Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Being Evil: A Player's Perspective
Because who wouldn't want to be this guy?
So, last week I rambled about making people evil in a world, and how people don't really have Capital-G Good or Unfathomably Evil alignments, but can occasionally jump around from good to evil based on the intent of their actions.

Now, I want to talk about morality from the Player Character's perspective. Because no matter how you slice it, a character controlled by the player is very different than an NPC. A PC can change drastically, must respond to new situations, and generally can't always follow a particular alignment, since they don't know what's going to happen next in the story. NPCs, on the other hand, can be planned out by the DM.

So, in my opinion, every PC actually has THREE alignments. Their intended alignment, their acting alignment, and their objective alignment.

Best Intentions

The very first alignment a player character has is the one that gets written down on their character sheet. This is before they ever sit down to play the character, and it only really matters during character creation.

Most players base this alignment on a few different things: their character's background, their class and race (elven druids are more likely to be chaotic, for instance), and how they want to play the game. The first two are sort of superficial, since any class/race/background combination can be any alignment. Assuming you're okay playing against type, of course.

But the idea that a player picks their alignment based on how they want to play the game is very important. This is the player's way of signalling how the group can expect their character to act.

The problem with that is that most players don't think about alignment in a very productive way. To them, Chaotic equals "lolrandom", Lawful means "stuck up prude", Good means "angelic", Evil means "moustache-twirling murderer", and everything neutral is vague and usually picked if they want to ignore that aspect of alignment.

Many DMs have a solid "no evil characters" rule in place to prevent that kind of player intention. But then, players who want to be evil will simply choose a neutral alignment and play "amoral" characters. So in reality, any alignment intention is available no matter what the DM says.

However, this intended alignment usually only gets used for a few sessions or two before the player settles in to their next alignment.

Acting Alignment

I have a two-year theater degree, does that count?
This is the true face of the character, no matter what the player might have written on their sheet. If they wanted to be a good character, but regularly murder for kicks, they aren't really a good character.

No matter what the intended alignment of a character is, this is the alignment that gets people in trouble. This is the behavior that turns party members against each other, makes the DM imprison PCs, and generally ruins the fun of the game.

Unless you like hating your friends. I guess that's possible.

The distinction between acting alignment and intended alignment is very important. It means that a player can be a jerk, no matter what their character sheet says. In fact, I'd venture that most players tend towards chaotic neutral, simply because the modern view of adventurers is that they are outside the law, willing to get their hands dirty, and do what pleases them while minimally considering the consequences. The resurgence of "OSR"-style play is a big part of that.

A big problem with chaotic characters and evil characters is that they tend to push back on certain social structures within the game's parameters. That is to say, the game requires the players to work together as a team, and chaotic/evil characters don't really like that.

Since literally any character can start acting chaotic or evil, no matter what is on their sheet, a smart DM will set up the expectations for group play before the campaign starts. A basic set of guidelines would include the following:
  • Your character must work with their teammates to complete the adventure. If your character refuses to cooperate, the rest of the characters may kick your character out of the group. You will be asked to make a new character, or if this is a consistent issue, you will be asked to leave the gaming group.
    • Addendum: Your character may have backstory information that they have not told other characters (secrets), but your character may not hide relevant information from other characters. This counts as refusing to work with your teammates.
  • Your character must have a reason for participating in the adventure. If you cannot think of one, the DM can work with you to create a reason. A character without a reason cannot join the group.
  • Your character may not perform actions that cause discomfort or tension in the players of the group. If you are unsure, ask. If it becomes a consistent issue, you may be asked to make a new character or leave the gaming group.

These rules focus on behaviors that cause trouble, not the completely fallible and misunderstood "don't be evil" method.

Interestingly, there's the possibility of being both Chaotic and Evil and still following all of these rules. You could be selfish, manipulative, murderous, and heartless, but as long as your character recognizes they must go on this adventure, they shouldn't betray their allies, and they don't overstep real-world boundaries, it's perfectly fine. The internet is full of stories about Evil characters being played well. This is how it happens.

However, there's one more kind of alignment that needs to be discussed. And it's a doozy.

Objectively Speaking
Never pass up the opportunity to be creepy
Objective alignment comes into play exactly once in every mortal's life, and the PCs are no exception. This is the measure by which your soul is judged when you die.

The Planescape campaign setting has a lot to say on the cosmology of the D&D universe and how, when you die, your soul is sorted into the outer planes and turned into a "Petitioner" to whatever Gods rule the plane you landed on.

But who or what does the sorting?

This is why alignment needs an objective category - because something is tallying up the mortal's entire life and deciding where their soul goes in the afterlife. It could be an Over-God, it could be the natural flow of soul energy in the multiverse, or it could be a war waged in purgatory among every God who desires followers.

There are a couple things worth noting in the D&D cosmology that add depth to the objective alignment. First off, there's no True Neutral plane. This could mean that those souls are sorted into the Astral Plane, or that they are reincarnated into animals or plants on the Material Plane. The latter would probably make druids very happy.

The other big difference in Objective Alignment is that there are more gradations than the alignment system would suggest. Instead of just having a plane for Lawful Good souls and Neutral Good souls, there is also a plane for Lawful/Neutral Good souls. It's important to note that these gradations exists only for Law/Chaos, not for Good/Evil.

So, Objective alignment can be a bit more complex than other alignments. And for that reason, I tend to take a "weighted average" of a character's acting alignment and intended alignment to determine their objective alignment (for Law/Chaos only, of course). So a character who intended to be Lawful but acted Neutral would end up on Bytopia (for good characters) or Gehenna (for evil). But a character who intended to be Lawful and acted Chaotic would end up in The Beastlands (NG/CG) or Carceri (NE/CE), since their acting alignment is more important that their intended alignment.

Wait a minute. Didn't we just contradict the entire point of last week's article? Isn't Intent more important than Action?

Not quite. You see, both Intended Alignment and Acting Alignment are determined by looking at a character's intentions. What I'm trying to say is that the intents a character acts on during play are more important that the intents they write down during character creation. So when I "weight" my Objective Alignment, I put more emphasis on the character as they were played.

Anyway, with Good/Evil there's not as much wiggle room for averaging out Objective Alignment. You'll basically have to judge them as "Good", "Evil", or "Neutral". And in that regard, I'd treat them as you'd treat an NPC. Was their intent to help or harm others, for the most part? Or did they have an intent and not act on it?

Then, send their soul to the appropriate plane.

Order in the Court

This sort of thing is unacceptable
Now, I don't plan on doing a series of articles on Law and Chaos. In general, the misconceptions about those are not as prevalent compared to Good vs Evil. Particularly in regards to modern politics, people seem to have a clear distinction between Security (Law) and Freedom (Chaos).

But hopefully this article has helped you keep your game more secure in terms of player behavior. It's important to understand that the character sheet, the player, and the in-world alignments are all separate entities that could be very different and affect the game in different ways.

In the end, it's more important to curb destructive behaviors than tell players they shouldn't put the letter "E" on their character sheet. Because people can and will justify whatever behavior they want.

Thanks for reading!

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