On Ethics in Role-Playing Games

Credit: JD Hancock

The most essential element of the fantasy story is the classic struggle between “good” and “evil,” yet we have relegated these terms to mere modalities.

The way ethics has been handled in D&D hasn’t changed much since I started playing the game in 1998, though the definition of “alignment” in the game has. Alignment is D&D’s way of classifying characters by their moral inclinations. The rather simplistic model involves pairing one of three dimensions of “Law” and “Chaos” and “Neutrality” with one of three dimensions of “Good,” “Evil,” and “Neutrality,” to create a set of nine alignments:

  • Lawful Good (L/E), Chaotic Good (C/G), Neutral Good (N/G)
  • Lawful Neutral (L/N), Chaotic Neutral (C/N), True Neutral (N/N)
  • Neutral Evil (N/E), Lawful Evil (L/E), Chaotic Evil (C/E)

These alignments were set in stone when TSR published Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (aka Second Edition), the first major overhaul of the system since First Edition came out in 1974. Back then, grizzled wargamers of yesteryear had only “Law,” “Neutrality,” and “Chaos” to play with, and no official mechanic for “Good” or “Evil.” It’s safe to say that Gygax’s goal in creating alignment, and that of subsequent game designers from edition to edition, wasn’t to add an exegesis on moral philosophy to the D&D framework, but to help players shape the motivations of their characters in the context of the game world. Second Edition defined alignment as “a factor in defining a player character that reflects his basic attitude toward society and the forces of the universe.” This conception of the nine alignments remained intact through Third Edition and 3.5, long after Wizards of the Coast bought TSR in the twilight of the publisher’s days.

In WotC’s quest to reduce tabletop role-playing to a pale imitation of the MMORPG, Fourth Edition decided to reduce alignment to Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, and Chaotic Evil, and in 5th Edition, they brought back the full complement of nine alignments, minus True Neutral.

Credit: Thierry Ehrmann

What is Good & Evil in D&D?

The key to making the original alignments of D&D more robust and meaningful lies in mapping the axes of Good and Evil and Law and Chaos to actual ethical dispositions in moral philosophy. We start by getting rid of a fixed definition of Good and Evil (just as Gygax originally conceived), so that the Dungeon Master can decide what makes sense for the game world and the kind of campaign s/he wants to run.

The most essential element of the fantasy story is the classic struggle between “good” and “evil,” yet we have relegated these terms to modalities, such as good means “freedom and kindness” and evil means “hatred and tyranny” (as we see in Fourth Edition). When we talk about good and evil in AD&D, what we mean by these terms must be flexible enough that “evil” characters can believe what they are doing is good, and vice versa for “good” characters.

A Brief History of Good, Evil, & Neutrality

In AD&D, good is feebly defined as follows:

Good characters […] try to be honest, charitable, and forthright. People are not perfect, however, so few are good all the time. There are always occasional failings and weaknesses. A good person, however, worries about his errors and normally tries to correct any damage done. Remember, however, that goodness has no absolute values. Although many things are commonly accepted as good (helping those in need, protecting the weak), different cultures impose their own interpretations on what is good and what is evil.

So “good” in AD&D is this vague notion of niceness (“honest, charitable, forthright”) mixed with guilt (“a good person worries about his errors”). Yet even this meek assertion is shrugged off by the authors in favor of moral relativism, which preaches that there are no moral absolutes — that ultimately culture defines “goodness” and so anything goes.

Those with a neutral moral stance often refrain from passing judgment on anything. They do not classify people, things, or events as good or evil; what is, is. In some cases, this is because the creature lacks the capacity to make a moral judgment (animals fall into this category). Few normal creatures do anything for good or evil reasons. They kill because they are hungry or threatened. They sleep where they find shelter. They do not worry about the moral consequences of their actions–their actions are instinctive.

“Neutrality” as defined here comes closer to moral relativism than good does in the former paragraph. Moral relativists empty ethical propositions of absolute meaning, relegating goodness and evilness to a matter of historical or cultural circumstances. If rape and human sacrifice are acceptable practices within a given culture, then the moral relativist is forced to concede that this very well may be “good” for that culture.

In AD&D, Evil is defined as:

…the antithesis of good and appears in many ways, some overt and others quite subtle. Only a few people of evil nature actively seek to cause harm or destruction. Most simply do not recognize that what they do is destructive or disruptive. People and things that obstruct the evil character’s plans are mere hindrances that must be overcome. If someone is harmed in the process . . . well, that’s too bad. Remember that evil, like good, is interpreted differently in different societies.

So evil, according to this definition, is reserved mostly for sociopaths and unwitting criminals. Evil simply means nastiness, and is open for interpretation. The only useful suggestion about the true meaning of “evil” we get from the passage is the hint that evil implies greediness, in that evil characters view “things that obstruct [their] plans” as mere “hindrances that must be overcome.”

The solution to this problem is twofold. First, we have to dispense with the labels entirely. Any 1:1 correlation between “good” or “evil” and a moral philosophy will lead to bias and disagreement among Dungeon Masters. Instead, we have to provide options within an axis of morality that enable the DM and her players to decide which option means “good” for their campaign, and which means “evil.”

Altruism, Egoism, and Skepticism

Instead of good, evil, and neutrality, let’s consider the following perspectives:

Altruism. Your character thinks it is good to have a genuine concern for the welfare of others. This belief necessarily entails that you believe it is “evil” to be selfish at the expense of other people’s welfare.

Egoism. Your character doesn’t believe that you have any moral obligation to others. In fact, to forcibly restrict your freedom in such a way would be “evil”, and it is “good” to do whatever is in your self-interest.

Redefined in this way, neither position is inherently “evil” or “good.” Believers in the invisible hand of the market might argue that Egoism is in our very natures. Ayn Rand certainly would think so. On the contrary, an egalitarian point of view might insist that Altruism is good and the selfishness entailed by Egotism is evil.

The DM can decide whether Altruism or Egoism ought to be rewarded in his game world, depending on what the narrative demands. If you’re playing a game where all the PCs are pirates or bounty hunters and everyone is out for himself, then it would be virtuous to be an Egoist. On the flip side, if the campaign follows a bunch of paladins, Robin Hoods, or superheroes fighting corruption, then most likely their possessing a “genuine concern for the welfare of others” is a virtue, and the selfish crooks oppressing the people they are defending represent the source of “evil” in the campaign world.

As for Skepticism (or Neutrality): Maybe you don’t think either of these two extremes—Altruism and Egoism—fit your character’s motivations. Maybe your character thinks the whole concept of Altruism or Egoism as the foundation for moral judgment is arbitrary. For example, it’s possible cutthroat business tycoons in a late-stage cyberpunk corporatocracy behave egoistically because that’s how society has shaped them. Or perhaps in Star Trek’s communist utopia, humans have been socialized to behave selflessly only because in their post-scarcity society, there’s no need to squabble over resources. Such a “Skepticism” of the objective grounding of Altruism and Egoism in human behavior suggests that both POVs are social constructions. This is moral relativism. That is, Skeptics look to culture and society to determine the basis of morality. Imposing one’s morality on others might be the only inherently immoral act for them, and as such, non-intervention is a virtue.

This gives us our third axis, Neutrality, from AD&D.

The Axes of Law & Chaos

Now that we have flexible definitions of good and evil at our disposal, how do our characters justify their actions towards those ends? First, a trip down memory lane…

A Brief History of Law & Chaos

According to Second Edition, this was how Law was originally defined:

“Characters who believe in law maintain that order, organization, and society are important, indeed vital, forces of the universe […] Lawful philosophers maintain that this order is not created by man but is a natural law of the universe. Although man does not create orderly structures, it is his obligation to function within them, lest the fabric of everything crumble. For less philosophical types, lawfulness manifests itself in the belief that laws should be made and followed, if only to have understandable rules for society…”

The idea that “order … is not created by man but is a natural law of the universe” suggests something like Divine Command Theory, wherein statements about ethics are ultimately derived from an immanent power (e.g., God). But Law in AD&D also stresses an emphasis on duty (the “obligation to function within [orderly structures of society]”) and moral legislation — “that laws should be made and followed, if only to have understandable rules for society.” So we obey the law out of an “obligation” or duty to society, and because we have a kind of faith in the rules — not a religious kind of faith, but a faith that ethical laws exist somewhere out there in the universe (or embedded in the fabric of human behavior) for moral agents to discover and apprehend.

“The believers in chaos […] 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 differences 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…”

In AD&D, the chaotic character understands the universe as “a collection of things and events,” and must negotiate the meaning of her actions in the web of relationships that make up the universe as a whole. The emphasis on individualism in Chaos, “the power of the individual over his own destiny,” suggests that the chaotic character determines the rightness or wrongness of her actions by looking at the consequences of her actions, as opposed to the lawful character, who looks to ethical rules in order to take action. The chaotic character is pro-active — brave in her stance toward ethical action, whereas the lawful character is faithful toward rules and appeals to a moral legislator in her ethical decisions.

Enter Faith, Brave, and Balance

Now let’s consider the following two justifications for moral behavior:

Faith (Law). Your character acts on principle. You determine the rightness or wrongness of an act not by assessing its consequences, but by asking whether it violates some universal moral imperative (like the “golden rule”). Such imperatives are certain, inviolable rules about moral behavior you have a duty to follow, not for fear of the consequences, but because they represent an end unto themselves. So for your character, certain actions are always wrong, no matter the consequences, and you believe you have a duty to act as best as you can in accordance with these laws. In moral philosophy this is called Deontology.

One of the reasons why fans hated Man of Steel is because of the decision Superman makes in order to stop General Zod’s carnage at the end of the film seems out of character with how we conceptualize him as a superhero: he realizes that if he doesn’t kill the supervillain outright, many more people will die. Superman is classically thought of as an uncompromising moral absolutist, who would never break one of his moral principles (e.g., bring people to justice without killing them) in consideration of the consequences. Superman’s behavior in Man of Steel seems repugnant to us because we think of Superman as Lawful Good (a “Faithful Altruist”): his actions are driven by a strict adherence to certain moral laws, and he has a genuine concern for the welfare of others.

Brave (Chaos). Your character always considers the consequences as the basis for moral action, not some abstract universal rules built into the universe. You take whatever actions are necessary to the maximize “the good” (whether that means Altruism or Egotism), even if you have to break some rules that might be considered moral imperatives, such as lying or stealing. In moral philosophy this is generally called Consequentialism.

Consider for example Batman’s behavior in The Dark Knight. In order to locate the Joker and prevent him from killing lots of people, he decides to violate the privacy of the entire city of Gotham by tapping into their wireless signals. Batman knows that the violation of Gotham’s privacy is not just illegal but also immoral (because it deprives people of their freedom), and Alfred warns him about this. Yet, Batman has a genuine concern for the welfare of others, and believes his action will generate the most good for them. At least in The Dark Knight, this makes Batman Chaotic Good (a “Brave Altruist”).

What about Neutrality with Respect to Law/Chaos?

AD&D defines Neutrality when compared to Law and Chaos like so:

“Neutrality… [holds] that for every force in the universe, there is an opposite force somewhere… What is important is that all these forces remain in balance with each other… If one factor becomes ascendant over its opposite, the universe becomes unbalanced. If enough of these polarities go out of balance, the fabric of reality could pull itself apart. For example, if death became ascendant over life, the universe would become a barren wasteland.”

Admittedly, there isn’t much to work with from an ethical perspective in AD&D’s original formulation of Neutrality. The suggestion here is that the neutrally minded character approaches either extreme — Law or Chaos — in a balanced fashion, with enough open-mindedness to reject either position as problematic in the extreme. We may interpret the gray space between Law (the Faithful adherence to moral absolutes) and Chaos (the Brave examination of outcomes) to imply a kind of moral skepticism, in the sense that the neutral character has determined that Law and Chaos have no objective moral ground, and therefore it’s a matter of the subjectivity for the moral agent in taking moral acts.

So then a Balanced (Neutral) character might take a middle ground between Faithfulness and Bravery, with respect to justifying her moral decisions. While they may consider consequences and/or situational context in making judgments, they may also believe in a set of inalienable principles. This causes the Balanced character to weigh the importance of her principles against the consequences of her actions, depending on the situation.

Robin Hood, for example, might be considered a Neutral Good actor because he’s not really interested in maximizing the good (like a Brave character would be), nor is he interested in absolute moral principles (as a Faithful character would be). He’s willing to lie, cheat, and steal in the service of Altruism—a genuine concern for the welfare of others (in his case, the disenfranchised).

Credit: Liji Jinaraj

Some Examples

With Altruism and Egotism replacing the good/evil dichotomy, we can have intelligent conversations about what good and evil mean to characters holding differing beliefs. The Egoist can argue that selflessness is without justification and ultimately self-destructive, whereas the Altruist can argue that egotism is unfalsifiable and that selfishness is detrimental to society and social relations, yet both can maintain that they believe what they are doing is “good.”

To demonstrate the explanatory power of this new system for alignment, let’s explore the alignment of several different Egoists.

Magneto: L/E (Faithful Egoist)

Now here’s a supervillain with a set of hard-earned principles, whose primary motivation is his own self-interest and that of the mutants who share his cynical philosophy. Magneto believes that the world is out to get him, and he’s striking back at bigotry against mutants with lethal force. I choose Magneto specifically because he’s the sort of villain who breaks the law (as in the legal kind) all the time, but is still acting in accordance with a Lawful alignment, as in the Faithful kind we discussed above. It’s just that his moral imperatives include among them the belief that mutants are the superior race.

Eldon Tyrell: L/E (Faithful Egoist)

Similarly, the mysterious CEO Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner might serve as a model for the stereotypically Lawful Evil (Faithful Egoist) businessman. Such a character believes that the invisible hand of the free market is the chief principle guiding his moral action. It’s neoliberalism in the extreme: the Tyrell Corporation promotes individual self-interest at the expense of the replicants’ welfare, who become humanity’s slaves. In a corporatocracy, the consequences of regressive policies don’t matter as much as the adherence to the principles of a free market, which is an end unto itself.

Then you have your Chaotic Evil characters (Brave Egoists). These characters don’t believe in moral imperatives like the invisible hand of the free market (the Tyrells of the world) or some doctrine of Darwinian supremacy, like Magneto..

The Joker: C/E (Brave Egoist)

Someone like the Joker, for example, is Chaotic Evil. He thinks everyone is secretly out for himself. In the Joker’s eyes, we are all secretly Egoists, and so the Joker believes we will do whatever it takes to maximize our self-interest, if our social niceties are peeled away. This was the nature of his “social experiment” with Batman in The Dark Knight, when he pitted citizens against prisoners in a deadly test on bomb-strapped boats. He thought if people were put in mortal danger, they’d behave like animals and eat each other alive.

Emperor Palpatine & Darth Vader

Then there’s Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars. Despite that he rose to power as a politician, he doesn’t believe in the Senate or the rule of law at all. He’s not Lawful (Faithful) because his action isn’t driven by moral imperatives. In fact, the only thing he seems to believe is that the Force is a tool to make himself more powerful, as are the Republic and the Empire. At the end of the day, he cares about consequences: whether he rules the galaxy, who stands in his way, and who will serve him. Unlike Palpatine, Darth Vader believes that his genocide against the Jedi serves a purpose: “bringing order to the Galaxy” and “balance to the Force.” He follows Palpatine out of a misguided sense of duty, just as any Faithful/Lawful character holding onto moral principles might. But Palpatine tricked Vader into thinking what they were doing was for the good of the galaxy (acting on principle), when in fact Palpatine was merely using Vader to achieve his own ends. It’s exactly because Vader is Faithful to principles of some kind that Luke is able to redeem him when Palpatine betrays Vader. Palpatine, therefore, is a fantastic example of Chaotic Evil, if there ever was one!

The New Alignments

Below are the redefined alignments, preceded by their original definitions in AD&D. It’s interesting to note that Gygax perceived Neutral Good (aka Balanced Altruism) as the alignment for the most heroic of characters, because he believed that characters who choose the extreme ends of the spectrum (which would be Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil) held viewpoints that were too inflexible.

Lawful Good: Guardians

In AD&D: “Characters of this alignment believe that an orderly, strong society with a well-organized government can work to make life better for the majority of the people. To ensure the quality of life, laws must be created and obeyed. When people respect the laws and try to help one another, society as a whole prospers. Therefore, lawful good characters strive for those things that will bring the greatest benefit to the most people and cause the least harm. An honest and hard-working serf, a kindly and wise king, or a stern but forthright minister of justice are all examples of lawful good people.”

Redefined as Faithful Altruism: “Guardians” are stalwart altruists who believe there are universal, immutable ethical laws that transcend culture, and selflessly strive to protect the innocent against oppression, regardless of the consequences. Evil transpires whenever these ethical laws are broken out of selfishness and greed. The common people respect Guardians for their great resolve and devotion to justice. They genuinely believe that it is possible to act selflessly, and argue against egoists that selfless acts are just that — selfless — committed without premeditation of personal gain. The integrity of their ethical system hinges upon the fact that they refuse to sacrifice innocent lives for any seemingly superior cause. A steadfast paladin who dedicates her life to obeying the dictates of her faith in order to protect her kingdom is a good example of the Guardian ethos.

Chaotic Good: Champions

In AD&D: “Chaotic good characters are strong individualists marked by a streak of kindness and benevolence. They believe in all the virtues of goodness and right, but they have little use for laws and regulations. They have no use for people who “try to push folk around and tell them what to do.” Their actions are guided by their own moral compass which, although good, may not always be in perfect agreement with the rest of society. A brave frontiersman forever moving on as settlers follow in his wake is an example of a chaotic good character.”

Refined as Brave Altruism: “Champions” oppose absolutism and have no qualms upsetting the status quo to free the innocent from oppression and exploitation. They have great respect for diversity, tolerate differing ethical viewpoints, and strive to generate the most good for the most people. Striving for any other goal is selfishness, which leads to evil. A daring diplomat who opposes a corrupt bourgeois to alleviate the suffering of impoverished masses is a good example of the Champion ethos.

Neutral Good: Benefactors

In AD&D: “These characters believe that a balance of forces is important, but that the concerns of law and chaos do not moderate the need for good. Since the universe is vast and contains many creatures striving for different goals, a determined pursuit of good will not upset the balance; it may even maintain it. If fostering good means supporting organized society, then that is what must be done. If good can only come about through the overthrow of existing social order, so be it. Social structure itself has no innate value to them. A baron who violates the orders of his king to destroy something he sees as evil is an example of a neutral good character.”

Redefined as Balanced Altruism: “Benefactors” are not committed to moral absolutism and don’t believe that the actions of individuals can be justified by cultural difference. Instead, they believe a balance of both viewpoints is necessary to maintain moral fitness in society. Evil arises when blind devotion to a cause or wanton selfishness overrules reason and temperance. These heroes are not opposed committing lesser “crimes,” such as lying, cheating or stealing, in order to accomplish what they perceive as a greater good, but they may also uphold certain imperatives as inalienable. A kindly lord who helps prisoners escape an unfair execution in the gallows is an example of the Benefactor ethos.

Lawful Neutral: Judicators

In AD&D: “Order and organization are of paramount importance to characters of this alignment. They believe in a strong, well-ordered government, whether that government is a tyranny or benevolent democracy. The benefits of organization and regimentation outweigh any moral questions raised by their actions. An inquisitor determined to ferret out traitors at any cost or a soldier who never questions his orders are good examples of lawful neutral behavior.”

Redefined as Faithful Skepticism: “Judicators” are neither selfless nor egoistical in their disposition. To the Judicator, what is ethical is what is lawful, and so ethical judgments are inseparable from culture and society. Judicators are committed to justice neither out of a concern for the welfare of others, nor out of a desire to gain by being lawful. The law itself, Judicators argue, forms the basis of morality because the law ensures order in society, and without order society ceases to exist. Judicators are loyal subjects of the kingdom, indifferent to the irrelevant ideologies of outsiders. A Judicator shaman, for example, abiding by the laws of a vengeful Mother Nature, would not hesitate to cleanse a countryside rife with corruption, even if doing so means killing a few innocent civilians in the process. In the same way, repressive governments can trust Judicator spies and inquisitors to root out heretics for their cause without their conscientious objection to the task.

True Neutral: Arbitrators

In AD&D: “True neutral characters believe in the ultimate balance of forces, and they refuse to see actions as either good or evil. Since the majority of people in the world make judgments, true neutral characters are extremely rare. True neutrals do their best to avoid siding with the forces of either good or evil, law or chaos. It is their duty to see that all of these forces remain in balanced contention. True neutral characters sometimes find themselves forced into rather peculiar alliances. To a great extent, they are compelled to side with the underdog in any given situation, sometimes even changing sides as the previous loser becomes the winner. A true neutral druid might join the local barony to put down a tribe of evil gnolls, only to drop out or switch sides when the gnolls were brought to the brink of destruction. He would seek to prevent either side from becoming too powerful. Clearly, there are very few true neutral characters in the world.”

Redefined as Balanced Skepticism: “Arbitrators” believe that the concept of good and evil only has meaning within the boundaries of culture. Without cultural difference, they argue, ideological sameness will lead to stagnation and tyranny. The only fundamental ethical law they uphold is the law of noninterference with the practices of other cultures. Arbitrators believe that the only evil is ethnocentrism, because when one culture dominates another, precious knowledge, customs, and life is bound to be lost in the ensuing struggle. A reclusive, hermetic order of powerful druids who keep vigil over an unstable region may refrain from interfering in the affairs of nations, until, for example, one nation threatens to upset the balance, crusading against its enemies because of perceived ideological dominance.

Chaotic Neutral: Radicals

In AD&D: “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 toward chaotic neutral behavior.”

Redefined as Brave Skepticism: “Radicals” abhor the concept of morality. These nihilists are neither altruists nor egoists. What one believes is a good or evil action, the Radical argues, always depends on the circumstances of one’s culture, and the laws of one’s society. Ethical judgments, then, are entirely subjective, and therefore utterly meaningless. In the same way, morality as a whole is an irrational concept without a basis in reality. These characters tend to be wildly individualistic. Radicals don’t believe in a duty to help others, or derive pleasure from gaining power; instead, their motivations are often far more complex. A Radical wizard, for example, may have no interest in anything other learning for learning’s sake, shunning both prestige and the camaraderie of other wizards.

Neutral Evil: Esurients

In AD&D: “Neutral evil characters are primarily concerned with themselves and their own advancement. They have no particular objection to working with others or, for that matter, going it on their own. Their only interest is in getting ahead. If there is a quick and easy way to gain a profit, whether it be legal, questionable, or obviously illegal, they take advantage of it. Although neutral evil characters do not have the every-man-for-himself attitude of chaotic characters, they have no qualms about betraying their friends and companions for personal gain. They typically base their allegiance on power and money, which makes them quite receptive to bribes. An unscrupulous mercenary, a common thief, and a double-crossing informer who betrays people to the authorities to protect and advance himself are typical examples of neutral evil characters.”

Redefined as Balanced Egoism: “Esurients” believe the highest good is the pursuit of personal happiness. Laws that stand in the way of this goal are evil. An Esurient does not necessarily consider herself to be an egoist; instead, she redefines altruism to mean cooperation between self-interested individuals with unique personal ambitions. The Esurient is respectful of cultural differences insofar as these differences do not interfere with her pursuit of happiness. For this reason, the Esurient shares the belief with the Arbitrator that nonintervention is a virtue. Moreover, the Esurient rejects the notion that human beings have a moral obligation to care for their fellows, though in those cases where helping others will help the Esurient in the long-term, she obliges. For this reason, the Esurient tends to maintain an alliance only as long as the alliance serves her interest. Esurient buccaneers, for example, might be amicable partners in their search for treasure, and even exceptional entrepreneurs because of their ambitions, but once they find the object of their desires, the pursuit of personal happiness may stand in the way of their friendship and lead to betrayal. This is because the Esurient’s personal ties are always tenuous at best.

Lawful Evil: Masterminds

In AD&D: “These characters believe in using society and its laws to benefit themselves. Structure and organization elevate those who deserve to rule as well as provide a clearly defined hierarchy between master and servant. To this end, lawful evil characters support laws and societies that protect their own concerns. If someone is hurt or suffers because of a law that benefits lawful evil characters, too bad. Lawful evil characters obey laws out of fear of punishment. Because they may be forced to honor an unfavorable contract or oath they have made, lawful evil characters are usually very careful about giving their word. Once given, they break their word only if they can find a way to do it legally, within the laws of the society. An iron-fisted tyrant and a devious, greedy merchant are examples of lawful evil beings.”

Redefined as Faithful Egoism: “Masterminds” are cunning Egoists who believe that altruism is groundless. According to the Mastermind, people always act out of self-interest, even when they are ostensibly helping others. The Mastermind, therefore, has no qualms about embracing Egoism to its fullest extent. Like the Guardian, the Mastermind is law-abiding and honorable, even though she motivated by self-interest inwardly. The Mastermind may feign selflessness to move herself into a position of power, but ultimately she believes that laws exist to improve the welfare of the most ambitious among citizens. Evil, for the Mastermind, is nothing less than the burden of altruism, because she perceives self-sacrifice as a devaluing the human condition. A Mastermind politician, for example, might enact laws that foster a free market and make the nation more powerful (thereby generating more influence for the politician), despite the fact that such policies also increase inequality and cause great suffering for the masses.

Chaotic Evil: Megalomaniacs

In AD&D: “These characters are the bane of all that is good and organized. Chaotic evil characters are motivated by the desire for personal gain and pleasure. They see absolutely nothing wrong with taking whatever they want by whatever means possible. Laws and governments are the tools of weaklings unable to fend for themselves. The strong have the right to take what they want, and the weak are there to be exploited. When chaotic evil characters band together, they are not motivated by a desire to cooperate, but rather to oppose powerful enemies. Such a group can be held together only by a strong leader capable of bullying his underlings into obedience. Since leadership is based on raw power, a leader is likely to be replaced at the first sign of weakness by anyone who can take his position away from him by any method. Bloodthirsty buccaneers and monsters of low Intelligence are fine examples of chaotic evil personalities.”

Redefined as Brave Egoism: “Megalomaniacs” are ruthless hedonists who reject altruism as amoral and have no tolerance for duty of any kind except the limitless glorification of the self. The Megalomaniac will do whatever is necessary to benefit herself, disregarding the welfare of others while meticulously assessing the consequences of her actions in cost-benefit analysis to maximize her personal gain. Criminal action is no barrier to ambition; if breaking a law is more beneficial than obeying it, then let the law be broken, especially if the negative consequences are negligible. The Megalomaniac cares about friends and family only insofar as her relationship with them helps her get ahead, become more powerful, or overcome one more obstacle in her endless struggle to conquer her own need.

Credit: Erich Ferdinand

I hope this has been an interesting exercise in rethinking some of the basics in role-playing. Since I’m no philosophy major, I can’t say my integration of some of the real ethics involved in this recasting of alignment is entirely accurate; like any academic discipline, there are bound to be semantic disagreements and misinterpretation, and I’m sure I’ve made my fair share. The goal, I think, is to create depth where there wasn’t before, so the floodgates are open.

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