Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dungeons and Dragons: Role-Playing Games and Morality

There is a strange intersection between morality and role-playing games. This intersection takes several forms. The first is the one that comes to mind when people find out I play Dungeons and Dragons, which is the notion that playing the game itself is somehow immoral or evil or leads to immoral, occult things. This, of course, is nonsense based on ignorance and lies, and I've talked about it a few times before. The second is the actual morality within the framework of the game. The battle of good versus evil, and pretending to fight it. That is primarily what this post is about.

The morality of actions taken in the game can be played on several levels. There is the visceral enjoyment one can get from pretending to be someone else, assuming a character whose actions and personal morality differs from our own. At its most shallow would be the enjoyment of, say, blowing things up just for the fun of it. This really is something more likely seen in a video game than in a role-playing game. Some video games only consist of blowing things up. Others add some layers of complexity on top of that, but are still just vehicles for virtual destruction. But that tends to be more of a mindless, almost zen-relaxation sort of game playing, and really is not the core appeal of a role-playing game, which allows much more freedom of choice and many more possibilities than even the most sophisticated computer game. Anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto knows this sort of fun - stealing cars, blowing things up, speeding, running from the police. There is also a deeper RPG game even with GTA, but you can take a break from that and just spread some mayhem. I've done that with that game, I admit. It was just blowing off steam in a safe manner. That really is also more of a solo activity. I'd repeat getting caught by police over and over after a "rampage," just to see how much mayhem I could do. But that doesn't stay interesting for very long.

Dungeons and Dragons has the "hack and slash" style of play, where players just kill monsters and loot to get more stuff, but even that has some level of role-playing and character development. At the very least, there is the social interaction between the players as they go about the business of the game, and that can make for some entertaining situations all by itself.

But what I'm really interested in exploring is the deeper aspects of morality in play, where there are moral dilemnas beyond just the basic "killing evil monsters." Such things can get quite complicated in a game. Some players just go deep into the role-playing aspect of such things and there is almost no killing of monsters at all. I must admit I have never played such a deep game, but at times every game can have deep moral issues arise.

The game by default, in the various adventure modules, tends to assume players are good and motivated by doing good (with a suitable monetary reward where needed). But there is nothing in the game that absolutely requires players to be "good". Which brings me to the alignment system from D&D.

In Dungeons and Dragons, there is an alignment system with two axises. One goes from Chaotic to Neutral to Lawful, the other from Evil to Neutral to Good. Combining the two, you can go from the vilest Chaotic Evil to the most angelic Lawful Good. Right in the middle is True Neutral, where you are in the middle of both.

This alignment system was present starting with the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and continued right up through 3.5E. They simplified it somewhat for 4E, but I'm going to stay with it for purposes of my discussion here.

And while the alignment system stayed the same for 2E, due to concerns of the ignorant (and somewhat hysterical), the owners of D&D made some changes to the monsters of the game to placate the nutty complaints that gaming was "evil." They way they did this was they took out Demons and Devils from the game. I should back up. In 1E, they had all sorts of mythical Demons and Devils in the Monster Manual. Some were from real mythology, some were made up for D&D's own mythology. They were all evil, with Demons being Chaotic Evil, and Devils Lawful Evil. They were also at war with each other. Primarily, though, Demons and Devils were meant to be mean nasty things for players to kill. In other words, they were the bad guys. They were not in the game for worship, contrary to what the wackos thought. The mere thought of such a thing was absurd to a player as it would be for someone playing monopoly to worship the thimble or the plastic houses.

With Second Edition, they took them all out, or rather, they converted them all to something like T'Nari and some other name that escapes me now. The names of the creatures themselves were the same. So a Pit Fiend was still a Pit Fiend, but instead of being a Demon, it was now a T'Nari or some such nonsense. It was so totally ridiculous, and gamers rightly mocked TSR (which then owned D&D) for it. Thankfully, when Wizards of the Coast bought the game and put out Third Edition, this was restored back to Demons and Devils. Maybe this was just because Wizards was a company owned by gamers, but I think it also reflected a maturing of the population of players. D&D was a bit more mainstream and the people who played as kids were now adults, making a living in the real world, and also, were voters. Maybe that also was part of the equation in going back. I don't know, but I am sure it helped.

As I stated earlier, there is no requirement in the game that you play "good." The game was designed around "good" heroes, or at least, adventures tended to be, but the reward aspect ("loot!") could also be a motivator for neutral or even evil parties of players. (A "party" is the term used to describe the group of characters that "run" together). But there can be problems with "evil" players.

Over the years, I've played with many different people - some long term, some just for a few games. Usually players played neutral or good characters, but occasionally, they played evil ones. Sometimes this led to some nasty results in game, with player against player, and generally was not very fun. Ultimately, the general consensus is that no matter what sort of character you play, you have to play in harmony with the rest of the players. This means an internal cohesion, even if the party itself is nominally "evil." I should explain something else now - what counts as "evil" in D&D's alignment system includes some situations that just don't come up in reality.

For example, certain magic or spells are considered "evil" no matter what you use them for. Like "animate dead", which turns corposes into mindless skeletons and zombies that do your bidding. This is always considered evil, even if you only do it to, say, make workers to help a farmer till his field or defend a good village against an evil invading army. That is just an artifact of the game system. Of course, the game is quite flexibile, so one could play it less rigidly and say that animating corpses is only good or evil based on intent, but by the rules, it is always evil.

Which brings me to the "evil" group of characters that is one of the campaigns I occasionally play in. That game is mostly played for laughs - or as we put it, we are an "evil" party that does good. We have lots of animated corposes (and other undead things) as "followers" and we do all of the "good" sorts of things "good" adventurers do, but we do it with methods most would consider "evil" within the framework of the game. That strange sort of contrast between methods and results is what causes the humor in it for us, particularly since we play it as the characters seeing themselves as do-gooders. Or, as we like to say, everyone thinks of themself as "Lawful Good" even when they are really "Chaotic Evil."

And that makes me think of, oh, Dick Cheney. Who seems to think he's doing "good" when he's really doing "evil." Or, to use D&D terms, when you torture, you are doing something that is "evil" - it doesn't matter what your ultimate reason for it is. Like "animate dead," the use of torture is always evil, no matter what it is you are trying to accomplish with it.

One last thought regards the truly nasty things one could do in a game, that of playing truly evil, depraved characters. Yes, playing Dick Cheney. Characters that torture and justify it as "good" - not some comical or fantasy evil like making zombies, but a true evil, like torture and lying to get power for its own sake, and all of the depraved things the Bush regime has done. And even things worse. Some people seem to think that such a thing is common, but as I noted above, really, it is not. Because most people, even in fantasy, simply aren't that depraved. Many players will refuse to play with even a single player who acts even slightly "evil." And no one wants to play with someone who stabs other players in the back. I've never known anyone to play in such a manner - truly depraved evil. Because even though it is an escape, I think just not being a sociopath would prevent a person from really wanting to do that, even in something that is just a game. We fantasize about being heroes, not villains.

I have often wondered if a truly evil party in a "good" game world would be an interesting thing to play - not the cartoon comic sort of "evil" that I referred to above that I have played, but a true evil. I wonder what it would be like and if it would really be something anyone would even want to do. I see that it may be an interesting intellectual challenge, sort of like pretending to be in the mob. But maybe I would not enjoy it at all. I don't know. For now, I'm content to play the hero. Even the "evil" group is really a group of heroes - we do good, save the village, or whatever. We just use means that the game considers "evil," as opposed to the depraved evil of, say, Dick Cheney.

Maybe one valuable thing that gaming provides is a safe arena to explore various aspects of morality that one could not do in real life. Or, as a guest star on the X-Files said once, "I didn't play Dungeons & Dragons for years, and not learn something about courage."


Strykkre said...

Tanar'ri and Baatezu . . . .

DBB said...

Yeah, that sounds right. I was going to look it up, then figured, why bother, since the names weren't the point. But thanks...