This is Faith in Play #37: Balancing on the Corner, for December 2020.
When “balance” is mentioned in connection with Dungeons & Dragons™ alignment, thoughts immediately leap to neutrality, and of course neutrality is frequently about balance—but not always. As we noted in connection with the side alignments neutrality can often mean simply ignoring one axis in favor of the other. Thus a character who is neutral in one axis can be religiously devoted to one value, whether Good, or Evil, or Law, or Chaos.
Yet there is another aspect of alignment in which balance is happening constantly, and players seldom recognize it.
When I was talking about the side alignments, I told the story of a Neutral Good cleric/fighter who tortured a criminal suspect in an effort to obtain a confession. When I penalized him for violating his alignment, he said that he was “only” Neutral Good, and he could justify a penalty if he were Lawful Good. What does a Neutral Good stand for, I asked, if not Good?
He might have been able to make an argument that torturing that particular acolyte ultimately would benefit the greatest number of people; he did not. On the other hand, at least one of the characters who participated in this, who was also penalized, was Lawful Good, and he could have made a more cogent argument: the preservation of order in the settlement demanded the solving of the murder, and so justified the use of torture to obtain critical information from one of the key suspects. That is, in this particular situation my commitment to Law outweighs my commitment to Good.
That is the balancing act of the corner alignments. If I am Chaotic Evil, in this particular situation do I stand by my commitment to individual freedoms or pursue my own selfishness? Sometimes it looks simple. When Chaotic Good Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor, he is fighting against an oppressive system that takes the rights—and the money—from the peasants by restoring it to the peasants. When Lawful Evil Darth Vader kills people on behalf of the Emperor, he is both maintaining the rule of his master and securing his own position. Yet when Lawful Good Ivanhoe comes to the aid of the Jewess Rebecca, it is because he has decided that Good—the benefit of Rebecca and her family and her people—is more important than Law—the authority of the Paladin who would demand her servitude. Yet even as he takes this more chaotic stand, he does so in as lawful a manner as he can.
It is, I find, the characters on the corner alignments who make the toughest choices in following their faith. Law does not always align with Good, nor Chaos with Evil. Someone once pointed out to me that an American Soldier had to be Neutral Good, because usually for the sake of protecting people he became part of a very structured and orderly organization to maintain another social structure which was primarily built on Chaos, that is, on preserving the rights of individuals. He of course still had to make difficult choices for his neutrality, but could more easily justify them. Those who have chosen to commit to two separate values, one moral and one ethical, face the most difficult choices in balancing their distinct commitments.
That, it strikes me, is very like us, as we find ourselves committed to more than one value and have to make choices between them.