What is good vs evil?

Alignment arguments are a huge cornerstone of D&D culture. There are a lot of arguments and lines that some people like to use, that are frankly horse shit. There are some clear and easy ways to define good and evil, law and chaos. The reason the topic becomes such a big argument is the Yabutts.

What is a Yabutt you ask? It’s an ass that wants to respond to every statement or opinion someone with a ‘yeah but what about x’ type of counter-argument, even when the original statement was not an argument, to begin with. When it comes to the topic of alignment arguments, some of the Yabutt arguments can lead to some interesting ideas. But the majority of them are just circle jerks. I honestly believe most people that argue alignment opinions do so, not because they have anything to contribute, but because arguing about it is the culture of D&D.

I will not presume to say alignment is simple, but it is really not as complicated as some Yabutts try to make it seem. Good vs evil, and law vs chaos is pretty easy to define on the micro-scale.

Good is the act of attempting to act in a way that is beneficial to the common citizenry.
Evil is the act of attempting to act in a way that will inflict harm and suffering upon the common citizenry.

Law is holding one’s self to a defined set of rules, be they personal or crafted by a society.
Chaos is rebelling and resisting against any sort of defined set of rules.

Neutral is simply apathy to any of the above.

So why all the butthurt about alignment? Well one reason is if a person were to take the lines I wrote above, and that is the only thing they use to evaluate what an alignment is, then alignment becomes a weapon that shall always be used to hurt the player. It strips away freedom from the player if these basic definitions are used as iron walls that confine the player’s actions.

It is easy to define when most acts are good or evil.

A Orcs that attack a farm for the purpose of murder, rape, pillage and razing is evil. It is always evil. Even in times of war, savaging farmers is still an evil act. It cannot be justified as good by any measure. No amount of Yabutting can change the fact that this act involves inflicting massive amounts of suffering upon individuals that can’t possibly be a direct threat to their attackers.

Standing in the streets of a town, offering free healing magic to all who need it is certainly a good act. It can’t really be justified as evil when one is obviously helping others at no cost.

Torture is often context based. It’s one that is commonly cited as being something goodly heroes should never do. I would dare suggest context matters here. Are you torturing a faceless nobody grunt that was the lowest level pawn? Someone that didn’t even know what was going on? Certainly evil. Is your target the right hand of the BBEG that clearly was the top tier of the evil hierarchy? Well, you have all the justification you need. Unless of course, it’s in violation of your god’s teaching. More on that in a moment.

The next issue to remember is that alignment isn’t a two-dimensional construct. Acts can be defined as good and evil. People can be defined as good and evil. But an act does not define a person. An act does not define a person’s alignment in its own. A person’s alignment is the trend over a length of time. Religion aside, a good person can perform an evil act and not be instantly switched to evil. Assuming it is a single act. By the same notion, an evil person can perform a good act without suddenly becoming unconditionally good. Think of it in the same terms of climate vs weather. Florida can get snow once in a while, but it’s largely a state known for its fame as a summer vacation spot with warm and kind weather year round.

So, an act that conflicts with one’s typical alignment is possible if there is a reason for it or a genuine accident in some cases. It typically is easier for an evil person to justify betraying their alignment temporarily for the long game than it is for a good person.

An evil person can justify building an orphanage. Either as a distraction tactic to get people to trust him, or to gather lots of young people in one place that can be used for a ritual sacrifice, or be trained for a future task. Tiamat’s Nazi youth camps and all that. On the other hand, short of a child vampire cult there is really no way a good person can justify burning down an orphanage full of children.

Religion is perhaps the biggest and least flexible aspect of alignment. When it comes to religion it is almost never a case of good and evil, lawful and chaotic. Religions are constructs of gods, and gods tend to have more sophisticated moral restrictions.

For example, Mystra is a lawful neutral deity. She does tend to favor good actions over evil, but ultimately she is far more interested in the spread and growth of magic and will protect those that are following that mission. Even if those individuals are evil. So long as they are not taking magic and magical potential from others. She also doesn’t give a piss about the laws of mortal governments and doesn’t expect her followers to be lawful. So long as they are growing magic.

By contrast, there is Pelor. Pelor is a deity that has a raging erection for the idea of destroying undead. If you are a devout follower of Pelor following his every teaching until one day you decide to NOT destroy an undead, because that undead is an intelligent undead that devotes it’s unlife to protecting the innocent, you will lose your powers. Pelor demands the destruction of undead. There is no flexibility. There are no alternatives. Destroy them all, or you become fallen in the eyes of your deity.

So, Alignment is complicated and sophisticated. It’s not a restriction against the players, and it’s not a tool or weapon to harm the players. It is however like a thermometer to measure the morality of an action. I actually like the way Neverwinter Nights handles morality.

Imagine for a moment if you will, a Cartesian grid. Going from 100 on the left for good, too -100 on the right for evil. 100 on the top for lawful, to -100 on the bottom for chaotic. 0, 0 is true neutral. The lack of any moral choices. An evil act will shift you towards negative by a few points, but your next good act will earn you points into the positive. While it’s not a good way to actually handle alignment in actual D&D, it’s a good way to visualize alignment.

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One Response to “What is good vs evil?”

  1. Marin says:

    I can’t imagine playing a divine spellcaster / paladin for a deity inflexible enough that they just turn off the lights if you do something they don’t like. You get railroaded and screwed over real hard if your DM decides to do the completely reasonable thing of introducing moral ambiguity. But I guess there’s plenty of other deities that aren’t like that and some people might be fine playing a character who refuses to acknowledge moral ambiguities and just follows their deity unquestioningly.

    There are a couple of things I’d like to add. The first is that there’s a different side of neutrality that got left out of the discussion. I’m sure you already know this, but it’d be a shame if no one talked about it. Neutrality isn’t just a lack of an alignment. It also has another face to it popularized by druids. That of balance. A true neutral character could be someone who is extremely flexible with their modus operandi. Or, it could be a druid or incarnate paladin who views the four corners of the alignment chart as extremists who take things too far. Neutral Good? Good. Lawful Good? That’s a little much. There are people in the world who will actively switch sides between good or evil and law or chaos to try and correct a ‘balance’ between the true extremes.

    The other thing is–I feel like a lot of these arguments could be avoided if we just kept in mind that a characters’ alignment is judged by their gods instead of our modern sensibilities. And those gods, in turn, are presumably judged by the overdeities and so on. If that cleric/paladin of pelor did murder that good aligned undead who dedicates their unlives to helping others, that act doesn’t technically qualify as evil according to the raw mechanics of the game, even though it’s objectively morally wrong from any informed perspective. There’s a distinction there. If things like that became a common occurence in a weirdly contrived universe, perhaps an overdeity would forcefully shift Pelor’s alignment and we’d see his followers move with him.

    It’s worth noting that there is an “Exalted” alignment from the Book of Exalted Deeds that is a lot more involved in the morality of your actions than whether your god approves of them. Exalted isn’t a true alignment in the sense that you’re still lawful/neutral/chaotic good, but it’s more of a sub-alignment. You’re going all in on the good aspect. An exalted cleric of pelor would be forced to spare that undead. You cannot be exalted good alignment and not have a shred of mercy for your ‘enemies’. That’s just not a thing. I don’t think there’s an equivalent for evil, though destroying souls is described in the Book of Vile Darkness as an act so evil that there’s no room for nuance. Perhaps Ao has a strong opinion on that, and overrules any gods who might think to try and justify it. If you destroy the soul of a genocidal madman who already wiped out half the planet to keep him from potentially coming back, that’s still evil.

    I think there’s some fun to the nuances and even the oddities of the alignment system, but it’s definitely not something worth fighting about imho.

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