Dragonmarks 4/4: Good and Evil

First, the standard disclaimers: All of this is just my opinion and how I run my personal campaign. For official Eberron support, check the material on the WotC website (as highlighted in this handy list of links). And it’s always worth remembering that the Eberron you know is the shared work of many authors and designers – James Wyatt, Chris Perkins, Ari Marmell, C. A. Suleiman, Jason Buhlman, Bill Slaviscek, Rob Schwalb, and many more.

My goal is still to post a Dragonmark every Wednesday – we’ll see how it goes. Please go ahead and ask new questions in the comments. Questions may not be answered in the order received; I’m doing this on my own dime, so it’s all a matter of what I’m inspired to write about. So there! Now let’s get started…

How did you end up deciding against alignment constraints?

There’s a place for clear-cut struggles between good and evil, and it’s why we have forces like the Emerald Claw in Eberron. However, in my home games I’ve always preferred to challenge the players to think about their actions – to have things be less clear-cut than “We’re good, they’re evil, beating them up is the right thing to do.” From the start, film noir was called out as a major influence of Eberron, and a noir story relies on a certain level of moral ambiguity and shades of gray. It shouldn’t always be easy to decide who the villain is in a scenario… or if killing the villain will solve a problem.

Beyond this, one of the underlying principles of Eberron is that it is a world in which magic has been incorporated into society. Detect evil exists. In 3.5, paladins can use it at will. Stop and think about that for a moment. If evil was a tangible thing that could be positively identified – and if everyone who was identified as evil was unquestionably a monster with no redeeming features, while everyone who’s good is noble and pure – how would evil still exist? Over the course of two thousand years, wouldn’t we turn to paladins  and alignment-detecting magic to help us identify and weed out the bad apples until we had a healthy tree? Consider our own history of witch-hunts, inquisitions, and the like. If we had an absolute yardstick and if we knew the people who failed the test were truly vile, what would happen over the course of centuries?

Removing alignment completely was never an option. It was a concrete part of the D&D ruleset. So instead, it was about taking an approach to alignment that could work with the noir story and take into account the existence of paladins and other alignment-linked effects – to justify a world in which good and evil people can work and fight side by side, where the existence of the value that can be identified with detect evil is accepted within society.

There’s four elements to this.

Alignment is a spectrum. Round up ten “evil” people and you’ll find that their behavior and histories are radically different. Consider the following.

  • A sociopathic serial killer who will kill or rob anyone that crosses his path without any hesitation or remorse.
  • A soldier who takes pleasure in torturing citizens of enemy nations – even civilians – but who is willing to lay down his life to protect his own people, and abides by the laws of his homeland.
  • An innkeeper who consistently waters down his ale and pads the bill a little whenever he thinks he can get away with it.
  • A repo man who ruthlessly reclaims goods on behalf of his employer, regardless of the circumstances of his victim and how the loss will affect them.

In my campaign, all four of these people will read as “evil” for purposes of detect evil. They all hurt other people on a regular basis and feel no remorse for their actions. Yet the innkeeper would never actually kill anyone. And the repo man is just doing a job and doing it well; he won’t interfere with anyone who hasn’t defaulted on their payments. In my eyes, one of the key elements of alignment is empathy. All four of these people are capable of performing actions that hurt others without remorse because they don’t empathize with their victims. But again, they vary wildly in the threat they pose to society. The serial killer is a dangerous criminal. The innkeeper is a criminal, but not a violent one. The cruel soldier is a danger to his enemies but protects his own people. The repo man has turned his lack of empathy into a productive tool. All of them are evil, but they are on different points of the spectrum.

Another important example of this for Eberron comes with clerics. Eberron allows clerics to have an alignment that is different from that of their divine power source. But it is again important to realize that an evil cleric of a good faith can mean different things. One evil priest of the Silver Flame may be a hypocrite and liar who is secretly allied with the Lords of Dust or abusing the faith of his followers for personal gain. However, another may be deeply devoted to the faith and willing to lay down his life to protect the innocent from supernatural evil – but he is also willing to regularly engage in ruthless and cruel acts to achieve this. The classic inquisitor falls into this mold. He truly is trying to do what’s best, and in a world where demonic possession is real his harsh methods may be your only hope. But he will torture you for your own good, and feel no sympathy for your pain. This makes him “evil” – yet compared to the first priest, he is truly devout and serving the interests of the church.

Alignment versus Motivation. Alignment reflects the way the character interacts with the world. Empathy is an important factor, along with the degree to which the character is willing to personally engage in immoral actions. But what it doesn’t take into account is the big picture. Let’s take two soldiers. Both joined the Brelish army of their own free will. The “evil” soldier hates the Thranes, and given the chance he will carry out torture, rapine and looting. He wears a belt of Thranish ears. Yet he loves his country and will sacrifice his own life to defend it. He’s “evil” because he is willing to carry out those atrocities; but he’d never do such a thing to a Brelish citizen. On the other hand, the “good” soldier will kill Thranes on the battlefield, but will not condone the mistreatment of prisoners or civilians. He hates the war but feels sympathy for the civilians on both sides; he further recognizes that the enemies he fights are just protecting their people, and treats them with respect. Both soldiers have the exact same goal and will fight side by side on the battlefield; alignment simply provides insight into how they may act.

Expanding on this: one of the rulers of the Five Nations is a good-aligned monarch who seeks to restart the Last War. Another is an evil leader who seeks peace. Restarting the war will result in the deaths of tens of thousands of people – how can a “good” monarch support that? Again, in Eberron alignment doesn’t represent someone’s actions on a global scale: it reflects the manner in which they pursue those goals. The good ruler believes that a just war is possible and that a united Khorvaire will prosper under her rule. She won’t condone torture, the mistreatment of civilians, and so on. She will treat her prisoners and emissaries fairly. Of course, her ministers and generals may engage in evil behavior in the name of the war; she will be horrified when she hears of it. Meanwhile, the evil king pursuing peace has a noble goal, but will do absolutely anything to achieve it. Torture? Oppressive martial law? Assassination? Anything. He’d kill members of his own family if he had to. So in both cases, the personal alignment tells you how they conduct their personal affairs, but nothing about the big picture.

People know these things. If a paladin walks into a tavern and scans ten people, he may find that three of them are evil. This doesn’t require any immediate action on his part, and while disappointing it isn’t a surprise. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda looks at Luke and says “There is much anger in him.” Luke hadn’t done anything bad; but what Yoda could sense was his potential to do evil. That’s what the paladin gets from detect evil. He doesn’t know where you lie on the spectrum. He doesn’t know your motivations. He knows that you lack empathy for others and may be selfish or narcissistic; that you are capable of hurting others without remorse; but he doesn’t know if you have or ever will. This is a key point with the Church of the Silver Flame. They are devoted to fighting supernatural evil: demons, undead, lycanthropy, etc. These are the things to fight with sword and spell. HUMAN evil is something that should be fought with compassion, charity, and guidance. Per Flame creed, you defeat mortal evil by guiding people to the light, not by killing them.

So – once you accept this version of alignment, you can find many jobs in society that are actually better suited to evil people. A repo man who has too much sympathy or empathy for his targets is going to have a difficult time doing his job. A tax collector may be the same way. An evil politican who’s willing to play the game of corruption in order to get things done may actually be the best hope of a city – providing that his motivation is towards the greater good. Knowing someone’s alignment is a piece of a puzzle – but it doesn’t tell you everything and it doesn’t end the story.

One side note: you may look at some of these things and say “I’d probably just make the repo man neutral/unaligned.” And that’s a reasonable approach. With Eberron, I specifically narrowed the spectrum of “neutral” while broadening the spectrum of “evil,” because again, the less concrete evil is the easier it is for it to be incorporated into society. If evil people can contribute to society in a positive way, then knowing someone is evil doesn’t lock in a story… while if only villains are evil, it automatically becomes a villain detector.

OK, that was probably three times longer than anyone cared to read… but there it is. I’d certainly be interested to hear your thoughts and personal experiences! Meanwhile, I’ll add one more related question…

If Eberron assumes that there may be persons that fail to live up to the ideals of a group or ideology (e.g. as happens with the Silver Flame) or dark sides to good persons/groups and vice versa, what are the dark sides (if any) of the Kalashtar and the gray parts of the inspired. I have the feeling that they are portrayed as archetypes of good and evil aspects, respectively. Am I wrong?

You are in fact wrong. But it’s complicated.

Something I didn’t really touch on in the previous question is the fact that in Eberron many creatures that are traditionally bound to a specific alignment aren’t. By and large, creatures with human intelligence are as capable of choosing their own path as humans are. You can have good medusas and evil gold dragons. However, there are exceptions to this rule, and the most notable of these are celestials, fiends, and other spiritual entities. These beings are in essence physical embodiments of ideas. A fiend is evil personified… and as a result, it is both always evil and a much purer evil than you tend to see in mortal creatures; on a scale of one to ten, it goes to eleven. It is possible for the angel to fall or the demon to rise (as shown by the Quori bound to the kalashtar), but in these cases the spirit will typically physically transform to reflect this change. An angel that falls from Syrania will become a fiend or a radiant idol, for example. So when you meet a devil, you can generally be pretty sure it’s lawful evil, because that’s what it means to BE a devil.

The Inspired are mortal vessels directly possessed by Quori. As a result, you know that the Inspired are evil. However, as noted above, that’s personal alignment – which doesn’t tell you anything about their long-term motivation or the impact of their actions. The Dreaming Dark is an agency that is carrying out an evil agenda, and Inspired agents of the Dreaming Dark are reliably evil. But the majority of the Inspired are ambassadors and administrators maintaining an empire. A typical Inspired overseer feels no empathy for his human subjects and would feel no remorse if he had to slaughter them; but most of the time he DOESN’T have to slaughter them, and furthermore he knows that the best way to help his people accomplish their goals is to keep his subjects content. Subtlety and charisma are the greatest weapons of the Quori; they are masters of propaganda and manipulation, of tricking you into thinking you want to do what they want you to do. Which means that while they may BE evil, most Inspired appear to be benevolent rulers. They provide for the needs of their people. They will not tolerate crime or disobedience, and they will act ruthlessly and swiftly to enforce this. Nonetheless, those Riedrans who are content to follow the path assigned to them needn’t worry about food, shelter, or security. The Inspired see to their needs and protect them.

What this ultimately comes down to is that the Inspired have done a good thing: they have created a stable society whose people by and large need not worry about crime, war, disease, hunger, or even bad dreams. However, they have accomplished this by doing an evil thing – stripping people of freedom and choice. The typical Riedran doesn’t want to BE free of the Inspired… because they’ve created a society where he doesn’t have that choice. On the other hand, a Riedran farmer is likely to live a far more comfortable, stable, and secure life than his counterpart in Breland or Karrnath. So… are the Inspired purely evil? If you destroy them, you’ll throw Riedra into chaos and civil war, unleash famine and plague… is that a good act?

Now let’s look at the kalashtar. The race was created when rebellious Quori of good and neutral alignment fused with human hosts. However, that was well over a thousand years ago. Unlike the Inspired, the kalashtar aren’t directly possessed by their Quori spirits; they are merely influenced by them, and that influence comes through instinct and dream. An Inspired will always match the alignment of its Quroi spirit, because it literally IS the Quori spirit. Kalashtar, on the other hand, aren’t required to match the alignment of their Quori. If the alignment of the kalashtar is radically different from that of its bound Quori spirit, it will create emotional dissonance that will result in mental instability or outright madness… but that can still make for a very dangerous villain. This is especially relevant for orphan kalashtar who know little or nothing of the history or origins of their people; the Quori voice is part of what will shape their character, but it’s not alone. This is discussed in more detail in Races of Eberron.

So first of all, you can have literally evil kalashtar. Beyond this: Just as the Church of the Silver Flame and the Blood of Vol have groups of extremists whose actions soil the fundamental principles of their faiths, there are extremists among the kalashtar as well. Overall, the Adaran kalashtar live by principles of patience and perseverance, confident that through their actions they are pushing the cycle closer to the turn of the age and destruction of the Dreaming Dark. Overall, they have avoided acts of aggression against Riedra, not wanting to harm innocents in their struggle with the Dreaming Dark. But there are exceptions. There are atavists who believe that they must take the offensive against il-Lashtavar – even if that means killing or torturing the innocent pawns trapped in the web. They will and should stand out because this behavior is so unlike the kalashtar norm, and it may create mental dissonance. But it’s still there. Beyond this, there are kalashtar who actually envy the immortal Inspired, and want to actually become like the Quori themselves. So in the end you can find darkness among kalashtar – even among the followers of the Path of Light – and there are Inspired whose lives are devoted to ensuring the comfort and survival of civilians.

14 Responses to “Dragonmarks 4/4: Good and Evil”

  1. Keith Baker says:

    It’s worth pointing out that this is based on the development of Eberron as a 3.5 setting, with the nine-alignment scale and the presence of alignment-detecting magic. By removing alignment detection and introducing the broader concept of “unaligned”, 4E makes some of these points less critical. Nonetheless, I still prefer to focus on alignment as a question of empathy. If you find a wallet with $200 in it on the street, what will you do?
    * A good person will go out of their way to return it intact to the owner. They may or may not accept a reward.
    * A neutral/unaligned person will go to minimal effort to return it (put it in the lost and found). They may or may not keep some or all of the money, but certainly wouldn’t get into identity theft or the like.
    * An evil person would definitely keep the money and be happy to use credit cards & ID. They might not even think about returning it… or alternately, they might go to considerable trouble to return it because they want to have a rich person in their debt.

    In short, the good person cares about others and wants to do ‘the right thing.” The evil person doesn’t care about others at all and is doing what is best for themselves. The neutral person is largely ambivalent; not cruel to others, but not going to go to any great inconvenience for others. But the key point here is that while a thief may be evil, you can be evil and not be a thief; in the scenario described above the evil person didn’t steal the wallet, he just found it. Alignment in Eberron tells you about what someone COULD do, but not what they’ve done. Again, it’s Yoda looking at Luke and saying “Much anger in that one.”

    So back on the greedy bartender, you might just say “he’s just greedy – that’s not evil.” At greed isn’t necessarily evil – a merchant who drives a hard bargain can certainly be neutral/unaligned. However, in bartender I described isn’t driving a hard bargain; he’s engaged in a conscious, long-term campaign of sly theft (albeit low-impact theft). If it was just watering down the ale, that might not be so bad – but padding the bill as well is a very calculated action. The fact that he can do this time and again without guilt is what makes him evil (if low on the scale) by my terms.

  2. Chris Lyons says:

    This is a very informative article. As you said, it was lengthy, but well worth the read. I am trained in psychometric Psychology, and my games are heavily influenced by personality theories in psychology instead of focusing on alignment.

    This article will help me bring alignment back into the game and combine it with what I am already doing with personality. Also this article will allow me to explain it well to my players. In fact, this article has inspired me to rewrite everything my whole alignment/personality system.

  3. Nicolas Carrillo says:

    Thanks Keith! As they say, being wrong is not necessarily a bad thing, because you can learn from your mistakes!

  4. pdunwin says:

    Excellent article, thanks.

    Alignment is behind many, many problems at gametables. I appreciate Eberron’s acknowledgement of and approach to this sticky aspect of D&D.

  5. Adam Ford says:

    This is article is AMAZING. I’ve always been subtly confused about how Eberron treats alignment and this clears it up quite well. THANK YOU!

  6. jalapeno_dude says:

    Follow-up question re the Silver Flame: okay, now we know that they’re not going to go around killing everyone they meet who detects as evil. But what about evil people WITHIN the church? You said that their response to evil in humans (half-elves, etc…) is “compassion, charity, and guidance”. But presumably that compassion doesn’t extend to letting an evil person become a priest.

    In short, why does Jaela Daran work with a High Cardinal who detects as evil? In my Eberron campaigns, I’ve been assuming the opposite of what you said about motivation and empathy: i.e. that Krozen doesn’t detect as evil because he believes he’s acting for a good cause. I honestly like your distinction better–for one thing, it doesn’t make Detect Evil effectively useless–but I need to be able to reconcile this with evil/corrupt elements within the Church hierarchy.

  7. Keith Baker says:

    Jalapeno_Dude: Evil in the Church of the Silver Flame is certainly something that could be the subject of an entire blog post. But I’ll deal with some basics here and incorporate them into what I do later.

    There’s two answers: the simple house rule answer and the more involved philosophical answer.

    The houserule deals with the fact that Eberron’s decision to let clerics have an alignment other than their faith creates a contradiction in 3.5. Per the SRD, clerics have a strong alignment aura tied to the alignment of their deity. Essentially, a 5th level evil cleric of the Silver Flame has contradictory alignment auras: a weak evil aura (as an evil creature with 5 HD) and a strong good aura (as a 5th level cleric of a good deity). Personally, I say that in the case of divine spellcasters, the more powerful divine aura overrides the weaker aura for purposes of all forms of divine magic – and further, the alignent of the divine POWER SOURCE determines the relationship with undead and positive/negative energy. So an evil cleric of the Silver Flame still turns undead, detects as good, and will be blasted by an unholy word – while a good cleric of the Blood of Vol still rebukes undead, detects as evil, and will be hurt by a holy word. So in the case of Cardinal Krozen, his powerful connection to the Silver Flame is what is picked up by any sort of alignment-detection magic.

    This works fine for spellcasters – but in Eberron, spellcasting clergy are the exception rather than the rule. So what about evil priests who aren’t clerics?

    The key here is to understand the fundamental purpose of the Church of the Silver Flame: to defend the innocent from supernatural evil. Take a moment to think of what it’s like to live in Eberron. Because it’s not our world. It’s a world where vampires, ghosts, and demons are real. It’s a place where there are fiends manipulating your nightmares, aberrations just below your feet, and where a planar convergence could suddenly release unknown terrors. The Church of the Silver Flame wasn’t founded because there were a bunch of evil-aligned mortals causing trouble in Thrane: it was formed to battle an Overlord of the First Age who was going to destroy the nation. And the fact of the matter is that when there is a battle where the survival of humanity itself on the line, the priests don’t actually CARE if the soldier defending the innocent is “good” or “evil.” Because at the end of the day, there are jobs evil people do very well – and if that evil templar excels at hunting vampires, then the Church accepts his service. The paladin who senses the darkness in the templar will do his best to temper his ally and bring him fully into the light; but the key is that in Eberron, evil people can do good things – and thus, the evil member of the church will be judged on his actions, not his magical aura. The evil alignment will cause those who know of it to watch him more closely and to see if they can help him – but it doesn’t invalidate his service. Beyond this, if you have a powerful/charismatic/talented evil person, which is better: keeping them close where you can watch them and hopefully bring them into the light… or banishing them to the shadows where they are more likely to go further down that spectrum of evil?

    It comes back to Yoda looking at Luke and saying “Much anger in him” – and yet, in the end, he trained Luke and the universe was better off for it.

  8. jalapeno_dude says:

    Thanks for the detailed response! The divine aura explanation is excellent–it makes both IC and OOC sense, which is always nice. (It implies that the Shadow in the Flame doesn’t actually grant power to most of its followers, which is interesting.)

    As for the philosophical answer: functionally, it leads to a situation where your typical village priest will almost never be evil, but higher-ups have a reasonable chance of being so. This gives a realistic excuse to ignore corruption in non-Church centered games, but quickly bring it into play if the PCs get more interested–very nice for those of us who like such explanations!

  9. Keith Baker says:

    A cleric who’s in the hierarchy of the church but actually worships an evil deity should have the magical aura of that deity. However, the Shadow in the Flame is a special case, because it is literally IN THE FLAME. As such, I could see allowing a cleric who consciously draws his power from the Shadow in the Flame to still be covered by the good aura of the Flame itself. It’s the logical way for such a sect to thrive… and if you’re the paranoid type, you could argue that Bel Shalor actually allowed Tira to bind him so that he could infiltrate the Flame (which is an ancient force binding all the Overlords and long predating human civilization) in this way.

  10. Søren Staun says:

    Fantastic article. I want it stuck in a book for keep sake.

  11. Nicolas Carrillo says:

    Even though worshipers can have an alignment that differs from that of the worshiped entity, could one of the latter (if assumed to exist in a given campaign) punish such a worshiper directly, such as stripping him of his powers by neutralizing them with its own force or otherwise; or indirectly, e.g. by sending supernatural beings or mortals to compel him to respect the tenets of the faith he holds to have?

  12. Brad says:

    This is a fantastic article, and really highlights the many reasons I chose to drop alignment and alignment detecting magic from my D&D games, which are run exclusively in Eberron. I tend to go with a quicker fix for replacing Detect Whatever class features: I just let players chance what is detected. Usually the paladins go with detect lies and most others go with detect magic, although I’ve had a few interesting choices made (e.g. “detect heretic” to find worshipers of demons and the like).

    All in all, I find alignment to be one of the worst sacred cows of D&D. The only thing its ever added to the games I’ve played in nearly 20 years is a lot of arguments.

  13. Keith Baker says:

    Obviously anything can happen in your personal campaign, but by default, no; according to page 35 of the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting, “A cleric who violates the tenets of her church or deity might risk punishment at the hands of the church… but risks no loss of spells or class features and need not atone.” I’m happy to explain the thoughts behind this decision, but at this point we are shifting from a discussion of Good vs Evil to Religion, so it will have to wait for that topic!

  14. Nicolas Carrillo says:

    Please do address that religious topic in the future in another Dragonmark article, and concerning it, I’d like to ask you to comment on the existence of religious conflicts in Khorvaire. Is there e.g. discrimination against faithful of the Silver Flame in Breland due to the participation of Thrane in the last war, and does it not make sense for the CotSF to have been a party to the treaty of Thronehold independently of Thrane (as the Holy See is a legal person in international law apart from Italy) in order to ensure religious freedom for its followers and be entitled to fight supernatural evil across borders -as sentinel marshals do with criminals-. By the way, I love how you and Eberron openly talk about personalizing campaigns. Would it not be interesting to have some “modules” in Eberron as D&D next will be modular -e.g. having certain rules in case another war erupts-. Thanks again!

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