Saturday, 5 May 2018

Orcs, Violence, and Evil

Another rambling blogpost about my thoughts.

I was reading a discussion about Keep on the Borderlands, and in it people were complaining about how the orc (and goblin and so on) tribes in the caves have children and noncombatants that, after all the orc warriors have been slaughtered, the PCs will have to decide what to do with.
I like that. It drives home that the orcs are people (dangerous, fucked up people, but still...) and that the world is one where you can't just solve everything with violence.
Apparently, being presented with orc children, and deciding whether to slaughter them, leave them to die, drag them back to civilization... coupled with the realization that the PCs have invaded these creature's homes and killed everybody. It left a bad taste in people's mouths, apparently.

So. Why does this happen? Because the game presents orcs as having two qualities:

  • They are people, with language, culture (however crude), families (however disfunctional), homes, babies...
  • They are all evil, and must be removed, probably through violence.
Combined, these qualities produce results that can seem troubling. Tolkein struggled with making orcs Always Evil, and never arrived at a solution he was happy with. Gygax made many smart game design choices, but went a little mental here when he basically declared that, yes, in D&D you morally ought to exterminate the orc babies (helpfully clarifying that, after all, 'nits make lice').

D&D handles morality in what is the most stupid way I've encountered in any setting: good and evil are objective forces in the world (like fire and entropy) and alignment means serving one of these. And, for all the PHB talks about good PCs doing mercy and selfishness, in actual play mostly alignment is used to designate which monsters you're meant to kill. Now your PCs are genocidally righteous crusaders for an abstract cosmic principle. It's fucking daft.
(I'm VtM player. I like paths and roads. I like moral greyness and subjectivity in my characters).

This post, then, is about how I handle these things in D&D style games.

Firstly, alignment. 

Fuck alignment, it was always a stupid idea.The 3x3 grid of good vs evil and law vs chaos is a rubbish way to classify PC personalities, and repeatedly results in shitty play experiences as the GM and the player argue about whether the player is roleplaying their character right, which inevitably devolves into two people disagreeing about the fundamental principles morality is built on. The D&D books are fucking useless at resolving this since, fundamentally, alignment is either there to tell you that you should kill those orcs or else just a vestigal leftover from previous editions.
Perhaps you want alignment in your games, though? Who am I to judge, people watch the Marvel films so there's no accounting for taste. For starters, ditch the addition of good vs evil. It was a later addition anyway, and it messes things up. Make alignment about law vs chaos, with both being cosmic principles rather than moral judgements. Even better, go full LotFP and have law mean 'the divine plan', neutral be 'the shitty imperfect material world' and chaos be 'unnatural influences'. Have extremes of law and chaos be alien and incomprehensible. Have sensible humans all be neutral.

I actually, now I think about it, like how LotFP does alignment. It works with the setting LotFP wants to depict, and avoids stupid arguments about utilitarianism or whatever.
So there you go. Alignment should not about morality; if you want to roleplay 'a good person' then you can totally do that, without having to wrangle game mechanics to do so.

Second point: Who are the PCs?
PCs should not be heroic. PCs should not be noble and good and all of that. Or at least, they shouldn't default to that (a noble or altruistic PC would be an interesting quirk, not the expected standard).  PCs are amoral (or morally dubious) treasure hunters. They're tomb-robbers and mercenaries and weirdos. 
I tend to think of adventurers as being roughly the fantasy equivalent to members of street-level drug gangs in the real world. When you've come from a shitty background with few prospects, and want to get rich or famous or badass, and normal society gives you few options for that... you become a gangster/adventurer. Its really fucking dangerous, and kind of frowned on, and there's no formal recognition. Its you and your buddies trying to make a big score. You probably die young, law enforcement probably has it in for you. You are the desperate fringe elements willing to risk it all dong grubby unpleasant dangerous stuff in the hopes of getting rich.
(how do clerics fit into this? I tend to run clerics as being cultists, mystics, prophets... religious nutters tapped into alien cosmic forces. Dregs. Not members of an established catholic-style church, as those priests have theology to debate and flocks to minister to and are far too busy with that to go tomb-robbing).
Why have this as the default PC, rather than a more heroic archetype?
Firstly, by making PCs amoral you increase their agency in the world. You no longer have the 'no, you're good, you ought to take this plot hook or you're RPing badly' issue. An amoral character can act altruistically if they want to,  if the whim takes them. A heroic party is expected to act heroic.
And being heroic inevitably leads to quests to save the world with only one outcome (the world is saved and goodness prevails... or I guess the campaign ends?) where you just follow the quest to its end result. Those stories in those genres bore me. Further down the page I will start frothing at the mouth and ranting about why.
Secondly, it totally fucks up the synergy between game mechanics and character motivation. You're PC wants to get rich quick; so they go into a dungeon to get treasure. You want to get XP so you can level your PC up, XP is rewarded for treasure, so you go into a dungeon to get treasure. They line up. If a heroic PC wants to do heroic things, but the player wants treasure to level up... you get a disconnect and the game is worse for it as you struggle to justify doing what the system incentivizes. (you could remove xp-for-treasure but that probably leads to either XP-for-killing shit, and so games that are nothing but constant slaughter, or XP-for-merely-showing-up, which is unbelievably shitty and pointless).

So, then. The problem of evil.
I, as a person in the real world, think that murdering people is wrong. Sometimes it's arguably necessary for a greater good, but killing a person is still a bad thing. I am, for most definitions, a fairly enthusiastic pacifist in the real world.
I find the idea of whole races of people (orcs, goblins, dark elves etc) being presented as 'evil and so you should kill them' bothers me. It's easy to make this about racism, but to me it's less that and more about the normalization of killing.
Violence in games (and wider media) is a topic I have strong complex feelings about. I don't think that it makes you kill people IRL or anything. But, I look at a video-game protagonist gunning down hordes of enemies, and I find it hard to support that character; they're committing mass slaughter. I don't like it.
Making broad catagories of goons that it's OK to kill doesn't really help that. Orcs, stormtroopers (guess whether I mean the german ones or the ones from starwars), and so on are still people, even if the media in question tries to dehumanize them so that killing them feels less murdery.
It's not even the violence itself (I like playing villains: my PCs at the moment include a tzimisce koldun who commits casual attrocities to keep people too frightened of her to cause problems, and a weird death-cultist necromancer who firmly believes that most problems can be solved by killing people until the reincarnate into a more compliant personality. Note that both of these people are, by their own moralities, behaving morally, they're just a bit fucked up. And, you know, see my comments above about D&D PCs being amoral thugs). But when a work expects me to treat constant unrelenting murder as laudable, I just lose my ability to treat the protagonist as the good guy. 

This seeps into how I run my games. I don't like presenting scenarios where the correct course of action is to run around killing people. (you'll notice how in Wolfpacks & Winter Snow, I set it up so you get XP for hunting and killing animals, but never for killing humans/people). So, monsters tend to manifest themselves in a few forms. Mindless zombies, dangerously territorial or predatory animals, and so on... fighting them isn't an issue. They're not people. (if you want to be an angry vegan at me about this... fuck off. You're welcome to lump wolves in with orcs and treat them like I treat orcs down below).

Orcs and so on are treated as 'just people'. They're dangerous, sure. They're your enemies, sure. Their culture might be cruel or fanatical or aggressive, sure. But they are, fundamentally, people. They bleed and scream when you stab them. They have families and friends. They want to avoid dying.
In my games, you can totally negotiate with orcs. It's hard, sure. Orcs are dickheads. But you can do it. Hell, it's probably smart to negotiate with them rather than fighting; they tend to be just as smart as you are, and fighting smart enemies means that I the GM will fuck you up with every dirty tactic they might be capable of. Traps, hostages, ambushes, formation-fighting, psychological warfare... And then they'll flee or surrender if obviously beaten. They'll hold grudges. Their buddies will want to avenge them.
Violence against people gets messy, because they're people.
However, they aren't intrinsically evil, any more than the Romans invading Gaul were intrinsically evil to the gauls. They're just your enemies. They're just dickheads.
Those orc babies in KotB? They're great. They drive this point home.
LotFP's referee book, now I remember, explicitely says that you might as well just use humans instead of humanoid monsters. I like that, too. 

The other catagory is supernatural, alien stuff. Demons? Well, they're just too weird and fucked up. You can't reason with a demon, it wants you to suffer in the same way you want to keep breathing. They're just evil. They're wrong. They shouldn't exist. Kill them, burn them, purge them with fire.
But they're also not people, not properly. A demon can't reason like a person; it wants to cause suffering and that's all it ever will - indeed ever can - want. It's a fragment of a personality, single-minded and almost robotic (though potentially very intelligent). It exists to cause suffering.
This doesn't only apply to demons. A fire elemental only wants to burn things. That includes you, or your house, or your family. It can't really be reasoned with, it's a force of nature, not a person. Or, in Ynn, the Idea of Thorns. It's a virus that just wants to infect more and more minds. It's not a real person. Alien, dangerous. Not really sentient.
Fighting these things is like fighting a forest fire or a plague.

Interlude while I talk about Absolute Evil.

I hate - fucking hate with a deep-seated loathing - fiction which is about a battle to defeat an absolute evil. And it's so rooted in pop culture these days. Indeed, in culture in general these days. The sith are just evil and you need to defeat them. So are the combine in halo, Chaos in 40k, so are whatever the avengers are fighting today. Ultimate evil means you can do - must do - whatever it takes to defeat it. If you need to compromise your principles (batman hacking everybody's phones to find the joker or whoever), do it. If there's colateral damage where you Fight The Evil, well... you had to to fight the evil. If you need to sacrifice some buildings or some principles or some civilian lives to win, that's justified and it will always be justified because absolute evil provides absolute justification.
Here's what a city looks like after the avengers save it (new york, I think?):
Here's what winning ww2 looked like. (Hiroshima, iirc)
Ruined buildings, dead civilians. Horrific damage. But it was justified, right? They had to do it to stop the axis powers. That makes it OK, right? They were Evil. Right?

But that's where we are as a culture, still. Our enemies aren't merely our enemies, who want things we don't. They're the Evil Other.
Us vs them, good vs evil. Don't negotiate with terrorists. Punch nazis. SJWs and/or the alt-right are ruining pop-culture so we dox the shit out of them. If you don't like what's on TV its Fake News, but it's OK to distort things as much as you need in order to win the propaganda wars. It's justified because they're the baddies and we have to win.
Fuck it.
Fuck everything about it.
Pop-culture reflects and influences how we see the world as a society. Right now, we seem to love apocalyptic struggles of good vs evil. And, right now, if you're online, like... ever... you will see the Internet Culture Wars raging. Brexit and trump and all of that. Our politics seem to have no room for compromise or cooperation, just a constant struggle to pull control to your side, and if you must sacrifice ethics to do it, you sacrifice ethics. I'm pretty left wing, but the state of left-wing discourse online is so virulently hostile, poisonous and thought-policey that I'm sick of it. And then the other side is... baffling to me in how openly horrible they are.

Ahem. Games about orcs and treasure. Let's make this relevant to tabletop gaming.
(can you tell I've not slept in 18 hours?)

I love vampire the masquerade because it makes it clear that there is no good side. The camarilla are hypocrites and ruthlessly authoritarian, the sabbat claim to be saving the world but spend a hell of a lot of time doing masacres and not much tracking down antediluvians, the indie clans are mostly serving ancient blood-gods who have no good intentions, and the anarchs are short sighted idiots who will ruin everything for everybody. Nobody is in the right, everything is messy. Talk and maneuver because you can't afford to go in guns blazing.

A big strength of oldschool games, to me, is their amorality and the freedom that grants for characterization and decision making. Trying to add mechanical, world-imposed morality to the game weakens that. Trying to present enemies as intrinsically evil weakens that.
Enemies that are just there to fight and be die and give XP are boring, and they're thematically shallow. 'It's a monster, I guess we fight it' will never be as engaging an experience as 'OK, what's up with these guys? should we fight them?'.
In an OSR game I'm able to just explore cool dungeons and get treasure. Why fuck that up?

And, most importantly, fuck the fucking marvel films.


  1. About priests - considering that pc priests I mostly meet either rp very vestigial piety/code or select a god from a spreadsheet of gods who will allow them to be just a unscrupulous as any PC, I mostly already with your view.

    Outsiders (demons, angels, elementals) in most of my games have no freedom of will to be anything else, being literally made from the parts of cosmos that represent the morality (and even they can break out of this state on occasion).

    PF path Wrath of Righteous is, probably antithesis to your position. Here the band of designated heroes save the world from demons (who all have understandable human personalities and motivations, and even attachments, but are Evil and designated non-people nevertheless). PC can only negotiate where they are clearly allowed to negotiate and the book doesn't even forsee any other resolutions than death by violence when PCs, say, save mind-controlled neutral party or war prisoners or anything.

  2. path of the righteous... why? good god, why? I guess I couldn't expect better from pathfinder.

    And yeah, I agree with you on the Outsiders point. An angel isn't good /per se/ in my view, it's an embodied conceptual entity about ideas that humans find benevolent.

  3. There are better paths in PF,
    I just think it is a good example of much that is opposite to your point. This particular path wants for players to feel legendary, but aside of the 'cutscenes' a lot of what PCs do is the same loop as everywhere. There is mass combat 'minigame', but it is used only in one chapter and then dropped (and given the small amount of it, only one player would probably ever get involved). Even the worldwound ritual research is relegated to others.

    On the other hand, it has a great and good variety of npcs - half-orc paladin, a repentant demon. In a way it humanizes greatly all 'evil' species but then tells not to care.

  4. Of course you have to kill them. It’s not like you can sign a peace treaty with Orcland and build a McDonalds on Orc Main Street.

    You don’t want your kids to have to kill them when they’re all grownups.

    1. you know it's odd you say that, since the larp I crew for has me play the orc ambassador from orcland. We're negotiating another peace treaty with the PC's nation next event.

      Depicting orcs as things you can't negotiate with is a choice, and not one I particularly find compelling. Likewise, the idea of having whole species you just have to kill isn't one I find particularly interesting. Certainly, in the short term, the can be your enemies... but they're enemies in the same way that (say) the scots and the english were enemies, not in the same way that humans and the smallpox virus are enemies.

  5. I do agree that D&D Alignment is stupid, but I think that's because of the 3x3 boxes and how the game works against such things. I think such an alignment system might work in a Superhero story or one based on a clear moral code, such as Pendragon, but not in D&D. But the AD&D law vs chaos with the neutrals running for cover is fine, as well.

    Also, have you read any of Joseph Manola's stuff at Against the Wicked City [link][/link]? He talks a lot about this is his posts on Romantic Fantasy.

    1. As you might have been able to tell by the end of the blog, I'm not a big fan of supers. I think Pendragon handles it well because it lays out clearly /what/ the moral code you're meant to follow is, and basis it on the standards of the time rather than a vague 21st century 'be nice I guess'?
      One of the things I love about vamp is how the vampires most commonly used as antagonists tend to be operating by a different set of moral codes to your PCs. To the average camarilla PC (who is probably still clinging to humanity), the sabbat are monstrous. But to your average Tzimisce following the path of metamorphosis, pursuing ones self-evolution at the cost of mere mortals /is/ good, tautologically so. To the tzimisce, the camarilla clinging to humanity are just as sick and twisted as your flesh-crafting tzimisce fiend is to the camarilla.

      I definately need to read the udan-adan articles linked, it looks very interesting.

    2. Emmy - I actually finished off my series of posts on romantic fantasy by rewriting Keep on the Borderlands as a socially-oriented talk-em-up. You can see it here:

      I share your concern about the narratives of heroic and redemptive violence which are so common in popular media, and I try to push back against them whenever I can. Like you, I prefer OSR D&D to new-school D&D precisely because of its reduced emphasis on problem-solving through mass-murder, although I don't share your conclusion that OSR PCs should be or need to be particularly amoral. At the same time, though, I recognise that a lot of games - computer games, board games, and RPGs alike - don't really treat combat as *violence* any more than, say, chess does. Most Pathfinder adventures, for example, are pretty open about the fact that the forced combats are just there to make up the required XP quota while providing hopefully-interesting tactical challenges. If the players and GM are on-board with that, no-one is likely to take the resulting number-shuffling exercises as the basis of serious reflections on the morality of violence...

    3. OK that is super cool. I really like your way of treating oldschool stuff as social-based.

  6. Indeed, Clerics and absolute morality fuck up games. I wouldn't say that the absence of more strict alignments in OSR games facilitates moral ambiguity. It kind of encourages/goes alongside just straight up psychopathy. But at least that way the party is more likely to agree on the psychopathic action, not have a fight against the one fucker who's playing the cleric or paladin.

    1. Paladin-wrangling is an innate problem with a system which defines alignments like it does and then lets PCs be whatever alignment they want, often totally incompatible ones. There's a reason Dark Heresy doesn't let you play a tech-priest, a plague marine and an eldar warlock in the same party.

  7. It never seems like a proper dilemma when negotiation was never on the table. So here's my question, when you encounter something absolutely alien (the aformentioned demon/fire elemental), how do you make it interesting for your players?

    1. The interest comes from two things:
      Firstly; learning about and coming to understand the weird alien thing is fun. It keys into my ideas about D&D as a game about discovery.
      Secondly, a fire elemental's personality (say) is an incomplete sliver of a proper person. If you know that it likes to burn things, you can manipulate and predict it based on what's burnable nearby.

  8. "Here's what a city looks like after the avengers save it (new york, I think?)"

    With all due respect, what would New York/Rest of World look like if Loki & the Chitauri invasion had not been stopped?

    Never forget Orwell's quote about how you sleep in peace at night.

    1. See, the avengers aren't real, and neither are loki and the chitauri. At the end of the day, they are and do whatever the writers decide, and I'm looking at these things from an out-of-world perspective; as a GM rather than a player, if you will.
      A decision was made to present conflict in terms of an overwhelming evil that must be stopped at all costs, where due to the nature of the threat (as you say, what /would/ new york have looked like? Pretty apocalyptic, no doubt) any means necessary is justified in stopping them. I'm not saying that spiderman should have sat back and let the world be conquered. Clearly, that's not the plot we're being given.

      We see no superhero films about, say, superheroes working to save lives following a natural disaster. (actually, I think there's a scene on an oil-rig in a recent superman film). I think there's a lot of potential there; you get to see the exciting destruction and heroes being heroic with their cool powers, and there's just as much threat from an errupting volcano as when Brainiac makes the volcano errupt.

      However. The stories we are telling are consistently ones where the writers have chosen to make the threat a Bad Person Who Must Be Stopped At All Costs. Stories where collateral damage is justified, and where problems must be solved by violence. And this is reflective of the political state of the real world where, you know... shit's a horrible partisan mess.

    2. Or as another example, the zillions of super-genius characters in cape comics never seem to apply their knowledge or their tech to any real problems. They'd much rather punch a dude.

    3. That's actually what makes Spiderman a really cool character, depending on who is writing him and how Hollywood they're shifting the story. His foes are often not evil (though he's usually presented as being in the right, though sometimes his ignorance/overconfidence results in him doing something horrible.) He skips out on fights to try to rescue people from burning buildings, but that's really hard and he can't always do it.

  9. Some completely random thoughts/responses:
    • D&D alignment is weird because it takes humans as the central measure of good & evil (like Mind Flayers are evil because *their reproductive cycles requires them to eat sentient creatures brains* and if they don’t do this their abandoned breeding pools make purple worms with psionic powers which is a good angle never taken in D&D that I know of: some famous party of noblebright dicks slaughtered a Mind Flayer outpost but didn’t think to destroy their birthing pool & they’re trying to avoid responsibility for their actions... sorry that got long winded)
    • I’ve always thought of clerics as being like young men from the lower classes in any theocracy: they’re sent out to wage holy terror against others so that the religious order, hierarchy and viewpoint is not challenged because young men who might found a schism are busy dying somewhere. Also it would account for Clerics being somewhat capable fighters and devoted to weird shit about their religion.
    • also collateral damage is undersold in D&D and Marvel Films (because it would be complicated for bystanders to be killed so that heroes can beat the current threat and implies that heroes are unheroic? I guess?).
    • re: VtM, I think it’s weird how the Sabbat is *right* the third genration is coming back to eat their young & the Camarella is basically wrong about everything but the Sabbat are slowly made more and more monstrous (and then the Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand & etc.) until they’re default villains like Clan Giovanni [i only play Sabbat so I’m biased].

    Anyway: this is great

    1. I think just about everybody can agree that D&D alignment is thoroughly inconsistent.
      I always pictured clerics as basically being warhammer Chaos Champions: do enough cool shit in your gods name, and that attracts a sort of dim attention from your god, who grants you strange gifts. It's less a priest from an established church and more a sort of 'maybe you're the Chosen One - earn it' type of deal.
      Our pop culture wants us to be able to enjoy consequence- and guilt- free violence. It's a bit daft.
      The sabbat are, to my mind, the more moral faction in VtM: hell, the black hand have rules about minimizing mortal casualties iirc. Then again I mostly play OCT so maybe I'm just weird.

    2. My “default” for a VtM character is a Tzimisce aspiring Pack Priest following Path of Bones or Path of Death of the Soul (occasionally I do something else and follow Lilith’s path). But yeah the Sabbat unlike the Camarella *recognize* that they are no longer human and attempt to reconcile with it while the Camarella keeps the worst human instincts in their extremely authoritarian cult and tries to emulate being a person when not being a person?

    3. "VtM: hell, the black hand have rules about minimizing mortal casualties iirc."

      'Citation Needed' No Sabbat player I ever ran into followed that rule.

      My High Humanity, Cardiologist Tremere made it his unlife's work to prevent Sabbat from turning Cam territory into Pentex & Black Spiral Dancer hell holes.

      The Sabbat were unrestrained animals. I prefered the Cam's lighter greys...

  10. the really great thing about THEM is you can enslave THEM and get THEM picking cotton for you...