2009-07-04 Organized Good is an Oxymoron

Gleichman comments on my post on alignment with More Good and Evil Confusion. There’s also other comments on his post, which try to delve further into the Good and Evil debate.

Here’s what I thought were interesting statements in Gleichman’s post:

  1. “The pursuit of power for power’s sake is one of the definitions of Evil.”
  2. He says that “anyone saying they are ignoring questions of Good and Evil is lying.”
  3. He claims that I’ve “decided to make everyone Evil.”

I’m not sure I agree with the pursuit of power for power’s sake. The first problem I have is the meaning of “for power’s sake” – it’s hard to think of an example where this would apply. I think everybody in power has an agenda. Thus, I think it’s important to look at intents and consequences. Corruption, subjugation, plundering, war? I think we have to look at particular situations in the game before we can pass judgement on Good and Evil.

I also prefer to leave the judgement of intent and consequences up to my players. It’s more interesting that way. It’s how their characters take on a personality.

But I don’t think I’m a moral relativist. All actions are not equal. They are not equal in-game, and they are not equal out-of-game. But I prefer not to codify good or evil in the abstract. I prefer to look at the actual game setup. In the Alder King game, goblins are bullies and cowards, and they worship Orcus (because he promises a second life), but other than that, they don’t seem to be inherently evil. There is another Orcus temple where human cultists keep slaves and sacrifice them to Orcus. They are clearly evil.

Does that contradict my statement about “keeping the definition of good and evil muddied on purpose?” I don’t think so. I’m talking about two different things. I don’t want to get involved in a discussion about the definitions of good and evil. I don’t want to discuss whether torturing prisoners is justified when the victims are suspected terrorists, for example. I don’t want to discuss at the gaming table whether killing a creature of evil alignment begging for forgiveness is evil. That’s the kind of discussion I don’t want at the table.

In real life I have strong opinions about the US keeping innocent people incarcerated on an island for years and torturing them. I have strong opinions about the Spanish police torturing suspects in the Basque country. I have strong opinions about sending poor people back into terrible poverty out of fear for our prosperity. But I want to keep these discussion out of my game. If my players insist on breaking the orc’s fingers and ripping out its toe nails, then I ask said players to stop. I’m not interested in hearing it, and I don’t want to discuss it with my players.

What about me making everybody evil in my game? Or at least listing many evil gods? I guess I am a cynic when it comes to organized Good. Mistakes are made. I believe that using force to fight evil taints those who fight. I often think back to a statement Christa Wolf made in her book Cassandra: “What use is fighting when we can only win by becoming like our enemies?” To take it back to the game: There’s a paladin who decided to retire to Delan and help them out by protecting them against their enemies. He doesn’t need a church, he doesn’t need an army, he doesn’t own a lot of land, he doesn’t have a lot of gold. This is what allows him to be good, on an individual level, as far as I’m concerned.

So, based on my belief that Good is something individual, something that gets lost in a larger organisation, the consequences are obvious: Powerful individuals, powerful organisations, gods, churches, rulers, anybody who has the means to fight a war, must necessarily be tainted. They don’t need to be evil, but thinking of the “host of heaven” in a military sense, an army fighting for Mt. Celestia if you will, makes me think of “Fighting for Peace is like Fucking for Virginity!” Fighting will tempt soldiers into doing evil deeds. Conquest will corrupt the victors. Maybe that’s because I did not grow up with stories about the Second World War but about the wars in Indochine, Central America, Palestine and Iraq.

I also happen to think that it makes for a more interesting game. If players want to do good, they will have to sacrifice something for it. The church of Pelor or Heironeus just don’t seem very interesting in game terms. If players want to introduce such a god because they feel better being a paladin of this or that god, then that’s fine. But it doesn’t introduce interesting decisions, it doesn’t generate interesting stories. It’s the most obvious choice and an indication (to me) that morality and the sacrifice required for good deeds are not going to be the focus of the game.

I said in my first article that the point of having a small list of gods ready was to use them for temples and clerics all over the region. With that it mind, I prefer to use more ambigious beliefs. The lines of Good and Evil are supposed to be muddied because it leads to a better game, not because I’m confused about ethics.



Too bad I’ll be offline for the next two weeks. That makes the discussion more difficult.

Sorry about the length of the post. I usually try to write short posts. I hate reading long rants myself. I got carried away and had no time to make it short (”je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte” [1]).

I also have some ideas similar to Jeff’s Threefold Apocalyptic Alignment System – a page in my notebook listing various ideas under Order, Chaos, and Neutrality. Surely a blog post for later. :)

AlexSchroeder 2009-07-04 00:01 UTC

I’ve always felt the “fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity” quote makes perfect sense. After you fight, there is peace (eventually). Likewise, just where do you think virgins come from? If two former virgins have 3+ kids between them, the total number of virgins has at least temporarily increased. (As a sidenote, my favourite quote from Jerome is, “The only good thing about marriage is that it produces more virgins.”)

Swordgleam 2009-07-04 01:51 UTC

Interesting thoughts. I mostly agree with Alex.

Many RPGs and game supplements have a very childish view of good and evil. Evil organisations just striving for world domination or gods that just want to spread hatred or murder are ridiculous. Or some races like elves beeing good and some like orcs being evil despite their long history of mutual slaughter and atrocities.

Some simple definitions of good and evil that work in my games are:

evil = the end justifies the means

good = it doesn’t

So in that sense both Hitler and Roosevelt were evil, whereas Gandhi was not.

Another simple definition, more in the tradition of Christian religion is:

evil = selfishness

good = altruism up to self sacrifice

On a personal level I totally disagree with this definition, but it works quite well in games.

At the gaming table, I think, moral ambiguity, dilemmas and shades of grey are much more interesting than simple definitions of good and evil.

True moral dilemmas provide interesting roleplaying opportunities, but can also lead to player vs player or player vs DM conflicts. Just avoid pseudo moral dilemmas like the ones that are popular in Hollywood movies. If a village can only be saved by sacrificing a virgin to the dragon but the sacrifice can be avoided by killing the dragon in the last minute, it is not a moral dilemma because the course of action is obvious. Only if the dragon clearly is unkillable a moral dilemma arises.

Another moral dilemma I like is the conflict between loyalty (say to a church, organization or a liege) vs individual values. What if the PC’s overlord orders him to kill an invidual because it is clearly evil or adheres to an evil organization but the PC sees no evidence of that or actually disagrees. Now the PC is right into the dilemma of the German Wehrmacht soldier ordered to shoot some partisans or Jews. Does he go along by telling himself that it is for the ’greater good’ or that he doen’t really have a choice? Or does he object and face all the consequences?

Of course not all players like true moral dilemmas. Many feel much more comfortable with clear and simple divisions between the good guys and the bad guys. So make sure that your players actually are open to such true questions of morality before you set up your paladin of Pelor with the task of slaughtering a village of ’evil dragon worshippers’.

– Peter 2009-07-04 06:53 UTC

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