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When I first started playing with a group of completely new players, one of the first things I did was to explain the alignments as best I could at the time. When describing Chaotic Neutral, my exact words were, "A chaotic neutral character will do whatever he wants to do, so long as there is a reason that is justifiable to at least him behind doing so."

Well, recently, I'm beginning to think that that explanation is not exactly accurate, or at least not perfectly clear.

To explain, through every game I have played with this group, I have regretted each and every time I allowed a player to play a chaotic neutral character. The exact same thing will happen, no matter how many times I explain why it shouldn't. Said character will, for no reason I can fathom other than because his player (and by extension the character itself) wants to. Anything from using a squirrel to test out a new spell, to burning down the local pub to stop the flow of polluted beer, to openly mocking authority figures until nothing short of character death is put on the table, and even then only because I made the desire for self-preservation a required character trait. This is not to say that they do this because they prefer to, or that it's simply a style of play that they find more fun. We've played campaigns where I banned chaotic-neutral alignment, and everyone enjoyed themselves without this being an issue. It's simply that, whenever this issue comes up, I'll point it out to them and they'll reply with some variant of, 'I'm a chaotic character, and I'm being chaotic. Why is that wrong?" I don't have an answer to that.

So, what's a better way to describe a chaotic neutral character? How do I explain to this group that, even if the alignment is 'chaotic,' that doesn't mean they have to play either chaotic-stupid, or insane?

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up vote 31 down vote accepted

The problem you’re facing is not really “your” problem so much as a problem with the system: no matter what you, or anyone else, think Chaos and Law mean, I guarantee you that there is no one in the world who shares exactly the same definition of it. Ultimately, Law and Chaos are very poorly defined – Wizards’ definitions of each aren’t even mutually exclusive, so a single action could be both Lawful and Chaotic at the same time. It’s not a great system. There’s a reason they never published a Book of Perfect Dogma or a Book of Unfettered Discord; not even they had a terribly clear picture of Law and Chaos.

So be forewarned the ultimately there may not be a good answer. It’s extremely subjective and wishy-washy.

Anyway, the behavior you describe is often derisively called “Chaotic Stupid,” which not entirely unfair because it is stupid from an in-character perspective. It’s also awful for most groups’ play dynamics, because basically nothing ever gets accomplished and the plot doesn’t go anywhere. Many people ban “Chaotic Stupid” behavior and would consider it a good reason for kicking someone from the group. I am definitely one of these people. This may be a useful thing for your players to learn.

Explain to your group that their behavior basically qualifies as insane. Their responses to stimuli are completely out of keeping with rational behavior; it is neither in their own best interests or in the interests of anyone else. Insanity isn’t really “Chaotic” – it’s damaged. “Insane” literally derives from the Latin word for “unhealthy.” People who are well and truly insane are incapable of safely and comfortably handling the real world; we are talking about very severe forms of mental illness, the sort of thing that requires constant supervision by professionals.

That is not an appropriate character for a game of heroic fantasy.

So your players should learn that they are expected to play healthy, reasonably well-adjusted, and at least somewhat mature characters, at least in serious campaigns. People who can recognize reality, and respond to it in a fashion that makes sense according to their own goals. Those who cannot do so belong in an institution, and if they aren’t in one they’re probably homeless and wretched, barely eking out a survival mostly through dumb luck and perhaps a bit of pity from others.

As for how to play a Chaotic character, particularly a Chaotic Neutral character, it’s important to recognize a few things. First, it is in their internal, not external, reactions to rules that we really see a difference between Lawful and Chaotic characters.

Chaotic heroes are those who have no problem bending or breaking the rules to further their goals (whether those be moral, like achieving some Good, or personal, like getting revenge). They dislike restrictions on their behavior, and generally endeavor to limit them. While a Lawful character embraces rules and restrictions as a form of stability and strength, the Chaotic character only feels stifled by them. That doesn’t mean that the Chaotic character breaks them on principle.

By the same token, a Lawful character may bend or break rules that he considers illegitimate – but he won’t like it and will wish those who had made the rules had been wiser or better, to have created fairer rules that wouldn’t require breaking. The Chaotic character might not even notice that the rule was there.

I can think of two major, sane, and rational Chaotic Neutral archetypes:

A loner typically cares about himself. He doesn’t go out of his way to hurt people – and he does have some scruples, he won’t want to hurt innocent people even if it is to his benefit to do so, and even if he does wind up doing so. He will appreciate altruism on some level even if he does not practice it, and even if he thinks those who do are suckers – possibly on a cynical “if only the world was that nice” kind of level. But he’s not out there for others, usually, he’s out there for himself, and he won’t let his scruples or his appreciation stop him from accomplishing what he wants.

The anarchist, on the other hand, definitely does care about others, and about society in general. He wants to end all rules because he sees rules themselves as bad for people. He’s willing to let the ends justify the means and he’s opposed even to rules that generally make people’s lives better, but he does care about people and about freedom. He fights for himself in the sense that he also wants to be free, but he wants to bring everyone with him. He may be a bit less judgmental of Evil beings than he perhaps should be – he may be willing to see, e.g. Demons, as worthy of at least some respect because of their largely lawless society – but he’ll recognize that they have no respect for others’ freedoms and that death is, perhaps, the ultimate form of imprisonment.

There are doubtless other ways to play Chaotic Neutral. But hopefully these can give your players some ideas on how to play the alignment without falling into Chaotic Stupid – or, perhaps, more correctly just “insane,” not Chaotic-anything.

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Chaotic Neutral mortals are no more chaotic than Chaotic Good or Chaotic Evil characters. (I'll leave aside planar beings – those have entirely different concerns than mortals, so they embody alignment extremes more.) On the Law-Chaos axis, they're identical. It's only their motives that are different.

A CE character doesn't respect law or custom, and is entirely selfish. They're not stupid, though they may be impulsive and short-sighted, making them destructive. This destructiveness is always to an end though: a short-term end like personal satisfaction, say.

A CG character doesn't respect law or custom either, considering individual initiative and personal freedom the greatest means to goodness. They are not short sighted, but the concerns of larger entities like nations don't trump the needs of the individual, especially individuals that are right there in front of them. They take care of themselves first, so that they may continue to take care of others.

So with these perspectives from the Good-Evil spectrum, and holding Chaotic constant, what does a character look like who is equally chaotic as these two, but midway between Good and Evil?

A CN character is selfish, but not wanton. They are not elementals of Chaos, spreading entropy and chaos for the sake of tearing down the order of reality. They don't destroy for the sake of destroying, or for meanness, or temper. They have mortal reasons for what they do – because it serves them, and why should anyone else care? When no-one else obviously stands to be hurt, they can be entirely selfish. If their personal need is great, they still might cause harm, but they're not actively exploitative. They don't really care about consequences – they'll sort out what to do about them when they happen, just like they deal with every event they find themselves in.

Despite this, a CN character isn't thoughtless. They might have considered the consequences of their actions, but they're just not so important compared to the here-and-now. Just like a CE character, they're not stupid though – a sufficiently significant and obvious consequence entirely counts as something to care about in the here-and-now, because it's coming for them! As a mortal, they have self-preservation as an instinct, even if they don't care about preserving anything else in a philosophical way.

A CN character can be thought of as an anarchist. They don't want anyone telling them what to do, they want their independence, but they also respect that others are individuals who want their own things too, just like a CG character does. They just don't go out of their way to be helpful like that CG character would. Like a CE character, a CN character will use destruction if it suit them, but unlike that CE character they're not interested in watching the world burn just for the pretty flames – no more than they are interested in creating a cathedral to see the pretty marble shine. They just don't have a preference either way. They just want to be left to do their thing. They're not soulless, empathy-impaired monsters. They're not crazy. They're still people, with recognisable motives and desires of a normal person.

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I can give a one-word answer, at least for the definition I agree with: unprincipled.

The character is definitely not crazy. He has a goal, and possibly already some plan on achieving it. He simply doesn't have any reservations on what must or must not be done to achieve it. This does not mean that he will lie and betray at every opportunity. He may be loyal to his friends, while at the same time freely swindling strangers of their valuables.

He does not necessarily ignore or disrespect the law (or justice, or any other similar concept) out of principle -- although it is also possible, if the character is an anarchist. He will acknowledge it, and tend to act within it, but can break it if he thinks he can get away with it, frame someone else, or otherwise thinks it's worth it.

Such a character can be either villainous -- a mafioso who just wants to live la dolce vida, a driven anarchist, a brawler whose only interest is getting in fights, or heroic -- a wanderer with a 'live and let live' attitude who doesn't like being restrained, a detective who only cares about finding the truth.

"Chaotic stupid" is one possibility. It stems from the notion that chaotic means random, and a chaotic character needs no explanation for his actions other than "I felt like it". But even when playing one like that, the player needs to be reminded that a blatant disregard for the well-being of others makes you evil, while a blatant disregard for your own well-being makes you either stupid, suicidal, or heroic, depending on circumstances -- and suggested to choose which their character is.

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My go-to character for explaining Chaotic Neutral is Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films. He comes and goes as he pleases, switches allegiances at a whim, and has been both in the service of the Dashing Hero and the Greatest of Villains.

However, he's not random, which is what I think your players are trying to indulge. "Random" is the source of crack-fic, and it's zany and can be the cause of great humor, but it's not great for consistency or coherent character portrayal.

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Remember: AD&D and D&D 3.X use a 2-axis alignment system, one axis derived from the Eternal Champion stories of Michael Moorcook (Elric, Hawkmoon, etc), then hybridized with Cthulhu Mythus influences from HP Lovecraft's works; the other from Greek Philosophical models.

The First Axis: Chaos and Law

Chaotic means opposed to large, stable, high-order organizations, and either not respecting rule of law, or actively opposing rule of law. In extreme cases, it can be taken to see change for the sake of change alone.

Lawful means supportive of organizations and rule of law, and in extreme cases, stasis and social immobility.

The Second Axis: Good and Evil

Good means driven to act for the betterment of others, even at risk to self.

Evil means driven to act for betterment of self even at the expense of others.

Chaotic types

Chaotic Neutral generally means neither good nor evil, but definitely not bound by laws nor external moral codes. They can and will ignore laws, provided they don't see it as excessively risky. They will advocate for social change, especially when it is too their personal advantage, but generally are not actively out to hurt others. Often, this can manifest as the "party animal" - who will happily help others, provided he can gain something from it, even if only it be simple fun.

The ultimate "Chaotic Neutral" one-liner is the Wiccan Rede: "Do what thou willst, aine ye harm none."

Chaotic Evil seeks to use any means available for self-benefit. It's "Greed is good" and "Change is fun when I can benefit"... The guy who is driven by his own greed, hedonism, or psychosis. They take what they want, and don't worry about who it may harm, as long as the harm isn't to themself.

Chaotic Good is the rampaging hero... the guy who ignores the laws, doesn't much care for the organizations out there, but does everything he can to make life better for everyone. They range from the itinerant musician who plays for supper and bench, to the guy who robs from the wealthy to give to the poor. The wandering hero who topples evil governments can also be seen as CG... Especially the Demi-god version (Hercules as portrayed by Kevin Sorbeau).

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I feel like this is too much a discussion of what Chaotic X is, and less about how to talk about the way they're playing and why the "psychotic" approach to Chaotic is causing problems. – KRyan Nov 23 '12 at 4:52
Explaining what Chaotic means in the D&D context shows that Psychotic is NOT Chaotic. (In fact, it's as often Lawful Evil or Neutral evil, depending upon the specific psychosis.) – aramis Nov 23 '12 at 7:43
You did say a Chaotic character could be driven by psychosis. I do agree that psychosis can fall under many alignments, but your answer doesn't include that. Your answer's a great description of Chaos but I don't think that was the only thing asked for. – KRyan Nov 23 '12 at 13:55

There's been a lot of focus on the actual definitions of Chaotic. I think there are 2 other approaches that might help.

1st, while it's already been brought up and dismissed, I'd like to readdress the CN vs CE. Even though they got everyone out of the bar before they burned it down they still destroyed private property..this is evil (unless done for some good purpose which in this case it was not) so true, while they didn't do the extreme evil of commiting mass murder for kicks, destruction of property is still evil. (ok, technically this was the same approach with a new view, but still..)

2nd, Rather than just trying to convince them of definitions and how they "should" play their character, just let them play as they see fit..but remind them that the world reacts to them just like IRL. ie, Use Mother Nature'ss squirells as lab rats and watch a group of druids (what is a group of druids called?) bring the rath of Mother Nature upon them (additionally, a failed fort save by one of them might result in some rather disturbing side effects from the tainted squirrel meat! personally, I like that idea) Burn down a bar just because you can..local authority comes and arrests addition to your sentence (easy way to get them to a new mission) your most prized possesions are confiscated to reimburse the property owner for damage and lost well as any efforts by the gov't to extinguish said fire.

These are just 2 examples, but I think what's important here is that your players recognize that just like in the real world, their actions have consequences..and it isn't too late. Even if this happened a few weeks ago, it may have taken time for the right people to get involved..druids, law enforcement, w/e.

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The way I always envisioned alignment was that of "choosing sides" in a larger-than-life conflict.

If you haven't already, try and make "good" and "evil", as well as "law" and "chaos", opposing forces of the universe. Heaven might lead the forces of good, hell might lead the forces of evil.

If a character is "good", then he actively sides with the good forces. If he is "lawful", he also actively sides with the lawful forces. The same for "chaotic" and "evil".

If he is neutral on the good/evil axis, he is undecided, seeing benefit in both of the two opposing forces ("good for all" versus "even better for me").

If he is neutral on the lawful/chaotic axis, he is undecided between strict hierarchical and organisational societies versus loose anarchic societies where no one really is in charge. "All for one" versus "Each to his own". I always thought of Nature as the natural (no pun intended) Chaotic force, and Culture/Civilization as the Lawful force.

It might solve your problem, if you choose to interpret the alignment system like this. In lower level campaigns, it won't affect inter-party relations much either, since a good guy and a bad guy can both benefit from good reputation and the rewards of adventuring. They might even be great friends.

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The biggest problem is chaos vs. law and good vs. evil is the poorly defined catch-all situation. First it is an all-or-nothing alignment, with zero gray scale or even any scaling at all. I prefer to use a modified alignment chart where everything starts at (0,0), which is true neutral. Chaos vs. Law, along the neutral spectrum, then becomes a question of how far into the "screw law" zone you want to go. A (0,10) is deranged: they want pure freedom, he doesn't care, and this is really where you get into “chaotic stupid” territory because they hate law, any law — they want to break all the laws and are somewhat unhinged because, while they seem normal, any time you deny them the ability to do something or limit them, they want to do it even more. Self-interest is key because they are feeling limited and deny that feeling more than anything else — if they want what you have, they are not above stealing it.

I feel the chaotic neutral that most people are looking for is a (0,5) or (0,6), where they accept laws happen and the morality of it makes sense, but they are not above breaking, bending or ignoring a law to further a self interest or goal. I find that these are among the best drivers of a game because they operate in the shadowy portions of neutrality, where you can hand a man a secret missive then find no problem in gutting him because someone paid you better to eliminate a leak. Their moral compass is null and void and consciously they will make a choice. Some would say this is more the Chaotic Evil but I would differ because a Chaotic Neutral kills for self gain where a Chaotic Evil would, say, torture the informant on the off chance they had more information although their true internal reason would be to cause suffering. The Assassin or Rogue are great Chaotic Neutral drivers. This serves true for the opposing (0,-10) because then you get Judge Dredd, “Law is sacred,” any breaker of the law — no matter how harsh it seems — is seen to be completely acceptable because it was the law. The pure Lawful Neutral would murder a child for skipping down the street if that was the punishment demanded by law. I find this is the easiest way to help with this question because on the scale of 0–10 I define 5 as the balanced approach. 0 you care not one way or the other, 5 you favor one side firmly but can still, within character discomfort, make a choice in the opposite direction. Anything above 8 is fanatic devotion/derangement. If you use the 0–10 scale though you can still use the characters to further the plot, because you know they are going to be deranged in whatever axis they chose. Obviously it would be hard to play a Chaotic Evil (-10,10) because this character is the psychopath.

I hope this helps answer how one should go about defining your chaos vs. law, good vs. evil. It's easier to define the scale of something than to find one definition that fits everything and, on the plus side, the DM/GM can actively set what each level on the scale is for a particular group of characters. There will always be players that are going to turn the dial to 11 — it just helps you to better identify that.

With (10,10) Chaotic Good can be the funniest character ever because they have zero care for laws. This is the kind of character that would start a fire to burn out an evil warlock in a town then spend the rest of the night rescuing people heroically from the fire, only to be confused as to why they hate him afterwards. I always think of Minsc/Boo from Baldur's Gate as being the archetypal Chaotic Good (10,10): they favor the simplest, straightforward approach, which is usually almost comical because they tend to cause their own problems.

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Ultimately, this strikes me as kind of besides the point: the OP isn’t using a modified system, so most of this answer doesn’t really help them. While it is possible to answer with something aside from what was asked for, it is difficult to do well, and I don’t really feel that this answer has accomplished that. I suggest you check out the Tour and Help center for tips on writing strong answers, and if you want to answer with something different from the information requested, our meta guidance on doing so is invaluable. – KRyan Jun 2 '15 at 19:51

While I sympathize with you in that disruptive behavior can be detrimental to the group dynamics, I just want to point out that the behavior you describe is not necessarily bad behavior. I'll step through each of the behaviors you mentioned in your question.

Burning down a pub to stop the flow of polluted beer: I can genuinely imagine a character who would do this if they thought that that was the only way to keep people from drinking it. This isn't necessarily Evil (since it could be that the owners are themselves Evil if they are poisoning people on purpose), so if there was an alignment that would do this, I think it would be Chaotic Neutral. This of course depends on the character's justifications (more on that later).

Testing a spell on a squirrel: This may be an Evil act since it is harming/killing a living being, so I could see this pulling a character's alignment towards the Evil side (though I wouldn't say it is enough in and of itself to force an alignment shift). This again depends on the justification given. If they are testing something on a squirrel because it has to be tested and they don't want to potentially harm a person, it may be the best of a bad situation, however if they are testing on a squirrel because they are sadistic and cruel then it probably is Evil.

Openly mocking the Authorities: This is definitely a Chaotic trait. I don't really see how this is inherently bad for a campaign. Perhaps an adversarial relationship between the PCs and the Authorities is a good thing that could add flavor to your group. Robin Hood mocked the authorities and his life was threatened by it, but that wasn't a bad thing about him or his story, it was an important and core part of who he was (of course Robin Hood was much more Chaotic Good than Chaotic Neutral, but the same logic applies).

As I mentioned above, the most important part of any of these actions is the motivation/justification. You said that behaviors are ok "so long as there is a reason that is justifiable to at least him behind doing so". If that is your rule, stick to it. Make them justify their actions at least in a way that makes sense for their characters. So if a player burns down a guard tower, ask them why they decided to do that, and if their answer is "I just felt like it" then tell them they can't do that until they can justify why their character wants to. This prevents random unjustifiable behaviors without banning the entire alignment.

That said, if you are running a campaign where these kinds of behaviors are unwanted, make sure to tell your players that from the start. Though it is totally within your power to ban that alignment completely, you could instead just make sure they know that things like this may get their characters killed or permanently imprisoned. When disruptive behaviors have reasonable negative in-game consequences I suspect that your players will start to think things through before behaving erratically. For example, if your characters mock the mayor of a town, the mayor may send his guards after them and no longer be cooperative with them. If that is fun and exciting for the group then that's great, but if that causes big problems for them, then they may be more hesitant to do the same again in the future.

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Regardless of what my opinion is, ultimately you did not answer the actual question. If the question was unclear to you, I am sorry. To make it clear, the actual question being asked is the title of the question. If you look at the more highly-voted answers, you'll notice all of them answer that question, in one way or another. You only gave your assessment of the situations I described. Ultimately, whether or not you agree with my reason for asking the question, answers given on this site are supposed to answer the question as asked. – Zach 3 hours ago
@Zach I feel that my answer does answer your question. You essentially asked, "People aren't playing Chaotic Neutral characters in a way that I think follows the definition of Chaotic Neutral". My answer is, I think they generally are actually following a reasonable definition of Chaotic Neutral, so you don't need to change how you describe the alignment at all. I hope that makes sense. – Kevin Wells 42 mins ago

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