This post is the end of a long road! It started with a guest article by Garry Stahl, “The Conundrum Of Alignment”. Parts two and three highlighted what I believe to be the causes of the problems Garry identified, and provided an alternative perspective on Alignment that turned it into one of the most useful and powerful tools at the GM’s disposal, while eliminating those problems at the same time. In part four, I offered an example of the use of this technique for the generation of a complex political structure within a single “old school” alignment, an all-neutral association of Druidic Orders. In this final part, I’m going to talk about the interpretation of alignment in my Shards Of Divinity campaign.
What is an “Evil Campaign”? Is it a campaign in which the PCs are all dark and sinister bad guys, but the rest of the world has a traditional moral focus? Is it a campaign in which the dominant powers are evil and the characters have no choice in their starting morality? Is it a campaign set in a dystopia in which the bad guys usually win instead of the “good guys always win” that we’re more accustomed to? Or is it a campaign in which the normal alignments are viewed from a twisted, cynical perspective which gives characters of any moral fibre licence to be as rotten as they want?
Most of these options can provide a good campaign premise, but when I started prepping my Shards Of Divinity campaign, and promised my players an “evil campaign”, the latter is what I had in mind. Throughout the campaign background, selfish self-interest overwhelmed everything from honesty, duty, fealty, and honour, all the way through to the parent-child bond itself.
That alone is enough to make the world ruthless, and scheming, and merciless, and selfish, and darkly cynical, but it wasn’t enough to make it truly Evil. To achieve that, I had to twist the very concepts of morality to make these acts not only ever-present and successful, but to make them moral.
In order to ensure that the players got the point, I decided to deliberately use the standard labels for alignment, and merely change the definitions. The contrast between the way in which these were usually percieved and the way I would describe them would explain the innately evil perspective of the world far more clearly than anything else could.
I must emphasise that these were not intended to be the way these alignments were percieved, as though the philosophies behind them had simply been misinterpreted; these were to be the true definitions, as expounded by the holy books of the world, as accurate a definition of the morality of the Gods as the usual descriptions are in a standard D&D campaign.
What follows is the introduction to the section on alignment in the House Rules for the Shards Of Divinity campaign, edited slightly for clarity. It is followed, as it was in those House Rules, by the definitions of the alignments themselves, and by discussions of various other aspects of alignment which the players needed to know about.
I must pay tribute where it is due – one of the key supplements apon which the Shards Of Divinity campaign was founded is “Evil” by AEG, and SOME of what is presented below derives from that book. As I wrote when I included it in my top-20 3.x supplements, For anyone who contemplates a campaign with evil PCs, this supplement is essential reading. It’s only slightly less useful and important for anyone who merely wants to have NPCs to throw at their players. Hey, what do you know – that’s just about everyone. Even if you aren’t using 3.x; even if your campaign isn’t fantasy, it’s Sci-Fi or Wild West or whatever; even if you’re playing a choose-your-own-adventure (!), this is still recommended reading.
The nature of an Evil campaign
Read any supplement on running an Evil Character or an Evil Campaign and you will soon discover that they all assume that being “Good” is the natural default state of sentients, and that some reason or event is responsible for pushing the character towards “The Dark Side”.
What poppycock! The Shards Of Divinity campaign takes place in a world in which the natural order is Neutral Evil, with slight lawful tendancies. It’s normal to place your own needs at the top of the heap. People unite into national bodies and other affilliations through mutual self-interest (enlightened or otherwise). If a ruler places the welfare of his people ahead of his own immediate needs, it is because that is sometimes the price that must be paid in order for him to continue receiving the perqs and fringe benefits that go with the job in the long term. The only difference lies in whether or not he accepts a reduction in immediate material gratification over other, less tangible, forms of gratification.
The World, in one sense, is pessimistic – everyone assumes that everyone else is going to put themeselves first. Some people are willing to suffer a lack of gratification now in exchange for an eternity of gratification in the afterlife, and that’s a fair-enough position to take – but thats STILL looking out for #1. And some people are foolish – there’s a sucker born every minute.
Organisations bribe (there’s no other word for it) their members with benefits for assisting the Organisation, either by amassing power and authority that can be wielded, when necessary, on the member’s behalf, or with some other reward.
The problem with attributing some need or cause to a character’s “Turn To Evil” is the question of what happens if and when that need is fulfilled. In this context, reading the “Evil” supplement by AEG makes it clear that some clarification of Alignments is necessary, given that the context assumed is so different from that which is generally accepted. By avoiding the whole concept of “Turning to evil”, that problem (which could derail the entire campaign) is avoided.
Chaotic characters think they know better. Their unifying concept tends to be ‘look out for the little guy’. They are convinced that (in general) Bureacracies are inherantly vulnerable to corruption, and hence can never fulfill their mandate of ensuring that everyone gets “their fair share”. However, smaller bureacracies can keep corruption manageable far better than the massive, bloated institutions preferred by those of Lawful Alignment. They never make plans that will take more than a year or so to come to fruition, and prefer to live one day at a time. Chaotic Characters tend to have “Fear Of The Big Guy” as their unifying factor.
They also believe that bureacracies are inflexible, and can’t keep up with a changing world, no matter how beneficial they may be in the short term, and that the ends can never justify the means, because circumstances will have rendered those ends meaningless by the time you get there.
Each CG character has a personal philosophy that they live by (whether they can articulate it or not) and tend to think that if everyone simply adopted that philosophy, the world would be a better place. No two if these personal philosophies are ever the same.
NG Characters believe that some level of Bureacracy is necessary, but too much is just as bad as not enough. They often justify the satisfaction of ambition in terms of what they will be able to achieve after the victory. They think that Lawful characters get carried away with their grand plans and lose track of the practicalities of the situation, but that some level of detailed planning is necessary.
NG characters will make plans for periods of 5 to 10 years, and will tend to include strategies for early exits from plans that aren’t working out. They avoid committing themselves irrevocably to anything.
LG is beauracratic. The LG character wants to ensure that everyone gets ‘Their Fair Share”. They can be generous in exchange for promised rewards in the afterlife. Usually, they consider the price, and the danger, of disobeying the law to be disproportionate to the benefits received – at least in the long term.
Lawful characters are planners, and tend to look at the big picture. They often make plans that may not be complete in their lifetime, convinced that someone else will see the project through – they are often idealists & dreamers. Good characters generally try to be popular. IT IS LAWFUL GOOD FOR A PALADIN TO REFUSE TO LAY HANDS ON A MEMBER OF THE UNFAITHFUL.
Lawful Good characters can quite happily serve an evil master, convinced that they are thus in a position to moderate more extreme villainy, or that the ultimate ends justify the means. They also believe that an unjust law is preferable to no law at all. At it’s simplest, LG characters act noble because the resulting adoration strokes their egos.
Chaotics tend to do what they want when they want it, doing whatever seemed like a good idea at the time.
Chaotic Neutrals are prone to consider themselves to be ‘one of the boys’ or the equivalent, neither foolish enough to waste their lives in altruism or greedy enough to put themselves ahead of the common man. They tend to ignore laws they don’t feel like following, unless seriously concerned about getting caught, and don’t believe in planning for the future, or in rehashing the past; they consider themselves to be too practical for such nonsense.
The True Neutral has rules – but interprets them flexibly. They care little for the welfare of the common herd, and usually have a broadly-defined social group or other collection of creatures whose interests they place in the ascendancy.
Druids, for example, are usually either floracentric or faunacentric; the first contructs a grove as a haven for plants and takes in animals as defenders of the grove; the second constructs a grove as a santuary for animals and takes in plants for the shade, shelter, and food that they provide.
The less tolerant of endless debate about philosophy a character is, the more neutral they tend to be, lacking a strong passion for any specific perspective.
LN Characters believe that rules are paramount above all. The ability to make and enforce rules is what seperates the sentient from the beasts. It is when most tempted to break the rules that it is most necessary to adhere to them.
Lawful Neutrals do not make plans, they make procedures for developing plans – and follow the outcomes religiously. But procedures are utterly dependant on the assumptions on which they are founded, and tend to flounder when presented with a new situation, fumbling around in search of an analogy apon which to base a procedure that will generate a plan – which hopefully will solve the problem.
For example, if the application of a law is biased against the poor – for whatever reason – and the laws are founded on the premise that all are equal before them, the Lawful Neutral is lost, or worse yet, tries to add a clause to ‘even the scales’ which usually just provides another loophole for the rich to crawl through.
Lawful Neutrals are at their best coping with effects, not causes. Some have a personal code which they will employ as the guiding principle of everything they do, and which they will impose on others if given the chance, no matter how poorly it may apply. Nevertheless, if they give their word, they will honour it in both word and spirit; this just makes them more cautious about giving that word. Lawful Neutrals are often referred to as Judges, beacuse they judge everything around them according to an inflexible standard – their own, or one that they have accepted as their own.
The unifying factor that binds Chaotic Evil characters together with others is not a foolish idealism or mediocre conformity, it’s ‘fear of the big guy’. Chaotic Evil has a reputation for being the “evilest evil” because big red dragons and “unspeakable demons from hell” were chaotic evil. There is in fact a connection, but it is actually in the other direction: Big Red isn’t powerful because he’s chaotic evil, he’s chaotic evil because he’s powerful (when you win almost any arguement by saying, “Tell it to the Breath Weapon” there’s not a lot of incentive to be reasonable or organised).
Chaotic Evil is Lazy Evil; it gets things done in the simplest and most direct way, without worrying about consequences. Chaotic Evil can also be considered “Efficiency” by its adherants. Want your neighbour’s house? Conk him on the head and move in (posession is nine-tenths of the law, or so it is said). Don’t like big, brawny do-gooders creeping into your house at night? Waste ‘em. Then park the bodies where they’ll never resurface. Nothing troubling you at the moment? Take a nap, or better yet, a night off for celebration.
Chaotic Evil types tend to hang out together because they understand one another. One will quickly establish himself as the pack leader and then it’s on with the fun – and no sense of responsibility dragging you down. These groups don’t have a lot of rules or formal structures; the boss is the boss because he gets things done and busts any heads that disagree. The underlings want to be the boss, and sooner or later one will get too ambitious – if the leader doesn’t crush him like a bug first – but in the meantime…
Chaotic Evil groups are akin to bikie gangs in old 1950s horror movies – tough, mean, and unpredictable, they ride in and take what they want and then ride out – because there’s no reason to stay; they’re off to the next town ripe for the picking.
Individually, Chaotic Evil types tend to be tougher and more resourceful when cornered because they’re more likely to do crazy things like fight to the death, or meet a massed charge with one of their own. Their tactics tend to be built around mobility, surprise, and overwhelming force. But because they burn twice as bright, they last only half as long.
Chaotic Evil characters hate to back down from an open fight. They are macho, bravura, the fastest gun, the meanest dog with the toughest fleas. They would rather go down fighting than lose face.
If Chaotic Evil is the motorcycle gang who kick down your door, steal your stuff, then burn the house down for kicks, Lawful Evil is the faceless bureacracy that seizes your house through eminant domain laws, confiscates your property with a court-ordered foreclosure, puts your pet down because he wasn’t registered, and then offers to rent your old house back to you at a ‘reasonable rate’. Lawful Evil is organised, methodolical, and insidious.
Violence is the last resort, resorted to only if blackmail, bribery, threats, intimidation, and devious backroom political manouverings have failed – and then at the hands of some lackey who can take the fall if necessary.
Lawful Evil hates open fights only a little more than they hate any sort of fighting; it would much rather sneak into your bedroom, cast a sleep spell to male sure you’re really out, then put a pillow over your face. SO much tidier.
Lawful evil is all about obedience, order, and deferring gratification. Where chaotic evil wants it now, lawful evil wants it all, and if it has to wait ten years to wear you down, it will – the sacrifice will make the victory all the sweeter.
Lawful evil organisations might have a few noteworthy individuals who serve as champions and leaders, but for the most part they produce cogs in a machinery of oppression – break one and another pops out of the military academy (or equivalent) to take their place, and the machine rolls on.
They are masterminds and plotters – they will have a plan, and then a contingancy plan if the first doesn’t work. And if they are smart enough, jumping off points and plausible deniability and a backup contingancy plan and at least three hidden exits and two patsies.
If Lawful Evil has a flaw, it is that it has trouble coping with surprises and the unexpected; if they do not have a plan for whatever occurs, they will tend to flounder and make mistakes. They seek to avoid this uncomfortable situation by planning for as many contingancies as possible.
Neutral Evil people are sometimes described as Chaotic Evil with a modicum of impulse control. They both respect laws (for other people) and try to find a way around those laws for themselves.
There may be a social structure around them, but it is loosely created and even less adhered to. The ideal position for a neutral evil is one in which they opposition have been convinced to play by the rules – while the neutral evil breaks those rules at every opportunity. They are hypocrites and two-faced liers.
Their goal is not to amass wealth or power, they simply want whatever is at hand for the taking – and once they have finished with it, they will drop it in a ditch and move on. A Neutral Evil character will go to any lengths to obtain their satisfaction – patience, diplomacy, bartering, or even working with a ‘good’ group.
Where you can trust Chaotic Evil to rampage, and Lawful Evil to tyrannize, you just can’t trust Neutral Evil to do anything; they even break their own rules when they find it convenient to do so. They have no problems with impluse control, they can machinate with the best of them – but it usually sounds too much like work; it’s much better to have some flunky in the background doing all the boring stuff and simply keep that flunky intimidated, or well paid, or both.
Neutral Evils like to insinuate themselves into an existing society and abuse it for their own gain while maintaining an air of innocence.
An Evil Party
For an Evil Party to work, every member must have his own reasons for being there. The overall party will take on the characteristics of the strongest member – if he is Chaotic Evil, then so will be the party. The roles within the party dynamic will adapt to reflect this style; the Lawful Evil will carefully manipulate the leader, or try to; other Chaotic Evil types will seek to challenge the leader at the first sign of weakness; and the Neutral Evils will do whatever they want anyway – behind the leader’s back, and if they think they can get away with it.
When another character becomes dominant, these roles and relationships will change, and the party will disintigrate quickly – unless the new leader can satisfy the other members of the party quickly, giving the Chaotics the chance to get rowdy, the Nuetrals the chance for immediate gain, and the Lawfuls the chance to advance their own plots (or be convinced that the new leader’s plots mean more for everyone).
Other Alignments in an Evil Party
The definitions given above should make it clear that there is NO barrier to characters of ANY alignment working with an Evil Party, even on a medium- to long-term basis. However, there will be obvious frictions every now and then between such characters and the Evil master of the party.
Chaotic Evil characters can deal with such frictions the same way they would any other challenge to their authority – by putting the moralising scum in their place. But that is only deferring the problem. A better solution is some simple blackmail.
Neutral Evil characters, in general, don’t care – they can publicly support the ‘foreign’ perspective while doing what they want to do anyway; it’s just a question of how duplicitous they have to be.
Lawful Evil characters can cope best with other alignments in the party, and other alignments can better cope with their presence. Just as they know that they will have to provide a certain degree of opportunity for looting and pillaging to keep the chaotic evils happy, the lawful evils will know that they have to give lawful good followers the chance to occasionally do a good deed, or talk them out of some evil scheme (usually one set up for no other purpose). Letting Chaotic Good characters perform the occasional random act of kindness – in your name – helps insulate you against your true nature. So long as he has hopes of eventually achieving a greater good, the most pure Paladin can serve the vilest black-hearted fiend. And to maintain their power base and keep the support of their henchmen, the vilest black-hearted fiend can permit the occasional act of charity or generosity – it’s for their own benefit in the long run.
Players should not let the ‘darker’ nature of the Shards Of Divinity campaign, or the fact of an Evil Party Alignment, dictate your character’s alignment. It might be more challenging – and more fun – to play a Lawful Good character in the service of such a party.
INTELLIGENCE AND EVIL
First impressions might suggest that intelligent characters would favour Lawful Evil alignments. This is not necessarily the case, though the applicability of intelligence is clearly more obvious with the Lawful Evil alignment. Chaotic Evil characters need to think quickly since they aren’t the type to plan ahead; while Lawful Evil characters can get away with less intelligence applied systematically. It can even be argued that Chaotic Evil needs to be more intelligent! Neutral Evil faces similar demands, where the challenge is to identify what they most want and hatch a short-term plot to achieve it. Since the number of personal gains outnumbers the number of potential group gains, it can also be argued that they are the most intelligent.
While intelligence can be more obviously applied to Lawful Evil, never make the mistake of underestimating the other alignments!
Once again, first impressions are that Chaotic Evil is more suited to those of lower intellectual capabilities, but this is not necessarily the case.
It is often suggested, only half-humerously, that criminal masterminds all need a 6-year-old child ‘on staff’ to spot the holes in their overcomplicated plots; a less intelligent but more diligent Lawful Evil character is better able to dispense with this. Their plots might lack some of the sophistication of their more intelligent counterparts, but the very simplicity of their plans makes them more likely to succeed.
It can be argued, therefore, that lower intelligence is more beneficial for Lawful Evil characters than Chaotic Evil ones! Neutral Evil characters rarely rely exclusively on their intelligence anyway, substituting equal measures of chutzpah and personal charm. They also derive the same benefits as Lawful Evil characters of less intelligence – being less likely to become overwhelmed by their own intelligence, they tend to be more direct and more effective. The moral: don’t let an INT score dictate your alignment; let your alignment dictate how you use your INT.
Wisdom denotes willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition, according to the PHB. This is a definition of only limited utility; Perception is divided by the system into Spot and Search, and only one of these is based on Wisdom. Common Sense is fine – until you run into a character who knows folk wisdom inside and out but has less ability to apply it appropriately than a wooden stump. If Wisdom were common sense then a mob of peasants would have a higher wisdom score than the sum of their parts – but a mob earns its name through a lack of wisdom, not its opposite. That leaves intuition and willpower – which can be rephrased, ‘the character’s ability to guess’ and ‘stubborness’, respectively. But the system uses unskilled die rolls for the ability to guess, and stubbornness is considered an aspect of personality more than a game mechanic.
Certainly, Wisdom can be interpreted as willpower, and the specific value then interpreted in different ways to suit the character, as was done above for Intelligence and the different Evil alignments. But Wisdom needs to be more than just Willpower.
Because Wisdom is the dominant game characteristic of Clerics, some attempt has been made, from time to time, to define it in terms of the characters ability to understand the Will Of The Gods and The Nature Of Divinity and so on. But where does that leave Athiests? Even extending this definition to cover the more philosophic perspective of Druids seems a stretch.
Others have attempted to look over the list of skills that are based on Wisdom in order to discern a common pattern. Heal, Listen, Profession, Sense Motive, Spot, and Survival: what does this collection suggest? The common element seems to be the capacity to interact with the world as it really is without intellectual analysis.
But, while that is a quite servicable definition in most campaigns, even covering the reasons why it should be the dominant characteristic of Clerics in a world where the Gods are real, it doesn’t quite fit Shards Of Divinity, where the majority don’t worship the Gods.
Hold up – there’s a difference between Worship,/em> and Believe In. If the Gods are defined as natural phenomena, no more to be worshipped than the sunrise or a storm at sea, then our definition still fits.
Wisdom is defined in Shards Of Divinity as the ability to react and interact with natural phenomena without intellectual analysis.
It has been suggested on various bulletin boards that a Wise character would never be of Evil Alignment, because cooperation gets better results (and is therefore a wiser course of action); and because Wise characters would know that the Gods oppose the Evil of Demons and Devils, and usually win. Unless you come from a world where good doesn’t always win, or is (at best) less clear-cut than the usual definitions, and where the Gods are not considered Divine, just Powerful, by a significant proportion of the population. Hey – that describes the Shared Kingdoms to a ‘T’!
The Shared Kingdoms is the political authority within the campaign. Nominally a democracy. But that’s a whole other discussion for some other time and place.
Wisdom is therefore no barrier to playing an Evil Character.
So that’s my basic recipe for an “Evil” campaign. It’s not a very pleasant place, and you can often feel like donating to charity to cleanse yourself after GMing it for a while. But there are some serious philosophical questions lurking in the tall grass, questions that (in due course, and if all goes according to plan) will eventually smack the PCs around the head and demand to be answered – choices of action, in other words. There won’t be any right answers or wrong answers, of course – just consequences for the characters.
I hope that this Focus On Alignment has given you the raw materials to ponder the role of alignment in your campaigns; there is nothing wrong, per se, with Garry’s answer. Or with my techniques of relabelling and/or redefining. Or even, if it’s so inherantly bound to your campaign, for staying with the existing and default system.
A simple alignment structure doesn’t have to imply a simple moral or ethical structure. The absence of an alignment structure doesn’t necessarily enhance a moral or ethical structure. Make the choice that’s right for your game – but don’t just choose what’s in the books because it’s what is in the books. Think about the question, and the implications, and Then decide.