Eberron Flashback: Good and Evil

This was the first Eberron article I posted on this site, nearly six years ago. I’m juggling a host of deadlines at the moment and don’t have time to write an entirely new article this week, but this seems like an idea that’s worth revisiting.

Eberron takes a different approach to alignment, dropping the idea that draconic alignment is color coded, that orcs are always evil, or that clerics have to match the alignment of their deity. In designing the setting, how did you end up deciding against alignment constraints?

There’s a place for clear-cut struggles between good and evil, and it’s why we have forces like the Emerald Claw in Eberron. However, in my home games I’ve always preferred to challenge the players to think about their actions – to have things be less clear-cut than “We’re good, they’re evil, beating them up is the right thing to do.” From the start, film noir was called out as a major influence of Eberron, and a noir story relies on a certain level of moral ambiguity and shades of gray. It shouldn’t always be easy to decide who the villain is in a scenario… or if killing the villain will solve a problem.

Beyond this, one of the underlying principles of Eberron is that it is a world in which magic has been incorporated into society. Detect evil exists. In 3.5, paladins can use it at will. Stop and think about that for a moment. If evil was a tangible thing that could be positively identified – and if everyone who was identified as evil was unquestionably a monster with no redeeming features, while everyone who’s good is noble and pure – how would evil still exist? Over the course of two thousand years, wouldn’t we turn to paladins  and alignment-detecting magic to help us identify and weed out the bad apples until we had a healthy tree? Consider our own history of witch-hunts, inquisitions, and the like. If we had an absolute yardstick and if we knew the people who failed the test were truly vile, what would happen over the course of centuries?

Removing alignment completely was never an option. It’s a concrete part of the D&D ruleset. So instead, it was about taking an approach to alignment that could work with the noir story and take into account the existence of paladins and other alignment-linked effects – to justify a world in which good and evil people can work and fight side by side, where the existence of the value that can be identified with detect evil is accepted within society.

There’s four elements to this.

Alignment is a spectrum. Round up ten “evil” people and you’ll find that their behavior and histories are radically different. Consider the following.

  • A sociopathic serial killer who will kill or rob anyone that crosses his path without any hesitation or remorse.
  • A soldier who takes pleasure in torturing citizens of enemy nations – even civilians – but who is willing to lay down his life to protect his own people, and abides by the laws of his homeland.
  • An innkeeper who consistently waters down his ale and pads the bill a little whenever he thinks he can get away with it.
  • A repo man who ruthlessly reclaims goods on behalf of his employer, regardless of the circumstances of his victim and how the loss will affect them.

In my campaign, all four of these people will read as “evil” for purposes of detect evil. They all hurt other people on a regular basis and feel no remorse for their actions. Yet the innkeeper would never actually kill anyone. And the repo man is just doing a job and doing it well; he won’t interfere with anyone who hasn’t defaulted on their payments. In my eyes, one of the key elements of alignment is empathy. All four of these people are capable of performing actions that hurt others without remorse because they don’t empathize with their victims. But again, they vary wildly in the threat they pose to society. The serial killer is a dangerous criminal. The innkeeper is a criminal, but not a violent one. The cruel soldier is a danger to his enemies but protects his own people. The repo man has turned his lack of empathy into a productive tool. All of them are evil, but they are on different points of the spectrum.

Another important example of this for Eberron comes with clerics. Eberron allows clerics to have an alignment that is different from that of their divine power source. But it is again important to realize that an evil cleric of a good faith can mean different things. One evil priest of the Silver Flame may be a hypocrite and liar who is secretly allied with the Lords of Dust or abusing the faith of his followers for personal gain. However, another may be deeply devoted to the faith and willing to lay down his life to protect the innocent from supernatural evil – but he is also willing to regularly engage in ruthless and cruel acts to achieve this. The classic inquisitor falls into this mold. He truly is trying to do what’s best, and in a world where demonic possession is real his harsh methods may be your only hope. But he will torture you for your own good, and feel no sympathy for your pain. This makes him “evil” – yet compared to the first priest, he is truly devout and serving the interests of the church.

Alignment versus Motivation. Alignment reflects the way the character interacts with the world. Empathy is an important factor, along with the degree to which the character is willing to personally engage in immoral actions. But what it doesn’t take into account is the big picture. Let’s take two soldiers. Both joined the Brelish army of their own free will. The “evil” soldier hates the Thranes, and given the chance he will torture and loot. He wears a belt of Thranish ears. Yet he loves his country and will sacrifice his own life to defend it. He’s “evil” because he is willing to carry out those atrocities; but he’d never do such a thing to a Brelish citizen. On the other hand, the “good” soldier will kill Thranes on the battlefield, but will not condone the mistreatment of prisoners or civilians. He hates the war but feels sympathy for the civilians on both sides; he further recognizes that the enemies he fights are just protecting their people, and treats them with respect. Both soldiers have the exact same goal and will fight side by side on the battlefield; alignment simply provides insight into how they may act.

Expanding on this: one of the rulers of the Five Nations is a good-aligned monarch who seeks to restart the Last War. Another is an evil leader who seeks peace. Restarting the war will result in the deaths of tens of thousands of people – how can a “good” monarch support that? Again, in Eberron alignment doesn’t represent someone’s actions on a global scale: it reflects the manner in which they pursue those goals. The good ruler believes that a just war is possible and that a united Khorvaire will prosper under her rule. She won’t condone torture, the mistreatment of civilians, and so on. She will treat her prisoners and emissaries fairly. Of course, her ministers and generals may engage in evil behavior in the name of the war; she will be horrified when she hears of it. Meanwhile, the evil king pursuing peace has a noble goal, but will do absolutely anything to achieve it. Torture? Oppressive martial law? Assassination? Anything. He’d kill members of his own family if he had to. So in both cases, the personal alignment tells you how they conduct their personal affairs, but nothing about the big picture.

People know these things. If a paladin walks into a tavern and scans ten people, he may find that three of them are evil. This doesn’t require any immediate action on his part, and while disappointing it isn’t a surprise. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda looks at Luke and says “There is much anger in him.” Luke hadn’t done anything bad; but what Yoda could sense was his potential to do evil. That’s what the paladin gets from detect evil. He doesn’t know where you lie on the spectrum. He doesn’t know your motivations. He knows that you lack empathy for others and may be selfish or narcissistic; that you are capable of hurting others without remorse; but he doesn’t know if you have or ever will. This is a key point with the Church of the Silver Flame. They are devoted to fighting supernatural evil: demons, undead, lycanthropy, etc. These are the things to fight with sword and spell. HUMAN evil is something that should be fought with compassion, charity, and guidance. Per Flame creed, you defeat mortal evil by guiding people to the light, not by killing them.

So – once you accept this version of alignment, you can find many jobs in society that are actually better suited to evil people. A repo man who has too much sympathy or empathy for his targets is going to have a difficult time doing his job. A tax collector may be the same way. An evil politican who’s willing to play the game of corruption in order to get things done may actually be the best hope of a city – providing that his motivation is towards the greater good. Knowing someone’s alignment is a piece of a puzzle – but it doesn’t tell you everything and it doesn’t end the story.

One side note: you may look at some of these things and say “I’d probably just make the repo man neutral/unaligned.” And that’s a reasonable approach. With Eberron, I specifically narrowed the spectrum of “neutral” while broadening the spectrum of “evil,” because again, the less concrete evil is the easier it is for it to be incorporated into society. If evil people can contribute to society in a positive way, then knowing someone is evil doesn’t lock in a story… while if only villains are evil, it automatically becomes a villain detector.

A secondary element to all this is fact that in Eberron many creatures that are traditionally bound to a specific alignment aren’t. By and large, creatures with human intelligence are as capable of choosing their own path as humans are. You can have good medusas and evil gold dragons. However, there are exceptions to this rule, and the most notable of these are celestials, fiends, and other spiritual entities. These beings are in essence physical embodiments of ideas. A fiend is evil personified… and as a result, it is both always evil and a much purer evil than you tend to see in mortal creatures; on a scale of one to ten, it goes to eleven. It is possible for the angel to fall or the demon to rise (as shown by the Quori bound to the kalashtar), but in these cases the spirit will typically physically transform to reflect this change. An angel that falls from Syrania will become a fiend or a radiant idol, for example. So when you meet a devil, you can generally be pretty sure it’s lawful evil, because that’s what it means to BE a devil.

It’s 2018. How does this apply to Fifth Edition? 

Fifth Edition is closer to Eberron in a number of ways. The description of clerics places no concrete limit on alignment, and also calls out that clerics are rare and that most priests aren’t clerics — a radical idea when Eberron first presented it. The entry on paladins specifically calls out the idea of a paladin whose alignment is at odds with their oath:

Consider how your alignment colors the way you pursue your holy quest and the manner in which you conduct yourself before gods and mortals. Your oath and alignment might be in harmony, or your oath might represent standards of behavior that you have not yet attained.

Likewise, the detect good & evil spell and the divine sense of the paladin doesn’t actually detect ALIGNMENT; it detects aberrations, celestials, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead. Essentially, it’s the perfect tool for the Silver Flame: it tracks supernatural threats, not mortal behavior. This actually addresses many of the issues called out above, because there is no simple way to alignment-check someone. It also calls out that “Few people are perfectly and consistently faithful to the precepts of their alignment.” And it concretely calls out one of the core principles of Eberron regarding immortals:

Alignment is an essential part of the nature of celestials and fiends. A devil does not choose to be lawful evil, and it doesn’t tend toward lawful evil, but rather it is lawful evil in its essence. If it somehow ceased to be lawful evil, it would cease to be a devil.

Where the two part ways is that core 5E is more comfortable enforcing alignment on mortal creatures. Eberron has always had the principle that immortals have fixed alignment and that creatures such as undead and lycanthropes have alignment set by a supernatural force, but that natural creatures are able to choose their own path. 5E asserts that humans and demi-humans have this choice, but that OTHER races are shaped by gods and lack choice: Most orcs share the violent, savage nature of the orc god, Gruumsh, and are thus inclined toward evil. Even if an orc chooses a good alignment, it struggles against its innate tendencies for its entire life.

You can see my thoughts on orcs in Eberron here. I like calling out that orcs are not human and have a different sort of mindset — having a nature driven to strong passions and emotions — but not one that is inherently driven to evil. To me, this comes back to the story you want to tell. As I’ve said before: in Eberron, the Order of the Emerald Claw exists as the bad guys you know are bad — the force you KNOW you can feel good about fighting. This is what 5E is trying to do here with orcs and evil dragons. I just prefer that when you meet an orc in Eberron, you don’t know if she’s a cruel cultist of the Dragon Below or a noble Gatekeeper Druid.

Anyhow, that’s all for now. Feel free to share your thoughts and questions about alignment in Eberron below! And thanks as always to my Patreon supporters, who keep this blog going!

Q&A

How could a good follower of the Mockery or the Keeper be in Eberron? How could a good adventurer justify following the precepts of the Dark Six?

I have a half-written article about the Dark Six and their role in the setting, and that will delve into this subject in depth. It’s very difficult to have a good-aligned character dedicated specifically to the Mockery, because the Mockery embodies the cruelest aspects of war: deception, terror, dishonorable combat. The Mockery is about victory by any means necessary. But this comes to the conflict between personal alignment and long-term motivation. Someone dedicated to the Mockery should be evil… but they could be fighting for a just cause. When swords are drawn they will behave dishonorably, because they believe the idea of honor in war is stupid. But they may be fighting for the greater good. I’ll call out that one group that includes the worship of the Mockery is a sect called the Three Faces of War, which embraces Dol Arrah, Dol Dorn, and Dol Azur (the Mockery) as the three forces that govern the battlefield, encouraging followers to understand them all.

So essentially: the Dark Six embody frightening and dangerous behaviors: pursuing dark magic, dishonorable conduct on the battlefield, the destructive power of nature, wild emotion and passion, change and chaos, death. But someone can embrace one of these concepts as a positive tool for their community. I’ll get into this more deeply when I write the full article, but I can see heroes and villains tied to any of these concepts.

Why the Blood of Vol is an evil religion in 3.5? In my opinion, it doesn’t have anything inherently evil in its precepts… it´s about protection of the community and unlocking your true potential. That seems pretty neutral to me. In fact, in 4th edition the cult was categorized as unaligned…

In 3.5, every faith has a divine power source. The alignment of the divine power source, among other things, determines whether a cleric turns undead or rebukes them. The Blood of Vol has a friendly relationship with the undead and thus channels negative energy., hence the power source is “evil.” The evil alignment was also a holdover to the idea that “people who associate with undead must be evil.” This reflects the general view of the people of Khorvaire: because the Blood of Vol associates with undead and many of its followers hate the Sovereigns, they must be evil. Ever since the original ECS — in the Sharn sourcebook, Faiths of Eberron, 4E — the Blood of Vol has been presented in a more positive light, clarifying that despite channeling negative energy, the faith itself isn’t inherently evil. I’ve written about this at length in this article.

If Eberron assumes that there may be persons that fail to live up to the ideals of a group or ideology (e.g. as happens with the Silver Flame) or dark sides to good persons/groups and vice versa, what are the dark sides (if any) of the Kalashtar and the gray parts of the inspired. I have the feeling that they are portrayed as archetypes of good and evil aspects, respectively. Am I wrong?

You are in fact wrong. But it’s complicated.

The Inspired are mortal vessels directly possessed by Quori. As a result, you know that the Inspired are evil. However, as noted above, that’s personal alignment – which doesn’t tell you anything about their long-term motivation or the impact of their actions. The Dreaming Dark is an agency that is carrying out an evil agenda, and Inspired agents of the Dreaming Dark are reliably evil. But the majority of the Inspired are ambassadors and administrators maintaining an empire. A typical Inspired overseer feels no empathy for his human subjects and would feel no remorse if he had to slaughter them; but most of the time he DOESN’T have to slaughter them, and furthermore he knows that the best way to help his people accomplish their goals is to keep his subjects content. Subtlety and charisma are the greatest weapons of the Quori; they are masters of propaganda and manipulation, of tricking you into thinking you want to do what they want you to do. Which means that while they may BE evil, most Inspired appear to be benevolent rulers. They provide for the needs of their people. They will not tolerate crime or disobedience, and they will act ruthlessly and swiftly to enforce this. Nonetheless, those Riedrans who are content to follow the path assigned to them needn’t worry about food, shelter, or security. The Inspired see to their needs and protect them.

What this ultimately comes down to is that the Inspired have done a good thing: they have created a stable society whose people by and large need not worry about crime, war, disease, hunger, or even bad dreams. However, they have accomplished this by doing an evil thing – stripping people of freedom and choice. The typical Riedran doesn’t want to BE free of the Inspired… because they’ve created a society where he doesn’t have that choice. On the other hand, a Riedran farmer is likely to live a far more comfortable, stable, and secure life than his counterpart in Breland or Karrnath. So… are the Inspired purely evil? If you destroy them, you’ll throw Riedra into chaos and civil war, unleash famine and plague… is that a good act?

Now let’s look at the kalashtar. The race was created when rebellious Quori of good and neutral alignment fused with human hosts. However, that was well over a thousand years ago. Unlike the Inspired, the kalashtar aren’t directly possessed by their Quori spirits; they are merely influenced by them, and that influence comes through instinct and dream. An Inspired will always match the alignment of its Quori spirit, because it literally IS the Quori spirit. Kalashtar, on the other hand, aren’t required to match the alignment of their Quori. If the alignment of the kalashtar is radically different from that of its bound Quori spirit, it will create emotional dissonance that will result in mental instability or outright madness… but that can still make for a very dangerous villain. This is especially relevant for orphan kalashtar who know little or nothing of the history or origins of their people; the Quori voice is part of what will shape their character, but it’s not alone. This is discussed in more detail in Races of Eberron.

So first of all, you can have literally evil kalashtar. Beyond this: Just as the Church of the Silver Flame and the Blood of Vol have groups of extremists whose actions soil the fundamental principles of their faiths, there are extremists among the kalashtar as well. Overall, the Adaran kalashtar live by principles of patience and perseverance, confident that through their actions they are pushing the cycle closer to the turn of the age and destruction of the Dreaming Dark. Overall, they have avoided acts of aggression against Riedra, not wanting to harm innocents in their struggle with the Dreaming Dark. But there are exceptions. There are atavists who believe that they must take the offensive against il-Lashtavar – even if that means killing or torturing the innocent pawns trapped in the web. They will and should stand out because this behavior is so unlike the kalashtar norm, and it may create mental dissonance. But it’s still there. Beyond this, there are kalashtar who actually envy the immortal Inspired, and want to actually become like the Quori themselves. So in the end you can find darkness among kalashtar – even among the followers of the Path of Light – and there are Inspired whose lives are devoted to ensuring the comfort and survival of civilians.

You speak of good and evil immortals as metaphysical good and evil. But do you see a space for metaphysical neutrality? I think that something like that could be the Inevitables, but they could as well being bad if you depict evil as lack of empathy.

Lack of empathy is described as ONE of the factors for setting alignment; it’s not supposed to be the absolute measure. The article begins by noting that there is a place in Eberron for moral absolutes — the idea that you always know you’re doing the right thing by opposing the Emerald Claw — and this is the role of immortals. They aren’t about shades of grey; they are incarnate symbols of extreme ideas. An evil immortal isn’t just slightly evil — the evil of performing a minor cruel act without empathy — they are dramatically evil.

And bear in mind that even a lawful neutral mortal can assert that the requirements of the law are more important that sympathy for another human; but that’s not JUST driven by a complete lack of feeling for others, it’s that there is another principle that is more important. This is where neutral immortals live: there is a guiding principle that drives them, and this outweighs any consideration of good or evil.

So yes, neutral immortals exist. Especially in Daanvi, Dolurrh and Syrania.

In Shavarath there is a perpetual war between good and evil, law and chaos. But how in this eternal war that nobody can win there is space for angels for being good, for devil for being evil? I even think that they know that no action can end the world and no opponent can be killed.

This is really a question that needs to be answered by an entire post an about Shavarath. But I’ll touch on it at a high level. First of all, the forces that fight the eternal war don’t expect to ever WIN. They believe that outcome of their war — the balance at any given moment between good and evil, law and chaos — is reflected across ALL REALITY. ANY victory or loss — seizing a keep, moving a battle line forward ten feet — will in some way be reflected across all of the planes. So for the archon EVERY victory matters, and the most important thing is to never falter and never let evil gain ground.

Beyond this, what’s been said before is that The three largest forces in Shavarath are an army of Archons, an army of Devils, and an army of Demons. The Archons embody the concept of just battle and war fought for noble reasons. The Devils reflect violence in pursuit of tyranny and power. And the Demons are bloodlust and chaos, random violence and brutality. There’s two things to bear in mind. First, for these immortals acting in a good or evil manner isn’t a choice; it is the only way they know how to act. Again, they are SYMBOLS as much as anything else. But how does this manifest? That brings us to the second point. There are civilians in Shavarath. An archon reflects war fought for just cause, protecting innocents. A demon embodies brutality and cruelty. As a result, there are innocent, noncombatant spirits in Shavarath — because there HAVE to be so that the archons can protect them, the demons can torment them, the devils can enslave them. This goes back to my post about Thelanis: you have the Archfey and greater fey who embody stories, but you also have the lesser beings who act as the set dressing. These beings may be immortal in the sense that if one dies, a new one will eventually appear to take its place… but it won’t be the same spirit. Memory and experience will be lost. The same is true of lesser archons, devils, etc. The mightiest spirits will return with their personality intact, but for lesser immortals, death IS death of your identity; it’s just that you know a new spirit will rise to take your place. So the archon who places itself at risk to save an innocent IS making a noble sacrifice, even if a new archon will always emerge to take its place should it fall.

Beyond that, this is definitely a discussion for an article about Shavarath, so I’m not going to go into further detail on this.

To what extent are quori evil? In some ways the dreaming dark behave as more as LN than LE. They don’t indulge into cruelty, they are just terribly cold, desperate and efficient.

There’s a number of factors here. The first is that the fact that the Quori don’t engage in needless cruelty in Riedra isn’t an act of kindness; it is a calculated form on psychological manipulation, which the Quori excel at. They need a docile population. Rather than enforce their rule with force and terror—things that breed defiance and resistance—they have manipulated their victims into embracing their conquerors. And as others have noted, they did this by inflaming wars, manipulating fears, and utterly destroying a number of cultures. What they’ve done is a trick. They’ve created a cage and convinced their victims that they WANT to be inside it. It’s not kind; it’s just that a prison with golden bars is more effective than one made of barbed wire.

We then come back to one of the main points of this article: That personal alignment may be at odds with the actions a character takesAn evil person can do a good thing. The Quori have created a peaceful society because it serves their purposes; that doesn’t make them good. The Quori are sculptors of nightmare who feed on negative emotions. Tsucora quori feed on mortal fear. Here’s a quote from the 3.5 ECS: When they are not serving in the great cities of their nightmare realm, (tsucora Quori) hunt the dreaming spirits of mortals. Most tsucora are cruel and calculating; they enjoy having power over others. So first of all: the Quori love manipulation and control, and that’s something that comes out in Riedra, even if that manipulation appears to be peaceful. Second, a quori doesn’t HAVE to indulge its appetite for cruelty in the waking world, because any time it goes back to Riedra, it can take a break and torment a few mortal dreamers.

So the quori are definitely embodiments of evil. They love manipulating and tormenting mortals. It’s simply that their long-term goals—ensuring their continued survival—take precedence over indulging their inherent cruelty.