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Alignments and Absolutes

If you’re into Dungeons and Dragons and are a general pop culture geek (at least in Anglo-America) then you’ve probably had the conversation where you take various characters from your favourite movies and TV shows and try to classify them according to the nine character alignments. While it may not be a true infinite game, debating which character is which alignment can certainly fill an infinite amount of time. It can, however, be fun when taken in reasonable doses. Naming a character’s alignment helps us establish some common ground when imagining how the character would react if put into a new/different situation. It’s not just a matter of whether you are looking at a “good guy” or a “bad guy” but also of how the character is good or evil and why they make the choices they make.

If you read this blog or see me in person on a regular basis then you’ve probably heard me talk about Undertale a lot. This week I had these two conversations converge on each other: my partner asked me where I would place the characters in Undertale on the D&D alignment scale. This was actually quite difficult, since Undertale’s morality just doesn’t work like that. It employs an absolute morality in contrast to the relative morality described by the nine alignments. In plain language: D&D doesn’t care what you do, it cares why you do it. In Undertale your intentions are completely irrelevant. It does not matter why you killed a monster, it only matters that you killed a monster.

Advice from sans
The advice you get from Sans if you grind for EXP

So, why does this distinction matter so much to the discussion of alignment? Because although moral absolutism is rarely practical advice for our own lives, it is still very useful in making a point. In Undertale’s case, it was a point about violence in roleplaying games. In explaining to my partner how Undertale morality is different, I gave her an example of a D&D scenario that is for “good guys” and conforms to the relative morality of the nine alignments but is actually terrible. Think of an old school dungeon crawl where your lawful good paladins and clerics are delving into some old ruins to liberate the long-abandoned temple from the orc henchmen who are their to guard it for the big bad guy. The orcs can speak “common” (read: English), but why would you want to speak to orcs? They are inherently evil and that means they will incessantly come back to kill you and ruin your quest unless you righteously smite them. Of course, if your rogue has motivations related more to treasure than to righteous smiting, she may be of a different alignment but share the same goal of killing the orcs. Your paladin, though, remains lawful good if it is legal to slaughter orcs and he is doing it for the benefit of his people and his faith rather than his own selfish interests.

Going in and killing every last sentient being in your way, in real life we call that genocide. In Undertale it’s called a genocide run or the genocide route. In other roleplaying games, it’s called grinding. Your choice to kill every monster (and the DM’s choice for them to be willing to fight to the death) can be good relative to the morals established in that game world while being uninspired at best to our critical eyes. If your DM is awesome there will be other ways to solve problems in addition to hacking monsters to death, but it is still presumed that combat is still on the table as a valid option. In Undertale’s absolute morality it doesn’t matter how necessary you feel it is to kill in self-defence. You kill, you’re bad, end of debate. It works to make the point that the way we approach role-playing games is often pretty messed up, but no matter how much I adore what Toby Fox created I have to admit that it’s very heavy-handed. Perhaps it needed to be in order to be what it is, but that doesn’t mean it will always work. In particular, I think an open-ended tabletop game would suffer greatly if as the DM I was so hard on players for fighting. I find that tabletop RPG players typically don’t want a simulation (sorry, your paladin has trench foot from too many nights camping in cool damp dungeons) but want enough verisimilitude to make the fantastical story seem sufficiently believable.

Thinking further about how to rate the alignments of Undertale characters, I have come up with four absolute morality alignments that can be used in a comparable way to D&D alignments. These are named mostly according to the options for the protagonist’s choices, but I have inferred from dialogue which monsters are actually trying to kill you and which ones merely block progress of the story unless you can win the fight (either by fighting or by figuring out how else to win). Of course this all revolves around violence because unlike in other games where morality and choices matter, there are no opportunities to lie, cheat, or steal. The protagonist always follows the rules, even if it involves following the rules for killing everything in the world. The absolute moral alignments are as follows:

  1. True Pacifist: will not kill anything. Killing is wrong. It doesn’t matter why you did it, the fact you did it means you are a bad person.
  2. Neutral Pacifist: avoids killing at almost all cost, but has a breaking point after which they feel it finally becomes necessary to kill in order to stop an atrocity in progress.
  3. Neutral Killer: still heavily frowns upon killing, but is absolutely willing to do so if they feel it is necessary. May have killed between one and six times before the game started.
  4. Genocider: in this world, it’s kill or be killed. In order for mercy to be successful on genociders you must somehow break their will. You can’t just refuse to fight them.

So, for what it’s worth, this is what I came up with for Undertale characters and their alignments, relative and abslolute:

Character D&D Alignment (relative) Undertale Alignment (absolute)
sans Neutral Good Neutral Pacifist
PAPYRUS Chaotic Neutral True Pacifist
Napstablook Lawful Good True Pacifist
Undyne Lawful Neutral Neutral Killer (I think any normal person on their first time through
Mettaton Lawful Evil Genocider (at least in his initial form, perhaps I might consider Mettaton EX to be more neutral)
Alphys True Neutral (this was the hardest because she is kind of all over the place, but in the end does strike a balance of all things) Neutral Pacifist
Muffet Lawful Evil Neutral Killer (leans towards Genocider, but will admonish you for killing spiders)
Toriel Lawful Good True Pacifist
Asgore Lawful Neutral Neutral Killer
Flowey Chaotic Evil Genocider
Chara Neutral Evil Genocider
Frisk/protagonist Lawful anything (good/neutral/evil based on the route chosen) Player's choice
Temmie Temful Neutral True Temmie

As I reflect on my own alignment I contemplate the balancing act of law vs. rebellion and of benevolence vs. self-interest, and it fills me with determination.


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