Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Alignment as a concept has morphed and changed in the life of Dungeons and Dragons. It has been a storytelling tool, a mechanical consideration, or both throughout the years.
Of the nine alignments, Chaotic Neutral is often misrepresented as “crazy or random” and is typically used simply to justify rude or unpredictable behavior that drives plot lines into the ground.
A Chaotic Neutral phrase seen in Dungeons and Dragons is “might save your life, might take your wife. I don’t know!” How do we reconcile and bring this seemingly unclassifiable alignment into a proper perspective?
This post is about that dissonance as well as everything else we could think of about the Chaotic Neutral alignment.
We will start with examples from fantasy, science fiction, and the real world. After that, we will get into some of the underpinning ideas behind this box in the alignment chart, and then follow up with advice on how to use the rules to create a character whose Chaotic Neutral alignment is reflected in their build.
What Is the Chaotic Neutral Alignment?
Chaotic Neutral is one of the nine alignments you choose at character creation in order to develop your character’s personality and behavior. Chaotic Neutral people are said to follow their whims and hold personal freedom as the highest ideal.
Chaotic Neutral Characters in Pop Culture
Before we get into the technical aspects of the Chaotic Neutral alignment, I’d like to start with a list of examples to give us all a big-picture view of Chaotic Neutral in various media.
I wanted to vary it up yet stay within a common cultural lexicon. So, I chose a few popular franchises.
From Harry Potter, the boy himself, Harry Potter, can be chaotic neutral. In a previous post, I said Harry Potter was Lawful Good, and that is true. In this post, I will say Harry is Chaotic Neutral, and that is also true. Welcome to the world of literary interpretation, where truth is subjective, and the reader is a god. Meaning is what you make it, and the only “wrong” interpretation is the one for which you can’t argue.
Harry saves the day because he wants to. He does not care much how his actions affect the rest of his community or whose feelings he hurts while being a hero. Furthermore, he isn’t so much against Voldemort because of his fascist and magic-supremacist views. Harry is against Voldemort because, from Book 1, Voldemort keeps pushing Harry around.
As a magical male from a wealthy bloodline, Harry stands to be one of the privileged few on the top of that particular social pyramid, and who can say what side Harry would have been on if Voldemort hadn’t struck first? Harry fights Voldemort, he disobeys his authority figures, and he causes as much harm through reckless action as Draco Malfoy does through deliberate evil.
“The poor toilet’s never had anything as horrible as your head down it—it might be sick.” [spoken to Dudley]
From Star Wars, Han Solo is Chaotic Neutral. As an outlaw and a smuggler, it’s fairly obvious which side of the law he is on. Even after he helps the rebellion he refuses to remain a part of the organization because he valued his freedom above all other responsibilities.
When he is with the rebellion, he fights on the side of good (at least, on the side of his love interest). When he is on his own, he lies, cheats, steals, and absolutely shoots first.
“Look, your worshipfulness, let’s get one thing straight. I take orders from just one person: me.”
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Loki is Chaotic Neutral. Okay, entire books could be written about Marvel’s Loki and how dissembling and unpredictable he is. In the Dungeons and Dragons worldview, Loki is not evil, nor is he good. He alternates between protagonist and antagonist as necessary because he values his desires and his “Glorious Purpose” above everything else.
However, his Chaotic nature doesn’t stem from his tendency to switch sides. It comes from the refusal to fit within a hierarchical social structure for longer than it suits him.
He couldn’t be subservient to Thor. When he was king, he let Asgard fall into disarray. When he lived in the Grandmaster’s tower, he was biding his time until he could find a way out, and when he was stuck in the TVA, he had a massive existential breakdown that lasted a whole season because he discovered the universe was actually run by a lawful organization.
“The time Keepers have built quite the circus, and I see the clowns are playing their parts to perfection.”
Riddick from The Chronicles of Riddick. I know I said I was going to stick with popular media, and the early 2000’s sci-fi franchise starring Vin Diesel doesn’t necessarily meet that bar. But this is a great trilogy. As soon as you’re done perusing the Citadel, stop everything and go watch it.
Riddick begins the story as a felon, tries to rescue a cop and an innocent, gets chased by mercenaries, is arrested, and brings an entire necromantic empire crashing to the ground simply because he wants to.
He doesn’t do it for love. He doesn’t do it because it’s the right thing to do. He does it because these people deserve it for what they did to him. If he had class levels, I would multiclass him as a Rogue/Ranger because he is a stealth assassin par none.
He is Chaotic Neutral because his entire motivation is to just be left alone.
“Somewhere along the way I lost a step. I got sloppy. Dulled my own edge. Maybe I did the worst crime of all… I got civilized.”
Other Chaotic Neutral Characters include:
- Smeagol from Lord of the Rings wanted to love his brother and find friendship with Frodo and Sam but was not strong enough to withstand the Ring’s influence. If he were allowed to keep the ring without its constant push to evil, he could have still had healthy relationships.
- Captain Jack Sparrow is a law-breaking pirate to his core, pillaging, plundering, and… sacrificing his life to save his crew.
- Sasuke Uchiha from Naruto is an example of Chaotic Neutral. Sasuke has one goal, and he will try both “good” and “evil” means to accomplish that goal. While in a lawful society, he craves the freedom of isolation, and while on his own, he truly comes into his power.
Chaotic Neutral Organizations in the Real World
The Guys from Jackass. Seriously, these guys are adrenaline junkies just in it for the lolz. They get off on causing mayhem and violating taboos – this is pure chaos. They don’t really care who gets physically or emotionally hurt (within reason).
Any Prank reality TV show. Most of these are just Jackass spin-offs, but the Prank genre takes the chaos and makes it removes it one step by violating the consent of innocent bystanders. So long as there isn’t permanent damage, however, they can stay out of the range of being Chaotic Evil.
What Do We Mean by “Chaotic” and “Neutral”?
From the examples above, it is pretty clear that “Chaotic” concerns not only a disregard for social cohesion and structure but a violent antagonism toward institutions of social authority and power.
Chaotic Neutral characters don’t just ignore the law. They break it, because “eff those guys.” Neutral is a term that can mean disregard for whether something is good or evil. Good and evil are just a matter of which side of the prank you’re on.
Therefore, Chaotic Neutral seeks to actively upset social norms for the sake of disrupting society. They have little care for who gets hurt or helped by their actions. They simply want to express their independence and show everyone the folly of having rules.
Alignment in Previous Editions
In 1st and 2nd editions, Alignment was a way of dictating character behavior in order to control the adventure. It was a storytelling tool for both DMs and Players. This had benefits and drawbacks.
It was good that the DM could place limits on who characters were in the story. If the story is about saving the world from a tyrannical overlord, it would be very difficult to get a Lawful Evil player to stand up for what was “right” if that meant breaking the law for no gain.
Similarly, a heist adventure would be hard to pull off with a Lawful character overly concerned with legality, but it could also be used as a way to bludgeon players into certain actions, and this was not good. At the same time, players could be real dicks and say, “It’s what my character would do.”
Neither action demonstrates maturity or respect at the gaming table. To tamp down on this, 3rd edition made alignment into a mechanical tool reflected in languages, energy types, and sources of power via planar energy.
You could speak languages called Lawful or Good when interacting with entities from the planes of Law (Mechanus) or Good (the celestial heavens). The different alignment distinctions were philosophies made manifest in those planes, and their common languages reflected this.
These philosophies made flesh also came about in the types of energy you could use in your magic. There was a thing called Lawful damage or Lawful magic. Certain weapons dealt extra “lawful” damage to creatures considered “chaotic.”
Good and Evil were represented by “positive” and “negative” energy. Each plane of existence was maintained by that type of magical energy, and they all came to rest here in the Material Plane. In Eberron, during 3e, the planes existed in an orbit, and during certain times of the year, your magic could be boosted or penalized depending on how close or how far that planar energy was to your time and location.
Fascinating stuff, really.
How To Play a Chaotic Neutral Character in 5e
Alignment in 5e is not an exact science, nor is the alignment chart reflected in any mechanical decision — unless you want it to be. Each player will have a slightly different interpretation of how to play Chaotic Neutral, and, quite frankly, that is the point of Chaotic Neutral: do what you want because you want to do it!
In general, Chaotic Neutral characters believe that the only rule is that there are no rules. So, make them contrary and prone to taking action without consulting the party or asking permission.
A Chaotic Neutral character can be ambitious, reckless, unpredictable, cunning, charming, or reprehensible. They can be anything as long as it is what they want to be. It is important to remember that just because a Chaotic Neutral character values their independence doesn’t make them illogical.
The Most Common Misconception of Chaotic Neutral
In my 20+ years of playing and running Dungeons and Dragons, I have often seen Chaotic Neutral played as illogical and random. This, in my opinion, lacks maturity and nuance. Chaotic Neutral isn’t weird… It’s just independent. You don’t have to be random and avoid plot hooks because it might mean that someone told you what to do.
You do what you want because you want to do it, and if it happens to be what someone else wants you to do, then good for them! They are just as smart as you are. You don’t have to be “crazy” (whatever that means) to be Chaotic Neutral. You can just be driven, focused, and avoid anything that doesn’t fit your agenda.
Chaotic Neutral as Mechanics
In Dungeons and Dragons 5e, your alignment does not have to represent your build in any way. Typically, Bards and Rogues make for good Chaotic Neutral characters because of their stealth and charm abilities, but this is not something that has to be done. You could even play a multiclass Monk/Paladin and still be Chaotic Neutral.
If you want to reflect your Chaotic Neutral alignment into your character’s build, there are several things to consider at each stage in the building process.
Chaotic Neutral Races
When choosing your race, consider picking a species that is known for their independence and personal drive. Races such as humans, half-elves, kenku, tabaxi, tieflings, and half-orcs make for great Chaotic Neutral characters.
In standard D&D lore, these races are often found outside of any group structure and often view consequences as matters of wit and luck. It isn’t their fault if you die because of their actions. You should have been paying attention.
Tabaxi as Chaotic Neutral
Every tabaxi adventurer you meet is an outsider. As such, the rules and laws of other civilizations can seem arbitrary. Every society has a different set, so it’s hard to keep track.
And besides, if the rules change depending on who makes the rules, then what’s the point of having rules at all? Why should anyone have the power to make laws for everyone else? That’s silly. Besides, as a tabaxi, you are driven by an insatiable curiosity. To satisfy that itch, you need freedom to wander and not get too hung up about your commitments.
That last bit is important, and it’s why you can leave anytime. No commitments mean no conscience to be bothered about the nuances of good and evil. Yeah, it sucks when people get hurt by your choices, but you never promised to protect them anyway.
You can’t make that kind of promise, because you have to gather news to bring back to your clan. Your only commitment is to yourself, your thirst for knowledge, and your unmeasurable joy for all of life.
Chaotic Neutral Backgrounds
Any background can work for Chaotic Neutral characters; however, some are better than others. Give consideration to the following backgrounds when making your Chaotic Neutral character. All of these are seemingly allergic to society.
- Far Traveler
Pay special attention to the Flaws, Ideals, Personality Traits, and Bonds section of the background.
You will use these to help develop your backstory that, in turn, will help you develop your personality, and personality is the key to expressing alignment.
Chaotic Neutral Classes
When choosing your class, you will mostly need to consider what activities your character will engage in.
Are you trying to find gainful employment? Do you plan on signing contracts? Will you have to put your own drives and desires aside to help other people or do what they are paying you to do? If the answer is yes to any of these, you’ll need to do some work around how and why you are still Chaotic Neutral.
Of course, the simplest Chaotic Neutral classes are Rogue, Sorcerer, or Barbarian. All three of these have a tendency to either skip merrily around legality or trample on social norms.
Wizards and Monks generally make for poor chaotic neutral characters because of the discipline required to study or train and gain skill. Warlocks have to swear fealty to a patron, and that may cramp their style. Rangers could also make good chaotic neutral characters, but Rangers tend to be a bit broody while Chaotic Neutral tends to have a zest for life.
Chaotic Neutral Wizards, Monks, Aasimar, and Questionable Combinations
When it comes to playing Chaotic Neutral characters from highly disciplined race and class combinations, your best bet is to make the character obsessive.
Yes, the Wizard had to go to school and behave to get their magical ability, but they spent all of their time in the lab and forsook social or interpersonal relationships. Many times they had to sneak out of their dorm past curfew to continue working on a project.
The Monk probably got in trouble a lot in their monastery as a kid, but the overwhelming joy they got in using their body and pushing it to the limit was worth any inconvenience. Most Aasimar loved being on the side of law and tradition and the good guys, or whatever. You felt like all that was unnecessary pomp and circumstance. Just do what feels good. Why complicate that?
Chaotic Neutral Magic
If you use magic, you’ll need to consider what your power source is. Remember, in 3e there was “positive and negative” energy to represent good and evil. Generally speaking, those energy types have been replaced with Radiant and Necrotic.
If something is good and magical, it deals radiant damage. If it is evil and magical, it deals necrotic. Where does that leave you as a Chaotic Neutral character?
You should consider your background first. Do they have a fey background and use a lot of illusion and enchantment? Then do psychic damage. There is a precedent for that, at least. I’ve heard Chaotic Neutral characters make jokes so bad everyone at the table took psychic damage.
Force damage is another good option. It is unaligned, generally. “Good” guys tend to be radiant, and “bad” guys tend to be necrotic. You’re neutral. You don’t care whether something is good or bad; you do it because you feel it needs to be done.
It’s not about good or evil; it’s about willpower. It’s about the force of will and personality. Hence, force damage.
Chaotic Neutral Spells
There are spells that can be used to represent chaos without making a statement about good or evil. Spells like mage hand, catapult, unseen servant, and other force spells can allow you to make the most amount of chaos. Not only are you moving an object, but you are hurling it across the room. You didn’t just hurt the bad guy with a flying chair. You also messed up his interior design! Take that!
Also, Chaos Bolt. I’m just gonna leave that there…
Summon spells can be a great way to cause mayhem. You are essentially violating the laws of nature to bring a creature of that type into existence. You fundamentally change the battlefield with your extra ally and add a bit more chaos.
Finally, evocation is perhaps the single most chaotic school of magic. You put fire where there is none, summon lightning on a clear day, cause earthquakes, and hurl globes of acid from nothing.
How Does Chaotic Neutral Relate to Similar Alignments?
One of the best ways to understand your alignment is to compare yourself to others. In this section, we will compare Chaotic Neutral to those alignments that are separated by only 1 degree.
The following are several possible ethical dilemmas you could either face or put in front of your players. Each scenario is followed by a chart of how Chaotic Neutral would most likely react compared to the other Chaotic and Neutral alignments.
Somebody thought it would be a good idea to cast minor illusion to make the juiciest, squishiest, most gloriously hideous fart noise roar from the Queen’s behind. I wonder who that could have been.
Now everyone is in jail for using magic in the presence of the Queen, disorderly conduct, libel (because someone convinced the barbarian that the queen nearly dropped a royal deuce under her dress), and public indecency.
Everyone is in separate cells. The same clever person (YOU) who offended an entire country and sent the Queen in for an emergency doctor’s appointment (to rule out any health concerns and gastrointestinal issues) also managed to nick the key to their cell from the belt of the guard.
Each cell requires a different key, and while on the way to retrieve them, you see a note that says the party will be released from jail in three days with no further penalty, per order of the King. Good guy, that one.
What do you do?
Chaotic Neutral: “You know what? Three days isn’t bad. I could use a break from the group anyway and pursue my own business. Maybe get a massage and a nice meal while I’m at it. Let’s leave the group here to relax for a few days while I go to a hotel. Now, where did the guard put the wizard’s stuff?”
Chaotic Good: “Let’s break everyone else out and I’ll stay in jail. Nobody else did anything wrong. Neither did I, really, but three days is no big deal and it’ll get the guard off our asses.”
Chaotic Evil: “Let’s break out all the prisoners… Just need to make sure I open the Paladin’s door last…”
Lawful Neutral: “Three days is fine. Nobody I care about will be hurt, and the Queen deserved what she got.”
True Neutral: “It would be easier in the long run to sit for three days, but we’ve got important things to do. Let’s see if they still want to arrest us after we save the realm.”
This is it. You’re a Druid in a nature-based adventuring party fighting the big, bad aliens. They have come to enslave what is useful and destroy what isn’t. If your party doesn’t wreck their plans now, all will be lost.
Combat has dragged on, everyone is tired and wounded. The star ship above the battlefield begins to open, and you see their super weapon charging up for another blast. You can’t survive another blast. Neither can your party. Neither can the land beneath your feet.
But if you can block that blast and cause it to backfire into their ship, you might just be able to save the day. There are no more counterspells. There are no more giant boulders someone can throw. Someone has to go in there and block the blast. It has to be you if it’s going to happen at all. You will have to fly up there as a crow and then wildshape into a freaking hippo to do it, but you can do it.
Chaotic Neutral: “I’d hate to, but no one else can. To be honest, if this is the only way to beat the aliens, then of course I’ll do it because I don’t want to be alive in a world run by them. Death before surrender. Get out of my way.”
Chaotic Good: “Get out of my way. If I condemn my entire planet to enslavement because I couldn’t pretend to be a hero for 1 round, then what good am I anyway? Sing a song for me in the new age.”
Chaotic Evil: “Nope. Better to fight in the underground rebellion after the aliens have won. Unless I can get the Paladin up there somehow…”
Lawful Neutral: “Damn. Looks like it’s up to me.”
True Neutral: “One life for billions? Sounds fair.”
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I played the game a lot as a kid, back in first edition. Over the past few years since 5e was released, I’ve really started getting back into it. Currently, I run a campaign online for some friends and my brothers, and we also play a side-sesh just to mix things up.