Before people get the wrong idea — this piece primarily discusses D&D and assorted RPG alignments, though there’s a healthy portion of pseudo-philosophy dolloped alongside. So no, I’m not trying to rehash Nietzsche or recite Thomas Ligotti talking points. I just wanna take a closer look at how we perceive good and evil in the context of my favorite TTRPG.
A Matter of Alignment: The Mechanics of Morality
Dungeons and Dragons (DND) and several derivative TTRPGs handle alignment in a strange way. Of course, once you start trying to apply gameplay mechanics to something as complex as philosophical ethics and personal morality, you’re going to have a bad time. Why a fantasy-based, combat driven roleplaying system would even bother to include such mechanics is somewhat baffling, until you look at the roots of these games and the literature that inspired them.
DND especially draws heavily from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which (unless you’re the proverbial rock-dweller I’ve heard so much about) I shouldn’t have to explain in terms of its cultural and literary legacy. While a deeper reading of The Lord of the Rings is possible, and many characters are given profound arcs in which they must battle their inner demons before they can do the right thing (Boromir and Theoden come to mind), the evil characters are just that… evil.
The only baddies who hint towards a “good” or at least conflicted side are Saruman, Grima Wormtongue, and Gollum*. Saruman’s descent into darkness doesn’t exactly present itself as an inner struggle, but rather as a testament to the overwhelming power of corruption marshaled by Sauron. He turns the most powerful servitor of the good in Middle Earth to his side wielding nothing but a Palantir and false promises. (*correct me if I’m mistaken)
Grima is clearly a scoundrel by birth. Much like the orcs, he seems doomed to serve evil from the moment he enters the world — being craven in both physiognomy and profession. However, his aims are much smaller and infinitely more human than Saruman or even Gollum, who desire possession of an ultimate power. He craves a woman, and his own weakness causes him to pursue her by underhanded means in lieu of traditional courtship. Like Gollum, Grima brings down his own tormentor, showing that even ill intent can play into fate’s hand.
Finally we have Gollum, a miserable wretch so torn and twisted by the Ring that he no longer resembles his own species. Strangely, his tale is the most morally complex of the series. He serves as antagonist to both Bagginses, but also as their guide (more directly for Frodo).
He is an exemplar of everything they stand to become by wearing the Ring, but also develops a genuine sympathy for and from Frodo, one which might have persisted if not for the circumstances. Tolkien uses Gollum to demonstrate that while one may lose themselves to their baser nature, there is still a person underneath all the spiritual detritus, and that they may fulfill a greater purpose in the end.
The Lord of the Rings, for all its greatness, demarcates good and evil about as sharply as serious literary work can manage, and it’s from this lineage that DND is borne. Mirroring the master, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson envisioned a world in which Orcs were born to do evil, Elves to embody grace and freedom, and Dwarves to covet wealth. In fairy tales and myth, this is permissible. The story must be boiled down and condensed if it is to survive the passage of time. But for the more contemporary narratives that DND accommodates, like:
This Tolkienesque worldview begins to crumble. DND’s mechanics are applicable across nearly any fantasy world the DM can construct, but its morality is very much bound to a rich lore and history which exists outside the players’ co-authored experience. Once you broach realms where there are noble Drow or Orcs are merely nomadic tribesmen, the cracks in the foundation begin to show. I’ll call this the “Misconception of Goodness.”
Exploring the Meaning of Neutrality and Goodness in RPG Characters
It’s not my aim to tackle the conundrum of Player Character (PC) alignment in this article. Any greenhorn table-top player knows that the adventuring party is part hero, part murderhobo. Instead, I want to examine the ethics of Non-Player Characters (NPCs) who are typically assigned “goodness” as an alignment or virtue, especially the quintessential “villager.”
PCs are simple, they’re an avatar of an actual human and most folks just want to go out there and rid whichever land of whatever evil. Throw in a rebellious streak and boom — my Chaotic Good ranger is ready to roll. The Misconception of Goodness presents itself in the design/world-building aspect of the game, not player creation.
I’ve read countless adventures, modules, and even my own homebrews where the pattern bore out again and again (Ravenloft being notable exception): everyone is just so gosh-darn good, except those fellas that the party needs to kill. All across the standard adventurer’s town you meet the same good-natured folks, mainly:
- A helpful barkeep
- The kindly sage
- The honest farmer
These people are, for all intents and purposes, tropes of the aforementioned fantasy worldview. They offer little dimension, and are perfectly understandable when viewing with a singular lens. They bring to mind old adages like: “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Much like our avatars, these people are heroes in the womb, waiting either for motive or means to manifest before they too take up the mantle and serve the good. So, when you scan their NPC statistics, you can expect to find one of three categories present in the alignment section:
- Neutral Good
- Chaotic Good
- Lawful Good
The orderliness aspect of the alignment makes sense, we all have tendencies towards either following rules, disobeying them, or not taking them into account. My problem lies in the second half of the equation: what has the average person (or villager) done to earn the label of “Good?”
Certainly, the lot of us are not malicious folks, but how often do we stick our necks out for a “good” cause? Is donating to the church good? Or is it an extension of one’s lawfulness and desire to stick to established precepts/traditions? The way I see it, the vast majority of people are neutral. In other words, they’re just trying to get by.
Take a few examples from the context of typical medieval village life, the setting that our DND villagers are drawn from. It wasn’t untoward of a loving parent to take their child to the stockades to watch a brutal execution or toss rotten fruit at pilloried offenders (and these practices continued right up until modern times).
Did they do this because they believed public punishment as a useful deterrent against evil, or is it another instance of following norms and social conventions of the time? At what point can you call yourself “good” without blushing?
I don’t doubt that those good people exist, or even that they exist in large numbers. Many powerful movements like Abolition required the support of millions, and often at the risk of their livelihoods or even their lives. I just doubt that every barmaid is an avatar for the forces of well-being, or that every scummy Baron’s servant is possessed by the spirit of “neutral evil.”
Again, I’d wager that most of us are neutral. We keep our heads down and try to make sure that the neck is only stuck out so far. How many times have we kept our mouths shut when we could’ve spoken out? Or drove past a lost dog on the highway? Or otherwise just “minded our own business” to avoid getting into serious trouble?
Oftentimes the “good” action or path is an unpopular one (see example: Jesus), and goes against the common will of a given group. Therefore, should not more of those “commoners” be labeled as True Neutral, rather than blithely ascribing goodness to the entire populace? I think it’s time we take a long hard look in the mirror and do a little alignment adjusting.
Of course, I could be entirely wrong! What’s your thought on this? Am I being overly pedantic? Have I taken a lighthearted adventuring game’s morality system too seriously? Both are probably true, and I want to hear the angel’s advocate out. Let me know what you think in the comments, or join my server for lively game discussion at all hours. Thanks for the read folks.
By Jared Carpenter