Thursday, July 5, 2012

Of Good & Evil, Law & Chaos, Games & Real Life

(I made a post touching on this on G+, but this is a bit long for a G+ comments, so I'm blogging and sending it to G+ too)

In a typical fantasy RPG session, a "good" aligned character will probably be involved in more direct violence (killing, maiming, etc) in the very first encounter than a real life police officer will have shooting incidents in a 20 year career (as a side note, most Law Enforcement Officers will have Zero Shooting incidents in their career). By the end of the first adventure, PCs will probably experience more violence than most soldiers see in their entire career (yep, that's more of a peace time quote, but overall it is accurate).

Now, spread those adventures over a 10 level career, with 4 to 6 adventures per level, and you have a shit load of violence that your "good" aligned PCs have been involved in. A shit load of blood on those hands. Not all is guaranteed to have been "evil blood".

See, I really don't think you can put "real life" morals into RPGs, unless the point of the game you are trying to play is basically about "real life morals".

I'm not saying you should choose a play style that makes the folks at your table uneasy (unless, again, that is the point of the game - what might fit into a CoC game won't work in Weird West or Gangbusters). What I am saying is that judging "in game actions" with a real life moral compass is not just an act of futility, but is an act that attempts to move gaming into "real life". Wasn't the idea that gamers couldn't distinguish between the two put to death in the later 80s and early 90s?

Here's the take on alignment from the Adventurer Conqueror King System Core Rulebook (quoted here for the sake of this discussion- page 37). Notice the choices are the classic Three Alignments, and that Lawful doesn't mean "good" necessarily and Chaotic isn't a synonym for "Evil"? Neutral is where the vast majority fall. Italics where present are added by me.

As an aside, this is in my mind a workable alignment system that doesn't pigeonhole PCs' actions based upon a narrow definition of alignment.


In the Adventurer Conqueror King System, your character will
enter a world of ceaseless violent struggle, where civilization
is ever-assailed by forces intent on its destruction. In this
perilous realm, he will be called to choose a side: Will he pledge
to defend civilization and its allies against those who seek to
destroy it? Will he sell his sword to any who can offer fame or
fortune? Or will he become an agent of entropy and destruction
undermining peace and order? This choice is called Alignment,
and the three choices are Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.

Law: Lawful beings believe that civilization is worth fighting
for. Despite its vices and villainies, civilization must be defended
against those who would destroy it. Lawful beings tend to see
wars among civilizations as aiding the cause of Chaos, and so
they seek peace among Lawful civilizations where possible.
However, Lawful characters are not pacifists, nor are they
necessarily altruists. Indeed, most would think something was
wrong with a hero who turned down fame and fortune; chests
of gold, magnificent weapons, comely consorts, and grants of
land are, after all, the rightful rewards for great deeds of valor
on behalf of Law.

Neutrality: Neutral beings generally enjoy the benefits of law
and civilization, but it is not something they directly fight for.
They tend to focus on their own ends, whether those are family,
fame, fortune, pleasure, or power. A Neutral mercenary might
be found fighting on behalf of Law or Chaos; a Neutral farmer
tends his crops and pays his taxes, whether to the Patriarch or
the Lich-King.

Chaos: Chaotic beings actively seek to destroy civil society.
Chaotic characters are often madmen or cultists of forgotten,
chthonic gods. To the extent they have any order at all, societies
of Chaotic characters are ruled by force and fear, and are often
characterized by all manner of corruption and vice. Even
decadent Lawful civilizations at least pay homage to civilizing
virtue, but chaotic civilizations embrace their corruption.

Note that a character’s choice of Alignment doesn’t determine
whether or not he takes care of his children, cheats on his wife,
or steals from the merchant’s guild. It is concerned only with the
weighty issue of where his allegiance lies in the grand struggles
of existence. To have an alignment of Lawful or Chaotic is to
have chosen a side in this perpetual struggle. Many people,
choosing no side, are Neutral, although it is important to
remember that most Neutrals still want the protection of Law
even though they are not willing to die for it. (To paraphrase
George Orwell, Neutral humans sleep peaceably in their beds
at night only because Lawful heroes stand ready to do violence
on their behalf.)

Human vices, such as greed, lust, and vanity, are widespread
and common even in Lawful societies. But Chaotic societies
are characterized by their monstrous vices: Genocide, human
sacrifice, wanton destruction, cannibalism, necrophilia, and so
on. Evil is all-too-human in every civilization, but Chaotic is 
something both more and less than human.


  1. Much as the nine alignments are weird, once you start trying to define alignment in more reasonable terms the whole thing starts to slide toward meaningless distinctions.

    The DCC approach is perhaps better in that Law and Chaos are more physically embodied opposed philosophical forces and an excess of either is really doesn't go well for humans. At least it's balanced that way. The ACKS system talks a good game in the section you quote, at least at first, but it really kind of falls apart because it ends up saying "lawful doesn't always mean good, but chaotic always means super evil".

  2. yeah, i could have quoted DCC, but ACKS is my current campaign game (DCC I run in short Arcs) and it was more relevant to how I am currently running stuff.

    Law & Chaos works fine so long as 95% of the population is neutral ;)


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