessment to determine both their own behaviour, and how they react to the behaviour of others. They avoid doing what they consider to be harm unless they judge that it will be outweighed by other, beneficial consequences.

That being said, a Good character is not necessarily either "nice" or "kind". It is perfectly possible for a Good character to believe that a benevolent dictatorship is the only realistic means of ensuring a pleasant and peaceful realm for the majority; that beating a petty thief to a pulp will act as an example to others and that they do not deserve any particular kindness; that assassinating suspected evildoers or political opponents is acceptable for the greater good; that gentle kindness serves to weaken people and make them dependent; and so on.

Good characters can also be misguided, deluded, stupid, bigoted or just plain wrong. Especially where the setting encourages it, a Good character might firmly believe that heresy is liable to bring about the ruin of civilisation; that women cannot look after themselves; that dwarves need the guiding hand of superior species; or that nobles are inherently superior to commoners and the former biologically require fine food and comfort, while the latter must be worked hard and given coarse food for their own good. It is not incumbent on Good characters to always challenge the norms of the setting just to accord with contemporary real-world views, and this can in fact be quite awkward all round (for example, in settings with slavery or feudalism).

Obviously, it's good if such characters can change their views in response to learning more about the world. This section is partly included just to allow for Good characters in settings where these things are normal, without them constantly disrupting everything and getting in trouble. It's also supposed to allow for NPCs who are Good but seriously flawed. At the most basic level though, if your GM has designed a world where the official religion is really important and dwarves are enslaved, do you really want every single session to consist of you fighting to overturn the political system that allows slavery and change its attendant attitudes, while fighting for the rights of religious dissenters? Because if those are necessary views to quality for Goodness, that's kind of what you have to do.

Similarly, a Good character can be hypocritical, bad-tempered, have their own little weaknesses, and so on. A Good character may also treat certain people very poorly; for example, they may have a damaging relationship with children because of their own perspective, because they believe children should obey and serve their parents, or because they unconsciously try to live vicariously through them.

Even the Goodest character still views the world with graduations. Close friends are particularly precious, but may also be expected to share in the Good character's sacrifices. Those who are socially or physically close are generally prioritised above distant strangers - our hero may give their cloak to a freezing beggar they pass in the street, but selling all they have to send cloaks to beggars in a distant country is a different matter. Almost any Good character will make greater efforts to help an acquaintance than a stranger.

It also doesn't mean that a Good character never profits at someone else's expense. They are simply sensitive to the extent of this profiting. A Good character will still accept rewards for dangerous quests done to aid someone else; they do need to eat after all, and the money enables them to continue their adventures for the general good. They can still make a profit in business dealings, or accept a massive overvaluation of their goods, if their personality allows it - a belief in the free market naturally includes the belief that bad merchants lose money.

As you can see, I am trying to ensure my own pinko tendencies don't colour this too much!

Evil characters will tend to prioritise their own interests over others. Their "funnel" gathers from those around them and draws inward. They have no inherent concern for the harm they do to others, only for the consequences of that harm. Equally, they are not inherently concerned about harm done by others unless it affects them. In most cases they don't regard their own behaviour as wrong (though they usually know how others view it); they tend to believe that might makes right, or that nobody else looks out for their interests, or even view themselves as victims (and sometimes they genuinely are). Other Evil characters lack the self-awareness to recognise what's wrong with their behaviour.

Consequences of harm can take many forms. An obvious one is making enemies who want to kill you, which is inconvenient. More generally, they may alienate allies, or make themselves unpopular enough that life becomes difficult. There may be specific consequences which their personal moral code dictates against: for example, they might be fine with robbing a merchant or even killing them, but refrain because it would leave their children starving.

Evil is not, in most cases, deeds that the character holds to be evil and commits out of joy in the doing of evil - although such characters do exist. More commonly, an Evil character enjoys a particular behaviour that's socially or morally deplorable to most, and simply has no personal objection to acting on that desire. For example, an Evil noble may regularly seduce servants and commoners and have illegitimate children he then disowns, having no legal obligation towards either; he does this because he enjoys the chase and the sex, not out of deliberate malice. An Evil rogue may relish the power of taking what they want from others. Many battle-trained Evil characters enjoy violence and killing, but they don't usually indulge in it explicitly for the sake of doing evil - in many cases they don't consider it to be evil.

Evil characters do not apply their "funnels" equally; they categorise others according to their importance to the character. Many Evil characters are kind and benevolent to their close friends and family. Social mores complicate this further: an Evil character might treat blacksmiths and priestesses with the utmost respect and not dream of scheming against their interests, but happily exploit everyone else. Others have great respect for warriors and none for anyone else.

Some Evil characters are genuinely sociopathic, and don't so much think their behaviour is correct as simply not understand why they should care about these other people. A small number honestly do relish the thought of being evil, particularly if there is ritual or magical significance to these actions - for example, a cult may demand "evil deeds" of its members. Some assassins, gang leaders and merchants actively cultivate a reputation for dark deeds for the fear and respect it instils.

Neutral characters fall in between. They don't actively seek to spread benevolence and sacrifice themselves for others, but they also don't actively look to benefit at the expense of others to any serious extent. It's difficult to avoid the sense that neutral characters are passive, but that doesn't have to be true: it's just that generic benevolence and exploitation aren't their driving motivations. Instead, they need to be driven by personal goals, even if those are as simple and pragmatic as keeping their bellies full and saving up to buy a farm.

Thinking about law

So where does the law fit in here?

The alternative way of thinking about the Law-Chaos axis that I'd like to present here is about focus. Rather than focusing on your law-abiding tendencies (or lack of them), or on whether you have a strong code of conduct that you follow, it's about how reliably you prioritise your high-level ethics over short-term desires.

A Lawful character not only has a consistent* moral outlook, but also tends to subsume their instincts and desires to that framework. They avoid compromising their interests and ethics for the sake of short-term convenience or emotion.

* by which I mean here, a moral outlook that remains consistent over time, rather than one which is self-consistent - that would be rare indeed.

Confusingly enough, the behaviour of a Lawful character is not necessarily lawful. It may not be very respectable either. A Lawful character who opposes warfare and refuses to enlist is both breaking the law and incurring social disgrace. A Lawful Good character who believes tough love sets people on the straight and narrow may be very confrontational, and inclined to resort to physical force.

The Lawful Evil character is often seen as exploiting laws and technicalities for their own ends, and that's certainly one approach that still fits my model. However, more generally, a Lawful Evil character would simply follow whatever action they believe is in their own interest, beyond the immediate short term. It may be in their interests to stick to an agreement and maintain a reputation for reliability; but breaking the agreement may bring greater benefit.

A Chaotic character, on the other hand, is erratic in adherance to their overall benevolent-selfish framework.* If they have any strong Good or Evil tendencies, they do not prioritise them above more specific moral attitudes. Instincts are also a stronger influence than with the Lawful character. I think the important thing here is that the actions are thing that, on reflection, they would agree conflict with their benevolent-selfish framework.

* I'm avoiding the word "moral" here because the Good-Evil axis is just one part (a high-concept part) of the moral framework. A Chaotic character may sacrifice their wish to be benevolent, or their desire for personal benefit, because they decide some other moral point is more important to them right now.

It's always tempting to think of Chaotic characters as erratic and driven by pure id, but that's not necessarily true. You can think of motivations as existing in layers. The Good-Evil axis is the highest and broadest level; overall philosophical outlook (such as political, socioeconomic and religious views) provides a further set of motivations; there's a murky intermediate tier of lower-level views on things like what "friendship" means, how romantic relationships should be conducted, what constitutes theft or "excessive violence" and so on; and finally there's the more immediate instinct and emotional motivations.

In this model, being Chaotic means you tend to prioritise lower-level motivations over the higher levels, thus compromising your overall long-term beliefs in favour of the immediate situation. This may mean prioritising your instinctive reaction over your desire to accrue personal power, but it can also mean prioritising friendship over ethical views, or compromising your political views for the sake of your attitudes towards crime.

A Chaotic character may allow a fit of rage to overcome their pacifism, or conceal a crime committed by their friend despite a strong belief in the importance of law. They might spend their reward on a shiny new suit of armour, despite a strong belief in charity. A Chaotic Evil character might compromise their own long-term interests by giving in to a desire for violence, gloating or monologuing - or because they want to rescue a trusted ally or comply with a religious obligation. Chaotic Good characters get distracted from their missions by a sexy NPC, or don't want to take on some benevolent task because it would also shore up a political regime they dislike.

This makes sense of how Chaotic Evil societies are shown to operate: they are unstable and self-sabotaging, because the individuals don't cooperate for the sake of long-term mutual good, but succumb to more immediate urges. Similarly, Chaotic Good societies tend to be free-form; and although their desire for mutual benefit gives them resilience, their tendency to prioritise other factors can undermine that. Chaotic Good societies don't generally reach the heights of sophistication reached by stable and predictable Lawful Good (or even Lawful Evil) ones.

The Matrix

So here's some comparisons.

  Good Neutral Evil
Chaotic Chaotic Good heroes try to act for the good of others, but often get distracted or react to events in a way that doesn't serve that purpose. Often their actions are, in retrospect, regrettable or suboptimal. Chaotic Neutral adventurers aren't particularly bothered about exploitation or benevolence, but often place short-term goals above their long-term goals. Chaotic Evil bandits seek personal gain and power at the expense of others, but often undermine their efforts due to more immediate considerations. They often regret their choices later.
Neutral Neutral Good heroes want to serve and help people around them, and are reasonably dedicated to that goal. True Neutral adventurers are motivated by factors other than benevolence or exploitation, and pursue them reasonably diligently. Neutral Evil bandits want to exploit the people around them, and do so with reasonable discipline.
Lawful Lawful Good heroes try to act for the good of others, even when that means suppressing their instincts and compromising on other views. Lawful Neutral adventurers consistently prioritise their primary goals above more immediate instincts. Lawful Evil bandits pursue their own interests to the best of their ability, reining in their instincts and making short-term compromises as necessary.


  1. You seem to be saying in the end that chaos is ineffectual compared with law - there's an argument to be made there, but I don't think it's an argument that fits well in a D&Dish fantasy world where small bands of heroes can beat up giant armies (and more to the point, very often a world predicated on the power-fantasy that descends from the pulp Westerns, where one guy acting on his own is what the world needs).

    1. That wasn't actually quite what I was going for, although yes, it looks like I did say that. Maybe because the Hollywood version does sometimes show chaotic-types vaguely regretting their actions, or ironically realising they were a mistake - but then the same applies to overly-lawful types sometimes. So, I was wrong (again).

      I suppose broadly speaking it's more about philosophy than effectiveness. Insofar as this works at all, I think lawful types tend to prioritise one set of philosophies, while chaotic types are swayed by competing instincts. Their effectiveness will vary in terms of following their primary philosophy, but not necessarily in practical terms, if that makes sense?

      In a pulp Western, for example, a more chaotic hero might rile up the antagonists rather than placating them even though their motivation is ostensibly peace, because his pride is hurt or the antagonists make suggestive comments to a woman and he makes those a higher priority. The more lawful hero would tend to stay calm and shrug off insults because keeping things peaceful is the higher priority, and only throws a punch when forced.

      Of course, another consideration is that focusing single-mindedly can actually be a weakness. It can make you a predictable adversary, which is a classic weakness of Good characters, and of especially legalistic Evil ones. The Neutral or Chaotic character's ability to adapt to context or to just do something unexpected can ruin adversaries' plans. Being unpredictable is often an intimidating trait that stands villains and heroes alike in good stead. And as politics shows us, it can be pretty effective in rallying support.

      On the whole though, any of my posts on this subject are only ever going to be "this might be a vaguely useful alternative way to think about this". Alignment is just... awkward, frankly.

    2. Well, yes, I'm writing as an outsider who doesn't play any sort of D&D on a regular basis and basically doesn't use alignment at all. In its original form it seems to have been mostly "which side's army list do you get to pick from". If it's useful at all in a modern game, it's the way you're using it, as a guide to personality - though I suspect one could do just as well with Myers-Briggs or Big Five, and it might be amusing to try.