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.


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


Mod Squad
Staff member
This is not what Gygax says in his PHB and DMG.

I'm sorry, but... so what?

Are you honestly trying to wave his name in people's faces as, what... an appeal to authority? Or author's intent, after more editions worth of the game have been written without him than with him?

I find myself supremely unimpressed with using the name of Gygax as a rhetorical punchline.
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To me this isn't an alignment problem. It's a social/cultural problem - as in, why does the hobby involve significant numers of participants who don't seem to want to engage in it and take pleasure in wrecking it for others?

I don't think angling clubs are populated by people who like tipping out others' tackle boxes and breaking their rods and flies.

Some of the answer might be because RPGing, more than angling, has a wish-fulfillment component. But I don't think that's all of the answer.

I think people are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too eager to blame malice when foolishness is a far better explanation.

I've seen intentional game-wrecking of the kind you're leaping to, and in fact once I even did it, before I realized what I was doing (which I realized by describing my actions on a forum, then reading them after I'd typed them, then going "You jerk!" - Castle Falkenstein, for reference - I should have refused to play, instead I created a character guaranteed to cause absolute havoc and run directly against how the system seemed to want to run).

I mean when I was writing about CN characters, I was thinking particularly of one player I have. They are a very nice person, and like to play "off the wall" characters, and to play characters not like anything they've played before. The idea that they're "malicious" or want to "wreck" anything is ludicrous - if anything they're normally excessively prone to go along with stuff.

But when they played a CN character, they were trying to do something new, and follow how CN was described (including examples of CN), and basically this meant changing their mind every few minutes, and even changing sides sometimes (which lead to accusations, not entirely unfounded, if a bit dramatic, of "betrayal" from the others players). Based on the descriptions of CN they had available, which leant towards the the 2E style "personality disorder" version of CN, I can't say their RP/behaviour was "wrong", per se.

Eventually that character got turned to stone, and rather than bring them back, the player changed to an LE Assassin, who actually worked really well in a mostly-G party because their goals aligned (eventually they got tied up and fell out the back of an airship, but that's a story for another day and everyone had a good time, including that player).

My experience, and I realize this may not be universal, is that if a player is "up to no good", either wittingly or unwittingly, they will make a fairly mainstream character and alignment, and then just play them in an obnoxious and disruptive manner, and point to the alignment/character descriptions if queried on this. And this is rare unless you play with random strangers, you can usually tell who is doing it and often why. If it's a normally-fine player, it's probably partly a system/setting issue (i.e. they don't like the system/setting - more often the setting - but went along with it because everyone else seemed to want to do it).


That's because of the tone set in 1e, where Paladins, unlike any other class, have rather severe restrictions on who-what they'll run with: no Evils, and Chaotics for one adventure only.
No wonder there are issues - even long-time players get the rules mixed up!

From Gygax's PHB, p 24:

Paladins will have henchmen of lawful good alignment and none other; they will associate only with characters and creatures of good alignment; paladins can join a company of adventurers which contains non-evil neutrals only on a single expedition basis, and only if some end which will further the cause of lawful good is purposed.​

There is no prohibition on paladins hanging out with their CG elf and ranger buddies. And I think the reference to non-evil neutrals is not meant to include NG.


D&D offers such an open framework that the game can SHOW the hardship that happens to that shopkeeper that the PCs robbed blind. In a video game, robbing the shopkeep is an exercise in stealth and fencing: as long as you can sneak well enough, grab the stuff when someone isn't looking, and either use it yourself or sell it to a fence, there's no punishment. Your stealthy skills allowed you to get away with actions that in real life could be incredibly harmful.


In D&D, as a DM, I want players to recognise that their actions have consequences. You don't need to be Lawful Good to avoid them (that comes with other challenges), but when you steal something, you're not getting it for free. It comes back to haunt you in the narrative.

Maybe the player will keep doing it - the rewards outweigh the problems. That's okay. But I don't want to handwave their actions that cause other people harm in the game.
I think there are some risks in a RPG when the GM uses his/her power over the introduction of content and the resolution of actions to make the game a morality lesson for the players.

For instance, the players might have different views, which produces needless conflict.

Alignment is a mechanic which we can either ignore or leverage for particular emphasis. The extent to which we allow the mechanic - or our personal interpretation of it - to color the game reality is likewise a choice made by the DM and players.

I think that trying to grope for or construct some kind of rational, coherent moral framework which allows one to apply alignment consistently across behaviours is pointless; the system is designed as a simple rule of thumb for faction allegiance, not some exercise in moral tetralectics.

I tend to find that what comprises "good" and what constitutes "evil" tend to be revealed through play and are different - or at least have different foci - for every game.

In that sense, fighting evil is never passé, but its specific nature and qualities are subject to change based on the current disposition, direction and understanding of the players.

Fighting monolithic evil has been passé since LoTR was published.


has anyone ever considered that it’s not about personal code or government law, but about cosmic law or what the enlightenment would have called natural law
I don't quite agree with this.

Take just one example: modes of dress. No serious scholar woud think that modes of dress, and similar customs, are dictates of the natural law. But they can be very important aspects of custom and tradition, and - everything else being equal - a lawful person affirms their value, as important components of wellbeing.

NG and CG individuals also accept the natural law, in the sense that they are committed to human wellbeing and beauty and truth. What they disagree with the LG person about is the extent to which realising the values implicit in the natural law can only occur via the mediation of a particular set of customs and traditions.

Without straying into forbidden territory, we can - unsurprisingly, given the history of some of these ideas in the real world - see how the LG/CG disagreement maps in a rough way onto some of the theological disputes that characterised early modern Europe.

Nope. Considering many versions of D&D give kingdoms and cities an alignment in their stat blocks, I think it is meant to be much more real and basic and to give a general idea of how the kingdom or city is run/controlled.
My view - building on my reply to @hawkeyefan a page or three upthread - is that this is where alignment starts to become incoherent.

As a description of belief/conviction I think it is workable if one doesn't push the moral philosophy too hard - the LG believe that value can only be achieved via community and tradition, whereas the CG are individualists. It's primarily a disagreement about means. And only one side can be correct, preciesly because it's a genuine disagreement.

Whereas when alignment labels are given to kingdoms or cities, they are serving as behavioural descriptors. They aren't expressions of belief that might be true or false.

Tring to use the same tool for these too completely different purposes is a recipe for disaster! (And I think the history of alignment in the game bears this out.)

Yet many D&D societies far more closely map to historical vikings than to hobbits. Hobbits are the exception not the rule (and would I think have huge problems fitting into many human LG societies). This is especially true of settings which have had real thought and effort poured into them, and which aren't a random agglomeration of junk that was "fun at the time", or more modern settings like Eberron.

Very often the "alignment" of a society as presented in D&D, note, appears to actually be the "mode average" alignment of the behaviour of people in that society. Like if 28% of people in a society are LE, and that's the most common alignment, it seems to be listed as LE. Rather than attempting to consider it the way you are.
It is basically incoherent to use the same label both to express a conviction about what is the best way to realise the values of life, wellbeing, beauty and truth and to use it as a behavioural descriptor. Pick one (eg 4e D&D goes the descriptor route).

Using alignment as a behaviour descriptor for a society that is meant to be remotly realistic seems doubly hopeless. There are very significant differences between societies that cannot be captured via alignment descriptions. For instance, no society before the 20th century was remotely as organised, formalised or bureaucratised as (say) the contemporary United States - they simply lacked the administrative capacities and technologies. Nor has any society ever been as individualistic. The idea of capturing that via D&D alignment labels is just silly.

Whereas the 4e lables work quite well as (individual, not societal) descriptors in a fantasy context: there are the nice guys, the super-nice-guys who are sometimes a bit pedantic, the baddies, and the psychos. Plus everyone else. It's much close to the original Law-Chaos idea but carves the line in a couple of more places.


I'm sorry, but... so what?

Are you honestly trying to wave his name in people's faces as, what... an appeal to authority? Or author's intent, after more editions worth of the game have been written without him than with him?

I find myself supremely unimpressed with using the name of Gygax as a rhetorical punchline.
Gygax has the kernel of a coherent system for labelling convictions and aspirations: there are people who value what should be valued (the good) and people who are indifferent to or even scorn it (the evil). Among these people there are those who think that order and community will foster the good (the LG, who therefore adopt and advocate order as a means; and the CE who for the same reason repudiate order because it will tend to stop them acting in disregard of value). And there are also those who thik that individualism is what will foster the good (the CG, and also the LE who don't want the good being fostered because it gets in their way, and so who cultivate order instead).

There are also order-fetishists (LN), individualism-fetishists (CN) and Stoics/Daoists (TN).

This is basically coherent.

The idea that a paladin is committed to the good except when s/he's not, bcause s/he treats order as an independent value, is not coherent. It's absurd, verging on contradictory. The non-good aren't committed to other values. They have turned away from value - that's why they're not good - and are either committed to things that aren't valuable in themselves (LN, CN) or to nothing at all (the evil).


Small God of the Dozens
From a usefulness standpoint, I'd much rather use tags and statements of belief to construct a PCs moral and ethical worldview. Rather than trying to pick on tag out of nine that fits the character you have, you can create some bespoke statements that directly index the characters worldview and to the particular things about that world that are important to that character. This same approach also works for societies, just with different tags and statements. I'll always take the specific and narrative over the general and bland.

I know some people immediately get their backs up when anything the even smells like FATE gets near their D&D, but in this instance I think it would work a lot better than what we have. I'd rather try to get at what a character thinks is really important, and how that will help the player guide their portrayal of that character, rather than trying to fit an entire worldview into one of nine predetermined boxes. Interestingly, using tags and descriptors also adds a huge boost to the usefulness of the Inspiration mechanic. I find the ideals, bonds and flaws system as presented pretty insipid.

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