What does it mean to be Lawful Good?
This question is not as easy to answer in OGL games as it may appear initially. Two things interfere with the clarity one should be able to give: the abstract nature of the alignment system and the value judgment inherently implied in determining what are good and lawful behaviors. Since the system allows one to be good while scoffing at laws, the two elements are mutually exclusive. To conflate the two would necessitate that they are complimentary and coincidental traits. This is the case for Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons games. The effective claim is that one who is good adheres to the law because it promotes the greatest amount of good. However, an unjust law, if followed, violates the concept of promoting what is best for all. Thus, it does not work to claim that a Lawful Good individual does what is decent and follows the rules since both the law and good can conflict with one another.
In Western cultures, there is a tendency to conflate law and goodness. Whether social, cultural, or religious in nature, the tendency is to equate these two values. Perhaps it is because it creates a strong social glue that states the laws and cultural scripts are fair for everyone. Given the tendency for humans to place a high value on objects and concepts perceived as scarce, rare, precious, or unique (amongst other descriptors), this shouldn’t come as a surprise. We see material objects of these kinds as priceless. For ideals such as morals and codes of conduct, we use terms like “pinnacles” and “hallmarks” of greatness towards our fellow beings. Deep within our hearts, even if we are unwilling to admit to others (let alone ourselves), we know we can aspire to meet these standards, but we cannot hold to them forever. Such is the flaw of the human condition and desire to equate concepts deemed the best we can achieve in relationships that we thus create the lionized heroes of stories and legends.
As gamers, it becomes easy to see why we place such stringent rules on the champions of the Lawful Good alignment. We want them to be the acme of the best our species and our culture have to offer. Note the use of the singular and not “cultures,” more on that later. But, is it not presumptuous to impose such standards? Yes … and no. Yes, because it is unrealistic and making such demands magnifies all flaws grossly out of proportion. No, because this is a game, and fiction, as an art form, lets us create anything we want to explore conceptually, no matter how impossible it seems.
This begs the question of whether or not we should throw out any notions of paladins who abstain from alcohol and romantic trysts while donating most of their gains to charity and their holy orders. By all means, no. However, this image does contribute to the problem in some ways. This character has a legitimate place in fantasy, if not being an outright staple of the genre. The problem here is that the image is a reflection of and plays to the sacred institutions many hold dear as the moral anchors of our society.
What’s at the heart of this is one of the things which may go unnoticed by gamers: metagaming. Unlike the fiction that informs roleplaying games, our play sessions do not necessarily contain the restrictions of conventional storytelling. It is quite likely we forget this barrier and that a lack of insight into a person’s intent and motive can lead people to mistrust, undisclosed hatred, or even outright war. We seem to focus on defining what is evil while ignoring what is good beyond its absence of and opposition to evil. What does it mean to be good? If two leaders declare war on each other due to a cultural or ideological bias in relation to a resource squabble, who is good and who is evil? Clearly, in the domain of war, some laws are about to be violated and some people are going to suffer, perhaps even needlessly.
One can fight a war by following a code of conduct, but if there is a legal system that says causing injury and death is wrong, then something unlawful is about to take place. Specters of all sorts of questions get raised, such as if it is a form of cheating to ambush or otherwise use strategic leverage against a foe. Other than to ask if a Lawful Good character would avail himself to these tactics or if warfare supersedes civil laws, this is a line of questioning beyond the scope of this piece and would probably require several philosophy books, but it serves to illustrate the ambiguity available to you.
Another question in regards to this line of thinking is whether two Lawful Good kings can hate each other. At first glance, this seems like an impossibility. They share the same tenets if you follow the alignment’s description. The problem with this is that it ignores the role culture plays in shaping a person’s worldview. Further complications that can result in miscues involve language, which can range from regional intonations, sayings and the like all the way to distinct languages. Imagine the types of gross misunderstandings or dislikes of a culture this can cause! Another possibility is a quibble over how a shared deity should be worshipped. The Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels fought a war because of a similar type of cultural problem. Was either side truly evil in the story? No. While the reason to fight was poor, both rulers believed they were serving to protect their citizens.
Think of it from the standpoint of politics. A lot of hyperbole is used to diminish an opponent’s position. Historically speaking, the Republican and Democrat parties often don’t see eye to eye. Add to this the multiple divisions within a party’s ranks on any given issue. Both sides make the claim that they know what’s best for the country and want to implement such policies they believe are beneficial to everyone. Setting aside rhetoric and personal bias, virtually no one in office believes they are destroying their own society – or so one hopes. Shortsighted, maybe; actively destructive, not really. While party members may view their rivals as evil, this is most likely a result of the excessive hyperbole and working at cross-purposes on a frequent basis.
Religion plays a huge role in the lives of many people, and it likely holds true of a fantasy society modeled on our own species, perhaps even more so if clerics can heal the sick and perform other miracles. As a result, an example from a real world faith is in order. At the risk of appearing biased, I make the disclaimer here that I am only using the religious text with which I am most familiar: the Bible. Taking the tack that paladins are Lawful Good, then the Christian god must follow suit, since the concept of the character class is taken from a historical source. So, let’s look at a not-so-pacifistic episode where a Lawful Good individual becomes violent. According to the Bible, Jesus never harmed anyone (based on a lack of writing to the contrary). Rather he went out of his way to help others in need. Up until a specific point, that is. There is a scene where Jesus blows up in a temple because of the business conducted by the moneychangers for effectively providing commodified absolution. He flips tables, yells, opens animal cages, and then makes a whip and beats everyone out of the building. The commotion alone marks this as a chaotic episode. Paladins in fantasy are modeled after their real world counterparts and this is the deity they served? If this is who adherents of the faith are to emulate, then Lawful Good can wreak all sorts of havoc in the name of their tenets.
Religious texts are filled with many such examples, regardless if they are allegories or no, of righteous people defending the faith in some capacity or other. (The Bible mentions sexual trickery, adultery, and promiscuity by the erstwhile faithful.) There is no reason why the same cannot be said for your game’s myths and legends of the Lawful Good alignment. We’ll explore this more through the above examples in later sections. For now, it is enough to raise the question of what it means to be Lawful Good and to challenge the biases of our society.