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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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8 Answers 8

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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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Okay, then how do I go about explaining the difference between 'chaotic stupid' and not-'chaotic stupid?' Because, it's not that the players seem to Want to play that way more than a serious game (when I ban chaotic alignments, we have serious games that everyone enjoys) so much as they simply don't see the difference. "My character is chaotic, I'm acting chaotic. What's wrong with that?" That's their question, and I don't have a good answer. –  Zach Nov 23 '12 at 3:35
I suspect the best way to better describe the chaotic/lawful alignments is to go outside of the WOTC definitions and take a page from earlier editions, where the dichotomy was more clearly defined as being between the needs and methods of society being prioritized over the concerns of individuals, or the other way around. Under this system, a lawful character who believes he has been wronged and wants the guilty party to suffer might choose to seek justice; a chaotic character in the same position is more likely to seek revenge. –  GMJoe Nov 23 '12 at 5:42
+1 decent answer :) I agree with much of this. –  LitheOhm Nov 30 '12 at 19:40
@TimothyAWiseman Two reasons; The first being that a number of the people in my group do not like the restriction. In our group, acting out of alignment is penalized not by an alignment shift, but by narrative-based issues. This is something everyone in the group agrees on, because we feel it helps promote roleplay. The second reason is because I felt that a better way of describing the chaotic neutral alignment might help prevent others from getting the wrong idea in the future, when I or anyone who reads this question explains it to them with the information they found here. –  Zach Sep 12 '13 at 6:34
Off topic, allow me to say your titles of Book of Perfect Dogma or a Book of Unfettered Discord are really freaking cool. I could actually picture the idea of "Discipline Feats" and "Renegade Feats" as their counterparts to Exalted and Vile feats, but for reasons you have mentioned already the more I think about what Lawful and Chaotic tend to mean the less sense some of my ideas for those feats make. Then again they could always just appeal to a handful of prominent interpretations of either... –  Cobalt May 22 '14 at 2:49

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 you..in 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 income..as 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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A lot of comments have given their definitions of chaotic and neutral, but is no one going to address the "crazy"? This just shows a pretty poor understanding of mental illnesses and how they work.

Characters of any alignment can be mentally ill. There's nothing precluding mental illness even in a Lawful Good character. Mental illness doesn't make a person behave "randomly" or "just do whatever they want." Delusions or hallucinations may cause a person to behave based on information disconnected from reality, and some illnesses may also cause intense emotions, for example a person with paranoid delusions may believe that everyone is plotting to betray them and feel very afraid, but they're still reacting to these things as THEM. There is no mental illness that turns an average person into the Joker. Mental illness as an excuse for "random," irrational behavior, especially in villains, is a weak crutch for someone who has made their hero such an untouchable self-insert that no one could have a rational reason for disagreeing with them, and it perpetuates harmful stereotypes that hurt real people who suffer from mental illnesses.

If you want to write mental illness into your campaign, by all means research specific conditions, read up on the ways they present, and read accounts from people living with them. If your characters face or have faced trauma, read about how trauma can affect people. The human psyche can be a fragile thing, but it's incredibly lazy to just go to "ax crazy" as the default mental illness. When this happens as the result of trauma, it also warps things so that the REAL villain is always the victim, and shifts fear from the victimizer to the victim's justified wrath, painting that wrath as irrational. Ugh that trope is just terrible all over.

You're basically asking what the difference between mental illness and chaotic neutral are since they're both "ax crazy." The answer is that NONE OF YOUR CHARACTERS SHOULD BE AX CRAZY. As noted in the comments above, this isn't fun for anyone else, it's a stupid power fantasy for the player to play with being ~baaad~ and not having to suffer consequences, and it ruins everyone else's fun. Mental illness is a heavy and nuanced topic that should be approached with respect, and if the player isn't drawing from personal experience, lots of research. And chaotic neutral characters are not any more likely to be mentally ill than any other character.

I have a character who's CN, and not remotely mentally ill. She's basically someone who realizes she was handed disadvantages in life, and if she wants to get ahead in the world, she can't play by the rules, because the rules were designed to keep her on the bottom. She has a heart, and acts with empathy sometimes, but she realizes it's not her job to save the whole world, and that compassion disappears real fast if someone gets in her way. She recognizes that money is power, so she will do morally and legally dubious things to make money, though she does have some limits, and won't do anything for profit. (Drug smuggling, yes, human trafficking, no thanks.) She will, however, go along with the law sometimes in the interests of not getting in trouble--while she doesn't think the law serves anything but itself, and ascribes no moral value to it, she respects that it's powerful, and doesn't want to get skewered for her principles. She extends her selfishness to acting in the interests of those she likes and feels close to, but has the somewhat flawed bootstrap philosophy that if other people don't want to be victims, they should just be strong like her. People she hasn't accepted as close friends or family she thinks of more in terms of their usefulness to her. She's highly resourceful and adaptable, though because she thinks of herself as someone strong who doesn't lose, sometimes she has a hard time admitting when she's beaten, and will come back again and again with different tactics. Once she's decided to help someone, failing to do that would be a blow to her ego.

The difference between her and a chaotic good character, I think, is that she doesn't go out of her way looking for ways to make the world a better place, and she resists self-sacrifice. The difference between her and a chaotic evil character is that she isn't a sadist, and doesn't need to hurt anyone to feel good about herself. Her reaction to the bar selling tainted beer would probably be to not drink beer there, and tell anyone she liked to also not drink beer there--she feels no particular drive to put herself at risk resolving a problem that has nothing to do with her. She has enough of her own problems to deal with, without making every little problem in the world her personal cause. She's not a magic-user, but with the squirrel thing...she has no problem with hunting for food, but if she's going to kill something, there needs to be some kind of benefit to her other than sadistic joy at watching it writhe and die (since she's not a sadist). She doesn't think much of authority figures, but hardly sees the point in picking the people with the most power to hurt her and taunting them! She prefers to subversively get away with stuff they wouldn't like right under their noses, while smiling and seeming like a good citizen.

Her philosophy, boiled down, is less "greed is good" and more, "if I don't put myself first, no one else will and I'll never have anything good." She's decided to get the most out of life, and is willing to do whatever it takes. She's cunning and street-smart, but not random, ax-crazy, or soulless. She won't go running off to help strangers at the first word of a misdeed, but she also won't actively contribute to the senseless suffering of innocents. It's not that she doesn't care about people in need, she just doesn't see why it's her job in particular to fix it, and feels no responsibility to others, nor does she really see others as beholden to her. (With the exception of her family, they've always had her back, and she looks after them too.) She's someone who's broken the social contract because she felt it was holding her back more than helping her.

I don't completely agree with her philosophy--this isn't me using her as a mouthpiece, this is just me picking ideas that a person could have and could make a good story--but I don't think she's irrational.

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The only reason crazy enters the issue is because "CN = crazy" is a common misunderstanding. Addressing it beyond "CN ≠ crazy" isn't really relevant to the question. That's why it's not addressed in any other answer, and they focus on a solution to the problem of how one can explain CN properly. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 10 '13 at 21:13

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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