The Punisher’s Alignment

League Alum Jamelle Bouie recently started a food fight on twitter when he asked the following:

The “he’s *OBVIOUSLY* Chaotic Good” people and the “he’s *OBVIOUSLY* Lawful Evil” people1 start screaming at each other in the way that only deontologists and utilitarians can scream at each other. The answers seem so very obvious to a huge chunk of folks in the twitter thread. Statements expressing surprise that there are other interpretations showed up in the threads conclusions that end with “it seems hard to argue otherwise” or begin with “I don’t see how” and these little tells are usually tips of fairly big icebergs.

Then, even among themselves, there are fights over what kind of ice is under the water. The deontologists argue over whether the prohibition against murder is rooted in the lawful kinda thing or in the good kinda thing. The utilitarians argue over the second order effects and the whole differing qualities of pleasure thing (which seems to me to have some serious deontological assumptions when you start sorting things like that), and that’s without even touching on the whole “wait, are we focusing on the maximization of pleasure thing or the minimization of pain thing?” argument or whether the Punisher2 is serving some higher law or serving some greater good or something like that.

Of course, the D&D Universe makes this sort of thing easy because you have clerics who are capable of casting spells like “Detect Evil” and if you cast it on Frank Castle (The Punisher) and he doesn’t light up, you know that, well, he ain’t evil. (Same for Detect Good or Detect Chaos or Detect Law.)

Additionally, if something is somehow connected to the Plane of Negative Energy (e.g., undead), then you know that it is Evil. If it is somehow connected to the Plane of Positive Energy (e.g., healing spells), then you know that it is good.

But that doesn’t really help us because we don’t have any of those clerics here currently, and so we’re just stuck arguing over whether or not the prohibition against murder is rooted in the concept of goodness or rooted in the concept of lawfulness or what.

Which brings us back to the issue of these obvious answers obviously eluding us. Is the extra-legal killing of violent and unrepentant felons (who, surely, will go on to kill arguably innocent people) an act of murder because it is extra-legal? Is it because the ending of a human life is in itself an evil act (even if arguably in the service of good)? To what extent is the context of the killing relevant to the killing? The shooting of a mafia hitman certainly *FEELS* different than the shooting of a person minding their own business (doubly so when the question is whether someone should shoot a mafia hitman who is going to shoot a person minding their own business).

Are we supposed to focus on the outcome here or the act itself? Because if we focus on the outcome, we see that the Punisher is kind of making the world a better place, kind of. Some of the 2nd order effects can be argued, of course, but a world with N mafia hitmen is a better one than one with N+1 mafia hitmen. But he’s breaking the law… so he’s obviously Chaotic Good.

But if we’re looking at the acts themselves and saying “well, murder is wrong, period”, then we’re stuck seeing that the Punisher is doing evil acts in the direct service of some higher moral structure and so it’s obvious that he’s Lawful Evil.

Splitting the difference and saying “well, why not Chaotic Evil?” seems to not apply, given the amount of care he puts into not killing innocent people or even goodish people like Daredevil himself.

So we’re stuck trying to hammer out exactly what it is that we’re finding offensive by the Punisher’s murderous vigilantism… and what we focus on when it comes to the fact that he’s killing people that everyone agrees is a bad guy who has something like this coming.

We’re stuck coming back to the question: Why is murderous vigilantism wrong?

It’s a Euthyphro dilemma3 in its own right.

Is murderous vigilantism Wrong because society says that it’s Wrong? Does society merely agree that murderous vigilantism is Wrong because murderous vigilantism is Wrong?

As such, it seems like the “obvious answer” is, like most of these questions, really asking the individual “how have you resolved this ancient philosophical question within yourself?”

Are you someone who knows that society says that murder is wrong because murder is wrong? Then you just might be a “Lawful Evil, duh” kind of person. Are you someone who knows that murder is wrong because society says that it is wrong? Then you just might be a “Chaotic Good, duh” person.

So instead of asking “What alignment is the Punisher?”, the question is really “What alignment are you?”

(Photo is “Punisher Motto” by Wapster. Used under a creative commons license.)

  1. The D&D Alignment system is explained here. []
  2. Frank Castle, The Punisher, can be read about here. []
  3. The Euthyphro Dilemma gets a decent treatment here. []

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116 thoughts on “The Punisher’s Alignment

  1. We know that Gygax got the alignment system for Morcock’s novels. My personal belief is he know that the Evangelical set would make a hissy fit about RPGs and wanted to find a way to encourage players to role play as heroes rather than amoral people or villains as much as possible to hopefully reduce the hissy fit.

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    • Shadow World encourages people to play as goddamn heroes.
      If you play as evil, the GM will have your fucking character sheet within a month (four game sessions).
      [note: you can still play an assassin, you can still be a douchebag, or selfish… you just can’t be evil. Gygax’s alignments make “I’m a selfish dick” into a morality choice, which is kinda annoying. I can be a selfish dick, and still be helpful. I just expect to be paid for my trouble. Gygax’s alignments also turn “my twisted personality” into a morality choice. Backstabbing people For Good is possible, dears.]

      Gygax’s game puts no real consequences on “Playing As Evil” (at least not in comparison). If you give a PC a choice, someone’s gonna take it.

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    • I doubt this. D & D was published in 1974, with its origins earlier than that. This is a few years too early for the rise of Evangelicals as a force in American culture.

      There is a simpler explanation. Gygax (and Arneson: don’t give Gygax all the credit/blame) created at hopeless, glorious, incoherent mess by borrowing/stealing from all over the place with no underlying coherent plan other than what struck them as cool. Then doubling down on the incoherence with AD&D.

      The alignment system is perhaps the most egregious example of this. It is a crappy model for describing fictional characters (much less real people). This argument about The Punisher is a good illustration of this, but hardly unusual.

      I think the popularity of the alignment system stems from its being part of a handy abbreviation system for describing characters. Tell someone that a character is a 12th level Half-elf chaotic even cleric, and you really don’t need to know anything else about him. We have a pre-packaged set of motivations and tendencies, which is a lot easier than developing a character with a distinct personality.

      My RPG days are long past, but back in the day I thought AD&D an inferior example of the genre. D&D was groundbreaking, but AD&D was what we would now call Version 1.3, when other publishers were well into the 2.x versions.

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  2. Come, then, and let us examine what we are saying. That thing or person which is dear to The Punisher is pious, and that thing or person which is hateful to The Punisher is impious, these two being the extreme opposites of one another. Was not that said?

    I admit that, short of putting Frank Castle in the role of the gods, I wonder how the Euthyphro is relevant to cases like this. In large part because in order to make him seem good even in a consequentialist way we have to seriously stack the deck against his targets — something comic books, or at least comic book movies/shows, is quite good at of course* — and we have to assume that he is infallible. If he is even a little infallible, then the chance that he will get it wrong, and intentionally (not to mention unintentionally!) kill someone who has done nothing wrong, or at least nothing to deserve a summary execution, and if most people who commit crimes exist in an ethically gray area between being purely good and purely evil, as real criminals almost always do, then his actions are likely unjustifiable no matter what metaethical framework we adopt. So he’s either a god, and we have to decide whether what is good to him is pious and what is hateful to him impious by definition, or he is a human who makes mistakes, and whose targets are not, by definition, irredeemably evil, and the thought of him being judge, jury, and executioner is terrifying.

    * I’m thinking, for example, of the scene in Season 2 of Daredevil when Punisher and Daredevil are debating on a rooftop after Punisher has taped a gun to Daredevil’s hand. Punisher holds a gun to a criminal who is also a client of Daredevil’s lawyer alter-ego, and dares Daredevil to shoot him, Punisher, before he shoots the criminal/client. At first, Punisher has the criminal confess his crime: a murder for hire of another criminal. If that were his only crime, he would have been doing Punisher’s job for him(!), even if for the wrong reasons (are we to say that Punisher only kills people who’s motivations are bad?). This wouldn’t be enough, so the writers of the show stack the deck against the criminal: the target’s innocent wife was there, and she saw his face, so he had to kill her. Once this is revealed, even Daredevil seems to recognize that he is irredeemable, even if he still disagrees with Punisher’s choice to kill him.

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    • It’s not the Punisher in the role of the gods, but us/society.

      The comic books stack the deck in multiple ways. The first, of course, is with making the Punisher infallible. He doesn’t screw up, use too much explosive, use the wrong kind of shot, and so he doesn’t kill “innocents”.

      But the more subtle way that the funny books stack the deck is by showing us, unequivocally, that the guy that the Punisher ends up killing is a bad guy who has it coming.

      And so, given that the Punisher is perfectly competent and given that we know that the bad guy has it coming…

      Is murderous vigilantism Wrong because society says it is Wrong?
      Does society say it is Wrong because murderous vigilantism is Wrong?

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  3. I’m with Chris: the only way you can parse the Punisher as being “good” is if he’s infallible and even then you have a debate on your hands. In that he’s not infallible he’s arguably evil though from what little I saw of the bellowing nutcase on DD he appears to be insane which probably pops him off the alignment chart or has him bobbing around on it.

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    • I think that our sympathies have a great deal to do with how many of us see the Punisher as chaotic good.

      When he happens to find/kill a bad guy, there’s a grim satisfaction in it. (See, for example, Garth Ennis’s run on the book.)

      There’s a guy who needs killin’. The Punisher kills the guy. We nod to ourselves. “Good.”, we think.

      Without getting too judgmental on those of us who feel that quick burst of dopamine, are we also “evil” for entertaining these fantasies? What’s going on here?

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      • Uh, no, we’re human. Isn’t about a third of all entertainment setting up a bad guy and watching them get what’s coming to them (I’d submit the other thirds are sex and “misc”)?

        But it is especially unrealistic. This Punisher swoops in on various scenarios and flawlessly determines guilt and doles out punishment? My eyes rolled just typing it out. What about when his stray bullet kills a civilian? What about when his explosion burns down a block? What about when his hard bitten criminal turns out to be the wrong guy, or the right guy but not guilty? None of those things happen to the Punisher? Yeah that eye roll thing just happened again, I think I need an appointment with an optometrist.

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    • If we are using D&D morality killing bad people/creature is totally acceptable.

      Even the Lawful Good paladin can murder his way through heaps and heaps of people with nary a risk of falling.

      So killing bad people can’t be used to throw him out of contention for Good in this rubric.

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  4. Reading the wiki on the Punisher, he’s obviously evil.
    I’d count anyone who tortures as that, point blank.
    I don’t care whether he’s chaotic or lawful
    (I personally consider that a fairly flawed choice, basically designed to make Paladins have sticks up their ass — Paladins to the God of Love are fun to play, dudes! “My horse for rent. Studfee XYZ”).

    You shouldn’t need alignments to cause interparty conflict. That’s just,,, painful.

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    • Yeah, the D&D sourcebook The Book Of Vile Darkness has a handful of really interesting discussions of things that are always evil. Torture. Poison. Possession. Necromancy.

      But that always leads to stuff like the ticking time bomb argument (trite, but it does) and “but what if”s and whatnot.

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      • Poison’s no ill in of itself, at least not something that I’m comfortable saying “definitely evil, no questions asked”.

        I’ve got a decent amount of patience for tons of awful things, including the murder of innocents.

        I don’t have a shred of patience for torture. There is no scenario where it’s a useful thing, let alone a “makes good” thing.

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      • I like Harry Dresden’s solution to the evils of Necromancy, when he was forced to use it.

        Summation of the Dresden-verse rules: Power of your raised relates to their age — older is better — and their sentience — intelligence is better. So you had the Necromancers running around (which Dresden was, of course trying to stop) raising anything from fresh corpses to 200+ year old Civil War dead to fight each other. All human, of course.

        Dresden realized he needed to have undead around him to get close to the big bad and the usual “I WILL BE A GOD” ritual. Unwilling to raise human dead, because raising humans is considered one of the blackest magics, he used a loophole. There was a convenient T-Rex skeleton right there…

        As to the Punisher, I’d probably label him on the evil side — lawful evil, perhaps. He has a code, IIRC, that he sticks to pretty faithfully.

        (Now for another fun example: Where does Stannis from GoT fall? He clearly transitions alignments over the show…)

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          • I’m not so sure. “lawful” isn’t the law, per se (if that was the case, than every King would be lawful, no matter what) but a matter of adherence to code or principles.

            By the end, Stannis had repudiated every obit of his personal code he had in favor of his overarching goal — neutral evil seems a better fit. Definitely lawful neutral at the beginning. (“The law is the law and you obey the law” is a simple code he adhered to strongly).

            Ned Stark seemed the epitome of Lawful Good (and boy did he suffer for it). The Red Witch seems more lawful evil — she has her code and faith and goals, and sticks to them pretty hard. But generally human sacrifice shoves you right into evil, no questions asked. :)

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            • Ehhh… I suppose, but Stannis clung to the law pretty stalwartly throughout and frankly his code was the written law. What did he repudiate? His Gods, for which he had little use, the life of his child which is something the law of that time pretty clearly allowed using that way, his friends… I don’t see him breaking his code. But all the mercy and even humanity in his code drained away. Lawful Neutral -> Lawful evil still in my mind.

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              • Repudiating his Gods was a big break with the law. Secondly, while he always claimed to be about the law, by the end he was practicing mass human sacrifice, kin slaying, the ultimate violation of the law, and not to forget what he was offering Snow — setting aside the Night’s Watch vows, basically bucking thousands of years of laws.

                The whole arc of his character was however much he started with lawful ambition (he was the older of the brothers and thus the throne was his, if any Baratheon held it), by the end he had walked over every line and violated every norm and law, while still believing himself just.

                Saying he went from Lawful Good to Lawful evil is removing a huge chunk of character arc. He went neutral evil because he had goals (he wasn’t in it, Joker style, for the lulz) and ambitions, but by the end he was bound by no law, no code, no norm as long as it got him what he wanted (the throne).

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          • Are we talking the show or the books?

            In the books, Stannis himself, left to his own devices, is solidly Lawful Neutral. He demands the kingship because it’s his by heredity. He cuts of the fingers of the man who saved his life because it’s the law. He defends the realm because it’s the king’s job to defend the realm.

            The influence of Melisandre skews things somewhat, because she’s the opposite of him. For all her argments about moral absolutism, she has an objective, and is willing to do anything (including convincing Stannis to commit kinslaying, which breaks Westeros’ most fundamental law) in order to achieve it. Stannis is all about the Means; Melisandre is all abou the Ends.

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      • Torture. Poison. Possession. Necromancy

        To this day, these are classes I will not play… which is a little problematic as they now form the backbone of a rather surprising number computer gaming classes. Necromancy is by far the fan favorite, but poison is so ubiquitous it turns up everywhere. Torture is also a somewhat distressing sub-theme if you bother to read the ability text – most commonly for DoTs. Possession pops up more than you’d think once you name it what it is.

        Grim Dawn has some weird ability text… there’s a shaman ability that starts off fairly simple: Life drain that casts a soothing balm over allies healing them…simple enough – most developers would stop right there, what with busy new content building schedules – but these developers saw fit to inform us that using this ability makes Shaman go mad, filling them with insatiable hunger for blood leading to *inevitable* cannibalism.

        Not cannibal curious, mind you, but full on inevitable hardcore cannibalism.

        Well, that’s quite an ability Mr. Ability Maker.

        But Druid possession of small woodland creatures?… totally okay.

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        • But Druid possession of small woodland creatures?… totally okay.

          I would guess the difference is between beings that are sapient and thus have something that could be considered free will, and the capacity for moral decision-making, and between animals that do not have sapience or the capacity for higher reasoning.

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  5. Don’t half of D&D campaigns involve extralegal killings no matter the alignment of the party? Granted, if you have a Paladin, you’re not doing straight up murder.

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      • Your typical dungeon crawl isn’t an effort to liberate property and return it to its rightful owners. It is a raid to grab loot, and the raiders kill everyone who tries, or indeed even *might* try, to stop them. That the raiders might be classified as “good” is risible, if “good” is a moral category rather than merely an identification of what team you play for.

        I will grant that this is an accurate description of the world. Lots of people self-identify as “good” while blithely supporting (or at least accepting) the killing of and theft from Those People. If they don’t want to be killed or stolen from, what are they doing in that dungeon? Am I right?

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        • Any competent world-designer thinks about the civilizations he’s creating. Even the orcs and goblin civilizations.

          Granted, they may be grim, dark and mostly just really, really stupid.

          But he does think about them, and there ought to be consequences to dungeon raiding.

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        • We tend to be told about the dungeon by someone in the corner in a tavern who has an interest in the dungeon no longer being owned/operated by whomever is in charge of it and, generally, we’re told to go an empty it.

          We don’t really hammer out the whole “you can keep what you find”. It usually goes unsaid.

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          • We generally have an overarching goal that is “good” — searching for the Magic Widget to free a kingdom, dealing with raiders preying on villages, or trying to understand the dangerous X that’s threatening the area.

            And honestly, most of the time it becomes straight up self-defense because we show up to ask questions and we get attacked.

            It’s a bit specieist, though. I mean generally we’re automatically taking the side of either straight up “good” races (Humans, elves, dwarves) over the kobolds and orcs, without even asking both sides — or at least privileging the established community over the raiders.

            OTOH, our GM has thrown in many wrinkles to prevent that from always being casually accepted as the case — lying villagers who started the conflict, stuff like that.

            We also did a lot of D20 modern stuff which had a more morally grey kinda setup, which was fun, because you had a bunch of mundanes experiencing the supernatural and entirely different reactions — ranging from starry eyed wonder to a “shoot first, and only stop to reload” attitude, all entirely justifiable and fitting together.

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            • There are a lot of differences between a four-color game and a moral ambiguity game.

              The four-color games are a lot more fun. Oooh, a group of orcs! They bellow! I bellow! Roll initiative!

              Moral ambiguity? “Bosama Rin Hayden, the Wuslim cleric, casts “Detect Evil” on all of you… and you all light up!” This is a game that will make you think… but after three or so sessions, you want to get back to the good old “throwing dice” part of the game rather than writing monologues for each other.

              It’s kind of fun to mix the two… my Dwarven Cleric, for example, has the battle cry “Have you heard the good news about Clanggedin Silverbeard?”

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              • Mindless fun is just that, mindless.

                A moral ambiguity game can be absolutely, damnably AWESOME. But it takes a lot more work to make it right.
                If you don’t believe me, play Fate Stay Night. (which reminds me, I have GOT to review that animes).

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              • Oh I know that. It’s just a lot more fun when you can mix rather different viewpoints, or there’s the good twists. (Or, I suppose, when you can make the DM’s wife almost cry because she just accidentally fireballed a bunch of Xvart children. Telling her “It’s okay, they were born evil. It’s in their evil genes” was pretty funny).

                My primary character in a D20 modern game basically shoots anything supernatural on sight. He loads incendiary rounds if anything even vaguely abnormal happens. And what’s worse, is the DM has started rewarding this behavior in game — deliberately feeding the character’s paranoia by making him right to shoot first just enough to keep the other characters having to mutter things like “He’s wrong, but he’s saved our butts more than once”.

                Because it turns out that suspicious dog? Was a bargheest. That sleeping old man? Wererat murderer. (And this is all in character decisions, not meta-gaming “probably a foe” thinking).

                It makes for a fun conflict with the party (one spoony bard type and one practically-a-paladin gunslinger), without my character having to be evil. His experiences with the supernatural have generally been bad and violent, and he’s just moved to “starting” the fight rather than getting attacked first.

                They can generally keep him from going over the rails, prevent massacres or actual “good” supernatural beings being shot (and yes, attacking first HAS worked out badly just enough that he’ll listen to them if they’re really insistent), but the inherent worldview conflict is there and drives a lot of things.

                Admittedly the whole group dynamic ended up being a bit Hindu — Destruction, Creation, and Preservation — among the three of us.

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    • I’d like to use this jumping off point to (relevantly!) recommend the webcomic “Order of the Stick”.

      Similarly to “Cerebus”, it started as a funny D&D pastiche and gentle parody of genre tropes (in some cases even namechecking or lampshading) with an occasional additional layer of fourth wall breaking / meta-commenting level (forex, bringing in a literal lampshade at the point some characters become uncomfortably aware of how cliched their situation is).

      Also like “Cerebus”, it grew into looking at the larger implications of the worldbuilding. Since it’s specifically about D&D, this means a lot of riffs on the alignment system, religions where the gods take an active role in response to prayer, the meaning of the afterlife when resurrection is meaningfully available, the motivations of the mindless opposing horde and their view of what PC-inspired slaughter looks like, the feelings of lesser evils serving the greater evil, the ethics of genocide, … And a Monster in the Dark.

      Unlike Cerebus, the author seems like a reasonable guy, cranks out strips on time and under budget, doesn’t drag his personal vendettas into thinly veiled allusions, and frankly isn’t going crazy.

      This week’s strip is #1029, just done with a talky bit with representatives of the Northern Gods debating the positives and negatives of the End of the World, and getting back to a lighter, action-based section.

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      • Yes! It’s one of my favourite webcomics, and does a great job deliving into the moral issues with D&D “alignment” standards. It’s a bit tricky for new people to get into, because things only really start getting good around the third book, and then you’ve got to go back and catch up on some of the exposition.

        (I love that it’s now selling the books in PDF forms, which means I can get some of the prequels that I hadn’t read. Shipping hardcopy books from their websites is exorbitant, so that was never an option.)

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  6. Chris:
    Hey, if there is an infallible individual or group of individuals who can kill only irredeemably evil people who will kill innocent people until they die, and only those people, with no collateral damage whatsoever, I think you’ll find that society doesn’t say it’s wrong. In fact, almost no one will disagree. But once you’ve done that, you’ve created a morally irrelevant situation.

    This is the state of Obama’s drone wars.

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    • That’s certainly where we are in the haggling. This raises the issue of how important it is that the people our fallible individual(s) kill be the Them, rather than Us (we barely even had a debate when an Us went over there to be a Them!).

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  7. One can do a pretty good job of being infallible (in terms of deciding who to kill and who not to) with enough information (psychological profiles go a long way…) and a willingness to say “No, I’m not going to take the shot.”

    This obviously doesn’t stop stray bullets from killing a kid. But the bullets were going to fly anyway, weren’t they?

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  8. The dispute goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the Alignment System.

    As far as background goes, he’s obviously Lawful. He’s been a soldier, and got a medal. He followed all the rules, and was an integrated member of society. And he’s suffered trauma and brain damage (in the Netfix DD canon, anyway). This has caused him to turn away from society, to break with it, and all its institutions. And someone who breaks that strongly away from established order can’t be called Lawful any more. This kind of question confounds us regularly in character development.

    Likewise, Justice is not a Good concept, it is a Neutral concept. It may be that he executes Justice. He certainly tries to, at least his conception of it. But Good tempers Justice with Mercy. So I would not make him Good.

    I would make the Frank Castle’s alignment Unhinged.

    Mostly I ignore the alignment system, but it has its uses.

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  9. He cannot be lawful evil.
    Lawful evil is more about exploiting the legal system to benefit oneself at the expense of others.

    He cannot be chaotic evil
    Chaotic evil is about mustachio twirling Joker from dark knight level stuff

    He might be lawful neutral since he targets only bad guys but abides by a code.

    He might be true neutral or even chaotic neutral depending on second order effects, how extensively his bad acts stain him etc.

    If he doesn’t lose good points for extra-juidicial killings he may even be good. And depending on the GM, sticking with a code which is at odds with the legal one may even put you in the lawful one. But, you are more likely to end up as Chaotic.

    Most likely alignment is true or chaotic neutral.

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    • My thinking tracks very closely to this. Of course, given that he only kills bad guys, in a D&D world where respect for human rights ain’t exactly a thing, I think he would clearly fall into Chaotic or Neutral Good.

      In a world where human rights are a thing beyond just law and order, it seems a lot less clear. Rejecting the prevailing legal order and the bits of the moral order that don’t suit you sounds pretty neutral to me – leaving you with True Neutral.

      I recall being told True Neutrals are always crazy, so it kinda works.

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  10. I’m pretty comfortable labeling the Punisher as Lawful Evil.

    But I’d also label Daredevil and Batman as Lawful Evil. Torture’s pretty wrong too, comic book writers.

    (On the other side of the house, Arrow is Lawful Evil, too. Flash is Chaotic Good, but his body count is starting to worry me.)

    And there’s a real incongruity in Daredevil Season 2 when, a few minutes after castigating Castle for being a murderer, Daredevil pretty unnecessarily causes concussions at least – and severe brain damage at worst (He slams a guy’s head in a door! Several times!) – to a handful of guys in a situation that would have been pretty easy to de-escalate.

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  11. I’ve never, ever seen someone play evil in a D&D campaign. They’ve labeled their character as being evil, but actually play it? Never.

    Wheel of Time actually has “Please, Play a Dark Character”. Of course, when I tried to play a dark character, people got all whiny, “we don’t want a child molestor!” (was actually more fun than that, as his female “boss” was molesting him as well…)

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    • I had a player who was a Chaotic Neutral Mage and played it to the hilt. It was a constant struggle to remind him that he stood to gain more by working with the group than to be entirely self-interested, and he still had a nasty habit of causing us no end of trouble.

      Of course, the player was a devious bastard and had no end of dirty tricks at the ready.

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    • I’ve never, ever seen someone play evil in a D&D campaign. They’ve labeled their character as being evil, but actually play it? Never.

      I have. He got sneak attacked by the party rogue after one to many confrontations. Evil players, by and large, aren’t trustworthy or team players. You can excuse one, but not both, in a group campaign.

      I’ve seen plenty of “evil” characters who were just selfish and uncaring, but pulled their weight in a fight, so got accepted.

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      • Evil, to me, is not just being untrustworthy (I had an assassin in my party who was far from trustworthy… to the rest of the party. He came from someplace else, and had active connections/obligations to other people).

        Evil is stuff like… delighting in pain, wanting to watch suffering. Child molestation. Eating children. (and if you get that last reference, all I have to say is space vaginas).

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        • Yeah, nobody can RP that and still have a fun game. And I’ve run Laundry Files games (think Call of Cthulhu mixed with British Bureaucracy and a side of IT). There’s a lot of abyss staring back moments there.

          Belkar Bitterleaf from OOTS is pretty much as ‘evil’ as you can get and still be playable with other people. He’s a psychotic little halfling, but his behavior is restrained by Roy. (Belkar is considered worse than, IIRC, then the hypothetical offspring of Sauron and Cruella DeVille.)

          But in terms of the game, he’s not allowed to do all sorts of things because Roy stops him. In terms of real pen and paper sessions, that’s how it works. You can ACT axe-crazy, but you get stuck with a keeper to only let you be axe crazy when it won’t result in a TPK or getting you stabbed in your sleep by a party member. (Or break up the game).

          Because without it, the game is not fun.

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          • There’s a charming D&D comic book (from IDW) that has a halfling thief character who is kept in line in pretty much the same way. The leader of the party says something to the effect of “yeah, she’s like a dagger… but I’d rather have her pointed at my enemies than pointed at me.”

            This allows her to do all sorts of anti-social things… against the baddies in the dungeon at the price of the occasional “where did she go?” in the middle of an event that takes place near some overlooked treasure.

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      • I was in a campaign where one of the PCs was legitimately leaning in the direction of selling the party out to the baddie. The GM saw it coming at the beginning of the campaign and brought me in specifically to betray the party first (when the PC made his first move, he was surprised to find out that at the time I was his actual superior in the Evil chain of command), and scare everybody straight.

        I took the job specifically because the GM and I wrote my character’s death scene together, for maximum scenery chewing.

        The subsequent part of the campaign apparently settled down nicely.

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      • I’ve been pushing my DM for years to allow me to…stretch…the Paladin rules. (It says Paladins can be devoted to a cause instead of a God, so what’s wrong with “Fair work for Fair Pay?”. Apparently mercenary paladins aren’t allowed……blah).

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        • Well, you are a Paladin.

          Got a Demon problem, call Righteous Reginald! He’ll skewer those hell spawn right back to the abyss*!

          *Expenses & fees apply, plus a 10,000 GP donation to the Church Of Ostentatious Wealth

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        • You need to worship the god of Justice. And Scales. And then carefully explain that you have to be paid for everything, or the karma won’t balance. It is a tenet of your faith that your god wants you to be mercenary. Doing otherwise would be wrong.
          (My DM would totally let me do this… Of course, my DM actually was written in as a small god — who naturally hated being worshipped, and was the very devil to find, and fond of pranks to boot.)

          [If Lords of Xulima can have a god that’s all about Mercantilism, why can’t you?
          Crazy spaniards they may be, but that’s a different story.]

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          • It’s not so much the concept my DM has a problem with, it’s the manner he knows I would play the character with. I admit, it’s one of three concepts I bring up just to get shudders from him — if I really wanted to play it, he’d let me. (He knows I won’t be a d*ck about it, basically).

            In the past he’s managed to let me bring in an elven Samurai into a stock D&D world simply because I wanted to be an iajitsu master. He even worked the whole land into the campaign, full of portents and such, so I wasn’t so obviously a transplant. (That character was also the most unlucky character I’ve ever played. After the first two sessions, I created and kept up to date — with the GM’s approval — a backup character. If there’s a trap, he’ll trip it. If there’s a save or possibly die roll, he’ll fail. He hasn’t died yet, but he’s come so close so many times. It’s uncanny).

            The one character he might actually put his foot down on is the Kender Wildmage with custom critical tables. (Screw that boring stuff. If a failure on a wild magic spell doesn’t turn SOMEONE into a hamster, why are you playing a wild mage?). He feels a Kender mage is terrifying enough. Adding wild magic would destroy the universe.

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            • LOL. I know a guy with a permissive GM who did some fun stuff with wildmagic.

              Level 1: Summoned a black dragon from the negative plane. Said blackdragon (from negative plane) walked through the polymorph spell (that the wildmage had randomly cast earlier), and turned into a white dragon (from positive plane), who promptly closed his eyes, cast wish, and went home.

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              • My last try at a barbarian (Half Orc in fact) almost ended at level 1. Barbarian Rage is a thing, and you shouldn’t be metagaming it. I triggered it when I felt he’d truly be angry, and the GM had his own table to occasionally trigger it per some criteria of his own.

                We got attacked by those gigantic mosquito things, my barbarian got frustrated at having a hard time hitting them (and getting continuously attacked) and went into a rage as the last one retreated — and chased them to their nest, got so much blood sucked out that ALL that was keeping me up was my Con boost from enrage (I was below 0, actually, but with the rage boost I was running a 1 or 2), and managed to (right before passing out) toss a great axe at the nest (they’d all retreated to that, full of my blood) and somehow managing to destroy it by rolling a 20.

                The best part? I had a dead one on me, full of my blood. The “first aid” performed by our thief was to squeeze it really hard to shove my blood BACK inside me and then hope I didn’t die of blood loss. The GM, once he stopped laughing, decided that kept me alive.

                I think the only character that ever got into more weird stuff than that was a tree troll monk I had (I had rolled him up as a munchkin, but the DM allowed it because he was so tiny. It was like an angry, hand-to-hand Yoda), and that’s because he seemed to routinely end up too far away to attack anyone, so kept throwing things at foes from a Bag of Tricks.

                He was better, in a friend’s words, at “badgering the enemy” than actually attacking them.

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                • If you are looking for weird, very little in my experience beats playing superheroes built on 0 character points (i.e. for nongamers, every skill or advantage has an equivalent and offsetting limitation or disadvantage).

                  Of course, to make it possible to get something done, you end up with enemies just as incompetent (coming up with the in-universe rationalization for all this is a big part of the fun!). For example, one of our foes was the “Hart of Darkness”, a were-deer who could never be seen, as his stag form was eternally shrouded in a field of inky blackness. Note that he had no power to see in inky blackness…

                  Bonus weirdness if you use a system like TOON.

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                  • Lately we’ve been enjoying FATE based systems — our last Spirit of the Century game, with a bunch of people new to FATE, was quite funny as people started realizing how the system was designed to be used, and as people got used to the idea of Pulp Heroes.

                    Mostly because of the reoccurring social combat between a character more at home in Call of Cthulhu and a very thin expy of Tesla (the latter being the villian/nemesis of the former).

                    Mad Science versus Mad Magic, as it were…

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  12. I think initiation of force/infliction of harm against those that have not either done so themselves, indicated intent to, or facilitated* it is wrong. As a long time fan of the Punisher comics, I can’t recall off the top of my head times where the people at the other end of his guns weren’t clear violators of that rule (at least, not while I still read comics — if an incident of Frank, say, wasting a petty narcotics salesperson who has not been violent has slipped my mind then that would be a mark against him).

    Also, I think “the law is the law” is nonsense, as “the law” cannot be its own justification. Law can be unjust, law can and frequently does encourage more chaos & hurt than it prevents, simply by way of its application & social context. I’m only vaguely familiar with D&D, but my alignment is likely obvious.

    (* – IMO the people of Flint, Michigan would be completely in the right were they to storm the governor’s mansion & string up Snyder.)

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  13. This post immediately reminded me of one of my favorite Voltaire quotes:

    “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

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  14. The Punisher is, in my view, emblematic of a worldview that is at the heart of all the issues with American law enforcement: the idea that society can be divided into mutually exclusive groups of “citizens” and “criminals”.

    Someone who is a Criminal is always a Criminal, and will always be a threat to the Citizens, so they have to be dealt with, whether by killing or incarceration. Citizens are good people who need to be defended against Criminals. The Punisher is a Citizen (war hero, lost his family to criminal violence), and he only targets Criminals, so he’s regarded as fundamentally sympathetic and okay. The fact that the things he does are illegal doesn’t make him a Criminal.

    It’s why Batman, Daredevil, the Punisher and others can continuously engage in activities which are contrary to the law, as well as activities like torture that are contrary to international standards of human rights, and still be the heroes. It’s why the fundamental concept of the superhero can even be accepted by people. The superheroes are protecting Citizens, and they’re only harming Criminals, and there’s never any dividing line – nobody who joined a gang because it was the only way to stay alive in their neighbourhood, nobody who deals drugs because it was their only way to make a living, nobody who is redeemable.

    And it’s why we accept that it might be okay for the Punisher to kill his enemies, but not for the X-Men to do so, or for Magneto to do so. The people the Punisher is killing are criminals. The people who mutants are fighting, even when those people are trying to commit genocide, are Citizens.

    (On that note, I’ve got a lot of thoughts about parallels between the Punisher and Magneto. Both saw their families destroyed; both sought to destroy the forces which perpetrated that violence. In the Punisher’s cast, that force is organized crime, and we’re okay with him going after it. In Magneto’s case that force is governments, that force is the legitimized power structures, that force is generals, and we’re a lot less okay with those people being killed – even though the Punisher’s enemies are causing the death of hundreds, and Magneto’s enemies are seeking the deaths of millions.

    Look at Avengers films – the heroes have no issues killing people who try to kill them. Look at X-Men: First Class – the moral conflict is about the idea that it’s utterly wrong for Magneto to kill a group of people who just tried to kill him, and all his friends, immediately after he and his friends saved those people from nuclear war. The difference? The people who tried to kill the X-Men are the navies of two nations, commanded by the governments of those nations. Killing directed against people who are not defined as part of society is, in superhero movies, okay; killing by those who are outside society, directed against those who are within society, is not okay.)

    In the real world, it’s why the United States (and Canada) have people in prison for drug crimes that have been committed by the last 3 US Presidents and the current Canadian Prime Minister (in the case of the latter, committed while he was holding office as a member of Parliament). It’s why police don’t see consequences for killing innocents: the police are Citizens and are protecting Citizens, so they must be right. It’s why few attempts are made at rehabilitation. It’s why most people don’t have issues with the fax that violence and rape are rampant in the prison system: it’s only Criminals harming other Criminals.

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    • These are all great points, .

      I wonder why this sort of thing resonates so deeply. I mean, even as I know that violence doesn’t solve anything, I yell something like “aw yeah!” when the Punisher turns the tables on 4-5 bad guys in a second or two. (The scene in front of the carousel had me yell loudly, for example.)

      Even though my higher self knows things, my lower self still thrills to see this… I guess it’s players in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma engaging in altruistic punishment against defectors? That’s the best way I can describe it, I think.

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