Worlds of Design: Chaotic Neutral is the Worst

In my articles from the early 1980s I often characterized the typical D&Der as a hoodlum (hood). You may know them by many other names: ruffian, bully boy, bully, bandit, mugger, gangster, terrorist, gunman, murderer, killer, hitman, assassin, hooligan, vandal, and more. Has anything changed?


According to D&D Beyond, as reported by Morrus, the most popular alignment after Chaotic Good is Chaotic Neutral. I doubt the preponderance has changed much since the 80s; it might even be more common today in an Age of Instant Gratification thanks to the Internet. Even 40 years ago, most players wanted their characters to act like more or less Chaotic Neutral hoods, doing whatever they wanted but not responsible for what they did, able to act like hoodlums but not suffer the consequences of being of actual evil alignment. And they wanted to be called “Good” at the same time.

Fundamentally, this is a desire to avoid all constraints. Which is fairly natural for people, in general, though rarely attainable. But a game is an agreed set of constraints on behavior within the “magic circle” of the game. And some games have constraints that ought to affect the chaotic neutral character's behavior.

The typical hood wants to be able to do whatever he wants to, to other people. Occasionally killing one, or something just as evil, that’s OK as long as it isn’t excessive. In another context, I saw someone ask why so many people disliked a certain person as a liar, because after all he told the truth more often than he lied! That would be ideal standard for a hoodlum, but most people don’t see it that way. Key to this behavior is a desire to avoid responsibility, very common in the real world too - people wanting to do things without facing the consequences (taking responsibility).

The question is, how does “the game” see it? Taking D&D as the obvious example, we have alignment as a guide to behavior. The alignment system in D&D was designed (I think) to provide constraints on character behavior, so that games wouldn’t devolve into a bunch of murderers having their way with the game-world. Certain alignments have advantages in civilized society, some don’t. In uncivilized society, other alignments might be preferred. Chaotic Neutral (the alignment hoodlums gravitate to) should be a disadvantage in civilized contexts because it doesn’t include/condone permission to kill people whenever you feel like it (as long as you don’t do it often!). Yet that’s how players want to treat it. That’s Evil, and if you behave “evilly” you’re going to be in an Evil category, which makes you fair game for a lot of adventurers.

I’m not saying killing is necessarily evil, e.g. in wartime it’s expected that you kill the enemy if they won’t surrender. It’s the “senseless killing,” killing for sheer personal gain or enjoyment, that sets apart the hood (who wants to be called Chaotic Neutral, or better, Chaotic Good), and of course the “officially” Evil characters as well.

D&D GMs who feel that constraints make the game better, will enforce alignment and make clear to Chaotic Neutral types that they can easily slide into Evil alignment. Those who aren’t interested in constraints, will let the C/N types do just about everything they want to do without consequences. In other rule sets, who knows . . .

Of course, Your Mileage May Vary. If everyone wants to be a hood rather than a hero, and the GM is OK with that, so be it. It’s when you run into players who think (as I do) that these characters are the worst -- certainly, not someone you would want in your party! -- that we encounter problems.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Banesfinger

Explorer
The problem with (all editions) of D&D is that it incentivises the "hood" (murder-hobo) behaviour. You get XP for killing things, and gain benefit for "taking their stuff".

If, for example, the game only gave you XP for rescuing kittens, and having tea with princesses, you'd see radically different behaviour...
 

Xenonnonex

Adventurer
When CN is roleplayed well it can be quite amazing. Jack Sparrow is a fine example of CN done well. Jarlaxle when not being wholly evil is also a CN done well.

What you have when you get CN at its worst is people being jerks and acting unreasonably. And engaging in lots of reckless and impulsive stupidity. And then claiming "this is roleplaying". It is people justifying extremely poor behavior.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
I've always played Chaotic Neutral as "do what makes sense at the time." They're not evil -- they don't like or dismiss hurting people. They're not good -- they aren't going to get involved just because. They get involved when it matters to them or the things they care about.

My players have generally played CN like that too (not that we've discussed it.) Sure you have a few "chaos because fun" builds (I'm thinking of a certain cleric with a lollipop spiritual weapon) but that hasn't been the norm. The longest running PC was a pirate captain whose version of CN was "loot for us, and do what I say because I'm the strongest."
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
The problem with (all editions) of D&D is that it incentivises the "hood" (murder-hobo) behaviour. You get XP for killing things, and gain benefit for "taking their stuff".

If, for example, the game only gave you XP for rescuing kittens, and having tea with princesses, you'd see radically different behaviour...
This is it on the head right here. A lot of people are playing D&D not to be heroes but to kill dangerous things and take their stuff. So it strikes me as quite natural that people would gravitate toward CN. A character with some respect for authority and propriety (toward the lawful end of the scale) might actually find doing that sort of thing inappropriate since they have neither the right nor the justification. And someone who is seriously playing toward the good end would find it morally questionable.
 

Dausuul

Legend
One of the players in my group gravitates strongly toward Chaotic Wacky behavior. In real life, he is a full-time manager of a high-performing team who runs a couple of side businesses and has 5 kids. He's carrying several human beings' worth of responsibility on his back.

It doesn't make it less frustrating for the rest of us when he acts out in-game... but I can also understand why he does it. Dude needs a pressure valve, and this is what he's got, and it beats hell out of becoming an alcoholic or buying a sports car and running off with a 20-year-old.

All of which is my way of saying, I think a lot of folks play D&D precisely because it gives them a chance to run free and ignore consequences, which they cannot do in real life, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
I used to have a player almost exactly like that. In-game he was always trying to cause chaos. If he could get the rest of the group into hijinx, he was happy. That this came at the expense of the actual adventure caused no small amount consternation for me.

I've become entirely suspicious of CN characters at my tables at this point. I've seen to many people that use it as an excuse to just do stuff "for the lulz." Yes, there are examples of interesting CN characters in fiction, movies, and TV. But pretty much every CN character I've encountered in D&D has had all the personality of a Monopoly token being moved around the board.

Part of this is certainly a personality clash. I almost always play lawful-aligned characters when I play. For me, having a code to play my character by is far more interesting.

One of the players in my group gravitates strongly toward Chaotic Wacky behavior. In real life, he is a full-time manager of a high-performing team who runs a couple of side businesses and has 5 kids. He's carrying several human beings' worth of responsibility on his back.
 

TwoSix

Lover of things you hate
It's not difficult to understand why. D&D is a game about defeating challenges. Having constraints on your actions makes the challenges harder. Thus people gravitate to the alignments with the least constraints and complications, in order to be more powerful. (And not have the DM mess with them over alignment, which is rarely fun play.)

That's why the original versions of paladins were more powerful than a standard class. They accepted a limitation on usable actions in exchange for more power within that narrower subset of allowable actions.
 
Back in high school, I loathed CN because my players pretty much took it to be a license to be a dick. Of course, we were in high school - my players could play LG Paladins as complete dicks (and rules lawyer away any attempts to restrict their powers). Let's face it, though - my HS group were complete dicks. In an Alternity game I ran, they once managed to slaughter half their own party before they even left spaceport.

Now, though, I don't mind it. CN isn't the crazy/dick alignment. As pointed out above, it's Jack Sparrow. It's Han Solo (until Episode 5 or so). It's Conan.

These guys like their freedom. They aren't going to go out of their way to save you or do the right thing, but they aren't going to shiv innocent people and take their wallets, either, or offer sacrifices to the dark lord. They probably abhor slavery and torture (all of the above mentioned characters certainly do). They make trouble- but hey, aren't we playing adventurers here? Isn't getting into ever-deepening trouble what it's all about?

In my games in HS, I always dreamed of having a group that wanted to play epic heroes... now, in close-to-middle-age, I'm more looking for a Conan, Grey Mouser, Jack Sparrow or Gord the Rogue type of game... gritty noir plus lots of hijinks and mischief.

CN is fine by me.
 

Celebrim

Legend
In my opinion, the core of the Chaotic Neutral philosophy can be summed up as "Harm no one; do as you will".

It's easy to distinguish Chaotic Neutral play from Chaotic Evil play. If the character is truly CN, he feels no obligation to help others, but tries to avoid profiting from harming others and like his Chaotic Good companion, feels he needs some sort of reason before he could legitimately harm others. A Chaotic Neutral character for example, doesn't have a job as a professional thief, or if he does, then he only targets individuals that he thinks deserve it in some fashion to give himself some moral cover for harming others. He differs from Chaotic Good play then only in that, first, he feels no compulsion to help others, and in fact may consider helping others at the expense of your own interests to be an actual moral wrong. And second, he considers himself less responsible for harm he has caused indirectly, or as a result of a bargain that he tricked or induced someone else to enter into. He's probably a strong believer that is in "caveat emptor" and as a "seller" feels no conviction that he needs to take any active role in disclosing things that would work against his own interest.

By contrast, Chaotic Evil play prioritizes harming others as the means by which the player profits from his actions. At the core of Chaotic Evil philosophy is the belief that all profit is only made at the expense of others, and therefore the only way to succeed in life is to take from others and that because everyone must do this, that a Chaotic Evil person is doing no wrong in doing not only what must be done but what everyone else does as well. Chaotic Evil play is characterized by actively harming others for pure profit motive - theft, murder, etc.

In my experience, most players that write Chaotic Neutral on their character sheets really want to play Chaotic Evil and generally do. It's almost invariable that they'll end up there and after a long time getting tired of table arguments with these players as to whether their characters have actually been evil enough to change to evil despite consistently always doing what is profitable to them despite whatever harm it causes to others, I hit upon a method that has proven pretty darn sure fire in resolving the problem - I bribe them. What I do is when the character has in my opinion hit a threshold where they are sure now firmly in the Chaotic Evil camp, I make the following offer, "I'll give you a 200XP bonus for good roleplaying, if as a result of this scene you change your alignment to Chaotic Evil."

Since the player is playing with a pure profit motive, they almost invariably take this offer, and it eliminates any argument over whether I'm punishing them or playing their character for them. It's a very small cost to play to get them to line their character sheet up with reality.
 
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schneeland

Explorer
In my games in HS, I always dreamed of having a group that wanted to play epic heroes... now, in close-to-middle-age, I'm more looking for a Conan, Grey Mouser, Jack Sparrow or Gord the Rogue type of game... gritty noir plus lots of hijinks and mischief.
Yep. Same for me. Though I was luckier with my earlier groups and most people had an innate bias towards the epic hero type. Probably it would be fair to say that I was the dick - at least sometimes ;)
 

LuisCarlos17f

Explorer
I have got my own house rules about alignment.

Evil means voluntary actions against Justice or the Natural Law caused by selfish reasons, without guilt mitigators.

Chaotic means to be attuned to Nature or primal powers, or only respect the rules by the same allegiance.

I allow characters with opposite alignment-allegiance, for example evil guy with good alignment would be a zealot or chaotic with law allegiance a sheriff who breaks the rules to defend the order. My house rule allows divine magic and other powers can hurt enemies with same alignment but different allegiance (usually religion).

Chaotic can't be total individualism because chaotic groups need a common rules to survive crisis as the characters from "the Walking Dead". The gangster bands are "chaotic" but they have got their own rules of honor. The rebels couldn't face emperor Palpatine or She-ra and the power princesses couldn't face Hordak's evil horde.

Do you remember that Simpson's episode about the "Bart's inner child" and the "Do What You Feel" festival?
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
These posts spark a lot of discussion but they're pretty much always studded with "get of my lawn!" digs.
I'm waiting for the ultimate post.

"The real problem with roleplaying today is that there are too many computers and pdfs being used. Probably because the 'modern player' wrecked all their books when they were stuffing their pie-holes with avocado toast."
 
I'm waiting for the ultimate post.

"The real problem with roleplaying today is that there are too many computers and pdfs being used. Probably because the 'modern player' wrecked all their books when they were stuffing their pie-holes with avocado toast."
They wouldn't be pirating all these PDFs if they had money to buy books, rather than spending it on things like avocado toast and school loans for their degrees in elf studies!
 

Aaron L

Adventurer
Now, though, I don't mind it. CN isn't the crazy/dick alignment. As pointed out above, it's Jack Sparrow. It's Han Solo (until Episode 5 or so). It's Conan.

These guys like their freedom. They aren't going to go out of their way to save you or do the right thing, but they aren't going to shiv innocent people and take their wallets, either, or offer sacrifices to the dark lord. They probably abhor slavery and torture (all of the above mentioned characters certainly do). They make trouble- but hey, aren't we playing adventurers here? Isn't getting into ever-deepening trouble what it's all about?

In my games in HS, I always dreamed of having a group that wanted to play epic heroes... now, in close-to-middle-age, I'm more looking for a Conan, Grey Mouser, Jack Sparrow or Gord the Rogue type of game... gritty noir plus lots of hijinks and mischief.

CN is fine by me.
Yes!
Chaotic Neutral has been tainted by misunderstanding (for a long time) as shown by the gawdawful definition it got in the 2nd Edition books where it was described as a ridiculous "be crazy and flip a coin to decide how you act" Alignment. CN means you don't like authority, and you don't go out of your way to either help or hurt people you don't know. People who misuse CN to act like thugs should have their characters Alignment changed to Evil by the DM.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Yes!
Chaotic Neutral has been tainted by misunderstanding (for a long time) as shown by the gawdawful definition it got in the 2nd Edition books where it was described as a ridiculous "be crazy and flip a coin to decide how you act" Alignment. CN means you don't like authority, and you don't go out of your way to either help or hurt people you don't know. People who misuse CN to act like thugs should have their characters Alignment changed to Evil by the DM.
So true! For all the virtual ink that has been spilled arguing about alignment, its really a very simple system. Are you pro-authority, anti-authority, or indifferent? Are you altruistic, egoistic, or neither? That’s really all there is to it. A Chaotic Neutral character is anti-authority and neither an altruist or an egoist. Pretty easy combination of values to wrap one’s head around, if you ask me.
 
The problem with (all editions) of D&D is that it incentivises the "hood" (murder-hobo) behaviour. You get XP for killing things, and gain benefit for "taking their stuff".

If, for example, the game only gave you XP for rescuing kittens, and having tea with princesses, you'd see radically different behaviour...
The older dnd editions' xp system was primarily based on obtaining gold, with relatively little xp for killing monsters. This curtailed some murder hobo behavior while still acknowledgingcombat success.
 

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