Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs

There is nothing more guaranteed to start a fight among tabletop gamers than talking about alignment. From paladins to necromancers, rogues to assassins, it seems that everyone has an opinion about the nine alignments used in Pathfinder, and in several editions of Dungeons and Dragons. However, while we can endlessly debate over whether or not raising the dead is inherently evil, or when killing someone is and isn't required, there is a bigger issue behind alignment that we rarely talk about.

Absolute good and absolute evil aren't just theoretical constructs in these games. They are genuine, universal forces.

Absolute is a good word. I'll add that to the contract.

Beyond Simple Morality

Morality, as we all know, is not universal. Morality is a construct that's made up of your past experiences, the values you were taught, the opinions you've formed, the religion you follow, the culture you're inundated by, and a thousand other facets. Two people, even people with similar backgrounds, who are faced with the same situation can have vastly different opinions on what the right thing to do is.

And that's in the real world, where we don't have the capacity to re-shape reality with a thought, and devils don't offer you power in exchange for obedience. In a world with magic and monsters, where the gods and their servants walk the earth and take a visible hand in world events, things can get a lot more complicated quite quickly.

Except for dogs. Dogs have no alignment, and usually no morality.
This is where the ideas of absolute good and absolute evil come into the picture. It is important to remember in any discussion about alignment in games like Dungeons and Dragons, or Pathfinder, that the world isn't one big ball of gray areas like we have in reality. Good and evil are real forces in this world, and there are both beings and places that are wholly made up of those forces. This is a world where angels and demons aren't myths or ideas, but real beings that will likely show up in your adventure at some point.

The implication of that is that there are universal truths when it comes to good and evil. These truths aren't flexible, or subject to personal opinion or cultural translation. In order for there to be absolutes, there must be a scale of good to evil that everyone falls on, and which is determined based on rules applied unilaterally. It also means that in every situation you face there are good answers, and evil answers, and that they could be graded like a fill-in-the-blank test.

As a system for fairness, it leaves a lot to be desired. It's what these games use, though, so we need to make sure we get a handle on it.

Determine What is Good, and What is Evil, in Your World

If you are playing a game that uses the nine alignments, something you should do is sit down with your group, and answer any and all questions they have regarding the nature of absolute good and absolute evil in your world.

For example, which acts are inherently good, or inherently evil? Is murder for hire, a requirement for the assassin prestige class, an inherently evil act? Alternatively, is defending the innocent or weak inherently good, regardless of your motivations behind doing it? Are you concerned only with the actions taken by the characters, or also with the reasons those actions are committed, and the situations in which they were committed?

Do we have rules for that? Tell me there's rules for that!
Most of the time alignment is something that sits in the background, not bothering anyone. But given that there are spells, magic items, and other things that have different effects based on your character's alignment, it's important to think about these things. Not just for clerics and paladins, but for all the characters in the game, PCs and NPCs alike. Because if there is such a thing as pure good and pure evil, then it means there is a scale you can judge someone on, regardless of who they are and where they come from.

However, that doesn't make alignment simpler than morality. It just means that you're trading in the complicated web of morality as a societal and personal construct, for the complex network of how good and evil applies to a game world with varying cultures and a vast, rich history. And you still have to figure out what a culture's values and morals are as a secondary layer over the concept of alignment.

Big weights for your brain to lift.

Alignments Aren't Ironclad... Remember That

Most of this post was meant to address the idea that, if there are such things as absolute good and absolute evil, then there is a scale that exists outside of cultural influence, or personal opinion of right and wrong. That scale is kept purposefully vague, but in order for it to work we all have to agree about the big issues regarding what acts are, or aren't, inherently good or evil throughout the scope of our games.

However, it's equally important to mention that PCs aren't robots with rigidly-defined programming. They're real people (or at least they should feel like real people), which means that alignment is nothing more than a general rating of their personality. You still have to look at who they are, what their life experiences have been, what they value, what they've been taught, and what their own personal morality is.

In short, you have to define your character specifically, so that you know which of the big, general boxes they fit in.

I see you found the neutral evil box. Welcome.
Too often we hold to the idea of a rigid alignment that a PC has to stay within at all times. A single step outside that parameter, and we insist they're no longer playing the proper alignment. However, it's important to remember that alignment is a meta concept, and that it's fluid. It isn't meant to represent every action a character ever takes; it's simply a dipstick you can use to get a general feeling of who they are, and how they're likely to act.

Honor, and keeping your word, are concepts that fall on the lawful side of the coin. However, that doesn't stop a character with barbarian levels from keeping his word, along with his chaotic alignment. Especially if he banks on his promises as a form of social currency. Being flexible and adaptable to changing situations are generally associated with chaotic alignments, but that doesn't preclude a lawful character from being able to rapidly shift gears to meet a changing situation. Oppressing the free will of others is an evil characteristic, but that doesn't preclude an evil baron from being genuinely concerned for the welfare of his vassals within the scope of his own laws and proclamations. People are complicated, and there's no way to say for certain what someone will or won't do. Which is why it's important to think about their morality and personal motivations first, and to ask how those fit into the alignment scheme second.

Alignment can change and shift, often dramatically. But it's not something that typically happens all at once; you need to re-orient your motivations, beliefs, and actions so that you've leaped into another box.

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  1. I'm going to have to disagree somewhat. I don't put an absolute morality into my campaigns. Good, Evil, Order, and Chaos define how a being reacts to stimuli - rather than being a cosmic imperative - unless the creature somehow doesn't have free will. As such, I've spelled out what alignment means in my campaigns, and I don't think I've had a fight over alignment in over 30 years.

  2. Interesting post for myself as a Planescape fan. I've written articles on playing Evil characters and I especially like your thoughts on motivations. Well done.

  3. Interesting post for myself as a Planescape fan. I've written articles on playing Evil characters and I especially like your thoughts on motivations. Well done.