Monday, 12 September 2011

The Nature of Evil, or "Maybe it's how you impress goblin chicks"

In the comments section on yesterday's postZak writes:

these are three different approaches to the "moral universe" of the dungeon.

my failure to recognize that is no doubt due to my innate degeneracy and lack of moral compass, but probably also down to the fact that I tend to build worlds as wicked below as above. It's just that the above is safer for people.

that is: the dungeon is more dangerous for the same reason the night is more dangerous: less light.

To which I replied:

I see it more as being about different varieties of evil. You get evil on the overground but it's three-dimensional real evil like you get in our world: the people who perpetrate evil aren't doing it because they think it's evil, they're doing it because they misguidedly think it's the right thing to do. Even goblins. Maybe they're peeling the skin off you while you're still alive, but they're not doing it because they want to be evil, they're doing it because they enjoy it and, I dunno, maybe it's how you impress goblin chicks.

But in the depths of the underworld there is stuff that is just intrinsically evil for its own sake, or at least has motives so different to ours that we can't understand them and our only available analogue is what we call "evil". It's a mindset much more alien than the goblin skinning you alive, because at least the goblin has something in common with you: it knows what enjoyment is.

I wasn't quite sure what I meant by this at the time - the words seemed to spring forth from the aether that is my reptile brain - but I've been mulling it over and I think it can be boiled down to this.

The way I look at a D&D world, there are two kinds of evil. For the sake of reference, let's call them Evil 1 and Evil 2.

Evil 1 is what you might call "mundane evil". Everything that is mundanely evil is wicked, but basically has motives that can be understood and empathised with inasmuch as we can understand that people do absolutely awful things to one another but they still have reasons. Even the worst, most depraved serial killer has a reason for doing the things they do which  is comprehensible on some level, no matter how sickening, and even if it just boils down to "I enjoy doing horrible things". We don't enjoy doing horrible things (or at least, I hope you don't), but we still know what it is to enjoy doing something. While this isn't much to have in common with the mindset of a serial killer, there is at least some shared frame of reference no matter how vague.

Thus, whether we're talking about an evil human sorcerer who lusts for power, an evil goblin who gets pleasure from causing pain, an evil banshee who hates the living, or an evil vampire who kills to sustain himself, we are still talking about things that are in some vague way comprehensible. We don't want to kill people by wailing at them like a banshee does, but we can sort of grasp at the reasons she has for doing so. (I should stress at this point that by "comprehensible", I do not for one second mean "excusable".)

The key here, is that in the Evil 1 category there are truly wicked and horrible creatures, but nobody does anything from a standpoint of BEING EVIL. Neither the sorcerer sacrificing a virgin to gain power, the goblin torturing you, the banshee wailing people to death, or the vampire drinking blood, are doing anything for the sake of being wicked. They are doing evil things for some other reason external to the wickedness (lust for power, sadism, hatred, hunger).

But in the depths of the underworld, and perhaps stalking the land above, there are things that do not even have the same frames of reference as us topsiders - these are things that commit acts of evil purely for the sake of being evil. This is what I call Evil 2: the entities whose motives are utterly incomprehensible and cannot therefore be explained beyond the rather inadequate formulation I have just given them. There is no point in trying to understand such beings, and no point in speculating about their thought processes; simply, they embody evil and wickedness - they are satan, in the ancient sense of being "the enemy". Any struggle with them will be a struggle to extinction, though they might not ever make their true nature known. I like a campaign setting which incorporates a notion of there being such entities, even in a sub-Lovecraftian sense, and they exist in Yoon-Suin, though in many different and unknown forms.


  1. A nicely philosophical post.

    I've not played much D&D or similar, but was wondering where 'Neutral' rests in all of this talk. Do neutral beings exist and what do they do/how do they act?

  2. I wonder how we would distinguish the two types--at least in gmae terms? When we present pure alien evil in the game it would seem that most of the time the explanation of "they just enjoy it" would fit if no other. I'm not disagreeing per se, just wondering how to operationalize it--though probably it doesn't matter on a pratical level.

    There's also Machen's definition of evil given in the frame story to "The White People." He distinguishes mundane "badness" like theft or murder done for regular everyday human reasons from evil which he views as the desire to overturn the order of the universe--to seize power(s) that were not granted to ones place in the natural order. It's interesting because I don't know that this would immediately register as evil at all to us early 21st century folk like it did to late 19th century MAchen.

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  4. I sense a 39% chance of an insane meandering political/philosophical or algnment-based discussion emerging in the comments here...

  5. CS Lewis' stories-cum-religious allegories don't appeal to me on the whole, but I very much liked his portrayal of evil in Perelandra. I thought it was the only really worthwhile part of the whole book.

    The main character is wandering in a Garden of Eden type place, and meets a man who is possessed by what is essentially a demon, who is currently torturing small animals to death for no particular reason. It's inferred that the creature is doing this not because it enjoys it, but with a blank natural simplicity as if it would never occur to it not to vivisect things.

    As the text puts it, "The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence."

    Another quote:

    "The face which he raised from torturing the frog had that terrible power which the face of a corpse sometimes has of simply rebuffing every conceivable human attitude one can adopt towards it. The expressionless mouth, the unwinking stare of the eyes, something heavy and inorganic in the very folds of the cheek, said clearly: ‘I have features as you have, but there is nothing in common between you and me.’"

  6. zero_zero_one: Neutral is basically self-interested. No malice, but no benevolence either.

    Trey: There could be a way of distinguishing them in game terms, but basically I'm just looking at it from a "D&D philosophy" perspective. That Machen thing is quite interesting - but yes, very Christian and kind of Tolkienesque.

    Zak: Since when have comments on my blog ever, ever resulted in that??

    John: That is seriously creepy. The only CS Lewis I've read is the Narnia books, which I do have a real soft spot for. But that description has a nice understated power to it.

  7. (I hate being so predictable, but...) speaking of alignments, maybe the Law-Chaos axis could be used to differentiate the two kinds of Evil? Like, "mundane" Evil 1 is constrained by the natural laws (Order) whereas the "unnatural" Evil 2 is more akin to Chos... in the sense of the unspeakable, alien Chaos of Cthulhu, Arioch, etc.

    Also, I wonder what exemples can you give of creatures belonging to one or another Evil type: Aboleths, Ilithid and such for Evil 2? Demons? Are undead Evil 1 folk?

  8. I'm basically with John. For me, that's the Cthulhu mythos in a nutshell: the entities encountered aren't evil as we understand it, they're just on a completely different morality scale. Cthulhu doesn't eat you because he hates you or he enjoys it, he eats you because that's what he does. We don't ascribe human morality to animals, for example, and while that's cold comfort to the man eaten by a bear, at least he can die knowing the bear wished him no deliberate harm.

    Likewise, the denizens of the underworld aren't evil — they just do things we, in our limited perspective, perceive as evil. Demons might want to overthrow creation, but it's not really a deliberate choice: if they didn't want that, they'd be something else. You can choose to destroy creation, if that appeals to you, but that doesn't make you a demon.

  9. Devils deal with the human sins - greed, lust, violence, all of that.

    Demons are those that possess people to commit acts of perversity, not so much selfish as incomprehensible or sadistic.

    At least in my cosmos. A neat way to sum this up is that those possessed by devils kill in anger; those possessed by demons kill in joy.

  10. Could you flesh it out a bit with some example posts evil 2 scenarios or monsters?

  11. I like the referral to 'From Out of the Silent Planet'.

    While I do understand the idea that certain evils can be so foreign and alien in the sense that we cannot discern their motives behind their actions or perceptions of things, but I would come to understand that evils seem as if 'innocent' would be neutral in the sense. It's like the wolf that mangles and slaughters its deer for food; it does it because it does, but even then, this ties back to your 'Evil 1': motive. Though, when it comes to D&D, this would be a more "looking out for myself" kind of deal, and therefore, neutrality.

    I like the grey areas. :D

  12. @S.P. Lovecraft's entities are metaphors for a vast, incomprehensible and indifferent universe. That's horrible, but it's a different kind of horror.
    I wouldn't take even cold comfort in being killed by Lewis' creature. I would so much rather face a frothing psychopath who personally hated my guts, than some quasi-moronic thing that tortures animals like a man picks at grass.
    The bear doesn't mean to cause you suffering, it's just trying to make its way in the world. Azathoth doesn't mean to cause you suffering, it's just utterly indifferent to the speck of fly crap you call earth. In both cases, the suffering they cause is just an incidental by-product.

    Lewis' creature causes suffering intentionally, any way it can, as an end in itself, and for no reason. That gives me the willies.

  13. Liza and Billy: There are no 'canon' D&D monsters that spring to mind as being Evil 2, and that's because evil in D&D is really pretty mundane. Evil things either want to amass power, or they hate the living, or their sadistic and malicious because they enjoy it. Quite simple explanations, really.

    SP and John: I'm with John - CS Lewis' depiction of evil there just creeps me out on a whole other level. Give me a Balor any day.

    We shouldn't be surprised by this, but CS Lewis and Tolkien have a lot in common in their depiction of evil, it seems. Both of them viewed it not as something existing in opposition to good, but kind of an absence of anything. The paragraph John posted from Perelandra reminds me of what Tolkien writes about Ungoliant; she's not darkness, because darkness is a thing - she destroys light. And she doesn't even do it because she enjoys it. Her malice is totally pure and totally destructive.

  14. So is this really a post about how the DM can create atmosphere: through fear of the unknown/unknowable?

    I'm remembering the Aurbach PBP you ran. You did this pretty well--we were all terrified of just setting foot inside the dungeon, with it's strange golems, limitless opportunities for being flanked, and the only means of egress being shimmying up a rope one-by-one

  15. Billy: Kind of. I think going into a dungeon should be fucking terrifying: it's pitch black and you don't know what's down there except that it's dangerous. You would have to be insane to want to be a dungeoneer!