Hey there, it’s me, resident Comedy Archmage Dan Telfer. And you know, I was mulling over what I could do with my vast and unchecked power here at D&D Beyond and I got to thinking, if a character is more "lawful" than "good" or "bad," something odd happens. They're not exactly "neutral," they warp into something truly, almost frighteningly, relatable.
Imagine, if you will, that it’s your turn to take watch duty during a long rest, but as you set up your chess set with your druid friend… WHERE ARE ALL THE DAMN BISHOPS? Or I don’t know, what’s a “fantasy bishop” for D&D dragonchess, a thief or whatever? Just stay with me here, your character plays several games a day so someone nearby must have stolen them! Someone in the party even! You immediately cast detect evil.
Well, bad news adventurino, nobody nearby is evil. “Show thyself, evil miscreant!” you cry to the night sky, a horrible echo booming through the elven forest and your friend’s dining room (shhh their kid is trying to make a TikTok on their iPad in the next room). But alas, your wails are of no use. Somebody stole your thieves because… well come on, chess in Dungeons and Dragons? Several times a day? How meta are you gonna make everyone get? Play D&D.
Maybe this hypothetical player character (that is not always just me) is, in fact, a jerk. But they’re probably having a blast.
Yes, Make This Your Real Alignment
This alignment is called Lawful Petty, and you too can convince the narrator of your game to let you write it on your character sheet. Don’t get me wrong, I like the existing rules of D&D, and I remember having fun with alignment. Yet as I theoretically age, I observe a pop culture that leans on its anti-heroes. It’s tough not to want to roleplay a little Walter White action now and again (but he’s more of a Toxic Neutral type).
See that guy on the right? That's the guy you want to be, hands in the air, protesting that he did nothing wrong, meanwhile the guy on the left used to be nice until you drove him insane with your petty rules.
Stare at the words “Lawful” and “Petty” together. You get it. Even if it does start to look like “Lori Petty” after a while. I bet you can see why this idea is perfect for D&D. Theft opens wide up. Complex sabotages unfold. You are a moral champion of cheap slights. A strict adherence to a narcissistic moral code that isn’t exactly evil, and as far as you care is completely good.
A character with all the rules and morality of a paladin, but with a short-sighted view of the world. Think “stinging but relatively non-lethal” revenge, burning something down and driving away smiling. These tropes are your toolbox.
If someone offends thee, they shall get a new scar forthwith. Speaking of which...
Scars Over Death
If you’re worried about how to keep from being evil, give the character a strict “no sentient creature should die if it can be taught a lesson” code to offset the fact that they can be mean as all-get-out. Petty Batman. Not torture; deep, deep humiliation.
If they’re dead they can’t feel justice anymore.
Let’s say you figure out the sleeping quarters of a local crime lord.
Now, the easy thing to do would be to fight your way to his headquarters. Instead, do recon to figure out where he sleeps. And insist on going to great lengths to bring true polymorph to the table, even if it means bribing a local archmage.
And let's say the crime lord barters with your party, and wary of your antics they shut down any complex life-altering events for him. "Hey," they say, "we noticed you were plotting with a local archmage like a lunatic, so we're calling that off."
But in the process of your little agreement, the crime lord makes a comment on your looks? You are already making arrangements for them to recieve a drunken stench kow tattoo before you even leave the room.
But once you hone in on stench kow there is no going back. You see that crime lord and the stench kow's scent fills in your nostrils like the ring of a stench bell.
Game of Chicken: A Song of Ice and Fire
Here’s a walkthrough you can use as another example. Let’s say only you understand chickens. You had them on your farm since you were a child. You gave them names. Then you eventually liberated them. When someone else owns a chicken, you know they’re raising them wrong. When they eat it, they are the cruelest of fiends. They may never know why, but every time they make the mistake of eating chicken, you’ll make sure they have the most violent of diarrheas.
This could go for people who use feathers in spells. People who kick abyssal chickens. People who turn down aarakocra for dates. You name it. You will smite them with your fiery revenge. Perhaps even fiery bathroom revenge.
Your character could be called narcissistic, sure, but also they see passive aggression as a holy death by a thousand cuts. Each cut full of divine, petty significance.
The moment anyone insults you to your face, smile broadly and shrug. You didn’t come here to make friends, you came here to break friends in. You also came to this game (in the real world) with a stack of index cards and a marker. This is optional of course, but can be a complex character’s best friend if the narrator is game to indulge it.
Pass a note card to your DM asking if they’d approve a series of Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) checks to steal all their water. We’ll see how thoughtful they get during the upcoming desert excursion when they need to call in favors.
And remember, you feel downright virtuous doing this. You're not doing this because it makes you cackle maniacally, you're doing it because it balances the impossibly specific scales in your head. You think they should be in everyone's head, and unlucky for them if your justice doesn't makes sense. You're just out there in a cute outfit, living your best life, stealing all the water.
To make sure you’re getting this whole Lori Petty, er, Lawful Petty thing right (sorry I just watched some Orange is the New Black), let’s chart it out.
Take a piece of paper. At the top, write your character’s greatest moral joy. Make it real, make it good, make it kind. Otherwise you’re just evil, and it's important we skirt that ancient simplicity.
Then at the bottom, write the thing your character would take the most personally, and make it petty as all Nine Hells.
Every time someone hurts your ego, even a little, stare at your chart and figure how high up or low it falls. Odds are things will land near the bottom fairly often, and you’ll be having a lot of fun being a fantasy jerk as you aim for the top but never forget the bottom. That sweet, salty bottom.
Petty Trademark List
Ready to roleplay a creep, but not sure where to start? You can borrow from any of these you like, but why not roll a 6-sided and see which of these petty moves has been a lawful ritual to your character.
- Spell soiler: Mix cocoa powder in their bat guano, mix glitter in their diamond dust, regardless the resident caster is about to humiliate themselves and you’re never going to cop to who did it. You know how to mess with mages.
- Moral collector: Due to being robbed of a precious thing at a young age, you are now obsessed with re-appropriating all versions of this thing you see in the world as your own. You know, stealing. Maybe it’s scrolls. Maybe it’s decorative vacation spoons. Work with the DM to fit it in the world or maybe even in the pouch of a fellow player.
- Dulled weapon: You carry an incredibly weak weapon, and you attack anyone who insults you with it. Think variations on opera gloves- a wooden dagger, a stocking full of copper pieces, a leather strap made from a beast who looked at you wrong, etc.
- Keen-minds-your-business: Take the Keen Mind feat… just so you can ask your DM incriminating facts to lord over others and manipulate them into doing menial things for you.
- False Samaritan: Do everything a lawfully good character would… but give those benefiting from your actions a verbal, sincere-sounding, but deadly deliberate, “You’re welcome.” Then add them to a list. If they do not reward you in an appropriate and timely fashion, they are a traitor. Or if everyone you’ve helped behaves, call in your good deed beneficiaries to exact revenge on others.
- Guided by the slight: You worship a kind god, and you pray to them often. That’s what you tell people. But in actuality you give your DM some index cards and make an arrangement: every time you pretend to pray that a character receives a holy kindness through Bahamut, you say you’re making a Religion check… but it’s really an Insight check. You tell the group you’re getting holy messages, but really, you’re neutrally analyzing where a character falls on your are-they-in-need-of-fixing-and-do-they-owe-me chart through the DM.
There it is, another alignment forged, farewell 9-part alignment memes, you have cluttered our social media timelines long enough. I hope I can goof on this concept again in the future, and that some of you actually try this. Please let me know if you do, especially if you can pull it off without making every one of your friends mad at you.
Dan Telfer is the Dungeons Humorist aka Comedy Archmage for D&D Beyond (a fun way they are letting him say "writer"), dungeon master for the Nerd Poker podcast, a stand-up comedian, a TV writer who also helped win some Emmys over at Comedy Central, and a former editor of MAD Magazine and The Onion. He can be found riding his bike around Los Angeles from gig to gig to gaming store, though the best way to find out what he's up to is to follow him on Twitter via @dantelfer.