RPG Design – Spinning On The Axis Of Evil

   Does a game really need any kind of an “alignment” system?

   Evil isn’t always easy to recognize, although many gamers and game masters seem to have it confused with psychotic madness, which usually is.

   Lets say that we have a ruler, who’s chief delights lie in exterminating his enemies and destroying their countries, the tormented deaths of innocents, commanding armies of swarming peasants in drudgery, enslaving and humiliating people, and indulging his appetites with any young woman who catches his eye – and sees nothing wrong with enjoying himself by doing all of that as regularly as possible and murdering anyone who attempts to interfere.

   OK, we’re probably safe in saying that we have an evil overlord there.

   Now, that could describe a raving maniac who leads his armies of murderous fanatics in a wave of death and destruction across the land. The description is a bit overblown, but quite a few people throughout history would have found it quite recognizable indeed; they’d just have pointed at the latest or best-known example of the times.

   Of course, it could also describe people who have been hailed as some of the greatest and wisest rulers in history. COMPETENT evil wants to remain in charge – to continue indulging itself for all time to come. That means:

  • Keeping the majority of the your people happy. If you want to declare war on someplace, make it out to be a menace – whether it is or not – and share the loot with your major supporters. After all, happy people work harder, pay more taxes, and require a lot less supervision – which means more resources to devote to your harem, your further conquests, running the games arena, and building that giant temple to yourself.
  • If you want to massacre people, or enjoy the tormented screams of small children, make sure that they’re “enemies of the realm” and their offspring – and make sure that they actually have been doing something. Everyone will nod approvingly at wise self-defense; no one likes knowing that your guards might kick in the door for no reason and drag them away. If you run a large empire, there will always be plenty of criminals, traitors, and utter failures to indulge yourself with.
  • If you want to command armies of swarming peasants in drudgery, that’s not too big a problem; most of their lives are like that anyway. Just present the food that you’d have to give them anyway as “pay”, make sure that the vast majority of peasants aren’t being conscripted at any given time, and have some portion of them working on building useful stuff – canals, fortresses and walls to keep out the “foreign invaders”, and so on. If such projects are to “keep them safe”, they will never think about the fact that they are also your iron fist. If you throw in the occasional keg of beer with permission to have a party and return some small portion of the taxes you were collecting from them in the first place, they’ll love you for it.

   Keep that up long enough, and you’ll pass on a strong kingdom to your heirs and be remembered as a great, good, and wise king. From the point of view of the country, you were – and the point of view of the people you massacred doesn’t matter. They won’t be leaving descendants, or writing history books.

   Remember, Vlad the Impaler, Attilla the Hun, and many more are still cultural heroes in their own lands.

   In other words, even up close, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between competent evil and competent gray. At a distance, It may not be possible to tell the difference between “good” and “evil” at all. A well-intentioned fool can make just as big a mass as any malicious villain.

   Much of the confusion about “evil” comes from a basic problem; it’s a very abstract concept that goes back a long time. Back to the point where everyone (instead of just a portion of the population) seriously believed that the world was full of spirits and that “random chance” did not exist.

   It was comforting to believe that there were comprehensible motives for everything that happened; it meant that you had some chance of getting around the forces of nature or of buying them off – rather than simply being at the mercy of the cosmic roulette wheel.

   Thus, anything that went wrong was “evil” or came out badly – often the result of the activities of malicious spirits, but occasionally simply the rightful revenge of slighted spirits or an attempt by the powers of good to get humans to behave properly. Thus, if there was a famine due to a lack of rain, evil had come upon the nation.

   You could also find evil in the heart: if you were doing something for unpleasant motives, you were being evil – no matter if the actual outcome was good. If you cursed someone in your heart, and sent them a gift intended to embarrass them, and it saved their life, YOU were still evil, even if you weren’t very good at it.

   Finally, evil could be found in particular acts. Desecrating a shrine or relic was an act of evil, and subject to divine punishment, even if it was totally accidental and inadvertent – or even if it was meant to be helpful. For a truly classic example, go biblical. If an unsanctified individual touched the Ark of the Covenant – even inadvertently, or to try and catch it when it’s sacred bearers stumbled and it seemed about to fall – he or she would be struck down. That wasn’t a “wrong” outcome, and there was no malicious intent in it. It was just the way things had to be; the act of desecrating the sacred Ark was inherently evil and had to be punished, no matter what the motive for it was.

   Today a really clever plan can be described as “that’s just evil!” simply on the basis that it’s perceived to be so good that the opposition will have no way to stop it, and therefore the plan itself is inherently unfair. In the old days, that really wasn’t a consideration. Enemies were for disposing of, not for coddling.

   Now all of those definitions are still in play today – and mostly work tolerably well. The vague and generic concept suffices for most communications, since “evil” is generally a value judgement on something that says little more than “I really don’t like this!”.

   Things go downhill when you start trying to write actual game rules about good and evil though.

   The first approach – based on outcomes – doesn’t really work. The outcome for who? And how long after? In the real world – and in a long campaign – the consequences of events continue into the indefinite future, spawning results that are – from any particular viewpoint – both good and bad. The outcome-based approach only works in classical literature because you’re only getting one viewpoint – that of the guy who wrote whatever-it-is that you’re reading – from the point in time when he wrote it. After all, the terrible flood might be destroying your crops and fields one day, and a chronicler writing at that time would label it a dreadful evil upon the land. Next month, it might be known as the flood that swept away the overwhelming enemy army, and saved the lives of everyone in the entire kingdom that said overwhelming army had intended to massacre to the last infant.

   Motives are impossibly slippery. Most real people have multiple motives for everything they do – and their characters can have assigned their own motivations. Unless your game also grants telepathy and an analytic mind, a fast talker can spin a reasonable-sounding rationale for why virtually any action is in accord with any given ethical system. The human race has been trying to sort out ethics and motives for thousands of years; you’re not going to be able to do it in a set of rules.

   The “list of evil deeds” approach is the next fallback – but starts running into trouble when the situation gets at all complex. Sure, killing a kid is evil – but what if it’s a pair of conjoined twins, who will both soon die if not separated, despite the certainty that the separation is sure to kill one of them? What is the answer when your choice is “two kids die or one kid dies and one lives”? Aren’t there arguments in both sides?

   Is it better or worse if you know which one in advance?

   What if, what if… The list approach inevitably leads to the conclusion that Motive Does Not Matter – but many people are uncomfortable with the notion that a random storm may perform evil actions. They – with a modern understanding of “chance” – feel that accidents and random results may be bad, but they aren’t really evil.

   Worse, the list approach is inherently endless. There’s always another variant on any given action – and if a game designer falls back on the “game masters judgement” in a list situation with no clear rules, he or she is simply copping out. All that says is “use the rules and the list in your head; we couldn’t be bothered thinking about our own mental list and rules enough to come up anything workable here”. That’s very bad design.

   It’s more realistic to present characters with a personality quiz – but that sort of thing only really works with the more dedicated role-players, and who has time to do one for all the NPC’s?

   In general in game design, it’s best to leave “Good” and “Evil” as abstract concepts or – at most – as labels to be attached to benign and malevolent forces. Otherwise you’re asking for the same sort of good-versus-evil arguments that are STILL going on about Dungeons and Dragons. Give your characters a motivation or two, and a couple of personality traits, and let them find out that the opposition may be more than a bunch of combat statistics and a sign saying “Appropriate Target Here!”.

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4 Responses

  1. Well the definition I tend to use these days is as follows:

    Evil – The purposeful actions that benefit someone at the expense of the rest of society (tribe).

    Good – The purposeful actions that benefit society (tribe) at personal expense.

    Good actions tend to see the community survive and thrive while evil actions tend to impair the survival of the society.

    Now you can get into my society versus their society or what defines a given group. Such as the good of the company versus the good of the town. But then we are living in a world increasingly tied together as a whole.

    • Oh, in part – but that judges by outcome at a particular point in time, and assumes competence on the part of the people acting. You can go to motives with much the same definition by considering the apparent intent of the actions rather than their actual outcome.

      If you go by behavior patterns that tend to impact societies in particular ways, you arrive at the basis of the Character Profile section in Eclipse – although that doesn’t attempt to judge things as “good” or “evil” and had the usual problem with such systems of being good for detailed characters but not much help with those swarms of NPC’s.

      Sadly, of course, any attempt at a precise definition tends to inhibit communication with people who aren’t using the same one.

  2. This reminds me of The Last Ringbearer, which I found to be a captivating alternate tale of Middle-Earth (as it’s based around the idea that the “winners” wrote the history, there).

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