Good and Evil in Dungeons & Dragons, and the Forgotten Realms
The concepts of Good and Evil are not ambiguous or shaded in greys; Good and Evil are objective, absolute, and knowable, and they’re recognised as such in character within the Forgotten Realms setting. Alignments are represented by gods, manifested in magical and planar creatures, and have the very real ability to affect the world.
Good and Evil are intrinsic forces in Faerun, and are at odds with one another. Good is more than simple kindness; it is an almost zealous and selfless drive in mortals. Evil is more than cruelty; it is vile and sociopathic when wielded by mortals. To destroy and kill Evil in Faerun is almost always inherently a Good act, and vice versa.
The Nine Alignments
A character’s alignment is not the result of one action or consequence. Instead, it is a sort of sum of all their actions and being. Although Alignment does not tend to change for most creatures in the Forgotten Realms, it is malleable and can be influenced by Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil acts. The quantity and gravity of these acts will define a person, and in turn, their Alignment. In this regard, alignment is determined by one’s personality and actions, and not the other way around. Characters do not act Good because their alignment is Good; their alignment is Good because their personality has driven them to do Good actions. We encourage players to act appropriately to their character’s personality and alignment will wiggle along behind their choices.
Although Faerun is a world of high magic, larger-than-life characters, and extremes, only a very small fraction of characters in the whole setting are firmly Good, Evil, Lawful, or Chaotic.
To help establish the alignment scale, consider that the predominantly average Human in Faerun is True Neutral. A very dutiful judge, a precise lawyer, or an exacting police officer may be Lawful Neutral; this alignment is the core of their thinking and worldview.
An anarchist, career criminal, or hermit removed from society may be Chaotic Neutral; they are more than passingly random or unpredictable, they have little regard for higher authority or order.
Rare yet are the Humans who are Good or Evil. Both are in their own way exceptional to normal human behaviour, and have few real-life examples. The Dalai-Lama can be considered a token Good representative, while someone like Josef Stalin can be easily regarded as Evil.
This all said, within the Forgotten Realms Setting, Humans are deliberately more mundane than many higher fantasy elements. Elves are with extremely few exceptions Chaotic Good, and it is more than simply a result of society; elven nature tends towards Chaotic and Good, just as Human nature tends towards True Neutral. Orcs, goblin-kin, and similar monster races are with extremely few exceptions Evil, and shifting one away from their default Alignment is much more difficult than to influence the alignment of a Human. Planar creatures, from celestials to fiends, are the very epitome of their given Alignments, and do not have the freedom to alter alignments at all.
A brief summary and some examples of the nine alignments are as follows
Lawful Good: The essential Paladin. Lawful Good combines a deep commitment to authority, laws, and tradition with a zealous, fearless, and often reckless approach for Good. Lawful Good is a difficult alignment to represent because of how easily Law and Good can be made to come into conflict. The Lawful Good understands that the Law and traditions have been made to do the most societal Good possible, and that they are imperfect constructs but the best that society has. A Lawful Good character also understands that the Law can be used to abuse and harm, and when in doubt will side with Good over regional Law. Many LG orders have their own codes of conduct (e.g. Code of Torm) that may supersede other laws in extreme cases. Above all, the Lawful Good character is a paragon of their virtues, and would not easily accept a lesser evil in the face of the greater good.
-If confronted by Evil, a Lawful Good character would strike when he can, bide his time and use the law when he cannot, and always take the high road even at great personal expense.
-If confronted by Chaos, a Lawful Good character would look to enforce or assist the local law, while avoiding cruel and mismatched consequences, especially if the Chaos was to a Good end.
Neutral Good: This alignment is the most balanced force for Good. Neutral Good characters respect the Law and traditions without letting themselves be bound by it. They do not relish in Chaotic acts, but would not hesitate to steal or lie if it justified a Good cause. As compared to Lawful Good (which often resorts to violent methods) and Chaotic Good (which often resorts to subterfuge), Neutral Good is the most peaceful of the paths, preferring diplomacy where it can be applied. Neutral Good often produces some of the most selfless healers and people willing to stand up for the very principle of a cause.
-If confronted by Evil, a Neutral Good character would seek its end before it can create further evil and harm. They would use what resources they have available, and make their stance on it known unless it would impede their efforts.
-If confronted by Chaos, a Neutral Good character would be usually gentle with it, especially if it is in the service of Good. If the Chaos would cause harm and suffering, they would oppose it.
-If confronted by Law, a Neutral Good character would act with respect and understanding, and would make an effort to navigate the legal system as far as they are able. They would not, ultimately, let the Law prevent them from doing Good, even at personal expense.
Chaotic Good: The alignment of elves, Chaotic Good values freedom and opportunity above all. Perhaps the most biased towards emotion rather than reason and tradition, Chaotic Good will be the least hesitant to use whatever means necessary..be it through theft or guile, but would undertake killing only in defense of themselves or innocents. While Chaotic Good tends to have a very strong moral compass, they will not take the high road as often as the other Good alignments would. .
-If confronted by Evil, a Chaotic Good character would be at the least extremely wary, and if cause is given, would take any measure to excise it. They know that evil only spreads, but may wait to act until there is no doubt or recourse.
-If confronted by Law, Chaotic Good is likely to chafe and not understand much of what Law holds dear. Written law, traditions, and ephemeral subjects like honour do not bind the practical Chaotic Good character. Chaotic Good may still have respect for Lawful characters as they see them taking a higher, more principled path, but wouldn’t be shy to say that their less principled way is better.
Lawful Neutral: One of the more complex alignments, Lawful Neutral supports order, law, and tradition above all else. They will follow the spirit and letter of the law, and make among the most fair and competent judges and public officials. While it is true that Neutral alignments prefer good, Lawful Neutral cares more for what has been written and decided over any moral judgements. A Lawful Neutral character need not be blind to failures of law or ordered systems, but rather than discount them, they would work through the right processes to improve them.
- Evil characters earn a natural distrust from Lawful Neutral, for their practices and intentions are usually either self-serving or neglect the intent of the law to protect and impose order. They may yet get along well enough with Lawful Evil.
- Good alignments are likely to have some respect from Lawful Neutral, although Lawful Neutral is most concerned with method rather than simple intent. They would support good if it is done through the right systems and procedures, and reign it back if Good attempts to circumvent the existing order.
- Chaotic alignments and Lawful Neutral all come into frequent conflict. Chaos stands against all that Lawful Neutral supports, and whether it is for Good or Evil, Lawful Neutral would balk at the methods that Chaotic characters employ.
True Neutral: The most common alignment, and among the most diverse. Within True Neutral, most human outlooks and personalities coexist. Only the extremes pass into Law, Chaos, Good, or Evil. Most have their nature balanced out with a measure of selfishness and altruism, contempt and kindness. True Neutral prefers things to stay as they are, and while they prefer Good to happen to them and others, they would rarely put themselves on the line to act for it or for Evil. True Neutral can be incited to Evil and Goods act alike, and offers one of the most free ranges of expression. Too much of one sort of behaviour though, from selfless courage to brash disobedience, will result in True Neutral leaning towards other alignments.
- In confrontation with other alignments, True Neutral characters may differ too much amongst each other to tell how they might react.
Chaotic Neutral: Chaotic Neutral is defined by service to one’s self. Selfish, but not cruel. Opportunistic, but not at the great expense of others. Chaotic Neutral is capable of petty acts such as theft and civil disobedience, but not many take murder or torture lightly. Their nature can be relied on usually only as far as their own interests are concerned... but even a Chaotic Neutral character is not immune to having principles or limits.
- Chaotic Neutral would oppose most Law that would ever try to restrict them. They might agree that it has its purpose, but its boundaries certainly don’t apply to them in their own mind. The dry and consistent methods of Law are likely to look incredibly frustrating and pedantic to Chaotic Neutral.
- For the most part, Chaotic Neutral does a good job of stepping outside of Good’s cause against Evil. It is most easily made to serve Evil through petty crimes and acts with some reward to show for it... but the right Chaotic Neutral character can be reminded that Good is worth striving for, especially in the long run.
Lawful Evil: Lawful Evil is ruthless, practical, and efficient. It comes with principles and codes, limits to how it can act. Lawful Evil can have contradictions, for methods matter in the Forgotten Realms as much as results, and a character that seeks to save a thousand by coldly murdering ten is no less Evil for it. They can be bound by codes and promises to a degree, and even morals, and are adept at working within the law for their results. Lawful Evil makes some of the best Machiavellian rulers, crime lords, or tyrants... for behind their acts there is usually a motive or a justification that has merit. A crime lord may rightfully make the claim that his iron grip on the city’s crime prevents chaos and death, and that his few self-serving murders are a small price to pay. A Duke’s killing of civilians as a punishment is very likely to deter many from attempting the same crime.
Several famous quotes epitomise this alignment:
“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”
“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”
“Politics have no relation to morals.”
- Good, especially Lawful Good, will often have the respect of Lawful Evil. The methods and limitations will be mocked, but some Lawful Evil characters will claim to share a cause with paladins, and will consider themselves a “necessary” evil.
- Chaos often earns the contempt of Evil. Chaotic servants are not uncommon, but rarely considered trusted or reliable.. .and so very often shortsighted, impulsive, and reprehensible.
Neutral Evil: Neutral Evil exists only to serve itself, and does not mind leaving bodies along the way. It is in many ways the least restricted Evil, and the most efficient at getting what it specifically wants. Laws won’t bind a Neutral Evil character, neither would anything resembling morality. A Neutral Evil character has goals that, while still reprehensible, could at least be understood by most. While some may take pleasure from cruelty, it’s a waste and inefficiency to most.
Chaotic Evil: The alignment of demons and perhaps the most horrifying of them all. While Lawful and Neutral Evil can be understood, Chaotic Evil has no respect for life, morality, and no goals. To cause suffering, death, and create more Evil is a goal in and of itself for Chaotic Evil. The most deranged serial killers are most closely tied to this alignment, and it is likely to come into hostile conflict with every other alignment unless it can cow and subvert it to its own ends. Chaotic Evil can be subversive and clever, but almost never to any higher goal except perhaps the service of a deity; they will deal out evil just to see how much they can get away with.
Reasons to Tolerate Evil
(Referenced by Ed Greenwood in Elminster’s Forgotten Realms)
Why Put Up With Evil?
Good-minded individuals among the common folk usually tolerate evil clergy and their deeds and practices because they must. The servants of evil are personally strong, vicious or well-connected enough that they are tolerated, avoided or appeased rather than attacked.
Governments, taking a wider view, put up with evil faiths because hostility won't get rid of them and because they can be useful.
If, for example, the church of Malar in Cormyr is permitted to breed monsters or hunt beasts only in specific border areas, the Malarites can by their very presence serve as obstacles to would-be raiders from the Stonelands, Archendale or the Tun. The presence of such a church would also discourage Sembians from conducting smuggling, livestock rustling and suchlike along the Thunder Peaks, and cut down on brigands operating across the borders. Genuine marauding monster populations might also be kept in check by the church of Malar. So, the Crown of Cormyr handles the church of Malar in this way. War Wizards often covertly mind-scry Malarite priests to see what they have observed in the wilderlands and to uncover evidence (if any) on their working with foes of the realm for coin or other inducements.
In Cormyr, Malarite priests most often breed monsters for temple butchery in rituals, to sell trophy heads and other body parts and for the feast tables of the wealthy. The latter two uses are major sources of temple revenue. Malarites also breed monsters for temple guardian roles, deploying them in areas where they can't get out to roam greater Cormyr, confined to temple property.
Malarite monsters are also popular among nobles as quarries for the hunt. Such beasts are released by Malarites in specific locations at reported-to-the-Crown-beforehand times, for nobles to track down and slay. The Malarites must stand watch to down the beasts if they get away, and the Crown of Cormyr holds the Malarites responsible for any monster-caused deaths to persons not of the hunting party. The War Wizards also watch over all such beast releases, and it is a serious crime to perform such a release without informing them well beforehand – a crime proclaimed into law after the third instance of a Malarite priest hired by one noble family “accidentally” unleashing monsters into the estate of a rival noble family.
Violent and evil faiths such as those of Malar and Loviatar get along with governments by worshiping largely behind closed doors and always within agreed-upon limits. A Malarite in Cormyr or any other well-ruled locale wouldn't think of trying to kidnap innocents, citizens or government representatives to be part of a hunt. No evil clergy anywhere in a well-ruled land or city would dare to use drugs, blackmail or other coercion to gain converts or subjects for rituals. A masochist can volunteer to be flogged by a priestess of Loviatar, but neither she nor any lay Loviatan can try to gain any sort of hold over the person to force or strongly influence one's agreeing to be flogged.
Like anyone else who conspires against the Crown, traitor priests are subject to Crown justice. Churches that openly defy important laws (criminal, as opposed to civil matters), or that openly work against the Crown by attacking or mistreating soldiers or Crown agents, are harshly dealt with.
Being holy confers no immunity, as opposed faiths will happily speak out against the “miscreant clergy,” and the Crown can always claim to be trying to be the impartial, secular central balance between various faiths, for the good of all. Only the loftiest holy rank or status wins any form of absolution or light treatment from secular authorities for major crimes – such as killing, torture, treason and sedition, kidnapping, slavery, coercion of the unwilling by force or threats, fraud and theft.
As a result, priesthoods tend to work against governments only through means of subtle influence – unless they can become the government (at least locally).
In Sembia, for example, clergy of all faiths that are seeking to achieve something most quickly get what they want through bribery or otherwise “playing the mercantile game.” Whereas in Cormyr, the best way to get ahead is either by covert cooperation with noble families or ambitious merchants, or by quietly reaching explicit deals with the Crown and then strictly adhering to them. “Deals with the Crown” really means with Vangerdahast from 1306 DR to 1371 DR and thereafter with Alusair until 1384 DR. In other words, very carefully following the often unofficial rules set down by the authorities and in return being allowed to do certain things while the authorities turn a blind eye.
Coming to the aid of Crown agents, sometimes militarily, when a certain summons or alarm is raised is a promise that both the churches of Loviatar and Malar have made to the War Wizards. Priests of Loviatar help maintain law and order – and apprehend certain specific individuals, when asked – in Marsember, Arabel and Suzail, and the church of Malar does the same in rural areas. In return, the Malarites are permitted to hunt certain miscreants, some of the royal deer, specific monsters and specific sorts of beasts – an activity to which they can invite nobles, the wealthy and others they hope to convert if they so desire. The church of Loviatar, on the other hand, has earned the right to carry on some of its more enticing rituals for nonmembers in certain clubs and other establishments in hopes of gaining offerings or converts.
No evil church can expect to incite people against the Crown or any law, or publicly practice rituals that scare or harm people or defy the authorities, and continue to be tolerated in the land. The “heavy stuff” goes on behind firmly closed temple doors, and much secrecy and excitement is thereby attached to it.
In public, the clergy of evil deities are models of good behavior. As such, although average citizens respect or fear and avoid said clergy, they will almost always not attack, deride, or dispute with them. Everyone in the Realms believes in all the gods, and so understands and accepts the purpose and major aims of every faith. This doesn't mean everyone necessarily agrees with or supports every religion, but that they tolerate and understand the place in society each faith occupies.
Likewise, this does not mean every devout worshiper in a faith sees eye to eye with every cleric; in deed, many faiths have bitter internal fights, schism and ongoing debates, and many high priests are watched very closely by lay worshipers try to decide which temple to obey the most, and gift with the most, and which to treat with by doing the bare minimum their beliefs require.
Priests who perform willful murder in public or otherwise “charge into unlawful behavior” in a well-governed ream like Cormyr suffer consequences. Depending on the severity of the crime, they'll wind up dead (killed by the Crown or others), delivered to the Crown for secular justice, or cast out of the church to appease the authorities. More often than the general public would be pleased to know, such miscreants are hustled covertly out of Cormyr to postings elsewhere by fellow clergy, who then tell the authorities that “internal punishments as directed by the Divine One have been enacted upon the wayward.” For more minor crimes, wayward clergy might publicly repent, and their church make redress to the Crown and wronged citizens.
There have been incidents when a priest who persists in covert self-serving dealings that give his or her church a bad name is caught by Crown agents or hired adventurers because other members of the church have tipped off the authorities as to when and where to catch the offender. Such tips usually end up in the priest being caught red-handed and therefore deserving of on-the-spot justice, particularly if he or she decides to fight.
Clergy of faiths that work against law and order, such as those of Shar and Talos, thrive in socially chaotic areas like Westgate and, formerly, Sembia, where they can play one employer off against another. However, these priests keep a much lower profile in well-policed lands such as Cormyr – where they tend to operate a service wherein you can “pay and take part in this enticing ritual, and the deity will attempt to make your desire real, over time, in some nonspecific manner.” Most of the time, these clergy prey upon worshipers more than they really achieve anything. At least this way, they reason, they can maintain a presence in the land and wait for events to make their faith more important or attractive to factions in the realm. Only then would they dare any open defiance of the authorities.
The priests of Talos in Cormyr, for instance, work magic (in their locked temple rooms) only to add strength and destructive force to natural storms that are hammering areas of Cormyr. They never cause such storms or steer the paths storms take, because they know the War Wizards watch for that. However, if a storm should cause harm to a War Wizard, how is that their fault? (They ask this oh so innocently, after helping a storm to collapse a cottage on a wizard's head.)
Priests and priestesses of Shar, Loviatar and Sharess often use amorous wiles to establish personal relationships with persons in authority. Through this angle, they try to sow chaos by suggesting particular deeds, decrees and ideas to their lovers.
Even priests of the most violently evil faiths are seldom foolish enough to draw daggers and seek to carve up soldiers or Crown agents in the streets. A dead foe is just that: dead, and soon to be replaced by another. An influenced foe, on the other hand, is well on the way to becoming an ally, increasing the sway of the deity.