10 June 2011

LotFP: The Nihilistic Game

This post from 5 Stone Games interested me quite a bit, what with its mention of two things I'm interested in, all in the same blog post: Philosophy and roleplaying games.

According to his article, there's a man named THOMAS who posts:

I read the back cover and hated the rejection of the concept of "hero" ala LotFP. It deliberately discourages the ideas of nobility, self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, honor, etc. Better to be non-committal philosophically, and let DMs create the tone they want. Game designers are trying to give their games a nihilistic bent, which I think is a mistake.
Sure, not purely for nihilism's sake, but the section on alignment demonstrates that good/evil are merely ideas or opinions. This makes all ethical ideals baseless, including valuing life and respecting others. The cosmology chosen in the alignment section leads to nihilism, which leads to the mercenary spirit, contra honor, nobility, heroism. Honor and nobility become opinions without base, no more intrinsically good than dishonor and evil. That cosmology stinks, and it is too bad that it is accepted by default.
I think this game, and LotFP, are both trying to make their games more unambiguously conformed to the nihilistic sorts of literary inspirations (e.g. Lovecraft). In other words, they are "purging" so to speak other works from Appendix N (Tolkien). AD&D was less committed to this nihilism than these two newer games.

And really, that's fair criticism but I think that it's being approached from the wrong direction.

What we have here is a clash of worldviews, and the basic misunderstanding of said worldview. I'm talking about theism vs non-theism, in roleplaying game form. It's pretty interesting to see the same arguments get applied to a roleplaying game that would get applied to a personal philosophy, and I'm really interested to see where it goes.

My personal view? Well, I'm not a theist, so you can probably figure out which way my ideas bend, but I will say that THOMAS is mixing up non-objectivity with pointlessness. Just because good and evil are culturually-ingrained ideas rather than handed down by some sort of all-powerful being doesn't mean that they're totally baseless. You don't need to be told something is good for it to be good. It's the sort of deal where in some cultures, it's ok to shove your elderly off on an iceberg and let them die by themselves, and in others, you stand by them until their life leaves. Neither one is more "good", but that doesn't mean that the rituals themselves have no meaning.

For what it's worth, I imagine that the supposed "nihilism" is a sort of broad stroke against the "you're a good guy so here's some cosmic good for you." People have been complaining about alignment for years now, or then ignoring it. What's the problem in making a game that doesn't just have alignments, it has non-alignments and tells you "There are no gods to tell you what to do."

That takes some brass balls, and I'm all in favor of it. That's real life for you. It's not some candy-land sort of deal where you don't have to worry about whether you're doing the right thing because you can ask your DM who will sagely shake his head that no, that isn't good, and your character won't do it even though it causes problems. You're left rudderless in a world without any morals of its own. What will you do?

It reminds me of a lot of people who encounter an atheist for the first time.
"But you don't believe in God, right? So why are you such a nice guy?"
"Because I like to be. Just because there's no gods doesn't mean that I don't have ethics. That's not where they come from, anyways. Have you read that book you talk so much about?"

So maybe this is THOMAS's first encounter with an atheist game. It might be the world's first encounter, and I think it's pretty cool.


  1. I repeated some of the same concerns with LotFP and I am also an atheist.
    What bugs me the most is the idea that games have to be this way and there are no other alternatives.
    There are and we should try to do better.
    That is the point of my recent post which may have started all this. http://timbrannan.blogspot.com/2011/06/but-shouldnt-we-aspire-to-be-hero.html

  2. Glad you went there. Hear, hear.

    Another comment (either there or at Raggis site) complained that the game is nihilistic because the "speak with the dead" spell suggests that good guys have it worse in the afterlife than bad guys. (!!!)

    There is a lot of projecting going on.

    As an atheist, I don't mind having gods in my RPG, but I guess some theists need to 'validate' their views in their games. (If I were feeling less kind I'd mention a few prominent blogs that do that but I'll just be passive-aggressive and say I'm not naming names... :) )

  3. Dude, your quoted text from THOMAS seems to be the same color as your background.

  4. @Jeff Rients: The gods work in mysterious ways! :)

    I see nothing wrong with a nihilistic approach to gaming. It makes being a hero that much more substantial, i.e. no afterlife reward so you really must be selfless!

    Besides, it is escapism, fantasy, whatever you want to call it. It's a game, not a socio-theological simulation. Unless you like that sort of game, then by all means have fun.

    Ethics can be muddled as much as alignments. It's all a matter of perspective. The strong are meant to survive and teh weak live only to serve. Is that ethical? You'd get different opinions so be careful.

    The Game Master has to decide on his own approach to this. LotFP leaves it that way. Just because the human species can't get their attitudes/ethics/etc together in the realworld, we have to carry it over into a game?

    To each their own. Yes, it can add to the drama of role-playing. But, is it really worth it to offend your fellow players and their beliefs? No.

    "My character would do it that way (the Nuremberg Defense)."

    Please. If you want to be in Drama Club, then join it. Go win an Oscar if you can. Again, this is a game. For play.

    Why so serious? ;)

    If you get too moral, just remember: if you think it, then consciously you've as good as done the deed. Explain to St. Peter how all of those Orcs & goblins deserved to be killed. And for greed, no less. Good luck with THAT!

  5. The overall morality of the D&D universe is pragmatism at best and amoral at worst. "Might makes right" seems to be the rule. You are to take treasure or magic away from other players using whatever means are available, including force, magic, intimidation, coercion or negotiation). The Advanced D&D Dungeon Master's guide advises: "The best way to avoid taking damage is to beat the foe so badly he wants to crawl under a rock or, better yet, run away."

    Now isn't that a wonderful "law of the jungle" kind of morality to instill in a young person? Whatever happened to forgiveness or turning the other cheek? These things seem entirely absent from D&D. Of course they are, they are not very worldly or exciting.

    Additionally, the games are very violent. John Eric Holmes, a doctor and editor of the "Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set" believes that the game can be a healthy outlet for anti-social behavior. However, he remarks that "The level of violence in this make believe world runs high. There is hardly a game in which the players do not indulge in murder, arson, torture, rape or highway robbery."

    Now, supposedly, some of this violence has been toned down over the years, but the underlying ethos is still one of amorality and violence.

    Now, let's start a good old fashioned book burning.

    Grendelwulf's Lawful Good Twin

  6. "So maybe this is THOMAS's first encounter with an atheist game. It might be the world's first encounter, and I think it's pretty cool."

    I suspect that there are lots of atheist games - any that do not have an implicit moral system would qualify, IMO. Most modern time-period games come to mind first.