Your PCs Are Murderous Cretins

To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.      – Theodore Roosevelt

Violence is a pretty standard part of the vast majority of RPGs. And that’s fine, to a degree.  But the routine nature of killing in most games does concern me, so I recently asked the question “How do I get my PCs not to be a bunch of murderous cretins?” on RPG Stack Exchange.You can go check the answers, some are pretty useful.

It’s hard to have a good conversation on this topic though.  Frankly, most people have a very basic grasp of ethics, and the most complex moral discussions often engaged in regarding RPGs are “Hey, we can kill people out of hand if they’re evil right?” or “It’s an evil race, so we should kill the women and children too right?” If you wrestle with questions like that, you probably can just move along from this article now. It’s pathetic and somewhat scary that those questions are debated at all let alone are generally the most sophisticated values discussion most people have around gaming.

Or people just assume you’re a “D&D is Satanic” type looking to rain on the hobby, or some kind of indie gamer hippy. Anything except think uncomfortable thoughts.

My problem with how we treat violence casually in games is that gaming is a repeated exercise that shapes our view of the world. If we are training ourselves that murder is OK, and not just in extreme circumstances, it does become part of our mindset. The excuse that it’s just a game is reasonably weak; the more we get used to mentally separating and saying “Oh, that race or people group is evil or soulless and we can victimize them freely” – it’s not like that doesn’t happen nowadays and here in our country, most recently with Abu Ghraib.

I think most of us think that killing is a passable solution in certain very highly escalated situations.  But in the average RPG campaign, “We wandered into their home uninvited and they gave us guff” is generally an excuse for murder that excites little comment. Or “they attacked us, so we beat them down and then knifed them while unconscious and took their stuff and left their bodies to rot.” Try that in your home town, you’ll find out “self defense” ends up not covering it.

There’s the “but it’s that way in all entertainment media” excuse.  But frankly – not as much. Maybe in computer games. But many movies and TV shows try to devise heroes that do as much as they can without killing (Burn Notice is a good example). And just about every action movie we watched when we were kids had the end scene where the good guy realizes he can’t just execute the bad guy because “he’s bad.” But we erode that lesson pretty hard with most RPG plots.

Greg Costikyan’s Violence and John Tynes’ Power Kill are interesting in that they are both RPGs that satirize the violence inherent in RPGs.  Check ’em out. Here’s what Violence has to say for itself:

Violence™ is a lot like Dungeons & Dragons® by that other company. You and your friends play characters in an imaginary world. You wander about a maze, kicking down doors, killing whatever you find on the other side, and taking its possessions. The main difference is this: The world isn’t some third-rate fantasy writer’s drivel about elves and dwarves and magic spells, but the world of today.
The doors you kick down aren’t those of a subterranean dungeon–unless you’re in the subway—but those of decent, honest, hard-working people who merely want to live their lives. The things you kill aren’t cardboard “monsters” whom the game defines as okay to kill because, well, they’re monsters—but fellow human beings, with families and friends and hopes and fears and highly developed senses of morality—far better people than you, in fact. And the things you steal aren’t “magic items” and “gold pieces” but stereos, computers, jewellery, and whatever other items of value you can lift.
Indeed, you yourself are a monster: a monster in the true sense, not the ‘fantasy’ one. You are a degraded, bloodthirsty savage, the product of the savage streets, a Jeffrey Dahmer, a droog, a character out of Brett Easton Ellis. You delight in pain and blood and mayhem. You won’t live long, I promise you, but you’ll leave a trail of mangled corpses in your wake.

Power Kill covers the same ground but a little artsier, it is added as a meta-level onto your game where the PCs are actually deluded people in a mental institution and their fantasy rampage was performed in the real world, and they’re getting debriefed by a shrink about it.

Let’s take some real examples from gaming of how a slightly more civilized approach to human life might play out, OK?

Night Below

Back in 2e times I decided I wanted to have a real honest-to-God high realism total immersion game. I split our large group into two different games, those on board and those not. Or at least, those who thought they were on board. Turns out a shakeout was going to occur.

As the campaign starts, a nice wizard’s apprentice named Jelleneth goes missing. The party gnome illusionist had hung out with her in the bar the night before and took an interest in finding out where she went to, and the rest of the party decided to help.

Well, two of them, an elf and a dwarf, decide they’re going to interrogate everyone they can. That evening, some travellers arrive and come into the inn.  I actually have descriptions for them (metagame: they must be important!) so they go hassle them and ask them their business.  “Slag off!” responds one. The PCs immediately pull their weapons.  The men flee the inn; the PCs pursue them all the way out of the ville and into the fields surrounding it.  One turns around and pulls out a shortsword and says “Stay back man!” and the elf shoots him with his bow.  Then the local constable shows up and takes everyone in.

He asks everyone for “their side of the story.” The PCs explain that “We thought they knew something, so we pulled weapons, chased them outside, and shot them.” “Uhhh… That’s your story? And you’re sticking to it?” The PCs totally couldn’t understand why the constable let the other guys go and held onto them. The constable tried to be nice. “Listen guys, we can take care of this with a fine, your cleric friend healed the guy you shot..  The mayor is a hard man, and if this goes to trial he’ll decide punishment in the morning.” Well, one PC went with that, but the other decided that the constable was “just shaking us down” and refused.  So the next morning, he is trotted out in front of the mayor and again earnestly explains, because in his mind it’s a valid excuse somehow, that “We thought they knew something, so we pulled weapons, chased them outside, and shot them.” “I see.  Three months hard labor in the mines.” The player didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. But off to the mines he went.  The elf and dwarf’s players realized they would be happier in the casual group and switched.

Harsh?  Sure.  But it totally got the message across, and as a result that campaign turned into a five year long epic that was the best campaign I’ve ever seen or heard of. Real personalities, real relationships, real behavior, real morality.

Curse of the Crimson Throne

Really this has become common with many of my characters, who confuse other PCs by not just murdering people. “We met that guy in this dungeon complex, and sure he surrendered and gave us his stuff and gave us info, but what do  you mean you’re letting him go and are not going to kill him?” But anyway I digress…

At the climax of Curse of the Crimson Throne, our party confronted the wicked Queen of Korvosa. “Ruler bad, we kill!” is most of the subtlety built in. But my character understood that regicide is a big hairy deal.  She got the remaining other power players of the city to draft a legal document declaring her no longer Queen and ordering her to vacate the palace. She took the time to read it and demand the Queen’s surrender rather than just all out attack. I think the party thought it was because she was a good cleric.  No, it’s because she’s not a monster.  I don’t understand “I’m Neutral” as a reason to not have moral qualms – that’s what in the real world we call “Evil.”

Conclusion

Anyway, I know many people say their gaming is just escapism and they just want to kill some orcs and not think about it. But you have to consider that it is a cerebral, participatory activity and you are training yourself to think a certain way with it, and you’re fooling yourself if you say you’re not. When you’re killing people unprovoked, not taking surrenders, killing based on race or creed, home invading, robbing… These are bad things. Sure, sometimes we play characters that do these things, and that’s not out of bounds, but we need to be extra cognizant of the character/player division and at least realize when we’re being a monster and when we’re not.

And if you are still at the level where you aren’t sure that these are bad things in the real world… You need to go un-fuck yourself. Your gaming is the least of your problems.

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46 responses to “Your PCs Are Murderous Cretins

  1. Hahahaha. Sounds like your groups kind of like most of the groups i’ve played with, in that bloodshed isn’t the go to answer.

    I ran a supers adventure a while back where the investigation lead the heroes to a villain bar called “The Hideout.” To be specific its a low end villain bar & a complete dive. The pub has rules about no costumes & no powers, its a neutral grounds. Its best known for attracting the occassional tourist.

    Well the heroes show up & the power house bouncer (one of two people allowed to use powers in the bar) informs them that there is a dress code (capes, cowls, no service) & that they couldn’t enter. At that point one of the heroes gets all agro “I’m a hero & that man inside there is a wanted criminal.” to whit the bouncer replies “Then maybe you should call a cop.”

    A small scuffle breaks out & after the heroes beat down the bouncer the cops show up & arrest the heroes in question for assualt. I never laughed as hard as i did when one of the heroes was getting lead back to the squad car & he’s saying “but, I’m the hero.”

    An the guy they were looking for had walked right out the back door & wandered away, during the brawl. Violence is not always the answer.

    • LOL, that’s a good COPS moment. “But I’m a hero!”

      • I can see it now, as the wolverine knock off is being dragged back to a police car & you’ve got the voice over guy saying “All suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”

  2. Well said, both on rpgSE and here. This theme came up last year in my glacially-paced Palladium Fantasy PBeM, where the player, primarily due to some bemused chiding on my part, plus a dungeon-crawl scene where he rushed into a room with fireballs at the ready only to discover a small kobold adolescent cleaning the animal pens and practically shaking himself apart from fear. After we discussed the session later, he confided to me that it really got under his skin when I referred to his decision to help a band of Dwarven mercenaries ‘clean out’ the kobold lair, as Home Invasion.

    Roughly around the same time, I wrote a blog article on the idea which out of deference for the spam filter I will not link to, but simply provide the url:
    http://runeslinger.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/kill-loot-go-to-next-door/

    Anyway: great entry! The disconnect between real world morality and player conceptions of in-game morality is disturbing, and more than a little baffling. One interesting difference in my early gaming (and so, I imagine in the way I run my games) is that my first DM really only expected violence to occur if the “monsters” instigated it. We entered “dungeons” for reasons other than killing things to get loot, we went there to find missing people, recover lost artifacts, explore ruins, solve mysteries, etc… Death was a very real thing and combat was not something to be entered into for fun. It was something to be done to prevent the truly evil beasts and men in the setting from doing you in.

  3. Excellent post, very well said. It does seem that for some people the escapism of a role-playing game is an excuse to act as immorally as possible.

  4. I’ve had fun shaking up my players for years with these sorts of moral quandries. I ran a thief campaign in which the PCs did everything right, bloodlessly moving through a manor to the vault… until the last guard inside doesn’t buy their story and they force their way inside, stabbing him in the process. All of them being thieves (i.e. rogues), they don’t have any healing so the poor guardsman dies of his wounds as the PCs were trying to staunch the bleeding. One of my players told me that night “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve never felt bad killing anything in D&D before. Thanks a hell of a lot.”

    In my 4E campaign, the PCs captured some orcs who were part of an invading force. The amoral warforged in the party started to torture them for information and the other characters had to intervene because they saw the difference between a military operation and sadism.

    I don’t get people who don’t want these elements of morality in a game since they are the cornerstone to actual roleplaying. Personally, I hope to never be in many d0-or-die scenarios in my real-life, but RPGs allow me to look at these situations and have empathy for people who are put in these situations. A number of protest groups now have camps where they split the camp into two groups, “police” and protesters, and mock up their protest. People come away with a lot more empathy for the police since they remember being REALLY angry with their fellow protesters when they got to pretend to be the police and these were friends. RP is a valuable real-life tool and pulling that aspect out of our RPGs begs the question of why you don’t just play videogames or cards or some other game that is more about mechanics than interactions.

  5. This is an interesting topic. I think it’s definitely a combination of “the escapism of a role-playing game is an excuse to act as immorally as possible” combined with the easy morality of fighting in much of the source material. In LotR (particularly the Films) the Orcs *always* press the attack. There’s no decision to be made about whether to fight — it’s kill or be killed. That’s nicely contrasted by ‘The Last Ringbearer’ which depicts the people of Mordor as REAL people and not faceless enemies to be defeated.

    When I run a game I try and steer clear of monster children, and NPCs acting aggressively unless I’m ready for lethal combat. Despite this, in our last game the players mistook some sinister looking NPCs suddenly standing up when there was a loud noise upstairs in the Saloon as threatening… and attacked them. Fortunately there was no gun fire. 🙂

  6. Good article. My last Pathfinder sorcerer was all about taking the minions alive and giving them a chance to reform. Leader types, he figured, had made their own beds and deserved to be taken down but the average foot soldier, especially kobolds, he was all about freeing and recruiting if possible.

  7. Good post. While I’m not persuaded that violent media begets violence (the evidence for this tends to be poorly designed and ambiguous in interpretation), I absolutely its worth considering why characters kill, and maybe not so blithely viewing that as the default option.

    • I think it’s pretty obvious that it does, though. Not in the “I played GTA and went out and shot someone” sense of course. But your thoughts and moral compass are formed by the things you immerse yourself in. I know I personally am pretty more used to to a lot of things based on TV/movie/game depictions, and I see how effective news/propaganda is in demonizing groups and causing all kinds of large scale behavior. So violent media doesn’t *cause* violence – but it certainly makes it more accepted and likely.

  8. I’m not persuaded that violent media begets violence

    Perhaps not in the real world… but I wonder if fictional violence begets violence in participatory fiction?

  9. rorschachhamster

    Hehe, a interesting read after our evening of killing goblins (5 gold per head…).
    There is a certain mediviality (is that a word?) in denying your opponents the status of a sentient being -a concept of morality that is only effective for your team -the others are not worth anything at all. To quote one of my players in-character: “I have no problems with killing some dirty goblins!”.
    I’ll think they will have to deal with goblin kids and orcish prisoners next time… we’ll see how that works out.

    • Yeah, I wish it was only medieval thinking though. Obviously the Nazis were the most prominent 20thc. example in terms of classifying groups as not-people, but we virtually do that with various forms of labeling in 21st century America – if you’re a “Muslim terrorist” then torture is OK and then we shouldn’t really be surprised when you are made to walk around naked on a leash and plunger-raped by bored GIs. It’s not like it’s just a quaint old timey thing we don’t have to be vigilant against any more.

      • Too true~ When living life stops being defined by choices, particularly ethical decision which lift you from your baser instincts toward a more fully cognizant position, then we have nothing to distinguish us from “the monsters” except the side we blithely accept someone else’s word we are on – although even that acceptance comes without the understanding or commitment to the characteristics of that side. This is when ‘good’ as a concept becomes “good” as a defense, and it hides under the banner of GOOD so observers hopefully cannot see what it is doing.

  10. I have long maintained, and I still do, that it depends entirely on the game.

    In Dungeons & Dragons, you have beings who are objectively, detectably, evil. Those guys are, in my view, fair game. Can you try to redeem them? Sure…the rules support beings changing alignment, often with a penalty…but they also support you being able to cast a spell and figure out everyone who is undeniably evil in a room.

    Now, in Deadlands (which is our favorite game), it gets hairier. Abominations are pretty easy to figure out, and yeah, they are walking manifestations of evil. Servitors are also pretty irredeemable, but harder to distinguish (at times)…and then you have a bunch of joe average types who may or may not be evil. I’ve punished a pacifist (of the “Violence is the last resort” type, not the “Won’t fight at all” type) for stabbing a hired gunman in the head in his first action of a fight because he just killed a normal schmoe (albeit not a nice one) without hesitation.

    So, yeah, I believe it’s all context…in D&D, especially, I refuse to guilt the players over “murder”, especially when the Paladin can figure out up front who is Evil and who is Good…but then, even at their worst, they also never went “headhunting”, killing Goblins for Gold or that sort of thing.

    • Not to plug 4E (it definitely has its flaws), but they did get rid of alignment detection in it, so it’s less about “I KNOW that the orcs are evil, the paladin told me so” and more about “Yeah, they were stabbing some human children in the face when I arrived, so I’m pretty sure I can draw my sword on them”. Of course, you can either get rid of alignment altogether (like I did in a 3.5 D&D game) or you can just nix those spells in older versions of D&D to make things more nebulous for your players.

      • True, but that begs the question of “so… Are we really saying it’s OK to kill ‘evil people’ out of hand?” Is it lack of accurate detection that’s the problem? Are the medieval folks who tried to detect witches to kill by dunking them just wrong in their specific implementation, not wrong at the heart of it?

    • Well that’s fine, but just because Evil is a quantifiable thing in that game’s physics doesn’t mean that the appropriate response is to kill it. Doing so reduces Good to an opposing force to Evil rather than something in itself.

      In other words, if the appropriate response for a Good character is to exterminate Evil creatures, does that mean that pacifism is not a Good mode of behaviour?

  11. You know, I agree with most everything here, and I actually play with the philisophy of good is GOOD.

    So I pose a question based on Tommy’s post above:

    How do you feel about a group of GOOD adventurers, as we have discussed above that goes into a Drow elf (Lets say PATHFINDER drow which Paizo has said GOOD ones do not exist because of their origins) settlement and slaughters all of the drow? THe drow are EVIL and by definition they wish harm on all others. Is it GOOD for the players to slaughter them all as a pre-emptive strike?

    What about a camp of orcs near say HArse a small village. Is it good for those same PC’s to slaughter the camp because they suspect the orcs might be a raiding party?

    My answer to those questions is YES the PC’s would still be good. I am curious to see how others would answer.

    • Actually i’m all for the whole sale slaughter of drow, but only because of my burning hatred for Drizzt & 30 years worth of drizzt-clones.

      As for the examples you’ve given, they may not be good, but they could certainly be seen as expedient. When it comes down to what needs to be done, good and evil just become useless labels.

    • So this is what I refer to in my OP about “but can we kill the evil guys” being the sad acme of moral debate in gaming. And it is sad. Because no, of course it’s not good. No one who actually bothers with real world morality of philosophy would even begin to make that claim.

      Just war theory, theory behind capital punishment, all these things exist, and exist at a sophistication level above people yelling at each other on Fox News. I urge you to read up on them. Because otherwise, we’re just like the savages we have to contend with. Muslims who jihad on us aren’t wrong because killing people over their beliefs is wrong – no, it’s just that they happen to be wrong and we happen to be right. We might as well wipe them out!

      Is the only reason someone shouldn’t wipe someone else out for their beliefs (or whatever) is because we aren’t 100% sure we’re right? If we did get that certainty, then is it OK? Did you know that all actual religions and ethical systems call you a monster if you say yes?

      One of the major fallacies that a lot of fantasy and sci-fi perpetuate is that there is no difference between good and evil, probably because some of the early prominent authors were muffinheaded agnostics with reasoning like the above. Good and evil are “teams”, like football teams, like Purple and Green Drazi in Babylon 5. In comics we see that the “angels” are always mean and vicious and the “demons” are you know, sometimes just misunderstood guys. It’s a stupid and immature vision of good and evil. It’s a major failure of our culture and educational system that people can be adults and still think that.

      • Are the Orcs and Drow “people” or are they literal “monsters”?

        I think this is an important factor in the discussion and may be different depending on the game / group.

        • Similarly, real world groups consider it unethical to even treat animals poorly. And not just PETA, like the church and psychologists. Much of the reasoning behind that is sure, if you’re torturing a small animal, it doesn’t have a “soul” or whatever – but you are certainly twisting yourself to a likely evil end.

          • It is unethical to treat animals poorly. There’s nothing religious or philosophical about it. Animals can feel pain and fear as much as we do…that’s the difference between creatures in real life and fictitious characters in a game.

          • Those are two of the meaningful sources of ethics.

          • Hm. there’s no reply button to your comment further down, so I’m replying here instead. Very odd of you, WordPress.

            The sources of ethics matter less than whether or not a person has been taught to have ethics at all. You don’t need to have read Aristotle or the Bible to have a sense of right and wrong. It’s far more important that you were taught such things by the authority figures in your life (e.g. parents).

  12. @Mournblade94: Are you putting nice / non-threatening Drow and Orcs in your game, or are they all vicious Monsters who will attack on sight? Can you negotiate with them, or are they Killing Machines that exist for no other purpose?

  13. Well, Mournblade’s post did say that under Pathfinder assumptions there are no good Drow.

    For my part, when I ran Forgotten Realms, I did once teach my PCs a lesson about rushing in half-cocked: I let them run across a group of armed orcs in the dark, which they immediately began slaughtering. However, they were Lawful Good farmers called Ondonti (from one of the Forgotten Realms supplements). Now, just because Lawful Good Orcs do exist in that setting does not mean that Good and Evil are not tangible, detectable concepts. If the group’s Paladin had taken a second to examine the situation, he would have Detected Evil (or, well, not) and avoided it. (As it is, he bent over backwards to try to make amends once he realized the situation).

    Of course you CAN negotiate with Evil (capitalized on purpose, given the context), the questions are a) Should You and b) Must You? In settings like most D&D worlds, I leave the first question to the PCs, but I never fault them for choosing to kill, rather than negotiate with, something that they can detect as Evil.

    Now, my favorite D&D setting is Ravenloft, where such detection is impossible, so I apply different standards for such actions than I do in, say, Forgotten Realms.

  14. I like Tolkein’s idea that Orcs are evil. In my game the Orcs are all practically brutality incarnate, though you CAN negotiate with them. You could have a village with orcs living next to a village of people. The orcs would still be Evil but not necessarily raiding the village. In my game there may be an orc that would reflect “wait we need not kill everyone to steal there grain,” but that thought would be made simply out of necessity. If we kill them all they cant farm more. Not an “I feel bad for killing.” The orcs are Evil but not neccesarily black or white shades. You could make a treaty with orcs, but they may not honor it when things get tough on them.

    They might not kill everyone but it would not be because they thought it WRONG to kill people. Perhaps they like leaving the people scared or something.

    In Golarion the Drow are all corrupted elves. It is a bit different than Forgotten Realms. I don’t think a Drizzt do urdun could exist on Golarion, because he would be a corrupted elf.

    • So there are things which are properly, actually Evil. Okay.

      The question is why is it a Good act to kill them? Why is murder a bad thing except if the victim has green skin and lives in a cave?

      Good seems to be fluid and changeable, and that’s the bit that strikes me as weird.

  15. Isn’t this kind of thing what lead Luke to the Dark Side with the Tusken Raiders?

    • I don’t know if you can make the case because the Tusken Raiders I don’t see as evil like Dark elves or orcs. Tusken Raiders seem like people that need resources. In my game, orcs are inherently evil.

  16. Nope, because a) it was Anakin and b) Star Wars morality is not D&D (or Pathfinder) morality.

  17. I’m sorry, but while the aspect of this post that talks about RPGs needing to be more than just kill-loot-repeat is very well crafted, I couldn’t disagree more with the idea that playing violence or immorality in a game does anything at all to the player’s set of morals.

    You admit that playing violent games doesn’t cause people to commit violence, but simply makes people become desensitized. I find nothing to suggest that this is true in my personal experience, or in what I see in the people around me. I’ve been playing violent video games for decades, and my characters in Pathfinder have no problem in killing characters who oppose them.

    Does that make for a poor level of gaming? In all honesty, I don’t think that anyone should be making that level of judgment – there’s very little merit in saying “your way of playing sucks.” But that’s nothing compared to the charge of “it makes you desensitized to violence.” Even leaving aside anecdotes of data (e.g. violent crime in the United States is decreasing), I’ve never felt desensitized to cases of actual violence, nor has anyone I know who also plays violent games.

    I’ve worked in jobs where I’ve seen people become injured, sometimes seriously, and I always rushed to help them. I can’t stand the thought of people being violent towards animals, and I’ve stepped in where I’ve seen it happen. I’ve never instigated a fight in my life (some rowdy arguments with a sibling notwithstanding), and neither has anyone else I consider a friend.

    Nothing I’ve personally experienced has ever suggested to me that playing violence makes people less caring towards actual violence. I’m sorry, but to me that charge simply rings hollow.

    • I used to make that same distinction, and did so for a long time. Now, however, looking around at the wide-spread rush toward that sense of entitlement and the near-total absence of heroes and portrayals of heroes who are not morally grey, leaves me wondering about some of the root causes. The activity in response to this post is just one indicator that a lot of others are noticing the same thing. Not all individuals are susceptible to the same sorts of vices and temptations, nor are they prone to violence, per se, but totally divorcing one’s entertainment choices from reality and the practice of responsible decision making seems like a way of reinforcing our baser impulses, rather than affirming our learned ethics. I think this post really brings that distinction out into the light.

      • I don’t concur, mostly because I’m not sure if you’re referring to games or real life. Where is this “wide-spread rush toward the sense of entitlement”? Are you talking about the “near-total absence of heroes and portrayals of heroes who are not morally grey” in reality or in games?

        If it’s in games (or other entertainment), then I disagree, as I see them everywhere. And even if there is some sort of society-wide change going on, that correlation certainly doesn’t imply causation.

        I’m of the opinion that engaging in fantasies that we’d never do in real life are healthy ways of achieving catharsis without harming anyone. Being able to accept that you have such impulses – and all people do – and dealing with them in a reasoned and responsible way is a sign of maturity. Simply having thoughts of things you’d never do in real life, and releasing those in the form of fiction, is far and away better than trying to stop having those thoughts at all.

    • Eh, a common argument, but to me it’s obvious. Not interested in arguing it. It’s obvious in every other field of human endeavor that cognitive training, you know, works.

      If nothing else, it’s sure not going to help!

      • To me it’s obvious the other way, particularly since there’s many, many examples of people who engaging in fictitious violence that remaining sensitive, caring people (as I pointed out beforehand). Self-directed recreation, after all, isn’t cognitive training.

        Besides, entertainment isn’t meant to help or hurt, it’s meant to entertain!

        • Those justifications are all fine, but to what degree do they apply? All what do they justify? “Meant” is irrelevant as intent has nothing to do with results. And “catharsis” can easily become glorification.

          • Those aren’t justifications, as there’s no aspect of enjoying fictitious violence that requires justifying. “Justification” is explaining the virtue of something, and hence defending why it should exist. But personal enjoyment that doesn’t hurt anybody – and if it’s fiction then it’s by definition not hurting anybody – requires no justification.

            Likewise, even if you hold that intent has nothing to do with results (something I’m not so sure is true), I still don’t agree with you about the results you’re positing.

            Finally, anything, taken to an extreme, becomes bad, but that is beyond the scope of what we’re discussing. Just because something can become harmful doesn’t mean that it will.

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  21. I like a lot of the points you made in this post and I can strongly relate with your concerns. For my gaming group and I, a lot of controlling this sort of thing simply comes down to common sense and maturity amongst all of our players. In the event that someone starts going a little wacko, we sentence them to three months hard labor in the mines like you mentioned. We count on the player, and the group as a whole, to realize what had happened and common sense usually kicks back in pretty quickly.

    There is one specific, interesting example of just how committed our group is to maintaining ethical sanity. Basically, the situation was that we killed a black dragon in our D&D 3.5 game. Of course, black dragons are “Always” evil according to the rules and certain characters had in game knowledge that led them to this fact. When two of the characters in the party were opposed to the murdering of the newly hatched wyrmlings because of ethical reasons, it created one of the most interesting roleplaying situations I’ve ever experience. This situation, in various forms, dominated several in game conversations, situations, and even situations in which initiative needed to be rolled. We have a very diverse gaming group and the characters all stuck with their (again) varied alignments quite well. We all played the character we created. After everything was settled, we all discussed how great everyone roleplayed once the game was over.

    To reiterate my original thought, before getting sidetracked with reminiscence, I think a lot of what it comes down to is maturity, common sense, and players who truly love to roleplay the good just as much as the bad.

  22. I think it depends on what “evil” means in the context of your game — is it just a label, or do your players get to see evil beings doing evil things, and know that they will keep doing those things as much as they can for as long as they live? Take the example of a D&D-style ghoul or vampire: they’re sentient beings (barely in the case of the ghoul, but vampires can be highly intelligent) that are obligate predators on other sentient beings — they must either murder or starve. Moreover, it is their inescapable nature not only to murder, but to revel in murder — to kill without conscience or compunction.

    The thing about applying real-world ethics to D&D is that those ethics were developed for a world in which all sentient beings are presumed to be moral agents with the capacity for both good and evil behavior. One can make one’s fantasy world work that way if one likes, but that’s not the world of D&D or Pathfinder as written. Golarion, for example, contains such things as goblins that cannot be swayed from the view that all other beings are food, and ogres that cannot be swayed from the view that raping and torturing other beings to death is absolutely the best form of recreation there is. You can take the high road and not wipe out the goblin or ogre lair, but by doing so you’re guaranteeing — no question, no ifs, ands or buts, but an absolute certainty — that more people will be cannibalized or tortured to death in the near future by the monsters whose lives you spared.

    Of course, a well-designed adventure (at least, what I would consider well-designed) doesn’t just have the PCs going out and looking for trouble. Taking the Rise of the Runelords AP as an example, in each of the first three modules (the ones I’ve played through thus far) the PCs go looking for the monsters only in reaction to a vicious provocation, with the inevitable prospect of further brutal violence to follow unless the goblin, ghouls, ogres, etc. are wiped out first. How do apply the rules of “just warfare” to a rapacious barbarian horde without having an overwhelming advantage of power or numbers?

    You may not like the concept, but thinking beings that are not truly moral agents are hardly inconceivable in the real universe; we just don’t happen to have such beings on Earth, fortunately. (Or at least, not many of them — sadistic sociopaths do occasionally crop up even in the most enlightened human societies, and we have yet to discover a reliable way of preventing a man like Ted Bundy or Carl Panzram from killing other people, short of incapacitation by either imprisonment or execution.) While fantasy is set in worlds with completely different laws than this one, where good and evil may be fundamental forces, science fiction offers us plenty of plausible examples of sentient but implacable enemies with whom the only possible outcomes of any encounter are to incapacitate them (which may be impossible to accomplish by any means other than killing them), or be killed by them.

  23. Pingback: Murderous Cretins, Part 2 | Geek Related

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