“What alignment are you?” As opening questions go, this is one of the best I’ve been asked. “Chaotic good” was my instant response, confidently taking a seat on the sofa. I was visiting a friend at university, and the question was posed by one of his housemates. I was pleased to have met his salvo, but a few months later I was certain that my answer was wrong.
Let’s quickly run over the DnD alignment system, as it’s a pretty useful way of classifying someone’s disposition towards the world and the people around them. It rates people on two different scales: their moral disposition, and their stance on law and order. The first scale goes from ‘good’ to ‘evil’, the second from ‘lawful’ to ‘chaotic’. There’s a middle point on both of these scales – ‘neutral’ – meaning that there are nine possible alignments. This system gives combinations such as ‘lawful evil’ - a cruel bureaucrat, for example – or ‘chaotic good’ – a Robin Hood figure.
When I started playing roleplaying games, I chose lawful good. A safe and comfortable decision for someone who hadn’t really questioned the power structures in the world around him. Being lawful seemed the sensible default behaviour; doing anything different was strange and probably futile. Of course, I soon questioned whether law and social structures are necessarily associated with bringing about good. This realisation was quite a rush, and I soon lurched to chaotic good, with a reckless impatience to do good without dilution by structures and laws. But playing though Planescape I realised that I still hadn’t got the right answer.
By switching from lawful to chaotic, I’d simply replaced the presumption that order was the best way to bring about good with the presumption that chaos was the best way to do so. I’d simply substituted one ideological commitment for another. I now believe that to assert any value judgement over law and chaos is to distract and detract from moral duty. So I’d now see myself as neutral good. Asserting the cause of good is more important than fighting for order or for chaos.
The Blood War that forms the backdrop to the Planescape multiverse is a brilliant exploration of this issue. The War is a conflict between the lawful evil Baatezu and the chaotic evil Tanar’ri. Fall-From-Grace summarises in this extract of conversation:
But this still begs the question: what is evil? Is it inflicting malice and hatred on the world? Acting out of sordid selfish motives and a disregard for others? Delighting in causing ruin and breaking that which is good? But if these definitions are anywhere near the mark, we’ll need to at least rephrase how we think about evil. Because even people who we would see as ‘evil’ are aiming for an imagined ideal state of affairs. They aren’t seeking to make things ‘bad’, but to live out and implement their ideal. They’re aiming for what they feel is good as well, but they recognise that the prevailing moral system sees their actions as ‘evil’. Are ‘evil’ people moral relativists – thinking that their ends are in fact good? – or are they aware that they are seeking something bad? If the latter, what drives them to knowingly desire such a horrible end? (Anyone got any books to recommend on this?)
Roleplaying games are good at examining the murky practicalities of fighting for good or evil. In seeking to follow and implement a moral code, our meddlings can sometimes go very wrong. Games are built around player interactivity and control, so they can do a great job of leaving us with unintended blood on our hands. I’m currently playing through Knights of the Old Republic II (thanks Tamsyn), and got called to task by one of my party members. I’ve been playing as a light-side character, and was chastised for meddling in other people’s business, weakening them in the long-run by arrogantly seeking to fix all their problems. (There was a missed opportunity to challenge the RPG conventions here by writing a few extra lines of conversation. I was hoping for a sarcastic “Hey, I’m just doing the quests” retort. What is the player character in a role-playing game if not a meddling force, sorting out situations that would otherwise be forever unresolved?) . This is great, but there’s more we need to investigate.
We’re good at charting the murky waters between good and evil, but what about the signposts themselves? Let’s have a closer look at these absolutes, what constitutes them, what drives them, what legitimises them, to more profoundly understand how these agendas are opposed. If we really know what good and evil are, the age-old battle between them will become alive with meaning once more.