Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Being Evil: A DM's perspective

Sometimes you just gotta Destroy All Humans
This is going to be more of a philosophical article, so apologies if it gets a bit rambling.

There's a lot of D&D that's predicated upon the idea that Capital-G Good and Unspeakable Evil are at odds with each other. And a lot of it more or less involves almighty, inscrutable Gods picking sides in a cosmic war with ramifications that are supposed to be beyond the ken of mortal minds.

At least, that's what Clerics and Paladins are all about. There's a battle between Good and Evil, and you had better be on their side. But that never really sat well with me from a less-cosmic perspective.

See, Gods are supposed to have this level of foresight, knowledge, and influence that extends far beyond what Mortals understand. Gods scheme, Gods demand odd quests that (usually) turn out in their favor, Gods play by different rules that mortals only scratch the surface of...

Except they really don't. Gods do pretty much what their dogma demands of them. Pelor lights the heavens and burns away those who are on the other side of the war. Asmodeus swindles souls and attacks those who are on the other side of the war. Moradin forges steel and smites those who are on the other side of the war. Etc, Etc.

Part of this is because, eventually, a Dungeon Master has to play those Gods and their desires. And it's a lot easier to say "this God is Good because he wants to destroy Evil" than "this God is Good because his actions are Good". It's easier to inform an attribute than play it out.

For the most part, these "teams" of Good/Evil/Law/Chaos are perfectly fine for defining where a deity stands among the heavens. After all, they are Gods. If a Good God has to smite a few thousand folks to stop Evil, well, that's a drop in the bucket compared to what they would have lost if Evil won.

That doesn't mean the Gods are useless though - we'll come back to that.

But for mortals, the idea of Free Will changes everything. Why can't an evil person see the error of their ways? Why can't a good adventurer begin to walk a darker path?

These tropes are common in both fiction and real life, but in D&D the idea of "Alignment" tends to lock a character into a certain morality/societal position. And the characters in D&D are worse for it.

So, then, what makes a good character good? And what makes an evil character evil? Where is the crossover point? And how can we use this to make better NPCs?

Good and Evil
Moustache-twirlingly evil
It's fairly easy to create stereotypical "Good" and "Evil" characters. Some DMs even have a specific list of crimes that indicate when a character is evil (e.g. murder, theft, etc). Then, all you need to do to create an evil character is make them a murderer.

Despite the propensity this creates for cartoonishly evil NPCs, it does have a benefit: the players know right away if they are "allowed" to kill these characters. They can take sides with their Gods and blithely murder every person who the DM has marked "evil".

But the problem with that is twofold: First, these characters aren't particularly realistic. If a DM wants to create a richer world, they will have trouble doing so with such blatantly evil NPCs. Second, if murder makes a person evil, then your players are going to become evil by killing. Does that change their alignment? Their position with the government? Does the city watch arrest evil characters?

So we need a different way to tell Good and Evil. And simply defining actions or claiming they are on Team Evil isn't very narratively satisfying.

Here's my solution. Don't look at the actions or the affiliation. Look at the intent.

A good person intends to help others. An evil person intends to help themself. This way, the action is less important. Why did a character commit a murder? Was it to take the victim's money? Evil. Was it to protect another person from the victim? Good.

This also allows for smaller types of "good" and "evil". A shopkeep who overprices their goods could be doing it to pay their family (good) or their gambling addiction (evil). But even though the shopkeep might never steal or commit murder, they can still have these selfish/selfless tendencies.

And yes, that means a single NPC could be good in one situation and evil in another. That's generally how people act in the real world. All "good" people have a breaking point where they don't care about anyone but themselves. All "evil" people have something outside of themselves they care about. But neither person would admit that.

So, to apply this to a normal game situation, let's look at a group of bandits. They can have various motivations for joining the bandit gang, but let's look at three.
  1. A bandit who simply loves luxury and the things that entails (evil)
  2. A bandit who likes feeling more powerful than their victims (evil)
  3. A bandit who desperately needs money to pay for their children (good)

Note that this isn't the action of stealing: just the reason behind it. But it makes all the difference. The 3rd bandit wouldn't fight to the death, in fact, would probably surrender the moment the PCs have advantage in the fight. Meanwhile, the 1st bandit might try to grab some gold and flee, while the 2nd bandit would be the most likely to fight to the death.

The goal here is to add depth to the characters. An "evil" NPC like a bandit, pirate, assassin, etc. might have good intentions. The key is making sure the character gets a chance to show it off.

Before I move on, I want to talk about Neutrality. A lot of people seem to think neutrality is simply ignoring the morality system and living by your own rules. But I think we can get more detailed than that, since most of the time such a character would actually be evil.

Neutrality comes down to what you intend to to and what you believe the intent should be. A good character intends to be selfless, and thinks that's the right thing to do. An evil character intends to be selfish, and thinks that's the right thing to do. A neutral character could be selfish or selfless, but either way, they think they should be doing the other one.

Han Solo is a great example of a morally neutral character. He claims to be a selfish person, uninterested in others, and when someone does a selfless thing, he tells them they need to wise up. However, his actions are overwhelmingly in favor of helping others. So he's neutral - his intents and beliefs straddle the line between good and evil.

This means there are really two flavors of neutrality: Those who are evil but think good is best, and those who are good but think evil is best. Exploring these options can add a lot to character depth.

However, there's a distinction that I want to make: A neutral character who (for example) is evil but thinks good is best may not want to be good. They might espouse good ideals but be evil because they feel like they have to for some other reason. Maybe it's more efficient. Maybe they are surrounded by evil people and have to fit in or die. The point is: neutral isn't an inherently unstable alignment. Sometimes, it's necessary.

Dealing with Stupid
I swear I didn't mean to...
So far, we've had an underlying assumption about this intent thing. You may not have thought it was important, but in each scenario (helping others and harming others) we've basically assumed that the character is acting in their own best interests.

Obviously an evil character wouldn't hurt others without reason. And normally a good character is benefited by helping others, either by their relationships, faith, karma, etc. But what about a situation where a character isn't acting in their own self-interest?

Well, that kind of transcends good and evil.

A person whose intent is helping others but is also harming themselves is what we would consider a "powerless" person. They could be enslaved, coerced, or even bound by guilt and obligation to sacrifice while others gain.

You can see how this ties in elements of good, but with an extra element that prevents the person from helping themselves. This element makes the person not quite good - they don't have the benefit of choosing to do anything else. People don't purposefully hurt themselves until they don't have another option.

This makes the "Powerless" archetype particularly good for tragic characters, hostages/slaves, and low-income peasants. Just remember: if they manage to gain the power to help themselves, they will likely use that power to fulfill their goals, which included helping people. These characters are nearly always good at heart.

On the flip side of things, a person who intends to hurt others and themselves would also transcend good/evil alignment. Though there are a few other character archetypes that might venture into this territory, the most common are classified as "unaware".

An "unaware" character, in essence, doesn't understand what they are doing enough to know that it is hurting them. Again, people don't purposefully hurt themselves in most cases. However, what differentiates them from the Powerless is that nobody benefits: they are making the world a worse place and bringing themselves down with it.

Although unintelligent characters are fairly common (especially in 5e - Int is a common dump stat), this ventures more into unwise territory. A Construct is a great example of an "unaware" character - it could walk off a cliff without realizing it, destroying itself and depriving its owner of a construct.

"Unaware" characters are hard to deal with, since they are generally unpredictable. However, they also don't last long under adventuring circumstances, so using them in a campaign should be done with great caution.

I want to make one final note here: when we talk about "intends to hurt others and themselves", we can't include suicidal terrorists in the mix. This is because they don't intend to hurt themselves, in a metaphysical sense. They are hurting others to help their cause, which might include glory for themselves in their afterlife. They are more evil than "unaware".

As a final note, I don't think this philosophy really allows for any "unaligned" monsters. Even a beast that can't express intent via words can still intend to hurt others, protect their own, and sacrifice. In this way, I would regard most animals as "Neutral", which meshes well with the idea that druids are more inherently neutral.

A Matter of Opinion
Finally, we have a baseline for determining skeleton gender
Now, there's a problem with this "intent" stuff, which you may have already realized. As we work on larger and larger scales, the intent becomes more vague. It's the classic trolley problem: do you actively kill one person to avoid passively allowing 5 people to die? And is that killing good or evil? Does the nature of the people on the tracks matter?

Fortunately, the fantasy world provides a solution for this problem: Gods. See? I told you they were useful for something!

Because Gods exist and are actively involved in a D&D setting, a character in that world doesn't need to guess at whether a large choice is morally good or evil. They have a chance to speak with a being that can guide them to whatever end they wish. So being "moral" in D&D is more about which God you choose. Let me give an example.

If you worship Pelor, you believe that the way to make the multiverse great is by helping others. You believe in doing the greatest good. So if you were presented with the trolley problem, you'd probably choose to kill the 1 person over the 5. That could change if you knew the 5 people were criminals or murderers, but for the most part you'd try to save as many lives as possible.

If you worship Asmodeus, you believe that the way to make the multiverse great is by gaining power and control over others, and leading those blinder than yourself. You believe that most people can't make decisions on their own. So in the trolley problem, you'd likely save the group that offered you the most riches, that swore fealty to you, or that you could manipulate into your benefit. If all six people promised you a reward, you'd likely choose to kill the 1 person over the 5, to maximize your benefit.

The same problem lead to the same outcome, but the intent changed the morality of the situation. And people in fantasy worlds can justify any intent, because they can always find a God that will support that intent.

In the real world, the lack of concrete evidence of a moral structure from a creator-God has lead to many different religions and interpretations of those religions. In a fantasy world, the multitude of moral structures passed down from on high would lead to many different religions as well. In essence, anyone can be justified in their intent, since having thousands of Gods produces the same religious justification as having an absent God.

So in this sense, a character in a fantasy setting can create any intent they want to, and as problems get larger and more morally complex, they can justify their position by pointing to the God that espouses it. A Paladin can go around killing and still have good intentions, and an Evil King can create a strong local economy for purely selfish reasons.

This might be getting very gray for some people. But that's the point: people are complex, and they can justify anything they do or say. This leads to a lot of problems. And many of them can't be solved by killing monsters in a dungeon.

Some Other Considerations

Evil with a super-capital E
In a fantasy setting, we can also have things like hallowed and desecrated ground, good/evil magic items, and spells that work based on if a creature is good or evil. Any of these can accept of reject characters based on their alignment.

In the past, this literally meant that your character was defined by your alignment choice: Paladins must be Lawful Good, you couldn't enter a good-aligned church while having an Evil alignment, and in the early editions, you knew an entire language that could only be understood by those who shared your alignment.

In 5th edition, I think the designers made an excellent choice in updating these effects. Instead of picking out alignments, they focus on creature types instead. You can't tell if a person is good or evil, but you can tell if they are secretly a devil, demon, fey, undead, celestial, or elemental.

This provides some implications for how these creatures function in the D&D cosmology: they are extraplanar, obviously, but they are also considered "Good" or "Evil" by those in the multiverse. Devils and Demons are from evil planes, Celestials are from good planes, undead are linked to the Shadowfell, etc.

But that means that they are always picked up by these detection and protection spells, by hallowed ground and magic circles. Which implies that these extraplanar creatures don't have a choice as to what intent they have. They are servants of a greater force, which means they are bound to follow a specific alignment.

In my settings, I always specify that mortals are distinct from extraplanar beings. Those beings exist as almost an extension of the great wheel of alignments, unable to even conceive that they could alter their intents. Mortals, on the other hand, live on a plane that intersects all others, the Material Plane. This gives them a great power over the Gods: free will.

So, if characters can choose their path, and aren't bound to particular alignments, how do we create hallowed ground that rejects evil? How do we make a magic item that can only be wielded by the darkest of hearts?

Well, to be frank: you don't. At least, not in the old way.

Instead of having a church that rejects evil people, make a church where those who act selfishly within its walls are burned by divine fire. The more hurtful the gesture, the more painful the flames. That's a mechanic that a player could engage with, instead of just sitting outside the church and waiting for their companions to return.

Instead of having a sword that requires an evil alignment, make a sword that only cuts those weaker than the wielder. It will chop down hordes of goblins with ease, but if you try to depose an unjust king, it's about as effective as a baguette. You could make that based on wealth, challenge rating vs level, or even amount of HP remaining. The weapon becomes an interesting tactical challenge instead of an item that only one person in the party can use.

I covered a lot of ground here, but I still have a couple more points to cover. Next week, I want to talk about how a player can be good or evil, and what that means to their party.

Hopefully, though, this article gave you some good ideas for creating characters who aren't just insane, cruel, or cartoonishly evil. It's always better to give your bad guys depth: otherwise, your game loses its soul, and becomes simply a hack-and-slash murderfest.

Thanks for reading!

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