GOOD VERSUS EVIL
Evil shall never be portrayed in an attractive light and shall be used only as a foe to illustrate a moral issue. All product shall focus on the struggle of good versus injustice and evil, casting the protagonist as an agent of right. Archetypes (heroes, villains, etc.) shall be used only to illustrate a moral issue.
The TSR Code of Ethics 1995
Introduction – and a disclaimer.
I’ve always been interested in the notions of good and evil, morality and immorality especially when it comes to the alignment system in role playing games. In this post, I’ll be looking at some of the questions that the alignment system throws up and pondering how best to reflect a system of morality in RPG.
The inclusion of viewpoints and quotes for illustrative purposes should not be construed as endorsement thereof. I have no intention to offend or provoke; considered comments are welcomed. I am also aware that there has been a considerable amount of blog discussion on alignment, which I have not referenced or revisited before writing this post, as I wanted the examination to be my own and not unconsciously answering questions that those posts might have raised. You may well find that I either mirror or seem to complement issues that have been dealt with elsewhere.
Three versus nine.
I’m going to be playing in a Labyrinth Lord AEC campaign soon. Whilst discussing the rules set, the DM asked me if I had a preference between the three-point alignment system and the nine-point. As I’m a long-time 1e player and DM, you can probably guess my answer.
But there’s more to it than just tradition. Having started my gaming life with 1e, I had no prior experience of the three-point system and so had to come to it fresh.
Being somewhat contrarian in my views, I would – if I had to classify myself as any particular alignment – be Chaotic Good, although my recent completion of the WotC online alignment test had me down as Neutral Good. I have never had much time for an alignment system that equates Law with Goodness. There are many sorts of law that I could not imagine being classified as in any way desirable. The Nazi regime, the rule of Stalin, the harsh, and to our minds, barbaric rules that made up the legislature of the Roman Empire. As a singularly apposite example of Law without good, consider Drako, the Athenian lawgiver, whose name has come down to us in the word “draconian”. Concerning the liberal use of the death penalty in the Draconic code, Plutarch said:
“It is said that Drako himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offences, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones.”
Nor indeed do I ascribe to Chaos the epithet of evil – the role of the rebel is one on which the entire United States is built and one that, in the personae of Robin Hood and his merry band we laud and hold up as heroic. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are not exactly upholding the rule of law; in fact they are using violence to overthrow a state. That the state itself utilises violence to perpetuate itself is immaterial; the fact is that it represents Law, stability and the institution of authority. If there were no rebel alliance, the Empire would probably endure for many years to come. Let’s look briefly at a section of the TSR Code of Ethics which addresses this:
3: AGENTS OF LAW ENFORCEMENT
Agents of law enforcement (constables, policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions) should not be depicted in such a way as to create disrespect for current established authorities/social values. When such an agent is depicted as corrupt, the example must be expressed as an exception and the culprit should ultimately be brought to justice.
Whilst corrupt law officials are clearly bad and need to be rooted out, the system that they serve is beyond questioning. There is also the equivocation between Law and Justice, which is not always necessarily so.
The Axis of Evil – and Good.
It’s said of the three-point system that the emphasis on good and evil can be applied by the players within the axis of Law, Neutrality and Chaos. All well and good, but perhaps I would have preferred, if any three-point system was to be used, to have the axis of Good, Neutrality and Evil, with law and chaos as gradations on that line.
But even this axis starts to look shaky when we ask the question “What is evil?”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has some wise words for anyone who might seek to ringfence particular viewpoints, beliefs, acts or peoples and mark them down as evil.
“the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”
The Gulag Archipelago
Solzhenitsyn is indeed correct when he describes the line as a shifting one, and it’s one that generally tends to move forward rather than backward. To emphasise just how that can happen, let’s see what two admirable figures from history have to say on subjects which today would be considered cut and dried on a moral basis.
“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favour of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Abraham Lincoln 1858
“And how will the new republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? how will it deal with the yellow man? How will it tackle that alleged termite in the civilised woodwork, the Jew? And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency?
Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. The whole tenor and meaning of the world, as I see it, is that they have to go. So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the future, it is their portion to die out and disappear.”
H G Wells 1905.
Wells was a progressive, left-wing thinker of his time, so if he could hold the views cited, one shudders to think what the reactionaries of the day might have been thinking. What we are considering here is the way in which, even in a century, views that had been held by the progressives in society are now looked on with disgust and abhorrence by those who consider themselves enlightened.
Black and White and Grey
When we think about alignment, specifically about good and evil, we make those judgements based on the standards of today. In a way, the quasi-mediaeval societies that we create mirror far more the mores of the modern age than they do those of the time that they are intended to represent. Too many of us (and it does us credit) have trouble putting ourselves into the mindset of those who held fast to moral absolutes that would enable them cheerfully to put to death their fellow men merely because of a difference of doctrine or an geographical accident of birth.
Are there such things as moral absolutes? Whilst not wishing to go off down the path of moral relativism, there is always a case to be made for breaking what might otherwise be regarded as societal strictures. Ask yourself two questions: firstly, am I a good person? And secondly, are there circumstances in which I could commit what might normally be considered an evil act?
Thou shalt not kill? What about using violence to defend your children from an intruder? Thou shalt not steal? What if you’re a starving indigent who finds some stale loaves of bread left outside the back of a bakery?
Here’s a conundrum based loosely on the (much disputed) Churchill and Coventry case.
A king whose army is fighting a long and bitter war with a confederation of humanoids has managed to acquire a mole inside the leadership of the confederation. This mole brings the king information that a large band of orcs is heading for one of his cities, intent on attacking and razing it.
If the king strengthens the garrison enough to repel the orc attack, the humanoids will know that he knew of their attack and they may deduce from this that a traitor is in their midst. If the mole is exposed and killed as a result of a hunt for him, the king will lose his source of intelligence inside the confederation and by the time he gets another one, the humanoids may have won and it will be too late.
But if he stays his hand and does nothing, feigning ignorance of the impending attack and its target, hundreds – if not thousands - of innocent citizens will be killed.
Moral dilemmas are always a good thing to throw at parties who seem secure in their alignments. Often, choices are presented in which the correct option is implicit in the question. But what if there are no right answers, only differing degrees of wrong?
Fighting fire with fire?
"They had gone down into the mire to destroy us and our nation and down after them we had to go"
There have been cases where supposedly good-aligned characters have found themselves committing what might be termed atrocities against goblins, orcs, evil NPCs or cultists whose own moral compass points inexorably towards the Dark Side. Perhaps roughing up an orc to find out where he has hidden his gold. Perhaps the judicious application of sharp instruments to a cultist to obtain the location of his temple before the princess is sacrificed to summon a demon.
Is it ever permissible to use morally dubious methods against those who, given a particularly convincing argument, might deserve it? Is it, in fact, an act of Good to use whatever means are possible against Evil? After all, Evil doesn’t fight fair and to do so oneself hands Evil victory on a plate. Let’s see what the journalist Sam Harris has to say on the subject:
“Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs—in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity—it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. For those who make it their business to debate the ethics of torture this is known as the “ticking-bomb” case.
While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us. If a conventional explosion doesn’t move you, consider a nuclear bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan. If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release. If your daughter won’t tip the scales, then add the daughters of every couple for a thousand miles—millions of little girls have, by some perverse negligence on the part of our government, come under the control of an evil genius who now sits before you in shackles. Clearly, the consequences of one person’s uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even a self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers.”
This moves towards the realm of teleological or consequentialist ethics, where anything is permissible, provided that it serves a greater good. In Latin, this is rendered Exitus acta probat, literally “The End Justifies the Means”, a sentiment that was falsely attributed to Niccolo Macchiavelli’s phrase “Si guarda al fine” which, as Dungeonmum will surely tell us means “One must consider the final result” (in fact I’m sure she could give us a more accurate translation but it will do for now).
The Boredom of Evil
I’ve played an evil character once. I thought that it would be an interesting playing choice, given that at the time, there was little difference between good characters and those inclined more towards evil. Kill the monsters, take their stuff was the watchword then, as it sometimes tends to be today. Yet after a while, I started to get bored with the routine acts of evil that I was carrying out. With a good character there is always the battle between what the character knows is right and what their darker side, their animal nature wants to do. That battle of choices, the struggle to stay on the side of light makes for a very interesting playing experience. Yet with an evil character, that decision has already been made. There is no conflict - the line has been crossed. Even if the evil character carries out an act that might be considered good, it is usually for expediency, exploitative and cynical.
If we can’t be sure about evil, what is our definition of good?
Let’s consider two paladins. We’re on safe ground with these guys – everyone knows what alignment they have to be and everyone knows what sort of things that alignment allows. Right?
The first paladin serves Forseti, the Norse god of justice. The second follows Girru, the Babylonian god of fire. Both Lawful Good gods.
Our paladins come across a village of halflings. The first paladin rides in, preaches his deity, helps out, seeks to do good, uphold right and assist wherever possible.
The second paladin takes out his sword and starts to kill the halflings, because his mythos says that they are demons.
Both are doing what they consider to be right and were we to say to the second paladin that he was committing an evil act, he would be able to cite that particular page of Deities and Demigods as justification for his actions.
We do not have to look very far for examples of the shifting perception of evil in our own world. A gay couple who give to charity, do voluntary work with the homeless, help their elderly neighbour and never badmouth anyone will still be regarded as more evil than child sex offenders by some extremist groups. A law-abiding, caring tee-total, non-smoking father who observes speed limits, pays his taxes on time, never cheats the system and would never access Zak Smith’s blog would nevertheless - according to fundamentalists - burn in hell because he’s an atheist.
In a recent adventure I ran, (the Spider Farm), Junior Grognard and the gang burst in to one of the buildings and overwhelmed the goblins with such efficiency that the last goblin archer dropped his weapon and surrendered. JG ordered one of his party to kill the goblin. His justification was that if he let him go, the goblin would just join his fellows and go on to carry out more attacks. Nevertheless, an unarmed creature was executed. I noted this and moved on but it made me think and served as one of the bases of this post.
Another example – let’s say that the DM is running a campaign world based on the Roman Empire. A player in the campaign, who – with their modern sensibilities – believes that slavery is wrong and a societal evil, decides that their character is going to campaign to overthrow slavery, liberate the slaves and bring freedom to the Empire. He might cite this section of the TSR Code of Ethics to back his position up
Slavery is not to be depicted in a favourable light; it should only be represented as a cruel and inhuman institution to be abolished.
Of course, no character in that day and age would consider that such a thing was right. For a start, anyone who tried to free slaves would have the slave-owners on their backs, clamouring for the liberator to be arrested for theft. Even in the New Testament, written at around that time, the institution of slavery is taken as a given. Neither Jesus nor Paul take a stand against it. For them, it was no more immoral than keeping animals for food and agricultural use.
What to do with alignment?
After having thought long and hard on the subject, and given that the alignment system may well have been invented to simulate the dogmatic and entrenched viewpoints that existed during the mediaeval age, when certainties were more certain and good and evil were rooted in a spirituality that seems perhaps too simplistic by our age, I am minded to do away with it.
But what to put in its place? I am an optimist when it comes to human nature; the vast majority of individuals are decent, good people who do their best with what they have. That humans are also capable of terrible things is more a product of latent leftovers in their evolutionary heritage. I don’t believe in Original Sin.
I came up with something today – after writing the majority of this post – and grabbed a pen (this always happens to me, inspiration striking when I’m least prepared). Basically, what I propose is to have the players draw up a Statement of Principles for their character. It would run along the lines of
Five things the character believes in.
Five things the character would never do/try strenuously to avoid doing.
Five things the character believes are wrong.
Character principles (5-10).
It’s sort of a summary of what they stand for, what they won’t stand for and what’s important to them.
A statement of principles is an individual thing; as we’ve seen, no two definitions of good or evil are the same. Something similar could work for monsters too. As you can imagine, the Statement could well encompass ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’ principles also. To reflect the fact that our attitudes and values may change over time, I might allow the player to move one principle off the list and replace with another every level-up or two.
If the player acted inconsistently with the Statement of Principles, I would require them to be able to justify their actions. Responsible and mature players would probably appreciate that, and might even welcome it as an aid to good role-playing.
If I was unhappy with the justification or felt that they were using the lack of alignment to act in a capricious and unrealistic manner, I would probably inflict some kind of spiritual retaliation – remember that in fantasy worlds, the gods not only exist but interfere on a regular basis.
By the Gods!
In fact, upgrading the role of the gods in a fantasy setting might be an interesting way to enforce a degree of behavioural consistency. In mediaeval times, and the ages before that, the consideration that the average person gave to the doctrines and views of their gods was a good deal higher than it is today. Whether you view this as a good thing or a bad thing, the point is that it affected their day to day activities and many of the decisions that they made. That’s not to say that being devoutly religious in mediaeval times made you automatically good.
In 1209, during the "Albigensian Crusade" against the Cathar heresy in Southern France, the forces of Orthodox Catholicism had been besieging the city of Beziers, defended by the Cathar heretics, for some time. Finally they breached the walls of the city and prepared to storm it. The commander of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, pointed out that not everybody in the city was a heretic; some of them were good Catholics, so how should they treat the inhabitants when they captured the city? A monk who was actually present at the siege recorded the answer of the Papal Legate to the Crusaders, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, as "Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoscet." ("Kill them all. God will know his own.") So the Crusaders followed his advice and killed everybody they could find in Beziers.
The advice of the abbot makes perfect sense if his belief that death is not the end and that a benevolent god will ensure that souls are correctly treated is taken into account. Of course, there is a good argument to be made that he was just being cynical and had not one iota of genuine consideration for the views of his god. What his god thought of his justification is not recorded. A couple of centuries later, the Inquisition would cheerfully make bonfires of heretics because they believed in their hearts that they were doing good work, and that those who they killed were evil and merited no better treatment.
This might make a good case for extending the involvement of the characters with their deities. Recent posts on other blogs have discussed the relationship of the cleric to his deity but perhaps the relationship of all characters to their deities should be examined. Whilst a non-cleric has no spells that can be removed by an angered deity, there could perhaps be some method of sanction that can be applied if a character transgresses.
It’s also a fascinating opportunity to get deeper into the motivations of celestial and infernal beings – with alignment, demons and devils do evil because…well, that’s the way they are. Similarly with gods of good alignment, they just can’t help being good. If we jettison alignment, we then have to work out exactly what these entities are up to, why and what they might consider doing in order to get to those goals.
One last point that is raised by the notion of abandoning alignment is that the same holds true of monsters as well. It has always struck me as odd that entire races of monsters have the same alignment. Are all dwarves good? No. Then why are all orcs evil? The issue of the killing of orc females and children has been raised before, and I refer back to the example of the Abbot of Citeaux, who would have had no compunction on this issue. Indeed, the slaughter of men, women, children and animals is not only condoned but explicitly ordered by Yahweh (who is conventionally depicted as Lawful Good in alignment) in the Old Testament:
“But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth”
Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' "
1 Samuel 15 v3
It would be an interesting argument if a lawful good cleric wanted to remove orc children from their tribe and raise them in a good environment. Indeed, something similar has been done in the real world with regard to taking Native American and Aboriginal children and raising them in white families, to ‘civilise’ them.
Is evil innate? The ascription of a generic alignment to monster races seems to indicate that Gygax thought it was, or intended it to be so for the purposes of game mechanics.
I hope that this has been an interesting – though long - ramble through some of the problems that alignment throws up. Interestingly, whether one holds to them or not, the pulp roots of D&D argue even more convincingly for an amorality that cannot be trapped within either the threefold or ninefold structure of alignment systems.
I’ve convinced myself that alignment is too restrictive for me, does not reflect the complexities of human nature and – in the case of monsters – is simplistic and unfair. My abandonment thereof will be an experiment, a work in progress. If it turns out that the interests of game mechanics require it to be reimposed, that’s what I’ll do. And I’ll let you know all about it!