02 September 2010

Moral Stages of a D&D Player

This from Trey at From The Sorcerer's Skull:

My brother was in town last week, and our reflections on our AD&D days of yore led me to think about how the ethical/moral assumptions of our gaming group changed over time--at least, in regard to how what sort of characters we chose to play in AD&D.

Strangely, I don't know if we've ever felt the same way about as Trey morality. He writes that he began as a younger man intentionally playing heroes, and then attempted to play more "mature" anti-heroes in high school. When I first started playing, it'd been after the influence of various other fantasy games, replete with anti-heroes and difficult decisions. We'd never been overly influenced by the saccharine sweetness of "playing the hero," honestly. Our group in high school had been influenced heavily by Lord of the Rings but it was always the little guys that got our attention- the fact that Aragorn had a star-crossed relationship with an elf woman, and how Gimli had a running rivalry with that silly elf. How that one chick had a thing for Aragorn, and how a few brave men could hold the tide against many.

For us, it was never about trying to be "heroes" by being virtuous and just and fair, it was about being heroes by doing what needed to be done, even when we didn't want to. For us, D&D was more about duty than heroism; the town needs to be saved from ogre marauders, or a dungeon needs to be delved to clean out the goblins, or a demon needs to be slain. You must do it, or you will die with your kinsfolk.

Better get the caskets ready.

Maybe it's just because of the timing in the world, or because we all came from military families, but we always sort of had a different sense of morality than what seems to be the default. A lot of people, even today, declare that they don't allow evil characters because D&D is a "game about heroes." While that particular and peculiarly misguided notion is a subject for another day, we never felt the need to make such odd digressions. Nor did we really play with "Good" or "Evil" alignments until we played 3e where we ignored what it meant and played our guys mostly Neutral-something anyways. Chaotic Good rangers adventured with Neutral Good clerics, and with Lawful Neutral wizards fitting in behind them. It simply didn't matter to us, and it didn't affect our gaming in the least.

I apologize for the brevity, but your author is becoming ill :(


  1. Good post. I'm glad mine spurred some thoughts on the subject.

    I would say, though, that I would have then (and would now) consider The LOTR characters "good guys." Woman troubles and friendly rivals do not "non-heroic little guy" or "anti-heroes" make, in my mind. After all, Arthur and Lancelot have troubles with a woman, too, and the Thing and Human Torch have friendly rivals.

    I'm not sure where you got the idea heroes need be "saccharine," but I would disagree with that view.

    My view of "anti-heroes" would be like Karl Edward Wagner's Kane or the protagonists of the Wild Bunch--or perhaps any number of spaghetti Westerns.

    Anyway, I hope you get to feeling better. Thanks for continuation of the discussion.

  2. Aw shucks, now I've got to have a cordial rebuttal. :)

    Let me ease my way in.

    Firstly: The saccharine comment isn't directed at all towards the idea that all heroes must be overly sweet, or even kind. There's plenty of room for the pure-hearted with a gruff demeanor- as a relatively recent example I point towards Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. He may not be the easiest man to get along with, but he's certainly a good man. It's that many people who intentionally play the good guys are trying to get that sort of sickening sweetness effect, by always helping little old ladies, and saving the world because it's the "right thing to do." Intentionally trying to steer one's avatars away from anything morally grey results in this cloying aftertaste, to my mind. Real people are sort of grey; they tell white lies and they bend rules when it "won't hurt anybody", but it's still cheating and lying.

    Secondly: You're right about Aragorn, Gimli, and the rest being good guys. They certainly were, and without their assistance, their world would have been subjugated by evil. But that's not really the point I was trying to make. My point was that their goodness wasn't what was interesting about them, that it was incidental to making them interesting characters. They're not any less heroic for having woman troubles, or rivalry. But without them they certainly would have been, since then they're not people, they're merely cardboard cutouts in the shape of people- ranger-shaped zombies in the guise of a good man.

    Similarly, if they had more issues (which they certainly did), it makes them more heroic. A man who does good in the presence of no difficulty is not a hero any more than a man who holds a popular position could possibly be a revolutionary, or an outcast. But someone who does what he thinks is right in spite of the rest of the world thinking he's wasting his time or worse may be the most heroic man ever born. Or a lunatic. Whichever works in the fiction, and it honestly doesn't make a difference.

    I submit that the worst part of the story of the lord of the rings was the fact that it had to take place under the backdrop of epic good vs evil war. If the party was simply a herald in a regular grey vs grey war and they needed to get any sort of McGuffin (say, a diplomatic treaty or even just a message) they would still be exactly as heroic and as good. In this case, it's the little things that count, such as the fact that they stick together in the face of adversity and that they're all dedicated to their duty.

    I blame my writing style and tendency to conflate for whatever disagreements we may have. That, and my now-cured illness. But really, I don't know that we disagree on that many points.

  3. I'm going to curse now, because blogger managed to eat my 500+ word count response. But just know that I'm going to write it again tomorrow, once the frustration has worn off. I appreciate your willingness to hash over our disagreements, by the way. :)

  4. I'm not sure we disagree :)

    I was describing the changes we went through not suggesting a preference for any particular style of play, nor a superiorty of any particular style of play. It did seem a little like you were taking issue with something--I just don't think the something you've got a problem with is anything I actually said in my post.

  5. I apologize for seeming grumpy- not only was I battling a head cold, but the rumblings in the back of my head were from reading people's insistence that "you can't play an evil-aligned character because D&D is about heroic roleplaying" and that "the game won't be good if you let players go around stealing stuff and killing people", both of which are rather silly points, in my estimation.

    Also, I'm glad to see that Blogger didn't actually eat my post, that would have been annoying. :)