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I do not play D&D, but players in my roleplaying game have called stuff "chaotic," like "chaotic good" and "chaotic evil" and I would like to know what they mean. The game I play does not use this term.

What is chaotic and what is it used for? What effect does it have on things?

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's not necessary for us to answer, but it might help people make better answers if you tell us what game (or games) you do play. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak May 23 '16 at 18:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Disagree with VTCs: it's a basic terminology question; the fact that answers are unsatisfying because players and designers change the definitions all the time doesn't really reflect a poorly-constructed question. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P May 24 '16 at 16:11
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The term 'chaotic' is part of the alignment system in D&D. Within the alignment system, your personality and decision making is rated on two scales. One from good to evil, and the other from lawful to chaotic.From the D&D Player's Handbook (5e):

Lawful good (LG) creatures can be counted on to do the right thing as expected by society. Gold dragons, paladins, and most dwarves are lawful good.

Neutral good (NG) folk do the best they can to help others according to their needs. Many celestials, some cloud giants, and most gnomes are neutral good.

Chaotic good (CG) creatures act as their conscience directs, with little regard for what others expect. Copper dragons, many elves, and unicorns are chaotic good.

Lawful neutral (LN) individuals act in accordance with law, tradition, or personal codes. Many monks and some wizards are lawful neutral.

Neutral (N) is the alignment of those who prefer to steer clear of moral questions and don’t take sides, doing what seems best at the time. Lizardfolk, most druids, and many humans are neutral.

Chaotic neutral (CN) creatures follow their whims, holding their personal freedom above all else. Many barbarians and rogues, and some bards, are chaotic neutral.

Lawful evil (LE) creatures methodically take what they want, within the limits of a code of tradition, loyalty, or order. Devils, blue dragons, and hobgoblins are lawful evil.

Neutral evil (NE) is the alignment of those who do whatever they can get away with, without compassion or qualms. Many drow, some cloud giants, and yugoloths are neutral evil.

Chaotic evil (CE) creatures act with arbitrary violence, spurred by their greed, hatred, or bloodlust. Demons, red dragons, and orcs are chaotic evil.

Good and evil are fairly self-explanatory. Good characters are generally willing to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of others. Evil characters are usually willing to harm others for personal benefit. That is of course a simplification, but it gets across the main ideas.

Lawful means that the person is willing to follow laws and give up personal freedoms for the good of their society. Lawful characters tend to follow strict moral codes. Chaotic means that the person is unwilling to give up personal freedoms for the good of society. They do not want to follow laws or be restricted by social codes. Chaotic characters tend to act on a whim, with little regard for laws or codes of practice.

In reality, the system is seldom used by most DMs. Previous editions used it much more, for example in AD&D, there was a strict LG alignment restriction for paladins (which caused annoyed parties to call some characters 'lawful stupid'). In 5e, traps and the like can theoretically be triggered by certain alignments. I have used this, but I think I am in the minority here. For most people alignment is just used as a role-playing tool, and a way to gain inspiration.

In older editions, there used to be spells and other ways to identify alignment (such as detect alignment), but these no longer exist in 5th edition (the most recent version of the game). Alignment is still theoretically an objective quality, and something intrinsic in the universe. Most players, in my experience, tend to ignore it once they have chosen it.


A full history of the alignment system would be far beyond the scope of this format, but I will endeavour to provide here a brief history of the term 'chaotic', by providing summaries of various edition's definitions.

OD&D Basic Rules Book (red book) Chaos is the opposite of law. It is the belief that life is random, and that chance and luck rule the world. Laws are made to be broken, as long as the person can get away with it. The individual is more important than the group. Chaotic creatures often act on whims, and cannot be trusted. Chaotic behaviour is usually the same behaviour that can be called "evil" (!).

AD&D Player's Handbook No specific definition for 'chaos', but we can gleam the following from the list of alignments: Chaotic creatures view randomness and disorder as the way of the universe, and believe in personal freedom above law and order.

2e AD&D Player's Handbook The believers in chaos hold that there is no preordained order or careful balance of forces in the universe. Chaotics can be hard to govern as a group, since they place their own needs and desires above those of society.

3.5e Player's Handbook “Chaos” implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility. Those who promote chaotic behavior say that only unfettered personal freedom allows people to express themselves fully and lets society benefit from the potential that its individuals have within them.

4e Player's Handbook In 4e, the alignment system was drastically simplified to only include Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, and Chaotic Evil. Chaotic essentially became a more random evil alignment, described as 'Entropy and destruction' rather than 'Tyranny and hatred' (for evil).

4e Essentials Retained the simplified alignment system. Chaotic evil is summarised as: "I don't care what I have to do to get what I want.' This was opposed to: 'It is my right to claim what other's possess.' (for evil).

5e Player's Handbook See descriptions above.

It is clear from this that, with the exception of 4e, the editions have pretty much agreed that chaos is the belief that life is governed by chance, and that we should disregard laws. In this sense, the meaning of this alignment has not changed much, but its usage has changed significantly.


As an addendum, I recommend these two articles by the Angry GM on alignment and its usage:

You might also want to read about the history of the alignment system.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In accordance with the highest of excellence! \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 24 '16 at 23:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ It may be worth noting that Lawful does not always represent adherence to local or societal laws, but in some cases just means that the particular character follows some type of strict code. For example, Batman is sometimes considered lawful in that he refuses to kill or use guns. Thus, someone who breaks the law of the land might not be chaotic if their actions are in line with whatever code they do follow (and assuming their personal code is consistent). \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson May 28 '16 at 21:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Using comic book characters like Batman to illustrate alignments is usually an awful idea because over the decades they have been in media they will have been written wildly differently by different people. But generally, I find it more helpful to characterise lawful as someone who believes that there should be laws, even if they don't agree with the laws as they currently are. They might break a law they don't like, but fundamentally they think there should be better laws instead. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Jun 14 '16 at 23:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DanHenderson - Batman is every alignment. \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Jul 5 '16 at 21:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've just suggested that AngryGM be included in Role-playing Games Chat's feed and link this post as an example of the site's appreciation of his writing. I hope you don't mind, and would gladly edit out the reference if you do. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 18 '16 at 14:37
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D&D has a concept called “alignment,” which is a kind of shorthand for one’s ethical, moral, and philosophical outlook on life. It has two axes, the good-evil axis and the lawful-chaotic axis, and you can either be at those extremes, or at neutral in the middle. Your alignment is a combination of these two axes, so your choices end up looking like this:

\begin{array}{c|c c} & \text{Lawful} & \text{Neutral} & \text{Chaotic} \\ \hline \text{Good} & \text{Lawful Good} & \text{Neutral Good} & \text{Chaotic Good} \\ \text{Neutral} & \text{Lawful Neutral} & \text{True Neutral} & \text{Chaotic Neutral} \\ \text{Evil} & \text{Lawful Evil} & \text{Neutral Evil} & \text{Chaotic Evil} \\ \end{array}

So chaotic good and chaotic evil are two of the three chaotic options (the last being chaotic neutral).

It’s important to note that, within the context of D&D, these are objective, measurable qualities. There are spells that identify and interact with alignment, such as detect chaos, detect evil, detect good, and detect law. There is supposedly some objective measure by which a person’s position on the above chart can be determined.

Anyway, chaotic behavior is described by the books as being opposed to rules and restrictions, being free to act as one pleases, and emotional, at extremes impulsive or even completely random. Someone who is chaotic good might be interested in liberating everyone (seeing freedom from control as one of the greatest forms of good), while someone chaotic evil might be interested in just wildly destroying everything in the vicinity.

Chaotic behavior is also popularly identified with problematic roleplaying behavior, wherein people use their chaotic alignment as excuse to behave in disruptive ways (though to be fair, all of the alignments are implicated in various disruptive behaviors; see My Guy Syndrome). Characters who steal from their allies, yell obscenities at monarchs, randomly decide not to contribute or even to help the party’s enemies, are all behaviors that some players of chaotic characters sometimes do, often to the annoyance of everyone they are playing with. Some groups even ban chaotic alignments for these reasons, and one edition of D&D, 4e, even went so far as to eliminate all chaotic alignments except for Chaotic Evil, which player characters weren’t supposed to use (4e also eliminated Lawful Neutral and Lawful Evil; these changes were very unpopular).

Alignment also is probably the single source of the most arguments in D&D. Because alignment is supposed to be an objective fact of the game world, it is necessary for the real-world players to decide what alignment someone has, and then they have to agree about it. But the alignments (especially Law and Chaos) are very vaguely defined, very “you’ll know it when you see it,” which of course means people end up seeing things differently and then getting in big fights about it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's important to note that in 5e, alignment isnt really an objectively measurable fact, except in the case of a few artifacts and one monster (pixies?). I mean to say that it doesn't come into play for spells, abilities, and the like hardly ever in 5e. So, in 3.5, alignment is a big deal, but in 5e it's more of a descriptive attribute rather than a prescriptive attribute. All that to say that you should indicate which editions use detect good, detect evil, detect law etc, because in 5e Detect Evil and Good only detects fiends, celestials, devils, and fey spirits, not players.' alignments \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov May 23 '16 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ In case you agree with ^^, here's a little on how to know alignment in 5e: rpg.stackexchange.com/a/72750/23970 \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 May 24 '16 at 21:42
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This is "alignment," which is a label for a character's moral or ethical leanings in relation to metaphysical forces.

What exactly the labels means has actually varied considerably over time.

D&D originally had an alignment system inspired by Michael Moorcock's fiction: Law, Chaos, and Neutrality in between. Law generally represents a drive to order and Chaos a drive to disorder, but a big part of Moorcock's mythos is that they're both rather alien and inhuman ideals when expressed as their utmost extremes.

Soon after, the game got a two-axis system:

  • Good - Neutral - Evil, representing a "moral" leaning. Good is altruistic. Evil is selfish to the point of debasing others.

  • Lawful - Neutral - Chaotic, representing an "ethical" (a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion) leaning. Law is hierarchy, structure, principle. Chaos is independence, a rejection of pattern, situational judgement.

You combine these to create a grid of nine alignments. "Chaotic Good," "Lawful Neutral," et cetera.

Sometimes you'll see a five-label system like this instead:

Lawful Good - Good - Unaligned - Evil - Chaotic Evil

Here "Lawful Good" is used to represent the most extreme, idealistic Good (as it is the alignment that has been associated with paladin characters) while "Chaotic Evil" is abjectly sadistic, unbridled, all-consuming Evil.

What exactly each label means has varied over time. For example, some texts will associate "lawful" with literal obedience to laws and "chaotic" with fishmalk behavior, but most versions of the D&D game generally have less caricatured definitions.

In addition to variation in definitions, different D&D editions and different playgroups have varying ideas about what alignment really means — is it prescriptive or descriptive, what are the consequences of changing alignment, how is Good supposed to treat Evil in a situation where Evil is an objective probably-measurable thing, that kind of thing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The first part of this is how I prefer to define alignment in my games \$\endgroup\$ – Taegost May 23 '16 at 18:43
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I think the best way to answer this question is to pull some examples from real life and literature.

First, the scale from chaotic to lawful has nothing to do with the scale from good to evil. A chaotic person does not like rules. They may follow rules because they are inherently good (i.e. thou shall not steal) or because they don't want to go to jail but not because there is a law requiring or forbidding an action.

A lawful good person will sit at a red traffic light at 3AM until it turns green. A chaotic good person certainly will not (unless they think there's a policeman sitting behind those trees). Robin Hood might be considered a chaotic good character.

In the same way, a lawful evil person has set rules and regulations that they set for themselves and others in their sphere of influence. The Mafia might be considered a lawful evil organization. They have very specific rules and strict enforcement of those rules.

Some people play chaotic as random but I don't think it's meant to be that way. (So the chaotic good person at the light has a 50/50 chance of running it). A chaotic person probably has a certain amount of rebel in them so, with all else being equal (self preservation and lawful/evil alignment), they will go against the rule/regulation/law.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, Lawful Evil entities may be willing to make and keep bargains with others in furtherance of their plans, obeying the "rule of the deal" or the rules of a higher system like diplomacy. For example, Stalin was willing to ally with and cooperate somewhat with the USA and UK in order to accomplish his goal of defeating Hitler, exercising a good deal of restraint in not immediately lashing out against his "allies" as soon as it became practical. The social bond was tense, sure, but both sides prospered. A Chaotic Evil version of Stalin would have been a terrible ally for the USA to gain. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jan 7 at 14:12

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