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Author Topic: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures  (Read 6884 times)

jhkim

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Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« on: September 17, 2021, 04:38:41 PM »
So I've been considering running D&D in an exotic-ish setting (ref), but I think there's a broad issue about this.

In D&D and other games with an absolute good and evil, it's usually true that good and evil are defined by modern standards. So, for example, D&D has always defined slavery as evil - even though slavery of various sorts was considered normal and even good in medieval times. I think this is usually considered a feature rather than a bug. In some games, you play grim-dark bastards who leave a trail of horror and destruction -- but some fantasy games you want to be genuine heroes who fight for truth and justice. There is simple good and evil and the heroes are good.

The latter is more what I want my upcoming D&D game to be. Real history was often grim and horrible, but if I'm playing a good-vs-evil fantasy, that's not what I'm looking for. I'm going for more escapist high fantasy.

The problem is that modern morality can be a disconnect with a setting even remotely based on history.

So I guess this is about - when have you had a problem with difference between what is good by modern morality and good in a fantasy RPG? What were ways that you dealt with it? I'll think if I can come up with some more examples.

KingCheops

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #1 on: September 17, 2021, 04:54:09 PM »
I guess the big one for me would be Rifts and specifically the Coalition.  We played enough that we fell on various different sides of the coin at different times.  The thing that often came up was how does one cope with a world where some random person without warning can invade/conquer your mind or kill you without effort.  Even on the anti-Coalition side we had the questions about teaming up with the human supremacists when its against menaces like the Splugorth or the Vampires.

You just need to have everyone on the same page and try to get everyone to imagine what they'd do in that situation.  Some people it just doesn't dawn on them that their mage is ball shrinkingly scary.

Ratman_tf

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #2 on: September 17, 2021, 05:15:15 PM »
I haven't had an issue with it. Even in Dark Sun, where slavery is common, I play it that good characters dislike slavery, but can't run around freeing every slave they see. It's just not practically feasible.

Things also get murky with different types of slavery. Bonded labor, chattel slavery, slave armies that wind up running things.
There's fertile ground for rpg politics in slavery, but it's understandable that many don't want to go there.

I think my approach is to recognize that there isn't a floating sign in the sky that goes "Ding!" whenever a Good character does something Evil, so they can stop it. It's not that slavery can be Good, it's that slavery is not always cartoony moustache twirling Evil.

But the only time I've gone into the topic of slavery is in Dark Sun, where most societies are at best ruthlessly pragmatic, or downright oppressive.
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S'mon

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #3 on: September 17, 2021, 05:48:47 PM »
I haven't run much realistic historical settings. I have run the very 1970s sword & sorcery Wilderlands, and slavery has been a bit of an issue, with PCs going all out to abolish slavery, a very marginal ideological position in the setting. I don't recall anything else being such a trigger - serfdom certainly is not!

Steven Mitchell

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #4 on: September 17, 2021, 06:07:20 PM »
To me, it's no different than any other edge issue, such as how much sexuality is "on screen" versus how much is "fade to black".  There's a whole set of things that are happening in the world, that are needed to make the world sufficiently different from now such that it feels right to the players.  Then there's the subset of things that are there, but you don't pay much attention to them.  Then there's maybe a handful of things that we just decide that we don't even gloss over, because it doesn't fit the tone or we simply don't want to.  Point being, you can draw the line anywhere you want on any given thing, as long as you leave enough in there to get the feeling across.

For us, one that comes up quite a bit as something that gets only a nod is the whole noble/commoner thing.  Yeah, it's there.  It's in the backdrop.  Most of the people in the world deal with it.  Players in my game largely don't want to play in a game where there is effectively no social mobility along those lines.  So we tend not to, or assume that adventurers are one of the rare exceptions.  A game where adventurers have some social status and responsibilities to go with it?  They are all over that.  A game where adventurers are hobos, murder type or otherwise, trying to live below the social radar?  They want nothing to do with it.  Long as I get everyone on board on the issue, the rest of the world can be as dark or epic as we want on everything else, no one will even blink.  Though admittedly, there's only so far I'd want to push the dark part.  So not sure I know where the edge truly is. 

Stephen Tannhauser

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #5 on: September 17, 2021, 06:11:18 PM »
So I guess this is about - when have you had a problem with difference between what is good by modern morality and good in a fantasy RPG? What were ways that you dealt with it?

I'd suggest there's probably less conflict between historical morality and modern morality than one might think; the Ten Commandments have analogues in most cultures going back to ancient days. Even slavery was mostly regarded as something you only did to your people's enemies if you did it at all, and that if your own were enslaved they had to have sold themselves into it or earned it as punishment -- it was regarded as licit but not good, if you see the difference.

What often differs are which sins a particular historical culture or subculture has different practical standards about from ours, and why. Sexual infidelity was almost always condemned far more strongly in women than in men in the feudal Middle Ages, because female fidelity was the only real guarantee of a valid inheritance line back when wars got started over such things; as long as men fathered their bastards when they were conveniently out of their territory, no one much cared. And when the food-subsistence economy is much closer to the bone than a modern-day reader may realize, the harsh penalties for stealing food, and the sheer loathing most honest labourers or tradesmen feel for bandits and burglars, make more sense.

I have to admit that my own gaming history isn't much use because I had much less tendency to notice those things back when I was still actively gaming. I do recall at least one PC in a game I ran stealing a wagonload of furs and selling them for his own money without anyone in the group raising an eyebrow; he was True Neutral, so he had no alignment obstacles, but that sort of thing is definitely something I would have made more fuss with him about if it happened now.
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Vidgrip

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #6 on: September 17, 2021, 06:24:19 PM »
I avoid mixing morality codes when I can avoid it. When I run a fantasy game that has the flavor and trappings of a a real historical setting, I always use the moral code of the historical setting, rather than a modern one. Yes, this means bad things happen that characters must consider business-as-usual. In that sense I would describe it as a bug, not a feature, that a fantasy game using tropes of medieval Europe would attempt to apply "modern sensibilities".

The last time I felt the desire for high fantasy that wasn't grimdark, I played Blue Rose. Modern liberal morality works fine in that setting partly because it is based on a high-fantasy literature that does not borrow much from real history. There is no dissonance.

I have read setting books that try to bring the modern moral sense into historical settings and they generally strike me as ridiculous. I suppose what I'm saying is that I appreciate your problem but I see no solution other than to allow Incans to be Incans, even if they they are fantasy Incans.
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Shasarak

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #7 on: September 17, 2021, 06:56:07 PM »
So I guess this is about - when have you had a problem with difference between what is good by modern morality and good in a fantasy RPG? What were ways that you dealt with it? I'll think if I can come up with some more examples.

This happened to me the other day.  Some arsehole could not tell the difference between fantasy Drow and real life people.

Luckily I was able to deal with it easily by telling him to fuck off.
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oggsmash

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #8 on: September 17, 2021, 10:05:00 PM »
   Morally, which is worse, killing someone or making them a slave?   Given that slaves had the real life choice to be slaves or die, I think killing is certainly worse.  So unless you subdue the evil doers without killing them, I probably would not worry too much about any modern sensibilities.   I do think it would be fairly easy to make a "good" kingdom outlaw slavery, I mean, you have people throwing fireballs, so I do not know how much historical reality you need.   

   What is the cultural backdrop for the campaign?   You say exotic, so does it involve cultures that used a great deal of slavery/human sacrifice/etc?   

Mithgarthr

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #9 on: September 17, 2021, 11:08:03 PM »
So I guess this is about - when have you had a problem with difference between what is good by modern morality and good in a fantasy RPG? What were ways that you dealt with it? I'll think if I can come up with some more examples.

This happened to me the other day.  Some arsehole could not tell the difference between fantasy Drow and real life people.

Luckily I was able to deal with it easily by telling him to fuck off.

 ;D ;D ;D

Man, I've only been hanging around here for a short while, but you're quickly becoming one of my favorite posters.

palaeomerus

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #10 on: September 18, 2021, 12:33:27 AM »
So I guess this is about - when have you had a problem with difference between what is good by modern morality and good in a fantasy RPG? What were ways that you dealt with it? I'll think if I can come up with some more examples.

This happened to me the other day.  Some arsehole could not tell the difference between fantasy Drow and real life people.

Luckily I was able to deal with it easily by telling him to fuck off.

Drow see in absolute darkness, mate with demons to get hybrids, practice paranoia and treachery as mainstays of their society, and if they piss off their god by failing a test they get turned into cannibalistic spider centaur zombies. Also they shoot people with little crossbows and the darts are tipped with a paralytic.

Real life people...not so much.
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GeekyBugle

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #11 on: September 18, 2021, 01:03:38 AM »
I haven't run much realistic historical settings. I have run the very 1970s sword & sorcery Wilderlands, and slavery has been a bit of an issue, with PCs going all out to abolish slavery, a very marginal ideological position in the setting. I don't recall anything else being such a trigger - serfdom certainly is not!

Right, so, in the AD&D2e campaign I'm playing my PC (A wizard) comes from a culture that practices slavery but lives in a different kingdom where slavery is prohibited and slavers are killed (the slaves also don't remember why).

Due to language barriers (English not being my main one) I still have to get into a heavy RP session with some philosophers so they explain to him why serfdom is okay but slavery is not.

I think that in his eyes they would be very much the same.

Change my mind.
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GeekyBugle

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #12 on: September 18, 2021, 01:13:20 AM »
As for the original question...

Given that it's an imaginary world I don't see why modern sensibilities would need to intrude. Nothing that happens in that world is really happening much less to real people (and only humans are people by definition).

If you don't have a problem with your PC killing NPCs/Monsters left and right why would you have a problem with anything else?

Sexuality, sure Gay people have always existed, so? Is it fundamental for the adventure that my PC knows who is sleeping with who? If the answer is yes then I would expect for him to find a few gay relationships. As for his reaction to that it very much depends on the setting, is it something seen as normal and acceptable by the society at large?

And the same goes for the straight characters, does my PC need to know who is fucking who?

And I wouldn't play in a game where sex is not fade to black.

As for torture, rape, etc... Well, I asume that in a brutal world those things do happen, do they need to be explicity described? WHY? Honestly why the fuck do they NEED to be explicity described?

I don't consume porn and if I did I wouldn't consume 50 shades of rape porn, so I don't want it in my gaming thank you very much.

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Here is why this forum tends to be so stupid. Many people here think Joe Biden is "The Left", when he is actually Far Right and every US republican is just an idiot.

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Lunamancer

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #13 on: September 18, 2021, 01:44:31 AM »
I've never run into these sort of problems. And there are a few reasons for that.

First, I run D&D alignments according to what I feel is the clearest definition, those given in the 1E DMG. There, it defines good as respect for "human" rights, of which there are three that are enumerated. Human in quotes, of course, because this will likely extend to other races in a D&D world. But exactly where the line is drawn is left to the individual DM.

Evil is not defined as the mirror image of good, however. For evil, purpose is determinant. It takes priority above and beyond the "human" rights, and so evil is willing to trod on human rights for the sake of their "greater purpose." There is no requirement that evil's purpose involves mustache twirling. The purpose could be a seemingly noble one.

What this sets up is a system where you can clearly and objectively know whether an act fits in with good or evil. But at the same time, by being sufficiently broad that evil can have a noble purpose, you can have a moral ambiguity vibe to the game.

As for historical morality, the differences really are over-stated. Or maybe just wrongly stated. Natural Law did not start with Thomas Aquinas. It has its roots in ancient philosophers, and you see bits and pieces of it emerge throughout history. A lot of ancient and persistent ideas began being put into modern form with the School of Salamanca as early as 1177.

Regarding slavery, there were old manuals written for slave owners describing how you had to break the will of slaves, revealing that it was always understood that slaves were human beings with self-determination, and keeping slaves meant destroying that. This is not a modern insight. To most modern eyes, you look at Mark Twain. White dude who lived in the antebellum south. Wore a white colonel suit. He clearly must have loved slavery. But I can't help but think he was being subversive in his writing when N-word Jim has hopes and dreams. Property doesn't have hopes and dreams. I would point to this as yet another indication that the culture understood the gravity of what slavery meant. There were just political reasons to ignore clear and present reality. I would think the political climate of the present day makes it clear just how easily that can happen.

Stephen Tannhauser

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Re: Good, evil, and fantasy cultures
« Reply #14 on: September 18, 2021, 02:51:56 AM »
Due to language barriers (English not being my main one)

You write much better than some native English speakers I've read.
Better to keep silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. -- Mark Twain

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