Monday, November 16, 2015


I saw this article by Clem Bastow in my feed today, which examines the ethics of violence in roleplaying games. It is an interesting read and features commentary from Ethan Gilsdorf, a writer I have a lot of respect for. Some of the points raised I agree with, some I disagree. I won't tell my readers what they should think of the article. Read it for yourself and decide. It is definitely worth reading, whether you agree with the views expressed or not. It certainly got me thinking about the subject. Here are some of my thoughts. 
The person playing Jesus in
this campaign kicked puppies for fun.
The guy playing Satan
volunteered at the local soup kitchen.

I've run mafia campaigns, evil party adventures and am presently handling a group of players who are trying to overturn heaven by aligning themselves with the Demon Emperor. These are not how most of my campaigns play out but as a GM I am pretty open to darker PCs. I've always liked monsters and villains, and these are characters I enjoy seeing pop up from time to time. So my perspective not he issue may be different from many others. 

A key question the Bastow article asks: "is D&D violence more sinister [than other media] because we are the ones manifesting it?". I think there is a genuine concern out there that if you play a truly evil character, this will somehow carry over into your regular life, or that it is a reflection of something really dark inside that person. People have expressed similar concerns about horror movies and video games. In the 80s parents groups and religious organizations had such concerns about D&D. Now I find a lot of gamers asking the question themselves. 

In my experience running games with evil characters, this just isn't the case. I've actually seen quite the opposite, with the people who are the most adjusted and "normal" being the ones who are able to play fully evil characters. I've also never seen any bleed from what peoples characters do in the game (whether that be cold blooded murder or torture) into peoples' every day lives. If anything it seems to be a release valve the same way aggressive music is. We are playing characters because they are fun and compelling, not because we want to be them. 

Another question that is raised is the morality of killing nameless orcs and kobolds in D&D. While I think in the real every day world we absolutely have to be careful about demonizing people and groups (and that such demonization is often a precursor to horrendous acts) this is ultimately a fantasy. I can conceive of a game world where there are objective forces of law, chaos, good, evil and neutrality, where the creatures inhabiting that world are often in cosmic alignment with those forces, and not have that shape my world view in any way. Frankly I think if you are relying on your D&D game to inform your sense of right and wrong, you are looking in the wrong place for morality. 

When I first started playing D&D, I had a lot of trouble understanding how the god of the bible wasn't in the GM's setting. I had been raised very religious and this was something I just had difficulty imagining. I kept pestering the GM with questions about where God was? He would just say "he doesn't exist in this setting, there is a pantheon of gods instead." I didn't understand this and had trouble accepting it because I couldn't separate my own beliefs from the beliefs found in the game. I needed them to align. As I got older, I began to understand this is more like a thought exercise. You can have a setting that doesn't have gravity for example or doesn't have the color blue. You can also have a setting that has different moral assumptions built into the universe itself. They don't have to align with the morality we carry with us in our daily lives. Fort his reason, I think it is okay to have a world where orcs are evil and humans are good, so long as you are not using orcs to stand in for a real world group of people or something. I will say, I personally find that a more boring approach to play (just my personal taste). But I don't think there is anything wrong with it. 

The article raises the issue of GM responsibility in terms of policing player behavior or ensuring there is some kind of cosmic justice. Here I think the GM's only responsibility is to the welfare of the players themselves and to the integrity of the setting. If player characters kill without mercy, the consequences that stem from that, shouldn't be so I can teach the players a lesson about how to conduct themselves in the real world (they are adults and I am not their teacher or psychologist). The consequences should just be whatever the natural consequences of the action would be (they could be beneficial or harmful to the characters depending on the circumstance). 

My view here is we are all mature adults, and we can all hold these things at arms length. Just like if we were to sit down together and watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the Sopranos, my friends don't need me to lecture them on the inappropriate use of chainsaws and firearms. They already know not to saw people in half or shoot them in the back of the head (and if they don't, I doubt a speech from me is going to change much). It is the same in gaming. The players come to the table equipped with their beliefs about right and wrong. It isn't my job as the GM to alter that or shape it (and any disagreements about morality among people at the table should be handled in the real world, not passive aggressively handled in the campaign). It is certainly interesting to see moral dilemmas the characters face unfold, but I wouldn't mistake that for any kind of personal development on our part. At the end of the day this is just a game, it is a fantasy and entertainment. 

However, I do think there is an ethics of evil in gaming that is important to address. This isn't a question of what your player character does to NPCs or PCs (in many games player characters slaughtering the innocent or killing their fellow party members is perfectly fine). It is a matter of what how your character's actions affect other players at the table. Basically, is everyone on board with you playing your character at "maximum evil" or is there an expectation that you will tone it down a notch. There is an unspoken divide between players who fully commit to being an evil character and the more typical approach which is to play a sanitized version of evil. I think this is where the ethics of evil in gaming becomes more important because instead of fretting over the fake death of imaginary orcs, this is about the impact you are having on your friends at the table. When there is clearly an expectation that you should "tone it down a notch", then the right thing to do is tone it down. But if everyone is onboard for random carnage, go ahead an crank it up. 

In short, be as evil as you want in your games. Just don't be a jerk about it. I've run enough mafia campaigns where player characters are trying to kill each other to know that can be a great deal of fun and present interesting challenges for a group of players who want that kind of game. But it would be a horrible choice for a group that wants harmony in the party and with players who don't want to worry about their character being killed by a fellow PC in the middle of the night. 

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