Sunday, 18 January 2009

[Alignment Breakdown VII] Lawful Evil

These characters believe in using society and its laws to benefit themselves. Structure and organization elevate those who deserve to rule as well as provide a clearly defined hierarchy between master and servant. To this end, lawful evil characters support laws and societies that protect their own concerns. If someone is hurt or suffers because of a law that benefits lawful evil characters, too bad. Lawful evil characters obey laws out of fear of punishment. Because they may be forced to honor an unfavorable contract or oath they have made, lawful evil characters are usually very careful about giving their word. Once given, they break their word only if they can find a way to do it legally, within the laws of the society. An iron-fisted tyrant and a devious, greedy merchant are examples of lawful evil beings.

2nd Edition Player's Handbook

It is often said that Lawful Evil is the alignment of tyrants and dictators - Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. That seems persuasive, inasmuch as those individuals used the law as a weapon with which to crush opponents (real or imagined) and perverted it to their own ends.

However, there's something a little unsatisfactory about that label when it is applied to player characters. Don't get me wrong: I don't have a problem per se with player characters attaining power and then abusing it in egregious ways. It's part of what role playing is all about, and I don't believe I'd ever game with anybody who I thought would support iron fisted tyrants in real life. But at the same time are budding Hitlers and Pol Pots all that Lawful Evil characters can be?

This is where we see a disconnect between what D&D always could have been, but never was, and was never likely to become. Lawful Evil is a perfect alignment for a 'devious, greedy merchant', an amoral lawyer, a scheming lower-rank politician, a sophist philosopher, or a con man. But the trouble is that none of those archetypes are viable in a game whose rules are fundamentally about killing things in dungeons. And unless you have a group of very like-minded friends, using that game about killing things in dungeons to play something else can be tough.

That isn't a complaint, of course. I would love to play D&D games involing amoral lawyers or sophist philosophers, but I recognise that such campaigns would have to be achieved in spite of, not through, the rules. They just aren't D&D. You might as well play a free-form game instead, for all the support the rules will offer you. Such is life.

The existence of Lawful Evil shows how fundamentally odd aligment is - a system which categorises all of human life into 10 sections, and which allows a very slender sub-section of society (adventurers) to choose from all 10. It shouldn't be surprising that there are some alignments which fit the adventuring lifestyle less well than others. The fact that the designers did not seem to have considered this is an indication of the amazing scope of their ambition: D&D was a game whose rules were for killing things in dungeons, but which reached for something far greater than that - literally, to be anything its players wanted to use it for. That the rules didn't always jibe with this ambition is obvious, and it stands in sharp contrast to the very narrowly defined games which the modern 'indie' movement produces - where every rule is there to serve a specific goal and any superfluity is ruthlessly severed. I know which I prefer.


  1. Our group's alignment was just moved two degrees "south" and so, I am now lawful evil. I have been wrestling how to play it, and am convinced that I am going to be very busy in a Machiavellian way. A paladin in our group will now also be playing LE. Never done it before. Lots of fun and hell ahead. btw, nice blog on the subject.

  2. Thanks. It's nice to get the chance to be Machiavellian. As I said in the post though, it's often the case that D&D games don't give people much opportunity to be properly Machiavellian because of all the dungeoneering and fighting going on. To be properly Lawful Evil a campaign needs a lot of politicking.