I recently started running the Pathfinder adventure path Curse of the Crimson Throne, which is set in a city that’s technically Lawful Neutral but really trends Lawful Evil. And so you get to benefit from my rambling thought process as to what that even means.
The History of D&D Alignment
Original D&D only had one axis of alignment: Law vs. Chaos. Law represented civilization, order, and all that was right in the world. Chaos represented the dark gods and their minions that wanted to tear it all down. It was a fairly simple way of organizing the world cribbed from a lot of early 20th century fantasy series, particularly ones that featured bastions of culture in a sea of barbarism. Chaos was bad because it was all about pulling down the works of humanity (and demihumanity) for selfish and psychotic reasons.
At some point (was it the divide between D&D and AD&D?), another alignment axis was added: Good vs. Evil. Maybe there was a miscommunication as to the point of the Law vs. Chaos axis, or maybe someone felt that it unfairly equated rightness with imperialism and wrongness with indigenous cultures. Either way, suddenly the issue was terribly muddled in a way that’s been hard for gamers to wrap their heads around for decades. Chaos isn’t Evil, because Evil is Evil. But Lawful Good is still the kind of Good that gives you paladins. Chaotic Neutral characters are an excuse to play psychopaths. Most PCs without an alignment restriction are just Neutral Good anyway. It’s a mess.
The D&D cosmology evolved to embrace this new arrangement, however. Each alignment represents a different constellation of afterlife dimensions. The devils from the Lawful Evil Hell hate the demons from the Chaotic Evil Abyss. The Lawful Neutral Mechanus has robot people while the Chaotic Neutral Limbo has crazy lizard people. Lawful Good beings are traditionally angelic, while Chaotic Good beings are more animalistic angels. So despite still not making a whole lot of sense, alignment is deeply tied to the cosmology of many D&D settings in a way that makes it impractical to ignore.
Evil’s Ultimate Destination
Before even trying to conceptualize what Evil might actually mean in a dual axis alignment system, one must first consider the major ramification of all of this: to quote Ringworld, “There ain’t no justice!” No matter what one’s actual beliefs, modern human cultural norms inherit a hugely pervasive concept from many religions: if you’re a bad person, you’ll suffer for it after you die. Whether it’s being tortured in hell or just getting a bad reincarnation, humans have long justified that people that are terrible in life, no matter how much fun they seem to be having, will pay for it when they die.
In D&D, this is manifestly untrue. The core concept presented in the Great Wheel cosmology is that, when you die, you’re reborn as a spirit in the plane that best matches your living alignment. If you were Evil, you do, in fact, go to one of the hellish dimensions. But you don’t go there to be punished for all eternity: you go there to become an entry level devil or demon. Maybe it will be terrible for you for a while, or for all eternity if you aren’t strong willed enough to rise in the infernal hierarchies past Lemure, but over the centuries the best evil guys will get to become the awesome Balors and Pit Fiends of the world. Life is essentially a sorting hat for what kind of afterlife you’d prefer.
In D&D, when you finally kill off that terrible bad guy, from a certain point of view you just did him a favor. He was at the top of his game and went out doing something memorably villainous, and his soul is burning with a thirst for revenge that will potentially propel him downwards through the unholy ranks until he’s a mover and shaker in the Blood War. About the only thing you could do to actually make him pay for his crimes would be to capture him and make him suffer through a long and boring incarceration until he finally died broken and old. Once he dies, the only thing that’s bad about where he ends up is that it’s full of jerks just like him. Jerks who will promote him if he pays his dues and proves ruthless enough.
D&D villains aren’t failures of socialization, they’re the inheritors of a completely valid worldview trying to get in a good practice run before moving on to the real game of eternity.
So What is Evil?
With all that in mind, it seems like the natural response is: an Evil character is someone you could easily see becoming an Evil outsider when he or she dies.
Devils get characterized as the suave, manipulative evil. They want you to sell your soul, but that may just mean they want you to commit to being a direct report on their org chart when you die. They’re the evil of slavery, of belittlement, of deprotagonization: they get what they want not necessarily by killing you, or even hurting you, but by making you subservient. They yoke your potential and bend it towards their own whims, treating anyone weaker as chattel to be used and discarded without a second thought as long as the trade is profitable. Lawful Evil means that the world doesn’t really have people, it has tools and it has obstacles, and the former are merely there to get past the latter.
Demons get characterized as the raging, brutal evil. They don’t care about your soul in particular, except maybe as a snack. They’re the evil of mindless destruction, of the strongest destroying the weakest, of pure inevitability: they think it’s fun to hurt you, to have their way with you, to devour you. Their insidiousness is that it’s hard to fight them without in some way becoming them, as they won’t stop for anything other than superior, ferocious force. They see what they want and they take it, leaving a path of broken bodies on the way. Chaotic Evil equally means that there aren’t people, but simply playthings and threats. Playthings tend to break. Threats are best dealt with by main force and then maintained in their place with constant reinforcement.
Daemons are the hardest to characterize. If Devils own your mind and Demons destroy your body, Daemons exist to rend your very soul. A Devil will draw you into his sway gently, or at least without obvious malice, bending you to his worldview. A Demon will come after you with furious abandon, forcing you to become like him or die. But a Daemon will hurt you. A Daemon isn’t making you into tool or a toy, but is simply trying to break you. He’ll come after you with charm if he can, but not to recruit you. He’ll come after you with force if he needs to, but not for his own pleasure. Neutral Evil means being at the nadir of the cosmos and wanting to cut the whole world down to your own level of depravity. They’re potentially the only Evil that recognizes the concept of “people;” that’s because it’s hard to succeed in the goal of making people inhuman like you without recognizing their humanity in the first place.
A City of Devils
Thus, a Lawful Evil city is an almost literal Hell on Earth. It’s enviably efficient. The bureaucracy is competent, the rules are firmly established, and crime is firmly dealt with. But a lot of things that are criminal aren’t necessarily wrong. Gaining power is a labyrinthine process that digs one deeper into a web of favors. Becoming obligated means constantly working to avoid being expended. It’s a place where, when you finally lean back on your throne of respectability and wealth, you barely care anymore about all the people you crushed beneath your boots to get there. And, in a few more years of using up your employees to fend off your rivals, you won’t even care at all.