Grokking Games: D&D Alignment and Abraham Maslow

While our Advanced Dungeons & Dragons session was fun and entertaining for all that played it, one facet of the experience that was unique to me was that I had the jarring sense of my adult erudition and points of view being overlaid upon game knowledge and memories that I had formed two to three decades previously. Or perhaps it was vice versa, with AD&D data being superimposed like a ghost over the more recently taken snapshots that form my current identity? In any event, it is an interesting mental phenomenon, as I can now play a kind of matching game with my current secular and humanist knowledge and my past RPG knowledge about things that might not be as obvious to people my age that never stopped playing RPGs. (Aging tabletop gamers are actually a pretty large and growing group of people, which I will discuss at length in a later post, “The Aging Tabletop,” but suffice it to say that it’s heartening to know that there are many ancient gamers like myself.)

The most obvious comparison that came out of our first game session occurred when one of the characters, Kastasia Duncke the Paladin, arrived by carriage in the city with only a few coins to her name. I was reminded of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” and realized that in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons universe, alignment—known to Maslow as Self-Actualization—was not only the crown of the character, at the top of the character sheet, it was also fundamental, or the entire basis of the character’s behavior.

To Maslow, while Self-Actualization is the topmost and most satisfying motivator, it is a very weak drive compared to the more fundamental Biological and Physiological needs (air, food, drink, sex, sleep, shelter, warmth), Safety needs (law, order, freedom from fear), and even Love and Belongingness (friendship, affection, and love).


So, according to Maslow, this Paladin should first find lawful employment to satisfy Physiological and Safety needs, and then find an adventuring party to satisfy Belongingness, and then, finally, see how they could best serve their deity.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the only motivator is alignment. This makes the hierarchy look like this:


This means that the Paladin will reject Belongingness with a group that includes an Evil character, as well as long association with Neturals, if you’re following the rules. It also means that regardless of how little money, food, or shelter (Physiological and Biological) the character has, they should do as their religion dictates.

In our adventure, the adventuring group was formed first (Belongingness), but partially due to one player character’s argument that they should pursue a reward to answer their current money problems (Biological/Physiological, Safety).

Later, the Paladin decided she should lie to a rival adventuring party about the group’s intent. The opposing group demanded that the player characters admit that they were pursuing the reward, and the paladin, speaking for the group, would not do this. One player said it was against her alignment, but I concurred with the Paladin’s player that this was appropriate as she had a greater responsibility to protect the flesh and blood people that she was with than to protect an abstraction like being honest to a fault. Admitting that they were in compeitition for the same reward could have provoked a battle. (A battle was provoked anyway, but through no fault of her own.) Sins may be equal in the eyes of the undying gods, but not to the point of view of mortals that can’t put their life on the line due to unwillingness to tell a white lie.

Once a more Maslowian Lawful Good character gains a few levels and enters the political sphere, they may even become Machiavellian Lawful Good.  I’ve always preferred these Machiavellian Lawful Good characters—such as Chakaal in Groo the Wanderer or Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones—to the goody-goody ones, myself. Just as the small sin of a lie is preferrable to the large sin of putting one’s camerades-at-arms in danger due to pride, so also can righting one wrong be the nail that drives an entire war.  By example, here’s my favorite Chakaal scene of all time, from Groo: Friends and Foes #12:


Source: Groo: Friends and Foes #12.

This is Lawful Good in a realistic fantasy setting, to me.  It’s determination to change things for the better, like Khaleesi burning the Khals.  Chakaal’s not just going to rescue a good man, she’s going to use this opportunity to conquer a wicked people and change them for the better.

In your own RPG groups, do you require Stupid Lawful Good, or do you permit Machiavellian Lawful Good role playing? Also, should a character’s alignment determine 100% of a character’s actions, or are you in favor of a more narrative approach? Leave your comments below.

Stuck in a Rut with your Lawful Good Character? Here’s a New Model…

Start Here to Learn About Daenerys Targaryen aka Khaleesi

Board of Life uses affiliate links.