6d6 Fireball

Evil in D&D

What Do We Mean By Evil?

D&D’s concept of alignment has always been a decisive idea. It allows clear cut game mechanics such as Protection from Evil spells and the Turning Undead ability that mimic the effects found in fantasy and horror fiction. But it has always been problematic whenever it is applied to a “realistic” situation. Were the terrorist behind the Twin Towers attack evil? What about the crews who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How about George Custer and his attacks on the native Americans?

The simple fact is that evil is merely a matter of perspective rather than a clearly definable act or belief system.

Good Characters in an Evil World

My thoughts on this are promoted by my Rome campaign and Rob’s point in 5 Roleplaying Tips. My campaign world is based on historical Rome with very few fantasy elements. The problem I had with alignment was how can you define a character as good or evil in 1st century Rome?

Slavery was legal and widespread yet I think everyone reading this would consider slavery evil. A slave owner could kill a slave they owned. Not only was this perfectly legal but it was socially acceptable. Likewise a man could kill his wife if he believed she had committed adultery. No trial or hearing was needed, the husband could simply killed her. A ‘good’ person may not actually kill their wife or slaves but they would knowingly associate with people who do. How does guilt by association work in an alignment system?

The famous roman gladiatorial games raise even more alignment problems. Actual gladiators were often volunteers so proper fights are an ethical gray area but what about the punishment of criminals? After a quick trial (if they were lucky) tens or hundreds of prisoners would be killed by animals, burnt alive or executed in inventive and painful ways. Clearly an evil act to inflict that much suffering but is it evil to watch it? The Coliseum seated 80,000 people who cheered as the unfortunate souls in the arena died terrible deaths. Are all those spectators evil?

In such a city as ancient Rome, nearly every citizen could be reasonably classed as evil.

Drastic Solutions

Faced with a situation where the simplistic alignment system did not work, I simply ditched the whole concept. No alignment means no alignment based spells so any spell relating to good, evil, law or chaos was now meaningless. It also means that gods cannot demand their worshippers be a particular alignment and that various magic items are now junk.

On the plus side, a necromancer can be the kindest, gentlest soul on the planet who just happens to spend their time playing with dead bodies.

Does It Work?

Yes. Ditching the alignment system works for Rome because the whole campaign is written with this in mind. I suspect that trying to run off-the-shelf adventures in an alignment free world would be more problematic. Though I like the idea of starting a campaign normally and, once the characters have gained a few levels, then removing alignment due to some cataclysm in the divine world. Both players and monsters now have to cope with a world where all there old certainties have disappeared.

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12 thoughts on “Evil in D&D

  1. bonemaster

    Alignments are one of the few things, I think most people can agree are problematic at times. Any type of historical setting, like the one you presented, make it hard to use the alignment system. The alignment system is what I would call an idealized reality. It is based on more modern concepts of good and evil and applied to all things. I doubt some of the “evil” aligned creatures in DnD would even think that they are evil. As you point out the system is really a tool and mechanic. Without it, you would have to know the point of view of what is good and what is evil for NPC or the NPC that created a magic item. Of course that might be fun as well. I think you could have some nice roleplaying opportunities in such a system/setting.

    bonemaster´s last blog post..The Art of the GM notebook

  2. Dead Orcs

    Well, I suppose you could make the argument that everyone in Rome was evil. There are biblical scholars who believe the Revelation of John was written in a response to Roman society at the time (and not the doomsday prophesy as many people believe). You can ditch alignment (as it’s very codified), but a person’s actions will usually be weighted towards one philosophy of living or another. Either you get along benevolently with your fellow creatures, or you do not. I don’t believe in absolutes, but I also don’t believe that “well, everyone in this society thinks its acceptable, I guess it’s not evil”. It’s a sure bet that the slaves didn’t appreciate their lot (although they were helpless to do much about it).

    When the rules for D&D were first written, there was just Law and Chaos. It’s my thought that Gygax and Arneson assumed that order and civilization (Law) were preferable to disorder and anarchy (Chaos). Therefore, one former was “better” than the latter. I don’t think it was until the 1st Edition Advanced D&D rules came out was there any real codification of “good” and “evil”.

    Just my random thoughts on the subject…excellent thought provoking post!

    Dead Orcs´s last blog post..Dead Orcs…Assemble!!

  3. Joshua

    Why would everybody in Rome being Evil be a problem for a campaign? Presumably everybody in the entire Drow civilization is Evil, but nobody bats an eye. I’m not particularly advocating the D&D alignment system, but I just don’t see why Protection from Evil being potentially very useful and Detect Evil not at all is a setting breaker.

    Joshua´s last blog post..Supporting the Old School

  4. Chris Tregenza

    Joshua

    The problem with everyone being evil is that if the characters are good or neutral, how can they work for and co-operate with the bulk of the population. Doing so would violate their alignments. In fact staying in the city could be considered a violation of any good alignents.

    This makes being true to D&D alignments (at least how they are written) incompatible with the setting. Leaving the choice of either making alignments into something new or ditching the whole lot.

    Chris

    Chris Tregenza´s last blog post..D&D Dice

  5. Walter

    There are inherent conflicts and contradictions in the dnd alignment system, but player interest in ethics and morals might lead them to new questions if not discussions on the relationship between subjects such as war, religion, and propaganda. For instance, is it the nature of an expanding empire to conquer weaker nations? Is there one system of values for the upper class, and another for the servants and foreigners? There is the pickle of a philosophical question of whether acts in the name of god are by definition “good”, even if they are perpetrated against defenseless civilians. Where do hypocrisy and rationalization fit into the moral code? Playing the game with straight use of the alignment system might force the game to take ludicrous turns in a purely fantastical direction, like having the god force a “good” king to be kind to all his people, and rule lawfully, honestly and good. That is quite a fantasy.

  6. admin

    Walter,

    I like the idea of a ‘good’ king being force to be kind to all his people. There is real scope for a party of tax collectors trying to enforce a fair tax system ont he rich & powerful of the land.

    Chris

  7. Trevor

    The good players go and kill a group of goblins that may or may not have actually attacked the village to get some food however these said to be good players go and kill all goblins they run in to. if you base simple fact there evil that still does not excuse killing the goblins that did not attack the village for food becouse we think there all evil

  8. Archmage

    Interesting topic.

    “Were the terrorist behind the Twin Towers attack evil?”

    Most assuredly. The killing of innocents is almost the definition of evil.

    “What about the crews who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

    This was a war of expansion waged by the Japanese. Wars of expansion arguably are evil. That makes the Japanese side evil and the US side good.
    The bombing of a city is bound to kill innocents as well as further one’s military objectives. So it is an action that has both evil and good consequences. An action that has more good consequences than evil consequences can be viewed as good. The US bombing immediately ended the war on the Japanese side. I would say that’s an extremely good consequence.

    “How about George Custer and his attacks on the native Americans?”

    He was waging a war of expansion. The US did not even respect the treaties they had made with the Indians. They clearly viewed the Indians as less than men. I’d say that’s enough to make George Custer and the US leadership evil.

    “Slavery was legal and widespread yet I think everyone reading this would consider slavery evil.”

    There is slavery, and slavery. Beating up and torturing innocents has always been evil. Employing servants and treating them fairly is good. One does not become evil just by employing servants, even if they are called ‘slaves’. It’s only if you treat them like rubbish that it makes you evil. Hence, Rome had both good and evil people (and neutral, in a D&D system).

    “How does guilt by association work in an alignment system?”

    Guilt by association is a weaker form of guilt, and it depends on the strength of the association or collaboration. If the city’s rules are evil, a good person may simply be afraid of challenging them, for fear of punishment. That doesn’t make him an evil person. A good person would try his best under the circumstances. He might try to help escaped slaves and hide them, for example. A neutral person would associate with both good and evil people without problems.

    “The Coliseum seated 80,000 people who cheered as the unfortunate souls in the arena died terrible deaths. Are all those spectators evil?”

    The spectators did not order the torture of criminals. It is only the city’s government who is responsible. Watching someone’s torture does not make one evil if there is nothing you could do to stop it.
    It also depends on what the criminals did. It could be argued that a serial murderer and rapist justly deserves a painful death.
    So I wouldn’t say that all the spectators are evil, but logically most would be either evil or neutral. That would still leave all the people who did not attend.

  9. Chris

    @Archmage

    Thanks for the comment. I had honestly forgotten about this post and it is fun coming back to it almost 2 years later.

    I must quibble about your comment’s logic though.

    On the subject of the Twin Towers you say:

    “killing of innocents is almost the definition of evil”

    I agree with this but when it comes to the bombing of Hiroshima, you assert that “An action that has more good consequences than evil consequences can be viewed as good”.

    Which immediately makes me ask if the destruction of the WTC had more good consequences than evil, would it become an act of good?

    And Custer’s slaughter of the Indians? On the surface it is an evil act but without the lands stolen from the natives, America would not of been able to build the nuclear bomb. Without the bomb, maybe 1 million people or more would of died during the invasion of Japan. Does this make Custer et al a force for good?

    Good and evil are purely relativistic terms.

    It all depends over what sort of time scale you are assessing the consequences and the subjective measure of good and evil you apply those consequences.

    I must also quibble about “There is slavery, and slavery. ”

    No there is not.

    A slave, no matter how well treated, cannot leave their master. A slave, no matter how well treated, cannot accrue wealth, A slave, no matter how well treated, cannot decide their own future at either a personal level or a political level.

    Saying that slavery is not evil because the slave is treated well is like saying it is OK to rape an 8 year old once a year as long as she is treated like a princess the rest of the time.

    The D&D alignment system has many, many flaws but I still think it was a brilliant bit of game design. Almost every player will end up having a conversation about this sort of subject matter. Either directly related to the game (“Can a Paladin do that?”) or tangentially like this conversation.

    How many games have ever prompted as much consideration of morality and ethics as D&D?

    The alignment system, for all its flaws, has contributed more to the intellectual and moral of development of teenagers around the world than most religions.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Chris

  10. Archmage

    “Which immediately makes me ask if the destruction of the WTC had more good consequences than evil, would it become an act of good?”

    Arguably yes. But do you see good consequences from the destruction of the WTC? Of a sufficient scale to justify the killing of thousands of innocents? I don’t.

    “On the surface it is an evil act but without the lands stolen from the natives, America would not of been able to build the nuclear bomb.”

    I don’t agree with this. No-one knows exactly what would have happened had there been a lasting peace with the Indians. Materials can be traded for. Concessions can be bought. Without the slaughter, the US population and workforce would have been greater, with beneficial effects. The gene pool would be richer.

    However, these are all unpredictable, indirect consequences. The main reason why the US would need the bomb in the first place is because of the German and Japanese aggression. It’s really got nothing to do with the Indians.

    I agree that when looking at an action, the consequences over time should be taken into consideration, but only if these consequences are predictable and closely related to the original action.

    For example a policy of protectionism may have a short-term beneficial effect on companies and employment. In the longer term, it will attract retaliation from other countries, resulting in a loss of trade and a net negative effect. The negative effect is predictable and closely related to the original cause.

    “A slave, no matter how well treated, cannot leave their master. A slave, no matter how well treated, cannot accrue wealth, A slave, no matter how well treated, cannot decide their own future at either a personal level or a political level.”

    It doesn’t have to be like this every time. It all depends on what the master’s policy is. Read the wikipedia article on manumission. Sometimes, the master would free his slaves. Sometimes, slaves would be paid a wage (the pecunium, in Rome). An evil person would neither pay them nor free them.
    Slavery can have good aspects. Being a servant in Ancient Rome means you get free lodging and free food. The alternative is extreme poverty, prostitution, malnutrition, disease.

    “Saying that slavery is not evil because the slave is treated well is like saying it is OK to rape an 8 year old once a year as long as she is treated like a princess the rest of the time.”

    I didn’t say that slavery is not evil. I happen to believe it is very evil, in the traditional definition of someone who is completely dominated by someone else. What I’m saying is that just because slavery was allowed in Rome, it does not follow that all Romans were evil. I’m sure good Romans treated their slaves more like servants, if they had any.

    “The alignment system, for all its flaws, has contributed more to the intellectual and moral of development of teenagers around the world than most religions.”

    I wouldn’t go so far as to compare it to a religion, but I agree it’s a brilliant system.

  11. Noname

    Well the spectators in Rome would be just spectators, for they were having their fun. Throughtout all the time civilization has tried to evolve, but then again, the further you are from wealth and power, the closer you are to “chaotic evil”, and the “lawful good” (society and order) schematic is just for the few minorities who can afford it. So am I to say that the alignment are meaningful only in a setting were it could be applied as such, such as a DnD campaign while in the real-world it’s a big shadow of grey (or perhaps a little to the “evil” (hatred and tyranny)) with all the corporations ruling it.

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