Beyond Good and Evil and Stuff

One of the classic misconceptions about games, role-playing games in particular, is the definition of Good and Evil.  Evil tends to be misused horrifically, applied to everything from a brainless NPC monster to a guy who lives to kill players for no reason.  The scope of a true definition of "evil" is beyond the scope of this document, but suffice to say that real evil does not exist in a commercial game.  If it did, the game would be too disturbing to support a viable subscriber base, and would probably violate a lot of laws.  In game terms, as well as in real life, one can define "good" as being in accord with your own interests, and "evil" as being opposed to them.  This is a inaccurate use of good and evil, but it’s the way these terms were used to exhort children to march across the desert to take back the holy land (before they were sold into slavery), so it works just as well as any other.

So disregarding good vs. evil as a possible source of conflict, you have some realistic and perfectly viable choices for player (and NPC) motivation:

  • Nationalism
  • Religion
  • Economic Interests
  • Social Power
  • Fame
  • Personal Achievement

Why should you, as a designer, care about the distinctions between realistic motives and the hackneyed good vs. evil concept?  Because it lends credibility to your world.  Monsters don’t attack humans because they’re "evil," they attack because they want more lands and recources (Economic Interests), they want to impress their own leaders (Fame/Social Power), they are mad because the humans did something bad to them (Nationalism), etc.  A player can theoretically find out why the monsters are doing what they do, which is a quest in itself.  This helps to flesh out your world, makes it more immersive, and helps it to stand out from the pack of other games where monsters just stand around and attack players because their algorithms tell them to.

From the player standpoint, it also helps to define players’ roles in society.  A paladin who goes out to drive back the hordes of monsters that threaten the local farms is doing it for reasons better than "being good"; he is doing it to defend his homeland (Nationalism), to insure that his people get enough to eat (Economic Interests), and because the church has decreed that he must (Religion).  A player who aspires to a noble title with lands and holdings does so to become rich (Economic Interests), status (Social Power/Fame), and just to say that he’s the Earl or whatever (Personal Achievement/Fame).  Understanding the motives of your players and their characters (hoping against hope that the characters are being roleplayed to the degree that they have motives of their own) is key when designing content, goals, and quests that you hope they will be undertaking, and making goals appropriate to each of these motivations attractive and fun enough for players to want to pursue them.

3 Responses to “Beyond Good and Evil and Stuff”
  1. That’s why my character is more in depth. He is from an evil race, but- get this- he’s actually good, but he broods a lot. And he wears a black hooded cloak and wields two scimitars.

  2. Evil itself doesn’t mean anything useful. ’cause it’s a judgement made by people, and different ones get different conclusion. But what you mentioned here is measurable, and thus practical for designers.

  3. Alexander Avery says:

    Something to think about is religion. Almost everything a church does is for one of the other motivations. No matter if it is they think they would be better rulers (Social Power), Some link to the state (Nationalism), or to feed the priest’s greed. Even the idea of good churches usually falls under one of those like making sure the poor are fed (Economic Interests).

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