The Character Sheet Chronicles: Why Does CN Often Translate in Jerkwad?

I had originally planned this first article to be somewhat more aligned with discussions of gender performance at the roleplaying table, a topic with which I have much fascination, but instead it has become about one of the more problematic alignments that I have dealt with in my gaming history:  Chaotic Neutral.  This alignment has been the genesis of so much agony and discord at the gaming table that I often question the motivation of those who choose to play it.  The problem is not so much that the alignment is tremendously difficult to play or that it does not allow for in-depth, complex roleplaying, it’s that people use it for a host of unsavory activities that end up being destructive to the table atmosphere of the game.

What is “Chaotic Neutral?”

Chaotic Neutral, as an alignment construct, defines a character much more mercurial in natures.  Some editions of books have labelled it the “free spirit” alignment, as its prototypical characters tend to shy away from laws and polarizing good or evil actions.  In many respects, Paizo’s definition is the most useful for this argument:

A chaotic neutral character follows his whims. He is an individualist first and last. He values his own liberty but doesn’t strive to protect others’ freedom. He avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions. A chaotic neutral character does not intentionally disrupt organizations as part of a campaign of anarchy. To do so, he would have to be motivated either by good (and a desire to liberate others) or evil (and a desire to make those others suffer). a chaotic neutral character may be unpredictable, but his behavior is not totally random. He is not as likely to jump off a bridge as he is to cross it.


Chaotic neutral represents freedom from both society’s restrictions and a do-gooder’s zeal.

When reading this definition, I am struck by the attention to “purposeful randomness,” in that the character’s actions, while seemingly unpredictable, do follow some type of system of personal ethics, however distorted they may be.  What motivates the character might even be a system of beliefs not immediately apparent to the character (more on this later), but a system that he/she does not question. 

Our Internet Meme Prototypes

A quick search of the internets can provide a host of demotivational graphics designed to attach a popular figure and witty phrase to the concept of chaotic neutral.  For the purposes of this blog, we will select three:

  • Captain Jack Sparrow (“Whose side is Jack on, anyway? …at the moment?):  Ah, old Captain Jack!  He is one of the more popular CN figures online, but it is important to note that one of the primary reasons for this comparison, aside from piracy as a CE CN act, is that his motives and actions are incredibly unpredictable.  This is quite true in the movies, and it does stand to chance that much of his motivations are highly self-centered.  But it is important to note that in the end, he still shows up to save the day and do the heroic deed, albeit a comically.  His motivations often work to push the heroes forward in a very unorthodox manner.  In the end, he floats somewhere between a CG and CN.
  • Deadpool:  Deadpool fits the category a bit more easily, though the parallels end rather quickly.  His motives and actions are indeed unpredictable, and he is affront to many of the traditional traits embodied by superheroes.  He will join a band of villains, only to destroy them from the inside out.  He breaks the fourth wall with pithy rhetoric about comics and pop culture.  If it weren’t for the fact that he is batshit insane, or least mentally unstable, he would fall into this alignment without too much problem.
  • Snake Plissken (Escape from…):  In my opinion, Snake is one of the better cinema examples that I have found online.  Anti-establishment criminal out for his own interest, he often finds himself coerced into performing a service for his country, which he ultimately satisfies, but rewards with a final shot screwjob to the president and law enforcement.  What is interesting about his character is that he represents the duality between self-interested and heroic quite well.  He seems a bit numb to some of the crime and depravity of New York and L.A., but he will then save a person whose help he requires, and often try to assist that person in escaping further harm.  It is this fundamental duality between heroism and selfishness that in my opinion really defines the alignment and gives the framework needed to create a character and roleplay it.

To pull these prototypes together, one can begin to see commonalities to what constitutes an imagined CN character:  1) a morally ambiguous, pivoting between good and evil acts, 2) a roguish nature, defying convention and authority, and 3) non-villainous, with the capability and possibility to do villainous acts.  This definition is vital to construct because it helps demonstrate the radical difference between the invoked image of CN and its occasional use at the gaming table.

What Happens at the Table:  CN=Asshole and the Tension between Players

Now, in my experience, CN comes across often in one of two ways:  the player invested in exploring the duality and the player grounded in using the alignment to justify problematic table antics.  The latter can become major problems in any campaign because the compartmentalize the character in such a way that they fail to see how their character actions affect the larger group dynamic.  The actions, often disruptively selfish, utilize CN as a defense, with the penultimate statement that “[this action] is how my character would act.”  Here are some of the major offending actions in no particular order:

  1. Refusing to take part in scenes that involve the major characters or acting socially aloof without a motivating reason (i.e. skulking the corner to be brooding for the simple sake of being anti-social).
  2. Stealing items from the party for personal use on a semi-frequent basis
  3. Failing to assist other party members when they are in trouble or only assist tepidly or begrudgingly in most situations
  4. Skulking off to do tones of shady, often “E” acts outside of the party’s view

There are likely many others,but what I find fascinating is that many of these activities have out-of-game consequences in terms of souring table relationships and promoting atmospheres of distrust.  In many of these instances, the CN character, and associated player, become a force of suspicion and strife, never to be trusted as the character or as the player.  I am not saying that this is an issue isolated to CN characters and players, as certain playstyles, table atmospheres, and gaming environments can often lend themselves to these actions, but there is something about CN that seems to “push” certain players to engage in disruptive behavior contrary to the original definition and provide a means of defending such actions within the scope of the game and the gaming table. 

Question:  What makes Chaotic Neutral so prone to problematic player behavior?  Is it the description of the alignment itself?  Is it a misinterpretation of cultural symbols of the alignment? 

I pose these questions, because I am seeing this behavior becoming more prevalent.  I am interested hearing thoughts, comments, and/or dissenting opinions.


2 thoughts on “The Character Sheet Chronicles: Why Does CN Often Translate in Jerkwad?

  1. Ryan P. says:

    Love the first major post!

    Anyway, I have also seen a lot of the antisocial trends that come along with play a Chaotic Neutral character. I feel like it is important to the discussion that this concept of Chaotic Evil be linked in with the context of the game it is being engaged with: in this case, Dungeons and Dragons and related games.

    The problem with how the alignment(s) is portrayed is that they are left intentionally vague and don’t have much of a mechanical relevance to the game, outside of a few comparatively niche cases.

    As indicated in the OP, CN tends to be used as an excuse to be able to stab babies in the face. This is not an exaggeration. My niece did this in our DnDNext playtest. I wonder if part of the issue is a cultural resistance to exploring ideas and expressions of evil but individuals still wanting that experience, even subconsciously.

    Along the lines of your character examples, I love them. I hadn’t ever thought about Snake like that but it really does fit really well. Have you ever taken a look at the TVTropes entry for CN? It can be located at:


    • I think that a part of it also revolves around the frameworks through which we attempt to experience morally ambiguous, immoral, or amoral actions. In many situations, within and outside of roleplaying CN characters, players tend to have rather strikingly polarizing views about certain actions and even evil. When given a space to explore the nature of evil or even shifty morals, they sometimes fail to project the same systems of moral engagement onto their characters, which allows them to rationalize the evil actions much more easily.

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