Rethinking Law and Chaos in Dungeons & Dragons

Photo by Daniele Muscetta

The key to making the original nine alignments of D&D work lies in reinterpreting them.

The key to making the original nine alignments of D&D work lies in reinterpreting them. The authors of Second Edition (as I will write some day at greater length) had it right, despite their propensity for tables and disdain for a unified game mechanic. The nine alignments are indeed all we need to create a working ethical model that accommodates all the nuance of modern day role-playing—we just need to excise “Good” and “Evil” from the equation (just as Gygax originally conceived), and apply some real ethical philosophy to the game material.

First, let’s look at the original definitions of Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos according to Second Edition. This comes from the chapter on Alignment:

On Law: “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 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 for moral agents to discover and apprehend.

On Chaos: “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, and “the power of the individual over his own destiny,” suggest 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.

It becomes clear, then, that the contention between Law and Chaos in AD&D is analogous to the contention between Deontology and Consequentialism in ethics; for the Deontologist, the moral status of the acts themselves (and/or the character of the moral agent) are what matters in the determining the moral status of the actor, whereas in Consequentialism, it’s all about the outcome of actions.

On Neutrality: “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.”

Now, I admit, once we toss aside the metaphysical drivel espoused by this passage on Neutrality, there isn’t much to work with from an ethical perspective. 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 in Deontology) and Chaos (the examination of outcomes in Consequentialism) to imply moral skepticism, in the sense that the Neutral character has determined that Law and Chaos are without absolute ground, and therefore it’s a matter of circumstance or perspective for the moral agent when she chooses between the two in her ethical decisions.

I think this gets us a step closer to creating a meaningful “first axis” against which we can measure our characters’ ethics in the role-playing game. We now can base “Law” and “Chaos” on Deontology and Consequentialism, respectively. And to make it easier for our players to grasp these concepts, we can rename “Law versus Chaos” to “Brave versus Faith,” with “Skepticism” (its basis in Moral Skepticism) in between. The best part is that none of these ethical positions are more or less desirable than the other, and so all the advice we are given in Second Edition about constructing societies based on this axis of alignment is still useful, if not worth re-examining in this new context.

Our new definitions might go something like this:


The Faithful character always acts on principle, rejecting emotion or end goals as factors that affect her ethical judgments. She determines the rightness or wrongness of an act not by assessing its consequences, but by asking whether society could continue to exist if everyone committed the act. Therefore, the Faithful character concludes that certain actions are always wrong, no matter what the consequences, and that her duty is to act as best as she can to defend the universal good.

The Faithful character declares: “You should not make evil in order that good may be made from it.”


Brave characters, unlike the Faithful ones, always consider the consequences of their actions in making ethical judgments. The end goal of the Brave character is to maximize the good for herself and/or for others, in every ethical judgment she makes.

The Brave character declares: “The ends justify the means.”


These characters may take a middle ground between Faithfulness and Bravery, with respect to ethical dispositions. While they may consider consequences and/or situational context in making ethical 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.

The Balanced character declares, “What is asserted without reason may be denied without reason.”

But what do we do about Good and Evil? Thankfully, the approach to redefining good and evil in the role-playing game is much easier to solve…

Rethinking Good & Evil

On Ethics in Role-Playing Games

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