Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Inherently Evil

The morality system of Dungeons and Dragons (in most of its incarnations) has been the source of lively debate since . . . well . . . pretty much ever. Put ten gamers into a room together and you'll have ten different views on how the alignment system "should be" interpreted, which version of the alignment system is "best," whether or not Gary Gygax was, indeed, taking controlled substances when he thought that this would be a good idea for a game, and at least three black eyes. Many, if not most, blogs even peripherally about D&D have long series of articles discussing the "true nature of alignment" and how it works and such a discussion has even made it over to the pop-culture repository of "knowledge" called TVTropes.org. It is, in my opinion, one of the best articles about the D&D style alignment system ever. A great many gamers decry the whole exercise and call it a straight jacket or some bizarre, ill-conceived attempt to shoe-horn a morality system into the game that wasn't needed.

The topic has gotten some play within the blog sphere: here and here for instance.

Whatever side of this discussion you fall on isn't important here, and I'm not going to weigh in entirely about it. The truth of the matter, though, is that it (the alignment system and its attendant assumptions) tend to pose some difficult questions for modern gamers, especially considering modern ethical and moral sensibilities. Specifically, the concept of an "always chaotic evil" or even "often evil" type monsters. Orcs, goblins, hobgoblins (my personal favorite humanoid), kobolds, and etc. were, if I recall the history of the game correctly) designed specifically as a a sequence of incrementally more powerful targets for the PC's to kill and loot without attendant guilt complexes. They were, in short, evil races and could be slaughtered with aplomb. Of course, no plan or mechanic, however ingenius, survives contact with gamers.

The concept of an entire race or species (and I've honestly been confused as to whether we're to consider the various non-human sentients in the game a species or a race, or if there's a difference in the first place) as being objectively inferior and identifiably and demonstrably inherently evil is one that truly grates against modern sensibilities. After all, such excuses have been used in our own world to justify some of the most horrific acts in history and it's natural that those of us raised in this world would be recoil from such a thought. Or course, that didn't stop many of us from assuming that anything in the game with a written XP total was there for us to kill and acting accordingly. According to Dave Kenzer himself, the humanoids in the new edition of Hackmaster are going to hearken back to this understanding, that they are all evil and the players have a right if not duty to slaughter them wholesale and further, that upon reading the descriptions of said monsters in the Hacklopedias (their version of the Monster Manual) that you'll actually want to.

One of the natural responses to the quandry is to create a rational for why such and such a race is evil. Orcs, for example, might be magically created things little more than self-replicating automata. A disease, almost, on the land. James over at Grognardia has reportedly taken this angle with his Dwimmermount campaign (linked above, see the comments) where orcs at least are the result of genetic tinkering by one of the precursor races that bestrode the world like giants in the long dark history of the world. This angle is great for Dwimmermount since blaming one of the older races who are already a part of the campaign for the horrific humanoids rampaging through the world and preying upon the innocent does not multiply entities at all. In fact, orcs in Thylia share a similar niche, though I feel with a particularly dark twist.

Of course, the LOTFP article linked above takes a different tack, playing with the uncertainty of players and characters as to what place in the metaphysical and moral place in the world humanoids occupy. The suggestions to play up this uncertainty is delightfully evil in and of itself and I plan on having child goblins and kobolds around to trip up the players' certainties.

I've never really had a problem with a race of beings being evil. It just doesn't bother me on the same level as it does others, I suppose seeing as I don't view "Good" as objectively superior in any way within the context of the game. Of course, within the game itself, "Good and Evil" are semantically loaded terms anyway as they both seem to coincide with, respectivly, what our modern society considers morally laudable and morally reprehensible, but I consider that to be terms of semantic limits: sometimes you just can't escape using a word that has strong associative meanings. However, within the context of the game world, good and evil are neither superior nor inferior in any way, they just are.

This isn't moral relativism, because evil is still evil, if that made any sense.

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