You know this going to be a f$&%ing great article when it begins with a sigh. And that was actually a very long, drawn out, exasperated sigh. The kind the goes on for ages and doesn’t end so much as trail off into the inaudible. A sigh that you know it’s still going on, even if you can’t hear it. Though silent, the sigher is visibly sagging and their mouth is still open. And then, at the very end, there’s a tiny rattle in the sigher’s throat as their lungs push out the last little bit of air. That’s the kind of sigh that starts off this article.
Here’s what happened: I was going to do a neat article about building settings and stories and fantasy religions around dramatic conflict. I figured that, since conflict lies at the heart of every story, you might as well start with it. And then I made a mistake: I talked about it on Twitter. F$&% me what a mess. Suddenly, I was being lectured about how I didn’t understand what conflict was and how all conflicts are just about good and evil. Everyone was falling all over themselves to tell me what a f$&%ing idiot I was. And, of course, alignment came into it. Because alignment ALWAYS comes into it.
So, thanks to shrieking morons on Twitter – and well-intentioned people who were merely ignorant and weren’t shrieking so much as just stubbornly bludgeoning – thanks to Twitter, I get to discuss conflict and morality and how it they fit into RPGs. I also get to talk about about alignment in D&D and why no one gets it right. And you get to read this bulls$&%. And then I get to moderate the comments. This is just going to be fun all around.
Now, although my critics will deny it like insane street preachers ranting about the end of the world, I am a story gamer. In fact, I am more of a story gamer than probably anyone who uses that term. Because, while others are yammering about giving players narrative control and always saying “yes, and…” and making sure everyone fails forward, I’m talking about things like narrative structure, pacing, tension, themes, tone, conflict, characters, setting, and all those other things that ACTUALLY MAKE UP A F$&%ING STORY. Oh, and I am also remembering that fifty percent of the phrase “story game” is “GAME”.
Every story is about resolving a conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story. If I told you that I went to the store to buy some milk, went to the dairy aisle, found the milk, paid for it, and brought it home, you wouldn’t call that a story. You wouldn’t say it’s a bad story. Or a pointless story. It is literally not a story. But if I’m accosted by a street-preaching hobo who won’t let me into the store or if there is a 90-year-old on line ahead of me trying to pay with a personal check whose only ID is one of those “collect ten punches for a free coffee” or the store is out of milk or the cashier has a heart attack mid-transaction after trying to deal with an octogenarian who still thinks personal checks are a thing in TWO THOUSAND F$&%ING SEVENTEEN, those things are stories. And that’s because I am facing a conflict. And you want to know what I did. Did I punch the hobo? Did I punch the 90-year-old? Did I resuscitate the clerk? Did I go to a different store? And did that make me late for my anger management class?
Conflict is what makes a story a story and what makes a game a game. And yet, SOMEHOW, a whole group of people whose volunteer job is to RUN A GAME THAT IS ALSO A STORY do not understand what conflict is, how it drives stories, and, in fact, how it drives absolutely every aspect of the world that stories take place in. At its simplest, conflict is what happens whenever two forces are in opposition. For example: I want milk. But the 90-year-old woman wants to live in the f$&%ing stone age of banking and refuses to be dragged, kicking and screaming into the modern era. That’s a conflict. My desires and her desires are opposed. And we can’t both have what we want.
But – and this is where it gets complicated – conflicts aren’t merely encounters. Dramatic conflicts, the conflicts that drive stories, are actually about ideas. Go back to the little old lady on line ahead of me again. There really isn’t a conflict if I’m willing to wait my turn. See, there’s a rule. And that rule says “we wait in lines and take our turns in the order we arrived.” That’s a social rule. And it doesn’t matter if the person ahead of us is a complete a$&hat who is taking far more of her turn than she deserves. And you’d think she’d hurry given that she probably doesn’t have that much time left on God’s green Earth anyway. I’m not struggling against the old woman. My real struggle is the value I put on my time as opposed to the rules of an orderly society.
And THAT is really the key to understanding conflict. You didn’t really think I was going to spend a whole article explaining “conflict is when two things are in opposition,” did you?
The essence of any conflict is that there are two ideas that are at odds with each other. Now, that, in itself, isn’t unusual. Lots of ideas exist in opposition to each other. And normally, we find ways to balance them out. Normally, for example, I don’t have a problem living in an orderly society with rules and fairness despite the fact that I value my own self over all others. That’s normal. That’s every human f$&%ing being. But sometimes, a situation occurs wherein a conflict between two opposing ideas can’t easily be balanced away. A side has to be chosen. A priority has to be set. Or a compromise has to be negotiated. The underlying conflict becomes a confrontation. And that is what stories and games are all about.
Innies and Outies
Conflicts are a lot like belly buttons: they come in two different varieties. Innies and outies.
Innie conflicts are the sort of conflicts we face every day, often without even really noticing them. For example, when I’m in the store and suddenly confronted with that elderly lady in my way, I have to make a choice between my selfish desires or the rules of orderly society or I have a find a creative compromise. Do I shove the woman out of the way and demand to be served first? Or do I accept that my time is apparently far less valuable than some decrepit old fossil’s whose only remaining use to society seems to be transporting used tissues around in a giant purse? Do I politely ask the woman if I can go ahead of her because all I have is milk and I understand debit card technology? Do I move to another line? That’s an innie conflict. Two ideas that I want are in opposition and I have to decide how to respond.
Now, say I shove the old lady aside and demand to be served. I’m going to face some immediate obstacles. The cashier is probably going to be some bleeding heart type and insist that I wait my turn and not assault other human beings. And after I explain my views on the subject, using my fist as an education aid, the police will probably show up. And that is an example of an outie conflict.
In an outie conflict, each of the ideas in conflict have champions. I represent freedom, self-worth, and desire. The police represent the rules of order and society. And now we have to resolve the conflict between us. And it will probably involve tazers, handcuffs, a court-appointed attorney, and jail time.
Innie conflicts – yes, some people call them internal conflicts – occur entirely in the mind and occur when you have to choose, for yourself, between two ideas. Outie conflicts – external conflicts – occur whenever two or more people or groups or forces want different, incompatible things and end up in a confrontation.
Conflicts in Disguise
Confrontations in stories are usually between two characters with pretty specific motives. The Joker wants to murder a whole bunch of people, for example, and Batman wants to stop him. But at the heart of most specific confrontations, there’s a more general conflict. Batman represents just, orderly society. The Joker represents freedom, anarchy, and chaos. How do we know that? We know it by looking at the details.
For example, Batman refuses to kill criminals. His role is merely to capture apparent criminals, not to serve as judge, jury, and executioner. He imposes limits on himself. They make things harder on him, but he does it anyway. He also works directly with the police. Those facts tell us what Batman really represents. The idea of justice and social order. Meanwhile, the Joker works with criminals. He helps them get their money back. But he turns against them on a whim. And he puts people in situations where they are forced to violate the rules of society. He balks at rules and laws and order.
Just ignore the fact that Batman is a good guy and the Joker is evil. We’ll come back to that. Holy f$&%, will we come back to that.
Since we’re on the subject of The Dark Knight – which was a good movie but it was nowhere near the work of f$&%ing art that most people swoon over – since we’re on the subject, we might as well discuss how stories often have innie and outie conflicts as well. In the story, Batman is conflicted over his self-imposed rules and whether they really help anyone. It would be easier for him to just do whatever he has to do to bring the Joker down. Alfred suggests Batman might even have to give up his rules. Ultimately, though, Batman has the chance to kill the Joker with his Batorcycle and he doesn’t. Thus, he has resolved his innie conflict. That’s actually a very common pattern in stories. Before the hero can resolve an outie conflict, they usually have to resolve their own innie conflict.
Now, there is another conflict in the Dark Knight. One which is both an Innie and an Outie. In the end, Batman uses cell phone technology to spy on everyone in the entire world so that he can find the Joker. But Morgan Freeman says that spying like that is wrong. This is an example of a conflict commonly stated as the conflict between individual rights and security. That is, to be safe, we have to be willing to give up some of our freedoms. And to maintain our freedoms, we make ourselves less safe. Now, that conflict is really just another form of the conflict between social order and freedom. But don’t worry about that. Yet.
The point is most stories about specific confrontations are actually about general conflicts. And that is what makes them good.
Good vs. Evil is NOT The Conflict
Now, here’s the part people get fighty about. The part about morality. See, each of us has inside of us certain ideas about what is right and what is wrong. Right now, if I ask people whether social order or individual freedom is more important, there will be lots of different answers. And if then ask about specific situations, I’ll get even more answers. For example, I might ask if freedom of expression is generally more important than protecting people from discomfort or offense. Different people will feel differently. And that’s because, whether we like it or not, we live in a world without a single, provable, objective moral framework.
Yeah, I know those are big, complicated words. And I also know they are fighting words. I need everyone to stay very mature and open-minded here because it’s impossible to discuss conflict without discussing morality. And it’s impossible to discuss morality in stories without also discussing it in real life. And I realize that appeal is f$&%ing hillarious coming from a guy whose example of a moral dilemma is whether to punch an elderly lady in the face to save himself five minutes in the store.
The truth is that you cannot be a good game master without becoming a good story teller. And you cannot be a good story teller without being able to see things from multiple perspectives and without being a student condition. You don’t have to accept all perspective. But you do have to be able to understand them.
So, we have all these conflicts, right? Social order vs. freedom, individual rights vs. a feeling of safety, emotion vs. reason, justice vs. mercy, and so on. And whenever one of those conflicts becomes a confrontation, we’re have to resolve that conflict. Conflicts like those are called moral dilemmas. And when we resolve them, we’re making moral choices.
Over the years, lots of people have proposed lots of ways to resolve moral dilemmas. Both specific dilemmas and general conflicts. Moral philosophy, religion, and the legal justice system all represent systematic attempts to resolve specific or general moral dilemmas. The problem is all of those systems are just guesses. Morals aren’t physical laws. They aren’t like gravity. At least, they aren’t provably objective physical laws. But who knows? Maybe one of the major religions is right. Maybe there really is an objective set of moral laws that apply to the universe and maybe some day we will be able to prove that. I can’t say. No one can. Not with a certainty.
I’m not saying I don’t believe that there are things that are right and wrong. Certainly, I do. I’m just saying I have no way of proving my system for telling right from wrong is somehow more correct than anyone else’s. It’s just my best guess based on my personality, experiences, my reason, my beliefs, my values, and my best judgment. And whatever I might think, I still have to find a way to live in a world with a whole bunch of other people who also have their own best judgments.
What the f$&% does any of this have to do with stories, conflicts, and role-playing games? Well, that comes down to value judgments. It comes down to the idea of good and evil. And understanding that, even though many stories are about struggles between good and evil, no good story is about the conflict between good and evil. Because good and evil aren’t ideas in conflict. They are value judgments.
Let’s go back to the Dark Knight. The Dark Knight is about the conflict between social order and freedom, right? But in that story, Batman is clearly the good guy and the Joker is clearly the bad guy. And that’s because the author of the story is putting a value judgment over the conflict. Social order is good. Rules, laws, and social norms keep people safe and happy and they make us better people. Anarchy, chaos, and selfishness are bad because psychotic clowns will kill people and because you might have to see Heath Ledger in a skimpy nurse’s uniform.
But the thing is, social order is not inherently good and freedom is not inherently bad. In the situation with a psychotic murderer clown, it works out that way. But if we change the situation, we might not reach the same conclusion. Consider Demolition Man. That’s an absolutely fantastic movie wherein a destructive, devil-may-care, loose cannon cop is transported to a future society where all bad things have been outlawed and everyone is forced to be happy and nice and not think the wrong thoughts. In that movie, the free-thinking individuals have been forced into exile and the autocratic leader of the city is trying to kill them. In that movie, social order is stifling, restrictive, and domineering and it has led to weakness and complacency. Only the wild cop and the freedom loving exiles can save the day.
Want another example? Consider the classic movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In that movie, a high-school senior decides to skip school for one day to have the best day of his life before he’s forced to graduate, go to college, and enter the drudgery of adulthood. He’s pursued by Principal Skinner, who finds out he’s playing hooky and is determined drag him back to school. Ferris Bueller just wants one great experience, one fantastic memory, one break from the humdrum of daily routine. But the rules of society say no. No experiences. No memories. Just structure and order.
So, we have the same essential conflict in three movies. But each movie comes to a different conclusion about who the good guys and bad guys are. That’s the difference between the conflict and the value judgment.
Now, value judgments in moves can be more nuanced than simply saying “this side is bad and that side is good.” For example, remember that bit in the Dark Knight about the cell-phone surveillance system? That actually shows a potential evil of social order. Social order, the movie says, can also go too far. And the movie resolves that by having Batman put a limit on it. Batman gives the surveillance system to Morgan Freeman. He won’t use it himself. Instead, Morgan Freeman uses it for him and then destroys it. So rules win again. And in Demolition Man, the final resolution involves the crazy cop telling everyone that the real answer lies somewhere between autocracy and total freedom, but that people have to figure it out for themselves. Which means, freedom wins again. See how this works?
It’s also important to note that some stories are more nuanced. They don’t present the conflict in terms of good and evil, but rather show what happens when two equally desirable ideas confront each other. They show the good and bad consequences of both. Or they show that both of the ideas are dangerous when taken to extremes and that the real answer lies somewhere in the middle. But that’s not nearly as important for this discussion.
What is important is to understand the good and evil are not forces that are in conflict. Rather, they are judgments that we as authors, game designers, and audiences put on the forces in conflict.
And that brings us – unfortunately – to alignment. And why alignment in Dungeons & Dragons is an utter mess. Or at least, why GMs make a mess out of alignment when they design and run their D&D games.
Here’s the deal: all that crap about dramatic conflict and value judgments? That actually isn’t how D&D works at all. What you have to understand is that D&D and Pathfinder represent a world in which there is actually an objective, moral framework. Good and evil are real things. With real, universal definitions. Vague definitions, sure. Poorly written definitions. But they are defined nonetheless. And people, gods, and even the entire universe, are beholden to them.
For example, all of the gods have alignments. As do the angels and devils and demons that serve them. And the planes of existence, aspects of the cosmos itself, they have alignments too. Now, the degree to which alignments affect the game world vary from system to system and edition to edition. But, the fact remains that every edition of D&D includes aligned gods, aligned planes, aligned supernatural creatures, and aligned societies. Alignment can effect the rules of magic, especially divine magic, and alignment affects your afterlife destination. Hell, in many versions of D&D, alignment is a detectable thing. And that means that there is no question of perspective.
What that means is that you might do terrible things like murder and steal and suggest that Heath Ledger is a better Joker than Jack Nicholson for any number of reasons, but neither your intent or your perspective matters. You can reject morality. You can convince yourself you’re doing evil things for the greater good. But you’re still evil. Because it isn’t your perspective that matters. It is the objective laws of the universe that decide whether you are good or evil.
Now, before you get all all: “but you don’t have to use it that way, you can do whatever you want,” let me say this: NO F$&%ING S%&$. I KNOW! I F$%&ING KNOW THAT ANYONE CAN DO ANYTHING IN THEIR GAME! I GET IT! But that doesn’t make me wrong about how the game is written. And rejecting the way the game is written because you think its bad or stupid or just not very fun is fine. Just admit that’s what you’re doing. Because it is bad and stupid. And I’m going to tell you why.
D&D defines good and evil in terms of conflicts just like all stories. Selfishness is evil. Charity is good. Greed is bad. Protecting others is good. Hurting people is bad. Respect is good. Theft is evil. And so on. And D&D doesn’t really make any bold statements about what is good and what is evil. It’s a very simplistic, Sunday school for kids approach to good and evil.
The trouble is that D&D provides a setting for a story. And part of telling a story is setting up conflicts and, normally, providing a way to judge those conflicts. That is to say, assigning value judgments to the conflict. But, in most stories, those values are assigned by the author based on the sort of story they want to tell. And D&D very much wants value judgement. It’s a game about the struggle between good and evil. It’s standard epic fantasy fare, after all. But D&D’s conflicts and value judgments are pretty simple. So, once you get past simple conflicts like “hurting people vs. not hurting people” and try to address a conflict like “self-determination vs. inherent nation” or “passion vs. reason” or “security vs. freedom,” D&D doesn’t have any answers in its objective moral framework.
And that leads to a few problems. First off all, D&D is a “good vs. evil” story, which precludes a more nuanced discussion of any conflict. You can say security is good or freedom is good, but it’s much harder to say either extreme is bad and good is in the middle. Second of all, the GM generally has to act the part of the author and provide the moral authority for the universe. But the players in the game also represent authors because they have to be able to resolve internal moral conflicts. Their value judgments may not align with the GM’s universal moral code.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s as it should be. Role-playing games actually provide an a great way to explore various conflicts and the resulting moral dilemmas. And because the stories and situations change from week to week, mature, open-minded gamers can explore all sorts of moral questions from lots of different perspectives.
But f$&%ing alignment.
Alignment – as an objective moral code – requires the GM to declare what is good and what is evil. Because they have to know when a player’s alignment changes, right? And they have to know when the paladin falls, right? And they have to know how angels and devils will behave when faced with complex questions. Will the devil push a city toward authoritarian rule a la Demolition Man or anarchy a la the Dark Knight? Which one is corruption? Don’t answer. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that D&D has to have an answer and everyone has to be able to agree on that answer.
And this mess of perspectives and relativism and absolutism and dramatic conflict and the nature of the world and a really crappy presentation, this mess that is alignment guarantees that no two people will ever see alignment in D&D in the same way. Useful? Useless? Relative? Absolute? Defined by the GM? Agreed upon by the players? What is good? What is evil? What is lawful? What is chaotic?
Alignment is useful in games with clear moral rules that are about confrontations between good heroes and evil villains. The moment you want to add some complexity, the GM and the players have to answer some questions about how they want the world to work. That isn’t bad. It’s fine. In fact, it can be really cool. I’ve run some really fantastic campaigns in morally complex worlds using alignment as a jumping off point. But I put in the up-front work of developing and communicating the rules of morality. It’s kind of like adding space travel to D&D. You can do it. It can be fun as hell. But you actually have to work out the rules first.
Alternatively, you can add moral complexity by removing alignment. But you actually have to remove it. You can’t merely ignore. You have to pull alignments off the gods and the planes and societies and monsters and magic and everything else. And you have to decide what it means to have a D&D world with no alignment. What is a devil or a demon in a world in which law and chaos and evil aren’t actually things. That takes work too.
And this is why, before D&D 5th Edition came out, I wrote an article about how the designers have to either go whole hog with alignment or they have to remove it completely. But, they decided to just half-a$& it in an attempt to make everyone happy. And now we can all be happy with more endless “discussions” about how alignment works, what law and chaos and good and evil mean, and whether any of it is useful. Hooray!
So, what does all of this discussion actually get us? Well, honestly, it doesn’t get ME anything. I already knew all of this s$%&. The only thing it is going to get me is a thousand new fights about this crap, mainly with people who read half an article and then want to lecture me about alignment, morality, and conflict. And that’s why I’ll be deleting any comment that doesn’t explicit mention at least one of the following colors in it somewhere: white, blue, black, green, or red. The people who didn’t read far enough to see that rule don’t deserve to comment.
As for you, consider this a primer. Because that article I threatened to write? The one about conflict-driven setting and story design? That’s coming. In fact, specifically, we’ll be looking at creating a mythology and a morality system for your world that will replace alignment and let you tell morally complex stories more easily. Neat, huh? Expect it in two weeks.
Meanwhile, before I close this out, I want to add one digression. A bonus section. You can skip it if you want. It’s just a side note about how f$&%ed up D&D alignment really is.
The Biggest F$&%ing Bulls$&% Mistake in D&D Alignment
There is a big problem with the two-axis, nine alignment system in D&D. You know, lawful-good through chaotic-evil? It isn’t as severe nowadays because the discussion of alignment in the rules has been stripped down to almost nothing, but it’s still basically there. And, to be honest, it was kind of subtle even in the alignment discussions. But once you notice it, it’s really f$&%ing glaring.
The conflict between law and chaos in D&D is basically presented as the conflict between social order and freedom, right? Batman vs. the Joker. Ferris Bueller vs. Principal Skinner. Whatever. And that’s fine. It’s a good conflict to build stories around.
But the conflict between good and evil isn’t, as I noted, a conflict. Instead, it’s a value judgment applied to other conflicts. Batman is good and the Joker is bad. Ferris Bueller is good and Principal Skinner is bad. Right?
After reading this article, that should stand out as quite strange. One of those is a conflict with no value judgement. The other is a set of value judgments with no conflict. It’s odd to be asked to choose one of each. You shouldn’t have to define both of those things in the same universe. But what’s funny is that you could actually build an interesting alignment system that would drive a nuanced moral discussion by exploring the good and bad aspects of society vis a vis the good and bad aspects of freedom. In such a system, you would decide whether your character represented the good aspects of society (lawful-good, Batman), the bad aspects of society (lawful-evil, Principal Skinner), the good aspects of freedom (chaotic-good, Ferris Bueller), or the bad aspects of freedom (chaotic-evil, the Joker). Pretty cool, right? And morally complex? Of course, under that system, alignment wouldn’t make sense as part of the world. It would only make sense as a descriptor of what forces the characters represent in the story. It’d be a meta-quality. And in that system, neutrality would be meaningless. Everyone would at least need to state a preference with the understanding that all of the characters are actually going to lie somewhere on the spectrum and that the chosen alignment just represents an ideal viewpoint.
But that’s not what D&D does. Instead, it asks the gibberish question of “choose a stance on the question of freedom vs. society and then choose a value judgement for everything else.” And that’s why the alignment descriptions are so fuzzy and filled with weird verbal gymnastics to explain how those two questions actually make sense when paired with each other. And the definitions are so fuzzy that the words law and chaos and good and evil in D&D ONLY make sense in terms of themselves. There is no way to discuss alignment outside of the definitions that D&D provides because D&D has twisted and contorted those words to make the nonsensical somehow seem sensical. The only thing it is still good for is to allow dips$&%s who aren’t as clever as they think they are to demonstrate how well they can follow the twisted, bulls$&% mess of definitions by picking nine characters from some stupid franchise and classfying them by alignment to share across social media for the applause of monkeys who think morality really does work that way.
But that’s not the mistake. Here’s the mistake. If you read the definitions D&D provides for good and lawful and for evil and chaotic across the various editions, what you find is they overlap. Not completely, mind you. But they overlap a lot. Good is very concerned with “the greater good” and with putting others before the self. Evil is about being selfish and putting your own desires above those of the other people in the world. In other words, good INCLUDES some amount of lawful. And evil INCLUDES some amount of chaotic. A chaotic-good individual is one that respects the needs of the many – because that’s good – but says that sometimes, it’s okay to be selfish. A lawful-evil individual is one that believes in the pursuit of self-interest, but recognizes that you still have to follow the rules and laws that exist solely to protect society as a whole. In other words, chaotic-good is essentially “mostly good” or “medium good” or “kind of good.” And lawful-evil is basically “sort of evil” or “diet evil.” And most of the reworking of the various alignment definitions over the years has been about burying the overlap. Kind of like how the definitions of Intelligence and Wisdom have changed over five editions to make it seem like there is actually anything other than an arbitrary, nonsensical difference. Except 4th Edition. 4th Edition was almost brave enough to outright say that the alignments in D&D were Very Good, Good, Neutral, Evil, and Very Evil.
But that’s what happens when game designers who aren’t actually writers smash together the naked value judgments from epic fantasy with a couple of words that were just a fancy way that one book used to describe the sides in a war between humans and faeries.