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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

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jayoungr

Hero
Supporter
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.
Or where the player wants one thing and the DM wants another. If I may indulge by quoting myself from another thread...

I agree. To expand/riff on this, I think that when the paladin player is forced to ask "What is right?", there should be an answer to that question that both the GM and the player can feel good about.

For example, say you want to play a paladin because you want to feel like you're doing some good in life, even if it's only in your tabletop fantasy. If the GM throws an endless string of "trolley problems" at you, where the only question is "Which of these choices is less evil/destructive?" and none of them really makes you feel like you've actually done good, then that won't be a really successful game. It's challenging and nuanced, and by many standards, it's good storytelling. But you as the player aren't going to get what you wanted out of your paladin character.

On the other hand, if you're a GM who wants to present NPCs who can do good or bad things depending on the situation, and your paladin player classifies all of them as either "good" or "evil" while ignoring evidence to the contrary, and without any self-awareness of how reductive that is, you're going to feel like your work is wasted on at least one member of the party.

In the first case, the GM is withholding the answer to "What is good?" that the player wants to engage with. In the second case, the player is insisting on being the sole arbiter of what is good, and denying the GM's input.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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?
That's an interesting interpretation of the scene. Are you sure you didn't miss some of the context of it?
 

jgsugden

Hero
That's an interesting interpretation of the scene. Are you sure you didn't miss some of the context of it?
Ah, yes, context. Like the context that justifies murderhobo activities. "They'd just have murdered the nearby peasants eventually."

And, no. No significant missing context. Thor is sent to "undue the chaos" that Loki brought by destroying the Rainbow bridge - the tool the Asgardians needed to keep the 9 Realms under their control. He goes to Vanaheim to wage war and subject the people back under the "benevolent" control of Asgard. He flat out murders their champion - during a lull in the fighting - and laughs about it. He doesn't consider the champion a threat - he just executes him to frighten the other combatants into a full surrender.

This was an intentional decision - and is something Loki has just noted in the prior scene was what Asgard truly did. He asks: How is what he attempted to do on Earth different than what Odin and Thor have done for the 9 Realms? "They're well reminded of our strength", Odin comments to Thor afterwards. This is something revisited in Ragnarock by Hela who notes that Odin was once a bloodthirsty concqueror just like her.

Asgard was tyranny.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
He goes to Vanaheim to wage war and subject the people back under the "benevolent" control of Asgard.
Interestingly, the fact that Hogun's people had been under threat from the people that Thor was fighting is not present in your statement of the context. In that fight, Thor was fighting people who had decided to engage in violence already. That champion was not a farmer minding his own business.
 

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?
I have technically seen but literally no memory of the utterly forgettable second Thor movie. I'm talking about the pretty consistent character who appears in all the other movies. Pretty sure from the little I remember (which is more the trailers than the movie) that he wasn't committing genocide and also it may have been in the past? There were some like dark vortexes maybe? Natalie Portman I think? Failed attempts at comedy? Ragnarok blasted it from my mind as if it were never there.

EDIT - I am quite impressed some people do remember that movie because wow I surely do not. And that is really unusual for me. Normally I can scene-by-scene recount a movie if I think about it (usually I'll miss a couple but Dark World - I think it was called - that's like "Scene Deleted". I literally remember the trailer better than the movie.

Thor is, admittedly definitely Avenger you'd vote "Most likely to be seen in a D&D party" and not just because of his outfit/background, he certainly is the least reliable (100% has a Chaotic alignment) and has the lowest WIS score (definitely an 8). But change it to whichever Avenger you like if you feel Thor would slaughter "younglings" like he was Anakin Skywalker.
 

BrokenTwin

Explorer
I'm not sure I've ever played in a game where the players were "Big Good". They've been employed by Good before, but mostly the epic plotlines have been more Everyone vs Oblivion. Others were mostly shades of grey games, if they weren't straight up murderhobo looting simulators.

But man, I'd love to play in a game where the entire party was filled with selfless people doing selfless things. Would be a nice change of pace.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I don't want to go off too far into what is alignment territory but I do think there can be extremes of all alignments. I always kind of liked the old alignment chart (see below) where I would have described my first dwarf character as barely above the "good" line. He was not a paragon of virtue, even if he did usually try to do right. If there was a profit to be made at the same time, all the better.

Alignment Chart.jpeg
 

TheDelphian

Explorer
I primarily ignore alignment telling players write it down if you feel you need to but I'll tell you what your alignment is based on how you act and why if i can tell that. It has no mechanical effect in 5th ed and I don't add one.

I do however tel players I run Hero based campaigns. You don't have to be a nice guy but you do have to do good or the right things on a moral axis. At least in the big picture. Yeah the rogue can steal but not from the starving poor, They can loot and it is part of the game. All the Bad guys (Goblins, giants etc) that are suppose to be evil are unless I indicate through story or actions one may not be. So no "Gotcha" GMing that you killed the one LG Goblin in the tribe.

Now Killing the offspring that may or may not be evil yet well I like those moral complexities and let the players decide what they think is evil. I usually decide based on their reasoning did they do it to be expedient, maybe a little evil, did they wrestle with the dilemma or just kill them to kill them. I ill play into those decisions but mostly this is not, for me, intended to be an overly introspective game for everyone at the table some players are more into that and I try to give them chances to explore that but seldom is the entire table interested in that.

I have other games I run in other systems when that is the type of game I want to run. D&D can do that without changing a thing I just run more narrative styled games in more narrative styled systems. Right tool for the right job and all.
 

Ath-kethin

Adventurer
I don't necessarily care about a "good vs. evil" game or plot. But I vastly prefer my PCs to be "good." That so, they care about helping innocent people and showing compassion to the downtrodden.

I see nothing appealing about playing a character that has no regard for anyone but themself and/or enjoys furthering the goals of a colonialist empire.

Rereading the old Princess Ark series brings this kind of idea for he forefront; Haldemar is absolutely a colonialist and imperialist furthering the goals of an imperial power. He is not without compassion and not without morals, all of which makes him an interesting character, but it's a character type that works far better in fiction (or even a video game) than in a cooperative TTRPG.
 

But man, I'd love to play in a game where the entire party was filled with selfless people doing selfless things. Would be a nice change of pace.
Right? I've tried to be that guy in parties. Not some Lawful Good stick-in-the-mud "don't rob those graves!" Paladin, but a NG Cleric or Bard or Fighter or the like, who is genuinely out to help and protect people, and is doing the right thing for the right reasons and so on.

Trouble is, even one would-be murderhobo in the party can cause problems with that, and most of the other characters will be "Good In Name Only", in that, y'know, they'll say they're Good, describe a character who is Good, but then in play they strangely morph into that dude pointing at his hand saying "Pay me" and pulling a face.

And sometimes you have a conception of Good in the setting that is problematic. Like Clangeddin Silverbeard and his "I LIVE 4 GIANT GENOCIDE!" attitude. It's like CAN you "LIVE 4 GIANT GENOCIDE" (specificially Hill Giants, possibly the least threatening of Giants) and be Good? Because it seems like maybe not. I mean, they specifically tasked to, and I quote: "Attack hill giants whenever possible and other evil giants whenever necessary."

Errrr... doesn't that make you like, I mean, let's not say any real-world figures here but kind of like the evil orc warlord who is trying to wipe out the elves because Gruumsh told him to?

Yet I believe his followers default to LG. Which I dunno... Maybe I'm just scarred by the Hill Giant incident.

Honestly the Deed of Paksenarrion is always interesting here. It's about a Fighter who becomes a Paladin (it's pretty clearly D&D-derived in a very literal way - like it feels more literally set in a D&D world than Dragonlance does). It's not exactly well-written or captivating, but it does good job of showing how difficult it would be to be actually Good, even an only moderately awful world.

I think what alignments they can "safely" play really varies on the player, too - One of the guys in my group player Evil characters who are cooperative, effective, move the plot forward, don't commit needless atrocities (because why would you), and are just ruthless, heartless, out-for-themselves-and-or-their-dark-master-types. First time he asked me to play Evil, I was scared, but I gave him trust, and it worked out.

Couple of the other players, lovely guys, but they are not going to be allowed to play Evil because it will get cartoonish mustache-twirling supervillain stuff up in here.
 

Just seeing the different examples given and how others process these examples quite differently from what I would have and even other poster have, reassure me that I am in the right direction in playing a black and white view of the alignments. Playing in the extremes makes things a lot easier.

As for the Lawful Stupid... Nothing can be farther from the truth. Again check the paladin's threads where I clearly define what a paladin would do in many situations. Lawful and Good combined together do not make someone suddenly stupid. They will act accordingly to threats and behaviors. Sometimes, the most humane way to administer justice is a quick death.

As for the example of the faith of Heironeous and Hextor working together in the Great Kingdom as an example of shades of grey.... Nothing can be further from the truth. Both churches were heavily competing against one another. The Twin gods were not venerated equaly. It wasn't until the era of the Rax house and the Nealax line (Ivid line) that the church of Hextor could go public as the lines were quite tyranical. It was one of the reason that the Kingdoms of Furyondy and Veluna (256 CY) followed by the County of Urnst, The Shield Lands, Perreland and the Pale (not necessarily in this order) seceded. And finaly Nyrond broke away from the Great Kingdom to become a kindom itself in 356 . To which the Great Kingdom could do nothing because the Ivid's powers were stretch to their limits just to keep what was left of the Great Kingdom. The public following of Hextor could be seen as one of the main reasons why these Kingdoms seceded from the Great Kingdom. If this is an example of light working with darkness, it is a poor one indeed. Greyhawk shows through its adventures and stories (at least in the adventure boxsets, soft covers and hard covers) that only evil benefits from the shades of grey... It clearly shows the tempting pitfall that shades of grey are. This is why Belvor IV declare an eternal crusade against the lands of Iuz (see the Marklands).

D&D is about heroic fantasy. Sure the rules are flexible enough to accomodate almost any playstyles (even playing evil is feasible) but from the get go, goodness and heroism is what is expected from this game. Again, you can (and should play) any way you want. But if it is not heroic fantasy then it is a personal choice and an adaptation that you are making.
 

Right? I've tried to be that guy in parties. Not some Lawful Good stick-in-the-mud "don't rob those graves!" Paladin, but a NG Cleric or Bard or Fighter or the like, who is genuinely out to help and protect people, and is doing the right thing for the right reasons and so on.

Trouble is, even one would-be murderhobo in the party can cause problems with that, and most of the other characters will be "Good In Name Only", in that, y'know, they'll say they're Good, describe a character who is Good, but then in play they strangely morph into that dude pointing at his hand saying "Pay me" and pulling a face.

And sometimes you have a conception of Good in the setting that is problematic. Like Clangeddin Silverbeard and his "I LIVE 4 GIANT GENOCIDE!" attitude. It's like CAN you "LIVE 4 GIANT GENOCIDE" (specificially Hill Giants, possibly the least threatening of Giants) and be Good? Because it seems like maybe not. I mean, they specifically tasked to, and I quote: "Attack hill giants whenever possible and other evil giants whenever necessary."

Errrr... doesn't that make you like, I mean, let's not say any real-world figures here but kind of like the evil orc warlord who is trying to wipe out the elves because Gruumsh told him to?

Yet I believe his followers default to LG. Which I dunno... Maybe I'm just scarred by the Hill Giant incident.

I think what alignments they can "safely" play really varies on the player, too - One of the guys in my group player Evil characters who are cooperative, effective, move the plot forward, don't commit needless atrocities (because why would you), and are just ruthless, heartless, out-for-themselves-and-or-their-dark-master-types. First time he asked me to play Evil, I was scared, but I gave him trust, and it worked out.

Couple of the other players, lovely guys, but they are not going to be allowed to play Evil because it will get cartoonish mustache-twirling supervillain stuff up in here.
Mmmm lots of thing in there.
Hill giant genocide is the way to go. Stupid and evil. Killed countless dwarves to eat them. When they get into an area it is to eat everything they can (especially tasty dwarves) and once finished with an area, they start over again in an other zone. I know that I would do the most sensible thing and destroy these as reasoning with them is impossible.

With the elf genocide by orcs. What wrong with that? Their gods (not only Gruumsh by the way, but all the others) say to slay, kill and eat nice elven flesh is the right thing to do. Who are you to judge? A god told them to do it. It is their patron god, and the rest of their pantheon is saying the same thing. That is more than reasons enough to do it. Do not put our modern view into play. Put yourself in their place. You would do it.

As for allowing a player to play an Evil Character... It is only a matter of time for the evil to come into play and infuriate one of the other players (if they play correctly and if they catch the evil character in his evil ways). Not getting caught is not getting ignored. Never worked out in my groups. If it does in yours, I am awed, impressed and surprised. Good job as a DM. It takes a rare pearl to play that way without failing.

Edit: Forgot to talk about the no robbing tomb. That one is a moot point. Robbing tombs should be to retrieve an item important to a quest. In this, it is not easy to justify but a good story plot would be necessary.
 

jgsugden

Hero
I have technically seen but literally no memory of the utterly forgettable second Thor movie. I'm talking about the pretty consistent character who appears in all the other movies. Pretty sure from the little I remember (which is more the trailers than the movie) that he wasn't committing genocide and also it may have been in the past? ...
As mentioned, this takes place after Thor 1, and after Loki destroyed the Bifrost.

Much of the 9 Realms are in open revolt after the Bifrost, Odin's access to the Realms, is lost. The new powers in these regions are portrayed as being vicious and evil - but we only get that from the Asgardian's perspectives. Thor is sent there to put down the rebels, and flat out kills multiple people (unless they're much tougher than shown elsewhere) and absolutely murders the giant rock guardian enemy - who he laughs off as a non-threat right before he does it. Stone. Cold. Killer. Murderhobo. He kills without concern or any attempt to find peaceful options. There was ample opportunity to negotiate, but he clearly, from moment one, planned to end this life to make Odin's point. And then Odin congratulates for putting them in line.

Now, when he charges to the land of the Frost Giants in the first movie and starts a war that causes Odin to send him to Earth, or when he infiltrates Surter's home and flat out assassinates him ... well, those are just for chuckles, right?
 

Iry

Adventurer
Adventurers usually do extremely evil things, and require a far greater evil to justify all the hyperviolence and robbery. But we love hyperviolence and robbery! There are better game systems for politics and roleplaying, so we get lots of black and white greater evils when we play D&D.
 

Hill giant genocide is the way to go. Stupid and evil. Killed countless dwarves to eat them. When they get into an area it is to eat everything they can (especially tasty dwarves) and once finished with an area, they start over again in an other zone. I know that I would do the most sensible thing and destroy these as reasoning with them is impossible.
It's really undermined by the entire plot and presentation of Steading of the Hill Giant King though. I get the terrifying super-ogre thing, but in Steading they're basically presented as Saxons. And you're coming to them to dish out some murder.

Stone. Cold. Killer. Murderhobo.
Not even slightly. Killing an enemy in battle, without finding a peaceful solution does make you a "murderhobo". It makes you a warrior. What he didn't do was then, find that guy's village, burn it down, and killing the younglings.

Being an rootless, placeless individual who wanders the world, killing people and taking their stuff, makes you a "murderhobo". Thor's membership of the Pantheon of Asgard alone bans you from using that term. Also killing someone you've mocked and said isn't a threat doesn't make you a "murderhobo", because just about every hero in mythology pulls that stunt sooner or later. And there's no indication Thor kills people to "take their stuff", which is at heart of murderhoboing.

And like starting wars makes you a "murderhobo"? Like so every king in history, pretty much, was a "murderhobo". You've just debased the term "murderhobo". I didn't think that could be done. That is astonishing achievement! 🥇🏆🏅
 

It's really undermined by the entire plot and presentation of Steading of the Hill Giant King though. I get the terrifying super-ogre thing, but in Steading they're basically presented as Saxons. And you're coming to them to dish out some murder.
Remember that these giants are feasting after their raiding on Sterich where they killed thousands of people with their bigger brethren (Frost, Fire and Cloud giants). They do not expect anyone to come after them because everybody fled this zone. Hardly a peaceful race if you don't mind.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
The campaign world I've been crafting for most of a decade by now is based on an inversion of the standard good-versus-evil paradigm. In most settings, Evil is presented as an almost-unstoppable tide, a monolithic force rising up to crush everything, and the heroes are part of a ragtag Forces of Good which desperately has to struggle against the overwhelming power of darkness, in order to save the world before everything is lost. It makes an easy way of giving the players high stakes to fight for, so it's a frequently-used cliche, but I find it boring. Instead, in my setting, Good is inherently more powerful than Evil, so the status quo is that civilization is basically safe, and every individual tries to do the right thing as best they can manage it - a fairly realistic milieu, where the Celestials and the gods of Good take a kind of "Prime Directive" approach to running things, doing as little as possible to keep people safe, so that people remain free and their lives are still meaningful, rather than them just being the pets of far more powerful entities who do everything that actually needs doing.

And against this rather stale backdrop, which is inherently a kind of creeping existential threat in and of itself, the forces of Evil are presented as either somewhat sympathetic individuals who are driven mad by selfish obsessions that the force of Good doesn't know how to deal with (effectively people who have fallen through the cracks of the system and been unable to get the help they need), or else they're truly wicked villains, but in that case they generally operate through deception rather than stealth. Instead of a lich-king who raises an army of evil to march against the civilized world, you'll have a small cadre of spies who perfectly impersonate innocent people, and they'll scheme to sow discontent among the populace, exaggerating their petty gripes into vendettas and then shedding their stolen identities so that their patsy is blamed. In this way, the villains gradually tear down over a year what has taken a decade to build, and then vanish into the shadows before anybody can even find out that a deliberate action was taken in order to wound the world. All of this doesn't really lend itself very well to the D&D rules set, but that's less important than ever in the heavy narrative focus of 5E; I still like using D&D, because I like the specific vision of dwarves and dark elves and fallen angels and rising demons and beholders and mind flayers that the game uses as its setting backdrop, even if I don't agree with the mechanical implementation of day-to-day life.

TL;DR: I like less Lord of the Rings and more of a Batman-in-Metropolis kind of an approach - less spectacle and action, more intrigue and philosophical conflict.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
An addendum to that rather long post, based on some conversations further upthread - I absolutely despise the concept that someone is "Good" just because they don't murder babies, or because they do go out and murder people who are going out and murdering babies. It's just such a lazy, hamfisted, totally-devoid-of-subtlety way of letting the players fight something without worrying about why. If you just want mindless violence that serves no purpose beyond itself, why not treat combat as a sport like BattleBowl? That's a lot less insulting to real-life people than to continually portray these shallow cliches of monstrosity, and then congratulate someone on being able to identify and oppose such incredibly obvious villains, when they have in fact done nothing more noble than to participate in the same kind of tribalistic exclusionary violence that lay behind every real-world bloodbath throughout human history.
 

jgsugden

Hero
...Not even slightly. Killing an enemy in battle, without finding a peaceful solution does make you a "murderhobo". It makes you a warrior.
Except, you know, the battle was stopped, everyone was standing around, and Thor launched a suckerpunch to murder him. But do go on.
 

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