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Friday, 13 March 2020

A look at lawful good

What would a lawful good society look like? I’ve heard a couple of discussions about that recently and, although I think the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is even more trite and unhelpful than the typical glossy-magazine-quiz psychometrics test (eg Myers-Briggs), it did set me thinking.

We know what lawful means. Laws, like rules in a game, ensure a level playing field for all citizens, free of individual whim or fashion. As for good – well, we could take that to simply be the opposite of everything that a Midwestern American senator believes (here's one) but let’s just say that it means an attempt to ensure that everybody has an equal right to happiness once all citizens’ basic needs are met.

What would such a society look like? The most obvious answer is the Federation. Decades of relentless libertarian ideology in the media – the supposed evil conspiracies of government, the fascism of the state, the ‘I aim to misbehave’ and ‘No one wants to be civilized’ mantras – has meant that it’s common now to take a cynical view of the Federation. ‘People just wouldn’t accept a utopia,’ insists the Randian, ‘because we all want more for ourselves than for other people.’

Well, you’d have been pitied for taking that view back in the ‘60s, and it tells us plenty about the speaker and nothing about the human race as a whole, so let’s just take as a given that the people in our lawful good state enjoy living there, enthusiastically support the principles of the society, and aren’t all eager to rush over the border into the Klingon Empire.

The snag is, the Federation is a post-scarcity society, well on its way to becoming the Culture. Most fantasy worlds tend to be more on the medieval side, and unless you assume the place is awash with magic (in which case your game might as well be set in the 23rd century) there will be shortages, famines, plagues, and all the other ills that bedevil humans when we’re not actively bedevilling ourselves.

Another complaint is that utopias are boring because they lack conflict. Would you rather live in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s or today? (The homicide graph might help you decide.) If you’re relying on the volatility of society to maintain your interest in life, I suggest your priorities might be a bit skewed. There can be plenty of excitement and conflict in even a post-scarcity society. Just for starters, the old story of two men loving the same woman – or man, or any combination thereof – will still apply. You can be fed and clothed and warm and safe, but you can’t have everything you want when some of the things you want are other people.

A pre-modern lawful good society – that is, one where scarcity is still a problem – wouldn’t be feudal. You can’t have serfs because (trust me on this) people who are not free are not happy. I suppose you could make it a kind of benevolent hierarchy, where the lords have a strong sense of noblesse oblige, but you’ve still got some poor buggers toiling ankle-deep in mud and shit while another fellow rides by in a velvet jerkin. I’m really not sure if the typical D&D player would call that ‘good’.

How about the Shire? That’s a little more egalitarian. At least the rich folks live and work alongside the poorer ones. It’s just that they live better and work less. Everyone’s technically free, but if you have to slog your guts out while your employer rides the high hog, said freedom is really an illusion.

Your lawful good state would need a form of socialism. Food would be distributed according to each citizen’s needs. Some citizens would work, others would be needed for administration, soldiering, and so on. In times of hardship, everybody would have to pull together. It’s looking less like the Middle Ages and more like the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic in its theoretical ideal, that is, not its messy reality. Or maybe like post-war Britain as envisaged in a movie like They Came To A City.

I’m not sure if most D&D groups are interested in developing the setting to that extent, though. Do they normally just want the background to look medieval, and the difference between an evil and a good country is simply whether the peasants get raped and tortured at the pleasure of the barons or not? Maybe lawful good means you think God would prefer you to be nice Wenceslas-style: just pick one random peasant to give Christmas gifts to and you qualify for sainthood.

The Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice podcast was one of the places I heard this being chewed over. Myself, having no truck with alignment as a system, I probably wouldn’t start out designing a fantasy game setting on the basis of an abstract ethical stance. Economics and history would have more of a bearing. But it did lead me back to the idea of science fiction utopias. What would happen to the Federation if the replicators broke down? Would the principles of the society hold up now that people have to share? If everyone was like Starfleet personnel, then yes – but aren’t there millions of people in the Federation who only know a life of leisure and abundance? How would they cope? Would they cope?

In putting the whole idea of ‘lawful good’ to the test, you might find out something interesting. It doesn’t make me want to play D&D or use alignment in my games, but I can see it making fertile ground for an SF campaign. That really would be to boldly go.


  1. The fun part here is the "Lawful" part since "Good" usually just means "adherence to the law". Laws are written things. They need to be interpreted by lawyers and can be full of loopholes (ahem, GURPS). Interpretations and even the laws themselves can be unavoidably contradictory (see What happens when two supposedly Lawful Good groups clash over interpretations of the same laws? The Other Side gets labelled as Evil and must be suppressed, making Lawful Good and Lawful Evil arguably the same thing. (Real world case: debate over trans rights vs women's rights.)

    Then there is the question of whether failure to adhere to the law is evil or not? Is Cap in Civil Wars evil just because he won't go along with the Accords, or is he right to say that "good" is a personal, situation-based assessment?

    I agree that alignment is generally not a good thing in game playing but there is material here to drive out some interesting conflicts that don't just involve storming the Gates of Hell.

    1. To be fair to Cap, he had recently had the experience of a lawful organization (S.H.I.E.L.D.) being evil to the core -- though I think he might have had more faith in the fact that the law, when made aware of that, disbanded it.

      (Of course, he'd already heard Fury's admiration for the idea of shutting down criminals before they commit a crime -- and Fury is meant to be one of the good guys!)

      But your idea of two lawful good societies each characterizing the other as evil -- that's brilliant. You almost make me want to run a D&D game just to explore that!

  2. Is part of the interest in using alignments for characters that character alignments can't align precisely with that of societies. I think in intention sometimes Narnia is ruled by "Lawful Good" characters who are trying to make a more or less feudal system work as well as it can: the fact the no feudal system can be that good, and perhaps even that lawful, provides the underlying instability that must at least periodically doom that society.

    1. Interesting that you should mention Narnia, as we have a Narnia-adjacent scenario coming up in (*checks schedule*) a couple of months' time that directly addresses the political angle.

  3. Creating a character and giving them an "Alignment" is making a Headline out of what should be the Punchline !

  4. The whole alignment notion is absurd. “Alignment” is what your character does, not what their character sheet says. It’s also a matter of perspective. That stronghold of goblins just going about their daily lives probably think the heavily armoured and Magic’d up marauders who boot down the door, kill everyone in sight and steal everything not nailed down (and the dwarf with a claw hammer comes back for the nailed down stuff) are pretty “evil”. Introducing D&D to my 10 and 13 year old we just ignored alignment. (They’re still the heroic “good guys” fighting the Black Eagle Baron though :-) )

    1. I find it pretty weird when a game has rules for relationships, the one area you'd think could be entirely driven by actual roleplaying rather than mechanics. But even stranger is the notion that we need rules to tell us how our character behaves. I think the alignment rules are one of the reasons I never got into D&D. In theory Empire of the Petal Throne had good & evil too, but it was clear from the world background that that was a graft-on from D&D that could be ignored.