This article was first broadcast in Episode Twenty-Three on 9th May 2018.
Ryu: Okay, no more weddings.
Lennon: I didn’t realize you were ordained.
Ryu: No, I mean I added an arranged marriage plot to my campaign and my characters started fighting about how the “good” aligned characters would react.
Ostron: That can get tricky.
Ryu: I didn’t even know how to rule it myself. I just play my characters, I usually don’t think too much about alignment. Well, unless I’m wearing the hat…
Lennon: No Hat!
Ostron: It’s okay, don’t need the hat. I’ve got a quick primer on being good here.
Depending on the crowd of players at the table, the announcement that someone is playing a “good” aligned character can cause as much groaning and consternation as someone saying they want to play an evil one. This is usually because the other players assume the good character will be a legalistic pacifist who constantly lectures the other players and will prevent any combat from occurring unless the opponents are literally holding signs saying “we love Asmodeus”.
However, while that interpretation of “good” could be valid, it’s not accurate in every circumstance, or even most of them. Alignment is a lot less of a focus in D&D than it used to be, to the point where the alignments only get one sentence descriptions in the Player’s Handbook for 5th edition. However, those single sentences reveal a lot about how to consider the alignments.
With good alignments, the focus is on doing the right thing. The difference between them is who defines what the right thing is. It is very easy to have a character with a “good” alignment end up in opposition to the party, even if your party isn’t hell-bent on evil. They can even disagree with other good-aligned characters.
Lawful good characters tend to be the closest to the “Annoying lecturer” types people cringe at having around, but that interpretation still isn’t necessarily correct, nor are lawful good characters naive rule-followers who never consider anything but the letter of the law. The source for their definition of right is society as a whole. In some cases those societal assumptions would be codified into law, but if there are corrupt officials making laws that most people consider to be manipulative or unfair, the lawful good character is going to be against them. The difference is they would attempt to work within the existing legal structure to fix it, rather than assassinating the offending official or staging a revolution. A peaceful nonviolent protest is certainly in their wheelhouse, as is fighting off any officials who start attacking the protesters without cause.
Lawful good characters from exotic backgrounds or locations can actually exhibit some a-typical behavior or questionable habits because their definition of good is based on a societal interpretation. A lawful good lizardfolk character, for example, is not going to see anything inherently wrong with cannibalism because their society treats it as normal. However, if they are in a location where it’s forbidden, they will adjust their responses accordingly. To play a believable Lawful Good character, you should make sure to ask the DM if there are any weird quirks in local law, because the lawful good character will make sure to take note of them. It also helps for your backstory to describe what sort of law structure your character is used to so you know what the character’s default assumptions of legality are going to be.
The situations where Lawful Good characters might be objectively in the wrong are ones where society’s laws are good for the society but might screw over an individual. As we mentioned in Episode six when talking about Royal Titles, so-called forced marriages get tricky. If a 16 year old princess is being forced to marry a king 50 years older than her because the king will protect the princess’ city from a gnoll attack and send them food, the character’s almost certainly going to be on the side of fitting the girl for a dress. They might try to convince the king to be charitable out of the goodness of his heart, but by the laws of the land, the king has his own subjects to worry about; he can’t screw them over just because he feels bad.
Neutral good characters, on the other hand, are going to be all about cancelling the wedding and making the king send in the Red Cross because it’s the right thing to do; there are people that need to be helped. The primary driver for Neutral good characters is helping others with legitimate needs. They would be willing to defy laws and convention in the name of assisting others who express a legitimate need. The most common example of a Neutral good character is Robin Hood; he has no problem with the monarchy in general, just the monarch who’s oppressing the people.
The neutral good and true neutral characters tend to have a lot in common as far as motivation. Neutral good characters are fine with upholding the law and following traditions, until the point where another person’s peril and needs run up against those laws. The character’s background and motivations are the barometer for whether they think a need is valid or not. In many cases neutral good characters will be devoted to a cause that helps others, and following that cause will lead them to defy existing law and conventions. When designing a character to be neutral good, some part of the background should identify what state other people need to be in for the character to abandon the law and move to help them.
That defiance is also where they can exhibit questionable behavior. For example, if a city is under siege by the army of an illegitimate son, the neutral good character is going to advocate surrender so the people don’t starve rather than fighting to maintain the lawful ruler’s position and inheritance. They might even betray the ruler in order to bring about that result, assuming the invader promises a lack of massacres and pillaging upon victory and the character believes them. Back to the robin hood example, they would have no problem taking a portion of a large farmer’s crop and giving it to a farmer whose crop failed and their children are starving, even if the large farmer didn’t cause the failure. Remember; the primary motivation is helping those in need.
Finally, you have the chaotic good character. It’s interesting to note that the motivation for chaotic good is very similar to the motivations of evil characters. Evil characters are all about exalting, enriching, and empowering themselves. Chaotic Good characters define good based on their own moral code and conscience, according to the player’s handbook. The practical result is that their own motivations are guiding them, not necessarily any laws or pleas from other people. For that reason, if you’re planning to play a chaotic good character well, it’s essential to develop a backstory with enough detail so you and the DM can determine what the character’s personal code and conscience would be shaped by.
In the wedding example, what side the chaotic good character would take purely depends on whether they consider the good of the many outweighing the good of the princess. If the character believes that any being under 18 shouldn’t be subjected to anything sexual, they’d be against the wedding because they’d think it was pedophilia. Interestingly, they would have that same opinion even if the princess was perfectly okay with the wedding, or if the king were a lot younger. In their mind, marrying that young is wrong, regardless of the people’s personal feelings. Because of that stance, chaotic good characters have just as much chance of being the annoying lecturer as the lawful good character, but it can be even more frustrating because their motivation is purely personal and there may not be any law or creed to reference for characters to figure out what’s going to set them off (this is where “chaotic” comes into play).
We should remind everyone that in 5th edition, alignment is almost purely a roleplaying aspect. There are no existing mechanics based on a character’s alignment; it’s supposed to be a guide to suggest how a character would respond to situations, particularly if you’re trying to roleplay an alignment that isn’t fully in line with how you’d usually behave as a person. If you think you want to play lawful good but aren’t sure how to maintain it, you can ask your DM or fellow players for their opinions. But in the end, if you start drifting more toward neutral good there’s nothing wrong with that.
Lennon: So did that help? How’s your wedding subplot looking now?
Ryu: Do you watch Game of Thrones?