Saturday, 9 May 2015

Morality and RPGs

There has been some discussion recently about the morality (or ethics) of role playing games, particularly, perhaps, fantasy RPGs. The morality of some of these games can be regarded as dubious, at least from modern points of view. In brief, some RPGs have a set of goodies and a set of baddies, and they fight.

The first thing to consider is why the games are set up this way. I suspect that the answer is both moral simplicity and also as a plot or narrative driver. The two tend to interact.

Back in my days as a Runequest player, the irruption of chaos (the ultimate evil) somewhere in the world was enough to trigger a massed campaign to eradicate it. There was no real need for any more of a narrative than that. Chaos was chaos, evil and must be combatted by the forces of good, which were us. Thus we can see the thread of absolute good and evil, us and them, and the simple plot driver; as good we must oppose evil.

Of course, as the games became more sophisticated, the moral questions became more difficult. In Runequest there was the Lunar Empire, which was not unequivocally opposed to chaos, and also there were some ‘illuminants’ who, Buddha like did not recognize the difference between good and evil (I’m not saying that this is Buddhism, by the way, but in the artwork they usually looked like Buddists). The main players and the cults, however, were severely opposed to chaos and its evil cults. There was no compromise.

I believe (although I have never played it) that Dungeons and Dragons was sort of similar, while being different. Characters could be good, neutral or evil. The good fought the evil. The neutral joined in if they thought it was a good idea or the evil threatened one of their interests. Some things (Ruaridh mentioned goblins) were simply evil, and were to be killed and parted from their treasure as quickly as possible.

Role playing games, at least the ones I have mentioned so far, were the children of the 1970’s. I wonder if we can see a bit of Cold War paranoia creeping in here. After all, Ronald Regan described the Soviet Union as the ‘Evil Empire’. The forces of chaos were, quite possibly, identified as Communist. The neutrals or the Lunar empire could be identified with the nonaligned nations, ready to join in with something they identified with, oppose something they did not like, often to the frustration of Western politicians.

Of course, other RPGs are available. My own favorite, Flashing Blades, is securely set in seventeenth century France, that of the Dumas Three Musketeers novels. There is, within it, some simplistic morality – in the novels, as in the game, the King is usually the right; thus the Musketeers get into action based around this and the perceptions of who the King’s enemies might be. Often, the enemy is the Cardinal, but the Cardinal himself is a bit of a morally ambiguous character, although not often shown as such in games.

Again, in Traveler, there is no real defined evil. This, in fact, depends on the universe which we create for our games, and Traveler shows this rather well. There are criminal gangs. Interstellar companies with dubious practices and so on. There might even be a few pirates. But on the whole there is no real unmotivated evil as there are in the simpler FRGPs described above.

My other favorite game was Toon, which perhaps says more about me than about morality. I was, in fact, banned from playing Toon because I was too good at it (the secret was never to get boggled, I discovered). As with most cartoons (for example, Tom and Jerry) the violence was always present but never serious; characters could and did come back to life again. Again, morals did not really manifest themselves. The vampire I remember in the scenarios was, in fact, just waiting for someone to offer him a Hollywood contract.

However, there is a question running through the simpler games, or even those of more complexity, the darker games such as Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu. Is evil just evil as defined? In most games evil just is. Cult followers in CoC are to be wiped out (or to have their object of worship destroyed) in just the same way as goblins in D&D (it is just harder to do it in CoC). Paranoia could be characterized as the ultimate in cold War games, of course, the Computer being the Communist Party hierarchy, and so on down the line to the player characters who were expendable (perhaps like the Soviet soldiers in WW2?).

These musing might well transfer to wargaming. After all, we all know that the Nazis were evil. It does not stop them being represented on the wargame table, however. Perhaps, though, because we know that the evil was defeated, we can wargame on, because we know that even if they are successful on the table, evil was ultimately defeated. In that same way, we know that the nameless horrors of CoC do not exist, or even, perhaps, that D&D’s goblins will always be defeated.

Perhaps underlying this is a view of progress, of things going from bad to better. Good wins out in the end, evil is defeated. Perhaps this is an optimistic US view of the world; Europeans might not agree, their experiences of evil are different and less precise.

As to Ruaridh’s problem with simply going and slaughtering goblins because they are evil as defined, then it does point to both the narrative driver and a problem in the game and its view of morality. We know now, after a bit of experience in the world, that morality is rarely so black and white. There is the possibility of goblins who are not intrinsically evil, who might have a right to life, or to a family, or even to hang on to their possessions. In the world of D&D and Runequest, however, this cannot happen, and so we have to decide that, morally, the games are deficient, and fix them the best we can.


  1. I'm not an expert on D&D but I was introduced and dabbled a (very little) bit in the mid-70's. As I recall the split was somewhat different being a matrix of lawful,neutral and chaotic vs good, neutral and chaotic with "monsters" not necessarily being aligned, just doing their thing. Parties could be a mix of any of the 9 types, some obviously being capable of lying about their alignment to other players until their actions betray them. So pretty much no us vs them feel in most cases just a mixed bag out for more money, more power, etc. Sound familiar?

    This matrix does add an interesting social commentary element reflecting the proximity of the 60's perhaps or perhaps a North American outlook but chaotic and good are not opposites nor are lawful and good necessarily aligned. So Robin Hood as Chaotic Good perhaps and the Sheriff as Lawful Bad with the Black Knight being Lawful and Good and the poor monsters as road kill.

    1. The original D&D rules had a single Law/Chaos alignment axis that reflected the Moorcockian influence on the game. A Good/Evil axis was only added later. Parties could be a mix of Law and Chaos, but the sentient monsters were always Chaotic. At the time I never questioned it, but I do so now. Why are sentient party races permitted to be Lawful or Chaotic, but the sentient monster races are always Chaotic? Surely some poor Goblins out there must rebel against their upbringing and seek to do good in the world. For that matter, why is the human perspective the one true perspective? The story, told from a Goblin's perspective, would be very different. There is also the consideration that some player parties I have seen were more evil and chaotic than the monsters they were putatively opposing. Those parties definitely fit the mercenary mould you mention.

    2. I stand corrected. I only ever played the original and never as DM and never owned a copy and obviously was not careful enough when seeking to refresh my memory. But the point holds that it was Lawful vs Chaotic, not good vs evil.

      As for the goblins, perhaps they were seeking to do good, or at least what they perceived as good. After all, look at all the evil that is done by men intending to do good.

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    4. The goblins almost certainly view themselves as the good guys. They remind me a bit of the trolls in Peer Gynt actually in that respect. However, it seems to me that there is an implicit racism in casting an entire race as the bad guys, and there is nothing in the literature that states that they were created to be evil which might excuse the depiction somewhat. If I remember correctly, in Mystara and the original Blackmoor setting, all of the humanoid races were actually mutated humans, although none of the characters would ever know that. If I am right, that makes the racism more explicit and does not explain the lack of shades of grey among the chaotic races. When I was younger this never bothered me, but these days I find the shades of grey more interesting and comfortable.

    5. I have only ever seen D&D, so the details are somewhat lost on me. However, it is interesting that evil is simply defined as such and is fair game for destruction. I didn't know that the other humanoid races were mutated humans; I wonder if this was some fear of nuclear war...

      Mind you, Runequest had a race of human / goat crosses. They were chaotic, and to be annihilated. I'm not sure I want to know how the idea for them came about...

    6. It is worth remembering that the game began as a fantasy supplement to a set of rules for tabletop medieval battles and came at the time when Conan and Tolkien were being rediscovered and popularized. Not much room for fine distinctions on the individual philosophies of the enemy in the midst of a battle. The RPG grew from thst and must have taken time to develop.

      But yes, given the time and place, early 70's US, both nuclear war and Viet Nam must have been among at least the subconscious influences.

      as for the other, Satyr-ic influences?

    7. All I can say is that I think that Runequest was written in California...

  2. Polemarch,

    If ever I had any doubt that you were a good egg - a liking for Flashing Blades (God bless it and all who sail in it) answered that question for once and for all.

    Your piece, fascinating always, reminded me of a passage of Chesterton's Orthodoxy.

    " They began with the fact of sin—a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. "

    There is the question I suppose in the context of D&D morality is whether goblins are inherently inimicable creatures or whether they are possessed of a moral sense. If they are in league with the powers of darkness and are incapable of redemption, then there seems no real problem with eradicating them - much as one might eradicate small pox. If they are creatures that can be reasoned with and are not in their very nature evil, then there may be some merit the approach you propose.

    The matter is one I suppose for the GM and the nature of the game he wishes to present to the players. I would recommend having a look at the excellent blog The Blood of Prokopius ( which has examined this question in detail and at length.

    There is the point of course that in most D&D style games, the goblins are presented as an utterly inimical force and the players, as bringers of order, are in a situation where negotiation is not possible. Use of force becomes a regrettable necessity.

    I face a similar moral quandry in my longest running roleplaying game which was set on the Eastern Front 1942-45. The players were Soviet partisans/Razvedcheki operating behind German lines. There was the question of whether it was moral to murder the German wounded, attack from ambush and target non combatants. I am glad to say that this was not an easy circle for the players to square and one that they devoted some time to as differing circumstances arose. Ultimately, they decided that in an existential clash (much like what occurs in most D&D games) there was little room for mercy. But what interested me about the debate was how often the line of what was or was not acceptable moved depending on the circumstances the players found themselves in.

    I remain, etc.

    Conrad Kinch

    1. That's a good point about the nature of Goblins and other sentient creatures in the D&D universe. When I first started playing D&D we considered them to be inherently evil, but I now think too much about these things and wonder how a sentient race could not be self-aware enough to have individuals questioning its raison d'etre and basic philosophies.

    2. Conrad:
      Aye, Flashing blades is a good system and great setting. i found the combat system a bit complex in parts; when you are duelling on a carriage to a full speed, some of the nuances get a bit lost.

      I suppose the question is evil as evil. in one of Len Deighton's books there is a conversation about what a concentration camp guard could have done. Shot his sergeant? The sergeant was a social democrat who lost and arm on the eastern front. How would shooting him have helped?

      The point is I suppose that the 'grunt' goblins might simply have a different world view or horizon, which includes things the humans regard as evil. If they are sentient, then they should be persuadable; if not, then they are not evil any more than smallpox or flies are. So as sentient they (e.g. goblins) should have, as Ruaridh observes, a philosophy and questions about themselves.

      The problem, at a role playing level, is that of the individuals you are facing might not be evil, but the regime that they represent might be. How do you manage that? Most people simply have to get on with it.

      I suppose this comes back to the Chesterton quote. Evil exists, (as someone noted above, even when our intentions are good) and we are foolish if we ignore it. But there is little in the world outside RPGs which is inherently evil, or beyond redemption (the Nazi regime might be a candidate).

      All tricky stuff.