Sep 132011

Introduction: The System

In this second part on Ethics in RPG’s I am attempting to apply the major Ethical Theories to the alignment system of Dungeons & Dragons.  I’m using D&D 3.5 as my “base,” but this easily applies to 4th Edition, Paizo’s Pathfinder and any other similar “two axis” alignment system.

What is a “Two-Axis Alignment System”?  That’s my label for how D&D 3.5 models their alignment chart.  There are two axes: 1) Good-Evil, 2) Law-Chaos to create their well-known alignment chart.

The Purpose however, is to help the reader in creating a fuller, deeper character.  To better understand your character’s motivations creates a better role-playing experience for all.

Direct Correlations

I begin with the most natural intersections between the Ethical Theories and particular alignments.

Natural Law

Certainly Natural Law Theory lends itself to the Good corner of the alignment chart.  The word “Law” is part of the name of the theory.  It presupposes the existence of gods (or God), and fits nicely with a good-aligned character with a religious bend – a Lawful-Good Paladin or Cleric being the most obvious examples.  Adding Natural Law theory to a character’s alignment basically asks the player to seek purpose in all things.  Generally the purpose will be defined by that character’s faith, god, or society/culture in general.

Kantian Imperative

The Kantian Imperative has a lot in common with Natural Law theory in its overlap on the Good corner of the alignment chart.  However, it also easily extends into the Neutral territory with its simple, “Do unto others” maxim-based system.  It is certainly easy to see it applying on a more individual basis for your Monk, Druid or mage without a formal hierarchy.


Utilitarianism is far more flexible in what alignments it most naturally covers.  The difficult question is how one applies its central tenet, “The greatest good (happiness) for the greatest number of people.”  What will bring the most people the most good/happiness?  What can or should the government do to encourage and secure that happiness?  Because Utilitarianism employs a rule (or “law”) it is not readily compatible with any Chaotic alignment.  It can, however, be used to create Lawful-Evil or even Lawful Neutral societies and personal codes.


As a broad category, Relativism is inclusive of every alignment and viewpoint, so let’s take a look at its general sub-types.

Cultural Relativism

The “Do as the Romans do” motto of Cultural Relativism would make the basis for quite an interesting character.  Such a character would follow the laws, mores and social conventions of whatever culture he happens to be in at that moment – or at least appear to do so.  This could be great for the Rogue or Bard classes, and especially the Changeling/Doppelganger race.

Individual Relativism

For the Individual Relativist, the real challenge is in consistently applying one’s tolerance of all other ethical views and alignments.
A true adherent of this theory though he may be a Chaotic-Evil Rogue would at least tolerate, if not respect, the views of the Lawful-Good Paladin (of course, said Rouge would still kill the Paladin in his sleep and steal all his stuff).


The Hedonist is similar in personal motivation – he does what he wants to do – but he doesn’t have to be so tolerant of others.  This is a great philosophy for those Chaotic-Evil to Chaotic-Neutral types, as everything they do is all about making themselves happy.

Interesting Combinations

It’s entirely possible that in reading the first part of this series that you, oh so intelligent reader, came to many of the same conclusions.  So I thought that it might also be useful to point out what I think are some interesting combinations.  Hopefully these will inspires some interesting character concepts for your own games.

The Lawful-Good Utilitarian

There are plenty of examples in literature and entertainment to exemplify this concept; but in the realm of D&D the best would be “the Paladin who justifies an evil act in order to bring about some ‘greater good’.”  Would your character kill a little child if it was possessed by some evil being in order to prevent the Apocalypse?  Could he live with himself afterwards?

The Lawful-Evil Natural Law

What if the Natural Law theory were twisted in some way?  The key to the theory is how one defines the “purpose” of a person or object, so simply find an Evil definition of such purpose.  For example, you could create an evil cleric dedicated to entropy or decay as the “purpose” of all things.  The Third Law of Thermodynamics is universal – everything falls apart, we all start dying the moment we’re born.

The Lawful-Good Hedonist

This seems like a contradiction, but perhaps this character’s motto is, “Being good makes me feel good.”  Which could work for a Robin Hood-esque character.

The Neutral-Evil Kantian

Again, another stretch, but this could really explain the behavior of a more imp-ish character who willingly serves those more powerful while forcing obedience of those less powerful.

The Chaotic-Evil Natural Law

My final oxymoron whose motto would be, “Nature is random, and so am I.”  Perhaps an ADD addled Gnome Druid who sees the purpose of nature to create randomly – think Evolution by Natural Selection on overdrive.


Again, I hope this helps in filling-out your characters – PC’s and NPC’s – understanding their motives from the inside.  Next time we’ll look at Palladium’s single-axis alignment system.  (Yes, I play Rifts, and I like it! Whatcha’ gonna’ do ’bout it?)

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