In Defense of Chaotic Neutral Alignment in 5E D&D
Salutations, nerds! Today we’re going to take a moment to talk about alignment in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons because let’s be honest, it’s just one of those bottomless topics there are a thousand things to say about. No, really. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about alignment, what it means and how people play it in 5E D&D. this conversation like so many other conversations about alignment started with the words chaotic neutral.
Alignment is a hot button topic
I pause. I can feel the ripple effect of dozens of nerds having a visceral response to those two little words. If you stop and listen, I bet you can hear it too…
Whether you’re pleased with the idea conceptually or angrily thinking about the guy who played a chaotic stupid character with you at your table last year and kept claiming it’s because he was chaotic neutral, or rolling your eyes, or even not responding at all — you know this is a polarizing topic. And you know what? I think it’s largely because of how people view chaotic as regards 5E D&D alignment. Let’s discuss.
Law and chaos
I’m going to kick off with a hot take. Law’ doesn’t mean always obeying the law no matter what and chaos doesn’t mean always breaking the rules. We’re going to beg the question this remains true for the rest of the post so if this ruffles your jimmies to the point you can’t bear with me here’s your heads up this probably isn’t for you.
A lawful character tends to follow the rules. This doesn’t mean they will always. It is perfectly acceptable for a lawful good character to break into an evil government building and stop them from doing horrific experiments on refugees for example because it’s the right thing. And even if it is the law doing it that law isn’t serving the order of society. Which is what lawful characters are about.
By the same token chaotic doesn’t mean you’re the Joker. Chaos means walking to your own beat. People tend to think just because it’s juxtaposed against lawful means all chaotic characters are breaking the law at every available opportunity but any rebellion against the norms of society qualifies as chaos.
What this means is going to depend largely on your setting. In a setting with very stringent gender roles for example a male courtier who shows up in ball gowns and knows how to flirt with a fan would be chaotic no matter how closely he followed the actual laws because he’s going against societal norms. Punk rock is chaotic. Goth is chaotic. If you live in a society that really doesn’t like music and frowns upon the practice of it as something sullying then the mere act of being a bard is likely in the realm of chaotic.
By this logic neutrality falls under the umbrella of not having strong feelings about it either way. A neutral character on this scale acknowledges the social norms and doesn’t feel particularly strongly about breaking them but it wouldn’t be the end of the world for this person not to fit in flawlessly.
NERDITOR’S NOTE: 1981’s Dungeons & Dragons: Basic Rulebook by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and Tom Moldvay describes law as “the belief that everything should follow an order, and that obeying rules in the natural way of life. As the opposite chaos “is the belief that life is random, and that chance and luck rule the world.”
Good and evil
Here’s where we’re getting to some really fuzzy stuff because I’m going to try to describe in a couple of paragraphs something people have been rhapsodizing for entire volumes over. But for me personally, my definition of evil is some force desiring power over others specifically. Wanting enough power to keep yourself free isn’t inherently evil. Doing no harm but taking no crap isn’t inherently evil. Accumulating wealth in and of itself isn’t evil until you start using said wealth to force people to do things they aren’t on board for doing because they need the money.
Good is about genuinely caring for the wellbeing of others and expecting nothing in return. A good person can be misguided. You can absolutely preach at people and annoy the hell out of them and still be a good person. I’ve got a little bit of trouble reconciling with the idea of being an evangelist who takes the eldritch knowledge your god exists to a place that doesn’t know, exposes a populace to it then asserts they’re going to hell if they don’t convert though. Forcing someone’s hand isn’t a good thing to do — that’s pretty evil.
In this case it’s way easier to be neutral because most people are going to do what’s best for the people they consider to be theirs. Evil is selfish, good is selfless and neutrality has the ability to be selfless but there has to be a reason for it and then there’s a whole sliding scale just there for where neutrality bleeds into good and evil.
NERDITOR’S NOTE: While alignment included a second axis — good and evil — in the 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set the particulars weren’t described until the second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook. Good characters “try to be honest, charitable, and forthright,” with some wiggle room since people are not perfect. In contrast “evil is the antithesis of good and appears in many ways, some overt and others quite subtle.” Looking this up I also notice the sort of cosmic alignment paradigm is gone here and the text suggests a more subjective view of alignment.
Defense of chaotic neutral
It’s all predisposition rather than rigid rules of behavior. Chaotic neutral doesn’t mean chaotic a$$hole. It doesn’t mean there being no rhyme or reason to what you’re doing, it just means you value your freedom over society’s opinion of you. Artsy types have a tendency to be chaotic and that doesn’t necessarily make them criminals.
So. Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear about your experiences with the alignment scale and how you judge the rubrics between lawful and chaotic, as well as good and evil. Please hit me up in the comments below and of course don’t forget to stay nerdy. It’s probably the most chaotic thing you’re going to do today, after all.
*Featured image of Alassra Shentrantra Silverhand, one of the Seven Sisters, a Chosen of Mystra and one of the most powerful spellcasters in Faerûn. She’s also noteworthy as the lover to Elminster. She’s also canonically chaotic neutral. Art by Todd Lockwood