Tuesday, 24 January 2023

I see that there is evil, and I know that there is good - it's the in-betweens I never understood...

You will perhaps have come across this PBS story about D&D, which circulated a month or so ago.

I am totally out of the loop, so I'm not sure if it received a lot of push-back (I suspect it did), but it's hard to discuss the substance of the article without getting dragged into culture war nonsense - and I think that's the last thing D&D really needs at the moment. What interested me about the piece, though, was this paragraph: 

Old School Renaissance, or OSR, is a gaming movement whose players claim they are “against outside politics permeating their game space,” said Dashiell. These players support the use of traditional fantasy tropes in game design, such as the existence of “good” and “evil” races with no nuance. OSR gamers are often seen as the old guard of tabletop gaming and tend to idealize the past, which “defaults to a white, masculine worldview,” Trammell said.

Leaving aside the fact that it is very sloppy journalism not to interview somebody who actually considers him- or herself to be part of the OSR alongside somebody critical of it so as to offer a variety of perspectives, I'm curious about the assertion that '[OSR] players support the use of traditional fantasy tropes in game design, such as the existence of 'good' and 'evil' races with no nuance'.

First, I am compelled to say that I don't think that claim is empirically true. Do any of the main OSR authors/adventures/campaign-settings reproduce the idea that there exist 'good and evil races with no nuance'? I honestly thought the whole point of OSR gaming was to return to an idea that the PCs are rather amoral Vancian rogues who are just out for what they can get, and in general to avoid the whole good/evil dynamic (which most of the genuine grognards would say was an imposition foisted on D&D during the days of 2nd edition). 

But setting that to one side, it's interesting that, reaching for a stick with which to beat OSR gamers over the head, it was the accusation of deploying 'traditional fantasy tropes' of good and evil races that Trammell ultimately chose. Partly, this is because the idea of the existence of inherently good and evil races, or even individual people, has simply become seen as cringeworthy throughout the culture: our popular fiction (in literature, TV and film) tends to lionise anti-heroes and celebrate villains who show redemptive qualities. We don't now tend to think of the universe as being animated by metaphysical 'goods' and 'evils', let alone Good and Evil - no doubt due to increased secularisation - and therefore smearing the OSR by associating it with such old-fashioned, retrograde nonsense is a very easy tactic to use.

But partly the problem is, I think, the uncanny-valley effect. Nobody I think really has an issue with evil beings that are very different to us, such as evil dragons, or evil demons, or evil intelligent giant insects. That isn't the source of the complaint. What people don't like is the idea that there are things - orcs, drow, and so on - which look sufficiently similar to human beings as to hint that there are comparisons and analogies to be drawn (almost always where none was intended), and which are described as being uniformly evil. Especially when the word used to describe what those things belong to is 'races'. I totally understand the squeamishness that results from that, especially once the step has been taken of making those 'races' playable as PCs, resulting in people wanting to identify with them. The very phrase 'evil race' frankly just sounds bad to the modern ear, even when it plainly isn't intended to be used in such a way as to refer to real world people. 

I had come to the conclusion a while ago that evil humanoids are probably unnecessary, partly because humans beings themselves can be evil enough to function as antagonists if you want a good vs evil campaign, and partly because I like the idea of monsters as singular, special, and significant - one-off entities who the PCs must struggle to vanquish, and who are imbued with a symbolic value as a consequence. I think Tolkien's work has been very unfairly traduced down the decades, but I do understand why there is a desire to get away from the good/evil dichotomy at least when it comes to humanoid 'races'. My own preference of course would be to ditch the orcs, goblins, drow and kobolds altogether and do something more creative - fat chance of that, though.

*

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]

37 comments:

  1. I think this take is almost completely backwards. It's true that the OSR is more anti-wotc, so if wotc changes something about D&D they will most quickly jump to complain about it (like wotc's loud announcement that orcs no longer "have to be evil").

    BUT if you read a lot of OSR modules and settings you see that it is more imaginative and the world is depicted as it really was in different historical civilizations, but in new school modules and settings the world is depicted like NYC in a CSI episode or marvel movie. In the Forgotten Realms of 5e, every population, government, and institution is "good", and yet they are being subverted by "evil" bad actors who have to be driven off or slain by the PCs.

    In an OSR campaign it would be completely normal to encounter people like those of the ancient Inca or Romans, who would commit what we would consider unspeakable atrocities, and yet these fictional people are all 100% human, and accept their cultural practices as 100% normal. But there is no inherent evil, it's just an illustration of the historical truth that different cultures behave in alien ways.

    A child who grows up in ancient Cuzco might become a priest who kills hundreds of innocent children, but if the very same kid grew up in the 21st century he would just be a product manager at Doordash. That's a world view with real shades of grey. Presenting every fantasy culture as having perfect 21st century ethics is its own form of hyper-myopic, ultra-black-and-white morality.

    If you try to understand the ethical philosophy of something like Yoon Suin, it's that people are products of their environment. This is 100% the opposite of the assumptions imbedded in modern wotc modules.

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    1. "Presenting every fantasy culture as having perfect 21st century ethics is its own form of hyper-myopic, ultra-black-and-white morality."

      It's also incredibly hubristic for the wokesters to think that our 21st century ethics are the culmination of all human advancement and that future generations won't see them as the same unenlightened barbarians they sneer at.

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    2. I agree with your comment, first anonymous person. That's how I always interpreted the prevailing view of morality in OSR as well.

      But I think that is orthogonal to the question of whether or not 'evil humanoid races' are a good concept. All I wished to say in this post was that I get the squeamishness about it.

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    3. Yes, I also prefer "pure evil" humanoids to be very rare, and more like mind flayer or demons than creatures with their own families, children, etc. It doesn't make me squeamish but it is a way of cheating yourself, as the player. You want to kill 100 people for fun, but not *actually* kill 100 people? Try killing orcs instead!

      But at the same time I don't think the act of killing imaginary people is particularly terrible, even if there is no real justification at all. I don't think think many people would be offended at the idea of a War of the Roses campaign or something similar where you are killing people simply because they serve a different duke or whatever.

      So the inclusion of evil orcs as a way to sanitize the game is pretty pointless, and it just makes the world awfully boring when there are 20 different types of orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, kobolds, bullywugs, ogres, gnolls, blah blah blah. I'm with you as far as the modern take on orcs goes. I just think it's rich that the OSR is being accused of being more morally black-and-white when it is the exact opposite.

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  2. Once upon a time, "D&D player" was the badman. Now D&D players are cool and have interesting pronouns, but there still needs to be a badman to inherit the Eddie Munson pariah role. That pariah energy doesn't dissipate; it's a by-product of human society and needs to earth itself.

    Enter the grognard. I mean, come on, you can tell the neckbeard's opinions are as OOP as their campaign settings, just by the way they dress.

    Joking aside, this is just another example of humanity's delightful tendency to scorn counter-cultural outsiders who can't be arsed to defend themselves.

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    1. "Counter-cultural outsiders who can't be arsed to defend themselves" 😂

      What's OOP? Out of print?

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    2. Yep, out of print. The true curse of the OSR.

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    3. In Tibet and Bhutan, the role of the social pariah is sometime filled by the 'poison giver', a person in the village who everyone ostracises and treats as a social pariah. Perhaps that concept should find its way into Yoon Suin!

      https://thewire.in/culture/bhutan-poison-givers-stigma-exclusion

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    4. Rene Girard eat your heart out.

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  3. Idk if you’re picked up on this trend, but almost every bleep and bloops which comes out of establishment media is antiwhite and antichristian.

    Therefore the author’s assertion doesn’t have to be true, it only has to attack the correct enemies to be published.

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  4. Hack journalists will commit hack journalism, always. Why trouble yourself about their views or motives? They're neither widely held nor particularly important.

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  5. While I agree with your sentiments, we can't ignore the fact that there is a very vocal reactionary Right element within the OSR. It's not surprising that a journalist would encounter those voices first (or be directed to them by people who dislike the OSR).

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    1. I think you hit the nail on the head with the part in brackets...

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    2. I think the fallacy is "there's a vocal Right element with X". Some subcultures have a larger "Right element" than others, but that's largely chance. Having a "Right element" shouldn't automatically imply anything about the parent entity.

      As other commenters have pointed out, if anything, the OSR's common adventure and setting themes routinely challenge the "baddies and goodies" narrative.

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    3. Ironically, my own observation is that the right wing element in the OSR is most likely to drag politics into the debate.

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  6. "There is good, and there is bad."
    --the hermit in 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein

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  7. "Old School Renaissance, or OSR, is a gaming movement whose players claim they are “against outside politics permeating their game space,” said Dashiell."

    And here I was, thinking the Old School Renaissance was a gaming movement whose players play old school games. So glad this Dashiell character was able to clear that up.

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  8. You get a lot of knee jerk doofuses in the OSR who seem really fixed on every last fluid ounce of old school bathwater instead of the actual baby, but from what I can recall of the OSR settings and adventures I've read the standard seems to be far far faaaaaaar more Sword & Sorcery (shit is fucked up, the powers that be are bad, creepy eldritch stuff is worse, let's go steal stuff) rather than anything remotely resembling a Tolkeinesque battle of good vs. evil races.

    In a lot of OSR stuff I've seen, philosophical questions about "are the orcs so different from us deep down?" or what not is often a moot point because the PCs aren't especially noble and they're hacking orcs to bits because they want to take their stuff, not because of ethical problems with orciness.

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    1. Yes, exactly. Although I have to say the OSR in my experience has tended to lean away from 'trad' evil humanoids like orcs to begin with.

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  9. The moral superiority of woke culture never ceases to amaze me! They will not stop until they force everyone to act and think as they want.

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  10. This looks a bit like forced academia to me. Here’s my elitist science dr take. In social and cultural studies there is a need to find socially and politically relevant material to secure funding. So an easy route is to pick a group and align them with a social problem. In the mid 2000s and earlier there were a lot of journalistic and weak academic associations of video games with gun violence. The underlying philosophy being that our entertainment preferences are an accurate determinant in our beliefs and behaviours. No one really pays attention to this now as everyone’s kids play fortnight. If everyone’s kids played Castle Xyntilan or some such modules I doubt such clearly idiotic statements would gain much traction.

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    1. Yes, this. With the video games = gun violence issue, there was also the vote-generating moral panic that some politicians leant into.

      A minority of conservative politicians today will rail against the likes of furries, but it never gets much traction. Probably because even redpills know, intuitively, that if furries really were a scourge on today's youth, the effect would be extremely obvious.

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    2. No doubt. It's no coincidence both of the people criticising the OSR in the article are junior-rung academics.

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  11. A few thoughts...

    1. The Anonymous poster who says WotC 5e has the moral universe of CSI or Marvel movies is SPOT ON. Gray-area cultural/historical morality is never depicted, Sword Coast society is invariably 'good' (in a modern-ish sense) and the heroes are defending it from A Few Villains. (What's weird and contradictory is, just the same, Paizo had a minor freakout in 2020 about a Pathfinder adventure where the heroes played city guard 'cops'... like, they've depicted a world which is fundamentally good and unlike our flawed reality but they *still* didn't want to depict the 'police' of this world as 'good'... of course Paizo /=/ WotC and maybe this particular controversy could only have happened in Summer 2020 for obvious reasons, but still.)

    2. The PBS article has some good lines and interesting bits but, as you say, the thing about the OSR is such an obvious hitpiece. (Even though it's true that there's a lot of visible right-wing personalities associated with the OSR... but regardless, it's bad-faith to depict this as the *genesis* of the community.)

    3. I personally think there's a lot of cool Symbolist and horror ways to use Innately Evil Humanoids because the idea is so fascinating and scary when you think about it. (And also because it's fairly inevitable that there will be Innately Evil Creatures when you depict a universe with Real Good and Real Evil, i.e. traditional D&D.) At the same time, I have to acknowledge that the way the evil humanoid trope *traditionally* is used in D&D is problematic, not due to the innate evil IMHO but due to the association with 'tribal' imagery... or other specific things like drow being dark-skinned. But I think it's possible to redeem the Evil Humanoids trope and use it in cool ways. Like in David Moody's "Hater" series, to use an example I always bring up.

    4. In closing... I think the idea that "oldschool D&D is survival horror" is a modern idea that wasn't how old D&D was actually played... and I think my idea that "innately evil humanoids are existential horror" also wasn't how old D&D was actually played... but I think it's a cool idea so I'm sticking with it regardless of Gygax's original intentions.

    This may all have gotten a bit confusing as I'm typing it quickly before I make breakfast, haha, but there it is.

    Jason Thompson

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    1. No, you're right, and I completely agree. The OSR really isn't a return to the past in the substantive sense - it actually revolutionised the subject matter of D&D. Its playstyle was conservative but in terms of the type of game that can be played, and the types of setting which can be produced, it was explosive and dynamic. This includes the 'survival horror'/fantasy-fucking-Vietnam concept.

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  12. It is important to abandon, when analyzing articles such as these and the people that support them, the notion that they are based on observation of reality or comparison against an objective moral standard. There is only an eternal, levelling hatred, sheathed in a thin camouflage of infinetely flexible ersatz morality, projected outwards against whatever target of convenience rears its head. The very notion of any morality provokes disgust and anguish.

    Even if it is clearly false, the supporter will say, 'but what if people will think it is true' and all but trip over his feet to do the bidding of the liar. Anyone who is not chomping at the bit to offer up the entirety of the past unto the sacrificial pyre will serve for a scapegoat. It is not whether you like traditional things, it is whether you like them more then whoever is writing the article.

    But the seperation is coming, at long last, and who can match our light of earnest joy, our gaming for gaming sake and the session reports that go off into the hundreds.

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    1. I don't entirely disagree but I think there is a fair amount of resentment animating both sides - some of it legitimate. Perhaps I need to write more about this.

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  13. Yeah. Um.

    In a fairy tale world there is room for fairy tale evil and that includes fairy tale evil goblins that steal babies or whatever. Doesn't mean you can't get rid of near-mindless cannibal humanoid hordes if that fits your campaign...just saying there's room if you want to keep the trope.

    Everything else in your post I pretty much agree with.

    Also this:

    Anonymous wrote:
    And here I was, thinking the Old School Renaissance was a gaming movement whose players play old school games. So glad this Dashiell character was able to clear that up.

    So much this quote. Jesus, people.

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    1. I do agree there's room for 'fairy tale evil' as you put it. All I meant was that I get why it's a sensitive topic,.

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  14. Am I the only person who genuinely does not give an f--k that the hobby has some "right" leaning types in it?

    As if the existence of people who might vote differently to me or hold unfashionable political ideas should cause me a quantum of concern in how I play elf games?

    I'm old enough to remember the entire media dismissing us as nerds and losers or satanic nerds and losers but thankfully that passed and they went back to forgetting us or ignoring our existence but now we're a mainstream hobby we need to purge the anyone who doesn't read the Guardian?

    Seriously? F--k that. Life's too short

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    1. No, I had the same observation, Liam. As someone even slightly right of centre it's bizarre to see them throw around 'the OSR is full of right-wing people' as some sort of obvious condemnatory judgment without appeal, as if they've fully dehumanized half of the population of their own country.

      Particularly absurd that they then turn around and also damn belief in innately evil races.

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  15. I wouldn't describe the PBS story as sloppy. Malign is a better description. I suspect the editors didn't really know or care much about the subject so the writer had a free hand. A casual reader could easily infer that Gygax was a racist in the normal sense of the word. You have to follow the links to make it clear that race meant human race & any biological determinism applied to fictional races. Lord know there's plenty to criticize Gygax for but I've never seen evidence he was a racist. Citing Aaron Trammell extensively is a bad sign as well. For those not familiar with the name, he's an academic who wrote a critique of Oriental Adventures that got many basic facts wrong as well as misapplying Said's Orientalism. On the whole, I think it was a deliberate hit job that slipped past editors who didn't really know the subject.

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    1. Why do you think it "slipped past" the editors? They probably commissioned it.

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    2. Interesting about Aaron Trammell. Sadly there is basically no consequence to academics being wrong about things. One of the many, many things wrong with modern academia.

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    3. I don't know that it "slipped past" the editors - the author is the editor-in-chief of the journal. I haven't found an easy history to know if he was at the time, but - that really weakens any claim to "peer review".

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    4. The author was a Christopher Thomas, job title "News Assistant." See here - https://www.pbs.org/newshour/author/christopher-thomas. Sounds junior to me.

      Beyond that, bear in mind up until the 21st century nerd culture (SF, fantasy, superheroes, rpgs, etc) was off in its own ghetto largely ignored by elite media & academia. It's only in recent years that it's gotten attention at the high end of culture. I blame Joss Whedon. And frankly as news goes the OSR is just not that important. The senior people at PBS most likely don't know or care about D&D so a junior reporter would have a lot of latitude to push his own interpretation. I work with journalists. Most do indeed care about getting the facts right if only out of pride. Also avoiding libel suits. But that effort will be in direct proportion to how important they think the issue is.

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