“In Defense of Chaotic Neutral”

This is from a letter I wrote to DRAGON Magazine in April of 2000 – I don’t even remember if I bothered to submit it or not, but I promised “rants” as well as “remembrances” when I started the blog.

This would have been as I was slipping into my gaming “Dark Age”, although it would be another 18 months until I passed entirely through the door and shut it behind me, until I found my way back in 2010.

So, any further thoughts on how the portrayal of CN alignment has or has not changed since then?

“”In Defense of Chaotic Neutral”


Since their have been several letters appearing in DRAGON Magazine lately relating to Evil alignments (such as Matthew Avery’s in issue #270), I would like to add my views on another widely misunderstood (and sometimes abused) alignment: Chaotic Neutral.

Let’s start by seeing what the Player’s Handbook has to say about Chaos, and Chaotic Neutral in particular.

On Chaos: “The believers in chaos hold that there is no preordained order or careful balance of forces in the universe. Instead they see the universe as a collection of things and events, some related to each other and others completely independent. They tend to hold that individual actions account for the difference in things and that events in one area do not alter the fabric of the universe halfway across the galaxy. Chaotic philosophers believe in the power of the individual over his own destiny and are fond of anarchistic nations. Being ever pragmatic, non-philosophers recognize the function of society in protecting their individual rights. Chaotics can be hard to govern as a group, since they place their own needs and desires above those of society.”

On Chaotic Neutral: “Chaotic neutral characters believe that there is no order to anything, including their own actions. With this as a guiding principle, they tend to follow whatever whim strikes them at the moment. Good and evil are irrelevant when making a decision. Chaotic neutral characters are extremely difficult to deal with. Such characters have been known to cheerfully and for no apparent purpose gamble away everything they have on the roll of a single die. They are almost totally unreliable. In fact, the only reliable thing about them is that they cannot be relied upon! This alignment is perhaps the most difficult to play. Lunatics and madmen tend towards chaotic neutral behavior.”

The two statements that “they are almost totally unreliable” and “lunatics and madmen tend toward chaotic neutral behavior” seem to be the root cause of some people misunderstanding how to role-play a Chaotic Neutral character. Unless you balance these two statements against all of the other material relating to Chaos and Chaotic Neutral alignment, they can seem to imply that ALL Chaotic Neutral characters are unreliable lunatics.

It is certainly possible to have a Chaotic Neutral character that is not mentally unstable. It is also possible to have a Chaotic Neutral character that will not abandon his fellow party members at the drop of a hat. Alignment IS NOT the same thing as a character’s motivation and personality. Alignment is basically the “lens” through which a character views the world and his relationship to it. Alignment can certainly be an influence on a character’s motivation and personality, but it is not a substitute for them.

A Chaotic Neutral character doesn’t perceive any direct link between his actions and the balance of the universe. Since, to a Chaotic Neutral, Good and Evil are irrelevant, it doesn’t matter if he does Good deeds or Evil deeds because noting he does will have a lasting effect on the universe as a whole. If he kills the Evil monster terrorizing the village, he might feel that it doesn’t really matter in a larger sense because some other Evil monster might appear tomorrow morning. In a personal sense, though, it might matter if the character gets a reward, fame, or just a big thrill from killing the Evil monster.

The best example I can think of for a Chaotic Neutral character is Valeria from the movie Conan the Barbarian. When making decisions, she doesn’t agonize over the ethics or morality of her choices. She decides based upon her personal motivations, which seem to be: a thirst for action and excitement; greed; and a search for companionship to assuage her loneliness. These are all basically selfish motivations, but Chaotic Neutral characters should think selfishly because they tend to place their own desires ahead of the larger goals of society.

Rob the Temple of Set? Valeria might do it just for the excitement. Spend all the loot carousing? Why not? She could be dead tomorrow. Rescue the king’s daughter from Thulsa Doom? Hey, it’s none of Valeria’s business if some airheaded princess wants to join a cult. How about she takes the advance on the reward and runs off with her new love Conan? She can’t be happy if she gets killed on some suicide mission like that. Notice how Valeria’s attitude towards the possibility of her own death changes depending on how much it interferes with her own happiness.

The players who have the most trouble with roleplaying a Chaotic Neutral character seem to fall into two basic types. The first type genuinely has no clue as to how a character’s alignment should be balanced with motivations and personality. They probably don’t have a single word outlining any motivations or personality traits on their character sheets. When faced with any decision, even one that should be personally important to the character, this type of player might just flip coins or roll dice to determine what the character does. This IS NOT roleplaying. Just because a character is Chaotic Neutral doesn’t mean that Intelligence and Wisdom scores should just be thrown out the window and disregarded. This first type of player should probably just play an alignment that more easily lends itself to a shallow character, like Neutral Good (not that I’m knocking Neutral Good for serious roleplayers, but it seems to be an easier alignment for newer players to grasp). Maybe they will develop into better roleplayers with more experience.

The second type of player who misplays Chaotic Neutral is much more insidious. They have fair grasp of how to play alignment and personal motivations, but seem to think that using a Chaotic Neutral alignment is an excuse to do anything, no matter how disruptive to the party or the gaming session itself. These people use the mask of a selfish character to try to force their own (the player’s) selfish desires upon the gaming group. By claiming that they “are just playing my alignment” they seek to escape any consequences of their actions, both in character and in the dynamics of the player group.

These two types of player approaches to the Chaotic Neutral alignment were so prevalent on the convention gaming circuit a few years back that the RPGA Network barred Chaotic Neutral player characters from the “Living” campaigns, such as Living City. It seems a shame that the actions of some mean that nobody playing in these incredible campaigns can take on the challenge of playing the alignment that the Player’s Handbook says “is perhaps the most difficult to play.” It is my sincere hope that D&D 3rd Edition will also stress the importance of character motivation and personality, and not just alignment, in regards to good roleplaying technique.”

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