Alignment: Pondering Good and Evil (in RPGs)

I’m in a 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign at the moment, and the players recently had an ethical debate about something that happened a couple of sessions ago. This debate wasn’t about Alignment but, when talking ethics in D&D, Alignment is impossible to avoid.

The concept of Alignment elicits some very powerful emotions among roleplayers. I am not immune to this. I have strong feelings about Good and Evil in particular, but my headcanon is largely incompatible with the way that Alignment is used in D&D itself.

D&D Alignment does double duty as a reflection of your personal morality as your position in a great eternal conflict between cosmic forces of unimaginable power. It has accomplished this serviceably well for decades, but I think that this splitting of focus can sometimes confuse gamemakers and players.

However, if we narrow down Alignment’s focus to just character morality, removing any link to a heavenly absolute Good or infernal absolute Evil, then it can become a lot more nuanced. What if individuals didn’t have a fixed Alignment, but one that varied according to how much they cared about other people? Would this make it more useful as a tool for analysing characters in other games, or more generally?

To examine this, let’s have a look at Sir Brad Starlight (pictured) and some other characters from the series Wander Over Yonder, then talk about another way we could think about Alignment.

Some examples from Wander Over Yonder

I could probably use some actual Dungeons & Dragons examples to illustrate my issues with Alignment, but I’ve been watching a lot of Wander Over Yonder recently and it turns out that it has some excellent examples of my point.

(There will be minor spoilers for some episodes of Wander Over Yonder in this section. If you’re bothered, skip to the next section heading.)

Anyway, let’s talk Brad Starlight, pictured in the header image at the top of this post.

He’s a hero. He is, in fact, the title character of the episode in which he first appears, called “The Hero“. He is a knight in the fairy tale mould, with shiny armour and a sword and a chiselled chin. He fights dragons and rescues princesses.

He is also childish, petulant, selfish, and cruel. He doesn’t care for other people, only for his own aggrandisement and wish fulfilment. In his first episode, he rudely ignores advice and becomes upset when other people accomplish heroic tasks before he does. He crashes a wedding just because he has a crush on the bride, caring nothing for her thoughts or feelings, and even kidnaps her when she tries to let him down gently.

He is, as far as I’m concerned, Evil.

Lord Hater from the opening of Wander Over Yonder, via the Wander Over Yonder Wiki
Lord Hater. Obviously the bad guy.

I find it strange, therefore, when I watch the episode “The Enemies” and find that he is widely recognised as “Good”. Sure, he’s not as obviously villainous as main bad guy Lord Hater, with his skull face, laser claws, evil army, booming voice and megalomaniacal aim to conquer the galaxy. But they both care about only themselves and have no respect for others. The whole episode is about how similar the two of them are, culminating in a team up to destroy a common enemy. Then they have a falling out over whether Lord Hater convinced Starlight to become Evil, or Starlight convinced Hater to become Good. (The answer is neither! They were both always Evil!)

I don’t mind Starlight thinking of himself as Good. In the real world, few people think of themselves as villains even when they do heinous things. And Starlight is a deluded fellow; it’s integral to his character. But Starlight is not the one that first uses the G-word in the episode, and nor is Hater. It’s Wander, the show’s protagonist, who brings it up first.

And here’s the confusion: Starlight is clearly called “Good” because he looks like a hero and does traditionally heroic things. In a D&D context, Starlight would be expected to fight on the side of Good, without actually being a good person himself. If there were no sides, could we focus on him just being a villain? The show doesn’t exactly hide that he’s a villain, it just doesn’t call him one, and I think that’s weird because it throws that word around a lot.

Wander, via Wander Over Yonder Wiki
Wander. A goofy goody two-shoes

On the other hand, you have Wander himself, who is as true an embodiment of Good as it is possible to get. He’s selfless and loves to help people, often even to his own detriment. This is perfectly encapsulated in the episode “The Nice Guy“, in which the entire plot is about Wander’s attempts to buy a soda being frustrated by his politeness and his kind actions for other people. For instance, just when Wander finds enough money (in pennies) to pay for the soda, he spots a charity box asking for spare pennies and he donates all his money. It means he can’t complete the task he’s been set, but fortunately in the universe of Wander Over Yonder it really never hurts to help and it turns out alright in the end. And, because Wander is so helpful, he helps a lot of other people that day too. He even cleans the store’s floor when he realises it’s dirty. He expects no compensation, or thanks, or reciprocity. He just does it because he put other people’s needs before his own.

Back to RPGs: Defining Good and Evil

Ethical priorities. Art from the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Players' Handbook, butchered by me.
Ethical priorities. Art from the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Players’ Handbook, butchered by me.

Wandering back to the realm of roleplaying games, what does this mean for Alignment? From the examples I picked, you can probably tell my preferred definitions of Good and Evil. In my view:

  • Good means prioritising the needs of others ahead of your own needs. Good is selfless and altruistic, even, in extreme cases, to the detriment of the self.
  • On the other hand, Evil means prioritising your own personal desires ahead of the needs of others. It is selfish and egoistic.
  • Neutral is a middle ground. Neutral means prioritising your own needs ahead of the needs of others, but their needs ahead of your desires.

There are a few important things to note in these definitions.

First, the meanings of “needs” and “desires” are intentionally vague. They will mean different things to different people and in different situations. As a guideline, consider the needs identified on Maslow’s hierarchy. They can be as basic as food and shelter, or complex like love and friendship and safety and comfort. Desires can be even more broad. Think about Good, Evil and Neutral characters whose fondest wishes are “I want a giant gold statue of myself”, “I like hurting people”, or “I want everyone to be happy”.

Second, I use the term “priorities” to show that the difference between Good and Evil is not just what a character will do from day-to-day, and not just what they say they’ll do. It’s what they do in moments of crisis, when there are serious stakes. Good isn’t about helping someone when there’s no risk; it’s about making sacrifices to help people because it’s the right thing to do. Evil isn’t about being petty or backstabbing people for no reason, and it’s not the caricature of Evil from D&D third edition (which says it’s about “hurting, oppressing, and killing others”); it’s about ignoring the needs of others when they get in the way of what you want.

This all means that Evil is easy and Good is hard. It requires an actual effort to put someone else’s needs before your own. It also isn’t sustainable in extended periods of crisis. In the real world, if you prioritise everyone else’s needs ahead of your all the time, pretty quickly your needs won’t be met and then you’re in big trouble.

Fortunately, we’re not talking about the real world here; we’re talking about fictional characters—heroes, even!—in a high fantasy world. Challenging the heroes, putting them in moments of crisis when they are forced to choose between what is right and what they desire, is fine drama. It’s the responsibility of all players, particularly the DM, to make those moments happen.

Fight the stereotypes with Relational Alignment

So far so conventional. This is an interesting way of thinking about Alignment (I think), but there’s very little in the model so far that wouldn’t work if dropped into an actual D&D campaign. For that, we need to push the idea further.

Suppose, instead of setting a single priority for the needs of others as a collective, a character has different priorities for different individuals or groups. This would mean that a person might prioritise the needs of some groups (their closest relationships) before their own, and thus be Good to those groups; but the person would prioritise the needs of other groups (those they are less intimate with) to be lower, either between the person’s needs and desires (so they’d be Neutral to those groups) or below the person’s desires (so they’d be Evil to those groups).

This replaces the concept of absolute Good and absolute Evil with a relative morality system built around othering. For the traditional player characters in D&D, the needs of the so-called monstrous races will almost always be given the absolute lowest priority. They are “Evil”, so the justification goes, so we can be Evil to them in turn. Of course, looked at in this way, the monstrous races would surely have a similar view of the player characters, who keep coming into their lairs, stealing their treasure and killing their people. The two sides don’t care about each other and can’t see each other’s point of view, so they are Evil to each other and perceive the other to be Evil to them.

Here’s an example: Imagine a dwarf called (hold on a sec while I generate a name…) Okri Rungnisson. Okri lives with her extended family (the Rungnisson Clan) and a host of other dwarfish folk in a settlement underground.

  • To Clan Rungnisson, Okri is Good: Okri is a family-minded sort, and would hurl herself into danger if it meant helping a fellow Rungnisson.
  • To other dwarfs, Okri is Neutral: Okri is a pillar of the community, and helps out the other dwarfs in the settlement, but would hesitate if it meant risking her safety, or the safety of her Clan.
  • To the orcish raiders who attack the town, Okri is Evil: When attacked by orcs from a nearby tunnel system, Okri will fight to defend her home and her people. Usually this involves killing the orcs, because the easiest way to stop an orc from raiding is by killing it.

On the other hand, Kzurer the Baleful is an orc member of the horde in that nearby tunnel system. She also has a family, Tribe Redbones, a band of boisterous brawlers, which needs to be fed and protected.

  • To Tribe Redbones, Kzurer is Good: Kzurer would face down dragons to protect her offspring, and has.
  • To other orcs, Kzurer is Neutral: Generally Kzurer will look out for other members of the horde. A strong horde means more protection for her tribe, after all. But she won’t put herself in harm’s way unless she expects to get something in exchange.
  • To the local dwarfs, Kzurer is Evil: The horde needs food, and what does it matter to Kzurer if the horde’s hunters pillage the dwarfish settlement to get it? And if the dwarfs dare come to her home looking for revenge, Kzurer will crush their skulls for their foolishness.

You can use this in D&D, but you can also use it in any other roleplaying game. It’s not perfect, but in the same way that basic Alignment is used as a prompt for character motivation, this relational Alignment can be used as a prompt for character relationships. It would be especially easy to add a Good/Neutral/Evil marker to the Relationship traits in games that already have them, like Smallville or Dogs in the Vineyard. Or it could just be something for players to think about only when they get stuck. However it’s used, hopefully someone will find it useful!

Wander Over Yonder to some more examples

(Yes, the rest of this post is going to have some more Wander Over Yonder examples with minor spoilers. There’s a couple of Alignment links at the end of the post, but otherwise if you’re not into the show you can just stop reading now.)

(Still here? Cool.)

Wander hugging Lord Hater from the opening of Wander Over Yonder, via the Wander Over Yonder Wiki
Wander and Lord Hater: Best “buddies”…?

Ok, so one of the reasons that Wander is a great example of a Good character is because he is Good to everyone. He’s Good to his pal Sylvia; he’s Good to complete strangers; he’s even Good to Lord Hater, who wants to kill him. Here’s a picture from the main title sequence of Wander hugging Hater. In the season 2 episode “The Big Day“, Wander even considers going through an elaborate destruction ceremony in which he will literally die, just because it will make Lord Hater happy.

Similarly, Lord Hater is a great example of an Evil character because he’s Evil even to people that are Good to him.

Wander and Sylvia from "The Helper", via the Wander Over Yonder Wiki
Sylvia and Wander: Best buddies indeed

For an example of the relational Alignment concept I’m talking about, though, he need to look at another character: Sylvia. Sylvia is Wander’s steed and best friend. She likes to fight or relax as the mood takes her. She likes to help people, mostly by defeating the villains that threaten tem. She’ll do anything for her best friend Wander, although she frequently tries to talk Wander out of helping villains like Hater.

In “The Liar“, Sylvia helps Wander to evacuate an island before a volcanic explosion, but after the volcano actually starts erupting she doesn’t want to rush back into danger. She was willing to wait for her relaxation and tropical drinks (her desires) while helping people, but when there’s overwhelming danger she puts her need to not be burned alive first. That is, she’s Neutral to most people in the galaxy. However, when Wander goes back to the erupting volcanic island to rescue a family of small birds in a nest, Sylvia immediately hurries after him. She puts Wander’s needs above her own, so to him she’s unequivocally Good.

Further reading

While I was working on this blog post I found a few other blogs that have tackled Alignment in interesting ways. If you liked this, maybe you’ll like what they have to say too.

Update 24/7/17: Title of the post updated today to be shorter and punchier. No other changes made. Except adding this explanation of the lack of other changes, obviously.

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