Heroic Explorations: Magic and Morality

Heroic Explorations: Dungeon Keepers
Heroic Explorations: the parts that aren't dungeons

A setting’s magic and cosmology are usually tightly related. Let’s deal with that.

Miracles are Everywhere

The first question we should concern ourselves with is, “how common is magic?” Let’s say, “pretty common.” Not so much that everybody’s a wizard, but maybe everybody knows one. Everybody has an idea of what magic is even if they don’t know how it works. Powerful magic is correspondingly more rare, but so is high skill in every endeavor. We don’t want it so common that magic isn’t special, but nobody gets burned as a witch for lighting a candle from across the room.

Magic helps a little with the “how do lone communities in the middle of a monster-filled wilderness survive” question, but not so much that they’re living in a post-scarcity magical economy. Everything is still more or less recognizably medieval and feudal.

Do Divine Powers Prove the Existence of Gods?

Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe divine powers are a matter of the blessed individuals personal faith, rather than a gift from on-high. This has two implications.

  1. Faith is the belief in the absence of proof, or in the face of contradictory evidence. With absolute proof of divinity, there can be no faith. With no faith, there is no magical divine power. So there must be room for doubt in order for faith to resist doubt. That means the gods are either so subtle or inactive that they don’t really make their presences known on the earthly plain.
  2. Divine power is untied to rank within the church itself. This fits in nicely with our general attitude towards Adventurers as powerful outsiders, and gives priest characters a reason to be off adventuring rather than in some town giving sermons.

In fact, we can take it a step further and say that our established religions are largely orthopraxic. Modern religions tend to be orthodoxic – what matters is your belief, your faith. In an orthodoxic religion, like that of ancient Rome, your faith doesn’t matter… only your behavior. That makes our faithful priests more the outsiders; rank within the church is about your ability to play politics, and the highest ranks may be outright political appointments.

The Gods

But what about the gods? Well, they’re distant, if they’re real. We established earlier that the appearance of all the deadly monsters is relatively recent; maybe this is tied to the cause of the gods’ disappearance, or the result of their inaction. Or maybe they were never real to begin with.


Despite the ambiguous nature of divinity itself, morality is an objective force. There are spells and magical effects that target “good” and “evil.” And everybody has an alignment.

In Dungeons and Dragons and many other systems, this Alignment is a defini

te part of your character’s stats. You are good. You are evil. You are lawful. You are chaotic. In some interpretations alignment is fluid and based on your behavior and attitudes.

Not here, baby.

No, we’re going to say that Alignment influences your choices. It’s not absolute. Good characters are not incapable of harm, and Evil characters are not unable to be compassionate, but these tendencies are strong, known, and taken into account by the people who live here.

What is ‘Alignment?’

Alignment is a concept within the context of the setting, as are its variation. If we’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, that’s Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil. These alignments aren’t choices that you’ve made, the result of devoting yourself to good or evil, but accidents of birth.

You were born that way. This is this setting’s astrology. The time of day, the position of the stars and planets, a lot of tiny astrological circumstances determines your Alignment. It’s not a definite thing. It’s not a divination. But it influences who you are, and who you will become. You’re not doomed to a life of evil for being born Chaotic Evil, but it might be a constant struggle against your nature.

So, Alignment is not what you have done, but what behaviors you tend towards. It’s not a compulsion, it’s an affinity.

  • Good characters feel altruistic.
  • Evil characters are selfish.
  • Lawful characters prefer order, structure, and hierarchy.
  • Chaotic characters find such restrictions stifling.

But in all cases, characters have free will, and can make conscious choices to resist (or play into) their instinctual drives.

Attitudes towards Alignment

Most people don’t know their alignment. The process to chart it out is complex and requires specialized training.¬† But it’s an accurate enough statement of character that people do judge one another. As a result, most people are close-mouthed about their alignment except around very close friends. To ask someone about their alignment is one of the rudest things possible, and “proper” people refuse to discuss such things in public. “Are you Neutral Evil” is the same kind of question as “Are you a liar?” and “Are you Good” is like “can you be trusted?”

Racial Alignment

Are all orcs evil? No. Just as with every other sentient creature, they are born under an Alignment Sign. Their culture and society may reward different behaviors and encourage different attitudes, but that just reinforces the fact that alignment is not an absolute predictor of attitude and behavior.
Same goes for every other race.Universality

Alignment is a literal moral force within the setting, but of course, not every culture views it the same way. Maybe they think about it in other terms, or ascribe different reasoning to the reason for these attitudes, like blood type or time of year.

But Alignment itself is a spiritual reality, and magic can and does reveal its truth.

Michael Coorlim

Michael Coorlim is a teller of strange stories for stranger people. He collects them, the oddballs. The mystics and fire-spinners, the sages and tricksters. He curates their tales, combines their elements and lets them rattle around inside his rock-tumbler skull until they gleam, then spills them loose onto the page for like-minded readers to enjoy.
Michael Coorlim

Latest posts by Michael Coorlim (see all)

Heroic Explorations: Dungeon Keepers
Heroic Explorations: the parts that aren't dungeons

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.