Ever have problems with alignment issues in a game? Read this article and you’ll never argue about them again. You’ll probably just stop playing.
Alignments can be one of the most tricky and controversial elements in the game. This usually occurs due to a subjective difference upon the definition of their appropriate application. This is fine when it occurs between characters, for that’s a cornerstone of good role-playing. But when it develops into issues between players, it is rarely constructive. In an effort to try and clear this point a bit, I have written a piece exploring the concepts and precepts that make up each set of behavioral alignments. But first we must have an agreed upon set of definitions. So many arguments go nowhere because the participants are using the same language, but applying different meanings to the words. The following are artificial distinctions, as an over-simplification will be intentionally imposed for ease of use and clarity. In this case, imposed consistency is more important then actual validity (though the latter is by no means unimportant, just secondary for our present needs.) After the definitions have been established, an exploration into the rationality behind the combination of morals and ethics, what is known as one’s alignment, will be addressed. So bear with me, at least for a bit, it’ll be over before you know it.
The first distinction I will make is between Ethics and Morals. Ethics will be defined as what constitutes acceptable modes of behavior based upon secular social standards. This is expressed in the differences between Law and Chaos. Morals are acceptable modes of behavior and thought based upon religious and spiritual standards. The eternal conflict between Good and Evil is the subject of this latter discussion. The moral and ethical implications of Neutrality will be discussed separately.
We will start with Ethics. Many of our own societies have been oscillating between Law and Chaos, from authoritarianism to anarchy throughout history. The purpose of Law is either protection of the masses or the promotion of social efficiency (the exact beneficiary of this efficiency is irrelevant for this discussion,) and often both. In the real world there might be two forms of chaos one could define, active and passive. Active chaos is the active rejection of the law and the active protection of one’s freedom. For the purposes of the game and simplicity, this active chaos will be used as the ethical mindset of Chaos as it exists in the game. The other type of real chaos is neither an acceptance nor rejection of law, but rather its absence, a negative (i.e., passive) form of chaos. This passive chaos will be designated the ethical mindset of Neutrality as it exists in the game, but this concept will be discussed more fully later. (I personally don’t think that passively Chaotic person is Neutral, he is still Chaotic, just not a political Anarchist. But this irregularity is the result of artificially adding Neutrality as a positive concept.)
When dealing with the issues of ethics, the conflict revolves around a question of prerogatives. Law, taken to its extreme, wants to control every move you make. In order to prevent the evils of Chaos, Law wishes to legislate away any freedom, so that every variable can be accounted and planned for. Chaos, taken to its extreme wants to remove any barrier to its freedoms, so that no outside force can actively control its actions. In order to prevent the oppressiveness of Law, Chaos strives to tear down (or at least circumvent) any force that bars its way. The major conflict between the ideologies of Law and Chaos are disagreements on the importance between the questions of Order and Freedom. The Lawful being willingly gives up (at least some of) his Freedom for the benefits of Order. He shuns Chaos as a tool of inefficiency that can only lead to a reduction of the promotion of his desires. He believes that ultimately, the benefits of Order outweigh the benefits of Freedom. This doesn’t mean that he has no regard for Freedom (although that’s possible,) he might believe that the preservation of real Freedom can only exist through Law and Order (like most people do today.) How much Freedom he gives up is a function of how authoritarian of a structure he believes is required, not whether or not it is needed in the first place. But the Chaotic being holds the opposite view. He believes that his interests are best served by a lack of outside control. Order does not promote the most efficient means to his desires because Order is the directive of another, and that other’s ends are not the same as the Chaotic being. Order either does not or cannot promote Freedom, in fact is its confounding antithesis, and so in order to keep his Freedom, he must resist Order, he must be Chaotic.
And now we come to the question of morals. The largest issue surrounding the conflict of morals is that most people cannot agree upon which particular set of morals is the correct set. That issue will not be addressed here as it makes things too complicated. We are concerned with the concept of Good as opposed to Evil in abstract terms and how these apply to the concepts of Law and Chaos, not a laundry list of what constitutes one or the other, although the addressing of these differences can make for some good gaming sessions. Good will be defined here as the promotion of the self (self including that which is us as opposed to them) up to the point where it harms others, but not intentionally beyond that point, if it can be avoided, and/or the helping of others for the sake of benefiting others. Evil will be defined as the promotion of self irrespective of the harm to others, and/or the harm of others for the sake of harm to others. Where Good will actively seek to avoid harm to others, Evil will either be indifferent to the harm of others or even actively seek it. This is not to say that Good will not allow itself to benefit at the expense of others, or even that it will not harm others to benefit itself. There are exceptions to the rule, self-defense, for example. But even then, the harm to the other will be actively minimized if possible. Also, when Good identifies other as Evil, Good’s morals might not apply. Out-group morality may differ from In-group morality depending on the culture. This difference may be seen as function of the difference between an enlightened Good and a barbaric Good culture. Evil, too, has a sense of morality, just a perverted sense. He either holds that what he does is Good, it’s just that we actively disagree, or that he both understands and acknowledges Good and Evil as we do, he just doesn’t care to follow it. He knows the difference between right and wrong, he just chooses to follow the wrong path, for whatever reason, consistently. Most importantly, he agrees that what he does is wrong (even if he refuses to outwardly admit it.) This is kind of fuzzy, I know, but to stay as a general abstract notion, it’s unavoidable.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in game alignment systems is the rigidity of their application. A Lawful being is generally lawful in his actions, but not necessarily always lawful, especially when the laws conflict with the PC’s sense of morals (usually when good) or his/her own personal self interest (usually when evil.) Even Lawful beings break the law when they feel justified or sufficiently induced to do so. For example, a Lawful Good character probably wouldn’t carry out a law that was antithetical to his morals, like following King Herod’s decree that all the male babies born in the town of Jerusalem on a certain date must be slaughtered. Nor would a Lawful Evil character hesitate to murder a colleague if he was sure he could get away with it and would profit greatly, regardless of the fact that the laws of his land forbid murder. When you consider the ethic of Chaos, slavish adherence can yield even more ridiculous results. Imagine the Chaotic Good character refusing to pay for his ale because the laws of the land demand payment for goods and services, but that if no law existed, he would have no problem paying for it. Although there are cases where Chaotic characters might break laws unnecessarily as an act of protest, and Lawful characters might tolerate laws that violate their moral sensibilities because it’s not worth fighting, one must remember that for most non-Neutral characters, ethics are a means to the end, that end being the promotion of ones morals. Generally speaking, it is logical to assume that non-Neutrally moral characters will hold to their morals more strictly then their ethics. This rigidity of application often leads to the inconsistency of application as well; for acting overtly Good, Evil, Lawful or Chaotic to an excessive degree will eventually exact prices for the character, especially with an observant DM. The player, knowing this will most likely sacrifice alignment logic for PC-preservation. Of course, this is a weakness of the player’s ability, not the system. Also, the opposite will yield different behavior, but similar deficiencies. When the player is too slavish to his alignment, this will only cause frustration for the other players. For some characters this is unavoidable (paladins can be by nature irritatingly righteous or thieves annoyingly greedy,) but this is more a function of role-playing immaturity then a systemic flaw.
And now we come to the enigma of the Neutral character. I dislike the treatment that the AD&D systems give for character Neutrality. Von Clausewitz often criticized the military theorists of his day for irrationally clinging to tactics that were the logical conclusions of theories, especially when although they were logical in abstraction, in practice they were nonsensical. In the same way I have a problem with the way the AD&D systems (1st – 3rd Ed.) clings to its notions of Neutrality. The error in thinking lies in the assertion that Neutrality can be a position as distinct from either Law or Chaos, a third path that has its own set of moral or ethical considerations. I believe that Neutrality does not represent a position, but rather a lack of one. The idea of balance between the two forces is more a function of a question of rationality. To be too Lawful, too Chaotic, too Good or too Evil can be seen in terms of an irrational pathological behavioral disorder (i.e., being crazy,) not just the ethic or moral viewpoint taken to its logical conclusion. No rational creature takes even its own cherished ethic or morality too far. If (and all too often when) they do, they either end up promoting the opposite cause, or simply loose the claim to rationality. Where the differences between Law vs. Chaos and Good vs. Evil are polemic and even polarized, they are all in a sense positive things. They are positive in the sense that they are active qualities of belief. To be Good, Evil, Lawful or Chaotic, you must actively maintain a belief, you must hold a position. Even if you disagree on what exactly that position is, that you have a position is not in question. But characters who are Neutral on an issue of ethics or morality have a negative position, that is, they have no position either way, they have a lack of a position. Their actions are not guided by any ideology whatsoever. An ethically Neutral character will follow the law like a Lawful character if he is induced to, but will not if he is not. Nor will he actively seek to break them for the purposes of protest or preservation of his freedom. Ethically he is an unthinking force who takes the path of least resistance. Similarly, a morally Neutral character has no moral grounding or belief system one way or the other. In real life terms, a good person would be a moral person, because he recognizes the difference between Good and Evil, and acts according to the precepts of Good. An evil person would be an immoral person, who either believes he is acting Good, but is wrong in that belief, or is knowingly acting according to the precepts of Evil. But the Neutral person has neither belief system. A morally Neutral person would be amoral, one who acts purely based upon the logic of his desires, irrespective of moral considerations. Animals and computers might be neutral of temperament, because they act without conception of morality. But in real life it would be hard to distinguish between morally Neutral and Evil characters and ethically Neutral and Chaotic characters.
So if it is hard to distinguish them in real life, what realistic guidelines do we have to play them? I believe there is none, it is impossible to play Neutrality correctly because it is nonsensical to play the lack of a thing. Role-playing is a positive action, acting out a positive ethic or moral ideology, but Neutrality is the lack of that ethical or moral ideology. Role-playing Neutrality would be tantamount to acting negatively, that is, not acting at all, and how can you effectively role-play a non-action? It could be argued that Neutral characters understand the concepts of ethics and morality, they just don’t utilize those thought processes, much in the way an android might understand the concepts of Good and Evil, it just may not utilize them, or even if it did, it isn’t because it wants to, but only that Good actions (IF/THEN directives) have been programmed into it, and therefore it would just as unhesitatingly have performed Evil actions (IF/THEN directives) without any consideration as to the moral contradictions involved. Of course, this line of reasoning wanders into the ontology of morals, which is beyond the scope of this discussion.
It is sufficient to say that Neutrality can be utilized by the AD&D system only in the sense that it is a negation (a lack) of an ethical or moral view. A LN or CN character is completely absorbed in the struggle between Order and Freedom, Law and Chaos. And a NG or NE character is completely unconcerned with such issues and is focused totally on issues of morality, of Good and Evil, of Right vs. Wrong. Just as the first two will make use of Good or Evil elements to promote their causes, so the second two will switch between Law and Chaos when it is expedient for the promotion of theirs. For example, a LN or CN character will willingly accept the help of either an angel or demon to destroy the rule of Chaos or Law, respectively, and will turn on their erstwhile allies (if such is ethically appropriate) and work with their former enemies to continue the struggle, without any real consideration to the moral impact of their actions. Alternatively, a NG or NE character will willingly accept the help of a local king or rebel to advance their ideological struggle, and may switch sides (if such is morally appropriate) and work with their former enemies to continue their struggle, without any real consideration to the ethical (that is the political or social) impact these actions may cause, as long as these consequences do not interfere with their moral crusade.
The Paradox of True Neutrality
And finally we come to the crux of the alignment system. What of the True Neutral character? A being with no conception or use for either ethics or morality would act only on impulse. The only True Neutral sapient being that I can conceive of would be a god. For even according to most religious doctrines, gods, by their very position, are beyond either moral or ethical considerations, even if they espouse specific moral and ethical tenets, which most do. Such a creature (according to our understanding) would be outside of rationality, outside of sanity as well. Their pattern of behavior would be utterly inscrutable to us, as is often the case. H.P. Lovecraft’s Azagthoth comes to mind, which is sentient, but who’s understanding of reality is interpreted by us to be complete gibberish. Such a being would be pure Chaos, but the source of all Law. Because it would act outside the precepts of Good, it would be pure Evil, even though the very sense of what is Good comes from it. It might be a logical conclusion of an abstract theory, but in reality is utterly nonsensical. Therefore, I would posit that while all alignments hover around True Neutrality, with the non-Neutral ones on the far peripherals, no PC could actually be True Neutral. Like a trigonometric isotope, while it may exist as an inescapable mathematical abstraction, it is a realistic impossibility, an aberrance of logic. Unless of course, the PC becomes a god him or herself, but then the character would transcend mortal conceptions of ethics and morality. And since players are themselves only mortal beings, how can one articulate, let alone role-play that which by definition is beyond our conception? This is the ultimate nonsensicality of True Neutrality; a player is forced to choose between role-playing that which is either beyond his conception, or that which has no conceptions whatsoever.
The Copout that is Chaotic Neutral
One of the biggest actual complaints I have with alignments is with the Chaotic Neutral character. Is insanity a question of a specific moral/ethical outlook or an issue of true irrationality? A madman can be any alignment, in fact would probably hold that alignment to an irrationally excessive degree. It is his excessive belief system that makes him pathological, not because he both actively shuns Law and has no concern for Good or Evil. While this character has the most freedom of action, it is at the same the hardest to effectively role-play. I say effectively role-play, because in its ease of doing, there is a real difficulty in showing his nature. The adherence to Law or Chaos, to Good ideals or the active rejection of them allows for active role-playing. But the devil-may-care attitude of the CN character doesn’t give much opportunity to role-play ones ethical or moral outlook. The only way to effectively role-play this character that doesn’t come off as a player just doing what he feels in lieu of actual role-playing is to stress the element of his Chaotic nature as I had said before. Not in the manner that you act consistently like an insane gibbering idiot (that’s the True Neutral,) but rather as a driven ideologue. A true political anarchist who truly does despise all forms of structure and cherishes own freedoms above all else, for example. This can be especially true of CG rebels who’s constant struggle against LE ruler types wares away at his own moral center (the classic moral trap of the ends justifies the means.) Or, perhaps CN would be good for those driven by an almost pathological sense of curiosity (wizards and bards come to mind) who forget the adage curiosity killed the cat. CN characters aren’t crazies, they are just those who have an obsession with Chaos (freedom/alternatives/etc.) that overpowers and ultimately extinguishes their concern for morality. In this way, they are no different from LN characters, and no one ever played them as loonies.
One other possible alternative is that of the morally confused or conflicted character. Like Clint Eastwood’s Man with no name character in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti westerns, or Harrison Ford’s Han Solo of Star Wars fame, the character’s oscillation from vaguely evil (or at least antisocial) and jaded behavior was punctuated with acts of almost uncharacteristic altruism. Blondie (the only name given for the man with no name) was labeled as Il buon (the good) in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.) The same character was also in For a Few Dollars More. This character did conflicting things like show a dying young soldier compassion, kill three bounty hunters so that he could claim a reward, turn in a villain only to help him escape to increase that reward, leave that same villain to die in the desert (but left him with his share of the reward money,) risk and receive severe beatings and a probable death sentence to reunite a woman with her family, as well as a number of other acts of both surprising altruism and villainy. Han Solo, too, was a scoundrel, which is a stylish euphemism for a scumbag. He was a smuggler for a known gangster (Jabba the Hutt) who probably moved all sorts of contraband. It was never said what exactly he smuggled, but most smugglers traffic in things like slaves, weapons, narcotics and other such lovely things. His callous killing of Greedo (even if it was clearly self-defense in that particular case) shows a willingness to disregard life when it suits his needs, without any real remorse. And yet we know he did things like rescue Chewbacca from slavery, and sacrifice much to save Luke Skywalker, even after he got paid and had every reason to get the hell back to Tatooine and away from the Death Star. It’s not that either character had no moral grounding; it’s just that it was very erratic and weak. The element of moral Neutrality was the lack of mooring, and Chaos acted as the winds of fortune blowing them across the moral compass, that is until either one found a reason to act in a particular way.
Addendum: After rereading the 3rd Ed. AD&D Players Handbook section on alignments (well, ok, reading it for the first time. One tends to skim material after reading several previous editions over the course of years, a bad if inevitable habit,) I suppose a little refinement is in order. It states on page 87 that Good and Evil are not philisophical outlooks, but actual forces of power in the AD&D universe. Fine, the powers behind the philosophies may be real, but their application is still a matter of philosphical debate, otherwise there would never be any use for the word heresy, that is the deviation from the accepted line of doctrine. The entities that give power to these ideals must still be articulated and defined for the mortal followers, and it is here that the philosophical debates take place. There was an interesting twist on the new conception of Neutrality added to this newest edition of the game. On the question of moral Neutrality, it states that: People who are neutral with respect to good and evil have compunctions against killing the innocent but lack the commitment to make sacrifices to protect or help others. Neutral people are committed to others by personal relationships. A neutral person may sacrifice himself to protect his family or even his homeland, but he would not do so for strangers who are not related to him. (ADDPH 3ed, 88) Furthermore, on the issue of ethical Neutrality, it states later on the same page: People who are neutral in respect to law and chaos have a normal respect to authority and feel neither a compulsion to obey nor to rebel. They are honest, but can be tempted into lying or deceiving others. I have a number of issues with these definitions, both definitive and literal.
First I will deal with the definition of moral Neutrality. People who are neutral with respect to good and evil have compunctions against killing the innocent but lack the commitment to make sacrifices to protect or help others. Compare this sentence with the definition of Good: Good implies altruism, respect for life, and the concern for the dignity of sentient beings. What then is different between Good and Neutral based on these first sentences? Is it a difference of opinion on the concern for life, or rather the level of commitment one is willing (or able) to make on the succor of others? Are we personally not Good because we do not dedicate our lives to the pursuit of helping others? That is what is said here. What is the difference in real terms between compunction against killing and a respect for life? This seems more a difference between active and passive good, instead of the difference between Good and Neutral. According to these definitions, the only real Good people in the world are those who actively promote Good. Simply following the edicts of Good is not enough. This smacks of radical evangelism, that is, the only way to be Good is to enforce your precepts of Good onto others. (This definition may very well be accurate, for this is a medieval fantasy RPG. And medieval concepts on morality are different then those of today. Perhaps my statement of radical evangelism is anachronistic. What is today considered radical, in the medieval times was considered mainstream. But then, I don’t feel too guilty on this score, as this game is shod through with anachronisms, historical and cultural inaccuracies. Yes, dragons never existed in real life and even if they did, they would never fly, but that is not necessarily an inaccuracy, but rather an element of fantasy. Flying dragons did exist in the cultural consciousness of the people of that time and place that the traditional AD&D setting exists in, that is Northwest Europe of the middle-ages. But the rampant egalitarianism, loose social mores and socio-political attitudes present in many people’s campaigns are highly inconsistent with even the traditional concepts, let alone realities, of that era. There is a real difference between the concepts of the fantastic and the anachronistic which are missed on many people. I am not condemning these deviations, of course, for that is the effect of creativity. I am merely trying to diffuse the counter-argument that I am being anachronistic in my attack of AD&D’s view on morality, that I am using modern ideas inappropriately to judge a different morality of a different time and place. The flood-gates of cross-culturalism and anachronisms have already been opened. You cannot criticize a person’s argument for being anachronistic when the issue in question is already an anachronism.)
The conflict with ethical neutrality may be easier to see. People who are neutral in respect to law and chaos have a normal respect to authority. Does this previous statement imply that Lawful people have an abnormal respect to authority? Isn’t a normal respect to authority a generally Lawful attitude to begin with? Again, to apply this to the real world, according to the game, there is no such thing as a Lawful citizen, only the police can be Lawful, after all, only they enforce it. The citizenry are only Neutral, because the do not feel the compulsion to obey or rebel. But if they don’t feel the compulsion to obey, then why (or even how) do they have a normal respect to authority? While its does imply that Neutral characters are prone to lying and stealing on page 88, it admits on page 87 that even Lawful Good characters are not above such actions on occasion, so again, what’s the real difference between Law and ethical Neutrality, or even Good and moral Neutrality?
But on a positive note, I am very happy that they got rid of the nut-ball philosophy of the Chaotic Neutral character.