One of the big questions that every GM should consider when creating their D&D campaign is how to resolve the anarchy of the theological implications of the cosmology.
It’s a simple question: In a world where miracles are readily apparent at the hands of every cleric, where Gods and Demons and Devils and Heaven and Hell are demonstrably real, why would anyone in their right minds choose to be evil?
A proven eternity of torment awaits anyone who transgresses, according to standard theology – and even if you found room for doubt based on a multiplicity of theologies, why would you take a chance?
In standard christian belief, Evil can succeed in tempting the weak because there is room for doubt and confusion. As soon as there is concrete evidence, never mind proof, resistance to temptation should rocket skywards.
D&D attempts to resolve this solution by utilizing multiple pantheons and different versions of Hell (in the form of the planes of the Abyss) but the solution is only half-hearted. Devils and Demons remain standard (if high-level) encounters, and much of the descriptions of the 9 Hells and other planes of the Abyss are relatively standard extracts from christian belief.
The Fumanor Solution
So concerned was I about this particular problem that I decided to do away with evil entirely within the theology of my Fumanor campaign, making it all about a Nihilistic Chaos and a Desperately Rigid Order.
Of course, the morality of the situation I devised is not that simple. The Chaos powers are too disorganized to plan, instead coming up with new stratagems on the spot and executing them immediately. That doesn’t make them dumb, by any means – in fact, they are frighteningly intelligent. It can be argued that it takes even more intellectual firepower to fight an organized planner to a standstill than it does to devise and prepare contingency plans in case your current scheme fails.
Because the landscape keeps shifting on them, the Gods are forced to continually reassess and revise their plans, being forced into progress despite themselves, when what they would prefer would be to act as a constant, consistent foundation for the mercurial changes of mortals to build apon.
The two sides really do need each other in order to be complete, but both consider any such proposal to be heresy of the worst kind.
There is also an interesting moral inversion at work in that the progressives are frequently painted as being the good guys and the conservatives the bad, out of touch with reality. The result is a very 1950s flavor to the campaign, which at the same time is also very modern.
Everything that connects with the problem described in my opening paragraphs is explained as the manifestation or creation of one side or another. The Chaos Powers created demons to do their bidding, so the Gods created devils to interfere and compete with the Demons while creating Celestials to oppose both and keep them in check. All the temptations of evil are actually manifestations of Chaos. What the PCs have yet to realize is that so are al changes for the better. :)
The Fumanor Solution was not intended to become the be-all and end-all answer to the problem; I fully expected to need to implement one of the two solutions given below. It just worked out that I could answer all my questions using the fundamental Law-vs-Chaos conflict that I had already made fundamental to that campaign – if not perfectly, then at least, well enough.
Do as I say, not as I do
The Fumanor solution is a half-measure, and I’m the first to admit it. That it works is immaterial to that assessment. There are better answers.
There are two real solutions to these quandaries that I have been able to come up with, and detailing them is the purpose of this article.
What Fools These Mortals Be
The first solution is to link alignment with intelligence, and decide that only the foolish will ignore these obvious moral warnings. The forces of true evil have always been described as infernally deceptive manipulators, after all, and it is not unreasonable that the less-intellectually profound could be misled into a fatal mistake.
This approach mandates a different, even biased, handling of alignment transgressions than that described in the rulebooks. There can be no forgiveness – any moral lapse must leave a permanent stain apon the character of the transgressor. Absolution is a myth under this paradigm, or almost so – perhaps it is simply two, three, four, or even five times as hard to regain lost moral ground.
Under these circumstances, using the planes of Evil for afterlives of torment and punishment works. Demons and Devils run around setting traps and moral quandaries for mortals, testing and tempting them, and with each success, they gain a greater grip over the mortals who have succumbed to temptation.
This is not a perfect solution. Intelligent enemies are often more interesting opponents than the dumb, and this solution takes that off the table – unless you further refine the concept to make Evil something akin to an addiction. If your smart bad guys are all fallen, corrupted, good guys – think Martel in David Edding’s Elenium trilogy – does it all make sense.
You can’t spring this concept on your players without warning, or after the campaign has begun. It has to influence and shape your encounter design and society and theology and mythology from day one. It needs to subtly reshape the rules of the game – aside from alignment and alignment transgressions; there are various spells that may need subtle adjustment. The definition and class description of various classes might need to be tweaked.
As a result, while this is a simpler solution than the alternative discussed below, it is like an iceberg – there will be a lot more work needed behind the scenes and below the surface.
Let Evil Be Evil
The alternative is to redefine the nature of Hell, as depicted and represented in D&D. If it is no longer a place of torment for all who come to reside there, if there is something about that afterlife that is appealing to certain personality types, suddenly the problems all go away.
In any afterlife where there is a judgment rendered, there are always three options. The first is bliss, for those who have led a life of spiritual purity – or who have at least been forgiven and absolved of their sins. The second is condemnation (and possible destruction) for those who have been willingly disobedient to the “pure” moral code. In between these two extremes lie a middle ground – one that holds all manner of promise in terms of game theology.
Why could it not be that both extremes have their needs met by the spirits of those in the middle – until whatever minor infractions that had led to this condition had been paid for?
Two standards of Evil
This defines two different degrees of being Evil – the aristocracy of evil and the peasantry of evil. The aristocrats may be those who are actively evil, or this rank may be reserved for those who enter into pacts with the forces of Darkness, or there may even be a hierarchy of rank between these two levels of commitment to the cause. The peasantry are those who merely succumb to temptation, who take the easy way out.
If the representatives of Evil can offer power not only in this world but in the next, it both increases the appeal of Evil as a way of life and a philosophy, but overcomes the stumbling block that makes choosing that path so nonsensical. If those who labor on Evil’s behalf have a realistic expectation of a life of comfort and ease, with servants and lesser beings to fulfill their every need (no matter how vile), a life of Evil becomes far more tempting – and the playing field for mortal hearts is restored to an even balance.
Unlike the first solution, this can be introduced retroactively. Even if the PCs have been to the planes of Hades and seen the tortured souls of those exiled their, this can be glossed over – if the victims they had seen were neutrals being tortured not for their misdeeds by to demonstrate the power of the true evil souls for whom this was their final reward.
But, if anything, it is more work than the first solution, though it might not seem so at first glance.
- Entire planes of existence need to be redefined;
- the cosmology in back of them needs to be reexamined;
- a whole theology needs to be assembled complete with rituals and mythology;
- the cleric class description needs to be adjusted slightly;
- other classes with theological connections like Paladins, Monks, and Druids need tweaking;
- each of the major races needs to be appraised to integrate the new world-view;
- and finally, some of the standard monsters need to rewritten to fit the new paradigm.
It should be noticed that beyond the general principle of good vs evil, this has no more to do with the standard alignment definitions and treatments than does a duck or a sunset. The ethics and morality can be as complex as desired. Consult my five-part series on Alignment for more discussion in this respect. The link is to part 1, An Unnecessary Evil? which in turn links to the other 5 parts of the series.
So, with all this work to do, why would you choose this solution over the other? Well, firstly, it puts the bad buys on an even playing field with the good guys – which automatically ramps up the challenge and drama of whatever the situation is in the game. Second, it feels far more integrated than the somewhat slapdash first solution. And thirdly, it gives more scope for independent creativity, for making this campaign different from that.
It makes your world more personal, more unique, more a reflection of you and your ideas. It makes your game better – provided you have the prep time to put all those pieces together.
That sounds like a pretty good reason, to me.