The key element that separates games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder from board games or war games is, of course, the roleplaying. Through cooperative roleplaying and improvisational storytelling, the groups gets to play in a wonderful, compelling world. The players feel tension and anxiety when faced with danger; they feel elation and relief when they find treasure; they feel fear and anger when threatened; they feel grief and sorrow when someone – NPC or PC – close to them dies.
Traditionally, the players were the heroes. In fact, TSR had specific guidelines prohibiting the players from being able to do anything that could be considered morally deficient or ethically questionable. And even the game’s villainous creatures were simply monsters, with little lore behind them. Why were you killing goblins to rescue the princess? Because they are monsters and she’s a fair maiden. That’s that, isn’t it?
When the concept of alignment was introduced, it gave players additional dimensions in which to define their characters. There was a scale of good to evil on one axis, and a scale of law to chaos on the other, resulting in nine different alignment archetypes with true neutral in the center. Previously, all characters technically had to be lawful good. New players, more realistically, were chaotic neutral. That is to say, chaotic on the scale of law to chaos, and neutral on the scale of good to evil. Why neutral? Because they’d kill goblins and orcs and dragons just for the treasure. Yes, they were monsters, but they weren’t being killed for the good of the village or anything, it was simply because they were in the way. Why chaotic? Because the player, being new, wasn’t fully immersed or invested in the world yet. Before, they’d be forced to comply with the laws of whatever kingdom they were in, and act with honor and valor. Once those restrictions were lifted, the player could act as recklessly as they wanted! What puny NPC peasant could stop them? With experience in the game, their alignment might shift as they find their niche.
And one day, I shifted my character’s alignment to evil. It was actually a requirement in order to achieve a prestige class, the Assassin. Among the myriad other prerequisites, my character had to be evil. This was new not only for me, but for my gaming group as well. We hadn’t really thought much about evil; the villains we fought against were certainly evil, and that’s why we fought them. But how does an evil character fit into a party of neutral or good characters, much less a generally neutral or good world? What does evil actually mean?
Anyone who’s played Dungeons & Dragons for more than a couple years knows that these kinds of questions about alignment are the source of an incredible amount of passionate arguments at the table. Everyone is going to have a different opinion about what evil means, about what good means, about the difference between law and chaos and the nature of neutrality! This is because in reality, there is a lot of gray area between good and evil, law and chaos. What about someone who does evil things for the greater good? You simply can’t pin an objective label on things like that; all you can do is judge it based on your own beliefs and experiences.
Alignment is relative. And for the most part, when I am Dungeon Master, I ignore it. I encourage my players to roleplay their characters with complexity, with both strengths and weaknesses, superiorities and fallacies. They are free to apply whatever label they feel is most appropriate to their own character, and I’ll warn them if I feel they are not living up to the expectations they set for themselves. “Hey, you keep saying your character is good, but you always walk past beggars in the street without tipping a single copper coin!” And in fact, I absolutely love when alignments shift throughout a campaign, based on the characters’ experiences. Someone can go from lawful good, live through some dark, horrific events, and come out twisted and evil because of it. It doesn’t mean they failed to roleplay a good character. It means they succeeded in roleplaying a character with emotions and personality and soul!
So what became of my newly evil assassin? Not much, at first. He was only evil because he, as part of his initiation into the Assassin’s Guild, killed innocent people. Once he was in, and had the Assassin class features, he only used his powers for good! But I loved playing an Assassin. And the next Assassin I rolled up, I decided to do it “right.” I created a character with a complex background of betrayal and bitterness and defeat and sadness. This was someone with severe issues, someone with a vendetta, someone who almost delighted in killing.
This was an evil character.
I often surprised my fellow players with my character’s evil acts. I had never roleplayed on this level before, and it was exhilarating! The relationships among our characters was complex and dynamic. My character went through periods of dark guilt, in which he questioned his evilness. And in the end, he sacrificed himself to save the world, effectively redeeming his soul, and it was one of my favorite roleplaying moments ever.
So I rolled up another Assassin. Over 200 years had passed in the game, and this new Assassin was a member of a cult dedicated to the legacy of my first Assassin. Rather than delighting in killing, this Assassin viewed homicide simply as a tool, a means to an end. But he sought to restore balance in the world – a sort of self-styled vigilante. He was the monster under the beds of other monsters, in his own eyes. He was still evil, but a different evil.
Recently, in the campaign, he beat a woman (for 100 gold coins) and through an incredible turn of events, wound up being turned into a woman. I posted about this story on the r/rpg Subreddit, and people went nuts. Reading the full story (in which two people were killed, two people were imprisoned for life on false murder charges, many people were injured…) it seemed a good half the community was positively horrified at the kind of game I was playing. They stated in no uncertain terms that what I was doing was abhorrent, that I shouldn’t play characters that are evil, or assholes, and that they’d get up and walk away from the table rather than play with me. I was genuinely surprised at such a reaction. Just because my character was attacking people for profit (or survival, or because they were in his way), instead of monsters per se, made me a terrible player with a terrible character.
I pointed out that marching into a goblin cave and slaughtering the lot just because some guy back in the village promised cash is just as evil as marching into a tavern and breaking a woman’s jaw just because some guy offered cash. In both cases, someone with sentience and family and culture and society was hurt for money. They absolutely refused to equate the two, because goblins are monsters and people are not monsters.
Oh, really? So there is an evil murder, and a good murder, in the eyes of these people. That’s what they’re arguing. The murders they commit are good; the murders I commit are evil. I don’t think so. I think that’s what happens when you still play by rules that force your characters into one of nine archetypal alignments: Once you have a label, any actions you commit are thereby defined by that label. If you are lawful good and you slaughter a family of goblins, then by the gods was your genocide righteous and good! If you are chaotic evil and you use black magic to protect a village against an invasion of zombies, then that village will hunt you down with torches and pitchforks because you’re an evil bastard who uses dark magic.
Cast away the old notion of alignment. Approach the subject from the foundation of knowing that it’s all relative and fluid. Because then you wind up saying things like “there’s good murder, and there’s bad murder.” The truth of the matter is, my character is coming off as an abhorrent, evil, homicidal villain. And to me, that means I’m roleplaying very well. To me, that means he’s not just committing good murder:
He’s committing great murder.