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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

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
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.
I'm curious where this idea in D&D fandom came from, that abject hypocrisy is somehow a simpler and more elegant form of moral reasoning than... literally anything else.
 

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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.
Very good point. I've talked about it before, but long ago, and people rejected the point and claimed that's how it should be. But yeah that kind of setup leads directly to murderhobos or something close to them.

If you want genuinely good PCs, then most people who interact with them need to treat them at least okay, rather than with this strange generalized hostility a lot of DMs seem to think is really awesome and cool. It doesn't even make sense, contextually, and I've smart DMs fall into it before. It's always seemed ridiculous to me. At worst people shouldn't mistreat the PCs because they're scared of them. But instead you have loads of official TSR (and to some extent WotC) adventures where every NPC is basically written to be a jerk of the worst kind towards the PCs.

I'm curious where this idea in D&D fandom came from, that abject hypocrisy is somehow a simpler and more elegant form of moral reasoning than... literally anything else.
You mean this idea that stuff like mass slaughter is totally cool and right? I don't know, but I encountered it first from 1E players. I think when you label entire sapient species as evil, and then incentivize their slaughter by providing XP and loot, it's very easy to slide in that direction.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
You mean this idea that stuff like mass slaughter is totally cool and right? I don't know, but I encountered it first from 1E players. I think when you label entire sapient species as evil, and then incentivize their slaughter by providing XP and loot, it's very easy to slide in that direction.
That's a whole other argument I'm not willing to touch and don't think I can touch without breaking Granny's kneecaps-- but I don't think that's the only thing I'm noticing, either. One thing I've noticed in the majority of arguments over Paladins falling from grace is that they're about Paladins failing to respect "lawful authorities" that are failing to act like lawful authorities-- in other words, people that Paladins should be smiting, not obeying.

Lawful Good is an oxymoron.
 


billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I don't think good vs evil is passe at all in D&D and D&D-influenced RPGs. There's just a lot more nuance surrounding it and the players. Take a look at most of the APs published both by WotC and Paizo. The majority of them involve good fighting against evil. It's just that they're also built into other, plot-based events and motivations that put the PCs on a collision course with the BBEGs rather than fighting them just because they're evil.
We also, as players, recognize that murder-hoboing isn't exactly an indicator that PCs are paragons of virtue (close to the opposite, in fact) and attributing an essential morality to intelligent creatures is a bit dubious.
 

jmartkdr2

Adventurer
If you want genuinely good PCs, then most people who interact with them need to treat them at least okay, rather than with this strange generalized hostility a lot of DMs seem to think is really awesome and cool. It doesn't even make sense, contextually, and I've smart DMs fall into it before. It's always seemed ridiculous to me. At worst people shouldn't mistreat the PCs because they're scared of them. But instead you have loads of official TSR (and to some extent WotC) adventures where every NPC is basically written to be a jerk of the worst kind towards the PCs.
I see this happen a lot, and then the dm's really wonder why the pc's are either murderhoboes or just stop interacting with npc's altogether.

Of course, I like playing both dragonborn and tieflings, so I see it a lot. Many dm's seem to have a really hard time letting the world treat yet another race among many as people, and insist that if you play an uncommon race every single npc will be hell-bent on killing you as soon as possible, no matter what other circumstances are in play.
 

Reynard

Legend
Focusing on alignment as moral behavior gets sticky very quickly, as folks personal viewpoints on morality surface (see "lawful good is an oxymoron" above). That's why if I am going to use alignment in a D&D game, I make it an actual thing.

Good, Evil, Law, Chaos, Balance and Entropy (the two flavors of neutral) are all actual forces at work in the multiverse, and Alignment represents the connection to those forces. Sometimes it is a choice -- an actual oath of fealty to that force -- and sometimes it is more of an astrology sign style connection. But even in the latter case, the character is palpably connected to a universal force. Player characters can -- and usually are -- Unaligned, along with most folks and creatures. But those things that are Aligned are a part of that force. So Evil Aligned creatures are actually connected to the universal force of Evil.

I find this usually takes the ambiguity out. For any given setting I have to decide where humanoid enemy types fit. In my most recent setting under development, I decided that humanoids are all different "breeds" of the same species of "Fellkin" that come from something like the bad version of faerie. There are no orc cubs or whatever. They are Evil creatures, because I want the PCs and players to be okay slaughtering them. But, bandits on the road are like as no Unaligned. They are just criminals. How the PCs treat them should be different than how they treat the Fellkin.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
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.

My players don't have to be saintly, I don't put them into alignment straight jackets. If they want to be like Dresden and
kill Susan in order to wipe out the blood court vampires which was iffy even if done for the right reasons since he didn't get her permission first
that's okay.

So I don't disagree with the OP but people saying that one style of campaign is more "mature" or "better" has come up in the past. If you want to play a Cutthroat Politics or Mafia vs Gangsters game it's totally up to you and your group, it's just not something I'd play.
 

FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
Focusing on alignment as moral behavior gets sticky very quickly, as folks personal viewpoints on morality surface (see "lawful good is an oxymoron" above). That's why if I am going to use alignment in a D&D game, I make it an actual thing.
But my moral viewpoint is objectively true down to the most insignificant detail! It says so right here in the DMG, right before it encourages me to enforce my ideals with an iron fist!

I like the rest of this post-- alignment as objective metaphysical forces that shape morality are a lot more functional at the table than objective moral philosophies that shape metaphysical forces.

Also... as regards the difference between demihumans and humanoids, a lot of the problem with the worldbuilding assumptions in D&D comes from people accepting those assumptions unquestioningly, but only to a certain point-- because they never really thought about the parts that led them up to that point, they don't realize that the part they're balking at follows from the same logic.
 

Gadget

Adventurer
Well, I really don't tend to get into the "D&D as morality play" type of games, but I roughly like the good vs evil vibe in a general way.

I would also argue that it really depends on what one's definition of "good" & "evil" are to begin with. I would hazard that society in general has moved somewhat on those definitions since the game's early days. Furthermore, I would also hazard that early Gygaxian D&D was much more amoral and grey than it later became. Though Gygax drew from material like tLotR (Balrogs, hobbits, dwarves, elves, mithril mithral, etc.), it was largely for monster/npc material and world building. Most of the references listed in the appendix of the 1e DMG are for more amoral, self-serving adventuring types: Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Lovecraft and such. Typically not knights in shinning armor but guys in a dog-eat-dog world that are just trying to get by and get ahead--even if it means stabbing someone in the back, but happen to run into really messed-up evil, ultra corrupt, demonic stuff along the way that may make them look "good" only by comparison.
The game was often about finding treasure and glory, more than fighting evil. Sure, you had the ultra-good paladin, but the rules seemed set up to hamper the player at every turn and force the player into difficult situations where the DM could--almost arbitrarily--take away their powers. Arguably not bad per se, but led to a lot of abuse by both players and DMs which in turn led directly to the "Lawful Stupid" sterotype. "Good" was often portrayed in those days as anywhere from bungling to rigid and draconian, with the "neutral" side often depicted as the sane or at least realistic option. Gygax's own "Gord the Rogue" books exemplified this quite strongly as well. Of course, not everyone (or even a majority, for all I know) played the game along those lines, but the trappings where there.

It wasn't until later on in 1e and 2e with things like Dragonlance and such that the epic, Good vs Evil campaign type really got a lot of play and attention. Not that it couldn't and wasn't done before, but this is when it became more of a focus in official material, iirc.
 

jgsugden

Hero
Just as a note - Exploring these topics - in game - can be a good storytelling device.

A 6 PC party is made up of PCs from Countries A, B and C. They have ties to people in each of these three countries. All PCs are good - 2 lawful, 2 neutral and 2 chaotic.

Country A is under the control of a LG Paladin of Devotion. They believe in punishing those that threaten the weak, honesty in all things (and at all times), and being responsible for your actions.

Country B is led by a LG Paladin of Redemption. They believe in redeeming those that have fallen under the sway of evil. They believe that change takes time and that you have to give evil every reasonable chance to change before resorting to force.

Country C was under the control of a royal family that was just exposed for attempting to summon a demonic horde as an army to destroy country A and B. The architects of that plan were slain, but the country remains in the control of their extended family members, some of whom were fully aware of the plan, and participated in it, but betrayed their family and saved Country A and B by revealing the plan and fighting against their kin.

Country A and B both declared war on Country C (Country B was hesitant, but saw no other path) as part of fighting off the plot. Now, with the plot over, Country A seeks to drive out all remaining family members of Country C's royal family. They participated in the evil - and are responsible for their actions. They can't be allowed to stay in control and must be killed as punishment for consorting with Devils and attempting to murder the populace of Country A and Country B, regardless of their change of tune - which just so happened to put them under more direct control of Country C.

Country B, however, has declared the war over and commends Country C's new leaders for choosing to redeem their evil by taking the good path. They offer aid to Country C's new leaders to help them recover and find the good path.

When Country A continues to attack Country C, Country C asks Country B for aid in the war. Country B believes Country C's leaders are on a path of redemption that must be allowed to continue. They come to the aid of Country C and line their troops up against Country A.

Where do the PCs stand? They were away when all of this went down and came back to find the countries on the brink of resuming fighting. I can see Good PCs coming down in a variety of positions here.

The 9 alignments are 9 very large boxes. There is room for conflict within those boxes as well as arguments over which box someone belongs in based upon their conflicting beliefs. That can give you great story opportunities.
 

Krachek

Adventurer
I think that a Dm should ask himself what would satisfy my players?
it may vary a lot depending of age, study, job and experience.

if you got professional worker who work all day long with conflicting agendas, rules, customers and workers, and you want to appeal them with a even more conflicting plot you will miss your target.
 

Reynard

Legend
Also... as regards the difference between demihumans and humanoids, a lot of the problem with the worldbuilding assumptions in D&D comes from people accepting those assumptions unquestioningly, but only to a certain point-- because they never really thought about the parts that led them up to that point, they don't realize that the part they're balking at follows from the same logic.
I think people often forget that the inspirations for evil humanoid races are not rooted in colonialism. Whether we are talking about Lord of the Rings Orcs (inherently corrupt creatures that exist in service to the setting's Satan equivalent) or kobolds (underground evil faeries that stole and ate children), they come from literary and mythological sources that weren't interested in those creature's humanity. It is through the process of trying to create more "realistic" settings where free will is extended to all intelligent creatures that we end up with moral quandries regarding goblin infants. Gnolls as demon span cannibal monsters is the right of it -- you can and must fight such monsters. Gnolls as hyena people of the savanna is much more problematic without adding anything to the game IMO.
 

jgsugden

Hero
I think that a Dm should ask himself what would satisfy my players?
it may vary a lot depending of age, study, job and experience.

if you got professional worker who work all day long with conflicting agendas, rules, customers and workers, and you want to appeal them with a even more conflicting plot you will miss your target.
I strongly disagree here - these folks are often the ones most interested in complex storytelling.
 

Stormonu

Legend
From the onset, D&D has somewhat inferred it’s heroes were of questionable morals. You could play a heroic group, but the design was geared more towards Conan, Ffanard & Grey Mouser and Elric than something like the Fellowship of the Ring.

2E tried to fly the banner of everyone being white knights, but their modules assumed a more “Lawful Stupid” (I.e., we’ll take this quest from you, our backstabbing patron, without the expectation of reward nor looking at the motivations of the NPC assassins who attempt to join our ranks for the express cause of turning on us later) and “Cartoon Evil” bad guys.

Nowadays, the game seems to have caught up with the times. You can run a grungy 70’s antihero game, an 80’s rugged action good guy game, a 90’s shade-of-Grey game, or a 2000’s “what’s alignment?” Game and the adventures don’t really care.
 

Mike Myler

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters KS soon
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.
This is the (free) suggested opening adventure.
In it the players 1) get to start with a freeform narrative opportunity to really delve into their wickedness with zero repercussions (shared dream thing), 2) kidnap children from a school, and 3) murder said kids and then defile the corpses to nix resurrections.

I like to think it does a good job of setting the tone for the game—which is to say very, very evil—and has worked like a charm every time I've run it. :)


Edit: Just want to once again note that I am not representing EN World in this thread, and any opinions or ideas that I post are entirely my own. Also please never harm children in real life. ♥
 


Quartz

Adventurer
One only has to look at Greyhawk to see Good and Evil working togther. Not only is there the ruling council of Greyhawk but the Great Kingdom had knights that were devotees - even paladins and clerics - of both Hieroneius and Hextor.

Does anyone remember Iron Crown's Kulthea / Shadow World? There you had the nasty ordinary evilness and then there was the evil of the Unlife.

And then there's Tekumel which replaces the whole thing - even 'good' characters can participate what would elsewhere be thoroughly evil activities without stainnig their souls.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
The really old school games were more "kick down the door and kill your enemy" style games. Dungeon crawls, DM vs player attitude, D&D as a war game on a small scale.

The game has always been what people made of it, other than some mention of not playing evil PCs in 3.5 era as a result of the Satanic D&D backlash.
 

jgsugden

Hero
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...
Do you mean Thor's first appearance in Thor 2 where he laughs off murdering someone that was not cowering to Asgard's control after spending an afternoon slaughtering others? Or is this a veiled reference to him learning the lesson of always go for the head?
 

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