19 May 2009


Hello again. Today, I found myself thinking about alignments. Not all games use alignments (in fact, depending on how you define "alignment," I've only played two games that use an alignment system at all), but they tend to be a focal topic in many discussions of gaming. The most prominent example of this is, of course, D&D, with their system of "good versus evil" and "law versus chaos." I will assume that if you're reading this, you already know how that system works; if not, it's easy enough to google it. The only other system of alignment in the practical sense that I've played has been in Changeling: The Dreaming where your character belongs to either the Seelie or the Unseelie court.

In fact, it was in part the misunderstanding of Seelie vs. Unseelie that started me thinking about this subject. Many people who are unfamiliar with the Changeling system make the mistake of equating Seelie with good and Unseelie with evil, when that is not the case at all.

But how exactly does one define "good" and "evil?" This is a topic that I have discussed with friends in the past, and only one thing has become certain: there is no objective measure of good or evil. The terms are completely subjective; what one person thinks is evil, someone else will think of as good (or perhaps even as neither). But almost as important, the good/evil spectrum can be mapped out along many different lines.
In other words, if you were not allowed to use the phrase "good versus evil," what phrase would you use in its place? I'll give you a moment to think about that, before I come back to it.

Of course, you have to wonder if alignment is really necessary. In D&D, it's used as a general guide to behaviour; certain acts are meant to be outside the scope of characters of certain alignments. In Changeling, it's intended as a partial definition of what it means to be fae; it's a quintessential part of what faeries are, bound up in their very natures. But GURPS does just fine without any alignment system. Instead, they have a series of mental and social advantages and disadvantages that demonstrate who your character is, and what he is and isn't capable of doing. Vampire uses a "nature and demeanour" system of pseudo-psychology that describes your behaviour in general terms. Shadowrun doesn't bother with it at all.

Ok, have you considered the question from above yet? I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. But here's what I've come up with: to most people, good versus evil means "good or bad." But what is good for one person is bad for another, and that's not the way it works in D&D (which is the point of this essay). Perhaps a more accurate reflection of the dichotomy is "holy versus unholy." That is, "good" is associated with heaven and the pleasant afterlife, while "evil" means hell, demons, infernal creatures, and eternal suffering after death.

Certainly, that's the way it works for paladins, who according to the rules are required to be Lawful Good. But if we step back and look at their behaviour in subjective terms, then we realise that paladins often act in evil ways. The best example I can think of to demonstrate this phenomenon is in Start of Darkness, the second prequel book for The Order of the Stick comic. This book follows the story of the comic's main villains before the events of the main comic begins. In this volume, there is an attack by paladins on a celebration being held by a bunch of goblins. In the objective definition of "good" as described by the rules, this is an acceptable act, since goblins are defined as evil, and the paladins are on a quest to rid the world of all evil. But from the perspective of the goblin children who just watched their extended family slaughtered for no reason other than having a different alignment, it doesn't sound so reasonable, does it? This is why I think it's better to equate good and evil with holy and unholy. The paladins are serving "holy" deities on a "holy" mission, while the goblins' god is a dark deity on an "unholy" mission.

Personally, I think the best definition of "good versus evil" is "serving others versus serving oneself." All the best examples of heroes are those who work for the benefit of others: King Arthur, Robin Hood, Spiderman... all of these work to protect or help other people at risk to themselves.

But there are other possible definitions. Some people equate "good" with "obeying the law," even if the law is a bad one. They thus see "evil" as "breaking the law." I have ranted on this subject elsewhere, so I will avoid doing so again. But in this definition, the spectrum runs from "following the rules" to "breaking the rules" (and, I would point out, I feel that this is a better parallel for the "Seelie versus Unseelie" measure than "good versus evil").

Another one that a lot of people tend to follow, but don't even think about, is "faction versus counterfaction." Many people ally themselves with a group or ideology, and view that as good, while perceiving opposing viewpoints as evil. A perfect example of this is the American attitude towards capitalism and communism. Especially back in the fifties and sixties, but even to a great extent today, Americans saw capitalism as "good" and communism as "evil." I'm quite certain that communist Russia saw the reverse to be true. In this aspect, the alignment issue becomes not so much a measure of right or wrong, but a question of "us versus them."

The last one I will list here is the idea of "cause versus purposelessness." For some people, having a cause for which to fight is good, while being idle, not having a cause, or fighting for no reason but the fight itself, is evil.

I don't really know what the point of all of this is, in game terms. But perhaps it's something to think about the next time you start wondering about alignment in a game. And with that, I bid you farewell for this week. 

Game on!

1 comment:

  1. Another one that I would offer, mostly because it is the underlying morality in the works of one of the fathers of the fantasy genre:

    creative vs. corruptive


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