Saturday, 18 October 2008

We're so evil!

There's a big fuss being kicked up about Geoffrey McKinney's new homebrew campaign setting for OD&D, the grandiosely titled 'Supplement V: Carcosa'. It has generated a lot of understandable outrage about its depictions of demon-summoning rituals (most of which seem to involve a level of sexual violence against children which would put Gary Glitter to shame), and a predictably vehement defense from some quarters to the effect that the violence is fictionalised, we should respect free speech, villains in the source literature do similar things, etc. etc.

This post isn't about that issue, directly. All my points have been made already, more eloquently, by other people, and you can and will make up your own minds. I should also say that I absolutely support the production of new 'old school' products and I'm glad the author has made the effort to put his creativity out in the public domain. I also think he's a very brave individual for risking the obvious backlash his publication would invite. However, I think that 'Supplement V' brings up some other worrying issues for the little niche of the RPG world we call 'old school gaming'.

My biggest concerns about 'Supplement V', rather than the infantile - and I use that word advisedly - reveling in blood and gore, are these. First, there is the near unforgivable hubris of its title, deliberately setting the supplement up as some sort of spiritual successor to the OD&D supplements. I find this distasteful. It's grandiloquent. It's putting oneself up on a pedestal. Frankly, it lacks class. More seriously, it panders to the notion that people who play older versions of D&D have to continually walk in the shadow of its creators. Again I'm forced to ask the question that I have before in this blog, numerous times: what's wrong with doing something new? Why does this have to be 'Supplement V', unable to stand on its own two feet as something novel?

Second, the continued use of paranoid shibboleths like "
Supplement V: CARCOSA is a book of rules options for the original fantasy role-playing game published in 1974" really gets my goat. It's a completely unnecessary rhetorical genuflection designed to avoid being sued by Wizards of the Coast for using the words 'Dungeons & Dragons' - something which has a likelihood of precisely nil. Wizards of the Coast do not own the words 'Dungeon', 'and', or 'Dragon'. They own trademarks of certain logos and sets of lettering which happen to have those words in them. The level of concern exhibited by some members of the 'old school' in this regard is completely misplaced.

Third, I have a broader anxiety about 'amoral' games, and I've noticed a tendency among various old school bloggers to over-egg that aspect of Original D&D to the point of absurdity. Yes, grave-robbing and theft of treasure in an amoral (or immoral) manner was a cornerstone of the game, and the fantasy genre, for many years. It's a trope, and happens to be a lot of fun. It's also a truism that D&D characters are almost never truly 'good' in any meaningful sense of the word, unless ones definition of 'good' includes unthinking slaughter. And the characters in the source literature which inspired/inspires D&D were never angels.

But there's a point at which behaving amorally in a game turns a corner into the vicarious acting out of urges - urges that are better left at the very bottom of the id. Murder, theft, and even matters like torture and rape (on the part of the villains) are not something that I would absolutely forbid from ever arising in my games. And the moral ambiguities associated with the
killing of 'evil' creatures are worthy of exploration. But there is nothing morally ambiguous about, for example, sexual abuse. I don't have any interest in exploring that as an outlet for the player-characters (villains are a different story), because it's an intrinsically negative, destructive and, dare I say soul destroying thing to do. Just as I gave up playing the original Grand Theft Auto because I realised it could have a numbing effect on my attitudes towards other people, so I don't wish to be involved in D&D play which involves something similar.


  1. All other issues aside, I think you're right to point out that, while the pulp fantasy antecedents of D&D did focus on the exploits of individuals whose actions were far being above moral reproach, they were nevertheless heroes, who lived by their own (often rough) moral codes and strove to do what they thought was right. Even characters like Elric or Kane, both of whom are far from being "white knights," aren't outright villains but conflicted men torn by the demands of their consciences, however ill-formed those consciences may be.

    I think this is an area that highlights that books are not games and while books may provide inspiration for games, there are enough differences that pointing books as a defense of including something in a game is probably inappropriate (or at least tendentious).

    I think I should make a post about this sometime soon, because it's a topic that needs to be addressed. Given how often I champion pulp fantasy as a template for D&D, I think I have a certain responsibility to set the record straight about a naive reading of the genre and its relationship to games.

  2. James: The difference between a book and a game is clearly (in my opinion) that one is passively engaged with and the other actively engaged with. A reader does not find himself tainted by fictional acts in the same way that he would if he role played them out. (Even if role playing them out involved simply saying 'I complete the ritual' or 'I murder the child' rather than detailed depiction.) The level of identification is completely different.

    I'm also old-fashioned enough to believe that, if we are pretending to be people who we are not, pretending to be a hero is far more edifying and worthwhile than pretending to be a villain. Even a conflicted, tarnished, ambivalent hero like those found in most great fantasy fiction. (Or perhaps, especially so.)

  3. /applause

    Thank you. I could not have said it better. The last section specifically is dead on.

  4. I'm also old-fashioned enough to believe that, if we are pretending to be people who we are not, pretending to be a hero is far more edifying and worthwhile than pretending to be a villain. Even a conflicted, tarnished, ambivalent hero like those found in most great fantasy fiction. (Or perhaps, especially so.)

    I'm a RPG grognard; being "old-fashioned" is a mark of pride for me :)

    But what you say is quite right and I think, somewhere along the line, some people lost the thread of why flawed heroes are so compelling, focusing more on the flaws and less on the hero. I don't see anything edifying or entertaining about full-bore "antiheroes," but give me a torn, conflicted hero and I think you've got the foundation for a great story.

  5. The difference between a book and a game is clearly (in my opinion) that one is passively engaged with and the other actively engaged with.

    Dude, you need to read harder.

  6. It's folks like you who give gaming a good name. I wish I'd written that. You've provided a valuable resource for those who constantly have to defend gaming against those who would lump us all into some Chick-tract-inspired stereotype.

    As always, good work.

  7. Jonathon: Thanks!

    James: I agree that antiheroes are often angst-ridden to the point of being boring. I think you've hit the nail on the head by pointing out the focus on flaws, rather than the hero.

    Jeff: Ha. Point taken! But you knew what I meant. ;)

    robo: Thank you very much! That's probably the nicest comment I've had on this blog.

  8. I admit I haven't read Carcosa, but you make some points that suggest to me it's not a product I'd care very much for.

  9. Rachel: I like the general idea, but the finer details stray over a line which I don't think should ever be strayed over.

  10. By 'general idea' I mean a fantasy setting with a heavier dose of Lovecraft than is usual.

  11. Oh, aye. That I have no problem with. The execution just sounds... unseemly, y'know?

  12. Is it assumed that the players will be portraying the child-raping sorcerers in Carcosa?

    Couldn't the supplement just as easily be used for a Conan-style game of Fighting Men (and maybe a Sorcerer who tries to hold back from the worst excesses) dealing a pointy-bladed comeuppance to the monsters who would summon the Amphibious Ones (with all the acts that implies)?

    Just curious. It does sound creepy as hell, and I can understand people's discomfort with it, but it seems that it wouldn't necessarily result in a distasteful play experience if the nastier stuff is used more to highlight the villains' villainy.

  13. Deadstop: As I understand it, players have the option of being the vilest of sorcerers. The author himself said that he's interested in the moral dilemmas that such a possibility throws up.

    As a way of making villains even more villainous, I'd be willing to write the child-abuse stuff off as just going a little too far for my own tastes. But in light of the author's own comments... I don't know, it's a shame, because aside from the obvious red flag, there seems a lot to admire in the supplement.