What does one do with Bob, the Evil Apple Salesman?
OK, this may be a longer post than I promised myself, but it’s a topic with teeth.
The situation is thus: The characters are aware that there is an impostor in the cloister, a thoroughly evil chap pretending to be a member of the virtuous.
My intention as a GM: to have a couple sessions of high tension whodunnit with witty repartee and ending with an unmasking of the villain just as the cloister is losing their patience with the brash adventurers.
What happened: the paladin detected evil, grabbed the guy and hauled him off.
The problem here is one of knowledge. Alignment, if it is to be understood as an ethical predisposition, is a slippery fish. Let’s talk history before we get to Bob, the Evil Apple Salesmen.
The first role playing game was an off shoot of a mini game, so the first RPG rules were essentially a way to describe through words what was happening in a tabletop game. In that respect alignment makes perfect sense. The Good guys are invading the Evil castle, with neutral parties willing to aid the highest payer. It’s a simple, straightforward scenario. Add a few iterations to Role Playing and the rules have far outgrown the strictures of mini-games and now Bargle the Evil Wizard is trying to steal the crops from the local farmers (or something like that). The scenarios are laid out pretty straightforward with typical nefarious motivations for the bad-guys, typical princess-saving motivations for the good guys, and everyone else was neutral. (Incidentally, this was my first epoch.) From there, people started really figuring out what RP was, and the companies that published the games figured out volume was the key to profits. Archaic and bizarre rules propagated through the iterations, different versions of major games were published in parallel, and here we are 30 years later with an alignment system that seems to have been added to the game by way of malevolence alone.
So, lets talk ethics briefly. What makes something right or wrong is a debate as old as philosophy. The Euthyphro Problem, for instance, is from Plato and remains an important concept even today. Whether rightness is derived from social cohesion or is built into the universe every bit as immutable as the Laws of Motion is a difficult concept that I’m not prepared to introduce, much less solve. But it’s important to keep in mind that even seemingly clear moral decisions can be sticky things. People can be against murder, but for the death penalty; against stealing but in support of the impoverished taking what they need. There’s shades of rightness and no two individuals will agree on every hue.
So, here we are playing a game that crams the massive panoply of ethics into a small handful of descriptions and sets the world as a living stage where good and evil battle for supremacy; occasionally it defines a third viewpoint as interested in maintaining a balance between these two forces. Add to that a seemingly afterthought law v. chaos axis, which very rarely gets any stage time at all, and the alignment system seems a weird vestige in about any game. So, given that nearly all bad guys are evil, good guys are good, what do we do with background players, especially if neutral is staking a balancing ground and not non-intervention? If the rule system requires no non-aligned, then it stands to reason that some people walking past are good, some are neutral… and some are evil. So, let us return to Bob, the Evil Apple Salesman and that paladin detecting alignments.
Bob, through sheer luck, finds himself in the position of being evil. Is this the result of poor upbringing, through far reaching success of ancient devilish plans come to fruition, is it genetically unavoidable? Who knows, but what we have on our hands is an Evil Apple Salesman. What does Bob, the Evil Apple Salesman, do in his evilness? Does he poison his apples? Probably not, that would too easy to discover. Is he a rageaholic, abusing his customers and loved ones by whatever means possible? I suppose he’s not just snarky. Maybe he simply festers in impotence, wishing harm upon his city and its inhabitants, without ability to put in effect his animosity. It is conceivable, at least, that Bob, the Evil Apple Salesman has done nothing illegal, or even wrong.
What, then, about the paladin who, in executing his normal duties, casts a detect evil spell while walking the streets and stumbles across Bob, the Evil Apple Salesman? In our real world, actions condemn the actor (usually). Being mean or spiteful isn’t enough to result in arrest. Given the normal concrete description of alignment, and the rigid and unerring nature of detection spells, there is no doubt in the mind of the paladin about Bob, the Evil Apple Salesman. What to do, indeed?
We may have arrived at a paradox. The course open to the paladin is to isolate Bob, the Evil Apple Salesman, but really, is our imaginary world going to contain a legal code that can arrest people based on a (very low level) spell? I might include a legal system like that in a city where law has gone too far, but certainly not in just any society that includes paladins. I think the question is not what the paladin should do, but what should we do?
In defense of alignment:
Well, there’s a few ways to resolve some of these issues. First is to return to the old, original rules, and to define evil as the guy the good guys are fighting. That way, there is no Bob, the Evil Apple Salesman, but what that means is that there’s a point in an NPCs life whern they choose to become evil by enacting an Evil Scheme.. which is weird.
What alignment does well is give structure to character creation. Making a character with Chaotic alignment is a strong cue to background story and sends a signal to other players how best to interact with your new character. Consider also that while real life actual people are complex shades of contradictions, most RP characters fit roughly into only a handful of tropes, so the small handful of options the alignment system offers is really a pretty good guideline when making a character.
The problems with alignment are clear, and I don’t appreciate how weird it makes my world sometimes. Also, despite how well alignment allows for many familiar tropes, there are some that it doesn’t. I like the too-good-for-his-own-good bad guys, and the evil-to-do-good archetypes. When there’s a small box in which to put these guys the world can be restrictive, even with the devil-may-care attitude GMs like myself have for rules.
I like rules because they provide a framework within which one can express their imagination. I had the good fortune of attending the first GenCon following the release of D&D 4th ed. WoTC had a number of the developers on hand to discuss 4th ed choices they made. They fielded more than a few questions laden with criticism about the system providing no room for role play. The response was that having not created rules for RP meant that there was no restrictions on RP. My feeling seemed to echo that of the crowd: it wasn’t freeing, but overwhelming. Having jettisoned the crafting rules, the creators figured that being able to craft was simply a matter of backstory. It’s a commendable thought, but what really happened is that they began to remove suggestions for character creation. I don’t want to get down on 4E or anything, but I think the misstep gave me insight to how to deal with alignment.
The earliest versions of role paying games always included special caveats, the rules are there to provide a structure in which to play a game, but the moment a rule ever got in the way of imagination they were to be discarded with wild abandon. Perhaps alignment is best used only as a rule structure for character creation, and then left aside when the game starts. We get the best of both worlds, then. We get to craft a character with the familiar strictures, but then enter into a world with familiar, abstract moral problems instead of consulting a rigid definition to determine the treatment of surrendering kobolds.
As for detect alignment spells, scuttle those ASAP, the world is a better place when you work for your answers.