The (L)awful (Good) Truth, Part 1

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.

Stealing a Page from Screenwriters

We are often asked as gamemasters to create a scenario for players that we know is intended to allow their characters to carry the day and claim victory. To do this, we have to imagine the end goal of the adventure and then plan to have the challenges be just difficult enough that the characters when even if they have to struggle for that outcome. One of the tricks that we can use to make our lives easier comes from film and television, and many gamemasters are probably using it without realizing that it is exactly what they are doing.


In effect, this is an elevator pitch approach to adventure design known as a logline. The point of the log line is to sum up the main plot of the story in approximately 25 words or less. Loglines are not intended to capture the entire story; rather, they are useful devices that let us focus our intention on the most important elements the story is about. Consider the following example using Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:


“From a place known as the Shire, a reluctant hero, a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, is tasked by the wizard Gandalf the Grey to undertake a journey with a companions on a quest to make it all the way to Mount Doom in Mordor and find a way to destroy the One Ring while avoiding an epic battle that engulfs all of Middle Earth and a host of beings intent on retrieving the ring for their evil master, Sauron, who will plunge the world into eternal darkness if he succeeds.”


Now consider this:


“The reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins is charged with the task of destroying the One Ring while avoiding fanatical pursuers and the war engulfing Middle Earth.”


If you have seen the movies you know there is obviously more detail than either of these two descriptions can encompass. But, which one feels more intense, the one that goes into detail, or the one that cuts to the heart of the story? This is where a logline can help you plot out your adventures.


The point here is not to cut out any contingencies, side quests, or wandering encounters. Rather, the purpose of the logline is to help you plan out the eventual goal of an adventure no matter how many distractions or subplots you can stuff in there to your players’ delight. While it takes more time to prepare for such adventures, the logline works for adventures of any length, meaning you can recycle the logline with a few small changes here and there to alter the plot enough to keep things fresh and interesting. Here’s an example:


“The adventurers look to rescue the local merchant’s son who has been kidnapped to force the man out of business and cripple the town’s economy.”


Now, with a few changes and several levels later, the logline can be recycled with the following tweaks:


“The adventurers track down the mysterious group that kidnapped the head of the all-powerful merchant’s guild, bringing the starving city to its knees.”


Notice that there really is not that much of a difference in the plot the loglines. The challenges are greater in the latter, but it is all just a matter of scale. Both are stories of struggle for survival and the key role the characters play in saving the day. What makes them different is how they are dressed and all the trappings that go with those implications, which includes subplots and side quests.

Don’t Tell Me About Your Character

One of the techniques that writing instructors stress time and again is “show, don’t tell.” Yet, no such piece of advice exists for gamers. In fact, more often than not players tell the gamemaster what their characters are doing while the gamemaster tells the players about the world their characters inhabit. It seems weird that something that would bore an audience to tears in a written format is how many players derive satisfaction in the heat of the moment.

Something that strikes me as being just as strange is that when people talk about their most memorable sessions, they show almost as much as they tell. The characters are more alive with details of what they were doing compared to the actual game session. In many ways, their descriptions are like stories of true events. But, again, this is not the most exciting way to tell a story.

What can gamers learn from this? There are ways to interject showing into the descriptions of the events that occur in a game without taking away anyone’s agency. This is why players are able to describe events as a story rather than a report after the fact. But there should be a way we can draw from this to move beyond a report style of gaming.

If you are unfamiliar with the difference between showing and telling, consider the following descriptions of events:


“My character walks up to the door and I want to check for traps. I rolled a 16.”

“I walk up to the door and examine it for traps with a result of 16.”


The differences are subtle, but one is more active than the other. The first example is a play-by-play report of what the character is going to do and the second is a smoother rendition of the same event that shows. There is nothing inherently wrong with the first method, and this is often the way most game sessions go as there is a need to pause to let people know what is going on in any particular game.

If you trust your players or gamemaster enough, you can show these actions and trust that neither side is trying to circumvent any of the rules. After all, if there are any adjustments due to situational circumstances, there should be little reason to believe the gamemaster is cheating. This also requires the gamemaster shows rather than tells what the world looks like.

In this instance, it requires the gamemaster does not just provide a list of details for what the room, town, or dungeon looks like. A 10’ wide corridor with moss is boring after a while, but if you say that the moss is growing or creeping up the walls, you give a description that feels alive and more active. One of the techniques that keeps descriptions from moving from a showing to a telling is the verbs used. Do the objects interact with one another, or are they just present? If they interact, then you are showing.

Telling is often passive and does not come across as vividly. Veteran gamemasters are often great at doing this, but when players make the transition to the other side of the screen they often tell as that is the mode they have learned to operate from when playing a roleplaying game. Showing is a skill that people have to develop as we are used to reporting what has happened in the past. This is as much caused by how we learn to receive news as it is the way our brains process stimuli and weed out the information it doesn’t think is important, like how things interact with each other unless the event affects the observer.

Another area where showing and not telling comes in handy is in interior dialogues with a character. We might not be able to show the interior of a character’s thoughts, but we can show how he acts as a result of them. Even if the process is mostly in the character’s head, there are a few tricks to help make these moments dramatic and active. Most of these tricks are the same as those outlined above. What is important to remember is that the events have to be actions if you want to retain the excitement.

To make it more mysterious, you can limit who gets the information for what goes on in the character’s head. However, that can lead to other problems with players being left out of some of the action. That is where letting the players see the results without seeing the cause comes in handy. It is just like the movies, only better because it is unfolding in real time.

So, when someone gives a dry description, you can tell them “Don’t tell me about your character, show me.”

Shadings in the Boxes: Playing it Slant

Since its introduction in the late 70s in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax’s two-axis alignment system has been a staple of that game line for more than thirty years, culminating in its continued use in the d20/OGL third-party products still in print.  Despite this longevity, the concept of nine alignments with their strict interpretations as described in the rulebooks seems to be the only way in which characters can be played.  The rules aren’t immutable.  They are termed guidelines by the games’ authors.  If the rules are considered as such, doesn’t that mean one should consider that the same applies to the alignment definitions?  Most gamers don’t seem to take this view if one looks at the number of complaints and arguments across the Internet on this subject.  How does one account for the venerable seventeen-plane Great Ring cosmology that accompanied Gygax’s introduction of this system?  As such, there must be shadings within the alignments if that cosmology is any indication.  These questions are the impetus of this inquiry and whether or not it is possible to interpret what alignments truly describe.

A few things need to be deconstructed in order to not only establish the ground rules for the project as a whole, but also as a way to examine variations on alignments without being a complete departure from their core values.  Rather, these variations express something that is contrary to these very values on a superficial level.  This gives a sense of standing apart in an erstwhile sea of sameness without running completely outside the group.  Thus, these slight deviations are referred to as “shadings” given their take “colors” the perception of an alignment.

It is important to note that there is no attempt to undermine the system that exists, but rather to promote the idea that the good/evil and law/chaos axes are a system of coordinates within which there is room to maneuver.  The hope here is that players will take more leeway with interpreting alignments in their games, have a better understanding of someone’s interpretation, or shadings of what already exists.

The series is structured by examining what is written about each alignment and then following it up with a series of sample interpretations for each.  The examination of the alignments starts by questioning and deconstructing their descriptions and if they are fair assessments of adherents of the alignments they profess.  Through deconstructing the concepts in each, it becomes easier to identify what concepts must remain intact and which are negotiable.  From there, the variations in the shadings can be constructed and still remain true to their parent’s description.  Thus, good will remain good, even if its honor is shredded a bit.

In writing terms, this is known as playing it slant.  It’s the angle one takes to tell a story or portray a character.  Actors do this to find a character’s motivation for the behavior exhibited.  The entire point of this work, then, is to spur players to explore and mine their characters’ back stories for all they’re worth.  Or, in other words, how a character’s personality shapes his alignment.