Tabletop RPG Alignments

So, recently, I have been talking a lot about tabletop games, specifically Pathfinder, since that’s what I’m running at the moment. For those who haven’t come across it yet, Pathfinder is an open-source adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons. Then, since my friends and I are nerds, and this is apparently what nerds do, we started talking about alignments.
Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been in a single gaming group or discussion about gaming where someone hasn’t brought up the alignment system in one way or another.
This time, we got into the old Chaotic Neutral argument. Is it actually possible to play a Chaotic Neutral character so that they can actually work with the rest of the party, and not Be That Player. You know the one – they keep ruining the plans, going off on their own, insulting the important NPCs … because “that’s what their character would do”. I suspect there’s a subset of players that inwardly cringe when they hear a fellow player will be rolling up a Chaotic Neutral character – I certainly know I’m one of them. Especially if it’s an unfamiliar gaming group.

The funny thing is, though, all Chaotic Neutral means in the game, is that the character doesn’t like external authority and rules, and that they aren’t really committed to being either Good or Evil (defined in the DnD rulebook as either preferring to disadvantage themselves for the sake of others, or disadvantage others for their own gain, but that’s another thorny issue – we’ll just assume that’s a working definition and save the debate for another blog post).
And here’s where I’m going to fall down, because here’s where I’d really like to give examples for those things, and … well. I can think of at least a dozen ways to play a Good character like a villain (obvious obsessive Paladin is obvious), and an Evil character like a hero (willing to kill, maim, steal from, emotionally destroy, etc. other people, but knows this is not the best way of making people do what they want, so generally will use more ‘Good’ methods, just for example).
But that’s not the point, and it’s a much larger discussion that I may post later at the risk of boring everyone to death. My point is, there should be so many ways of playing a Chaotic Neutral character that doesn’t mean being the ‘wild card’. Why does nobody play a slightly-too-sadistic mercenary character (or otherwise a character who’s ‘only in it for the X’)? A wise old mentor character who’s less concerned about the hero they’re training than with the ultimate goal of that training? Depending on your interpretation of ‘external authority’, the leader of a revolutionary group could well be Chaotic Neutral. Even simpler, an outlaw character who’s fiercely devoted to their group of friends … but basically nobody else. But no, the main idea of the Chaotic Neutral is wild, unpredictable, and purely self-interested. Chaotic Neutral has become the shorthand for ‘really not a team player’.

But, coming to think of it, not many facets of the DnD alignment system are very oriented towards team playing. The definition of Evil as being only out for oneself basically steers characters away from being able to form a party for a specific (Evil) goal. The basic expectation is that all the players are going to be headed towards a goal, but will backstab each other along the way.
Lawful Good’s stereotype is the Paladin, which basically, these days, translates to the character who tries to force all the other characters to abide by their views and nobody really likes. Lawful Neutral doesn’t come up much better. True Neutral’s stereotype is the Druid who disdains civilisation in favour of non-sentient animal and plant life. In fact, the only two alignments I can think of that are stereotyped as ‘team players’ are Neutral Good and Chaotic Good.

Honestly, I’m not sure whether this is a fault of the system, or a fault of the culture around the system, but whatever it is, in a game entirely revolving around a group of players playing as a team, the alignment system really seems to be missing something. I’m tempted to say they’re all too internally-focussed, or maybe we’ve just made it so. I definitely think most of the issues are caused by using two axes to lump all personalities into nine categories, and the fact that we’ve by now created a set of nine stereotypes to go with these nine categories. But let’s face it, at the moment, you generally have a better game with a gaming group that disregards alignment systems. I’d like a better system, but really everything will be an oversimplification.
At least I can always have fun playing a Neutral Evil character counter to everybody’s expectations.

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