New Rules of Fantasy #1: Evil is a Choice
I’m bored with fantasy.
I love fantasy.
I’m torn regularly by what fantasy gaming has been to me and what it has not been to me; I anguish a bit about what fantasy gaming is and what it could be. Anybody who knows me knows I’m always full of these hopes and anxieties, negatives and positives waging war for my heart.
When I love something, I embrace it then run for the edges and boundaries: What if we did this? What about that? When I hate something, it ceases to exist: if you can get me to discuss it at all you’ll get nothing more than a cautionary tale. When I can’t fully reconcile something, when I oscillate between love and hate, I like to rebuild it. Rebuilding gives me a way to excise what I hate, while strengthening what it is that I love about the thing, whatever it is.
So, cloaked in hubris, I’ve decided to rebuild fantasy gaming from a cultural perspective to something I can vibe with. I shouldn’t even need to say this, but I will: These are my rules and my thoughts, for how I intend to build and run fantasy games in the future. I’m not going to entertain what has already been done because it’s umm, already done. By all means do what you like and if the status quo works for you, do it. I’m all for people enjoying the games they enjoy, but I have to go here because I’m not really enjoying gaming and I want to. I design games, so I can just make the games I want to play.
For the portion of the Internet that doesn’t understand and/or will hate everything I’m about to say, I say: I don’t really care. You have the games that you want and you can keep what you’ve got. You win, I’m done and doing something else. That something I make will be for me and maybe for others as well. I won’t be bothered to argue about what’s better, because I don’t believe that there is some objective truth for gaming. It’s all about meeting one’s needs in the most fulfilling manner possible, which is what I am doing in this post.
For everyone else, let’s have interesting discussions about this.
Kobolds and Goblins have always made me uncomfortable. It’s not on an aesthetic level, as they were made to be grotesque and non-human. It’s the notion that they have been labelled in D&D and it’s derivations as innately evil, or that they are inherently prone to evil acts.
Evil to Who? Centrality
To even talk about good and evil, we need a reference point. In D&D we have alignment as a strict tool, but simply the notion of good and evil applied at a racial level implies that there is a universal set of standards being applied to a whole planet of people. Kobolds are evil, but who says? Do Kobolds think they are evil? I don’t think even evil people think they are evil. They feel they have to do things based on what they have seen and what has been done to them. All thinking beings try to do things that they think will benefit them or help them avoid harm and punishment.
But who gets to say what and who is evil? Who is the reference point. The typical fantasy answer is humanity does. We’ll note that generally humans are the only race in these worlds with totally flexible morality. They stand in the center of all talks of morality and alignment. This flexibility to choose is generally posited as humanity’s main advantage over races that can be smarter, tougher, or more numerous.
What is wrong with humans being central to fantasy? We are, in fact, humans when we play these games. While this can’t be argued, the problem I see is that we end up telling one story. When there is only one central point, all we get is one look at a group and one look at the world. That one view can get monolithic really quick, and then no matter how much we try to add new elements and vistas, our setting is not truly being enriched. When we enforce a centralized worldview on our settings, we turn everything into a comparative exercise with the people or culture at the center. So kobolds are evil as opposed to humans while angels are good; dwarves are shorter than humans and elves are taller. It’s hard to express the truly unique aspects of our fantasy world when the most powerful mode of expression always ends with “…as compared with humans.” If we are being honest, we are not even looking at humans broadly; we are only looking at the views and morality of ancient European civilizations, and even then only through the filter of where we were raised (so for me, an American filter).
One way we can approach how we got to this problem is to look at fantasy’s dealing with race through a sort of racial determinism, an insidious tie to real-world views that some races are just naturally X and are bad at Y and prone to Z. I’ve certainly heard some gamers argue for exactly this.
As much as I’d love to deflate and debate this in fantasy gaming and real life, what I want to do to be more productive is look at an even simpler game decision that I think drives this on a more conscious level: Who do I kill to get XP?
If one race is good (compared to humans) and one race is evil (compared to humans), it’s then pretty easy for you to point your blade at the former group and not the latter. I don’t kill elves because they are good, but I kill kobolds because they are evil. Kobolds give me XP, and possibly loot!
Many fantasy games make racial evil a necessity by driving character growth through murder and violence. For my character to grow in capability, I have to kill someone. I’m not judging this, or failing to recognize exceptions; this is merely a large driving function in many fantasy games.
If killing is how you grow, and you expect characters to be heroes (even anti-heroes), they need some motivation or reason to kill that is higher than “get loot” –that is nakedly sociopathic behavior and probably not something many people want to do for their recreation.
So we dress it up. The kobolds are evil from birth and when you see one, it is probably going to be attacking you and you are OK to slay it. It’s a convenience, and it’s a reason I grow more and more disenchanted with it. I’ll be honest and say when I think of this I think about my own life as an African-American and how many times I am pre-judged to do be all of these threatening things when I am really just a nerd trying to raise a son and be a good employee, father, and husband…and all of a sudden I feel for the kobold. It’s not that being a kobold has anything to do with being black; it’s that in both of these cases we are told this is who we are by societies and people who know nothing about us as individuals. It is frustrating at times.
More importantly, it’s not what I want to be doing with my free time anymore. The best and worst thing that ever happened to me was to start taking my gaming more seriously. Doing game design and re-examining the lens of gaming has made gaming more fun but it’s also closed a lot of doors. I just can no longer go back to hordes of evil races that I can kill without guilt. It’s just too real for me and not fun.
In real life what people do is label people as evil to justify performing atrocities to those they’ve labelled. Is that what our fantasy has to be?
So if we can’t have races full of people born evil, do we abolish evil?
Nope. Evil is still a great narrative tool, and still carries constructive energy to use in our stories. We just need to restructure its use, and stop using evil as a shortcut that means “you can kill me”.
It means looking at the motivations for our characters individually, and seeing what choices they’ve made, and then reacting.
Some kobolds are attacking you and trying to kill you? You of course have to defend yourself. But why are they attacking you? Not every fight has to be a moral conundrum, but just understanding a basic motivation like “These kobolds want your stuff” gives us a richer basis to understand what the kobolds want to do, how to react, what to do next.
And when we say evil, let’s be explicit whose worldview they are evil from. Making a universal, centralized evil is completely convenient but ultimately hollow. The dragon terrorizing town might be evil to the humans in that area, but what if the dragon is afraid that it’s babies will fall victim to the bandits in the area. We might have to fight the dragon to the death, or maybe we learn the dragon’s situation and compromise. Maybe we go after the bandits!
When people are choosing, we have options. When people are on tracks of behavior, we have almost no options. This dragon must attack the town because it is evil gives you way less options than the above scenario does.
I know people are often afraid to unpack fantasy’s shortcuts and conveniences fearing that doing so will make their games to heavy or morally complex. I say that embracing a decentralized morality makes our games richer and more vibrant.
That’s the choice I’ve made.
Originally published at www.thoughtcrimegames.net on July 24, 2014.