In Defense Of True Neutral

I saw an article on IO9 about the best D&D alignments and even though it’s almost a year old, I wanted to respond. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of alignment in D&D, the basic idea is that there is are two axes that govern your character’s behavior: good and evil is the first, and law and chaos is the second. This forms a 3 x 3 grid (neutral options exist between each extreme) and thus, all characters will fall into one of nine different alignments. Think of it like a personality test, but for sorcerers and paladins.

Like with anything, it’s common to discuss and argue the merits of these different alignments and the value of the alignment system itself. Some feel that it’s too limited to describe all fantasy characters in just nine categories, while others think that it’s a useful abstraction. For what it’s worth, I fall into the latter camp.

IO9 ranks the nine alignments as follows, from best to worst:

  1. Chaotic Neutral
  2. Neutral Good
  3. Lawful Evil
  4. Neutral Evil
  5. Lawful Neutral
  6. Lawful Good
  7. Chaotic Evil
  8. Chaotic Good
  9. True Neutral

The placement of Chaotic Neutral as the “best” alignment strikes me as fairly dubious, due to the number of players who use it as an excuse to be evil in games where the game master does not allow evil characters. This tendency is so common, in fact, that it’s a recurring joke in the movie Gamers: Dorkness Rising as one of the characters constantly exclaims “I’m not evil, I’m Chaotic Neutral” after doing something like setting a peasant on fire for no reason.

However, the low placement of True Neutral on the list is what really raises my eyebrow. Here’s what the author has to say about the True Neutral alignment:

There are only two alignments that cannot be trusted: Chaotic Evil and True Neutral. Chaotic Evil characters are crazy evil, so what’s True Neutral’s excuse? Only the dumb would be so invested in the balance between good, evil, law and chaos that they feel they have to maintain it, which is why True Neutral is the preferred alignment of Druids, a.k.a. dipshits. Look, if there’s a chance you may decide that letting bugbears kill everyone in the party is necessary in the natural order of things, then there’s a chance I’m going to slit your character’s throat in his sleep. Hell, at least with Chaotic Evil characters you know where you stand.

Let’s ignore the slur against druids for a moment. I’m going to assume it’s a comment made by a player who either prefers wizards or clerics, the druid’s main rivals for the title of “most powerful class ever” or comes from a player who prefers fighters or rogues and is still bitter about the fact that the 3.5 D&D druid has special abilities more powerful than the entire fighter and rogue classes.

And to be fair, let’s look at the D&D second edition for True Neutral (referred to as just Neutral here):

Some Neutral characters, rather than feeling undecided, are committed to a balance between the alignments. They may see good, evil, law and chaos as simply prejudices and dangerous extremes.

Druids frequently follow this True Neutral dedication to balance, and under Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules were required to be this alignment. In an example given in the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, a typical druid might fight against a band of marauding gnolls, only to switch sides to save the gnolls’ clan from being totally exterminated.

Later editions steered away from this depiction of the True Neutral alignment, on the basis that it’s absolutely insane. Of course, Second Edition also described Chaotic Neutral as being the alignment of “lunatics and mad men” and that a Chaotic Neutral character was just as likely to jump off a bridge as cross it. If we’re going to laud Chaotic Neutral as the best alignment, we should do so under the same edition as we disparage True Neutral as the worst.

With that said, I’d like to argue for why I think True Neutral is one of the best alignments and it has nothing to do with some abstract “keeping the balance” or “not getting involved” justification.

Before going further, it’s important to point out that understanding of the alignments is necessarily subjective. What’s Evil in one game or story might be Neutral in another. It all depends on the morality of the storyteller, since we’re talking about fictional worlds. In a fictional roleplaying world, God is literally available to make moral judgments.

With that in mind, I’m basing my argument on the alignment depictions put forth by the core D&D 3.5 rulebooks. For a more detailed analysis of what these alignments represent and the ethics implied by them, visit this page and get ready for an in-depth, scholarly discussion of some D&D ethics. It could be argued that some of the examples here don’t fall into the particular moral classifications I’ve attributed them, but keep in mind that, in the core D&D setting, torture is considered an Evil act, in all instances. Real world morality doesn’t apply here.

To me, there are three types of True Neutral characters. “Undecided” are those that don’t commit to a side. They don’t feel strongly about law vs. chaos or good vs. evil. These characters are generally less interesting as protagonists in a fantasy game due to their overall lack of motivation. Characters of this alignment tend to be villagers or townsfolk, those more interested in living out their lives than getting involved.

The second kind of True Neutral is the aforementioned “Balanced” individual, which we’ve already described. With a few exceptions, I’m not overly fond of this character.

The third True Neutral type is the Pragmatist. This is where the alignment has the most interesting opportunities. Before describing how the Pragmatist True Neutral operates, we have to look at how other alignments operate and what it means to be Good or Evil.

Generally speaking, Good aligned characters will never commit evil acts. A Good character will not torture a villain. They won’t betray others. They try to keep their word (except to villains). Generally, however, they’re idealistic in their motivations and actions. A Good character who does something like murder a villain who has surrendered has stopped being Good.

Consequently, although Evil characters might seem like the ultimate pragmatists who are willing to do anything, my general feeling is that this is not true. An Evil character will never commit Good actions. They might appear to do so as part of a ploy or gambit, but their motivations are still ultimately for some Evil cause and even then, there are limits on the Good they’re willing to do. They won’t sacrifice themselves for a goal or another person, for instance. They’re incapable of actual Good, even when Good would lead to a preferable outcome. In fiction, we see this often: a villain who betrays the protagonist even though it’s ultimately counterproductive to do so.

While Evil characters are willing to stop at nothing to achieve their goals, that’s not quite the same as “being willing to do anything.” There might be no limit to the depths an Evil character might sink, but there are absolutely limits on how high an Evil character might climb in terms of Good. If they do, they stop being Evil.

Enter the True Neutral, who is the ultimate pragmatist. This is the character who is willing to walk in a world of grey. The character who can’t be considered Good, because he or she is willing to do things Good can’t or won’t. Here’s a powerful example from an episode of Castle.

That is what True Neutral looks like to me. It’s the willingness to do what needs to be done. Tell the truth, tell a lie, show mercy, torture, obey the law, break the law. Whatever needs to be done. A Good character can’t go to this length. A Good character is the one for whom torture will always be wrong, no matter the circumstances. “We have to find another way” is the mantra of the Good character.

True Neutrals have one foot in the dark, one in the light, and not because it’s important to remain “balanced” between the two, but because sometimes, the ends do justify the means. Not always; a character for whom the ends always justify the means is probably going to be Evil.

But isn’t this “at any costs” mentality a powerful narrative motivation to justify Evil? The difference between this kind of Neutral and Evil is that “whatever it takes” goes both ways. What separates the Neutral Pragmatist from an Evil Villain is that the villain won’t self-sacrifice for his goal. The Neutral will, just as a Good character will.

And that is why True Neutral characters can be awesome. Not because of some “balance” or because of some wishy-washy non-commitment. Because True Neutral is the expression on Castle’s face. It’s this exchange, in all its spine chilling menace:

Stevens[Castle closes and locks the door to the room] I just said I don’t wanna talk, so you can’t question me. I have rights. I’m not going to say anything without a lawyer.

Castle: I’m not a cop.

Stevens: Then who are you?

Castle: You remember the girl with the red hair? I’m her father. Please know, I will do whatever it takes to get her back. The police outside are my friends… my daughters’ friends too. So it’s just you and me.

Stevens: If you touch me, I’ll press charges…

Castle: I don’t care.