Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No, Really Really, Morality is Not Subjective

No, I don't think this time is going to be a preachy moral article. It's about morals, sort of, though.

In roleplaying games, alignment, or 'percieved alignment' for those games without alignment rules, is sort of a big thing. Some games just gloss over the topic (returnergames) while others, most notably D&D, make it a big, game-altering deal to be of a particular alignment. This article is about the more hard systems of good and evil, and how ridiculous some GMs can be.

Good and evil in the type of D&D way are pretty poorly defined, and even though more recent books have more clearly explained each alignment, players and GMs continue to misinterpret such principles as 'lawful good.'

The first thing to think about in any morality situation is intent. The intent of a person is 99.9% of what determines whether an act is good or evil.

A character who accidentally does just about anything, without being aware of the consequences of the action, is not performing an evil act. A character who accidentally causes the death of someone is not performing an evil act. How many paladins have you heard fall because of unintentional consequences of their otherwise noble decisions? The answer: A lot.

The intent of the action determines pretty much everything behind it. If the paladin happens to put his sword in the closet, unaware that a pixie is hiding out in there, and inadvertently hacks off one of her wings, he is not going to fall. He might fall if he was mean about it afterwards, depending on the whims of the GM, but if he was like, "zomg im sorry :(" that should be enough to say, the paladin isn't performing an evil act.

If a character does something that is evil that they do not realize is evil, it is still (probably) not an evil act. For instance, a heroic character is deceived by an illusion into thinking that a town of innocent people are actually treacherous monsters that are threatening the town. If he kills the people (deceived by illusion) it would probably not be considered an evil act. There's a situation like this in Baldur's Gate 2, where the players and a group of paladins are hit by illusions, and both groups think the other group is a bunch of hostile monsters. When you win, you find out that the enemies are paladins, and you go and find the guy responsible (a red dragon, which you can choose whether or not to pwn its face). This is not an evil act - unless the players were to be like, "oh, well I would have killed them anyway." This changes the intent from killing hostile, life threatening monsters to killing a group of benevolent do-gooders. Intending to kill good guys is almost always an evil thing.

So looking further at intent, we get into the morally grey. What if two countries are economically dependent on a particular resource, and there isn't enough of it to go around, and so they go to war over controlling the resource (after negotiations prove impossible). The individual combatants in the war are almost assuredly not performing evil acts. The politicians might be, depending on how critical the resource is.

Using a more fantasy example, say a village is struck with a terrible disease, and the only way to cure it is to make medicine from the roots of a really ancient tree. At the same time, there are druids who guard the tree and the forest and wildlife that would die if the tree were dug up. Inevitably there's going to be blood there, and it's a pretty morally grey decision as to who is in the right. Neither side is doing evil, even if we may side with one group or the other.

Back on the subject of things that would cause a paladin to fall or that would be considered vaguely evil, is actions that are obviously stupid. If a hero knows that what he is doing could result in harming innocents if he screws it up, then yeah, that is probably evil or would cause a paladin to fall. There's a little bit of grey area here too, but not a whole lot. If the paladin is climbing a tree to retrieve a magical arrow he fired, and there's a chance that the branch could fall and if someone was walking under it they could get hurt, the paladin is probably not doing anything evil, even if the branch does break and someone gets hurt. If we escalate a bit, say a hero is fighting a monster on some dangerous terrain. If the hero moves to safer ground and continues the fight there, it might endanger innocent lives (due to fireball explosions or whatever). This hero is totally doing something that would make a paladin fall, especially there are consequences. Again, if the hero doesn't know that innocent people are around when he makes the tactically superior decision to relocate, then he is obviously not doing something evil, though.

Lastly, good intentions are not 100%. If a crazy person believes that a village is actually shapeshifted demons (because he's told, whatever) without doing any investigation, and rolls out and starts murdering people, that's evil, period. Obviously if he finds out they are demons, and they are a threat, then he is totally justified in cutting them down.

On that last point, though - slaying demons is not always a good act. Demons that are harmless, or that seem to not want to mess with people, are not 'free xp'. Slaying a sleeping red dragon who has no history of terrorizing humans is an evil act, even if red dragons are traditionally evil.

That's really something that is overlooked a lot in fantasy - killing is not something one should just take lightly. It's one thing to fight in self defense, and it's one thing to protect people from evil creatures. It's not okay to go hunting for orcs or goblins or whatever.

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Lawful good is a pretty misunderstood alignment (right up there with neutral evil and true neutral). Lawful good does not mean a character is a pacifist or an idiot. It means that they hold a (good) ideal or belief, and maybe follow a good religion and live in a nation with good laws.

A lawful good character (even a paladin) does not have to be 100% honest at all times. It's morally wrong to lie, and it might even be morally wrong to decieve people. However, if it serves the greater good, not telling the bad guy that your kingdom plans on invading next week is completely understandable. When the rogue lies like a politician to save your party, it is not against a lawful good character's alignment to shut their mouth, shrug their shoulders, and be unresponsive. It is against their alignment to lie, but in the situation where it could lead to the safety of an entire kingdom, it is probably okay if a paladin makes a suggestion that the rogue "is a pretty honest guy" or "couldn't make this kind of thing up."

Evil is even less understood. Believe me, I know. The best way to sum up evil characters is, they are like players. Ha.

Seriously though, evil characters simply want what they want. Most evil characters are not chaotic evil and do not do evil things just for the sake of doing evil. Most (neutral) evil characters want power, money, or prestige. They will steal or murder people to get at what they want, but that doesn't mean they always will. Evil isn't dumb either, and the bad guys most likely aren't going to kill the good guy king and steal his daughter and run off to the castle to wait for a good guy to show up - unless the bad guy was strong enough to handle the entire king's army when they attack his castle in retribution.

When I make an evil character, I give them goals, motivations, and reasons for doing things. Then, because they are evil, they use evil means to get at those goals.

Evil means isn't the only option to an evil character. If it's easier to get at something they want by doing good deeds, an evil character is totally capable of doing good things. Evil isn't like good - it's the absence of morals, not the presence of them. That means most evil characters have no qualms about doing 'good' things if it gets them what they want.

There can be evil characters devoted to being evil, such as lawful evil religious zealots or chaotic evil morons. These characters are pretty cool and wacky, but rarely do they feel dangerous like an evil character who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Fortunately, most lawful evil characters aren't so devoted to doing evil that they won't do 'good' things.

To sum it all up:

Being a good guy is about wanting to do the right thing, as much as possible.
Being a bad guy is about getting what you want.

Selfish motives are always evil, and selfless motives are always good.

Keep that in mind, guys!


  1. first off:
    how is a person's insanity leading them to believe a village of peasants are actually demons and slaughtering them at all different from a person being deceived by illusions and doing the same thing? I say it isn't. In both cases, the person's perception is being altered, not his intentions, which means that in both examples the person is arguably good.

    especially in a universe like 3rd ed. dnd, where evil and good are equally powerful, equally meaningful forces, not just abstract concepts, there is no reason that a person couldn't be devoted to causing misery rather than happiness and be, say, "paladin sane." If you take away the inherent positiveness we give "good" actions, there's something very insane about a person who is willing to sacrifice anything in pursuit of a specific set of ideals. You don't think that a chaotic good character who spends his life trying to make other people happy is "wacky", so why does a character who wants to cause suffering have to be wacky or unreasonable or have to act without motivations?

    DnD's great wheel cosmology absolutely does not carry the same moral laws that the real world does. Good is equal to evil, the same way law is equal to chaos. A character doesn't have to be chaotic good to do good things just because they're good, and a character doesn't have to be chaotic evil to do evil things just because they're evil.

  2. The difference between an illusion of life-threatening monsters and a town of hypothetically demon possessed people is pretty wide.

    In the illusory scenario, you actually perceive 'good guys' as hostile threats bent on taking your life. It is a neutral act, maybe not a good aligned one, to use lethal force in self defense if the situation warrants it - and you perceive it to be hostile monsters who are using lethal force against you.

    In the town act, the perpetrator is acting on a tip or hint, and hasn't done the necessary legwork to determine whether or not the town is full of demons. Furthermore, even if the town is full of demons, the perpetrator doesn't know whether the town actually threatens anyone. It goes back to the point that slaying a red dragon that isn't going out to snack on the nearby village is probably not a good act or even a neutral one. Murder is murder regardless of who you are killing, and murder is evil. Fighting in self defense is not evil.

    Simply because we have an alignment system (of whatever kind, not just D&D) does not mean that there aren't shades of grey between the lines. This mainly occurs with true neutral, neutral good, chaotic good, and lawful evil types of characters. If we were to use Palladium's systems instead, I'd use all of the scrupulous through aberrant alignments. All of these alignments have gradients. A neutral good character might be closer to lawful good ('mostly' follow the rules) or he might spit at the cops with the chaotic good types, but plays the system when he can. Obviously true neutral can go a lot of ways.

    Lawful evil is interesting because it's a character who thrives on rules, but evil describes a character who will do whatever he wants to get what he wants. He can lean more towards the honorable villain or the deceptive criminal who exploits all the rules and laws of the land.

    The reason why evil characters do evil things is because it gets them places. This is why evil people in the real world do things. If one were to read the description of neutral evil (or miscreant, in any Palladium book), the character is not bound by any rules at all. They are completely free to act as they please. Doing good things is usually distasteful, and doing good things only because it is a good thing is not a part of their code. However, while a chaotic good character might enjoy seeing people with a smile, a neutral evil character enjoys the power and respect those people give him when he makes them smile.

    Doing evil things 'just because' isn't evil, it's stupid. No one in real life does things 'just because'. We all have goals or motivations. An evil character, traveling along the same goals or motivations, will choose the most effective directions he can think of to achieve these things. If an evil character wants to take over the world, the last thing he would do (assuming he was sort of smart) would be to create an oppressive kingdom of 'bad guys' that everyone hates. Instead, he might create a 'firm but fair' kingdom that has a strong military and that other nations often look to for military aid. Then he could use spies and infiltrate other countries, and look for ways to insert dummy politicians in the ruling body.

    If a bad guy is looking for ways to complete some uber magic ritual and become godlike, he might do some of the gathering of components and knowledge above board - hopefully as much as he is able to do without arousing suspicion. Then, if he was smart, he would use minions to do the 'bad' things that might implicate him.

    The problem is, evil people in most campaigns just don't know what they actually are doing or why they are doing it. A smart evil guy will do whatever needs to be done, and if that means helping old ladies across the street, then that's the way it's gotta be.

    He might gag afterwards though.