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General Worlds of Design: Is Fighting Evil Passé?

When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons (1975) I had a clear idea of what I wanted to be and to do in the game: fight evil. As it happened, I also knew I wanted to be a magic user, though of course I branched out to other character classes, but I never deviated from the notion of fighting evil until I played some neutral characters, years after I started.

The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.” Albert Einstein
To this day I think of the game as good guys against bad guys, with most of my characters (including the neutrals) on the good guy side. I want to be one of those characters who do something about evil. I recognize that many do not think and play this way, and that's more or less the topic of this column. Because it makes a big difference in a great deal that happens when you answer the question of whether the focus of the campaign is fighting evil.

In the early version of alignment, with only Law and Chaos, it was often Law (usually good) against Chaos (usually evil). I learned this form from Michael Moorcock's Elric novels before D&D, though I understand it originated in Pohl Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions. That all went out the window when the Good and Evil axis was added to alignment. That's the axis I'm talking about today.

This is a "black and white" viewpoint, versus the in-between/neither/gray viewpoint so common today. But I like my games to be simple, and to be separate from reality. I don't like the "behave however you want as long as you don't get caught" philosophy.

Usually, a focus on fighting evil includes a focus on combat, though I can see where this would not necessarily be the case. Conversely, a focus on combat doesn't necessarily imply a focus on fighting evil. Insofar as RPGs grow out of popular fiction, we can ask how a focus on fighting evil compares with typical fiction.

In the distant past (often equated with "before 1980" in this case) the focus on fighting evil was much more common in science fiction and fantasy fiction than it is today, when heroes are in 50 shades of gray (see reference). Fighting evil, whether an individual, a gang, a cult, a movement, a nation, or an aggressive alien species, is the bedrock in much of our older science fiction and fantasy, much less so today.

Other kinds of focus?

If fighting evil isn't the focus, what is?
  • In a "Game of Thrones" style campaign, the politics and wars of great families could provide a focus where good and evil hardly matter.
  • "There's a war on" might be between two groups that aren't clearly good or evil (though each side individually might disagree).
  • A politically-oriented campaign might be all about subterfuge, assassination, theft, and sabotage. There might be no big battles at all.
  • A campaign could focus on exploration of newly-discovered territory. Or on a big mystery to solve. Or on hordes of refugees coming into the local area.
I'm sure there are many inventive alternatives to good vs evil, especially if you want a "grayer" campaign. I think a focus on good vs evil provides more shape to a RPG campaign than anything else. But there are other ways of providing shape. YMMV. If you have an unusual alternative, I hope you'll tell us about it.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Mike Myler

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters KS soon
I am a big fan of the inverse (evil vs. good) and made a setting predicated towards both giving evil folks motivation to focus their efforts, and a logical reason for them to not just backstab one another when it proves convenient—a world that is fundamentally unjust to wicked souls because of a proliferated technology that elongates the lives of the good of heart. There's nothing necessarily wrong about the world and its (1920s era decopunk) technology promoting goodness, but there's for sure an injustice to being saddled with an unnaturally shorter lifespan right off the bat from birth. Just a few sinister souls against the world. ;)
 

imagineGod

Adventurer
I am a big fan of the inverse (evil vs. good) and made a setting predicated towards both giving evil folks motivation to focus their efforts, and a logical reason for them to not just backstab one another when it proves convenient—a world that is fundamentally unjust to wicked souls because of a proliferated technology that elongates the lives of the good of heart. There's nothing necessarily wrong about the world and its (1920s era decopunk) technology promoting goodness, but there's for sure an injustice to being saddled with an unnaturally shorter lifespan right off the bat from birth. Just a few sinister souls against the world. ;)
But how evil is evil?

Most Lawful Evil characters can work by changing perspective. Colonial Empires are usually such.

But Chaotic Evil characters just bent on sadism, torture and chaos for no logical reason are impossible to play and remain mentally untouched as a human being.
 

imagineGod

Adventurer
By the way, I would probably class Warhammer 40,000, especially the new Imperium Nihilus as the definitive Evil RPG.

You have Lawful Evil Imperium of Mankind and some Neutral Evil xenos allies (Aeldari) fighting the Chaotic Evil of Abaddon the Dedpoiler and chaos spawn.
 


Tonguez

Hero
It may be the authoritarian in me but I tend to create characters who are opposed to corruption in the Church or oppression from the (apparently good) Empire.
 

I, for one, hate the modern view of "shades of grey". I much prefer the Good vs Evil approach. This have the advantage of not cluttering the game with needless questions like: "Is it ok to kill this orc, hobgoblin, dragon, priest or whatever?" Removing this from the equation speed up greatly the RP aspect of the game without cluttering it with moral aspects derived from our modern thought pattern.

It is not to say that there is no RP in my games, far from that. But I simply got away from moral implications a long time ago because what is ok with someone might not be with an other and so on. A black and white view is way easier to manage at the table because a consensus about a situation/action can easily be reached. In grey areas, it is an endless argument over and over again.

Edit: Corrected a word because autocorrector... I hate these.
 
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Monayuris

Adventurer
I’m a veteran of many good vs. evil campaigns. To the point where I’m kind of burned out from them.

Heroes against the Dark Lord was the standard in my 3.5 days. But all those campaigns played out the same way. We quest to defeat the Evil Dark Lord, but we’re only level 1 and too weak to actively oppose it

So we spent most of the time on random fetch quests that have nothing to do with the actual Evil. After all the time spent leveling up, the campaign then petters out or the group breaks up or the DM loses the thread.

I think if you want a good vs evil campaign you have to set the scope correctly. If you are starting the game at level 1, make the evil be the corrupt town mayor or a goblin boss. Have the campaign present actionable opposition.

if you want to do the heroes overthrowing the evil empire, start at level 10 or something.

My DMs during that time tried too hard to recreate LoTR and that is a very difficult things to pull off.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
In Role-Playing Mastery (1987), Gary Gygax agreed that D&D was about good vs evil, with the PCs being good.

I shall attempt to characterize the spirit of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. This is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people. Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarfs, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominant force in the world. They have achieved and continue to hold on to this status, despite the ever-present threat of evil, mainly because of the dedication, honor, and unselfishness of the most heroic humans and demi-humans - the characters whose roles are taken by the players of the game. Although players can take the roles of “bad guys” if they so choose, and if the game master allows it, evil exists in the game primarily as an obstacle for player characters to overcome.​

Whether he was right is another matter. The 1e AD&D assassin must be of evil alignment and "most thieves tend towards evil". I've a feeling he may have been responding to the 'Satanic Panic', pushing too hard in the other direction.
 
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jgsugden

Hero
There is a place for everything.

I have shades of gray all over the place in my games, but I also have some things that are pretty dang black and white. We usually build towards the black and white as we move towards the close of the campaign.

Demons (and gnolls) crave destruction and depravity. Devils seek control and souls. Undead have a thirst to end life. They are some of my go to Black lights.

The Angels in the service of the Gods are embodiments of the Gods will. This results in many of them being one dimension forces for a certain element of Good. They are often the only pure White lights in the game, and even then they are flawed by their singular devotion.

However, when you go to the majority of the universe, the motivations have always been more about goals than they have been about good for the sake of good or evil for the sake of evil. There are fights for power, for land, for food, for 'love', and for a variety of other things. However, these become messy and often result in unsatisfying ends for the players. Like GoT (avoiding spoilers here intentionally - no need for commentary on my accuracy), when someone sat on the Throne at the end, you didn't like it because they did not deserve to win. They were not the hero. They did not defeat the bad guys. They were just one part of the story that ended up on top.

I often put a Black and White enemy battle into the campaign and - in the end - make it the final enemy to be beaten to give that clear cut final victory. The PCs may see two nations at war, but in the end, it is Asmodeus they must foil to bring peace to the two nations.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
One problem with the idea of good vs evil is that the basic D&D setup makes the PCs look more evil than the monsters:

The monsters are at home minding their own business. Their territory is invaded by the PCs who murder them and steal their property. The PCs take possession of this property without making any effort to determine its rightful owner(s).

It's possible to turn the monsters into the bad guys by adding stuff like previous raiding, slaves, torture chambers, human sacrifice and worship of dark gods, but you have to work at it.
 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
How is going into a tomb, killing the guards OR the wandering monsters, and taking all the stuff, good? We justify the behavior because the person buried may have been a bad person (and is now a wight or mummy), the goblins are chaotic and thus need killing just because they are evil / chaotic. We never really look to hard at what the characters do and who they are doing it to.

But the good vs. evil paradigm is a largely D&D one. Traveller, 3 years removed from D&D, was not about good vs. evil. Boot Hill? Cowboy justice comes out of the barrel of a gun. Gamma World? Shove off mutant. Heck, Runequest has always been about a relative moral POV depending on your cult.

Fighting evil is great, but it is not and does not have to be the sole motivation for an individual. Escapism is largely subjective as is good and evil. That is not to espouse moral relativism, but people do not agree on what good or evil is. Even in an RPG.
 

D&D early on doesn't seem to be about good vs evil at all. A number of the earlier/simpler editions only have L, N, C alignments. It feels like it was added on later, and it doesn't always work.

As Doug says, a lot of 1E and some 2E stuff makes the PCs look very much the baddies, or like certainly they aren't "goodies". In that they're invading places and slaughtering sapient beings which seem to be largely minding their own business (sometimes definitely so).

I mean, I remember this being particularly brought home by the Hill Giant adventure, whilst there might initially have been some vague backstory justification for dealing with the giants, and it was a good adventures, the PCs basically came across as home invaders/war criminals, whilst all having "G" written on their character sheets.

I think vanquishing evil can work, but it needs to actually be evil, not just y'know mass slaughter of sapient races who are supposedly "evil" if they're not actually doing anything.

2E got a lot better at this later on. Later adventures tend to be more nuanced and give you better reasons to do stuff than "those other guys are supposedly bad". I don't I've personally run a straightforward G vs E adventure for a long time, because people just don't engage with them. So in short, yeah, it is passe, because D&D's notion of evil tends not to be really evil-evil, but rather nasty-but-isolated beings.

@Doug McCrae - He did say that in Role-Playing Mastery, but that entire book is full of frankly "crazy nonsense" and just outright goshdarned terrible DMing advice that must not be listened to. It's a really strange book and conflicts with loads of other stuff he said, both later and before that.
 

FXR

Explorer
In the distant past (often equated with "before 1980" in this case) the focus on fighting evil was much more common in science fiction and fantasy fiction than it is today, when heroes are in 50 shades of gray (see reference). Fighting evil, whether an individual, a gang, a cult, a movement, a nation, or an aggressive alien species, is the bedrock in much of our older science fiction and fantasy, much less so today.
I don't know. Conan the Cimmerian wasn't "fighting evil" per se. He fought evil people (or monsters, demons) but he also killed many non-evil people. He exhibited some tendancies which would, in a standard D&D regular game, be qualified as evil.

The same goes for other Sword & Sorcery characters.
 

Hussar

Legend
I'm not sure that I really agree with the notion that genre fiction was more good vs evil in the past either. Look at Lord of the Rings. Sure, the evil is evil, but, the good isn't exactly good. There's a pretty broad range of "good" opposing Sauron.

And, frankly, the simplistic, "we can kill them because they are evil" thing is becoming more and more cringeworthy as time goes on. While it isn't intentional, it mirrors real world colonialism to a rather uncomfortable degree.

OTOH, if you actually have anything like a plot in your campaign, it becomes a lot easier to drive things forward. You're not going into the orc's home to kill and loot. You are going there to free the slaves they have taken which include several people you personally know. It doesn't matter at that point if you use orcs, humans, or something else altogether.
 

Mister-Kent

Explorer
I personally think so, as a lot of the games I'm in are more about treasure and exploring, but in any game I run there's at least one clearly pure evil faction that the whole gang can battle with no moral qualms, sort of like Raiders in the various Fallout games, who cannot be reasoned with and are always a threat.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I'm not a big fan of anti-heroes or cutthroat everyone-for-themselves entertainment. It's just not for me. I'd rather watch The Avengers than Breaking Bad.

So I don't care if that makes me passe or out of date. In fact I always find it kind of insulting when people say that you can't have a "mature" game or that somehow their game is "better" because there is no true good and evil.

Too many mods I've played (in organized play) make you choose between a literal devil and a demon. That's not a choice, it's a giant finger to people who don't want to play a PC that's unwilling to commit evil acts.

Is it "realistic"? I don't care. I want to play a hero. When you have fireballs and dragons, I'm perfectly okay with there being good guys and bad. Doesn't mean the good guys always agree, nor do they always win.

I do want a chance for good to triumph over evil just like any other fiction that I enjoy. That's neither good nor bad, it's a preference. It's a game.
 

I'd rather watch The Avengers than Breaking Bad.
Even The Avengers movies are considerably more morally complex than D&D typically has been when it comes to "Good vs Evil". Thor isn't going to bound into the a village full of Orcs and slaughter every man, woman and child. Captain America sure as heck isn't going to break into a tomb and steal stuff for fun and spending money. Iron Man isn't going to find a dragon and murder it so he can take it's stuff. He'd certainly try and reason with it too, and likely manage to resolve the situation without killing it.

And so on.

Now, if you run/play an Avengers like game, where the PCs are pretty saintly, and they're not doing that kind of thing, then that's awesome, but that's not really what the article is about, and it's not really how G vs E has worked, historically, in D&D.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
Whenever discussing D&D alignment, I always try to keep a certain maxim in mind, in the hopes of showing a little more compassion towards people whose beliefs about alignment cause me to have a deep, visceral distrust of their beliefs about morality.

That rule is that less than ten percent of humanity is Good, and more than ninety percent of humanity believes that it is Good. This applies to all of the people who wrote the rules, all of the people who interpret the rules, and all of the people trying-- or not-- to play by the rules.

This is both the source of all of my complaints about alignment, and I believe the main reason that so many other people do not clearly recognize them. Confusion over the differences between the Law/Chaos and Good/Evil axes only serves to muddy the waters further.

I see the appeal of a simple, idealistic game in which the player characters are shining heroes doing their best to fight the varied and myriad forces of darkness-- a simple, idealistic game in which doing their best is usually good enough and leads to the world generally being a better place. All that style of game requires is that the Dungeon Master and the players all agree on that campaign style and buy into it.

The problem is, all that style of game requires is that the Dungeon Master and the players all agree on that campaign style and buy into it-- everyone bitches about the "Good In Name Only" or "Neutral For Tax Purposes" murderhoboes who direspect lawful authority and kill NPCs on whims. (These are, to be clear, a problem and an impediment to idealistic heroism.) Nobody talks about the Dungeon Master who says that they want simple, idealistic heroes... and throws morality traps into the game, has the lawful authorities and the common folk treat their "Shining Heroes" like hot garbage, and then expects the player characters to selflessly defend that status quo like the heroes they are.

The difference between simple and simplistic here is in whether the desired tone of the game applies to the whole world... or just the player characters. Heroes selflessly defend the just from the injust. There's another word for the kind of person who tirelessly defends the injust to their own detriment: henchmen.
 

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