Good is not Stupid: On Killing Captives in RPGs

Our party fought three witches and their zombie servants. The witches had a very large pot in which were boiling pieces of dead elf. During the fight, the witches (1) put one of the human party members to sleep and put him in the pot, with a fire underneath, (2) did the same for a pregnant wild elf party member, and (3) mentioned how much they loved to eat babies, and that they were looking forward to it again. We won, killing one witch, driving off another (an Annis Hag), and capturing the third, who turned out to be the sister of the guy in the pot. The guy in the pot wanted to let her go, but he didn’t tell us, and given his past performance, we figured he wanted to kill her. The paladin talked him out of it, and we took her back to the city to stand trial. Once there, she continued to talk about her “mother” (the Hag) and how she liked being a witch except, of course, when her dad showed up. She then played the innocent and told her father (a famous lawyer) she was being railroaded, and that he should get her out of jail. He went off to start that process. Meanwhile, the guy in the pot (also an aspiring lawyer) told us that we might as well let her go because (1) any crimes she committed were outside the city’s jurisdiction and (2) elven testimony would not be allowed in the city, and that (3) personally he was willing to kill the entire elven race to protect one human life. He also mentioned that we should let her go because if we kept her in jail the full 72 hours, he was sure the hag would try to rescue her and that his sister would kill someone in the attempt.

Got it? Ok, the paladin went off to talk to the prosecutor, while the guy in the pot and the bleeding-heart druid went off to look for one of our missing friends. That left Alessandro (the high elven wizard) and Snow (the female half-elven thief) in the jail cell with one guard, whom the DM had dubbed “the token guard.” Alessandro surreptitiously put the guard to Sleep, then cast 2 Freezing Spheres (Flaming Sphere with Versatile Evocation) on the witch, who was in the cell with hands bound. The witch’s raven familiar popped out from under her dress (yeah, not sure how it got under there) and flew off through the window to get help. Her hair came alive and broke her bonds, and then tried to break the cell door with them as well. Snow, who had gotten the cell key, dropped it as she stabbed at the witch through the bars. The witch moved away from the door after throwing the key back outside the cell and died after taking over 60 hp. of cold damage. Snow and Alessandro then threw the key back next to her body in the cell and left the jail, later explaining that the Hag had returned, stabbed the witch through the window, and that we didn’t know what happened next because we had run like cowards to get help.

The DM and three party members insisted that this was an evil act. Alessandro was my character, and he had thought carefully about all this, and was sure it was a good act. For anyone else in this situation, what follows is why he made that decision. I hope this helps you play a good character who is not stupid.

A lot of people have argued that killing a captive is evil. The Basic D&D Rule Book (1977) is the first to do this, saying, “An example of such [evil] behavior would be a ‘good’ character who kills or tortures a prisoner.” Gary Parlagreco (1979) wrote a brief description of alignments that I really liked, except for his insistence that good players do stupid things like give up the advantage in a fight with an evil creature. Personally, I think Gary watched too many Errol Flynn movies, but I also think in his world, good probably won most of the time, and good players could get away with stupid stuff. Here’s what he wrote about captives:

“The attacking of an unarmed foe seems to me to be a pretty nasty thing to do, and one which Evils would thrive upon. A Good would at least have the decency to allow the poor fellow to draw his sword, even if he weren’t allowed to put on his armor. Neutrals, on the other hand; probably wouldn’t be fool enough to let an angry 15th level Lord get hold of a sword, and then themselves, especially if they were of fairly low level.”

But others have argued that there are cases when captives can be killed legitimately by good-aligned characters. One of these was Gary Gygax (1980), who wrote, “”Good does not mean stupid, even if your DM tries to force that concept upon you. Such assertions are themselves asinine, and those who accept such dictates are stupid.” In his byline, “From the Sorceror’s Scroll,” he gave two examples of good characters killing prisoners.

EXAMPLE 1: The Swordpoint Conversion

“A Paladin could well force conversion at swordpoint, and, once acceptance of ‘the true way’ was expressed, dispatch the new convert on the spot. This assures that the prodigal will not return to the former evil ways, sends the now-saved spirit on to a better place, and incidentally rids the world of a potential troublemaker. Such actions are ‘good,’ in these ways:

1. Evil is abridged (by at least one creature).
2. Good has gained a convert.
3. The convert now has hope for rewards (rather than torment) in the afterlife.
4. The good populace is safer (by a factor of at least 1).

It is therefore possible for a Paladin to, in fact, actually perform a ‘mercy killing’ such as the inquiring player asked about, provided the tenets of his or her theology permitted it. While unlikely, it is possible.”

EXAMPLE 2: The Wounded Wyvern

“The third inquiry concerned a Ranger character. The writer claimed that his or her DM combined with a lawful good Ranger to insist that a wounded Wyvern was to be protected, not slain, unless it attacked the party. Here is a classic case of players being told that (lawful) good equates with stupidity. To assert that a man-killing monster with evil tendencies should be protected by a lawful good Ranger is pure insanity. How many lives does this risk immediately? How many victims are condemned to death later? In short, this is not ‘good’ by any accepted standards! It is much the same as sparing a rabid dog or a rogue elephant or a man-eating tiger.”

This was exactly the case with Alessandro. He killed the witch like a rabid dog.

Roger Moore (1981) also believed that good-aligned players could sometimes kill captives. Below are his words on the subject:

“Killing is a difficult topic to address with regard to Paladins. This article does not deal with the question of whether killing in real life is evil or not. In an AD&D game, however, there are many creatures whose whole existence is evil and cannot be undone by any means short of a Wish (and even that may not be possible). Undead of any sort, evil dragon types, and all demons, devils, and daemons deserve (from a Paladin’s point of view) no other fate than utter and absolute destruction. Sparing them is evil. Sometimes little more can be done than to send the creature back to its home plane, in the case of the demons, devils, and daemons, but if the situation permits they should be slain by whatever means are at hand so that no further harm may be done by them. There is no quarter and no prisoners are taken.

Other beings, like Beholders and Mind Flayers, will also fit pretty well into this category. No amount of polite talk and reasoning will convince an Intellect Devourer to be a nice guy. The sword is the only answer. When orcs, trolls, and so forth are encountered, the same applies. They are evil, there are deities who make a living at keeping them evil, and there’s not much more to say. Perhaps the only exceptions one could make to killing evil monsters would be if they surrendered; the Paladin could then tie them up or whatever and march them off to the nearest authorities to stand trial or be imprisoned.

Not all of the problems Paladin-players encounter in this area of whether killing is right or not are the player’s fault. Sometimes a DM will set up a situation in which, for example, the Lawful Goods have slain all the males of a tribe of Werewolves, and all that’s left are the females and young, who cower in the rocks and refuse to fight. Civilization is hundreds of miles away and no means exists at the moment to render the captives free of lycanthropy. If released, the young will grow up and terrorize the neighborhood again. If they are kept as captives, the party will be severely hampered and may meet new monsters at any moment.

Killing the captives could well be the only alternative the Paladin is left with, yet if done the DM might say it was evil and remove the player’s alignment and status as a Paladin. A touchy situation, right? The DM should keep well in mind how he or she would react if placed in the same situation in the game, essentially trapped with no way out. It isn’t fair, and the players will know it and resent it. If captives must be slain, it should be done quickly, without torture, and with the assurance that there was no way to avoid it. If a Paladin does have prisoners and they can be disposed of by turning them over to other authorities, and this won’t unreasonably endanger innocent people, then killing them out of hand could rate as an ungood act.”

Even better for Alessandro, Moore specifically named cannibalism as an evil act:

“Perhaps the greatest enemy of Paladins in the game is cultural relativity. Maybe anthropologists can study a tribe of cannibals and find their culinary practices reasonable, at least for the cannibals, but Paladins of any religion would have to disapprove. The killing and eating of human beings or any other intelligent beings, even orcs, is not a good act by AD&D standards. It at least borders on being evil, depending on the situation.”

So now, here’s Alessandro’s defense of his actions:

1. The witch was unquestionably evil. She had admitted guilt regarding cannibalism, and Alessandro was an eye witness to not only that admission, but her attempt to kill another baby, and to killing and eating her brother.

2. He helped bring the witch to justice. Alessandro helped the party bring the witch back, because the paladin believed that she should stand trial for her actions and Alessandro believed the paladin was good and that he would seek justice for both elves and humans.

3. There was no other alternative. After returning, Alessandro became convinced that the city would not bring justice. The humans convinced him that there would be no trial because (1) the witch’s misdeeds were outside city jurisdiction, (2) because killing an elf was not a crime, (3) because eating an elf was not a crime, and (4) because the city would not allow or recognize testimony by elves. One of the human players even believed that eating an elf was not evil. If there was a functioning justice system, Alessandro would have supported a trial, but that was not the case. As an old African proverb says, “Corn can’t expect justice from a court composed of chickens.”

4. When he saw his chance, he killed her quickly, without torture.

As far as Alessandro was concerned, the killing was just, necessary, and quick. It was pre-emptive self-defense. If Alessandro had waited until she was released and then hunted her down, the humans would have had less trouble with the killing, but if Alessandro had waited, others might have died. He could not allow those deaths. Alessandro killed one human to save many elven lives.

Obviously though, I thought a lot about this killing and questioned Alessandro’s actions myself. I want him to be a truly good person, and I think, in this case at least, he was justified. If you have comments on this one, please let me know — I’m still looking for guidance on all this!

By the way, the reason I’m using very old references is because they are the best ones on the subject. I actually looked through all of the articles on alignment that could be found in the Dragon magazine and its predecessor, the Strategic Review. Recent articles on alignment are not much help, which is why I posted this. I’m betting not everyone has a collection of old gaming stuff like I do!


Gygax, Gary (1980 June). “Good Isn’t Stupid, Paladins & Rangers, and Female Dwarves do have Beards!” Dragon, 38, pp. 22-23.

Moore, Roger E. (1981, July). “It’s Not Easy Being Good.” Dragon, 51, pp. 33-35.

Parlagreco, Carl (1979, June). “Another View of the Nine-Point Alignment Scheme.” Dragon, 26, p. 23.


About lostdelights

An old gamer flying his freak flag, I've been playing table-top role-playing games since 1978. I've been building my own system (Journeyman) since 1981.
This entry was posted in Advice to Beginners, Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Thoughts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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