Of Alignment, Ethics and Morality

We’re told, in our good-vee-evil world, that everything is about “heroes and villains”. This is a post-monotheist way of seeing the world, though: not only were other cultures less inclined to be one-or-the-other, they never would’ve used “hero” and “villain” so carelessly. “Hero”, in the Greek sense, is one who goes to extremes rather than a goodie. Anyone reading the Iliad, expecting to find good and evil, might be surprised to discover that even the losing side – y’know, the one Homer wasn’t on – is described in glowing terms. The baddies in classical myth tend to be monsters, representations of nature at its most vicious, not people with dodgy morals. “Villain” is a medieval term that suggests “peasant”, i.e. it’s about class, our modern use of the word as “evil” being another product of posh people re-writing histories. I’ve never believed in good and evil, in heroes and villains. Fiction survived without that face-off for thousands of years.

Lawrence Miles

I conceived of my approach to matters of practical and cosmological ‘alignment’ years before encountering Miles, but the territory he maps out in that there linked post is essentially that which I’d be happier exploring.

I’ve never been keen on the idea of top-down Good and Evil, Law and Chaos. On one level I see what they’re for – a mechanical process by which antithetical forces can be modelled for the purposes of things like Turn Undead. That’s actually okay, I’m all right with that. The problem I have is when we start talking about people rather than playing pieces; the emotional and political structures implied by having a cosmologically functional idea of alignments just gets on my wick.

Only people who are sick in the soul wake up and think “I’m evil, me, what evil shall I do today?” Everyone else tends to think of what they’re doing as either Right or Wrong But I’m Doing It Anyway. The only time “I’m just evil, okay?” has ever made sense to me was Soon I Will Be Invincible, when the tendency to elaborate plans, weird science and twirly moustaches was pathologised as Malign Hypercognition Syndrome – a condition which drives the afflicted to be, well, evil geniuses, whether they want to be or not. They can’t help themselves. They may be quite personable people to sit down for a brew with, but they can’t not build a death ray out of kitchen utensils while the kettle’s boiling. That’s… not even particularly interesting, but it’s amusing, and it adds a dimension to the archetype.

The axis of Law and Chaos I find similarly lacking, and I can sort of see why Good and Evil were bracketed onto it. One doesn’t want the Robin Hood archetype automatically and inherently aligned with the Ravening Barbarian Horde or the Nasty Beasties From The Cosmic Outerdark just because they’re all definitely non-Lawful; neither is one necessarily comfortable with the idea that Sauron and the kings of Gondor all build cities and social structures and are innately Lawful.

You can make the argument that Orcs are Chaotic and dominated by something stronger than them, but that doesn’t wash with Uncle Von, hoo no. I’ve been reading The Last Ringbearer of late, you see. It’s a story set in Middle Earth and has at its core the idea that history is (re)written by the winners; that the caricature ‘evil-ness’ of the Mordor-Isengard axis of power is a deliberate misrepresentation of defeated nations by victorious ones. You can find out more here, if finding things out is a thing that you do (and it had better be, if you’re hanging about round ‘ere).

My sympathies in The Lord of the Rings have always lain with Saruman anyway – here’s a man with the will and wit to kick-start an industrial revolution and still has – in the books, and this is one thing I detest about the Jackson films – his Wizardly goal of opposing Sauron at heart. Where Gandalf manipulates the existing powers, Saruman tries to set himself up as a newkindof power, and it’s his failure to secure the Ring as its foundation that precipitates the unwise invasion of Rohan. When he screws up, he falls from grace and enacts a petty, spiteful revenge, which makes him a worse person but doesn’t do him any harm as a character. Very much a Wizard of extremes.

Still, this one-man’s-terrorist-is-another-man’s-freedom-fighter angle is one that I instinctively have some sympathy with, and so it might be understood why I take issue with the top-down morality imposed by the classic 3×3 alignment grid and the sort of uncritical “Good is Good, Evil is Evil” attitude that comes with it. No interesting world is ever that simple.

Let’s go back to seminal texts for a minute and talk about Gormenghast. That Mieville character, and I’ll spare you another quotation from ‘Fantasy and Revolution’ – this time – referred to the idea of a tradition in which Gormenghast was the dominant influence and not The Lord of the Rings. Oversimplifying matters somewhat, but let’s see what we have in Gormenghast, shall we?

We have a society of grinding, meaningless daily ritual done for its own sake, regardless of whether it benefits anyone. It’s an exploitative society, with its ‘free’ peasantry free to starve, free to give the best of their labours and their love to an aristo-class that doesn’t even care about them enough to oppress them – but its aristocracy are themselves imprisoned by the fortress of legislation they’ve built around themselves.

As above, so below. Into this arena step extremists. Both Titus Groan and Steerpike are revolutionaries, of a type. Titus just doesn’t see the point in all this ritual – it gets in the way of being human, and if he can’t change it, he’ll keep running until he finds a space to be human in – but he won’t let it become worse, turn into an engine of surveillance and control and authentic, actual oppression, particularly not one run by a man he hates.

He's always watching.For me, the telling moment of the Gormenghast trilogy is the snapshot of Steerpike reclining in his hidden room at the heart of the castle, watching his pawns and his enemies through a network of mirrors in tunnels. It’s an inverted Panopticon – not a place where the occupant could be seen at all times and so must always behave as if they are being seen, but a place where the occupant can see anyone at all times and they do not know about it. A dark riff on an elementary societal process, and a prescient one too, all things considered, since if Steerpike’s surveillance became known… he could be watching. Best keep your head down.

I suppose in that respect the trilogies aren’t that dissimilar. The Eye is always watching. Steerpike could be.

Anyway, this wasn’t supposed to be a rehash of that one Master’s essay I did on how Gormenghast is the perfect literary analogy for Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Moving on. The point I’m trying to get at here is that neither Titus or Steerpike are conventional heroes or conventional villains and that they aren’t embedded in simple cosmic notions of morality or ethics. Good and Evil don’t really come into this, Law and Chaos are complex realities with which neither of the two characters entirely occupies with any comfort. They’re people, with political and personal goals, with extreme methods; they hate each other but neither can eliminate the other without a total breakdown of the Castle’s social ecosystem.

That feels… smarter. That’s the kind of fantasy I can get into. Fantasy that’s not grim for grimness’ sake, but not simple for simplicity’s sake either. Fantasy that offers a complex world in which simple people, sketch-people like RPG characters, can thrive. Because that’s what a ‘hero’ is, maybe, in the end. A simple person in a complex world. Simple not in the sense that they’re one-note, but that they’re… well, larger than life. Too weird to live, too rare to die, as another of my favourite authors put it.

This is why I’ve been looking at Greg Christopher’s game Errant recently. It has the structure of D&D around it, for sure, but it does away with alignments and replaces them with a single scale called ‘karma’. Now this is not something which I find totally unproblematic if it’s viewed metaphysically, but if it’s viewed physically, in terms of consequences… in terms of ‘do things and you come to the attention of various opposed powers, supernal or mundane’… then it becomes quite interesting.

Let’s say you go around raising people from the dead, to co-opt my favourite fantasy activity. The powers that approve of necromancy are drawn to you; the supernal ones may offer you deals for greater necromantic efficiency, the mundane ones may offer you patronage or beg apprenticeships of you or whatever. The powers that disapprove of necromancy are also drawn to you; bestowing similar supernal (might be how undead turning could work) and mundane support on those opposed to you, possibly manipulating individuals into opposing you. It’s a kind of relative alignment, without the descriptor grid but with the idea that people are embedded in a broader world which responds to what they do in increasingly outrageous and fantastic ways. It offers the same mechanical processes but it’s embedded in what, to me, is a smarter and more nuanced idea of how worlds – and artificial universes with active gods and demons – work.

I can dig that. Maybe you can too.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

10 thoughts on “Of Alignment, Ethics and Morality”

  1. I’m with you on Suraman – it has been ages since I read the books, so I was unsure if my idea that Suraman had thought himself powerful enough to defeat Sauron was a false memory. Trusting weak men, nothing like the ur-men of Numenor, the dwindling ennui-stricken elves, greedy, fading dwarves, and worse,hobbits, to defeat the great evil? What a daft plan. When you can seize the Ring of Power, build war-machines, and breed the Uruk-Hai.

    As far as alignment and morality in games go, I have for a long time wanted to introduce a Pendragon-like personality traits system. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t strip players of control over their characters except when they have roleplayed their characters – and therefore built their trait scores – into extremes. Then, following the example in Pendragon, a handful of personality traits can be marked as virtues and vices – and these can be different for every culture, cult and religion. Notable scores in these virtues and vices creates appropriate mechanical and social effects.

    1. I know it’s probably a typo, but the slightly Arabic-looking ‘Suraman’ is itself an inadvertently nice touch, I feel.

      From a certain point of view, the entire Rings trilogy covers a difference of opinion between two wizards, one of whom is slightly better at wrangling the long odds than the other.

      Pendragon sounds like a really interesting proto-White-Wolf kind of system – similarly to Ars Magica, it might be something I’d rather own than play, to afford insight into how a particular framework of Ye Stocke Fantasie Settyng might work. I keep hearing good things about it though, and if it offers that level of nuance in world-engineering, I may have to seek a copy out.

      1. Yes, probably something to own rather than play for most – you need real player buy in to do it right. The mechanics are, for the most part, simplied BRP (boiled down from d% to a d20). But as well as rules for passions and personality traits, it provides plenty of ideas for how to run a fantasy RPG as an epic, inter-generational game, with families and fiefdoms coming into play. One key idea to pinch is the way Pendragon handles ‘downtime’ or ‘out-of-story’ knights. Most of the time a PC knight will have one adventure a year, separated by a ‘winter phase’, which is played (at an abstract) level. All of this connects the PCs to the world in which they live – what I’m trying to do is work out how to do this in a standard-ish fantasy setting rather than one saturated in Arthurian themes.

      2. Oh, and for nuance in world-engineering – Pendragon itself is obviously tied closely to Athurian fantasy, BUT the way in which Greg Stafford marks the Cymric from the Romano-British from the Saxons by way of the personality traits that they valorise, and how that is mechanised, is an example of handling ‘alignment’ with greater subtlety than Good and Evil, as is the use of ‘Passions’, which allow PCs (and NPCs) to draw on their loves, hates, loyalties etc. to achieve mechanical in game results.

  2. There’s a lot to digest here and this is a placeholder until I get some sleep…trols cannot operate on a 153 minutes of sleep.

    But I will say that Titus Groan should be compulsory reading at schools above any other proto fantasy.

  3. My problem with Gygax’s alignment grid is the same as yours I think. It’s great for attaching mechanics to, for example swords that harm creatures of Law, but when you try to adjudicate real (by which I mean the imaginary character’s) moral acts, they are extremely difficult to place on the grid.

    For example, is a mafioso lawful? They ignore the rules of their greater society, but adhere strictly to their own sub-culture’s laws. Likewise, a ravening barbarian from a society that respects only strength is only arguably chaotic. Who says might makes right is not a law? It’s a simple law, but that doesn’t make it chaotic.

    Good and Evil are problematic too, as you pointed out. No sane person does what they think is the wrong thing unless there are extenuating circumstances. Perhaps “evil” just means a person who resorts to evil acts too quickly. In that case though “stupid” (or perhaps “weak”) and “evil” are the same thing, as people who can see other ways out of a dilemma will never choose the evil way. This means we might have tragic heroes, who are forced to do evil by circumstance, but not deliberately evil villains.

    Anyway there are bazillions of issues with the Gygax grid, most of which parallel traditional problems in ethics. Mine (and yours) are just some examples.

    I think the only way the grid works is if we assume that Good, Evil, Law and Chaos are actual metaphysical forces in the universe. In my D&D games this is how I play it, but I presume that these forces do not normally manifest in mortals. They infuse supernatural creatures aligned with them. So a sword that harms lawful beings doesn’t hurt your lawful good fighter. It will hurt your lawful cleric, but only because his lawful deity has infused him with the essence of Law. And a Detect Evil spell doesn’t discover a chaotic evil serial killer, unless he’s also made a pact with a demon. This abstracts the grid from mortals a bit and stops alignment messing with the story too much (which it can easily do if it’s a game mechanic).

    Your points about fantasy are interesting (wow, this is getting to be a huge comment, sorry!) LoTR tends to go for the “evil is weakness” motif I mentioned above, and even Sauron is not overtly, inherently evil. All of the evil seems plausible by real-world standards. The guy who wrote The Last Ring Bearer is right, the whole thing would look a lot different if orcs were better looking than elves! I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read Gormenghast – always meant to.

    Anyway your discussion has got me thinking that actual, metaphysical Good and Evil are a lot rarer in fantasy than we normally assume. When they do occur they often seem like religious parable. I’m thinking of Dragonlance, which, while not examples of classic literature, I think were quite courageous works. The authors posited a universe where gods of good and evil contend, and mortals must choose sides. Evil brings reward but harms others; good protects others but requires sacrifice. So a sort of biblical God versus Satan thing. In these books there was a real sense that Evil was a force, and it made sense why people would choose that path.

    I only read the first few, but I have since learned that in the later books all the gods leave the world and mortals are left to fend for themselves without the cosmic forces of good and evil to guide and divide them. This made me sad in a strange way – I wondered if it meant that the authors (who were religious) had lost their faith.

    We live in a flawed, human world, and I think there is a lot of scope for fantasy to explore other moral possibilities. What if we actually could measure Evil, and it was a Thing that we actually had to choose to join or oppose? I know many people behave as though this is the case, but we could actually write a fantasy universe where it incontrovertibly is the case. That would actually be very interesting. Heroism, tragedy, villainy, and all of our usual moral tropes would come out looking different I think.

    Er… better stop now ;D

    1. The idea of capital-letters Good and Evil existing and active while remaining distinct from the micro-level of actual people is quite interesting, I have to admit. It seems to sit in the same place as the mortal/supernal divide in Mage; there’s a level on which these things do exist and do work and there’s a level on which they only have the most indirect of influence, dependent on people. I’m just not sure that I want all my worlds to work like that. If we’re going to have active metaphysical forces I’d like for them to go all the way down, into the world they presumably enact upon.

      I read God vs. Satan as a class struggle rather than a morality tale – enlightened self-interest vs. authority and hierarchy eternal. No prizes for guessing where my sympathies lie there…

      I’m not sure I want to explore that world of measurable, quantifiable, opposable Evil. It seems embedded in the conspiracy theory, the dropping-the-ring-into-the-volcano-will-solve-everything mindset that refuses to live in the world as is, that can’t and won’t admit that our worst enemy is… us, that it’s never as easy as defeating the other guy, that every act of opposition is on some level an act of oppression. Forcing that into a clear and unambigious Good Is Good And Evil Is Evil paradigm feels… lazy, to me. Interesting, but lazy. Not as an act of creativity or thinking, I’m sure that a quality job of thinking about it could be done – I mean lazy in the broader sense of context and speculation and purpose. I’m all about fantasy as a thought experiment, but I prefer it as a thought experiment about ethical worlds rather than moral absolutes.

      1. Yeah I’m pretty sure the Dragonlance authors were not into a Miltonian interpretation of God vs. Satan. ;)

        For what it’s worth I agree, fantasy can’t be too fantastical and still be interesting, and ethics is an area so close to the core of the human experience that it’s probably essential to an interesting story.

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