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D&D General Alignment: the problem is Chaos

Aging Bard

Canaith
ETA: Great, thoughtful stuff on this thread. Exactly what I hoped for. Thanks.

No, the world does not need another alignment thread, but I want to drill down on a specific point. I apologize in advance.

Compared to past editions, 5e alignment definitions are a lot less clear, almost to the point of being flavor text. So I can understand those who see no use for them. I think alignment can be very useful for worldbuilding and NPC design, but that requires useful, believable definitions. I wouldn't say even past editions have been great at this. So here's a shot at clear, understandable alignment definitions that I think most people might buy as plausible, but I'll settle for useable in-game. I'm certainly NOT proposing this as the "right way to do alignment". I do hope it provides some help in thinking through the issue.

My base assumptions are that alignment should be 1) intuitive (i.e. believable), and 2) Good/Evil and Law/Chaos are in opposition. I think Good/Evil works but Law/Chaos as usually framed does not. Chaos is the problem.

Most people seem to agree that Good is a Golder Rule type philosophy (do unto others...). I frame this as agency: a Good person acknowledges the agency of others and an Evil person does not. If someone believes something different than me, I might find them misguided, but they still have that right to belief. This definition satisfies both my assumptions.

But an intuitive definition for Law usually is "obeys the law" or "respects the law". These seem intuitive, but their opposites do not unless we want insane Chaotic characters, which some past editions encouraged. "Disrespects the law" is almost OK for Chaos, but what does that mean in practice? I still think you end up with "LOL I'll do want I want" as a justifiable interpretation.

Part of the problem is that in OD&D, we had Law and Chaos, which basically meant Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil. For some reason, we understand how to disentangle Law from Good (authoritarian regimes as Lawful Evil), but separating Chaos from Evil is harder. I think the reason is that, in real life, there aren't any "real" Chaotic societies (I'll explain below). But since the 1st Edition of the Monster Manual, elves have been canonically Chaotic Good. That's a rather important group of demi-humans to not fully understand their default alignment!

So to get a useable definition of Chaos, we also need to refine Law as a subtle reworking of the "respect" concept. I propose the following:

A Lawful person accepts the legitimacy of law that is external to themselves; a Chaotic person does not.

This definition is close to respect, but slightly different. It says that one can recognize the legitimacy of a body coming together to determine their laws, whether or not you agree with the outcome. For example, I'm sure we can all think of countries whose laws we do not admire. But do you then think those countries and their laws are illegitimate? I imagine there could be a few of these, but in general, we let sovereign countries be sovereign and run their internal affairs. In other words, we follow the Rule of Law as it's known in political science. So a Lawful person follows their own country's laws, even if some of them seem unjust. That same Lawful person would express disapproval of another country's laws by not traveling there or by biting their tongue.

By the way, it's a Neutral Good person who would more loudly complain and protest about unjust laws, because by not being Lawful they are more comfortable saying some laws are illegitimate.

So what does it mean for a Chaotic person to not view "external" laws as legitimate? Simple--only their own internal laws are legitimate, their "code". A Chaotic Good person understands that others have their own codes and they are legitimate for them. A Chaotic Neutral person values their code above all, and is not concerned whether or not it infringes on the agency of others. Note that this definition allows the Chaotic Neutral to not be a lunatic! They could even fit into a Lawful society, never respecting it but discretely carrying out their code whenever possible. Finally, I think this definition gets us very close to the tradition definition of Chaotic Evil: a person who respects neither agency nor the legitimacy of any law. In all these cases, I don't think any of these Chaos alignments correspond to any real human society. Our definition of "society" presupposes a minimum level of Law.

I came to this definition precisely to answer the elf Chaotic Good question: what sort of society could this be? I decided that elves are mostly bound together by heritage and a deep abiding for one another, but following any cause is always a matter of individual persuasion that can be withdrawn at will. Thus, elves need leaders good at individual persuasion, which comes down to raw charisma and magnetism. Essentially, this makes elfish society a "charismatic democracy", where elves rally around causes they believe in, following leaders charismatic enough to hold the cause's believers together. This is very different from any human society I've even of, with the possible exception of very small groups bound by some affinity; communes and cults come to mind.

I think these definitions get close to the intentions of many historical iterations of alignment in D&D, but are less ambiguous and therefore more able to be put into practice in a game setting.
 
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billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I think you've still got a misconception at your root. A chaotic person doesn't necessarily, and shouldn't, view laws external to themselves as illegitimate. That's an extreme caricature. Absolutes can be problematic. Think in terms of inclinations. A lawful person is inclined to hold to external guidelines, requirements, laws, and expectations even when they conflict. A chaotic person is inclined to approach such things idiosyncratically and is likely adhere to or reject the same based on personal conscience.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Chaotic just means people don't necessarily believe that laws and rules are better. Titles don't matter, what the person holding the title does matters. Laws and rules should serve the needs of the people, not the other way around. There are no "natural" laws, just rules that people have agreed to in order to get along. You shouldn't be afraid to break with tradition if tradition no longer makes sense.

At times external laws may not be followed, but that's true of all alignment. The LE mafia boss will tell you it's "Just business." right before they kill you and so on.

But there are enough threads on this, do we really need another one?
 


Aging Bard

Canaith
I think you've still got a misconception at your root. A chaotic person doesn't necessarily, and shouldn't, view laws external to themselves as illegitimate. That's an extreme caricature. Absolutes can be problematic. Think in terms of inclinations. A lawful person is inclined to hold to external guidelines, requirements, laws, and expectations even when they conflict. A chaotic person is inclined to approach such things idiosyncratically and is likely adhere to or reject the same based on personal conscience.
Think of it this way. There's been a rethink among some people about intrinsically Evil races. The OSR crew has said that point of Evil races was to have clearly Evil foes as enemies. I can understand this. But aside from the claim of "unfortunate implications" about all-Evil races, the underlying issue is that they are not believable. I think the same thing applies to Chaos. As I noted, there are not any real Chaotic societies. Being Chaotic is a rare thing, just like being Evil. It ought to be an unusual stance. To just call Chaos idiosyncratic understates its strangeness. Though I do see you basically agree with the code idea. In any case, this is a way to think through the issue. I'm not dogmatic about how people want to do this.
 



Yaarel

Mind Mage
One might expect:
• Order versus Chaos
• Law versus Crime

The choice of Law versus Chaos, is incongruous. The terminology invites confusion.



Each player has to make sense of the incongruity as best as one able.

For me, I make "Lawful versus Chaotic", really mean: Collectivist versus Individualist. Then with my version of it, everything is useful and works fine.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Chaotic might want to overthrow the natural order of the universe and replace it with the unimaginable (is that the early Elric bad guys?)

Chaotic might be pushing for entropy, the ultimate flat gray of near nothingness.

Chaotic might be the active rebellion against the rules of man and self regulation and viewing them as harmful. Pathological lying. Habitual oathbreaking.

Chaotic might be opting for freedom and minimal restrictions in a super libertarian sense.

Chaotic might be finding the restrictions of rules chafing when noticed, and not finding the truth or oath keeping as useful at all.

I wonder if the problem is that Chaotic is way more than one thing at even the level of outsiders.
 




Yaarel

Mind Mage
This is pretty close to my view as well, though I think it understates how unusual a Chaotic stance is, just like Evil is really quite a rare stance in real life.
The view of Law-versus-Chaos, as Collective-versus-Individual, is almost the same thing as Extrovert-versus-Introvert. Both are reasonable choices.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Isn't that Neutral?
That could also be neutral but a chaotic individual still needs to live in a society. A chaotic person may not care about breaking the law, but they may well realize the law is there for a good reason and/or they don't want to pay fines or end up in jail. As far as respecting a title or position, that to me is one of the big differentiators between law and chaos. Someone that respects an organization (government, religious, etc.) that's lawful will likely automatically respect someone who holds higher rank. Someone that's chaotic will usually base their decision on the actions of the person.

A neutral person? It's just the middle ground on the spectrum.
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
Isn't that Neutral?
Perhaps. I think of Neutral as downplaying one axis over the other. So it is the Neutral Good character who is more likely to protest perceived injustice than the Lawful Good character because the Lawful Good character is apprehensive of defying the law, even if they disagree with it.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I'm really glad you posted this! Because this is what I'm trying to decouple from Evil. I think Evil wants to be the problem. I think Chaos ultimately wants to avoid being told what to do.
Evil doesn't necessarily need to be the problem. Lawful Evil needs, and you should just give it and obey.

Just ignoring the law or order when it annoys your being ambivalent about it as a goal feels like neutral, doesn't it? To be on opposition, doesn't Chaos need to be actively working against whichever you pick of law or order being opposite of it.

Don't the articles on alignment in the philosophy of D&D book say that Chaotic Good is an impossibility by any of the usual definitions?
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
The view of Law-versus-Chaos, as Collective-versus-Individual, is almost the same thing as Extrovert-versus-Introvert. Both are reasonable choices.
Or perhaps even more as Conformist vs. Non-Conformist. But as I noted elsewhere, I consider both true Evil and Chaotic stances as very rare in human experience. Mere non-conformity is not really Chaos to me. Chaos is weirder.
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
Don't the articles on alignment in the philosophy of D&D book say that Chaotic Good is an impossibility by any of the usual definitions?
Exactly! Chaotic Good seems completely bonkers, and I don't think large groups of humans can pull it off. Yet one of the most important demi-human groups have been canonically Chaotic Good since 1e. I think that's interesting, and I came to this definition precisely to explain the behavior of elves. The result is weird, and I like that.
 

MarkB

Legend
The problem is that both Law and Chaos are just too broad-brush.

Many of the characters I play will care little for conforming to social standards or following civilised codes, and will happily go against established rules or laws to accomplish their goals. But they'll also have a strong moral code of their own, being very loyal to their friends and allies, not giving their word lightly or frivolously, and never even considering betraying a trust or confidence.

To call such a character 'neutral' seems a disservice - it suggests a disinterest in considerations of morality, which would not represent the character's attitude at all. And yet, different aspects of their outlook would fall most easily into either the "Chaotic" or "Lawful" realm.
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
That could also be neutral but a chaotic individual still needs to live in a society. A chaotic person may not care about breaking the law, but they may well realize the law is there for a good reason and/or they don't want to pay fines or end up in jail. As far as respecting a title or position, that to me is one of the big differentiators between law and chaos. Someone that respects an organization (government, religious, etc.) that's lawful will likely automatically respect someone who holds higher rank. Someone that's chaotic will usually base their decision on the actions of the person.

A neutral person? It's just the middle ground on the spectrum.
All of this is very reasonable. I prefer Neutral to mean "indifferent to" rather than middle ground. So a Neutral Good character is not kinda-Lawful or kinda-Chaotic, but rather cares much more about Good. They are the ones who will protest injustice before the Lawful Goods, because they care more about being Good. But again, your view seems fine.
 

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