D&D General 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?

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?

assassins-4427872_960_720.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.​

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

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
The problem with CN in D&D is that it's not a real alignment. Think of the other examples given from pop culture: Han Solo in A New Hope, Cpt. Jack Sparrow, etc.

Jack Sparrow is definitely a NPC. He's there to be occasionally useful, often entertaining, but mostly to move things along.

Han Solo is definitely a PC. First he was playing in a two player party doing heists and smuggling -- Han and Chewie. Then some more friends joined and the DM whipped out a huge plot. Han got attached to Princess Leia (CN can get attached to individuals!) and found himself adopting her priorities. Que new sequels where Han and Leia have drifted apart -- Han returns to his two-man show (Han and Chewie doing heists and smuggling.) Han only really turns "good" in the Extended Universe. In the movies, he's heavily under the influence of another character and accepts good aspects because that's what it means to be with her.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The problem with CN in D&D is that it's not a real alignment. Think of the other examples given from pop culture: Han Solo in A New Hope, Cpt. Jack Sparrow, etc.
If Han Solo didn't choose a side and didn't join the Rebellion (and become Chaotic Good), he'd have left at the end of A New Hope. He'd have been an NPC and not a heroic protagonist of the film series. Same thing with Jack Sparrow. He's ill-suited for being in a heroic game like D&D when he's playing the CN alignment. The times when he's acting heroic and acting for the common good, that works. But other times, he's an NPC.
Jack Sparrow is a wonderful PC - none better!

That said, your bias shows in your phrase "a heroic game like D&D". :)

D&D doesn't work when characters can't decide what side of the fence they're on.
I couldn't disagree more.

D&D might in fact work best when characters can't decide what side of the fence they're on, at least in terms of roleplay, character exploration, negotiation (be it peaceful or violent), and so forth. It's certainly much more entertaining, and after all isn't that why we do this in the first place - entertainment?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I think I could mostly go along with that statement provided that you accepted Lawful Evil as a sort of modified egoism where direct self-interest was fully subsumed by indirect self-interest through the advancement of the kinship group. So, for example, in biological terms the lawful component of 'Lawful Evil' represents social organizations where the individual foregoes directly advancing its own genetic line to ensure the survival of kindred genetic lines.
So you’re thinking like a Tywin Lannister type, who does evil in service to their family rather than themselves, even when what is best for the family might not be what is best for the individual? I can see that. Though, I might argue that such behavior is still ultimately self-serving, if we recontextualize their actions in service to their own legacy, rather than to their family members.

That said, I think your going to find that there is a missing component necessary to figure out what is 'evil', and this will be true even of your 'egoism' definition. That is to say, it will be necessary to answer why your hypothetical true egoist is evil, and why a colony of bees and everything organized like them isn't lawful evil.
Ah, yes. I would say the differentiating factor is sapience. A sapient being is capable of recognizing the harm that acting in their self-interest can bring to others, and must consciously decide that their own interest is more important to them than the interests of those harmed in its pursuit. A colony of bees (presumably) does not have such complex theory of mind. They are, accordingly, Unaligned.

I think that strangely that idea comes down to 'destructive'. For egoism to be evil it must also be destructive. Egoism overlaps with evil precisely because self-interest almost always overlaps with 'at the expense of others' unless you specifically attach prohibitions against that to your egoistic philosophy. Lawful evil is evil because, in addition to being lawful, it is destructive.
Ahh, yes, I agree. I should qualify that acting in one’s self-interest per se is not what I consider Evil to mean in D&D. It must specifically be acting in one’s self interest at the expense of others. And that leaves room for ethical egoism as a form of Neutral, rather than evil.
 

mrpopstar

Sparkly Dude
I'm in the camp that chaotic neutral describes a character who flouts responsibility, advancing the individual self over common society with a display of indifference to helping or harming others.

With regard to helping or harming others, chaotic neutral describes behaviors like thuggery, con artistry and theft. -- Chaotic neutral characters aren't murderers. Murderers are evil.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Cicero said:

“There exists a law, not written down anywhere but inborn in our hearts; a law which comes to us not by training or custom or reading but by derivation and absorption and adoption from nature itself; a law which has come to us not from theory but from practice, not by instruction but by natural intuition. I refer to the law which lays it down that, if our lives are endangered by plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies, any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right.”

Tacitus said:

“The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”

The great economist Thomas Sowell said:

"It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong".

---

Being lawful doesn't mean agreeing always with authority. Captain America is the paradigma of paladin behavior, but he rebelled against the superhero registration act in the event Civil War. He defended law & order, but sometimes you have to say no. It is too dangerous too power in the hands of a little elite group.
Being pro-authority doesn’t mean always obeying authority either. One can be opposed to authority they believe is unjust. But where the Chaotic (or anti-authoritarian) individual believes all authority is unjust, a Lawful (or pro-authoritarian) believes that authority is just, when in the appropriate hands. The LG Paladin and the CG Rogue may agree that the evil tyrant needs to be overthrown, and disagree over what (if anything) should take his place.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I feel like we're mixing the two axes a little bit (maybe I'm not reading you closely enough).

I don't think we are that far off.

Lawful - Neutral - Chaotic refers to an individuals willingness/interest to direct themselves according to generally accepted norms and structures. A lawful individual expects everyone to behave to the same code. Problems are solved within a structure of rules by rules. A chaotic individual determines what they think is appropriate at any given moment.

So one way to look at this is over the question of when things are in conflict, which ought to win. To say that a lawful individual expects everyone to behave to the same code is to say that you believe that authority or externals are more important than individual freedom. On the other hand, to say that an individual ought to determine what they think is appropriate at a given moment, is the same as saying that the individuals freedom is more important than external authority. Or to put it in a slightly different manner, lawfuls believe that they are and properly ought to be subject to external rules, and chaotics believe that individuals are not and properly ought not to be subject to external rules.

Good - Neutral - Evil - Refers to the perception and relative importance of the well-being of others.

Yes, but, hidden within your definition is my definition as well, because you've attached this idea of "well-being" to the idea, which turns out to be if we ask what it is the opposite of that thing that I labelled "destructive" and for which Gygax uses the term Weal.

As for 'kin' in this case 'kin' refers to everyone who is within your recognized 'in-group'. For example, the Devils are within limits ultimately loyal to their race. That said, I think that D&D writers over the years have had utterly thoughtless depictions of aligned societies that do not well portray the dominate philosophical beliefs of those societies, and as a practical matter there is little difference between how the devils and the demons beyond the depth trees of their feudal hierarchies. Drow society is notably not particularly chaotic. Devil society is notably not particularly lawful. Slaad definitely don't seem to be particularly embodied chaos.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
chaotic neutral describes behaviors like thuggery, con artistry and theft.

If you've ever been on the receiving end of such behavior, it will feel pretty evil to you. I think you've fallen into the trap of describing 'Chaotic Neutral' as 'less evil Chaotic Evil'. Chaotic neutral in general, since they are passive on the good-evil spectrum, will avoid actively doing harm to others just as they will avoid altruistic behavior as well.
 

mrpopstar

Sparkly Dude
If you've ever been on the receiving end of such behavior, it will feel pretty evil to you. I think you've fallen into the trap of describing 'Chaotic Neutral' as 'less evil Chaotic Evil'. Chaotic neutral in general, since they are passive on the good-evil spectrum, will avoid actively doing harm to others just as they will avoid altruistic behavior as well.
I'm inclined to say that avoidance implies a stance other than indifference.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I'm inclined to say that avoidance implies a stance other than indifference.

I'm inclined to say that it doesn't matter in the end, or to the extent that it does stances like avoidance, indifference and balance all are encompassed by the 'neutral' philosophy, so that a low intelligence character that is indifferent to those considerations and avoids harming others out of disinterest and a high intelligence character with a well developed philosophical stance of avoidance of extremes, are both equally 'neutral'.

Point is, Chaotic Neutral is not a license to regularly engage in evil behavior even if that behavior is less deplorable and depraved than murder. A Chaotic Neutral character will avoid theft except as in emergencies, and if stealing will tend to focus on targets which he believes can afford to suffer the loss, precisely because they recognize that theft is harm.
 

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