The loveable rogue, the scoundrel with a heart of gold, and the villain turned hero entrench themselves in our psyche. Their unpredictable behavior keeps us glued to the screen, eagerly awaiting their next steps.
Fans may not realize these favorite fictional antiheroes often fall under a complex character archetype made simple by the iconic tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons. Many of these beloved characters epitomize the D&D chaotic neutral character alignment.
Character Alignments in D&D
Dungeons & Dragons Character alignment types began as a rule of thumb for building playable characters in the iconic game, but with the emergence of “nerd” culture, these tropes became engrained in our social awareness and seeped into every aspect of pop culture, from comics to movies to video games.
Sam Beetham, tech and gaming writer for Rank It, who also acts as a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon master (DM) in his spare time, explains how these alignments work.
“An alignment is defined by how a character falls within two different spectrums,” he says. “You have the lawful to chaotic and good to evil axes.”
Beetham describes the good and evil axis as a scale of selfishness vs. selflessness, saying good characters will sacrifice themselves. In contrast, evil characters won’t hesitate to endanger others for their self-interests.
The good/evil axis can be described as a moral compass, highlighting how far a character will go for their selfish pursuits.
The lawful axis describes how a character relates to the ethics of functions of society. Beetham says that lawful characters follow the world’s ethics and uphold its values, while chaotic ones follow their internal code of ethics.
What is Chaotic Neutral
The chaotic neutral alignment rests in the center of the good/evil scale and at the far right of the lawful/chaotic scale.
Long-time D&D player Collin Schuck, Public Relations Manager at Elasticity, suggests thinking of the two functions of alignment (chaotic and neutral) separately. “Chaotic characters follow their own structure for society, refute societal norms, and reject authority,” he says. “Put that together with someone who doesn’t act based on good or evil motivations, and you’ve got someone who is a free spirit.”
Chaotic neutrals live by their own rules and often encourage others to do the same. They’re inherently selfish but not so greedy that they’ll destroy entire villages to pursue their goals. They dislike laws and traditions, instead relying on their internal code of ethics to guide them.
Chaotic neutral characters follow their hearts. They sway between good and evil depending on their agenda. A chaotic neutral character follows the law when it suits them but has no qualms about breaking it if that’s a quicker path to their goals. They live by their own rules and refuse to let ridiculous things like laws get in the way of their desires.
Devon Chulick, the founder of Start Playing, an online gaming platform connecting people to virtual tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, considers chaotic neutral characters anarchists.
“They don’t think any person should have power above anyone else,” he says, adding, “they prioritize personal beliefs over dogmatic or arbitrary group thought.”
What Kind of Person is Chaotic Neutral?
A chaotic neutral character isn’t necessarily bad. They don’t do evil for evil’s sake, like the lawful and chaotic evils. But they can’t be called good either, as they will engage in seemingly evil acts in pursuit of their goals.
Chaotic neutral characters are complex and endearing because they have motivations outside of good and evil. They only wish to achieve their personal goals, disregarding any morality of accomplishing them.
In fiction, these characters may mirror chaotic good when their selfish goals align with the hero’s mission. However, they may also stand in as foils to lawful heroes, showcasing the negative side of following the law for the sake of it.
Doing good for the sake of it rarely crosses a chaotic neutral’s mind. However, they often do good deeds which align with their desires. These characters would journey to the ends of the Earth to save someone they love, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because they love the person and selfishly want to save them.
Chaotic Neutral Ideals
Chaotic neutral characters value personal freedom above most other things. They don’t want to be told what to do and don’t care about society’s rules, often embracing a “live and let live” ideology.
Law holds no meaning for chaotic neutrals, who feel the rigid structures of society inhibit personal freedoms. They do as they please, whether within or outside the scope of the law.
Their lack of moral compass means they have no overarching “righteous” ideals. With no regard for “doing what’s right,” they’ll do whatever they feel they need to do to achieve their desired result, regardless of its impact on others.
Beetham says they’re neither inherently selfish nor selfless, as they’re willing to put their lives in danger for their own reasons but will not typically act selflessly for some greater cause.
Chaotic neutral’s ideals include complete personal freedom and rugged individualism. They extol the individual’s wants, needs, and desires above all else.
Personality Traits of Chaotic Neutral Characters
Although not all characters with this alignment are the same, some common personality traits you might find in chaotic neutral characters include:
- Selfish – Concerned with their self-interests
- Charismatic – Many chaotic neutrals use charisma and charm to get what they want
- Unpredictable – They follow their whims, and you don’t always know what that might bring
- Impulsive – May act before thinking about any consequences
- Unreliable – Other characters can rarely rely on chaotic neutrals to keep their word; however, they can be fiercely loyal to those they love
- Individualistic – The chaotic neutral values individualism above all else
Mask Byrne of Gifts Ideas Guide calls chaotic neutrals unpredictable free spirits. “A chaotic neutral character is driven by their own whims and desires,” he says, adding that they often act rashly.
Darren Bogus, Senior editor at Shoplc and Dungeon Master with over 30 years of experience playing the iconic game, says others may see chaotic neutral characters as selfish or even narcissistic.
“Their chaotic natures imply they bristle at the thought of structure, rules, and authority. These characters might show signs of contempt when dealing with authorities,” he says.
However, this behavior doesn’t necessarily make them evil. They’re impulsive, selfish, and unreliable but seldom derive pleasure from engaging in corrupt acts. They may commit atrocities, but it’s a side effect, not their ultimate goal, which distinguishes them from their counterparts in the “evil” alignment.
How to Play a Chaotic Neutral Character
Chaotic neutral characters add excitement and charisma to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. To successfully play this type of character in a campaign, you must consider their motivations.
As you build your character, consider why they want to be in a campaign. They aren’t evil characters, so they aren’t trying to destroy the world for the sake of it, but they also aren’t good characters and aren’t involved in the quest out of some sense of moral conviction.
Here are some crucial tidbits to remember when playing as a chaotic neutral.
Communicate With Your Party
Demi Marshall, Marketing Coordinator with MindPoint Group and avid D&D player, says it’s critical to interact with your fellow players at the table and not just their character. “Be receptive and communicative to your party at the table,” she says.
Marshall says this “table talk” type ensures in-game choices don’t affect real-life relationships. “At the end of a session, you want to be able to reflect on your adventures together with joy, she explains, adding, “Establishing that your characters’ actions aren’t your own allows you the freedom to make morally ambiguous choices without alienating the people you spend several hours at a table with.”
Beetham agrees that communication with your DM is crucial to a successful game. “Explain how you will attempt to play the “chaotic” in your “chaotic neutral,” he says. “Some players take on the “wildcard” approach, and some DM’s may then try to rein your character in.”
Some players choose chaotic neutrals to be contrarians to everything, purposefully ruining the game for everyone. Ensure you’re character has a compelling back story and an excellent reason to join the party so everyone can enjoy the session.
Beetham adds that some players choose to play what he calls chaotic stupid. “Playing “chaotic stupid” – randomly, without consideration of consequences – at a table where people are playing thoughtfully often goes awry,” he says. Although chaotic stupidity can be fun when used sparingly, players who rely on it in parties that don’t enjoy it may have a mismatch in playing styles.
Goals vs. Consequences
Marshall also explains that chaotic neutrals may act rashly to achieve their goals without considering the consequences.
“My fighter/ranger used a new skill in combat during a fight in the middle of Waterdeep and accidentally killed two innocent bystanders in the process,” She shared as an example. “She (the character) wasn’t thinking, “Is this good or bad?” She was thinking, “Can I kill the bad guys and protect my friends?”
Chaotic neutrals embrace a shoot first, ask questions later attitude and may jump head first into a battle without waiting for the team to discuss a plan of action.
“Imagine a scenario where a village is under attack,” says Byrne. “A Chaotic Neutral character might join the fight, not to save the village, but perhaps because they owe a debt to someone there, or simply because they feel like it. Their actions are often spontaneous, making them both exciting and challenging to play.”
Chris Reed, Marketing Director at Protect Line and D&D enthusiast, says, “The fun way to play them, and probably the closest to the way Gary Gygax imagined they’d be played is as unpredictable loners who’ll fight for the good of the party one minute and turn their back on it the next,” adding, “There’s nothing predictable about chaotic neutral characters and that’s what makes them so much fun to play.”
Byrne enjoys chaotic neutral characters for the same reason. “I’ve seen many players bring a unique flair to this alignment, making each chaotic neutral character distinct and memorable. It’s all about embracing unpredictability while staying true to the character’s core desires,” he says.
Do What Feels Right
Chaotic neutral characters do what feels right to them in every situation. They’re not guided by the moral concepts of right or wrong but by what they may hope to achieve out of every situation.
Consider the Motives
Doing what feels right depends greatly on your character’s motives, so creating a compelling backstory for your chaotic neutral character is crucial.
“When adding a chaotic neutral character to an adventuring party, I would consider what keeps them with the group,” says Bogus. “It’s good to understand their motivations here, as it could quickly lead to future inter-party problems down the line, and not every table is a fan of that.”
Marshall says, “In a morally ambiguous character, it’s all about deciding if the cost of consequences will be worth the gain achieved by the chaos. That neutral moral center could be influenced by how close your character feels with their party members, for example, leading you to play a righteous character in roleplay with your party and a less righteous character when faced with opposition.”
The chaotic part of the alignment has a deep-seated distrust for authority. Embrace that during your gameplay.
As Reed explains, “A lot of players tend to play chaotic neutral characters as selfish and disinterested narcissists and sociopaths, but that’s a simplified way of using their alignment as a crutch to justify that sort of behaviour.”
“Truth be told, as long as you abide by the rule that they’ll always fly in the face of authority and that their default setting is their own personal interest, it’s easy to play a chaotic neutral character,” he adds.
Bogus agrees, saying chaotic neutrals should always stand up to authority. “This could be in twisting the intent of authority figures or inciting action against them,” he says.
Players must be wary of their character’s choices over time. As Schuck explains, “Too many good or evil actions can (and should) shift the alignment into one of those two buckets.”
He says maintaining this balance can be challenging throughout a campaign. As characters evolve and interact, their motivations may change. However, he says that as long as you keep marching to the beat of your own drum, you should maintain that delicate balance between good and evil.
Richard R. Becker, Author by day, DM with over 40 years of experience by night, says chaotic neutrals always serve themselves and their amusements.
Some of these characters may be tricksters, reveling in practical jokes and causing chaos. However, they’re in it for the laughs, not the trauma.
They may also be motivated by something outside the party’s primary mission. Perhaps they’re joining for promised riches, to save a loved one, or because they owe a debt.
“Chaotic neutral characters will look at most situations through a lens of “what’s in it for me?” or “Does this sound fun?” says Bogus. “They won’t rescue a helpless person because it’s the right thing to do, but they might if it looks like a fun thing to do or the right reward is being offered.”
How They feel
Emotions guide many of the chaotic neutral’s actions. They’ll make decisions based on whims and feelings.
“I’ve always seen them as complex and complicated, weighing most situations by how they feel in the moment,” says Becker, adding that they know they should save their friends, but “whether they try to save them is dependent on recent interactions, the risk involved, and what side of the bed they got up on today. It could go either way.”
The Voice of Sarcasm
Chaotic neutrals add personality to every work of fiction. They delight in poking at the lawful’s commitment to order and the good’s righteousness.
“Imagine them following a paladin for a while, always poking fun of his propensity to do good or most likely to drop a small coin-hungry monster in the leader’s coin sack,” says Becker. “All in good, fun, and a lesson to boot!”
Code of Ethics
Many assume that chaotic neutrals have no code of ethics. Their chaotic nature makes them loathe law and order, so they’re typically anti-authority.
However, that doesn’t mean they lack ethics. They follow their own internal code. You may find chaotic neutrals that refuse to harm innocents or won’t steal from the poor.
Beetham says understanding your character’s ethical code during creation is essential to a successful game. He advises players to “Consider where the character’s Ethical code comes from, and how it represents “chaotic neutral,” he says.
Considering how this code may interact with other tenets of the character creation process, like race, class, or background, is also crucial to developing a well-rounded character.
Playing Chaotic Neutrals More Complex Than It Seems
Playing a chaotic neutral character is far more complex than it seems. Many players choose this alignment so they can be the sarcastic contrarian, but a good chaotic neutral character is far more complex.
To play successfully, you must consider how their back story and motives fit into both the chaotic and neutral axes.
As Bogus says, “It’s a deeply difficult but rewarding alignment, too, that can have big payoffs with the right amount of investment and collaboration between player and dungeon master.”
Sample Chaotic Neutral Chart
The tips from Dungeon Masters and players highlight the wide variety of gameplay available for chaotic neutrals, showcasing why they’re so beloved both in gaming and in fiction.
Look to the following chart for a broader range of ideas, showcasing some general character types that work well with the chaotic neutral alignment.
Description of Characters in the Chaotic Neutral Chart
Here’s a more in-depth description of the character archetypes in the chart:
Tricksters delight in chaos, but it’s all in good fun (to them). They wreak havoc for no reason other than that they enjoy it. These characters may play dangerous pranks on other party members for entertainment.
The Wandering Warrior
Wandering warriors love a good fight. They walk the Earth searching for battles, not because they want to right any wrongs, but because they revel in a brawl. Typically, they’ll join the side of whoever best adheres to their internal code of ethics, but they aren’t choosey. A fight’s a fight!
Hired helpers only care about one thing: Money. They’ll join the fight if the money’s right and switch sides when someone offers more.
Scoundrels epitomize self-serving chaotic neutrals. They’ll lie, cheat, and steal to get what they want but are often tempted by promises of treasure and riches.
Players looking for a unique twist on the chaotic neutral should choose the outsider route. These adventures join the party because their mission aligns slightly.
For example, the party may need to destroy a dragon that’s hunting villagers. An outsider joining the quest may do so because the dragon holds a prized relic in its hoard.
They’ll help the party because it suits them, but they don’t really care about the members or their ultimate goal.
The Mad Inventor
The mad inventor or engineer delights in creation. They do things to prove they can, disregarding whether the result is good or bad. Mad inventors embrace chaos by pushing against the very laws of the universe to see if they can.
No Limits to Chaotic Neutral
These six archetypes provide fantastic examples of the breadth of opportunity for chaotic neutral characters. Creative players can develop unique backstories and situations that work well with the chaotic neutral alignment.
Character Classes and Races That Work Well With Chaotic Neutral
Certain races and classes in Dungeons & Dragons and other similar tabletop games lend themselves to specific alignments. According to the fifth edition of D&D, chaotic neutrals “follow their whims, holding their personal freedom above all else.”
Though any race can be a chaotic neutral, elves and gnomes tend to fight that description better than most others.
Classes that lean towards chaotic neutral include bards, fighters, and barbarians. Byrne includes rogues in the list and says any class that thrives on unpredictability would make an excellent chaotic neutral.
Bogus considers it the perfect alignment for social outsiders. “Rogues especially come to mind and are one of the default suggestions for this alignment, in addition to barbarians and some bards,” he says.
However, although certain races and classes lend themselves toward the alignment based on their written characteristics, most character types can fall into it with the right backstory and motivations.
Bogus uses clerics as an example. As followers of a religious order, clerics would typically fall into a lawful alignment. However, a cleric might come from a trickery domain or worship a tempest god.
“A Trickery Cleric might use their powers to beguile those around them as they pursue their personal goals, while a Tempest Cleric might be more direct, as wild and forceful as the storms themselves,” explains Bogus.
Examples of Chaotic Neutral Characters in Fiction
Chaotic neutral characters are some of the most memorable and iconic in fiction. They often toe the line between good and evil and are more relatable than strictly “good” or “evil” characters.
Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Spike from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, is an excellent example of a chaotic neutral character. Although a vampire and technically evil, he isn’t motivated by evil for evil’s sake. The series showcases his disdain for torture in numerous episodes, from his decision to hire another vampire to torture Angel to his inability to please Drusilla the way Angel does.
Love serves as Spike’s primary motivation. In season two of Buffy, he teams up with the good guys to help save the world because he wants his girlfriend, Drusilla, back. Season five of Angel further cements that he was motivated by love rather than evil, with flashbacks of his early days as a vampire. He does evil things to impress Drusilla rather than for the sake of them.
His turn to good is also motivated by love. When he falls in love with Buffy, he starts to help the crew fight evil. He doesn’t do it out of a moral imperative to be good; in fact, he sometimes turns to evil to accomplish his goal of “helping.”
Spike’s primary motivation for doing what he does is selfishness. He wants his love interest to return his favor and will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal, whether good or evil.
In Season 7 of Buffy, Spike switches alignments to chaotic good. Although he still disdained the law, regaining his soul helped him develop empathy for others, so he’d no longer engage in evil acts to suit his deepest desires.
As a mercenary, he doesn’t follow the code of conduct that other Marvel superheroes embrace. Instead, he does whatever he needs to get the job done.
Deadpool is a complex character, and there is lively debate about where he fits in the alignment system. Some claim that he’s chaotic good because he generally works for the good guys, but others think of him as chaotic evil because he doesn’t care who gets hurt unless it’s someone close to him.
Captain Jack Sparrow
Schuck says one of his favorite fictional chaotic neutral characters is Captain Jack Sparrow from the beloved Disney franchise Pirates of the Caribbean.
“Every action that he takes has some form of self-interest behind it,” Schuck explains. “He doesn’t follow conventional societal norms, and even the way he carries himself implies chaos and strays from how to present yourself both as a person and a pirate.”
Schuck explains that in the first film, Sparrow teams up with Turner for selfish reasons. He doesn’t care about saving Elizabeth; he wants revenge.
Sparrow uses Turner’s love of Elizabeth for his selfish ends: to get his ship and crew back so he can continue enjoying his life on the open oceans, filled with chaos and drink.
Chaotic Neutrals in Different Types of Stories
In fiction, chaotic neutrals may play different roles depending on the type of story one is telling.
Their chaotic nature makes them reluctant heroes in dystopian tales, where they fight against unjust laws not for the betterment of society but because the laws hinder their own freedoms.
However, they may serve as secondary villains in stories where the rule of law is just. They may hinder our lawful heroes by stealing from them or working with the big bad to suit their needs.
Chaotic neutrals run the gambit between hero and villain, often serving in both roles depending on your point of view. Their evil deeds marred their heroism, while their ethical code tempers their evilness.
They’re the actual villain in some stories, engaging what we’d call evil because they’re all powerful beings that (in their view) transcends the struggle between good and evil. The Lokis and Tricksters of fiction cause chaos because it’s fun, but never stop to think about who it hurts. When they’re Gods, they don’t care at all.
Character Alignments are a Guide
Ultimately, character alignments aren’t set in stone, especially in fiction. It’s easy to ensure that you stick to an alignment while playing a game, but a story requires complex characters who grow, change, and develop. Deadpool may fall into numerous alignments during his development.
Like all character alignments, the chaotic neutral alignment is just a guide. It gives us a good baseline for how to play a particular character, but it isn’t the only consideration.
A generally good character is capable of evil, just as evil characters can potentially do good things. Alignments are general rules of behavior that you should try to stick to but don’t have to be strictly followed for a successful game or story.