In the garden of good and evil

I like Dungeons and Dragons. I really do, but I find that some of the people who play the game get too stuck on the rules to allow themselves the flexibility required to create a good story.

In this case, a DM had a group of players who decided to make use of the ever-treacherous Wish Spell.

I wish that Asmodeus, the Supreme Lord of the Nine Hells, be incapable of committing any evil act until he personally and permanently ends the life of every fiend in the multiverse.

He was asking for advice on how to pervert this particular wish, which is the wont of any long-term DM handling the Wish spell. Of course, the outright answer could be: “This is beyond the power of a Wish, and it fails immediately. Asmodeus is aware that the wish was cast, as are all the fiends in the multiverse. Now the players have enemies as far as the gods could imagine.”

But that seems lame, so you could also cause the Wish to fail because the wording is so vague that it’s impossible to complete. Genocide, being an evil act, would be impossible for Asmodeus to carry out. Given that the fulfillment of the Wish is impossible, the Wish spell falls apart due to paradox. This might be a fun way to explain it to the players, but then you might get a response like I did:

So… Angels killing Demons en masse are evil?

The intent of this question is to say that Angels are always good, their actions must always be good. Killing something that the universe defines as evil should not be an evil act, but an act of goodness. Therefore, the players should be able to do the same thing.

But this is where I think shades of grey make everything much more interesting. If you take intent into account, then you open the world up for a wide variety of questioning. Is the angel evil if they kill a newborn demon that has never committed a sin, other than living? When a person destroys a dam that was causing water shortages 100 miles away, are his actions evil if it causes a city built in the flood zone to be washed away? If a man sacrifices a woman to an evil God to prevent that God from killing thousands, were his actions evil?

In D&D there are hard mechanics around good and evil; there are spells that rely on the good/evil axis being clearly defined. But almost everyone feels they are the hero of their own story. So what happens when two people, both of whom think they are doing the right thing, are on opposite sides of a conflict? Is one evil, and the other good? Is there a morally subjective way to determine that?

It will depend on the person viewing the situation, of course. In storytelling, we usually focus on our hero, and we vilify their enemies. Look at Lord of the Rings. It is presented as undisputed fact that Sauron is evil. He has the look of evil, he wants to dominate and control the world, and he is ultimately defeated by the good guys. This is a trope that is often replayed in fantasy novels – but sometimes nuance gets into those, as well.

Take RA Salvatore’s Hunter’s Blade trilogy. Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t read the series.Obould_Many-Arrows_-_Matt_Wilson.jpg

King Obould Many-Arrows wanted to unite the Orc race and bring them to the surface. Tired of being forced to live underground, he fought to establish a kingdom for his kin above ground. After years of persecution and racial hatred, it might be easy to sympathize with the otherwise evil Orcs, who wanted only to be free and live their lives.

But before we knew that, Salvatore had Orcs just attacking our heroes; the characters we loved. So we would want them to win in their fight against the Orcs. This simple piece of narrative made us instantly root against Obould and the Orcs, until such time as their reasons were explained. Of course, we might have still wanted to see Obould killed; he did some pretty dark and terrible things in his quest to see the Orc Kingdom of Many-Arrows exist.

But that brings us to the final part of this thought process – in D&D, do the ends justify the means? Which is really what the question about angels killing demons en masse is all about. Is killing one baby worth it if you know that you’re preventing a genocide later? Is genocide acceptable when you believe that an entire race is irredeemable? That’s a question for the players and the DM to decide, but I think exploring those questions, and coming up with those answers, will make every D&D session much more memorable.

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