Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Design Thoughts: Beyond Good and Evil

It's a good tonic, altruism.  Nothing
helps one put problems in perspective
like allegiance to a higher cause.
First, I would like to preface this by saying this does not intend to be nearly as big-headed as the title may suggest.  It is not my intent to rewrite the works of Friedrich Nietzsche or even discuss them.  This is centered completely on the place of good and evil within the context of Dungeons & Dragons.  It comes up a lot in the discussions of the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons and also in a lot of classic D&D debates.

It has been made public that the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons will see a return to the nine-point alignment system.  Most importantly, the spectrum of good and evil first introduced in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977) would see a return.  This has left me somewhat frustrated, mostly because I have never been able to rationalize how an objective conceptualization of good and evil could ever fit into the framework of a fantasy world like Dungeons & Dragons.

Who else would kick a man for
eating ice cream?
I want to focus this on the place of the gods within the construction of objective good and evil.  There are many gods within any D&D pantheon that are labeled as some sort of Good.  In fact, most settings have a host of good gods, whether they be Lawful Good, Neutral Good, or Chaotic Good.  Yet every good god has some different folio, some different set of goals and interests.  When people talk about what it means to be good within the setting, I cannot help but wonder where that definition is supposed to come from.  Normally, I would expect the gods to aid in the definition of good and evil, but D&D deities have taught me to think otherwise.

At the end of the day, it is quite easy to end up with two gods of good conflicting over some major issue.  So often, it seems that two definitionally good gods disagree over some sort of major issue with ethical ramifications.  My question, then, is: Which choice is the good?  Which good god do I follow to assure that I am following the good choice?  If I support Tyr's pursuit of justice, am I acting in conflict with Ilmater's pursuit of mercy?  Is there no "good" option, or does that fall under a different god's folio?  How do I know, as a character in the fantasy world, what good really is?
I think I'm starting to sound more like
Moriarty than Sherlock Holmes.

I do not want to sound like the guy that is trying to shut down on everybody's notion of good in the fantasy world.  I feel like objective good has a place within a monotheism if the one god is a god of good.  But when gods have folios composed of arts, crafts, or abstract ideas like vengeance and strategy, it is difficult to see where good falls.  Honestly, it is the same issue I have when popular video games try to integrate notions of good and evil into the narrative.  Sometimes, I do something that seems pretty good and I get an evil point.  Or, in the reverse, I do something that feels pretty evil but get good credit for it.  Very rarely do these games go out of their way to tell you what is meant by good.  It is only by guessing can you intuit what the scenario developer really meant when he or she used the word "good" within the game.

(Note:  All of the images on this post were taken from the Batman Alignment Chart)


  1. Being good or bad solely depends on how you solve a problem.
    That is why there can be a mercyful good god OR a justiceful good god.
    The one is lawful good the other chaotic good, so to speak (depends really).
    That said: Justice doesn't need to be good, it can and most often is neutral (lawful in this case)
    Death can be good, neutral and evil, depending on your viewpoint and how you propagate your standpoint.

  2. "... depending on your viewpoint and how you propagate your standpoint."

    I am fine with such a perspective (and, in fact, that is how I play). These things tend to be subjective. But D&D does not really work that way without a lot of tweaking. When a Paladin detects evil, what is he detecting? Things that we would consider evil? Or something that is objectively evil?

    I feel like a lot of people would consider themselves good if you asked. But then ask his or her opponent.