Objective Evil vs Subjective Evil

An interesting point raised in the “evil” sourcebook Book of Vile Darkness is the idea that evil can be subjective or objective, depending on the kind of game you play. In other words, how “evil” something is can be universally agreed on by all people and creatures in your game world, or it can vary wildly depending on a character’s point of view. While BoVD covered this topic well, I think it’s a point that bears repeating.

Objective evil is what you want to use if you’re running a typical hack and slash campaign. If something is “evil”, then you can detect evil it, you can smite evil it, whatever. The reason for this is that the typical high-combat game will have you running around murdering monsters for their treasure, and really, questioning whether or not that’s always the right thing to do can only get in the way of this game style. If it’s evil, you’re practically obligated to kill it - naturally, hack and slash typically assumes that the player characters are the “good guys”, even if they’re only neutral, because if they were evil you’d have to hack and slash them too.

Subjective evil is a little more complicated. Essentially, evil is in the eye of the beholder. If a group of elves raids an encampment of “evil” orcs, perhaps the orcs see the elves as evil for hunting down their race out of racial hatred. Perhaps an orc shaman casting detect evil even detects the elves as evil and the orcs neutral, because it detects what the caster considers to be evil. Naturally, subjective evil can be troublesome if you’re playing “kick in the door” style because it require more thought and forces you to question the morality of some of the game’s basic actions. However, a more storytelling, “roleplaying” style can fit this. In the real world, what’s “evil” depends on your point of view - one man’s hero can be another’s villain.

It’s an interesting situation which should be considered when arguing whether or not D&D is primarily a hack-and-slash RPG. The current edition of D&D standardly assumes that you’re playing the basic entry-level game, and makes the roleplaying-heavy type of campaign into side note of “play this kind of game by ignoring a lot of the combat and magic rules”. In other words, roleplay-heavy is really D&D-light - a balanced way to play the game, but the rules as written heavily assume combat-heavy, objective-evil dungeon crawling.


Comments (2)

chris (February 2nd, 2007)

modifying cleric and paladin abilities is, in my experience, one of the bigger challenges of adapting to a subjective evil type of game.

the workaround that I have is that alignment is replaced with faith auras. basically pledging yourself to a god brands your soul, and paladins and clerics have the ability to distinguish the soul brands of various deities. therefore, because your god grants you powers, you are also granted awareness of which particular deities are rivals or enemies to your faith (which can change as part of the petty whims of your master).

so, with this, if your plays want less ambiguity, you can limit the soul-searching and just say, “your deity thinks these followers of religion Y are enemies. go and be an instrument of divine will” but then also setup the possibility for tragic betrayals and moral arguments over whether your god is right in ordering you to drown a bag of kittens.

KasraKhan (July 19th, 2008)

Good plan, chris. I use both in my campaigns.

Devils, demons, they are objectively evil. Evil is part of their magical make-up. Other than that, I simply use “evil” as ‘in opposed to good’. If the PCs are good, then someone who actively wishes them harm or seeks to thwart a plan befitting their attitudes are evil.

This allows more DM discretion and keeps a bit of mystery in the game. I don’t tell them that a merchant feels evil, but rather “seems to openly hostile, cruel, and out spoken against you.” for subjective, or “dark ooze seeps from his poors, providing no concealment yet unmistakably associated with the nearly unseen black flicker in his eyes.” for objective evil. Often, I do no let magic detect subjective evil, limiting cleric and paladin capabilities (only a good thing in my campaign, where Nick has mastered the art of paladin creation to an unbelievable extent).

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