Beyond Good and Evil? Alignments and Morality in Dungeons and Dragons

“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.

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2 Responses to Beyond Good and Evil? Alignments and Morality in Dungeons and Dragons

  1. Tom Rigg says:

    I liked this article a lot, both from a gaming sense and the more philosophical one provided.

    An interesting thing that one notices from the way that RPGs seem to be developing is from a system of moral objectivism to one of moral subjectivism. A perfect example would be the D&D games using the alignment system explained in this post when compared to something like Dragon Age: Origins. With the clear-cut lines of ‘Neutral Good’ and ‘Chaotic Evil’, the game necessarily implies that some actions are to be considered ‘good’, not by the character in question, but by an uncodified system of morals. The game may award ‘good points’ (for lack of a better term) should one give money to a beggar, regardless of the intention of the character or the outcome of this result – the character may wish to simply stay on the beggar’s good side in order to exploit her later or equally the beggar himself may use the money given to purchase weaponry to injure another character. In either case, it is recognised that charity is considered a good thing and as such awards the points accordingly.

    Dragon Age: Origins, however, uses a system in which the hero’s reputation rests on each individual companion’s interpretation of her actions. One colourful companion holds a belief system which includes the notion that the ‘objective virtue’ of Charity previously mentioned as a weakness in the recipient, believing that strength is gained through overcoming the trials and tribulations of life. As such, if the hero engages in a charitable act (whether it be giving money to a peasant or saving a village from a group of bandits) it is almost certain that this companion will react poorly to it. Equally, each other companion will apply his or her own set of morals in interpreting the actions of the hero, which range from the achetypal ‘Lawful Good’ Paladin-type to a very interesting foreign character who is a warrior from a caste-culture with a firm dogma of a warrior-code.

    Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the RPG systems of morality comes from the fact that if a player has not spent time fully preparing a character for the game, they will often simply rely on their own moral compass. As such, the fated question “what alignment are you?” becomes ever more interesting in that it is truly what of these categories the person in question believes themselves to be. It is not difficult to see, in looking rather closely at these categories, that a vastly overwhelming majority of people will fall into the ‘Good’ category. Onto this, one will find that there is an equally overwhelming amount of people who will fall into ‘Neutral’ category instead of ‘Lawful’ or ‘Chaotic’. The characteristic of ‘Lawful’ requires that a person would adhere to their promises, not to lie (whether good or evil consequences arise from it) and that they obey the rules and regulations governing their life. This is something that very few people could claim; white lies, downloading music, riding a bike on the pavement &c are all actions which a Lawful person would not do. In the same manner, a ‘Chaotic’ person would engage in exactly the opposite – a nearly-total disrespect for the law, distrusting of people’s word &c, a very coarse person indeed.

    I would say that I do not know a single person who is not ‘Neutral Good’, basing ‘Goodness’ on the rather commonly-held values of a Judeo-Christian culture, yet I have received some rather odd responses to that question. Perhaps it simply comes down to a lack of understanding of the scale presented, or perhaps it is an indication of the subjectiveness of such scales, and instead of ‘What alignment is Tom?’ one should ask ‘Does Tom approve (+2)?’ [If you don’t understand the last question, then you haven’t played enough games].

  2. A fantastic reply, brimming with a host of excellent insights, as befits the person who posed the alignment question in the first place. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    I particularly like the point you make on players relying on their personal moral compass. Planescape, I feel, did a good job with this, but not every game can use the old amnesia trick. Characters’ pasts are important, and the player should either be better informed about them (if they are supposed to live up to them) or given the chance to shape them (if they are supposed to play as they choose). How well did the Dragon Age system work in this respect? I’m playing KOTOR 2 at the moment, and it’s a bit of a mess on this front.

    Thinking about moral systems, I wonder if there’s any way of classifying and analysing actions that are a ‘means to an end’. What does it mean to do something evil to bring about a good end (killing a subversive political prisoner to save a utopian revolution, for example)? Is such an act an evil end in itself, or can it be permitted to a degree? If so, how much of a degree? Examining the corruption of a person’s moral stance might be quite interesting, and would be more nuanced than simply saying that people fall in one blanket category. Could we classify, say, Lenin, as “lawfully- and evilly-overstretched neutral good”? Can we classify people as morally deluded? How would we do this?

    How far can you act against your moral code to enforce it? Does doing something completely abhorrent to your moral code to bring about a desired moral end, in fact, (perversely) show how strongly committed you are to that code?

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