Jan 23, 2020

A Brief Note on Alignment

So I finally struck out "Good" on my originally "Chaotic Good" wizard's character sheet and wrote in "Evil". It's funny, some of my most popular characters have been Chaotic Evil wizards, which many people consider an "unplayable" alignment for PCs.

I'm not a great believer in alignment's value, but I have played with many people who consider it tremendously important. I have therefore had to develop a "theory" of alignment.

Most people I know who really care about alignment love the version with the full nine positions, as opposed to the earlier Law vs. Chaos version. They also tend to prefer the psychological interpretation of alignment, rather than the Moorcockian cosmological interpretation.

My position therefore attempts to be comprehensible to those people and address both their desire to specifically situate any and every character in one of the nine positions and to address the psychological elements that cause them to be so situated.

Broadly speaking, I treat one's position on the good-evil axis as a matter of sentiment, conscience, and instinct.

Good people are by default deeply concerned with the well-being of others, and callousness or harm to the well-being of others is an exceptional state that requires strong reasons or experiences and is constrained to the minimal scope necessary (at least ideally). Their conscience militates for them to care as a general tendency, albeit one that can be resisted or overcome in specific situations.

Evil people tend to callousness to the well-being of others. This does not mean they are universally and completely callous, but rather that caring deeply for the well-being of others is the exceptional state of affairs for them, and is specific in the same way that callousness is the exceptional state for the good person.

Neutral people are not strongly inclined to be either particularly concerned with, or callous to, the well-being of others, and mostly default to states of mild concern or distaste unless given specific situational reasons to lean one way or the other.

In this rubric, the law-chaos axis is about whether extrinsic or intrinsic motivations predominate in one's reasoning. That is, a chaotic character is strongly driven by conscience and individual drives, while a lawful person is mainly concerned with extrinsic motivations (whether materialistic or more abstract ones like "respect" is irrelevant).

I do stretch extrinsic motivations slightly here to include extrapolations or extensions like "a right authority orders it" where the extrinsic motivation is a more just (or whatever) world built on universalisable moral principles, though I don't consider this essential to being lawful.

The focus on extrinsic motivations in lawful people tends to require their engagement with social structures or individuals who can provide these extrinsic rewards, and this engagement (even potentially antagonistic engagement if they want to do something like reform a rotten institution so it can function properly) is the basis of their lawfulness.

Neutral people don't have a strong tendency either way, and instead tend to waver between whichever of the two - extrinsic or intrinsic motivations - is stronger in a given situation.

Anyhow, all of this is codswallop since real human morality does not work this way, but I do find that this set up is more robust than most folk-theorising about alignment online, while allowing one to assign alignments to characters in games in ways that people find prima facie appropriate even when they are not aware of the rubric.

I play a lot of Chaotic Evil wizards under this rubric because I like playing characters with strong intrinsic motivations (I'm a "proactive" player) and because my characters tend to be relatively callous towards the well-being of others (they do kill monsters and harm people who resist them, after all).

On the other hand, the reason I can get away with playing Chaotic Evil characters in games is because rather than playing them as sadists with poor impulse control, I portray them as above, and often take care to make sure the other PCs are the exceptional instances of sentimental attachment.

I also try to make the inner motivations of these characters interesting and fun and then to portray them trying to actively and positively recruit others to help them realise them, while also being extremely risk-tolerant about the consequences (whether for themselves or others). This fulfils being Chaotic Evil based on the rubric laid out above, but tends to be taken extremely well by other players. 

I don't have any recommendations here. I developed this rubric to form a mutually-intelligible basis for analysis with some people I play with who love alignment and who want to use it characterise the psychology of characters, and I do so successfully. I find that its development aids me in playing characters with all sorts of unexpected alignments in ways that don't diminish the other players' fun.


  1. Interesting post. Got me thinking about Neutral on the Chaos vs Law axis.

    What if Neutrals were Lawful towards their own people and Chaotic towards other Peoples? People could be defined racially, culturally, nationally or religiously depending on the character. That would create an interesting dynamic.

    1. I think something like that is probably going on across all parts of the spectrum, but yes, in the lack of a general tendency for care or callousness, specific factors like those would dominate the scope and intensity, whereas for good or evil characters I think they would serve as props or resistances to the general theory.

      e.g. A good citizen of Outer Nabraxia might believe even the notoriously uncouth Inner Nabraxians deserve to live in peace so long as they aren't actively plotting anything to harm Outer Nabraxia.

      A patriotic evil citizen of Outer Nabraxia might think that conquering Inner Nabraxia to get ahold of their famous silver mines is fine to build up the strength of the Inner Nabraxia and bring their enlightened culture to the Inner Nabraxians who they see as barbarians.

      A neutral Outer Nabraxian might be susceptible to the claim that the Inner Nabraxians would be better off as Outer Nabraxians and that conquest was the unfortunate but necessary mechanism to eliminate their corrupt and monstrous rulers who are the source of the problem, and hey, if it strengthens Outer Nabraxia too in the process, it's all OK in the end, at least so long as the atrocities are kept to the absolute minimum.

  2. Your interpretation of Law and Chaos works very well, but I find this version of Good and Evil to have the same problem as I do with the alignments since the 2nd edition: it's kind of a personality test, where you need to spread out all the actions and thoughts of your character in front of you, and see where they average out. It just ends up being rather messy and complex for me. I do still find the 1st edition version, centering on clear philosophy and beliefs, to be the simplest to play.

    We've also had no problem with Evil characters, because we have one rule that transcends even alignment: Never Go Against The Party. Even the Evil characters all understand this, because they too need reliable friends (or chumps and meatshields) on their side.

    1. I think any psychological interpretation of alignment is going to have similar problems with summing up / averaging out a person's values, because IRL, the transformation of behaviour from incidental acts to habitual qualities of character is one of the most contentious and elaborate aspects of moral paedogogy. It's a point in favour of the cosmological interpretation (or for abolishing alignment) that it doesn't require this.

      Having said that, I'm surprised at how dominant and common psychological takes on alignment are. IMHO they're the default for most tables at this point in time and have been for thirty-odd years, despite the confusion and lack of clarity they bring. It's a bit mind-boggling.

  3. I read C.S. Lewis recently and realized a few things:
    1) 'Lawful' is essentially a submission to an extrinsic authority (divine design)---that being the ultimate source for the 'universal morale principles'.
    2) When thinking about chaotic/evil characters (and how to DM them), it was a fallacy of mine to assume they would be unconstrained hedonists (sadist, etc.), which pushes the game into unsavory directions (for me and my younger players). Lewis' point is that to Christians, Pride is the cardinal sin---the ultimate source for all others. It was Pride that drove Lucifer's fall...a desire to have the world shaped by one's own will (intrinsic), not a Divine one (extrinsic). For me, this understanding made it much easier to design motivations and role-play villains. They want to be gods.

    1. Sorry. Minor clarification---by 'gods', I mean (on a more day-to-day level) they are unwilling to acknowledge anyone or anything is above them. They seek to be first/superior/unshackled because they feel they deserve it. Id (animal drives)/Ego(rationalized drives) are everything (no superego).

    2. Absolutely. A great set of insights.

  4. Your definition of evil sounds a lot more like neutral to me. In my view evil people are not merely callous or indifferent to other peoples suffering but actively see benefit to themselves in creating or facilitating pain and misery in others. I see this all too often in business environments :(