Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Irredeemably Evil

Commenting on an earlier post of mine, Steven Marsh asks a question I think worth pursuing,
I've had a personal distaste for many years for many "old school" conventions of slaying, say, a village of goblins, just because they're evil. Is it considered to be just for "heroes" to slaughter them all? Is it right to never offer quarter to sapient foes, but rather barge into a dungeon room with swords drawn? etc.

Personally, I can really only enjoy hack-n-slash if there's either a strong moral compass for the heroes (requiring those who follow good to offer quarter, not taking lives needlessly, etc.), or if those the heroes act against are by definition irredeemably evil (demons, devils, undead, Cthulhu-esque horrors, etc.). But I admit I'm weird and don't judge other viewpoints... and it's not like I'm consistent in this view. (I don't like heroes killing orcs just because they believe they're evil, but I don't think a player of the Russian side in Axis & Allies is tacitly approving of Stalin's actions.)
Generally, I don't give a lot of consideration to questions of this sort, because, in my experience, they're often insincerely asked. That is, they're really a cover for a hidden agenda of some sort, including (but not limited to) a general indictment of D&D and/or swords-and-sorcery gaming generally.

In this case, though, the question included reference to a moral compass, something I've previously commented upon as a necessity in D&D. Indeed, my feeling remains that the game implicitly holds to a rather traditional moral structure derived from a kind of "fairytale Christianity" that partly provides a counterbalance to the game's other, more unsavory implications -- but only partly.

That's because D&D has never been a systematic game, particularly in its inspirations. While pulp fantasy writers like Howard, Leiber, and Vance, none of whom were much concerned with "moral" questions, are the game's primary influences, they're not its only ones. Both Gygax and Arneson were interested in medieval history and its events, both real and legendary, also loomed large in their imaginations. It's from here that deviations from the comparative amorality of pulp fantasy entered the game, aided no doubt by the authors' own moral beliefs. The end result is a game with some very muddled moral stances, complicated by the fact that many of D&D's internal mechanisms, such as alignment, contributed to rather than dispelled its muddled state.

This moral confusion was made worse by the fact that in most traditional swords-and-sorcery literature, there aren't a lot of "monsters," let alone intelligent ones. The enemies against whom Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fought, for example, were generally other human beings, none of whom were portrayed as evil by nature. They were enemies because they opposed the protagonists, not because of what they were. D&D, though, borrowed many surface elements from high fantasy writers like Tolkien, elements that, when stripped of their larger context, don't mesh well with the pulp fantasy superstructure of the game.

Thus, the importation of the irredeemably evil orcs -- and the extrapolation by Hit Dice of other related races -- introduced a wrinkle into the implied setting of the game that it couldn't easily contend with. Whereas Conan's slaying of an individual man could be potentially be justified on the basis of the individual's actions, humanoid monsters don't seem to enjoy that same status. They're evil because they are evil and no further justification is needed. Tolkien himself seemed to waver on this point later in life, but D&D, for most of its existence, has not. Add to this the naturalistic presence of non-combatant females and young, and you have the recipe for some very thorny questions that D&D's incoherent moral structure just can't handle.

I say that not as a criticism of Dungeons & Dragons. I don't personally have any problems with this incoherence, mostly because it's precisely this that makes the game so accessible and malleable to many tastes. But there's no denying that the incoherence is there and that, without some thought on the part of the referee (not to mention the cooperation of his players), the game can quite easily degenerate into something that some might view as indefensible from a moral point of view.

Again, let me stress that I'm not saying that this has to be the case or even that it's much of an issue for me personally. I've dealt satisfactorily with these matters in my own campaigns, but doing so required that I deal with them. I don't recommend making them the focus of one's campaign (or one's thoughts about it), but I also think avoiding them isn't viable in the long term. Or at least it's never been so for me. I much prefer to address moral questions head on, even in RPGs, and it's precisely this that I think too many referees don't do, thereby lending ammunition to those who would argue there's something inherently immoral about swords-and-sorcery. That's why, like Steven Marsh, I think a moral compass of some sort is needed to combat this false accusation.

128 comments:

  1. I think a follow-up on how you (and your players) have faced these issues in your campaigns would be very worthwhile, James.

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  2. As a DM, I have suggested to my players that the slaughter of helpless non-combatants, regardless of race, was morally questionable. The player playing the party's Neutral Good cleric fired back that baby goblins will just grow up to be evil goblins that attack towns and merchants. The fighter in the group suggested that they leave humanoid young to their own devices, which is not directly killing them and thus morally acceptable. The majority of players just seemed to be quietly uncomfortable with the idea that "monsters" have societies and perhaps even families and seemed to just wish I would omit such details.

    For awhile in college, I tried to deconstruct alignment in D&D and regularly told my players that the only alignment in D&D is Neutral Evil, all other alignments being merely delusional variants of Neutral Evil that tried to justify their various atrocities.

    In the end, I think the alignment system I like the best is simply the OD&D Law-Neutrality-Chaos trinity that leaves good and evil out of the loop entirely. Still, a gang of thugs-for-hire that raid, pillage, and slaughter for a living hardly seems like Lawful concept.

    Interestingly, I noticed that Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future discuss alignment as generally falling into "Us. vs. Them," and the names of the alignments being almost unimportant.

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  3. Well you have raised a number of issues that I feel most groups never really deal with.
    Whether or not there is a moral implication to the actions taken in the game being played has been explored by many game designers and writers but in the trenches, sort to speak, where the dice are being rolled it doesn't come up much.
    Of course in the back of players and GMs mind there maybe, and one would hope there is, a little voice asking if killing a group of monks just because they don't worship the same god as you is right or just.
    But taking this example while a 21st century person would consider this immoral a fantasy character whos life is dedicated to a being to which they are pawns in a great "war in heaven" this action would be moral and just.
    In the end it is all in the game and what is going on. If the setting makes an action moral with in its dynamic, why should we judge outside of that dynamic.

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  4. It seems to me that "never offer quarter" is just incorrect, at least as a description of older versions of D&D. From the beginning D&D had morale rules precisely to determine when men and intelligent monsters surrender. If players were going on to slaughter surrendered foes, that's not a problem with the way the game handles morality.

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  5. A couple of months ago I got hammered pretty hard at rpg.net when I talked about a PC in my game who tried to stab a helpless and dying female (beautiful half elf) bad guy who was being held in a female characters arms. He was C/G - and I asked if he could do this and still be considered good (not evil necessarily, but I didn't think it was the act of a "good guy").

    A typical comment went like "so if it was an orc, it would be ok?"

    "Of course it's OK, it's a friggin' orc, dude..."

    "You sir, are an orc bigot!"

    Shit. Unreal. These are fantasy monsters, and in fantasy you often come across an entirely evil race with no goodness in them, often even for each other.

    I accept the idea of a good Drow (a player in my game is running a N/G female dark elf druid), but in the case of orcs, maybe specifically orcs only, a full blooded one is just a savage asshole who wants to kill you and eat your baby. So yeah, I am an orc bigot.

    But almost any other humanoid race that is not a basic killing machine should have the possibility of having a decent member or two of the race that might not be entirely evil.

    But if there is an underground city of "good" orcs, I don't wanna know about it...

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  6. In my experience, my group really doesn't directly confront thorny moral issues. It's more of a process of editing out content that we agree as too wrong for our point of view. It's technically unnatural, but so far monsters don't have children in oiur games.

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  7. There are many interesting things brought up in this post and the question that prompted it. You mentioned the alignment system, which has always been a thorn in my side that I usually just pluck out and discard. You are as good or evil as your actions, and many a player that has chaotic or lawful good written on their character sheet has committed murderous genocide without reason or provocation, and I would call them evil. I normally start out a campaign without having the player's choose an alignment, and then I observe how they are playing their characters. If a particular spell or effect makes it necessary to decide what the character's alignment is, I say what I think their alignment is based on their actions up to that point and ask the player if they think that is fair, and if not, to give me a convincing argument for what they think their alignment deserves to be. You also mention the Tolkien influence on D&D, and while it is true that many of the minions of Sauron are portrayed as irretrievably evil and no tears are lost when they are slain, there is also the extended subplot of poor Golem to look to when the issue of "evil monsters" comes up. Golem's actions were undeniably "evil" at the beginning, greedy and murderous little bugger that he was. However, Frodo later shows him mercy that he arguably did not deserve and places a great deal of trust in him. This leads to a good deal of conflict within Golems psyche and raises the intersting possibility that if one only showed that orc or goblin mercy, it might prove itself worthy of it! I personally reserve evil as a generic descriptor across all members of a species for such abominations as devils, demons, undead, etc. Perhaps getting my B.A. in anthropology is to blame, but I see cultural differences, not inherent evil, in many of the practices that tend to get humanoids like orcs et al labeled as evil. A party that slaughters when it could have granted clemency, that steals what is not rightfully theirs, that attacks when it could engage in dialogue, is arguably as evil as even the darkest foes they face.

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  8. These are fantasy monsters, and in fantasy you often come across an entirely evil race with no goodness in them, often even for each other.My sentiments exactly. It's nice when a game can have a simple moral compass, for the sake of fun. You knew the bad guy in a western from the black hat. "Orc" is just a shorthand for that trope, and I play it that way. Orcs are mean and nasty and exist soley for the purpose of having their mischief stopped and their lunch money taken

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  9. While pulp fantasy writers like Howard, Leiber, and Vance, none of whom were much concerned with ‘moral’ questions...”

    I’m not sure I agree with this. It seems to me Howard is clearly concerned with moral questions. Leiber perhaps less clearly, but I think it is there too. (Vance...frankly it’s been too long since I read any Vance.)

    This moral confusion was made worse by the fact that in most traditional swords-and-sorcery literature, there aren't a lot of ‘monsters,’ let alone intelligent ones. The enemies against whom Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fought, for example, were generally other human beings, none of whom were portrayed as evil by nature.

    First, I begin to disagree with the specifics here. I immediately think of the ape-beast, the thing in the bowl, the winged jungle horror, the dragon, the iron golem, a toad-like monster, the swamp-devil...

    But, then, I see your point. There are no orcs.

    The thing is that Conan deals with monsters exactly the same as with humans. If they threaten him, he kills them. Yag Kosha, however, he helps. If he encountered orcs, he’d likely treat them the same.

    Although, does the attitude that some players bring to orcs in D&D really reflect Tolkien’s stories? Did the “good” characters really go about slaughtering every orc—females and children alike—simply because they were orcs?

    This actually came up in the Middle-earth campaign I ran a few years ago. The PCs killed some orcs in their sleep. (And even then—this band of orcs had directly acted against the PCs.) Many of whom were servants rather than warriors. The biggest Tolkien fan in the group expressed concern that this was the one moment in the campaign that felt very un-Tolkien.

    So, is this really an incoherence brought about by mixing Tolkien with Howard? Or is it a sort of artifact of the game?

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  10. In a game world with dragons, elves, and magic, I have no problem "believing" that entire races of creatures can be irredeemably evil.

    Not so in the real world, and for me, when it comes to in-game/character and real life moral compasses, never shall the twain meet. One doesn't affect the other.

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  11. I think that these monsters live off of the weakness and charity of mankind. Goblins are kind of like cockroaches, except they are aggressive. They breed faster then humans, and way faster then demi-humans do! If you see them, rest assured they aren't there to sell ice-cream, they are there to raid you and take your land. In the past the race has made it abundantly clear that they have no moral qualms about killing your wife and children nor burning your house down simply to get you to come out into the open so they can stick something sharp in your hide.

    Not all goblins are evil, but none-evil ones typically live in the middle of nowhere, hidden from the cruel eyes of mankind, and they aren't as aggressive as the more common evil verity. I think that most of your humanoids are like this. A few can lean towards goodness, just wanting to be left alone and are willing to become helpful beings, while the majority of society are of the opinion that god himself has put them on the planet to slaughter and steal. The only way to a good afterlife is to be, what the rules refer to as Evil, but to them, this isn't evil it is just their nature. They can't produce anything worth while to society, people have forced them to the most inhospitable reaches of the globe, they lack the overall intelligence and wisdom to form good society, and they are incapable of growth, they were programed to behave like this. It's in their genes.

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  12. A million years ago, I scribbled something related to this on my now largely-dormant LJ.

    http://bighara.livejournal.com/819.html

    I recognize that such moral ambiguity isn't D&D "as written" but I think the question has merit, and introducing some of these questions can make a game more interesting. YMMV.

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  13. What are orcs in your world? I get the sense that to a lot of people, orcs are simply green humans.

    In my world, they are spirit creatures sent from Hell to make the world a miserable place.

    It's something to consider.

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  14. I consider all this to entirely be the purview of the DM. It is his responsibility to determine the exact parameters of alignment in his game, as well as to determine whether any given monsters are inherently evil.

    Thus, there is no "one right way" that applies to all campaigns.

    If in doubt, a player can (and should) ask the DM, "My character, is alignment X. Is action Y acceptable for my alignment?"

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  15. What are orcs in your world?

    In my current campaign, orcs are magically uplifted animals created as soldiers by an ancient (and evil) race. They're no more sentient than very cunning animals.

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  16. I have no problem taking my character and cutting down a village of goblins (or orcs or gibbering mouthers if there were such a village). To me it's the same as blowing up entire star fleets of evil aliens in Galaga.

    Moral relativism in my games makes my feet itch.

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  17. Moral relativism in my games makes my feet itch.Mine too, but I don't think wondering what it means to say a "monster" race is evil by nature has anything to do with moral relativism.

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  18. I think “What are orcs in your world?” is the crux of this being an artifact of the game.

    The DM knows the answer to that question. The players may know the answer. (The players may think they know the answer when they don’t.) Can the characters know and with how much certainty? The answer to that last question depends on your approach to the game.

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  19. Thought: Much of the discussion has focused on the morality of the PCs engaged in genocidal purges of sentient humanoids who, depending on the campaign, may or may not be inherently evil.

    So much for killing them. What about taking their stuff? It's not uncommon, after all, for adventurers to skip the slaughter and trick or trade with the bad guys if they can enrich themselves in so doing. By suffering evil to live for their own gain the PCs might *also* be on shaky moral ground.

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  20. I think “What are orcs in your world?” is the crux of this being an artifact of the game.

    Just so. I'm not advocating for any particular answer to the questions, but I do think it (in the general sense) needs to be answered in each D&D campaign, because the answer to it has consequences.

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  21. By suffering evil to live for their own gain the PCs might *also* be on shaky moral ground.

    Correct.

    Again, I want to be clear that, while I have my own preferred answers to these questions, I'm not pushing for any one to be adopted as the answer for everyone. What I am saying, though, is that this isn't a questioned that ought to be sidestepped. It's something that should be addressed.

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  22. Wow, this is a subject on which I couldn't possibly disagree with you more, and I've in fact had some reflections on it vis a viz my latest run of campaigns as well. You say that no group can ignore it; I disagree. I've effectively ignored it, and in fact made it eminently ignorable by taking alignment completely out of my game. The end result of this is that I've had a string of shady characters; one group's "moral compass" was a cleric of a false god, that she had made up, and was essentially using as a con to try and get donations, or other benefits every chance she got. Sounds bad? Well, she opposed the rest of the group when they wanted to buy a slave so they could go to an anthropomancer and get some divinations cast in the poor slaves entrails as he died, for a minor campaign benefit, at least.

    Part of the situation with me is that I really like a lot of dark fantasy and pseudo-horror elements, as well as a "hard" pulp influence. Glen Cook's Black Company and Karl Wagner's Kane are more important thematic sources than Tolkien or Lewis, or other traditionally "righteous" and noble, heroic type stories.

    Part of it is that the stories about flawed individuals just seem to be so much more interesting as they develop than those about goody-two-shoes. Currently, two players in my group cause most of the trouble for everyone else; one of them is a swashbuckling rake and womanizer who can't keep his hands off anything female, and the other is so focused on his dream of owning his own pirate ship that he'll sacrifice (almost) anything and anyone to get there. While, in general, the characters are played somewhat broadly for comedic effect, at heart, they really are pretty dark, tragic, and damaged characters and some of that seriousness pokes through the layers of bawdy farce at times.

    In any case, my point is that I disagree strongly that D&D requires any sort of moral compass at all. Most of my best gaming has been when I've purposefully taken out the loose and confusing guidelines that alignment provides and let characters evolve personalities organically. They've often developed into dangerous, scary and psychotic individuals, if you were to really examine them, but they've never failed to be interesting for me or my players.

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  23. I personally only have heard/known of three kinds of orcs:

    Tolkiens savage, irredeemable, Godless killing machines. Some are great berserk fighters (Uruk Hai) and others are just cowardly cannon fodder. Wimps, but pity the devil when they arrive in bunches.

    OD&D's basic cannon fodder orcs. Much like Tolkien, you can find a badass one, but that is rare. When you wanted monsters by the batch, who could be killed with one or two hits, then these were your go to guys.

    Warhammer/World of Warcraft/Everquest orcs. Usually big, muscle bound fighters who can really take it to your grill, and are mostly feared. Still scary in bunches, there are more individuals who can take you on one-on-one and hold their own.

    I think this last example occured over time mostly due to people running orcs as characters. Some time in the early 90's you started seeing these strong, powerful, smart and cunning orcs.

    I'm not sure James' orcs fall into any of these catagories. They seem to be basically anthropormphic pigs.

    I personally like the idea of them being evil spirits given mortal form to make life shit for other races, which I guess falls in closer to the Tolkien orc.

    You make orcs your own, but I kind of like to stay as close as I can to the version I first encountered and loved/loathed as a child reading the trilogy.

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  24. Ahhh, remember fun with humanoids!

    Presenting moral problems is my absolute favorite thing to do in a game... especially when I haven't given them any obvious "good guys would do this!" option. Every choice has consequences, and I'm not so interested if the players behave nobly or like bastards. Their lives will get complicated either way, but in different ways depending on their choices.

    Watching the players discuss what to do and the process of how they decide what to do is the best part of running a game!

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  25. Orcs are the evil foot soldiers of more powerful evil folk. I generally do not consider orc females or children to exist, though I can think of various horrible ways in which they might (rather than the us with rubber masks approach that D&D seems to have authenticated in cahoots with Star Trek).

    I do not believe I have ever heard of an orc female or cub in Tolkien, and if I were ever inclined to introduce one they would be more along the lines of Grendel's mother than anything else. I do recall that Elrond's wife was supposed to have suffered terribly at their hands, though.

    If I wanted to deal with these issues, I would not bother with orcs at all.

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  26. Any group who wants to bring morality to their game should ditch alignment as something too brutally simplistic to be useful. The question should not be, 'Are orcs evil?' but 'What have these orcs done?'

    It is foolish to carve up Behavioural Space into nine fixed divisions and expect this to sustain any examination of moral actions. Such gamers are are trying to have it both ways. Either accept alignment as something metaphysical and as unreal as a Dungeon and get on with hacking orcs or dump it and flounder around with no certainty as in life.

    Astrology has more divisions than alignment and I would suggest it is proportionally more useful.

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  27. You know this reminds me of a Dragon article about playing a paladin. This was years ago in the ADnD era. Does anyone remeber the article?

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  28. I’ve been looking forward to your answer to Steve Marsh’s question and like one of the other commenters, I hope you’ll go even further.
    Moral questions figure in my games in part because that’s what my players and I find interesting. I saw a forum-posting by Frank Mentzer in which he dismissed another poster’s “moral dilemma” as a distraction from developing good combat and dungeon exploration strategies. To be fair, the “moral dilemma” on offer was both implausible and hackneyed, but there can be more to D&D than developing combat strategies. That’s an understatement. The combat-oriented skills in D&D have little application beyond other RPGs or war games. It’s the development of a character’s “soft skills” (which are derived from the player) that make the game meaningful and thus fun for an extended period of time.
    Just because characters are thinking about their moral compass doesn’t mean these questions have to come out a certain way. Deciding that orcs are the creations of an evil god and thus incapable of being “rehabilitated,” isn’t so unreasonable. Likewise, characters might decide that their characters aren’t really that good. But these decisions don’t make the questions go away. There are human antagonists to face, and if you follow the path of evil far enough, you will be asked to sell out your own mother. “What do you want to do now?”
    “Roll a skills check: moral compass?”

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  29. If orcs in your campaign are devilspawn they would definitely fall into the blanket evil category that I reserve for such tings as devils and undead. If they are a natural part of the world, intelligent, with both sexes and children, I personally could not call them evil in good conscience.
    "They breed faster then humans, and way faster then demi-humans do! If you see them, rest assured they aren't there to sell ice-cream, they are there to raid you and take your land."
    Take this quote for example, regarding goblins. So, goblins are evil because of their fecundity? Most creatures that breed very fast do so because they are under severe evolutionary pressure to do so, most often because of extreme predation. Goblins are picked on by just about everything, because just about everything is stronger, so goblins breed really fast. This does not make them evil in my book. If they experience a population explosion, that would result in starvation and a strong pressure to expand into neighboring lands. Again, not evil in my book. If you define a race as evil because it invades the lands of others, and puts the inhabitants to the torch, you would also have to classify humans as an evil species (which may be a topic for another debate). In most classic rpg settings that I am familiar with, monstrous demihumans are forced into marginal areas by expanding civilizations. If you look at things from the perspective of an orc or goblin, they may just be fighting the murderous invaders who stole their homelands, cut down the grandfather trees, killed their women and children and destroyed the shrines of their ancestors. A human tribe who responded to such atrocities would probably be hailed by most of you as good, and I see no reason why you could not make an argument that an orc or goblin territorial grab is likewise not evil.
    In my particular campaign world, up until 50,000 years ago there was only one intelligent race on earth, a race known as the Chaldeth who collectively formed a hive mind and made all their decisions as a unit. Through some things they did that I am not going to go into here, they weakened barriers between alternate realities and creatures from the infinite alternate earths poured through, orcs, goblins, humans, elves, etc. All of these are basically "human", with differences in life expectancy, height, weight, strength, skin color and intelligence due to their particular evolutionary histories, but in my world there is no such thing as an "evil" intelligent race. That doesn't mean you won't find a band of evil orcs, but it does mean that it is just as likely that you will find a band of evil humans.
    Word verification : "condm" ... if only those goblins had condms, maybe they wouldn't breed so fast!

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  30. For my own games, I agree with the need for a moral compass. (Obviously... I'm the one who brought it up!) I also think a group should discuss the conventions of the game and the philosophy behind it going in. But I also recognize that, provided the group is all on the same page, the need for a moral compass for the group is not necessarily necessary.

    What I find interesting is that, to me, the color-box-set D&D games (my earliest sets... Editor Steve Marsh!!!) -- along with the AD&D hardcovers -- are without specific genre conventions or discussions of what they are attempting to emulate; they can be used for Conan or LotR (or Lankhmar or ...)-style gaming, but the rules neither encourage or discourage any of those. (I can't speak for the original OD&D books, since I've never read them.) Compare this with, say, comic-book gaming; most of the original "classic" RPG game sets had implicit assumptions about code of conduct and what they were attempting to emulate. (In Marvel, killing made you lose all your "Karma" points; in DC Heroes, you needed to consciously declare that you were entering killing combat.) Even if the rules didn't provide that, players usually pointed to specific examples of what they were attempting to emulate ("This campaign is like comics from the 1960s: No killing, the good guys usually win, there's no blood, and only a little angst.") or attempted to forge something new while being aware of the conventions. ("This campaign assumes that super-powers are real, and assumes a morality akin to a 1970s crime/police movie: You'll face obvious bad guys, but also a lot of morally awkward situations. You can kill if you decide to, but there will be repercussions either way.")

    But, with D&D, I don't think there are many explicit assumptions for how the game is meant to be approached. If I have a group of players and we don't talk about it, then we can have real problems: What if I'm hoping to run a 7th Voyage of Sinbad personal high-adventure campaign while one player wants a Conan level of grit, another wants a Lord of the Rings level of moral clarity and epic scope, and a third wants the bloodless adventure of the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon? There's a good chance that no one will be happy. (I think that D&D can support all those types of play, but it makes few assumptions for how it should be played.)

    In this way, D&D -- much like Gary wanted -- resembles a "classic" (set-in-stone) board or card game: If you have a group of players with different ideas for how they want to play a game of (say) Scrabble, you'll have problems. ("Why are you checking a dictionary? This is a serious game! No table talk! No backsies!")

    As a tangential aside, this year our family has been doing daily readings from the Catholic One Year Bible, and we've been deeply disturbed by the numerous instances in Deuteronomy and Joshua where those in the "moral right" (as far as the Bible goes) proceeded to slaughter every man, woman, and child in various cities. (Modern notions of the code of conduct for warfare are... well, modern.)

    Anyway, thanks for the insight, James.

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  31. I've never understood this humanizing of orcs. Well, I understand it - I just don't see the reason too.

    I find the easiest way to keep orcs evil is to have them behave evil. Have it so in the world's history an attempt to civilize orcs by a now dead human culture. In the end; the orcs took advantage of these people. Used them for their military technology. Time to build up numbers, breed half-orcs for the black markets of slavery (realizing that young human girls are weak compared to an orc). Than finally destroyed the city, and left. Women orcs (if you have them), who were treated as nothing more than a soldier factory didn't grasp the idea of freedom that humans have. Instead they attacked human women due to an instinct of rivalry.

    In other words, don't set up a village of orcs like you would a human or elven one. Have orcs be reasonably young (since most of their older orcs die by adventurers and younger orcs). women orcs are kept to a minimum (i.e. most get killed and eaten when born - get it, they're evil). Spartan kids were treated better than orc kids, and so on -

    Point being: orcs don't have to be a D&D klingon. They can be an unfortunate vermin that infests the lands.

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  32. just a quick question for those in the "orcs don't have women or children " camp: I assume that means you don't allow half-orcs either (I guess my question is if there are no women or children, why would there be genitalia?)? And on a similar note, I am curious if any of the "orcs are evil" advocates allow half-orcs (or full orcs for that matter) as PCs?

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  33. "I think that D&D can support all those types of play, but it makes few assumptions for how it should be played."

    Do you feel that this might contribute to D&D's lasting popularity while many games with stricter codes of PC conduct might be shorter-lived and more "niche" as a result? I've known a lot of gamers who seem to take real offense at being told how their characters are expected to act in the game world. This seems to be the kind of thing that many think should be determined entirely on the user end and not by any game author/designer.


    In my case, I always did toss the killing = karma loss rule from MSH right off... :)

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  34. I don't have orcs or goblins in my game (yet) because I don't want the players relying on metagaming "shorthand" to decide whether or not to enter battle with the intelligent creatures they discover.

    I'm currently running a solo campaign with my wife, who has 0 gaming experience whatsoever. While exploring the dungeon, she found herself surrounded by a group of Ratmen who had kidnapped a friend of hers. I had set up the scenario in such a way that I was certain combat would result. She, however, didn't see it that way, and instead opted to negotiate with her would-be attackers, and arranged a meeting with the ratman king. She then flattered the king, and ultimately tricked him into releasing her friend. I suppose at any time I could have decided that the ratmen simply disregarded her cunning words and leaped to the fore with swords drawn, but she was very clever about it, and I was very curious to see how the situation would progress. The result is this: where I had originally planned out a series of combat encounters that would be quickly and bloodily resolved, I now have a PC who has, due to her diplomatic skills, a *working* relationship with traditional dungeon baddies. Frankly, I'm glad I didn't take the easy way out, because the game now has a new and interesting wrinkle that I hadn't really predicted!

    So, there you go. In my game, at any rate, a decision to exclude any "all goblins are evil and therefore killable" clause, actually made things *more* fun for us.

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  35. Though the Chaotic Evil Alignment Club Membership Card is clumsy and troublesome, a campaign setting benefits greatly from an established moral compass the player understand. I argued for this in a 1991 essay, "Do the Right Thing."

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  36. a campaign setting benefits greatly from an established moral compass the player understand.I see this argument a lot, and I don't really understand it. Couldn't the campaign take those sticky moral questions into account without being "less fun"? What's wrong with a group of players weighing their options and trying to decide whether a certain group of beings' actions necessitate an armed response rather than going solely off of skin color, presence of tusks and red eyes?

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  37. just a quick question for those in the "orcs don't have women or children " camp: I assume that means you don't allow half-orcs either (I guess my question is if there are no women or children, why would there be genitalia?)? And on a similar note, I am curious if any of the "orcs are evil" advocates allow half-orcs (or full orcs for that matter) as PCs?No reason why orcs couldn't procreate with non-orcs without procreating amongst themselves. I always thought the torture of Elrond's wife alluded to such horrors. Indeed, if they are truly made for evil purposes, it would be an oversight not to allow it on the part of their maker (after all, they are mockeries of man).

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  38. Cool post. Much to think about.
    I know many player's really could care less about the setting - they are more concerned with what their players can do and get. And that is fine for some styles of play.

    Personally, I like developing a mythology and history of a setting. I even like going into depth about the origins and history of a particular adventure site. Again, lots of OD&D gamers think that do so is a lot of wasted time and effort - but I do enjoy it.

    So I always seem to have a detailed theodicy for my game. That, of course, doesn't always answer all moral questions, but it does help. :)

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  39. Curse this strange bug that makes quoted text merge with ordinary text!

    Also, half-orcs need not be created by any sort of procreation, but some horrific magician's experiment. Lots of options on that score.

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  40. "I think that D&D can support all those types of play, but it makes few assumptions for how it should be played."[Will asked:]

    Do you feel that this might contribute to D&D's lasting popularity while many games with stricter codes of PC conduct might be shorter-lived and more "niche" as a result?I suspect it certainly helped, yes. It allowed the game to be enjoyed by the "kill 'em all! ba-pow! ba-pow!" middle-school blood-n-guts crowd as well as the more contemplative "It'd be cool to be a hero in shining armor!" geeks.

    However, I note that two of the other biggest (or at least long-lived) RPGs -- Call of Cthulhu and Vampire (et. al.) -- both had strong moral codes implicit in the rules. Call of Cthulhu basically said that, no matter how evil you are, you're better than the darkness you fight (but you'll eventually be dragged down to insanity or die). Vampire basically said that, the more monstrous you act, the less human you are. However, I also note that both games "survive" if these moral assumptions are more or less ignored; Call of Cthulhu works fine as a shoot-em-up romp, and I've known many, many Vampire campaigns that "degenerated" into "I'm a badass vampire and I can do anything! Hahaha!" (Our own World of Darkness group skewed the other way, fighting so hard to maintain the moral high road that our type of play style are often derided as a "vampiric Justice League.")

    In my case, I always did toss the killing = karma loss rule from MSH right off... :)And if you and your group had fun that way, I see no problem with that! When it comes to games of imagination, I'm really not of the "badwrongfun" school of thought. :-)

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  41. @ fitzerman "What's wrong with a group of players weighing their options and trying to decide whether a certain group of beings' actions necessitate an armed response rather than going solely off of skin color, presence of tusks and red eyes?"
    Exactly. And I think someone else said it above as well, basically, judge a creature on its actions, not its skin color. Not only do you avoid making blanket assumptions about an entire race, but it forces the players to grapple with the issue of morality themselves. I have a group of players who ended up cutting the arm off of a hibernating creature the likes of which they had never encountered before because they (correctly) reasoned that the hand shaped imprint on the chest next to it was a lock that could only be opened by its hand. They cut off its arm, used its hand to open the chest, barely survived when a couple of the creatures awoke from their slumber, ran away, and to this day they are a little shaken by what they did. They have no idea if the creatures were evil (they weren't) and are pretty sure that what they did was wrong. A while ago they deduced that someone observing them in a tavern was magically obscuring its form, and they instantly assumed it was another one of the creatures that they had slain (it wasn't) because of their guilty consciences. I love stuff like that, and by not forcing the PCs to choose an alignment at the beginning of the game I now have a group of conflicted players who are genuinely terrifed of what they have coming to them even though they know they deserve it (and when I do finally have the strange race of hibernating creatures catch up to them, it won't be pretty!).

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  42. @Steven Marsh

    Why is "Joshua" such a popular name? Have no parents read the story of their child's namesake?

    The second level of weirdness about Joshua is that it does take pains to let you know that "no one was spared, not even the women and children." (that's a paraphrase) Which makes me ask, if that was common ancient practice, why is it necessary to tell us?

    I'm not going to try to answer that, but I think it's interesting to observe that even if our answers are modern, the questions are very old.

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  43. If I recall, the issue was not the destruction, but failure of obedience. God told them to wipe out everyone, including the animals, and treasure, but somebody does not. I forget now how it all goes, but the most common theme in the Old Testament is failure to obey God and some divine punishment as a result.

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  44. However, I should probably also point out that there were many codes of conduct in medieval and ancient warfare, but just like now they were a live subject [i.e. not everyone agreed what they were]. Richard Coeur de Lion was criticised by some Christians for his beheading of Saracen prisoners, and excused (or even praised!) by others.

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  45. Someone brought up half-orcs-

    I don't know about others, but I just can't imagine a human male falling in love with a girl orc. That said-

    In my games, half-orcs are either a creation of some ancient bad guy who breed orcs with men to create a smarter orc. Generations later, these half-orc either lead orc tribes, or adventure to become rich. they've learned that some women will excuse their looks if well paid. Also, in this case there are just male half-orcs. They need human women to breed, since women orcs just produce a orc (if there are women orcs - have had once orcs being born like they are in the LotR movies).

    The other half-orc model I use is the 1e one. 90% of half-orcs look like orcs! When your magic-user fireballs a orc chief, he's actually frying a half-orc. The 10% who look human enough realize they can become richer, live much longer, and possible advance further in life by becoming mercenaries, adventurers, guards, assassins, evil knights.

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  46. For me, the crux of the old problem is that (a) Gygax inserted noncombatant women & children humanoids (core rules, adventures, etc.), but (b) gave no alignment guidance for how to treat those noncombatants.

    There is the old Dragon article (OSG mentions it above) that first made the argument that "goblins are vermin and must be exterminated". But you know, if I try to run it that way, someone in the playgroup will be justifiably nauseated about playing such things out. And that's something I don't want to do to an unwitting player.

    So I don't know. Either leaving out the women/children, or giving alignment guidance on how the LG were expected to deal with them, would have been nice. Being left in the lurch, that's the one thing I never found a satisfying answer for.

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  47. A couple of months ago I struggled with (and researched a bit) concepts of alignment on my blog

    http://templeofdemogorgon.blogspot.com/2009/03/alignment-great-role-playing-device-or.html

    Bottom line I still think of alignment mainly for two things: one, I occasionally have a magic weapon with an alignment (a neutral good fighter in my current game has a lawful good broadsword called "Steadfast." She can use it because she is good, but will never get it's full potential -lawful good paladin would find it to be a very powerful weapon).

    I also use alignment as a bit of a guiding rod for role play. Trying to figure out the 1st ed. AD&D alignment descriptions is for brainier dudes than me (not even sure being a philosphy major would help), but I think I can point to fictional characters and based on their actions give them a an alignment base to use as an example to the occasionally confused player. Such as Indiana Jones = lawful/neutral (w/ good tend.), or Doctor Gregory House = chaotic/neutral. And of course the classic Superman/Batman alignment - Superman = lawful/good & Batman = chaotic/good.

    I look to fictional characters, not real life people or situations, to use as examples in my pretend world. There is good, there is bad, there are shades of gray. Hopefully as DM I don't put too much of my own beliefs in there - but how can you help doing it just a little bit.

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  48. For me, the crux of the old problem is that (a) Gygax inserted noncombatant women & children humanoids (core rules, adventures, etc.), but (b) gave no alignment guidance for how to treat those noncombatants<

    Never thought about that, but so true. Halfway intelligent humanoids described also more often than not had the women and young mentioned as well. That is fine for the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, where you need to have a woman and some kids working in the kitchen, but for a simple fight encounter with 20 orcs or kobolds, I would much rather get to the next encounter rather than worry the players about what to do with Gnoll pups and bitches (huh huh, I said "bitches").

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  49. When we started playing D&D we viewed the alignment system as law being equivalent to Civilization and Chaos equivalent to Wilderness. Much of the idea we took from the rules was that the game was heavily biased in converting wilderness into civilized society. Things that would resist that expansion were essentially Chaos. This doesn't mean most Chaos was fundamentally evil or most Law was fundamentally good; I don't think any mortal creature is best played as entirely good or evil (angels, demons, and undead are, of course, slaves to their own natures).

    We didn't take a Moorcockian view of Law vs Chaos so favoured by many gamers. And that's because original D&D had little in the way of direct divine agencies. The main impetus of this were the clerics (and later paladins and druids). Only a few creatures (lammasu and gold dragons for example), are stated as having connections with the higher powers.

    This had huge advantages in game play. For example you could have collisions of two cultures that know they are good and right (the Crusades, anyone?). In our games, due to one powerful character's habit of using orc mercenaries (they were cheap and as a powerful magic user he didn't care that much about quality), it forced peaceful contact between players and orcs, and the resulting contact developed the orcish personality (into good guys to have on your side in a fight, even if their partying did get rather loud and boisterous). In that game, elves, on the other hand became aloof and uncomfortable to be around. They had their own agenda. Because it worked, and worked well, I've kept this basis in every subsequent campaign I've run.

    Some of Ed Simbalist's essays in Chivalry & Sorcery show that this idea wasn't just limited to us at the time, either. [I suspect it was actually a fairly common conceit amongst those who moved to D&D from tabletop wargaming, because we tend to be more apt to think about both sides in a conflict.]

    It was only later, especially in AD&D, where alignments were given a cosmic/divine moral weighting, usually with a "broken pantheon" (ie a god for each alignment) to exemplify this. This is much more a hallmark of Gygaxian campaigns, where there is a much greater divine influence on what is going on in the world. The idea of gods playing games with their heroes appeals on a meta-game aspect to many. <grin>But there probably should be reasons for doing so. Of why these creatures are what they are. At least in the DM's mind. It is perfectly acceptable for entire cultures to be xenophobic (most historical cultures were), and have conflict embedded in historical hatreds. Thus "the only good orc is a dead orc" may be a valid belief held by everyone, but does that necessarily make the orc evil?*

    One of the best treatments of good vs evil in a game situation would have to be Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion (whilst not an actual D&D novel, per se, it was written by a medieval scholar from the D&D rules themselves), and is probably the best treatment of paladins that I have ever seen. I know if I had a player paladin that did what Paks did without equivocation, I would have done handsprings as a DM.

    * If you want them to be, go ahead. But when you start considering intelligent monsters to be people too, you may get surprising developments in the campaign that increase the players' and DM's fun.

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  50. Well, if we want to hear Gygax's opinion on the matter:

    http://www.enworld.org/forum/2127809-post24.html

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  51. "I don't know about others, but I just can't imagine a human male falling in love with a girl orc. That said-"

    I can certainly imagine it. A couple too many shots of whiskey - a dark night - a lonely adventurer who has been on the road for months...
    I mean come on people, some guys have sex with rubber dolls for crissakes! How bad can an orc female be? I wonder if there is a word for someone who fetishizes sex with orcs... they have to be out there, in some fantasy world, just loving them some orc women!

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  52. Oh, there definitely are. Just type it into a Google image search...

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  53. wow, what an interesting quote from gygax. By that logic, you should really only kill lawful good creatures if you want to maintain your lawful good alignment, because you are sending them on to a better life in heaven. Everything else you should convert first, then kill! Thanks for clearing that one up, Gary!

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  54. The old Dragon article was written by Roger E. Moore in Dragon #51, (July, 1981) it was guidelines to playing a paladin.

    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. The DM is the final arbiter of such matters.

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  55. You knew the bad guy in a western from the black hat.In general, I agree with this statement, and the others like it mentioned here. However, I think it's important to point out that the guy in the black hat wasn't born that way. Perhaps it's my middle-class liberal guilt at work, but I'm just not comfortable with the idea of evil at a racial level, even in a game. I'm not saying it's wrong, but it's not something I want to be involved in, even in an imaginary setting.

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  56. "The enemies against whom Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fought, for example, were generally other human beings, none of whom were portrayed as evil by nature."

    Well, I re-read "A Witch Shall be Born" last night so I'd beg to differ on this, even putting aside the frequent appearances of demonic henchmen or foes.

    As far as D&D is concerned, I'm happy with the humanoids being alien invaders specifically bred or created to overthrow the natural order - they are innimical to the gameworld. As such, slaughtering them is as evil as inventing a spray that kills Potato Beetles. Less so, in fact.

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  57. I note that Moore's article was either quoted or channeled by Ryan Dancey about the "Evil Gods" being the main reason (in 3e) why attacking a whole race is justified and not genocide.

    Also, I think in many cases people have trouble understanding the D&D alignment system because of the following.

    1) A misunderstanding of the milieu. The late middle ages/Renaissance eras are a lot different from the 20th century. People try to put modern concepts, such as weapon control, police, the (not Lake!) Geneva convention, etc.

    2) Moral relativism. The writers of D&D did not follow these concepts. I'm not gonna get into this because it just leads to arguments, just read Gary's writings. (Especially Good alignment is not just about peace, it is about justice and righteous anger).

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  58. I should also mention that later on, with AD&D's nine alignments, we tended to use them as descriptors of races and cultures rather than descriptors of individuals. We found it worked better that way.

    Thus a lawful culture was hierarchical in nature whilst a chaotic culture was generally one where the strong ruled the weak. In a good culture individuals had worth (and thus murder, kidnap, and slavery were illegal), and in an evil culture individuals didn't have much worth unless they were useful. However it was only a first approximation of the culture (which was later refined by the details), and the entire population of the culture didn't fit within the catagoury.

    Players had the freedom to forge their own culture/morality. Their actions expressed their moral compass. And any divine judgement was based on the precepts of the faith to which they subscribed (or according to the ethics of the one true faith if that was the nature of the campaign).

    Remember to kill one person is a tragedy. To kill thousands is a statistic.

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  59. I always found that Dragon Ecology articles and other similar ones (especially the alignment ones) only made matters worst.

    Here's a simple solution (i.e. won't work on any player who wants a modern day explanation, and who doesn't understand the origins of Law vs. Chaos):

    Paladins a lawful. The king says "Kill all goblins, orcs, giants, and other villains who want to build a village on my land and not pay the King's taxes!". King's laws are law (hence Law in Lawful). So you kill them.

    Goblins, orcs, giants, no matter their gender, age, or level of poetry (fee fi foo fum..) are evil. Born evil; think evil, are evil. Goblin mommies beat the crap out of their children. Punishing their kids by cutting off toes. Goblin kids kill their grand parents for fun (they were just too old and smelt funny), and love to capture and burn little forest bunny wabbits... And of course, the daddy goblins don't pay their taxes! Evil! :)

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  60. Thank you John, that was the article I was thinking of.
    Also, I agree with your second post in regards to the Dragon article. As I stated before it is easy to look at the situations that come up on an RPG and state what we as 21st century humans born an raised on this planet would do but to me the core of roleplaying is more than funny voices and saying thou alot, role playing is having your character take the actions that someone born on Balthazor, where the gods walk and magic flows, human or not, would take.

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  61. Good vs. evil: how you respond to those weaker than you are.

    Law vs. chaos: how you respond to those stronger than you are.

    Thoughts?

    I like using both dimensions, because otherwise law=good and chaotic=evil.

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  62. I'm reminded of an excellent Karl Edward Wagner story, "Cold Light" (published in Death Angel's Shadow) where Kane is pursued by a fundamentalist "Paladin" determined to stamp out evil where ever it is found. It poses the question is a "fundamentalist good" which brooks no grey areas actually more damaging than a "self serving evil"?

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  63. @Brian: GvE/LvC -- That is a very interesting take; thank you!

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  64. ANY ONE WHO GO OUT THEIR WITH A WEAPON IN YOUR HAND OR A HARMING SPELL IN YOUR MIND IS NOT GOOD, NO MATTER WHY. MOST PEOPLE SAY THERE CHARACTAR IS GOOD BECAUSE THEY ATTACK SOMEON WHO IS 'BAD" OR WHO ATTACK THEM FIRST, BUT IT DOES NOT MATTER. IF YOU REALY WANT YOUR CHARACTAR TO BE GOOD AND MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE, THAN HAVE HIM FEED THE POOR OR MINSTER TO SICK BABIES AND OLD PEOPLES. YOU CANNOT DO GOOD BY KILLING NO MATTER WHAT. SO ANYONE WHO SAY THERE CHARACTAR IS GOOD AND THEN GOES AND KILLS SOME GOBLIN OR SOMETHNIG IS JUST FOOLING THEMSELF. THEY ARE NEWTRAL AT BEST- GOOD PEOPLES ARE GHANDI, MARTIN LUTHERS KING, THE GUY WHO STAND IN FRONT OF TANK IN CHINA, AMISH FOLKS, AND SOME WIZARD WHO NEVER CAST FIREBALL OR MAGIC MISSELS. BRAVEHEART IS NOT GOOD. GEORGE WASHINGTON IS NOT GOOD. MARLON WAYLINS IN THE D&D MOVIE IS NOT GOOD. THEY ARE NOT BAD, BUT THEY HURT THINGS (NO MATTER THE CAUSE, SO THEY ARE NOT GOOD.

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  65. MARLON WAYLINS IN THE D&D MOVIE IS NOT GOOD<

    No doubt. A more pure evil I cannot imagine.

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  66. "MARLON WAYLINS IN THE D&D MOVIE IS NOT GOOD"

    Man that is funny stuff. But I personally agree with the general sentiment. I also have a problem with with what John said above about moral relativism being one of the reasons why people have a hard time with the D&D alignment system. It is true, but it is a legitimate problem to have, and one that is not grounded in modern era. While the term may be a relatively recent coinage, the phenomenon that it describes is ancient. Different religions, societies, even families, define good and evil differently, and they did in the medieval ages just as much as today. The problem with D&D alignments is that they attempt to portray actions as good or evil, lawful or chaotic, as if there were universal norms that could be used to judge such actions against. In reality, what one group condones another condemns, and that holds true no matter what age you are talking about. The problem isn't that moral relativism makes people today question whether or not actions are good that would have been clearly understood to be good in the past, because even in the past those actions would have been seen in different lights by different people. As soon as you try to use universal morals as an alignment system, it breaks down right there because there is no such thing. Human history has taught us that EVERYTHING, from murder, to incest, to cannibalism, to thievery, to rape, etc., has been considered to be normal behavior in different societies. If anything, it is a modern conceit that there is such a thing as universal human rights which make some actions seem by definition evil, and I think that universal norms have no place in the official rules of an RPG. It should be in the purview of the DM to decide what exactly is considered good and evil in each society in his/her game, and if that means a lawful good Orc paladin that is required by his religion to eat the brains of his fallen foes, then so be it.

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  67. I realize that this might be exactly the opposite of what James originally was talking about in his post with D&D needing a moral compass, but I am not advocating an amoral game, I merely think that the morality or lack thereof of any given campaign should be controlled by the DM, and the players should be appraised of what the DM has decided as far as that goes.

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  68. Well, that's a long list of comments, I haven't read the half of it but thought I'd drop in my thoughts.

    Traditional fantasy races can bite my ass. They are obvious stereotypes of different ethnic groups or cultures... At least the way the artwork depicts them. Even tolkien himself based his fantasy races off of different cultures.

    In short, I don't use iredeemably evil orcs and goblins. I figure if the artists can make them look human I can humanize them in my game.

    Goblins to me look like decrepit outcasts, they are the down trodden spat upon slave labor but they breed like rabbits and so have managed to eek out an existence. Even with what little they have the man(adventurers) still take their shit away.

    Goblins who live on the fringe of society have no opportunities so they have to resort to thievery to eke out an existence. They are too ugly and stinky for normal society to handle.

    Since they are so small and malnourished they are easily manipulated by cult figureheads(usually human) to pursue evil means to their leaders ends.

    I pity the goblins and orcs. At least elves get to be pretty. When they start wars it is for some supposedly righteous cause. But we all know they just have too much damn time on their hands.

    HAHAHAHHAHA!!!

    Dwarves are awesome.

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  69. I hate my players.

    I mean, I gave them a megadungeon full of things like, well, goblins and monks and gnolls and ant-people.

    So they killed the goblins and the monks OK. But then they get down to L2 and start talking to the gnolls and antfolk rather than slashy slashy.

    And they're all like "Oh, so Gary-Stu tells you you have to live here in these crappy caves and drink crappy beer brewed from mushrooms? That's not right. You should totally organize. Here, sign this form on my clipboard here."

    So now my players--in what I thought was gonna be "descend into the dungeon, kill things, take their stuff"--are putting together a Union Of Concerned Inhabitants.

    It's enough to make a DM cry.

    Adam

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  70. This has been a really weird and challenging thread - partly because of the thoughtful comments of Steven, Carl and some others, and partly because of the extraordinary range of opinions regarding the desirability of absolute good, evil, fantasy-racism, tolerance and free will in games.

    In the former category, FWIW, I go with the "more freedom" rather than the "more morals" group: I'm not sure quite what's meant by a moral compass or if one is needed. Steven seems to be pleading in part for a common understanding among the players regarding the tone of the game and its gamut of acceptable actions - I'd say that clearly is needed (as any attempt at player killing is likely to demonstrate), and is probably part of the essentials of good world building. As to what the tone is... there are successful campaigns that don't cling to clear heroes and villains archetypes and boundaries. Isn't that all good; group freedom and whatnot? I myself find worlds with objective values for good and evil (especially when racially expressed), to be very unfamiliar and hard to deal with. I find it harder to be creative as a player in such worlds. It's a failure of imagination I suffer from.

    Regarding the specifics of orcs, dark elves and so forth, I'll note (again) that "orc" appears in William Blake's work in a very different light, maybe as a sort of working (-class) hero. Even in LoTR (in contrast with the Silmarillion) orcs most often appears as a kind of man, rather than a kind of demon. It's a mainstay of fantasy fiction that men are potentially as evil as any monster (probably based on ideas of free will and spiritual agency as opposed to pre-destination), so the view we find commonly in D&D of orcs as an evil race might not be so "natural" after all.

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  71. As I stated before it is easy to look at the situations that come up on an RPG and state what we as 21st century humans born an raised on this planet would do but to me the core of roleplaying is more than funny voices and saying thou alot, role playing is having your character take the actions that someone born on Balthazor, where the gods walk and magic flows, human or not, would take
    Here's the thing though. D&D is a complete fantasy concocted by *us*, citizens of the modern world. It has VERY little to do with medieval historical reality beyond some very superficial trappings. The D&D fantasy is chock full of anachronisms invented in the modern era, from Vancian casting to a copper-silver-electrum-gold-platinum coinage system. Appealing to an ersatz medieval world view to hide from the tough questions really isn't workable here.


    The question is this: what sort of fantasy are we choosing to invent for ourselves to escape into? And what does it say about *us*?

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  72. "The question is this: what sort of fantasy are we choosing to invent for ourselves to escape into? And what does it say about *us*?"

    D&D - actually, probably all role-playing - is based on a very simple premise: imagine a world where you can make a difference. What that difference is, is up to you. And what difference you *want* to make does probably reflect your personal frustrations in real life to some extent. Escapism is all about leaving reality behind for a while, after all.

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  73. Fitzerman: Agreed if you are building a world you can install what ever morality you want.
    I ran a campaign once that had 2 kinds of Orc. The Orc tribes in the north were more "civilized" and mated with the northern barbarians thus creating half-orcs. The Orc tribes from the west were the the minions of the evil overlord and thus were, well, evil.
    What needs to be avoided is painting any RPG world with a broad brush. We can't apply a set standard for ever setting. The world I create will be based on a different set of ideas then the one you create.
    But I do not agree that the moral compass, or lack there of, says anything about *us*. As you stated, the worlds we create are fantasy after all and what we do as players or allow as GMs has little to do with who we are as people.

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  74. Tunnels and Trolls faced this down quite promptly once it accepted that you could play any sapient race, and that the concept of evil races and species was all about the individual and society. T&T settings abound with sapients of all kindreds, some with predispositions one way or another.

    RuneQuest also faced it in the sense that again you can play any species, but then focused even further on developing detailed societal and religous and social organisations with clear morals and codes.

    Both recognised that morals are relativistic, that one man's sin is another's moral duty, whilst also being irrelevant to others.

    D&D's failing was to make the alignment system rigid, mandatory and interwoven with the system. This exacerbated the historical tendency in much of pulp literature to be driven along racist stereotypes and prejudices, with orcs and goblins and so on standing in for Jews and Negroes and Arabs and Orientals.

    I was surprised and rather please to discover that 0D&D wasn't terribly fussed about alignment.

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  75. "Both recognised that morals are relativistic, that one man's sin is another's moral duty, whilst also being irrelevant to others."

    You are confusing justification with morality; the two are related in the same way that truth and belief are.

    "with orcs and goblins and so on standing in for Jews and Negroes and Arabs and Orientals."

    Nice use of the loaded metaphor. You could have said that orcs stand in for your boss, or corrupt politicians or anything else that frustrates the players in real life, but you went straight for the race card.

    I'm sure some saddos out there feel that killing orcs is an outlet for their desire to kill blacks or jews but, to be honest I suspect that they're playing games where their characters are killing blacks and jews rather than orcs and goblins.

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  77. QUOTE: Here's the thing though. D&D is a complete fantasy concocted by *us*, citizens of the modern world.This is a slight misrepresentation Specifically, it was created by men who had studied both medieval history and wargaming, so they were very aware of technology and the cultures of said societies.

    It has VERY little to do with medieval historical reality beyond some very superficial trappings.While that is true, most default campaign settings deal with a setting that includes feudalism, kings, peasants, etc.

    The D&D fantasy is chock full of anachronisms invented in the modern era, from Vancian casting to a copper-silver-electrum-gold-platinum coinage system.All magic is anachronistic, so using Vance's paradigm doesn't count. As far as the money system goes, if EGG had progressed with that the gold standard would have been replaced--read the Gord books and Mythus to see what would have happened with the money standard. Gold would have ended up being much more valuable than it is now.

    Appealing to an ersatz medieval world view to hide from the tough questions really isn't workable here.No, but you have to understand the setting and what it entails. There are a lot of things invented in the 20th century that would not have applied back then.

    For instance, the reason why a lot of campaign settings eschewed gunpowder was--if you study history--that guns made it too easy for conscripted soldiers to battle, replacing archers and even the need for a feudal system.

    In many modules, people try to come up with ways for civilizing society, such as having people check their weapons with "peaceknots" defies the concept of how things worked back then. Gentry and Aristocrats would carry weapons for self-defense, a city watch was too small to intervene and you were expected to defend yourselves from thieves. This peaceknot concept sounds more like adapting gun control concepts from the 20th century into play.

    Back in those times, you didn't have a Geneva Convention or really War Crimes--heck, the concept of Embassies was also foreign. What I am saying is that if you are playing in even an erstaz world, you have to be aware of how things worked back then.

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  78. The the original designers may have studied medieval history, but they didn’t make that an explicit part of the game. Once the game is in our hands, we decide how much history will be in it.

    (And I see an awful lots of kings and peasants in the modern world, but that’d be a whole ’nother discussion.)

    I personally—these days—like my games to be very modern-with-trappings. I like studying history. I enjoyed trying to make my games more historical. If I were going to choose a “one true way”, however, I’d choose more accessible over more historically accurate.

    That’s not to say that I don’t want my games to be “more than...”, just that historical accuracy is often not part of that “more”.

    Back to the issue at hand: I put a lot of importance on the “fiction” of the game. Which is to say that the “in character” perspective is important. That—for most games—the characters aren’t aware they are part of a game. The characters generally don’t know the absolute truth about the nature of orcs or any other NPC/monster. So the “I can kill them because they’re evil by nature” doesn’t really fly in my games.

    Of course, as many have said, it doesn’t really come up that often. It has come up, however.

    Just like in the real world, a character can believe orcs are evil by nature. They just run the risk of being wrong.

    And I enjoy the idea that—in the fantasy world—magic could reveal a bit of the absolute truth. I think suddenly being provided with proof that your opponents aren’t evil as you’d assumed is a very fun moment.

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  79. JRT: This is a slight misrepresentation Specifically, it was created by men who had studied both medieval history and wargaming, so they were very aware of technology and the cultures of said societies.
    True, that's how Gygax and Arneson and countless others played it, but when I sit down to create a new campaign, the world that I design is *my* world. And the world that you create is *your* world. I don't think there's much value in trying to determine the canonical intentions of Gygax and Arneson when the D&D setting is presented as such an un-cohesive and sketchy hodge-podge of ideas from history, swords and sorcery, tolkien, westerns, kung fu cinema and a myriad other cultural influences.

    If D&D's setting had been more clearly defined at its inception, then I think it would matter more in exploring these issues. Instead, the setting was presented in a grab-bag-esque fashion, a tool box approach even. We use those tools to create our worlds, and we are ultimately responsible for what those worlds wind up looking like.

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  80. I'm just not comfortable with the idea of evil at a racial level, even in a game. I'm not saying it's wrong, but it's not something I want to be involved in, even in an imaginary setting.
    I understand, I certainly change the point of view depending on the game I'm running.

    I do want to clarify that it's more than just the appearance that 'tags' the monsters in my game, they also simply behave that way. It's not just the fact that he's a kobold that makes him bad, it's also the fact that he helped burn and sack a village and would kick a puppy in the street if given the chance.

    My primary reason is that where my current game is concerned, naturally evil monsters support the dungeon-crawling, monster thumping millieu I desire. My next game might very well be different.

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  81. Last time we went around this whole question of moral direction I made comments very like those made by tzunder here (I thought that a moral compass that approved of genocide was a pretty crappy compass). This time I see that there's a fundamental difference between asking "should we have moral systems in our games in general?" and asking "which specific set of moral standards should we apply?" - and that it's really hard to think past one's own moral orientation on any point that matters. I think because of this difficulty we have two camps talking past each other, and I don't see how we can get everyone on the same page.

    I'm also struck by the difference in assumptions between 1974 and today: moral absolutism of the kind that allows for evil races is much less fashionable now, and many comments here reflect that, calling for visible evil behaviour to help justify racial categories, for instance. I think tzunder's examples are well chosen: much of the pulp literature he refers to was written in the inter-war period and reflects anxieties and now-troubling attitudes about Jews and Negroes. By 1974 there had been a partial shift away from those categories, but Injuns and Commies were still fair game. Now it's Nazis and robots, and speech has become a battleground for public ethics, alongside depictions of physical violence.

    Finally, I think we do have to take responsibility for the fantasies we create, and every game of D&D is a partly independent creation, so the responsibility is right at the table. I'd love to hear Geoffrey's thoughts on this, if he's reading. Hiding behind an imagined pseudo-medieval setting "back in those times (that never were)" is just that: hiding. Even in a rigourous historical reenactment game that responsibility is present and the players have to decide how to deal with it. Most D&D "medieval" worlds strip out any elements that seem embarrassing or inconvenient and keep just the flavour they want, which makes them very revealing of what's desired in the fantastic experience. Let's face it, it's probably not accidental that the core activity of D&D involves taking the PCs away from their hearth and home in order to enact violence in sealed settings full of targets identified as fundamentally Other for the purpose of gaining loot. As James V says: naturally evil monsters support the dungeon-crawling, monster thumping millieu I desire. Desiring monster thumping raises moral questions all by itself.

    So is a moral compass needed? I'm tempted to say that you can't get away from one, even if you think you have. I've played in delightful, successful games where there were no good guys and bad guys, just competing interests (these mostly SF/modern). I've also played in games where the players had to figure out how their good guys should behave and what makes a bad guy bad (although these tended to devolve to pretty parsimonious moral standards). Both have been fun, partly because we knew what kind of game we were playing. I don't think I've ever played in a game, though, where the players really thoughtfully upheld some very alien code of morals and followed it through conscientiously, unless in that game we were playing monsters. It's always just been too hard. So I'm very curious about how far down these roads James and Steven go in their games: are they attracted to games where their players behave according to current morality, or to situations where in-game morals create player discomfort and/or re-examination?

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  82. If you really want your D&D game to reflect Western Europe of the Middle Ages, it seems you need to go deep with the philosophy of the Christian Church of that era, which did indeed include rules regarding warfare. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Dei)
    Maybe these rules were flouted, but still they existed. And I don't think this is what most of us want in our games. I did play in one game set at the edge of Charlemagne's empire where our enemies were pagan saxons and it felt very different from a typical D&D game.
    My impression of the typical D&D game is that while it involves multiple "races" or "cultures" living right next to each other and speaking a common language and sometimes cooperating, there are certain barriers that ensures that they remain fundamentally different. It might not be modern, but it isn’t medieval either. Therefore “back then” might encompass both ancient Rome and Renaissance London, as well Middle Earth (and Apartheid-era South Africa?) . And again, this makes it hard to suggest that “morality” (however it’s construed) should be dismissed for reasons of historical verisimilitude.

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  83. Finally, I think we do have to take responsibility for the fantasies we create, and every game of D&D is a partly independent creation, so the responsibility is right at the table.The problem is, those ideas end up leading towards game censorship in question, or making people feel guilty for what they imagine. It's like questioning the ethics of a first-person shooter. The people at TSR, Wizards, and Hasbro rightly knew opening this will cause a lot of problems.

    Ideally, if you want to take things to the next and ultimate level, instead of arguing that there is a moral problem with the games endorsement of killing "evil" monsters, we could also start arguing that wasting our time and money playing these silly games is immoral when we could be spending more time towards charity and helping our fellow man.

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  84. those ideas end up leading towards game censorship
    although I understand the tendency, I don't subscribe to it, which is one reason I'm curious about what geoffrey has to say. We live in a censorious moment, but I don't think that should make us avoid facing our responsibilities.

    making people feel guilty for what they imagine.that's a really interesting thought regarding the moral compass: can you recognise its presence by the feelings it invokes?

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  85. we could also start arguing that wasting our time and money playing these silly games is immoralI think I could argue against that pretty convincingly. We have surplus labour value, and are ourselves intelligent agents: the alternative to allowing us to spend our free time as we wish is a totalitarianism akin to slavery.

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  86. "The problem is, those ideas end up leading towards game censorship in question, or making people feel guilty for what they imagine. It's like questioning the ethics of a first-person shooter."

    Very true. And for what it's worth, TSR didn't know better. Their attempt to add a "moral compass" to D&D resulted in a Hays Code-esque code of condust for designers. That's why the "family friendly" D&D era of the late 80s and 90s is still so maligned by so many.

    Frankly, I see no need for the combination of imagination and responsibility. If anything, I oppose the notion.

    The whole reason I like many video games is that sometimes I just want to murder a whole bunch of imaginary people in really sadistic ways. So I run down some pedestrians and shoot some cops in Grand Theft Auto or blast a bunch of enemy soldiers in Call of Duty or whatever.

    It passes the time, works the frustrations out, and nobody gets hurt. There's nothing there I feel the need to take responsibility for and nothing that reflects on my social conduct, relations with loved ones and colleagues, etc. If I was known as the murder spree guy in real life, that would be a whole different story, of course. :)

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  87. JRT, I think we can consider these questions without having to abandon the hobby altogether :) As far as "questioning the ethics of a first person shooter", well, I'm guilty of that as well. But let's not go there ;)

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  88. I think a follow-up on how you (and your players) have faced these issues in your campaigns would be very worthwhile, James.

    I plan to do just that in the very near future.

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  89. Generally I agree with JRT and I'm glad he wrote what he did. When people argue "D&D has nothing to do with actual medievalism," that always rings false for me.

    If I'm wondering how mercenaries would be treated when they entire a town, if you can tell me how they'd really be treated in a medieval town, then that always serves as the most obvious answer in my D&D games (regardless of what my own personal feelings about mercenaries would be).

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  90. I guess when I say "taking responsibility" I really mean being honest with yourself about what you're doing and why. It sounds like Will's doing that. Of course, no actual orcs are harmed during anyone's game, so whether more material responsibility arises is a complex matter that I hink is best addressed with reference to real cases, wherever they can be found.

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  91. If I'm wondering how mercenaries would be treated when they entire a town, if you can tell me how they'd really be treated in a medieval town, then that always serves as the most obvious answer in my D&D games (regardless of what my own personal feelings about mercenaries would be).All right, then, I'm game. What aspect of medieval culture do you reference to determine how orcs should be treated by adventurers?

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  92. Desiring monster thumping raises moral questions all by itself.Ok, now I have to admit my hackles have raised just a bit.

    RPGs are not real. Just because I don't mind blowing imaginary stuff up through the roll of a die compared to a derived target number does not mean I'm lacking in some kind of moral compass.

    I don't feel guilty when some guy gets kicked in the face in an action movie.

    I don't worry that I've committed genocide through all of the aliens I have blown up over years of playing Galaga.

    I laugh when Wile E. Coyote gets blown up in a backfire of his own devising in an attempt to get that wacky Road Runner.

    I felt horrible when I was 7 and I stuck my leg out, tripping a little kid and gave him a bloody nose. I learned my lesson on my own, and haven't done anything remotely like it since.

    Fantasy and Reality are two separate things. If a person is healthy enough to separate the two, then there are no problems.

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  93. Just an addendum: My point is that the only moral question asked in my game right now is "Are we all right with beating up imaginary creatures in an imaginary setting, especially if those imaginary creatures are seen as dangerous imaginary adversaries?"

    The answer is yes.

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  94. I don't think the fact that rpg are fantasy makes this debate irrelevant. Whether you think of orcs and other baddies as crude representations of minorities, of bosses, or just as purely evil fantasy creations with no bearing whatsover on real life, they still represent an "other", and saying that killing them is OK and even the right thing to do (by D&D's alignment system) does have real life consequences. The tendancy to demonize those who currently fit into the "other" category continues just as strongly today as it did in the medeival ages; look at concepts like "colateral damage". I am not suggesting that anyone who kills "others" in an rpg or video game is going to go out and do so in real life; but I do think that if this happens without an explicit understanding that it is only OK or morally correct within the morality of a particular culture within the game, you run the risk of reinforcing the unspoken universal morality that many people seem to subscribe to that makes it OK to marginalize certain groups, make them into "others" and treat them far differently than you would treat those who you recognize as your peers. I think it is perfectly reasonable to allow this sort of action in game, but not with the blanket assumption that it is simply "good" in and of itself to kill the "others" (whether they be orc, goblin, Iraqi civilians or the boss-man), but rather that it is OK only within the relative context of an in-game culture. I understand the argument that it is good to let off steam, but couldn't people who insist on telling racist jokes make the same argument, that they would never act the same way that they joke and it blows off steam? I am not trying to make anyone feel offended or sound like I am calling anyone immoral, I just wish that universal, absolute morality was not applied to RPGs and was replaced with moral relativism that acknowledges that while human culture x believes that all orcs should be killed on sight, and killing them is good, that does not make killing orcs a good act in itself. Perhaps human culture y in the same game believes that no sentient creature deserves to be killed no matter how heinous its crimes against nature and humanity, and demands that its citizens practice non-lethal defenses and attempt to rehabilitate first and incarcerate as a last resort (much as many states in the U.S. treat criminals). I personally feel that a game becomes much richer and the players will have a better idea of how to behave, if universal alignments are ditched and the moral code of conduct of their particular society is spelled out. Man, that turned into a long post! Sorry :)

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  95. "but I do think that if this happens without an explicit understanding that it is only OK or morally correct within the morality of a particular culture within the game"

    But are there any real examples of people unable to understand that? Since that Mazes & Monsters movie with Tom Hanks doesn't count, I'm thinking this might just be a solution in search of a problem.

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  96. Sorry Carl, when I hear what you said above, especially the first half, you are making some assumptions about me and my group you are wrong about, polite caveats aside.

    If I had to explicitly say to my group that "Orcs are only a ficitonal construct and do not represent our opinion in any way toward any real life group," I wouldn't be hanging around them because:

    A: They are crazy and can't tell fantasy from reality.
    or
    B: They are jerks who do make their own connections between the imaginary to a real counterpart, which actually goes a little to A, IMO.

    As a matter of fact, I have to make such decisions in the past.

    It's just a game. How it is used or misued is up to the people involved. These arguments ring to me of the same rhetoric that wants bans on violent games, movies, TV, on the yet to be substantiated account that it corrupts well-adjusted people. If that were true, IMO, society would have crumbled long ago under the weight of the genuine barbarities that occur everyday.

    IMO the application of subjective or objective morality in a game world is more about what the group is comfortable with. I can handle that. The rest is again, laying assumptions you should have evidence of before making.

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  97. I think the vast majority of American citizens (and probably humans in general) are examples of people unable to understand that. Very few people are able to look beyond the morality prescribed by their culture and see that what they think is right or wrong is not in fact a universal truth but is a construct of their culture. And crystalizing that inability in the rules of a game seems to me to only compound the problem. The reason I proposed that was not because I think people are going to go out there killing people in real life because it was ok to do so in their game. If you do as I propose it opens up a whole new realm of roleplaying possibilities, gets the DM to think outside of the normally assumed moral parameters and provides an answer to the sticky questions like "is it good to kill the orc children". Note that it is entirely possible to play campaigns that many people would call "evil" if you start with the understanding that the characters come from a culture that has radically different ideas of what is right or wrong from what the players controlling them assume is the norm. Players wanting to "let off steam" can do so in such a campaign, and perhaps simultaneously learn to question the societal norms that we all live with which make it ok to demonize others. This seems to me much more healthy than simply saying it is OK to kill the bad guys because that is the universal way of the world, bad guys deserve to die.

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  98. Richard: So I'm very curious about how far down these roads James and Steven go in their games: are they attracted to games where their players behave according to current morality, or to situations where in-game morals create player discomfort and/or re-examination?In general, I really only like to play in games where there is a moral code -- that is, an understanding by both the players and the characters about whether or not an action is "right" or "wrong." (Note that the reaction between the players and the characters can be different! For example, if I'm playing a Gygaxian Paladin who kills a Lawful Good orc who's showing signs of slipping back to his old habits, my character can feel his actions were justified while I as a player am freaked out by them.) My biggest objection is in settings that are ill-defined enough where I don't know how my hero or his society would react to his actions. For example, in the real world, let's say I'm on a subway and I'm accosted by some youths, and, fearing for my safety, I shoot them; I understand -- especially in a post-Bernie-Goetz world -- that my actions will have repercussions; I will be probably be arrested, I may spend the rest of my life in prison, etc. Even if I believe my actions are morally justified (which I refrain from commenting on here), I understand the world well enough to know what likely outcomes are of actions that step outside the social moral norm. If I have faith, I will have to come to some kind of accounting for that; if I follow an organized religion, it may also have its own ideas (which may come into direct conflict with the legal and social repercussions).

    Compare this with, say, my hero burning down an enemy village in a dungeon-crawl campaign. Should my hero feel bad about that? Does he understand what the repercussions are of those actions socially, morally, religiously, etc.? If he reports this deed to the king, will the king respond with a hero's welcome, grudging acceptance, or shocked dismay at this deed? If my hero doesn't have some kind of idea about how his actions will be viewed by society before he does them then (in my mind) the game doesn't allow for "roleplaying" (of the sort I want to play) any more than most driving video games allow for roleplaying. (In the real world, intentionally crashing your opponents is poor form at best or grounds for fines/sanctions/expulsion at worst; in a video game, it's all part of the fun.)

    But to answer the question... I'll offer two examples from my own gaming (in both instances, where I was a player) and another example from a friend.

    In Fading Suns, there are linked attributes; at a certain level, one cannot go up without another going down. On such pair was "Faith/Ego"; I was playing a highly devout somewhat-nuts priest (of the "standing on a street corner shouting about God" variety -- Eskatonics, for those who know the game). I eventually bought the character's Faith up to 10, the highest possible value; the GM rules that this meant my Ego was 0. I decided to play this as meaning that the character had virtually no sense of self. When playing him, I tried never to use "I," "me," or self-references; I made no efforts at requesting aid for myself or self-preservation; and I attempted to discount "my" feelings from every action and decision I needed to make. It was an alien way to approach the character, and let to some interesting sessions.

    In World of Darkness: Dark Ages (set in medieval Europe), I was playing a female scientist (she was taught by her father because he had no sons). For the most part we played "cinematic-realistic" views on religion and sexism: The clergy would cluck disapprovingly and grumble about strong-willed, active women, but they didn't launch inquisitions; military and political rulers would refuse to deal with a woman, but they could be swayed with appropriate skill roles. And so on. (These situations were also good for generating mock-outrage from Kathryn, the gal gamer of our group.) Anyway, after a number of years with the character, I decided that she had had enough; she was tired of fighting society's sexism for every scrap she could get, and she eventually settled down and started a family (while still partaking in the occasional adventure)... basically, she let the establishment "win." Her views were different from my own modern ones, but they fit in with the era and the setting, and made me ponder what I'd do with my own views.

    As a final "food for thought" example, one time a friend played a Jedi in a Star Wars campaign. Only, instead of the typical chivalric code, he followed a Victorian one. Thus (for example) he had a strong belief in "fair play," yet he had a racist view that it was humanity's obligation to rule justly over non-human races. He still did good, for the most part, but his outlook was so different from the typical Jedi that NPCs (and the other players!) were taken aback. (Mind you, we were really only able to go along with this in the group because we knew and understand that the player in no way held racist views.)

    But, for the most part, I have little problem with projecting a fair amount of "modern-day" thought onto games based on the past... realism be darned. :) I have no desire to accurately portray the casual racism in a "real" Cliffhangers campaign, or the religious intolerance (perhaps violent) that would come with a "realistic" medieval setting. And hopefully any groups I play with are okay with that!

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  99. Nagora: "D&D - actually, probably all role-playing - is based on a very simple premise: imagine a world where you can make a difference. What that difference is, is up to you. And what difference you *want* to make does probably reflect your personal frustrations in real life to some extent. Escapism is all about leaving reality behind for a while, after all."


    That's an unprecedented assumption to claim that that's the premise on which roleplaying is based. I reject it utterly as incompatible with my experience in the hobby. It's also an unprecedented assumption that the game's purpose is escapism. Another one that I reject.

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  100. >It's just a game. How it is used or misued is up to the people involved. These arguments ring to me of the same rhetoric that wants bans on violent games, movies, TV, on the yet to be substantiated account that it corrupts well-adjusted people<

    Really really really good point.

    I got so hammered at rpg.net when I once mentioned a player trying to stab a beautiful enemy who was helpless and dying, and all these people came out of the woodwork using orcs as examples, and when I said orc lives are meaningless to me all sorts of self-righteousness came fast and furious. You would think I was Hitler or something.

    I don't equate a orc with jews or blacks or whatever the hell else. I grew up reading LOTR, and judging on those actions there is not much there to pity. They are ogres, demons in flesh. They will eat your baby. You are lucky if all they do is rape your wife.

    That is my orc experience. Some people know orcs only from World of Warcraft, where they are brave, strong, Conanesque warrior - often heroes.

    Really, of the orc debate, I think it is all about the Orc you got raised with. Plug that damn orc you know into your gameworld, and enjoy some guilt free head-bashing action. Kill it or love it, it's the GM's choice.

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  101. @James
    "Orcs are only a ficitonal construct and do not represent our opinion in any way toward any real life group,"
    That is totally not what I am suggesting you say to your group. I am saying that you should say something like
    "In the kingdom of such and such where your characters come from, Orcs are viewed as irredeemably evil creatures that must be killed when encountered." I do not assume that anyone (well, maybe almost anyone) would make the mistake of thinking that their actions towards orcs represent their opinion towards a real life group. I do assume that the general concept of assuming that if something is evil, it must be killed, AS A UNIVERSAL TRUTH, is a pervasive and dangerous aspect of human culture, part and parcel of our tendency to marginalize many groups and justify horrendous abuses because those being abused are "others". And if you do as I suggest, you can open future campaigns to many more options. It is really fun to sit down and think of what the moral norms are for a fantasy culture that you are making up, and it makes your a much richer and fulfilling place to play in, IMO. I do apologize if you took my words as an attack on you or your players, I was really not trying to suggest that because you think it is OK to kill orcs that you or any of your players would do the same in real life. I just want to get at what I see as such an underlying assumption that it is not even acknowledged as being an assumption (namely that evil deserves to be killed, and that evil can be described outside of cultural definitions of it).

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  102. I feel reading this thread that some people not only don't know how to have fun, they don't *want* to have fun!

    Life is full of compromises; fantasy is largely about not having to make those compromises. No matter what way you cut it, the killing orcs scenario is about not having to "put up with it". It's about being able to say "I have decided what is right and what is wrong and I'm going to do something about it." That by necessity is going to be a simpler vision.

    Our real lives are very lacking in that - watch the news for a month and list the stories that you have even the slightest chance to do something about. If you find even one I'd suggest that you're either President Obama or deluded.

    And, sure, what we want to do something about depends on the year and the current media hype. In 1950 it was commies and perhaps gays; in 1960 it may have been commies and blacks or gays. Maybe. Even if those are the sorts of things that get you down in real life, they're still just variations on the big theme of life: they're things you have no real chance of doing anything about. Just like bailing out the banks or GM while your company goes bust. Just like dentists who won't treat the poor because they're making too much money injecting rich morons with botox. Just like your mother dying. Just like corruption in Parliament. Just like....yadda yadda yadda

    Wouldn't you like to get away? Wouldn't you like to go where everybody knows your name...er, sorry. That's Cheers. But you get the idea.

    Making the campaign world JUST LIKE REAL LIFE is not a solution to *anything* - it doesn't make real life any better and it doesn't offer the players any surrogate solutions or any way of working off their frustrations. It is very definately not entertainment.

    I mean, we did come here to be entertained, did we not?

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  103. "That's an unprecedented assumption to claim that that's the premise on which roleplaying is based. I reject it utterly as incompatible with my experience in the hobby. It's also an unprecedented assumption that the game's purpose is escapism. Another one that I reject."

    Would you care to elaborate?

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  104. Joshua: "That's an unprecedented assumption to claim that that's the premise on which roleplaying is based. I reject it utterly as incompatible with my experience in the hobby. It's also an unprecedented assumption that the game's purpose is escapism. Another one that I reject."

    I know humour travels very badly on the Internet, but you are kidding here aren't you?

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  105. @steven
    "My biggest objection is in settings that are ill-defined enough where I don't know how my hero or his society would react to his actions."

    Exactly my point. I have no problem with the campaign where orcs are killed on sight, as long as it is understand that that is the way of things in the campaign society/world.

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  106. @James again (sorry, not trying to pick on you)
    "These arguments ring to me of the same rhetoric that wants bans on violent games, movies, TV, on the yet to be substantiated account that it corrupts well-adjusted people"
    If you follow my logic what I am suggesting is actually the exact opposite of that. You can run a game doing what I suggest where the players rip the hearts out of infants and eat them while they are still beating. You can run a game where players kill each other. You can run a game with demons as the player characters. So long as you spell out to the players what the moral code of their culture is, all of the above is fair game, and you won't have any of the messy in-game dillemmas where a player wonders if what his character is doing is right or wrong.

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  107. I get what you're saying Carl, and my response is who says I don't run or play my games like that sometimes? :)

    Sometimes I'm in games where consequences are always tested, and the dilemmas are truly exciting because the situation has no easy answers. You do your level best to do what is right as a hero (usually the assumption for those games), and hope for the best from there.

    Other times it's Pac-Man. You wander around picking up whatever is interesting, and when you see a ghost it's eat or be eaten! It's okay though. The ghosts just run back home, yell "Base!", and eventually return with a fresh new sheet. As time passes the mazes change and the ghosts get faster, but hey that's part of the challenge.

    Best part about RPGs is that I can play the game to fit the fun I want at that time.

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  108. Absolutely not kidding. It is an unprecedented assumption to state that the whole purpose of gaming is to make a difference in the game world. Huh? Says who? It's an unprecedented assumption to say that the purpose of gaming is escapism. Huh? Says who?

    I don't understand what you want me to elaborate on. You're the one who made a needlessly limiting assumption about how everyone must play the game.

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  109. "I don't understand what you want me to elaborate on. You're the one who made a needlessly limiting assumption about how everyone must play the game."

    Actually, I asked you to elaborate, and I didn't say that at all. :)

    I just want to hear how your experience differs. What's the purpose of your gaming if not escapism or making your mark on a fantasy world?

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  110. So long as you spell out to the players what the moral code of their culture is, all of the above is fair game, and you won't have any of the messy in-game dillemmas where a player wonders if what his character is doing is right or wrong.Don't sweat it Carl.

    Again assuming well-adjusted people who can tell fantasy from reality? I can deal with content as a matter of taste and context. There are certainly games out there who's subject matter is not my cup of tea, (A notable current example is the Carcosa supplement, which is rich with the tropes of pulp fantasy including the use of sacrifices to power magic that summons summon cthulhoid monsters). I admire the context, but the content just isn't for me.

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  111. It's just a game. How it is used or misued is up to the people involved. These arguments ring to me of the same rhetoric that wants bans on violent games, movies, TV, on the yet to be substantiated account that it corrupts well-adjusted people.
    Talking about, addressing unpleasant issues in the games we love does NOT equate with a proposal to censor them.

    I feel reading this thread that some people not only don't know how to have fun, they don't *want* to have fun!

    This bothers me. Why do you assume you have to play the game a certain way to "have fun"? Why does my having a different perspective than you on the game mean that I "don't want to have fun"?

    At any rate, I'm not asking anyone to do anything other than to think about some of the unsavory connotations to an aspect of D&D that most of us take for granted. I don't even mind "orcs" being in a campaign or them being "irredeemably evil", but the fact that they have evolved into an often contextless signifier that players can kill everyone they come across, right down to the women and infants, as long as the beings in question have green skin and red eyes bothers me. And I don't think it "kills the fun" of D&D to challenge that notion.

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  112. Sorry, Will... conflating two responses.

    To elaborate, as I said in my first reply here, my foremost thought, and I've always had this paradigm, even back in the early 80s when it wasn't trendy yet, was "would this make an interesting story if I were reading about it?" I've always approached gaming with a novel-writer type perspective. And I've read a lot of novels, about a lot of different kinds of characters. A novel writer has to, at least to some extent, put himself sufficiently in the shoes of all his characters that he can portray them sufficiently convincingly, not just the protagonists, and not just the likeable, heroic ones.

    In my experience, especially in more recent years, I've had a blast playing in games that had no moral center, and in fact had some very shady if not outright evil characters. What I have not had, though, is boring characters that aren't interesting to me. Even relatively low-grade amoral characters, like Locke Lamora, for instance, are imminently useful as models for gaming characters. Someone like Keyzer Soze as a D&D character sounds really fascinating.

    I also strongly dislike the assumption that gaming is done for the purpose of escapism. I'd like to think that I've never shied away from confronting difficult issues, in the guise of gaming, if I thought it would be interesting. And why wouldn't it be? Those kinds of things are interesting to explore; how would someone deal with such and such an issue? How about someone with a completely different personality type?

    If you think about it, the default "old school" presumption about how D&D would be played; where characters who were wooden, flat and frankly uninteresting, went into holes in the ground to fight monsters for treasure and experience, is an incredibly boring story. Many gamers don't care, and that's perfectly fine, but even so, I defy almost anyone to say that they'd enjoy a book about characters like that, or a movie. Since my tastes have always run towards approximating the experience I got from reading a good book, except interactive, as if I were a collaborating writer, and since my tastes in books occasionally runs to something deeper than the latest D&D fiction novel by Ed Greenwood or whatever, I've never seen gaming as an exercise in escapism.

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  113. I suppose if you see it that way, although I see "wooden, flat and frankly uninteresting" characters as a pernicious stereotype about the Old School style and not a fact of life.

    I suppose I never wanted my RPGs to remind me of movies or novels. Or my video games to remind me of board games. Or my board games to remind me of comic books. Or...

    Well, you get the idea. Every entertainment medium is more interesting to me when it plays to its own unique strengths instead of venturing into square peg/round hole territory by being too emulative.

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  114. Oh, don't get me wrong. I was never looking at anything as dramatic as narrative control mechanics, or anything. Gaming is gaming; it's not collaborative story-writing. I'm not one of those latte set storyteller type gamers, and except for a very brief fling to try out that paradigm, I never have been.

    That said, although different media have different strengths, I think there's more overlap than not between many of them. I like seeing a cool plot unfold, whether by GM design or mere happenstance; and moving from room to room to kill monsters isn't a cool plot. To take your own advice to heart; if that's what I wanted, I wouldn't play D&D. I'd play a CRPG, or Warhammer Quest. That completely ignores the potential of roleplaying games.

    And to bring this back on topic, I don't necessarily care for having characters that approximate me or my values in real life. This isn't real life. These are fictional characters. They can do whatever they need to to make the game turn out fun and interesting, not what I would do if I were in their shoes. And what's fun and interesting isn't neccessarily always what's good. That's why I took exception to the comment made earlier (I believe by Nagora, although he wasn't the only one to make it) that if your characters are doing bad things during your escapist romp, then that says something about you as a person. Those are completely unwarranted assumptions.

    That's exactly why games like Grand Theft Auto are fun in spite of the whole theme of the game. That's why characters like James Bond are interesting (or Dirty Harry, or other darker anti-hero types.)

    The only conern I have for "morality" in my games is to not go somewhere where the other players are uncomfortable.

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  115. This is my third attempt to post this, so I'm lagging a bit behind the flow of posts...

    "It is an unprecedented assumption to state that the whole purpose of gaming is to make a difference in the game world. Huh? Says who?"

    Well, I can sort of imagine a soap-opera game where the character's actions are self-contained and don't matter to the world at large, but I think that's just a case of redefining "world" to a small stage for a specialised type of play. I've never encountered such play or heard of a game where the character's actions are supposed or expected to be as limited as the player's real lives but I can imagine it as a rather dry possibility. Perhaps I've missed something. However, I stand by it as a point specifically about D&D and fantasy gaming in general - the prime motivation for players and designers is to pretend that certain limitiations of the real world do not apply and characters are thereby empowerd beyond the players' real lives in some way. I'm happy to hear counter examples that have made some sort of mainstream mark, but I doubt such exist.

    "It's also an unprecedented assumption that the game's purpose is escapism. Another one that I reject."

    Well this is incomprehensible to me. I can only assume that there is a language barrier here and that we are not understanding each other. I've never seem more than one or two sessions where the players literally played themselves and as far as I can see anything else is escapism of some form.

    "my foremost thought, and I've always had this paradigm, even back in the early 80s when it wasn't trendy yet, was "would this make an interesting story if I were reading about it?"

    Ah, right. Well then we're talking about two different things, then. Role playing is the opposite of that. That's story-telling and is a totally different thing, so it's not surprising that we differ here.

    "I also strongly dislike the assumption that gaming is done for the purpose of escapism. I'd like to think that I've never shied away from confronting difficult issues, in the guise of gaming, if I thought it would be interesting."

    Escapism doesn't mean shying away from difficult issues, it may simply mean imagining that your opinion on those issues matters. Role players do a lot of dealing with complex issues in my experience.

    "If you think about it, the default "old school" presumption about how D&D would be played; where characters who were wooden, flat and frankly uninteresting, went into holes in the ground to fight monsters for treasure and experience, is an incredibly boring story. Many gamers don't care, and that's perfectly fine, but even so, I defy almost anyone to say that they'd enjoy a book about characters like that, or a movie"

    This is a natural consequence of the fact that telling a story and playing a role in what eventually, in retrospect, becomes a story are two entirely different activities as I said above.

    "Since my tastes have always run towards approximating the experience I got from reading a good book, except interactive, as if I were a collaborating writer, and since my tastes in books occasionally runs to something deeper than the latest D&D fiction novel by Ed Greenwood or whatever, I've never seen gaming as an exercise in escapism."

    Well, unless you read exclusively non-fiction I highly doubt that you are not engaging in escapism. The vast majority of literature is escapism of one kind or another, whether Dickens or Greenwood; Shakespere or Binchy.

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  116. "The only conern I have for 'morality' in my games is to not go somewhere where the other players are uncomfortable."

    That's true. I think everyone has heard horror stories about players alienated from the hobby by GMs who insist on lengthy and graphic descriptions of torture and rape/misogyny and other such skeevy stuff because "Hey, I'm just being realistic" or whatever.

    Nobody likes or needs that kind of crap.

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  117. Just wanted to add:

    http://images.encyclopediadramatica.com/images/4/43/Alignment_demotivator.jpg

    Each will do his own in his game, anyway.

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  118. While all types of fiction (books, movies, RPGs) might have escapism strains, there's no reason that has to be the only strain or even the primary one.

    So you can see Henry V and think "Wow, I would like to be King and have all that power." Or you can think, "If I were King, would I hang my old friend for stealing bread if that's what I needed to do to define my power?"

    And the point of having moral challenges in your games is not to push a particular answer. It's because (some people) find these kind of questions engaging, maybe even more engaging then figuring out that you have to push the lintel twice on the left to open the secret door.

    On the whole orcs issue, I find that both posture ("orcs are evil" and "orcs are misunderstood") shut down what should be an ongoing question. And in fact, I think that we all like the ambiguity of an unanswered question. Because otherwise, we wouldn't use orcs, we'd use undead when we wanted evil and we'd use humans with funny accents when we wanted misunderstood.

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  119. This is just to big an issue for me to comment upon. I'll write my own ideas in my own blog instead. I'll just add my two cents about what I consider the core of the problem in D&D.

    I do think alignment is the worst thing ever invented in D&D, because it creates such behaviour that Steven reacts to.

    There, I said it.

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  120. @joshua: In my experience, especially in more recent years, I've had a blast playing in games that had no moral center, and in fact had some very shady if not outright evil characters. What I have not had, though, is boring characters that aren't interesting to me... Someone like Keyzer Soze as a D&D character sounds really fascinating.Lest my position be misinterpreted, I think there are two different ideas here.

    First, there's the question of whether morality is defined in a game setting. In other words, do we as players agree with what our characters would know: what's right and what's wrong in the game world? Ideally the game can provide that information; barring that, the group can decide on it.

    Second, there's the question of what the individual protagonists choose to do within that moral framework. Personally, I need those I game with to attempt to adhere to the "more right than not" side of the setting's moral framework. This is partly due to my own squeamishness, and partly due to my own lack of ability to come up with appropriate motivations and challenges for characters who don't follow a moral code I can identify with.

    As an easy GMing example, let's say I have an orc raid on a human village. During a tense scene, I have one of the orcs tackle a human girl and say, "Put down your weapons, or I kill the child!"

    For gamers who follow a similar moral code to what I appreciate, this presents an interesting dilemma: How do I stop the orc, while keeping the girl alive?

    There are many, many ways the PCs can resolve this situation in what I consider to be a "moral" fashion. They could surrender their weapons, hoping to reverse the situation or trick them later. They could attempt some kind of distraction. They could attack and hope they're faster than the orc.

    I would even accept a magician flinging a fireball at the two of them, if he recognized that there was no way he was fast enough to save the girl, and he believed that the orc posed a greater threat to people he could save. But I would hope that the hero (and player) would feel really bad about the situation; ideally he would view it as a springboard for future adventure (attempting to atone to his gods, make amends to the family, seek better skills that would enable him to avoid that situation in the future, or whatever).

    What I would not be comfortable with is if the player (and character) said, "Hostage? I don't care! FIREBALL! Ha-ha-ha..." and gleefully charred both girl and orc.

    I don't begrudge gaming groups that can make that work; rather, I know my own limitations as a storyteller, and I wouldn't have fun trying to come up with challenges and storylines that could keep such players entertained.

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  121. Matthew James Stanham said re the origins of the Half-Orc...
    --
    Oh, there definitely are. Just type it into a Google image search...--

    Not for the first time in my life am I wishing that I could unsee things...

    (playorc.com)

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  122. Really interesting thread btw. Something I was thinking about when I played my first D&D game in almost two decades a while back ("why are we in this dungeon again? do we have to kill the kobolds?" etc)

    I'm only half-way through and have to stop to do something that I've been procrastinating all day.

    LOL @ Adam Thornton. Gold

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  123. @Chris T"Something I was thinking about when I played my first D&D game in almost two decades a while back ("why are we in this dungeon again? do we have to kill the kobolds?" etc)"

    Interestingly, we started play in the CSIO and spoke to the kobolds etc. from the start. I still run the JG setting that way, where humanoids are more or less unpleasent "people" that you sometimes have to deal with. When I use Greyhawk it's much more intense and the kobolds and so forth are literally constructed by the evil gods in order to overrun and destroy the world - they're built evil. They may be sentient and intelligent but they can no more prevent themselves being evil than a sentient intelligent human can prevent themselves from sleeping.

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  124. Orcs and goblins are the terrorists of the fantasy world. Not totally without honor of sorts, and not always devoid of redeeming qualities. But an enemy of all, giving no quarter, asking no quarter, and deserving no quarter.

    For the record, there are no orcish non-combatants encountered in my worlds. Maybe they're hidden deep within the mythic underworld.

    And I really don't *want* to know where half-orcs come from. If I did, I'd probably be in favor of seeking out the hidden so they could be exterminated.

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  125. "All right, then, I'm game. What aspect of medieval culture do you reference to determine how orcs should be treated by adventurers?"

    No. My point was to disprove the claims like "D&D is a complete fantasy". You're assuming that to do so implies a claim that "D&D is completely realistic". The two are not converses, and I don't need to pursue the latter.

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  126. Carl said:
    So long as you spell out to the players what the moral code of their culture is, all of the above is fair game, and you won't have any of the messy in-game dillemmas where a player wonders if what his character is doing is right or wrong.I'm not sure I understand why spelling out the moral code of a character's culture answers the question of whether a character who acts in accordance with that code is right or wrong.

    That a culture accepts a given behavior as morally right doesn't mean that behavior is morally right, nor is the opposite true.

    That a given person's culture accepts a given behavior as right doesn't even mean that the person accepts that the behavior is right.

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  127. Carl/LStyer: and there we have the relativist/absolutist split in a nutshell.

    We learn from the history of politics that there can be individual dissent against broad cultural norms. There are limits to such dissent too, though. I recommend Mary Douglass' Purity and Danger for anyone who wants a really good discussion of this.

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