A Definition of Evil: an Anecdote (not antidote)

First off, let’s start with this truism. Alignment is stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I don’t use it. Haven’t for over 20 years. This discussion has nothing to do with Lawful Good morons. It is about the mis-adjudication of evil in your roleplaying games.

I hate prologues, but annoying trolls have taught me to cover my ass with this sort of disclaimer so I won’t have someone coming in and saying, “But druids are Neutral Good, blah blah.”

Shut up.


Years ago, I was running D&D for some friends that I didn’t game with regularly. I run a loose sandbox style, but they prefer “point-a/point-b/checklist play.” I was trying to accommodate that with a merc-adventurer type thing.

There were six people altogether if I recall. At one point in the story, Thomas’ thief decides he’s not getting the answers he wants from the guard he’s interrogating. So he knifes him. Let’s him bleed out. Etc.

I don’t stop this kind of behavior. It’s their story, too. I just watch and describe the action.

Later, Thomas’ character was abducted and taken into the night, never to be seen again. I never told them what happened to him. Not even, Thomas.

But a light bulb went off for me at that moment the guard died.

Well all know the PCs are the protagonists of the story. If you’re just dungeon-crawling, this word “story” may confuse you. I suggest you ask your parents.

PCs are also the benchmark of the world’s morality. If they run around treating people like crap, that means most people must behave that way. They are from this culture, after all. They can’t all be jerks by accident. Besides, lots of people just play gruff, stand-offish PCs. In fantasy games, this is fitting.

Add in the fact that people were afraid of strangers in the Middle Ages and this antisocial behavior isn’t so weird.

But behavior and culture are often misinterpreted in gaming. Dwarves for instance are universally stoic. But where does this come from? Why? It is clear the people writing up races for RPGs have never taken a single anthropology course. Behavior is systemic of Culture. What in Dwarven Culture is making them so stoic?

Which leads to an interesting question: who in the game defines culture?

We assume it’s the GM, but that can’t be right. (Here is where my epiphany starts to take shape).

If the PCs are cutthroat assholes, that must mean that world is a dirty, rugged place where resources are scarce and people fight for scraps, etc. When resources are plentiful people become backbiting and gossipy, but they don’t stab one another over table scraps.

Since behavior isn’t just the cliche “elves like wine,” there has to be something deeper. Since behavior IS a reflection of culture, and culture is the framework and shared experience of everyone around you, then culture must be a reverse-engineered application of the PCs’ whims to be jerks.

This is a strange conclusion to make, I agree. But RPG books have been failing to give us the tools we need to do this properly for sometime. It is not an unrealistic observation to say that since certain ingredients are missing from the gumbo you are making, it is now just a soup. The same can be said of RPGs. Rarely do games address the causation of behavior — sure we all know that “Halflings love to smoke pot. Instead they focus on the symptoms of culture, which is behavior. What we really need to know is “why do they smoke the pot?”

If RPGs are a “looking in” hobby where the players take on the roles of the characters, then inherently the players are detached from the experience of the “imagined world” by more than 1 degree. They are taking on the roles of people from a time-period, culture, and world very different from their own. Add enough “fantastic elements” and the players are now six degrees from kevin bacon’s fireball.

Looking into the game world is much like visiting a country with polar opposite cultural values. “I’m not from here. I’m not expecting to respect your customs.” It’s a deeper subconscious idea than we realize, but in actuality it’s what allows us to “kill an orc” in game without a second thought, but in the real world, we would hard-pressed to make the same logically decisions under “real” duress.

What does Thomas’ thief have to do with all of this nonsense?

And where’s that cake I was promised?

When Thomas decided it was okay to kill a defenseless guard who was not in the way, he sent a message that in this campaign, “Life is cheap.” If the PCs reject the value of life, why wouldn’t everybody? Certainly strangers who do not know them will hold them in the same regard that they held the murdered guard.
Thomas’ actions alerted me that others might see his character as the animal he was. While most people were not to be trusted, this one was a violent threat. And people know what to do with threats of this kind.

His disappearance should have been a wake up call to the PCs that the world they were part of was unforgiving (just as Thomas was). Instead, they were confused and angry that the GM could respond this way. Years of gaming in campaigns devoid of culture had trained them to believe they could do what they wanted. They were detached from their actions and didn’t see the correlation. The game didn’t survive much longer and I was glad to stop running for them for a host of other reasons.

But the long-term lessons learned were invaluable. I went on to design in the gaming industry for years, using examples of play like that to frame better tools and material for GMs. And in looking back, I can see a pattern of writing that developed from my understanding of culture and behavior that others may not notice or even enjoy.

In the end, my definition of Evil isn’t the same as the alignment system in D&D. The alignment system was developed by Midwesterners with a value system very different from mine, or even some Spanish player looking at this wheel of options and asking “Que?”

Evil is a moral point of view. And morals are suspect. Everyone has a different moral code. How can we define the term that doesn’t even obey culture?

If Evil means opposition to good behavior, we have to define Good as well. And this cycle can be frustrating. Numerous philosophers have talked this subject to death, so let’s avoid that here and just get to the conclusion.

[Although I’m not against talking about Good and Evil from relativist points of view at another time, either.]


Most would agree that Evil is defined as doing anything harmful to others. It implies intent and it is not easy to miss — in a modern context. But, Evil is also usually defined from the point of view of the victim. He after all was being “good” and someone killed his dog.

But what about the Viking who raids your village? He doesn’t have the same terminology or point of view. When you call him NE that means he is NE in relation to (a self-centered) you, but he is LN in relation to the rest of his brothers who are all obeying their cultural notes — kill, pillage, go home with stuff. In fact, Vikings would just exist on a LN, N, CN continuum by its most absolute definition.

But, in the end, there are just too many environmental and cultural standards to take into account to define EVIL in the present (archaic) alignment system.

Which we agreed we aren’t using.

So, we only have one compass point to direct the moral motivations of any campaign and that is to center everything on the PCs. Ignore the alignment system. Instead develop a threshhold for culture and behavior based from the PCs earliest reactions to crisis. In this, you will know everything you need to know. Their behavior determines everything.

From the PCs, we establish culture, behavior, morality, and ethics. Knowing what they believe and why they believe it, the GM can establish how the NPCs behave. Under this logic, PCs shouldn’t be afraid to play “good guys,” because people who see their true intentions as good and act accordingly. Certainly there will always be opportunists who take advantage of “good” PCs, but that’s not evil. And that’s not something to afraid of.

Optimism, pessimism, realism, opportunism, materialism, and structuralism (to name a few) are points of view. They are not evil because they disagree with you. Another flaw of the “amorality” stance many purists take on everything.

[Lawful Good sucks.]

And when the game fails because people played “evil” characters, you can just point and say “it’s not my fault.” All campaigns rest on the value systems of the PCs. You did this.

So, next time, don’t do that.

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