So, I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). I want to at some point, ’cause I like role-playing and storytelling and things of that nature.
But before I ever get around to starting a month-, year-, or potentially decade-long story campaign, I’m going to tell you three ways the Dungeon and Dragon’s Character Alignment system has changed my writing game completely.
1. It’s helped me craft more nuanced, people-like characters.
So, when first coming up with characters, I tended to put them in one of two boxes: “good” or “evil.” Problem is, I know better. I know that people, and characters, are more than just “good” or “evil,” but I didn’t have a good way to classify the shades of gray they were in. Some of them were Robin Hood types that stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Some of them didn’t kill for money, but killed for fun (god bless you, Adiri).
Well, turns out someone else did have a system: the folks over at D&D 😀 !
To elaborate, the D&D Character Alignment system operates on two axes: Good vs Evil and Law (more like “Order”) vs Chaos (which is where I think the real magic happens). Good characters are your honest, evil-vanquishing types. Evil characters are your lying, evil-promoting types. Between good and evil, and in between law and chaos, is the designation “neutral,” where a character might not necessarily fight to ensure good or evil.
So, with these two axes or parameters, here are all the possible combinations for characters’ tendencies:
Lawful Good | Neutral Good | Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral | True Neutral | Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil | Neutral Evil | Chaotic Evil
That’s nine different designations for characters, and each of them is different in its own way.
Remember Robin Hood? He would be an example of a “Chaotic Good” character because he doesn’t follow the law when it comes to spreading goodness. He breaks the law by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. He acts on behalf of the weak and disenfranchised with whatever means necessary, even if it includes breaking the law.
To go to the complete opposite of both spectrum, an example of a “Lawful Evil” character, according to TV Tropes, would be Darth Vader. He doesn’t tolerate incompetence and disobedience, but he won’t kill for his own amusement. He is “lawful” in the sense that he values order and that his order is law, not that he “follows the law” like a cop or judge would.
So, as you can see, how those characters act upon their desire for good, their desire for evil, or even their desire for neutrality becomes that character’s particular code of conduct.
And having a code of conduct for your characters is wonderful because it takes so much of the guess work out of plotting.
2. It’s helped me take so much of the guess work out of plotting.
Okay, so let’s say that I’ve got a “Chaotic Good”-Robin Hood style character, and by the end of the story, I want her to turn into a Lawful Evil Dictator like Darth Vader.
How do I justify and map those changes?
With our handy-dandy alignment chart!
Lawful Good | Neutral Good (2) | Chaotic Good (1)
Lawful Neutral (4) | True Neutral (3) | Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil (5) | Neutral Evil | Chaotic Evil
Okay, so right now, she’s on the Chaotic Good peg. Maybe she’s a thief that steals from a neighboring rich kingdom and gives to the poor. How can we get to that Lawful Evil spot on the board >:} ?
Well, how about this: Maybe she meets someone from said kingdom that makes her reconsider playing by the rules and order instead of going against them all the time, causing her to shift to a Neutral Good.
But then after that, she discovers that the kingdom that she thought was good isn’t really good, and they lock her up. Now her morals are skewed. Now, she has to decide between playing by the rules or not as well as being good or being evil, which makes her a True Neutral.
But then, she’s in real hot water, because now she’s been asked by the kingdom that’s betrayed her to become a spy for them (because of her past skills as a thief). As a Lawful Neutral, she follows their orders and gets paid.
But all the while, she’s hatching a plan. She’s studying the law. She’s flirting with the prince and wants to get her seat on the throne. She’s looking to get revenge. She’s looking to become Lawful Evil.
Ba-boom! One story with plot points, character change, and intrigue — fresh out the D&D Character Alignment oven.
And you know what else?
You can use it for backstories, too.
3. It’s helped me flesh out my character’s backstories more accurately.
Let’s say that by the end of a book, I want to have a Neutral Good character — kind of like a wandering monk. What kind of person were they before they became that compassionate wanderer?
Lawful Good (3, 1) | Neutral Good (4) | Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral (2) | True Neutral | Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil | Neutral Evil | Chaotic Evil
Well, maybe they were once a soldier or a knight, dedicating to bringing evil do-ers to justice all the time. Maybe in the past, they were a lot more dedicated to the cause than they would be now that they are Neutral Good.
And what about before that? Well, maybe they were still a soldier or a knight, but they didn’t feel as compelled to do good. Maybe all they wanted to do was follow their knight’s code and get the job done rather than actively pursue evil.
And maybe for a little bit before that, they were Lawful Good, and they kept going back and forth, wrestling with those changes before (eventually) settling on Neutral Good.
You see where I’m getting at? By having these two axes at my disposal, I’m now able to track the reasoning for why my characters change over time, and what story events could correspond to those changes. Instead of having to rely on lists of character traits when developing characters and plots, I get to develop the framework where those traits can logically manifest before I write anything down.
Disclaimers and Conclusions
Alright, I’m obviously not a D&D expert, so don’t take the way that I use the system to be the way that all D&D players use the system. The Character Alignment System is just one of many different parameters for character change and play during a campaign. You can draw a card from a deck and get your alignment switched out of nowhere. If you’re in Ravenloft, which is apparently a more Gothic Horror setting, your madness trait might dictate your characters. You could also be a lawful Good character with a capital “G” and a lowercase “l” in that you’re more of a hero promoting good than a passive law-abider.
Good, evil, lawful, and chaotic are also relative. For example, whether you are Catholics or a Protestants, you are still considered Christian. You just practice the religion differently. Sames goes for characters considered the “good” or “evil” umbrellas, but “lawful,” “neutral,” or “evil” in the way that they enact on those principles, teachings, experiences, traits, etc.
All I’m saying is that this system, and my tweaks to it, work for me, and they also might work for you in your own way. Give it a shot, and see where it takes you.
Anyway, that’s it from me. If you found this post helpful or enlightening (or if you’re a fellow D&D player), let me know in the comments.
And as always, see you next post 😉 !