Posted by: Jess Riley | September 17, 2008

Good and Evil: Revisited

Now, in the past, I’ve talked about the idea of good and evil in roleplay. What a lot of people got from that is that I think the Horde are objectively not evil, or that there aren’t these concepts of good and evil at all in World of Warcraft.

Looking at fantasy (which I firmly believe that World of Warcraft is) as a genre, one of the key themes is the battle between good and evil. The key point, however, is that we almost always see the story from the side of the “good” person and not from the perspective of the evil person. The evil one is evil because we are told he is evil, and he is doing bad things. There have been a number of other sources looking at the distinction between good and evil, between the villain with good publicity and the hero with bad publicity; one of the most famous of these examples is Wicked, a re-invention of the Wizard of Oz story.

I feel that the distinction of good and evil partly comes from this idea: the villain is bad because he does bad things, but if the hero does bad things, that’s alright, because they’re the hero.

Wait, what? Does that really happen in fiction? Well, let’s take a look. Everyone’s heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, right? Well, let’s take a look at the actual plot here.

Jack is sent by his mother to sell their cow so they can afford to live out the winter. Jack trades the cow for a handful of beans. His mother throws the beans out the window, and they grow into a magical giant beanstalk. He climbs the beanstalk and finds himself outside a giant’s castle. He sneaks in, and takes items of personal property from the giant who owns the castle, before eventually getting caught and threatened with bodily harm. The giant chases him down the beanstalk, but Jack reaches the bottom first and cuts down the giant beanstalk, killing the giant.

So, basically, Jack committed murder (or, at minimum, voluntary manslaughter), theft and breaking and entering, not to mention the crime of being bloody stupid in trading his (effective!) livelihood for a handful of beans – and yet is considered the hero. The giant threatened a small person with death for breaking into his house and stealing his things, and is considered the villain.

When viewed in this light, I think most people would agree that Jack is not the greatest of people. He’s certainly not the most law-abiding, and he’s probably not that bright. But because we view the story from his perspective, we feel as though he is “good” and the giant is “bad”.

Basically, my point is that good and evil is as much as matter of perspective as of anything else; no one does things just because they are “evil”, and just because someone is the main character of a story doesn’t mean that they are morally justified in their behaviour regardless of what it is that they’re doing. Are the Horde evil, and are the Alliance good? Well, no, not really. In fairness, neither is “good” and neither is “evil”. There are good, moral people on both sides, and bad, immoral people (who still don’t perceive themselves as bieng immoral or bad, take note) on both sides – sometimes these people may be the leaders, or the followers, but there’s a bit on each side.

How do you actually roleplay this? Since it’s all a matter of perspective, I would just say to avoid taking action just to prove goodness or evilness and simply play to the character’s personal motivations and opinions. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ in this context isn’t so much about an outside moral force as it is about perspective of the people involved.



  1. WOW Insider already looked at a similar idea here, just to keep related discussions together.

  2. True.

    Good and Evil are emotionally charged words to defame or promote actions. The better terms to use are protagonist and antagonist in terms of a story. A story has to revolve around someone trying to achieve or do stuff, while there is someone (or a force or whatever) trying to prevent that from happening – very broadly speaking – of course it can be way more complicated than that.

    In terms of a fairy tale, they tend to be teaching tools and many times will have despicable leads. So with Jack & The Beanstalk we see a few classic themes:

    Things are not always what they seem – So it looked like Jack was ripped off but in fact the old man gave him these wonderful magic beans (what was the old man hoping to get in return I ask?)

    And Jacks stupidity is actually trust, and that trust was rewarded not punished.

    The other major theme is that of brains versus brawn – a weak person can outwit a stronger one.

    The stealing encourages children to go after what they want without fear – it was courageous of Jack to attempt and succeed at the theft.

    Oceans 11 anyone?

    All in all Jack is not a “Hero” or a “Good” guy, he’s just a very trusting, quick-witted and courageous rogue.

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