What Do We Mean By Evil?

D&D’s concept of alignment has always been a decisive idea. It allows clear cut game mechanics such as Protection from Evil spells and the Turning Undead ability that mimic the effects found in fantasy and horror fiction. But it has always been problematic whenever it is applied to a “realistic” situation. Were the terrorist behind the Twin Towers attack evil? What about the crews who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How about George Custer and his attacks on the native Americans?

The simple fact is that evil is merely a matter of perspective rather than a clearly definable act or belief system.

Good Characters in an Evil World

My thoughts on this are promoted by my Rome campaign and Rob’s point in 5 Roleplaying Tips. My campaign world is based on historical Rome with very few fantasy elements. The problem I had with alignment was how can you define a character as good or evil in 1st century Rome?

Slavery was legal and widespread yet I think everyone reading this would consider slavery evil. A slave owner could kill a slave they owned. Not only was this perfectly legal but it was socially acceptable. Likewise a man could kill his wife if he believed she had committed adultery. No trial or hearing was needed, the husband could simply killed her. A ‘good’ person may not actually kill their wife or slaves but they would knowingly associate with people who do. How does guilt by association work in an alignment system?

The famous roman gladiatorial games raise even more alignment problems. Actual gladiators were often volunteers so proper fights are an ethical gray area but what about the punishment of criminals? After a quick trial (if they were lucky) tens or hundreds of prisoners would be killed by animals, burnt alive or executed in inventive and painful ways. Clearly an evil act to inflict that much suffering but is it evil to watch it? The Coliseum seated 80,000 people who cheered as the unfortunate souls in the arena died terrible deaths. Are all those spectators evil?

In such a city as ancient Rome, nearly every citizen could be reasonably classed as evil.

Drastic Solutions

Faced with a situation where the simplistic alignment system did not work, I simply ditched the whole concept. No alignment means no alignment based spells so any spell relating to good, evil, law or chaos was now meaningless. It also means that gods cannot demand their worshippers be a particular alignment and that various magic items are now junk.

On the plus side, a necromancer can be the kindest, gentlest soul on the planet who just happens to spend their time playing with dead bodies.

Does It Work?

Yes. Ditching the alignment system works for Rome because the whole campaign is written with this in mind. I suspect that trying to run off-the-shelf adventures in an alignment free world would be more problematic. Though I like the idea of starting a campaign normally and, once the characters have gained a few levels, then removing alignment due to some cataclysm in the divine world. Both players and monsters now have to cope with a world where all there old certainties have disappeared.

Image Credit – Hear Speak See by Steven Mileham