Friday, 11 May 2012

D&D: Enabling Amorality Since 1974

I played in Patrick's weekly LOTFP game on Wednesday. (There's an actual play here.) The highlight of the night was probably Patrick's off-the-cuff "Don't you die on me, man!" rule: if you are willing to shout "Don't you die on me, man!" at the top of your voice while stabilising somebody on negative hit points, you automatically succeed. It only works if you play in public, though.

But I digress. What I really wanted to talk about was amorality, and how D&D in particular (but role playing games in general) facilitate it. It really was remarkable how, literally within 10 minutes of joining the game, my character had conspired to loot a crypt, burgle a church, and murder an innocent old woman in cold blood for the crime of being a witness to our theft - and that such goings-on were treated as an almost mundane event within the context of the game (although the DM, to his credit, did disapprove of our awful behaviour regarding the old woman). That could almost be a motto for D&D, I think: the mundanity of amorality.

Let me make a few things clear before I proceed: first, I don't think this is a bad thing. Secondly, I'm well aware that D&D doesn't have to be played this way, often isn't, and perhaps shouldn't. And thirdly, I use the term "amorality" advisedly - what I am talking about is not so much evil or badness but merely the absence of ethical thought: a total deliberate abandonment of moral sentiments, almost nihilistic in its scope.

D&D enables amoral behaviour: that is my contention. It allows you to give voice and effect to actions and beliefs that you would never exercise in real life - in other words, to give free reign to your id without that pesky super-ego getting in the way. In this respect it is rather like Grand Theft Auto, or Grand Theft Auto is rather like D&D: it is a sandbox in which being bad has no real consequence, and your inner demons can come out and play.

There are, however, limits. There are behaviours and beliefs that are not even acceptable to air within the context of a game of D&D (probably rightly, in my opinion); there are lines that oughtn't to be crossed. And the laws of the jungle - a kind of quid pro quo altruism - intervenes too: players help each other in the hope and expectation the favour will be returned. So, despite the fact that my character partook in the murder of an old woman without a second thought, he was kind to the lantern-girl he hired to join the party in entering the dungeon, and assigned one of his dogs to protect her. When the idiotic fighter (complete with irritating 17-year-old player) ran off and fell down a pit trap, the rest of us helped him out because he'd sacrificed material gain in order to find us healing earlier that day. There are moral rules, of a kind.

This suggests that morality enters D&D alongside the "real world", when that intervenes. Player-characters tend to behave better towards one another than to NPCs, because what happens to them matters in the real world: they have players who are real people and who are really invested in them. And likewise, player-characters tend to behave well towards in-game children and animals, because cruelty to children and animals is so utterly unacceptable in our society that it cannot be seen as anything other than abhorrent and evil even in the context of make-believe. (Rightly, I might add.) This is also true "at the margins": rape and torture are likewise so unacceptable in our society that they can generally only be seen as evil in-game, again probably rightly.

Otherwise, all bets are usually off. As I said, I don't particularly see this as a bad thing: it is probably a sign of good mental health that you are able to let your id loose and reign it in at will. The capacity to switch off one's own capacity for moral thought is probably an indication that, otherwise, one's moral compass points in the right direction.

If this entry has been somewhat rambling, it is because it's been 3 weeks since I blogged, and my blogging muscles are atrophied. Bear with me: I'm like a footballer returning from a hamstring injury, or a Carlos Tevez-esque lay-off - I can't quite do the full 90 minutes yet, and need a 60th-minute substitution.

31 comments:

  1. Banality of evil is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in the title of her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her thesis is that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their game and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal. -- Wikipedia, transmogrified for "game" instead of "state"

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    1. Yes, I knew about the Banality of Evil. Nicely done.

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    2. This also reminds me of social criminal justification, in that criminal actions, when committed, are justified to the one who commits them - and the acceptance of peers lays a strong foundation to criminal behavior.

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  2. Interestingly, some of my colleagues who study and work with prisoners tell me that for all the horrific things these people have done, they build a sentimental morality about the protection of children. Child molesters or abusers are very much at risk in that environment. Perhaps the players here are descending to the level of Al Pacino's Scarface ("I told you, no f'in kids!")

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    1. That's a quite well known phenomenon, I think. It's also the case with sex offenders in general. I know the Yorkshire Ripper was attacked by other inmates so often that he had to be kept isolated.

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  3. Scarface, meet Sendak, and the "bullshit of innocence."

    I find a lazy sort of pirate's code of honour tends to dominate between "real" characters at the table, which is actually quite nicely discussed in the PotC films (which were made for gamers if they were made for anyone). I kinda wish we'd try to mix that up a bit, actually: draw a few lines in the sand that aren't some mixture of common assumptions and pragmatism. I know that's usually seen as "lawful" alignment, but I think it might be useful to specify a few common codes of conduct in the gameworld so people have some idea of what to expect from each other (and how it might be different baced on PC race or class or background).

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    1. Yes, that's what I meant by "quid pro quo altruism".

      Yoon-Suin has a caste system, and characters randomly determine their caste during character generation. But it's up to them how they deal with it in-game. I like leaving that open.

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    2. In that one online game we played, I found it surprising how the other players treated my character almost as the leader, despite his general uselessness, due to his randomly-determined social status. It was a clever and subtle way of bringing the world to life.

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  4. D&D enables amoral behaviour: that is my contention. It allows you to give voice and effect to actions and beliefs that you would never exercise in real life....

    Playing D&D doesn't "give effect to actions & beliefs", and giving "voice" to such is no more immoral in a game than when retelling a fairytale. Your sentence clearly says that portraying immorality is itself an immoral behaviour. Whether that is what you meant or not it is a sloppy, confused... even dangerous, misstatement.

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    1. I make dangerous misstatements right and left - it's all part of my bad boy image which the ladies find so attractive.

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  6. "rape and torture are likewise so unacceptable in our society that they can generally only be seen as evil in-game, again probably rightly."

    I somewhat disagree. Torture somehow always seem to come up in my campaigns, from the players side. They know it is evil, but they do it anyways, even when their character sheets says "lawful good". Sometimes it's the goblin captive who is the victim and the players wants info on it's lair, sometimes its the kindly shopkeeper and the players want to know where the safe is. And the combination to the lock.

    Then again, I ran a group where the party thief liked to snatch homeless orphans off the street and brainwash them to be his servants/slave/cannonfodder. Our moral compass is clearly a mite screwed up.

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    1. I was probably a bit unclear on this - torture and the like go on in my games too, but the players know it is evil. That's sort of what I meant. The amorality extends so far (theft, casual murder, etc.) but at some stage (torture) moral sentiments emerge: but that doesn't necessarily mean torture doesn't happen - it just means everybody at the table knows it's "wrong".

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    2. I mean, they know theft is "wrong" too in the abstract, but they don't behave as if it is when they are at the table.

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  7. I'm one of the players in the game that noisms is describing. It was my Lawful character that killed the innocent old woman, and I think that given the experiences of my character in-game (shipwrecked thief/specialist, an island where many things are just wrong) and his philosophy of what "Lawful" is (based on what I was told about Lawful in LotFP) that his actions were perfectly consistent and understandable.

    There are plenty of situations that might also be consistent with his character and "alignment" that would result in the old woman still being alive (and thus able to heal the lost eye that he suffered later in the session), but the decision that he took to kill her was out of a totally rational belief that that is what the universe wanted.

    Why else would she come out in the middle of the night to investigate a church that she suspected was being broken into? There are very few possibilities that the universe could have had for her.

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    1. This comment would have more weight were it not for the fact that your characters, irrespective of the game, tend to beat already unconscious men to death with knuckle-dusters, push prostitutes down lift shafts, accidentally-on-purpose gun down kids, and kill loyal comrades... ;)

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    2. 1). beat already unconscious men to death with knuckle-dusters - that was for the good of the party! We were already under suspicion from the police and probable mafia-types.

      2). push prostitutes down lift shafts - remember that was only mooted, as a means to removing ourselves from the scene of her murder...

      3). accidentally-on-purpose gun down kids - Point A, it was accidental; Point B, it was one time. And my character suffered for that, and rightly so. And he was Lawful too, with all of his actions being for the good of the party and the NPCs in his community (unlike someone's corrupt, self-interested, power-mad cult leader...) (I really miss Apocalypse World).

      4). kill loyal comrades - OK, you've got me there.

      I prefer to think of role-playing games as allowing me to let my inner anti-hero out for a run.

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  8. Totally agree and I think newer DMs need to be prepared with laws and consequences or this kind of player sociopathic behaviour can wreck a campaign just as badly as Monty Haulism.

    Or maybe another way to look at it, the town watch is like the walls of the dungeon, without them there isn't much challenge. Or, only as a matter of logistics: "How much oil do we need to burn down this town?"

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    1. To be fair, mature players should be able to reign themselves in. I regret the "old woman incident" because it threw a bit of a spanner in the works. But yes, there need to be consequences, and our DM did his best on that front, but we ultimately lucked out.

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    2. enforcing some kind of "moral consequences" actually creates an easy, gamey path for the players: the cruellest, most realistic and least handholding thing to do is simply to allow the PCs to burn down the town, and therefore to rule that they have destroyed everything of value there. After several repetitions the players will either realise they are denuding the world of value (unlikely) or conclude that the world is as valueless as they hold it to be.

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    3. And perhaps also quoting planet of the apes at them each time?

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  9. I tend to conceive of the adventuring party as basically a gang, and place it within an social ecology that is used to small groups of gangs forming for anti-social purposes. For example, in my Emern campaign, the PCs are openly referred to as "The Silverman's Gang" (one of the PCs had all of his skin burnt off by an exploding rocket and replaced with a silvery nanosuit). The Silverman's gang is rivals with the Vasser Gang, friendly with the Rumrunners, and enemies with Don Gilkano's cartel. While they do heroic things and have even been granted titles of nobility and knighthood, they are still seen as basically freebooters and treated appropriately.

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  10. My theory has been that the fun bit of the game has nothing to do with people as "loving individuals with families" etc, but still people appear all over the place. So if you want to put in long term consequences you can, but basically these people are just bystanders or part of the puzzles.

    And the more you move around in the sandbox anyway, the less the long term consequences will reach you, certainly not in personal specificity, because the GM probably can't be bothered. It'll turn into the tactical problem of a long term criminal.

    So people pop up, you do stuff with/to them, then you move on, and you probably won't have to circle back to sort them out or fix problems you've created, so you can just treat them in a super-simplified way, whatever they are supposed to represent ethically or otherwise. They can be people, but you can shut down the ethical elements whenever you like and scale back to puzzles.

    In our D&D games I've been happily playing a ruthless cleric of death/fate, because of the way it facilitates exactly this kind of sociopathic tactical thinking. It's a kind of mental division of labour (division of recreation?) between my games!

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    1. @Josh: you've just made me realise that Richard Stark's (Don Westlake's) Parker novels might be perfect dnd source material: some are heists, others are Fiasco material, but they all exude a kind of anti A-Team spirit.

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  11. I was going to write about this tonight, but have been pre-empted. So I'll just add - In the Icewind Dale D&D PC games you could find a book – How To Be An Adventurer – which contained a chapter titled, Face It, You’re Actually Neutral Evil.

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    1. I think probably the alignment breakdown of PCs goes something like 80% Neutral Evil, 10% Chaotic Neutral, and 10% annoyingly Lawful Good.

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  12. NPCs are fair game. PCs are made men. That's common sense.

    Right now I'm imagining a planet peopled with 50 quadrillion adorable children. It just blew up. Does anyone feel particularly outraged? Me neither.

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    1. Although Joe Pesci was a made man and look what happened to him.

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  13. My players are a bunch of amoral, incivilized puks, that is. I let them doing all manner of awfull things but, to keep them focused I play very hard with consecuences: If they do wrong, all people hates them, security forces chases them and awfull things happen to them all the time. They catch the rhyme: if you make the world an ugliest place, It'll be ugly for you too. And it works, kind of.

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    1. Yes, it's the best way to handle it.

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