The Alignment Problem

The Alignment Problem

The god Marduk with his dragon, from a Babylonian cylinder seal.

In my fifteen years of experience playing tabletop games, no rule or game mechanic has started more arguments than the alignment system. I have seen gamemasters cringe when a player announces his character is chaotic, and I have heard players groan when they hear another player say her alignment is lawful. Players and GMs who seem to have flexible morals outside the game suddenly become intensely staunch and rigid about the definitions of good and evil once the game begins.

Moral relativism aside, what constitutes each alignment seems to be a big problem for a lot of groups. How do you define law and chaos? Good and evil? The easy solution seems to be to let the GM decide, but sometimes it’s not that simple, and players often have good arguments for why an action fits with their character’s alignment. There is no absolute answer to this problem, but maybe I can share some perspective and help move the discussion along.

Good and evil seems straightforward: Follow a handful of the Ten Commandments and you’re pretty much golden. But are you breaking “Thou Shall Not Steal” if what you’re taking rightfully belongs to someone else, and you mean to return it to its true owner? Are you violating the spirit of “Thou Shall Not Kill” if it’s in defense of your own life or another’s? This becomes difficult because you have to weigh intent.

In general, I have come to view the gray parts of good and evil more like selflessness and cruelty. Is the character doing what he or she is doing for the sake of another person? Does the character stand to gain from helping this person? Is the character taking deliberate advantage of someone in doing so?

Let’s say the players are asked to save a child from a goblin stew pot. If they do so without caring about a reward, certainly that is a good act. If the risk to them is great and they refuse to do so without a reward, that is certainly not good but it is not really evil either. If they demand a reward when the risk is negligible or they demand a reward that is more than the parents can reasonably afford, then they are treading into the realm of evil. Certainly if they didn’t try to stop the goblins from kidnapping the child in the first place and THEN demanded a reward for the rescue… well, there’s always room in the Abyss for more souls.

Law and chaos tends to be more tricky. I’ve encountered too many players over the years who avoid lawful alignments because they can’t get away from the notion that “lawful” means they have to follow every law of the land to the letter, with no deviation. In the same vein, we all have dealt with the one player who thinks the word “chaotic” is license for their character to do whatever comes to mind without rhyme or reason.

I have found it simpler to think of this situation in terms of logic and intuition. Think of it this way: a lawful character needs to weigh each action and event against the terms of his or her code and decide how that fits. A monk who steals out of necessity but then pays back what he owes when he can is not necessarily violating a code of honorable conduct: he did steal but only because there was no other choice at the time, and he made amends for his misconduct as soon as he was able. This is still arguably honorable behavior overall.

By the other side of that token, a chaotic character is likely to be the one to make decisions based on gut instinct, an immediate and reactive style of thinking. A man is screaming and running away from some warriors? The chaotic hero likely will throw herself into the fray and drive the warriors off first, only asking what the problem was later. The party must choose between two options? The chaotic character is more likely to go with the one that feels right rather than spend much time arguing the pros and cons of each, or flip a coin and let luck decide if there’s no real difference between the two. This doesn’t mean the chaotic character acts without thinking at all—it just means she places more value in her feelings than she does in logic.

Is this a perfect system? No, and I won’t ever claim it is. It is, however, a way to avoid the same cliched ruts that so many of us fall into when deciding how alignment affects our roleplaying. This may not work for everybody, but it should at least give you somewhere to start if you’re trying to find that sweet spot that works for your group.

9 thoughts on “The Alignment Problem”

  1. As I have always understood it, Lawful = societal structures, Chaotic = individualism.

    In other words, a lawful good person wishes do good work within the structure of that society, while a chaotic good person wishes to do good work without any restrictions on how it gets done. The lawful good person believes each person should work to build a better society. The chaotic good person believes everyone should be the best person they can be.

    A lawful evil person wants to advance the cause of Evil, and in so doing advance their personal status within the hierarchy. A chaotic evil person just wants power over others and will only obey those who are more powerful.

    A shorter description: lawful = working with others, chaotic = working alone. Good = helping others and evil = helping yourself.

  2. @Mark, but you’re falling into that classic rut yourself. An evil character doesn’t think of themselves as evil, or shouldn’t. Every character thinks what they’re doing is “right” if they’re acting according to alignment, regardless of what that alignment is. A Lawful Evil character isn’t advancing the cause of “Evil”, he or she is trying to advance whatever cause they stand for and build up a structure to give that cause the most support and power; if people get hurt or abused in doing so, then it’s their fault for opposing the cause.

  3. I’ve found that one unusual yet helpful guide for lawful behavior, especially lawful good is judge Dee from the Robert Van Gulik novels. He’s also a great guide to a guileful and sly yet LG character, as he routinely tricks and cons criminals and occasionally honest citizens when he has to, but always to serve both the law and his fellow Chinese.

  4. My two cents,

    Morality is different now. People have created all sorts of ways to bend morality to fit their lifestyle. Even the words have changed meaning in the last 38 years since the game has been released. It used to be that:

    Good is good, no breaking of the ten commandments for any reason.

    Evil is evil, you can do what you want when you want to do it.

    Neutral is neutral, this is where you measured the consequences and decided whether you would take an action that is evil or not.

    Lawful is lawful, who ever made the law doesn’t matter…you adhere to the laws: all of them.

    Chaotic is chaotic, you do what you want when you want to do it, including obeying the laws.

    Neutral is neutral, this is where you measured the consequences and decided whether you would take an action that is unlawful or not.

    So really what needs to be done to use these HARD rules in a game is to make sure that everyone has a copy of them and they start working on the exception list to the alignment that fits their character. A rule, that exceptions can only be added between games, should be in effect. This accounts for character realizations and growth.

    Paladins and monks have to create their “code”, or list of alignment exceptions ahead of time and may only change it under extreme circumstance (or not at all!).

    When a characters alignment comes into question: the DM looks over the exception list and makes a ruling. Second chances are favored as it allow characters to become acclimated to the DMs rules.

  5. I’m not sure how I feel about Mark’s comment that Law relates to societal structures while Chaos relates to individualism. If a character has a rigid but strictly personal code of conduct, I think that would still qualify as Lawful. But in broad strokes, I think Mark’s dichotomy raises a useful point.

    I’m sure that I don’t agree with Hunter’s comment that an evil character wouldn’t believe that he’s evil. That may be true in fiction, but under the D&D/Pathfinder alignment system, Evil is an objective force that can be perceived. If an evil character has any question about his alignment, there are ways to check. Moral relativism doesn’t fit with this kind of alignment system.

  6. @Hunter – I disagree. Some characters can act to pursue a goal and their structures are evil, these are neutral in that the goal is a higher motive than either good or evil. Some, however, are really evil. They actively seek to hurt others. In this framework (as set out in 3.5) it is the intention to hurt that defines the evil whereas the intention to help that defines the good. I’ve found this a very useful distinction.

  7. @Daniel – I can see your point but I still feel it’s cheesy and unimaginative to say that a character’s motivation for something is that s/he actively seeks to do evil for evil’s sake. Perhaps that’s objectively what s/he’s doing, but I think it’s a roleplaying cop-out for a character to declare s/he’s evil and therefore they only do “evil” things. Certainly a villain might take up the mantle of “evil” as a way of mocking the people he fights against; he feels that his way is the right way to do things, and if that makes him “evil”, who cares?

    @Brom – Your point is technically true, but I think you’re off track. The Good/Evil differentiation is there for game mechanics; while you CAN apply them directly to the roleplaying aspect, I feel that in doing so you end up with a campaign more like the Order of the Stick than a deep, serious storyline. I’m not saying that kind of campaign can’t be fun to play in, but the moral ambiguities that come from separating roleplaying from mechanics help a lot of people with immersion and that’s the effect I go for in my games.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join the Kobold Courier and Earn Loot!

Stay informed with the newest Kobold Press news and updates delivered to your inbox weekly. Join now and receive a PDF copy of Deep Magic: Elemental Magic!

Ghouls in a graveyard, the cover of Prepared 2

Join The Kobold Courier


Be like Swolbold. Stay up to date with the newest Kobold Press news and updates delivered to your inbox twice a month.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This
Scroll to Top