In the world of the game Dungeons and Dragons, people are grouped into nine “alignments”. Each person is Good or Evil (or Neutral), and also Lawful or Chaotic (or Neutral). What do those mean? There are as many interpretations as there are D&D players. This post describes mine.

First, what are Law and Chaos? In D&D, these are called the “ethical axis”. The story goes that lawful people are honest, honorable, respect authority, and value order above freedom. But which honor, which authority, and which order? And why is “order” grouped with “authority”? There are plenty of corrupt authority figures who want you to lie or cheat. Is it Lawful to obey them?

In my system, Law vs Chaos is the ideological axis of alignment. A Lawful person is one who tries to uphold or promote a specific ideology. A Chaotic person doesn't care which ideology wins, unless it helps zem with zir personal goals. All actions promote some ideologies and weaken others, but what matters is the reason for the action. A person who tells the truth because ze believes everyone should be honest is Lawful. A person who tells the truth because ze wants people to trust zem is Chaotic.

Good vs Evil (officially the “moral axis”) is harder. How do you define good and evil? And even if you can label everyone “good” or “evil”, should you? If good and evil actions can just be added up, then you can say things like “I saved a village from a fire, so now I can get away with kicking 2.85 puppies”. People even say that kind of thing in real life – when a popular person abuses someone, zir fans often don't believe the victim, because the popular person is already “one of the good guys”. Besides, the good/evil distinction wastes a lot of storytelling potential. If your story has a villain, can that villain be Good? If half the characters usually can't be half the alignments, that seems like a waste of a cool alignment system.

My first thought was to twist it up a little. I made “Good” and “Evil” exist, but I made them intentionally misleading. I made “Good” mean “intends to help others” and “Evil” mean “doesn't care what happens to others as long as it benefits zem”. There would be plenty of “Evil-aligned” people who are good, helpful and productive (because trust and social support can be more valuable than what you can get by cheating), and plenty of “Good-aligned” people who are evil, often choosing to harm others (because they falsely believe it will help, and refuse to change their minds). But I wanted my alignment system to be more than just a criticism of the standard one.

Instead, I replaced the alignments.

Now, my social axis of alignment is Meddling vs Detached. A Meddling person is one who tries to have specific effects on others. A Detached person doesn't care what effects ze has on others, unless it helps zem with zir personal goals. All actions may help or harm others, but what matters is the reason for the action.

Some examples:

  • Helping someone because you want them to feel good is Chaotic Meddling.
  • Trying to change the world so that everyone will feel good is Lawful Meddling.
  • Helping someone because you'll get something in return is Chaotic Detached.
  • Wanting everyone to exchange favors like that is Lawful Detached.
  • Hurting a person because you hate them is Chaotic Meddling.
  • Hurting a person because you think they deserve to suffer is Lawful Meddling.
  • Hurting a person to punish them, so that they won't violate a rule, is Lawful Detached.
  • Hurting a person to coerce them into helping you is Chaotic Detached.

A lot of people think goodness is Lawful Meddling: a person has beliefs about what's good, and tries to impose those beliefs on the world. But no alignment is really better at being good than another. A Lawful person might fail by sticking to a particular set of rules even when those rules hurt people. A Meddling person might get too attached to the idea of helping someone, even when the best way to help is to give them space. A Chaotic Detached person is sometimes the best one to give help, because Chaos and Detachment don't try to force their own reality on a situation it doesn't fit. But a Chaotic person might help the person right in front of zem in a way that hurts more people later on, because ze wasn't thinking about the principles. And a Detached person might lose the motivation to help at all.

On each axis, you can also be Neutral or Nonaligned. A Neutral person is in between the two extremes – ze sometimes cares about affecting people are promoting ideologies, but not always, or not as strongly. A Nonaligned person doesn't fit on the axis at all. Ideologically nonaligned people don't understand that ideologies exist. Socially nonaligned people don't believe that the lives of others have any meaning – they believe people are no better off if you help them and no worse off if you hurt them (or they don't realize that other people exist at all). I came up with this idea by thinking about the character Ignus, from Planescape: Torment. Ze is a fire wizard whose only desire is for literally everything to be set on fire. Since ze is oblivious to the reality of people around zem, ze never truly makes a choice about whether to affect others, and so ze's Lawful Nonaligned rather than Lawful Detached (since a Detached person is someone who knows, but doesn't care).

You could ask me, why is it a good idea to divide people into these categories at all?

I don't actually know. I just found it really interesting to think about the design of the system.

I currently think of myself as Lawful Neutral. I try to make the world better for everyone, which seems Meddling, but I only do that because I believe it's the right thing to do (a Lawful motivation) rather than because I have any innate desire to make people feel better.

– Eli

Approximate readability: 7.41 (4575 characters, 1030 words, 65 sentences, 4.44 characters per word, 15.85 words per sentence)