Getting Aligned

What do Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic really mean in a D&D campaign?

Some find the official alignments of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic (RC/10-1) to be somewhat unwieldy in a game wherein the concepts of good and evil underly most adventures. This requires some clarification of alignment, at least in terms of how the poles of Law and Chaos relate to game play.

Thanks to Scott C., Mike Harvey, and Luther Martin from The Guild of Original D&D, whose posts regarding alignment inspired the analysis below.


“Good” and “evil” are generally words to avoid, due to their relativistic connotations. To describe some condition or person as “good” implies that divergent conditions or persons—however varied—are “evil.” This can be confusing, especially when game play involves moral absolutes, like paladins or spells such as Protection From Evil and Dispel Evil. If a Lawful paladin, for example, is defined as good, then his antithesis, a Chaotic avenger, is certainly evil. But these are relative descriptors: a paladin considers himself good and avengers evil. For their part, avengers probably don’t think of themseles as pure evil—they envision themselves as doing what they believe in, and that’s got to be subjectively “good” for anyone. It’s like saying, “I like to have fun.” Who doesn’t? It’s just that fun means different things to different people.

To simplify this issue, suppose that evil, in game terms, were defined universally as anything directly or potentially harmful to one’s person, as any obstacle to one’s physical, mental, or spiritual well-being, or as any concept or course of action antithetical to one’s core belief system. A broad scope, to be sure, but not that difficult to fathom if, instead of “evil” one uses the word “menace.” This doesn’t change a paladin’s outlook, since avengers, considered evil, represent a clear menace to the paladin’s life work. Using the same logic, from an avenger’s point of view, the paladin is an evil force as well. Further, under this convention, spells like Dispel Evil make a bit more sense; as Dispel Menace, (or, simply, Dispel) for example, the spell sheds its moral aspect and becomes something that a character of any alignment can sensibly make use of.

In contrast to good and evil, Law and Chaos are objective: A system is either ordered or it is not. In terms of morality, Law and Chaos are mere vehicles; to (radically) turn a phrase, “Law is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” Same for Chaos, and the tenants of either simply describe how one goes about achieving one’s ethical goals. Lawful beings adhere to well-ordered systems for bringing about good or evil, just as Chaotic individuals are unpredictable in the methods by which they attain their moral ambitions. As bare methodologies—devoid of moral standards—Law and Chaos take a more realistic and appreciable role in the campaign, impacting characters, NPCs, monsters, and even whole societies on a more rational and intuitive level.

Law, Chaos, and Neutrality

Law underlies the organisation of society and exists to outline not only the “rules” for civilised behaviour, but also the individual consequences (i.e., punishment) for breaking those rules. Whether these rules take the form of the Ten Commandments, Hammurabi’s Code, or Roman Law, for example, the assumption is that people are better off operating within a standard of conduct that applies—in generally equal measure—to all. Instead of expending all efforts on survival, people can look to the law for protection from murder and harm. Instead of constantly guarding their property, people can rely on the law to punish thieves and vandals. Instead of resorting to violence as a means of settling disputes, people can depend on the law for fair arbitration. The net result, then, is an outlook that promotes predictability as a means to individual betterment and cultural development.

Chaos is not simply the opposite of Law, but rather the absence of strict behavioural codes. Individuals become better and cultures develop because they adapt sufficiently to meet and overcome adversity. If life is unpredictable and survival is paramount, then subscribing to a set of static laws is more of a constraint than a benefit. To Chaotic proponents, Law imposes artificial conditions on the natural order, in which survival is achieved by those most fit to live. Nature offers no redress for wrongs, and living beings—both strong and weak—must work constantly to protect and provide for themselves. Concomitantly, while social codes of conduct may sound lofty and nice, none can prevent one from ultimately falling victim to so-called “crime.” In the end, any set of beliefs is worth upholding only if it permits sufficient flexibility to adapt to change and increase one’s chances of survival.

Finally, Neutrality isn’t simply a “middle of the road” outlook, nor does it mean “sometimes Lawful/sometimes Chaotic.” Instead, it is a perspective of what might be called considered practicality. A Neutral being believes that there are strengths to both Law and to Chaos, but that neither represents an exclusively beneficial philosophy that’s applicable to all situations. There is an unpredictability to events that occur in Nature, but a consistency in that the fittest always survive — through some manner of perseverance. Conversely, there is a need for civil order where large numbers congregate, but that’s only because civilised society affords the luxury of being creative and, well, unpredictable. The outcome is a model that embraces a flexible plan—a sort of dynamic order—as the best route to personal and societal progress.

Alignment In Practice

These concepts manifest in subtle and overt ways. Below are descriptions of how some of the more obviously impacted areas are affected:

  • Arcane Magic – Magic is rooted more in Chaos than Law, as illustrated by its capacity to overturn the conventions of natural science. As further evidence of magic’s Chaotic foundation, even seasoned spell-casters can fall victim to the volatile nature of the arcane (as reflected by our spell failure guidelines). Most disciplined and established societies view arcane magic as a threat to order, or, at best, a means of circumventing the standards of approved behaviour. As a result, proscriptions against magic generally rise in proportion to a given society’s adherence to Law; in some cases, this means that magic use, spell-casting, and enchanted items are carefully controlled by the government. In other cases, it means that wielding arcane magic in any form constitutes a criminal act. Neutral parties see magic as a tool to be used sparingly, and its use is endorsed only if the benefits of success outweigh the consequences of failure. Chaotic individuals, of course, view magic as just another weapon in their battle to survive: if self-preservation and personal attainment require magic, then magic is what is used.
  • Avengers – Holy warriors allied to Chaotic clerical orders, avengers are inaccurately classified as personifications of evil. However, avengers must be viewed simply as enforcers of their order’s dictates, and, to be sure, if their powers are indicative of the favour they enjoy with their Immortal patrons, who can say that they are wrong or incorrect in the application of their considerable ability? Avengers, like the orders that sponsor them, are dedicated to the cause of Chaos, whether that means simply survival at any cost or the deliberate acknowledgement that power is derived as a function of power over the weak. Either way, avengers are predictable only inasmuch as they are incalculable — it is not unheard of for an avenger to grant mercy to a captive, if such quarter somehow supports the cause of Chaos. It is not impossible for an avenger to keep his word, but only if doing so does not compromise his well-being or that of his sect. An avenger may act in a virtuous manner, provided that such a display furthers the cause of his Immortal patron. In short, an avenger—as anyone else of a Chaotic bent—need behave only in such fashion as self-preservation and the continuation of Chaos requires.
  • Clerics – Regardless of alignment, the first and foremost requirement for any cleric is devotion to his chosen Immortal patron (it should go without saying that, except in unique circumstances, the cleric’s alignment must match that of his honoured deity). Lawful clerics, like the gods they worship, laud order and a well-defined code of conduct when practicing their affairs. Similarly, clerics of Chaotic gods embrace survivability—of themselves and their religion—above all else, wielding their power and influence as situations warrant. Neutral clerics seek balance to some extent, but only to avoid excessive behaviours at one or the other extreme of the alignment scale; their mode, like that of their patrons, is the judicious application of power in proportion to circumstance. As implied above, however, clerics of any alignment should not be relegated to compartments of “good” or “evil;” Lawful clerics do not necessary uphold the rights of weak individuals when the greater good demands the cold and calculated observation of social codes. Conversely, Chaotic clerics are not ubiquitously depraved, insolent, scheming, or corrupted; situations may warrant seemingly magnanimous acts (though, to be sure, there is always a self-serving element to their work, committed, if for no other reason, to gain favour and rank within their sect). Neutral clerics, similarly, should not be seen as mere “protectors of balance” or as uninterested and disaffected participants in life. Indeed, such devotees might be seen simply as impartial observers, applying various strategies of order and disorder as judged most expedient. Consequently, spells granted to Neutral clerics are given on somewhat of a “contractual” basis, wherein divine magic is seen as a deserved bonus for proper religious adherence.
  • Demi-humans – Most demi-human societies embrace Law as a foundation of social order, if only because “”weak”” members of society can, given their long lifespans, eventually be of value to the whole community. Another indicator of their predominately Lawful bent is illustrated by their relative level of sophistication—excellence in the areas of craft, philosophy, science, and the arts cannot truly blossom within a Chaotic environment. Finally, given their ability to coexist peacefully with other sentient races, demi-humans do not need to resort to the violent and dominating aspects so ascendant in Chaotic society. Nevertheless, the ever-adaptable demi-human races are capable of eschewing Lawful tendencies if they dwell in a harsh environment that mandates self-preservation above cultural growth. In such circumstances, demi-humans may gravitate toward Neutral alignment, abandoning codes of civil order as an alternative to attrition or extinction. In other situations, where demi-humans live in less cultivated (but relatively passive) environs, they may adopt Neutrality as a means of embracing Natural Law; such might be interpreted as a desire to become closer to the land that supports them. In either case, a Neutral disposition simply indicates that some lack of predictability is more conducive to their lifestyle than strict adherence to codified order. Chaotic demi-humans certainly exist, though such are probably encountered as individuals who, for one reason or another, believe that a complete lack of order is the best manner by which to promote their self-interests.
  • Divine Magic – Clerical magic can be even less predictable than its arcane counterpart, since it is granted at the whims of the divine. Nevertheless, if a society of any alignment is truly faithful, it views clerical magic as completely and unarguably reliable, if for no other reason than that it originates from a venerated source. While seemingly contradictory, this is one thing that both Lawful and Chaotic folk can agree on. They have to, for regardless of how devout the cleric or faithful the worshippers, the decision to grant divine magic rests ultimately with a devine being. If Lawful worshippers witness a well-cast spell from one of their clerics, all may agree that they have been properly rewarded for their peity. If the spell fails, then someone—the cleric or an errant worshipper—must have committed sufficient transgression for the deity to withold spells. This same dynamic works in Chaotic places as well, only when a spell doesn’t pan out, worshippers also must concede the possibility that the Immortal is being merely capricious (because, on some level, this sort of disappointment cannot be entirely foreign to those who venerate a Chaotic deity). For their part, Neutrals tend to interpret spell performance as an indicator of their Immortal’s judgement: if the spell works, the deity must have thought the cause worthwhile; if the spell doesn’t, then the deity probably had other solutions in mind.
  • Druids – These specialised, Neutral clerics are devoted to Natural balance — not in terms of good or evil, but rather in recognition of the fact that different creatures operate best at different levels of order. Druids certainly appreciate the harsher aspects of Natural Law, but they also acknowledge the fact that there exist sentient, intelligent, and self-sufficient creatures that dwell beyond such confines. Put another way, the druid understands that “survival of the fittest” applies, for instance, to squirrels, birds, bears, and plants, but also grants that men, elves, and orcs—who, to various levels, fashion more regulated cultural bonds and hierarchies—live outside the same constraints. In embracing the sanctity of balance, any druid is forced necessarily to Neutrality, if only in cognizance of a reality in which both squirrels and men clearly survive; the act of promoting Law over Chaos or Chaos over Law is tantamount to ignoring the obvious fact that both coexist and flourish, despite their uneven reliance on concepts such as social order. In light of this interpretation, DMs may continue the “ban,” as it were, on druidic access to spells that affect alignment — even if Protection From Evil were read as Protection From Menace, the spell would still give the druid inordinate leverage in affecting the Natural balance of things.
  • Humans – Men are the most mutable of peoples, and their tendency toward Law or Chaos is often a direct result of the conditions in which live. For settled, protected, and well-fed folk who can take mere survival for granted, Lawful codes of conduct are appealing, if not necessary. For those dwelling in the midst of harsh and uncertain environments, Chaos is a necessary mode of life. In terms of human society, Law is typical within well-established and relatively stable communities — these are the places where the weak contribute as much to society as the strong. In less stable environs, Chaos dominates as an outlook necessary to survival. Neutral societies exist where the strong—monetarily, or through force—certainly hold sway, but in which the weak are not compulsively dismissed, as they have the potential to contribute, or, at worst, the act of maintaining their well-being is not an undue strain on the community at large.
  • Humanoids – Most humanoids are Chaotic, given as they are to the maxim of “might makes right” during their short lives; their society reflects this, as the strong dominate the weak. There is a practical aspect to this trend, as weak humanoids simply aren’t affordable in comparison to their contribution to the martially inclined bent of most humanoid enclaves. Still, there may exist “advanced” humanoid cultures, where a lack of predation and ample resources connive to form a more stable mode of life. In such cases, humanoids may cultivate their own food, may fashion their own tools, and, in all other respects, are not forced to rely on constant raids, pillage, and plunder in order to ensure survivability. Humanoid societies of this nature are characterised by a sizeable population of “weaker,” non-combatative members who strengthen the greater whole through non-martial contributions. While probably not Lawful—since, after all, they are humanoids, with somewhat of an ingrained disposition toward barbarism—such tribes are probably of Neutral alignment. Lawful humanoids are exceptionally rare, and most likely encountered as individuals separated for various reasons from their clan units.
  • Paladins – Within this analysis, these virtuous fighters are more aptly described as holy warriors dedicated to the imposition of Law, as defined by their patron deities and, by proxy, their clerical order. While such devotion certainly implies “good” and honourable behaviour, it does not necessarily follow that a paladin will always act nobly by protecting the weak, granting mercy, and allowing his enemy the luxury of reflecting upon the errors of his ways. To be sure, a paladin can be counted upon to keep his word; this is a manifestation of his Lawful manner. However, what if word is given to cut down, at any and every opportunity, a sworn and prolific enemy? What if the extermination of captives is a better servant to social order than yielding just quarter to those whose inherently violent nature prevents them from eventually eroding the stability of established communities? What if the church’s survival depends on the ruthless elimination of its opponents — even if the targets are innocent in thought, if not in deed? In each of these eventualities, the Lawful paladin is not proscribed from wielding his formidable powers to their full extent, provided that the ultimate end strengthens the viability or longevity of Lawful society. If a paladin’s deity commands the rigourous conversion of malcontents, infidels, and non-believers, who is paladin to argue? Indeed, if the paladin is not the secular arm of divine order, why else would he be endowed with such a magnificent capacity to thwart Chaos? In game terms, then, the paladin need act only in service to his Lawful clerical order to retain his preferential status; acts of “evil” must therefore be weighed against the paladin’s intent and desired outcome before charges of infidelity can be levied.
  • Science – Natural science is rooted in Law, as evidenced by its predictable essentia and the permeation of a consistent and observable progression from cause to effect. For Lawful peoples, science is more desirable than magic, since even though it requires more effort, more planning, and more innovative thinking, the end result is a more stable technological tool. Neutral beings have a less absolute view of science, acknowledging the predictability of what is known while admitting the apparent disorder of what has not yet been grasped. Those of a chaotic bent have no objection to using science as a tool, but they see limitations in its ordered structure that prevent them from giving it their complete trust.
  • Society – Civilised society relies on laws that limit behaviour; uncivilised societies operate with few, if any, such limitations. Thus, within a Lawful settlement, the strong are prevented from abusing their power while the weak are protected by some measure of equality. A Chaotic society, on the other hand, operates on a strength-based pecking order; rules apply to the weak only because they are enforced by the strong, whether that strength is measured in wealth, muscle, political influence, or whatever. Neutral societies see the benefit of codified law much as a Lawful peoples do, but they also realise that no set of written law will ever be simultaneously fair and comprehensive to all. For such folk, the choice is a trade-off: the benefits of civilisation are bought by obeying its rules; the freedom of Nature is without cost, though survival is not.
  • Trust – Trust has more value to Lawful beings because one’s word is an extension of one’s observation of known rules. Trust is temporal for Chaotic types, since the value of one’s word is applicable only to the extent that one’s survivability is relatively guaranteed. Since the thought process and modus operandi of Lawfully minded creatures defaults to a constant set of rules, they are reliable. The mindsets of Chaotic beings are more capricious, since they are bent on adaptability and the attendant infliction of their will; necessarily, their convictions change in accordance to current events. Neutral types often strive to keep their word, but allow themselves a reprieve in situations where doing so might compromise their goals or well-being.
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Erin Smale

Erin Smale is the author of the Chimera RPG and, a sporadic, rambling blog that provides tips and tools for the time-challenged game master. He lives in secret along the New Jersey coast with his ass-kicking wife Kim and astoundingly cute dog Bella.

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