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D&D 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.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
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

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

lewpuls

Adventurer
I think your thread title is a bit misleading. I came in here all prepared to answer "No" (or perhaps "Maybe, but who cares as long as you're having fun?"). But when I read the article, it seems like what you really want to ask is this:
I agree. My title was "Is Fighting Evil the Focus of Your Campaign". Sometimes the editor changes the title. Sometimes that can be misleading, sometimes not.
 

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DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
The Moorcockian Law versus Chaos was, in many ways, an "Evil A- Good - Evil B" scale. both ends unreasonable. ... That also gets muddled when good-neutral-evil gets added.

It's funny how many things of the things AD&D added to D&D somehow made it smaller.

It's not abject hypocrisy. It is an unpopular mode of thought, and a different definition of evil than many take.
Many religions consider every other religion to be evil at work. some of those take it a step further, and believe that violence is in fact a good way to end the evil of other religions.

So, in order for D&D's alignment system to be objective... it has to be utterly alien and unpalatable to the majority of D&D players, based explicitly in historical justifications for countless atrocities and injustices...
and this is somehow still preferable to the "moral relativism" that comes from discarding it?

I struggle to understand what exactly people think they're trying to defend here.
 
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lewpuls

Adventurer
I think the generation that fought World War II (now dead or far into their 90s) probably had stronger black-and-white tendencies because of that experience. The farther we get from "the war", the weaker the belief in strong good and strong evil.

I was born near enough to the end of the war to pick up that attitude, I think, being strongly interested in history.
 

Hussar

Legend
Ok, I think there's a point that people tend to miss here when we start talking about colonialism and moral relativism. It's not that we are humanizing monsters. That's not the problem. It's that, in the process of depicting the bad guys, it can (not necessarily will, but can) start to look an awful lot like the justifications that were used in the real world to do very bad things to very nice people.

Look, if you have a fantasy race that is ugly, strong, and angry, that's probably fine. I mean, I just defined Klingons. And, look at what Star Trek has done with Klingons - they aren't stupid, they are seen as pretty much equal to the Federation. They have an Empire. There are good, bad and otherwise Klingons. They have depth and, for a fiction race, at least give the appearance of being complete.

The problem is when you take your ugly, strong, angry race and add in Evil and Stupid. Not that it's unrealistic or unbelievable or anything like that. Sure, if Sauron is making a slave race of cannon fodder, orcs fit the bill. In fiction it makes perfect sense. No problems. However, regardless of the author's intent or how they are used in the fiction, it still evokes the same colonialist stereotypes that were used for centuries to justify some of the most horrific acts in history.

In other words, it doesn't MATTER what you think you are trying to say when you decide that your race of made up critters is unredeemable and evil. Sure, YOU might think that they are just good cannon fodder for the PC's and it's all good fun. But, no matter what, you are still playing off incredibly racist depictions of various peoples. That you don't mean that connection doesn't matter. That connection is still going to be made because it's unavoidable by anyone who thinks about it for more than three seconds.

The reason we don't make this connection with say, demons, is well, what do you mean by a demon? Are we talking a Mane or a Balor? Demons run all sorts of range of power, intelligence, and motivation. It's a lot harder to say that a Marilith has any real world connotations when, well, a six armed whirlwind of death has never really been used in the real world to depict anybody. The same is certainly not true of brutish, stupid and evil.

Let's be honest here. It's not 1982 anymore. There's no excuse for people not knowing the sources of the bigotry that led to things like orcs in the genre. Whether it's beast men, or whatnot, the source is still the same - colonialist bigotry. We can claim that that's not what we mean all we like, but, the connection is always there, whether it's recognized or not.
 

I think the generation that fought World War II (now dead or far into their 90s) probably had stronger black-and-white tendencies because of that experience. The farther we get from "the war", the weaker the belief in strong good and strong evil.

I was born near enough to the end of the war to pick up that attitude, I think, being strongly interested in history.
I think you've got a point there. My grand father told me so many stories about WWII that it must have affected my view of good vs evil. My interest in history is quite strong too.
 

Hussar

Legend
I think the generation that fought World War II (now dead or far into their 90s) probably had stronger black-and-white tendencies because of that experience. The farther we get from "the war", the weaker the belief in strong good and strong evil.

I was born near enough to the end of the war to pick up that attitude, I think, being strongly interested in history.

Possibly. Or, as generations go by and we recognize, more and more, the incredible evil that we did to various peoples in history, and are just now beginning to treat those people with dignity and respect (because they sure as hell weren't being treated that way in 1946), it becomes a lot less comfortable to paint ourselves as the good guys and the other guys as the bad guys.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
I think the generation that fought World War II (now dead or far into their 90s) probably had stronger black-and-white tendencies because of that experience. The farther we get from "the war", the weaker the belief in strong good and strong evil.

I was born near enough to the end of the war to pick up that attitude, I think, being strongly interested in history.

I think you spot me a few years (I'm 61) but yeah, my dads experience in World War II and my early interest in history (early focus on World War II) left me with the firm belief that evil exists.
 

DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
I've noticed that the more someone claims to hold "black and white" views of morality, by necessity the less their sense of morality is actually based on any coherent system of moral reasoning-- they just define anyone or anything they don't like as so blackened that everything else is white by comparison, especially if it hurts their enemies.

That may be a simple worldview, but it sure as hell isn't a heroic one.
 

Blazestudios23

Explorer
First question is how do you define "Good" and "evil"?

Ridding a mine of Kobolds that are raiding a town is considered good from the towns viewpoint. But maybe the Kobolds are starving and it's the only way they have to save their children from starvation. And killing all of them is in fact genocide from a modern viewpoint.

Another example, in medieval times it was considered good to kill witches. But in modern times killing a woman just because someone said she talked to goats would be murder and be considered very evil.

While I do agree that there are people that work to help others improved and this is good, and there are also people that work to hamper others in improving and promote things that are harmful and they are evil. Every society in the medieval world will have a different idea of good and evil. So I personally don't like to get into the good an evil thing too much, as most evil I've seen has been done in the name of good, and everyone likes to think themselves the good guys even the villains.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
Possibly. Or, as generations go by and we recognize, more and more, the incredible evil that we did to various peoples in history, and are just now beginning to treat those people with dignity and respect (because they sure as hell weren't being treated that way in 1946), it becomes a lot less comfortable to paint ourselves as the good guys and the other guys as the bad guys.

Recognizing evil courtesy of Nazi Germany doesn't mean your letting any one else (including your own bunch) off the hook for their actions.
 

Blazestudios23

Explorer
Recognizing evil courtesy of Nazi Germany doesn't mean your letting any one else (including your own bunch) off the hook for their actions.
The Nazis thought they were the good guys though. This is where it gets very slippery. In fact most atrocities were committed in the name of good.
 




Hussar

Legend
Recognizing evil courtesy of Nazi Germany doesn't mean your letting any one else (including your own bunch) off the hook for their actions.

But, apparently it does. It means that you see the world as more black and white, according to some in this thread. So, it becomes okay to use incredibly racist concepts in our fantasy, because, well, the world is black and white and those folks over there are obviously evil, so, it's okay to murder them all you like.

Which, frankly, is EXACTLY THE SAME as the real world justifications for all sorts of very real world evil.

I reject this notion that our grandparents were somehow holding the moral high ground because of the Nazi's. Sorry, but the second half of the 20th century, hasn't exactly painted our grandparent's, or our parent's our, frankly, our generation with a wonderful light.

It's very easy to discount the effects of colonialist fiction when it's not about you.
 

Blazestudios23

Explorer
"In the name of good" does not mean they were good. The nice thing about D&D (at least in my game) is that evil goes by the name of "evil" :D

I'm more of a fan of gritty realism, so I like making my characters figure out who is good and evil. They seems to like the tough moral choices. Those claiming to be may not be.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Let see what has been officially published
Descent into Avernus fighting evil
Dungeon of the mad Mage Fighting and exploring
Out of the Abyss fighting evil
Tales of Yawning Portal Collection but you mostly fighting evil
Waterdeep Dragon Heist A con job
Storm Kings Thunder. Fighting mostly evil
Tomb of Annihilation. Fighting inter galactic evil
Princes of the Apocalypse evil
Rise of Tiamat evil
Ghost of Saltmarsh a mixture
Strahd evil
So fighting evil seems to be the default. Now if you want your campaign to be shades of gray/ or strict black and white; go right ahead. But get some of your REGULAR players input first.
 

ccs

41st lv DM
The Nazis thought they were the good guys though. This is where it gets very slippery. In fact most atrocities were committed in the name of good.

The opinions of Nazis - living, dead, past, present, future, or fictional - don't matter.
They are an example of the evil you stamp out.
And an example of what happens when you don't.
 

Blazestudios23

Explorer
But, apparently it does. It means that you see the world as more black and white, according to some in this thread. So, it becomes okay to use incredibly racist concepts in our fantasy, because, well, the world is black and white and those folks over there are obviously evil, so, it's okay to murder them all you like.

Which, frankly, is EXACTLY THE SAME as the real world justifications for all sorts of very real world evil.

I reject this notion that our grandparents were somehow holding the moral high ground because of the Nazi's. Sorry, but the second half of the 20th century, hasn't exactly painted our grandparent's, or our parent's our, frankly, our generation with a wonderful light.

It's very easy to discount the effects of colonialist fiction when it's not about you.
Well in medieval times it was those with the most power that were considered to be good and have god on their sides, and that led into colonialism. Basically might makes right.

So if you want to play with realism, the medieval idea of good is far different from the modern one, but could be used in a game, I would say Game of Thrones better represents a more realistic fantasy with all sides thinking the have the right to rape and pillage each other and that the gods are on their side and thus they are the good ones.
 

Blazestudios23

Explorer
Let see what has been officially published
Descent into Avernus fighting evil
Dungeon of the mad Mage Fighting and exploring
Out of the Abyss fighting evil
Tales of Yawning Portal Collection but you mostly fighting evil
Waterdeep Dragon Heist A con job
Storm Kings Thunder. Fighting mostly evil
Tomb of Annihilation. Fighting inter galactic evil
Princes of the Apocalypse evil
Rise of Tiamat evil
Ghost of Saltmarsh a mixture
Strahd evil
So fighting evil seems to be the default. Now if you want your campaign to be shades of gray/ or strict black and white; go right ahead. But get some of your REGULAR players input first.
The funny thing is when I play, I play a character that isn't good, because to me they wouldn't be going around killing so many things. I played Barbarian that basically want to fight everything to prove his power, then a Warlock that wants make the Great Old One notice him through the amount of killing he does. If they do good as it leads to further battle.
 

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