This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Alignment: Rules for Lawful and Chaotic Characters
The last column dealt with the kind of alignment issues that tend to disrupt games -- primarily PC infighting and disagreements about behavior. The topics for this installment of Save My Game are law and chaos-two frequently misunderstood alignment components that every player seems to interpret differently, particularly in relation to a character who has a strict code of conduct, such as a paladin. What's a DM to do?
Problem: Lawful and Chaotic -- What Do They Really Mean?
I've seen a lot of discussion on the D&D boards lately about law and chaos -- particularly about how they relate to paladins and their behavior. What exactly is expected of a paladin? What actions may cause her to lose her class abilities? I understand that blatantly evil acts such as murder, mayhem, stealing, and the like violate her code, but what about poor judgment that causes harm to others? What about opting to save herself rather than someone else? I know a paladin should care more about the welfare of others than she does about herself, but how far does that concept go? I also wonder about a paladin's relationship to the law. Must she adhere to the letter of the law? Can a paladin ignore an unjust law? -- Susan
This question goes right to the heart of what lawful and chaotic mean in terms of alignment, so let's begin by taking a close look at those two ideas.
First of all, let's be clear about one important concept: Lawful does not necessarily mean "adheres to the letter of the law." A law (or body of laws) is merely a rule that a government imposes on those who are subject to its power. A lawful alignment, on the other hand, represents an orderly approach to matters of ethics and personal conduct. Most lawful characters do respect the order that the laws of the realm represent, but adherence to local ordinances is only one way of demonstrating a lawful alignment.
To be lawful is to be in favor of conformity and consistency, to act in a systematic and uniform fashion, and to take responsibility. As a lawful person, you establish patterns and precedents and stick to them unless you can see a good reason to do otherwise. Methodical efficiency is your byword, and you believe in the concept of duty. You plan and organize your activities to achieve particular goals, not just to satisfy impulsive desires. You believe a proper way exists to accomplish any goal, though it may not always be the traditional, tried-and-true way. Likewise, you cultivate long-term relationships and endeavor to build trust between your associates and yourself. As a lawful person, you recognize that most laws have valid purposes that promote social order, but you are not necessarily bound to obey them to the letter. In particular, if you are both good and lawful, you have no respect for a law is unfair or capricious.
Being chaotic, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily mean you are incapable of adhering to the law. Though chaotic societies may seem disorderly, they exist in abundance. As a chaotic character, you are dedicated to personal and societal freedom. You pursue your dreams and don't try to put limits on your nature. You don't value consistency for its own sake; rather, you respond to every situation as you see fit without worrying about what you did before. The past is the past and the future is uncertain, so you prefer to live in the present. Each situation is new, so planning and procedures are pointless -- in fact, they restrain people from reacting quickly and decisively. You don't get tied up in exclusive relationships because they could hold you back from your destiny -- which might be right around the corner. You are always ready to try new techniques because you believe that experience is the best teacher, and you are always open to discovery.
In short, good and evil describe a character's ideals, and law and chaos describe the means she uses to work toward her goals. The law of the land in any given place is most likely designed to promote social order, so in general terms, lawful characters are more likely to respect it than chaotic characters are. However, the content of the law matters much more than its mere existence.
Solution 1: Laws and the PC
Any character might fear the consequences of breaking a local law, especially when the authorities rule with an iron hand. Very few characters, however, should make important decisions based solely on the legality of the choices. For a lawful good character such as a paladin, achieving goals in the right way -- that is, in a way that promotes the general welfare and doesn't unnecessarily imperil others -- is the most important consideration. For a chaotic character, the most expedient action is generally the most appropriate one, whether or not it is legal. A chaotic good character takes pains to ensure that others are not harmed by his actions, but a chaotic neutral or chaotic evil one cares about little besides personal convenience.
Solution 2: The Paladin's Code
Now let's address the question of how the paladin's code of conduct governs her actions. A paladin is both lawful and good, and she must uphold both aspects of her alignment. Thus, if the laws in a particular realm are corrupt and evil, she is under no obligation to obey them.
Though a paladin must always strive to bring about a just and righteous outcome, she is not omnipotent. If someone tricks her into acting in a way that harms the innocent, or if an action of hers accidentally brings about a calamity, she may rightly feel that she is at fault. But although she should by all means attempt to redress the wrong, she should not lose her paladinhood for it. Intent is not always easy to judge, but as long as a paladin's heart was in the right place and she took reasonable precautions, she cannot be blamed for a poor result.
Should a paladin sacrifice herself to save others? In the broadest sense, yes, since doing so is the ultimate act of good. However, she must also have enough respect for her own life and ability to make sure that her sacrifice brings about a significant benefit for others. A paladin who holds the only key to saving the world should not sacrifice herself needlessly against an orc horde. As long as the paladin keeps the greater good in mind, she is adhering to her code.
When your character has a decision to make, weigh all the factors carefully and take her alignment into consideration when deciding what is most important to her. In short, make your decision, have a reason for it, but don't tie the concepts of law and chaos to the local law of the land.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.