Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Problem of Evil

Or: Why I Never Use Alignment

Now before anybody gets the wrong idea, let it be said that this isn't one of those troll-bait, flame questions. This is a serious inquiry into the topic of evil itself. It's a big topic, to be sure, but here's one way to break it down: "What does it mean to be evil in a roleplaying game?"

Most people know what evil means, in and of itself, even if they can't define it in great, broad strokes. They'll point to rape, child molestation, mass murder, callousness, or any other factor. But what does it mean in the context of a roleplaying game, where most people aren't comfortable with the subject?

In many cases, it paints a convenient black hat on a person who is to be killed without remorse. Sometimes, the "bad guy" will wear a literal black hat, or a black, spiky suit of armor, or be a demon. Such things are certainly convenient, but are they realistic? Are they meant to be? Is a person with an alignment of "LE" or "C" (in older systems) a person who can be slain at a whim? Is that what you want to promote in your games?

And then, what does it mean when an entire race of people are "evil"? Case in point: Goblins. In 3rd edition, they were given an alignment of "LE", and then they were basically said to be mean tricksters. That's it? Apparently, all it takes to be lawful evil, on the same scale as an archdevil of the abyss who subjugates his followers under his boots and tortures people into the long, hideous sunset, is to lay traps and attack invaders and try to get lands in the same way that "good" people do- only eviller.

This one is one I can't answer alone, because I haven't used alignment seriously in decades and I've never really had any inkling of an understanding of what, exactly, alignment is to be used for. I've heard a couple arguments, both for and against, but nothing that was revelatory. Mostly it's between people who are moral absolutists and moral relativists who argue semantics and whether or not Batman or the Power Rangers are Chaotic Neutral or what-have-you.

Back to the question: What does it mean to be "evil"? What sorts of things are necessary to put the black hat on a man? What does labelling a person "evil" entail?

To me, there is no evil. Looking at paladins, I see a man who is inflexible, cruel, intolerant, violent, and possibly racist. All things traditionally associated with evil, in its most base forms. "But Mr. Crayon," one may be thinking, "that man is only inflexible in his pursuit of justice, cruel to the evil and unjust, intolerant of oppression, violent to the threats to his community, and racist against monstrous foes! He's not evil, he's good!"

Well, put it into context. Let's say you're a king who has had assassination attempts on yourself, so you're a bit paranoid. You raise taxes so as to better fund your personal spies, bodyguards, and palace. You put into place policies to limit the conspiracies against yourself, so that you can continue your rule. You waste no time in putting down the lives of those who attempt to sabotage your kingdom or the land and property of your subordinates. And yet, a paladin batters down your door, slays your guards, and puts you to the sword for oppression, tyranny, intolerance, violence, and "evil." Are you evil?

It's not for nothing that they say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


What do you think?

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