Playing Evil Characters in D&D

dragon 89In September 1984, a controversy broke out in the Reader’s Forum of Dragon magazine (issue #89). Katherine Kerr wrote a letter condemning D&D gamers who play evil characters. In her strongly stated opinion, such players are unhealthy and reinforce their baser nature in the scenarios they fantasize about. As an example, she decried the following group of acquaintances:

“This group I knew played for several months, with the ante getting higher and higher. Soon they were stealing from the starving poor, burning temples and forcing the priests to stay inside to burn with them, and torturing prisoners in more and more inventive ways. Finally, some of the players insisted on having their characters gang-rape and murder a princess.”

I was reminded of this controversy in light of a recent commenter (Tam Lin) on this blog, who, like Kerr, objects to strong elements of torture, sadism, and depravity in role-playing games. Even a rebuttal commenter (Emirikol), while defending both me and D&D’s transgressive roots of the ’70s, believes that rape goes too far. I will address both Tam Lin and Emirikol directly in a second post, but first I want to set some groundwork by revisiting the Dragon controversy. 1983-84 was around the time D&D was taking a dramatic turn: the Reagan years had brought out Christian fundies and hollow secular psychologists who wanted to censor music, film, television, and role-playing games to “protect” America’s youth. Katherine Kerr’s objections fit squarely within this trend.

Basically, there were two concerns emerging from Kerr’s grievance, and to which other readers of Dragon responded in later issues. The first is what exactly constitutes “evil” role-playing, and the second is why players enjoy evil fantasies.

(1) Evil morality in D&D

The first question was answered head-on by Scott Hicks in Dragon #91 (Nov ’84). Hicks rightly pointed out that mindless campaigns like the one described by Kerr, in which players go on mass-killing and/or raping rampages are usually not realistic and certainly don’t represent the vast bulk of evil characters played by most gamers — whether lawful evil, neutral evil, or chaotic evil. (See here for how the nine moral alignments are defined in D&D.) Hicks wrote:

“Evil isn’t stupid, nor is it sick. No reasonably sane party of characters would take the course of action taken by the party Ms. Kerr writes about. If these actions follow the precepts of any alignment, it is chaos, and chaos and evil are far from interchangeable, as any lawful evil character would tell you. However, insanity seems to be a better choice to explain the actions of those characters (see the Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 84, specifically homicidal mania).”

That’s right. The moral alignments of D&D reflect general leanings, not absolutes. Even a saint-like paladin isn’t lawful-good 24/7. That paladin could snap in a situation like war and start murdering innocent villagers. Good characters can just as easily succumb to bad temptations while not under any kind of psychological duress. On the flip side, the most vile chaotic-evil person is capable of goodness. No one is so one-dimensional or unrealistic that their moral alignment rules their behavior in a cartoonish fashion. This is how Hicks, for example, role-played his lawful evil character:

“I have played the D&D game since its first publication in 1974, and my longest-lived and most powerful character is a wizard of lawful evil alignment, as are his wife (a thief), their adventuring companions, and their henchmen. In nine years of regular campaigning we have never reached the level of depravity described in Ms. Kerr’s campaign, nor has any other group of evil PCs with which I am acquainted. We have robbed princes and merchants, tortured prisoners for vital information, poisoned a pesky paladin, and helped a goblin army destroy an elven out-post. We have also rescued a very good princess, stopped a demon invasion, and broke the local assassins’ guild. The actions of an evil party? Certainly. And no PC has ever stolen from the poor, destroyed, killed, or tortured without cause. Why? Because they are acting like proper evil characters!”

The idea that evil campaigns, as a rule, escalate (or deteriorate) to mindless scenarios of carnage, torment, and unrealistic mayhem — as in the example of Kerr’s acquaintances — is absurd. That’s stupid behavior (though obviously evil too), and ultimately doesn’t result in a very rewarding game. Evil PCs do engage in murder, rape, or torture when situation and context demands. If they engage in these behaviors for their own sake as a constant priority, they’re not role-playing very well.

(2) The “unhealthiness” of evil fantasies

But let’s focus on the second issue, which was Kerr’s major concern. Why do people enjoy enacting evil scenarios — whether realistic or off-the-scales  — to begin with? Kerr wrote:

“The ‘it’s just a game’ defense begs one very important question: Just why do the players of evil PCs enjoy the sufferings of those who in no way deserve pain and death? Role-playing involves what the name implies — acting out roles, giving life to our deepest fantasies. Whether they like it or not, evil-style players are revealing that they enjoy fantasies of inflicting suffering upon the innocent and that they fantasize about wanting power so much that they don’t care how they get it.”

The answer to this is simple, but you couldn’t get away with saying it so easily back in the ’80s. People enjoy evil fantasies because they are perfectly normal. Human beings have natural homicidal and sadistic urges. To only scratch the surface, 91% of men and 84% of women have homicidal fantasies, and 31-57% of women enjoy rape fantasies (with themselves as the victim, let alone the rapist). This is “why” people enjoy such fantasies. Evil inclinations are hard-wired in our genes.

Kerr acknowledged these human impulses but didn’t understand them. She could only condemn fantasies:

“Although everyone has evil impulses at times, few of us give these impulses a lovingly detailed expression in our games, nor do we spend long hours dwelling upon and cultivating this side of our personality as do the players in evil campaigns. I maintain that spending all that time pretending to be evil is dangerous to the players themselves… If you think poison, torture, murder, and rape are fun, then you’ve got a big problem, even if you confine that problem to fantasies.”

That isn’t necessarily true. People should indeed cultivate their dark side and work with it artistically. Otherwise that evil may come out in ways that truly damage others. It’s probably no accident that an actor like Michael Landon was so destructive in his personal life (he beat his wife among other things), even though he played morally upright roles on TV: the wise father in Little House on the Prairie, and the angelic figure of Highway to Heaven. Meanwhile, actors like Robert De Niro and Anthony Hopkins have immersed themselves in some exceedingly depraved roles, have enjoyed playing them, and are (by all indications) none the worse for it. Whether it’s actors who spend long amounts time reinventing themselves to play a cannibal, rapist, or pedophile; or novelists who spend years inside the heads of thoroughly depraved characters; or D&D role-players… repressing our bad impulses is the problem. D&D is like film and novels, allowing us the harmless release of our natural inclinations.

Scott Hicks addressed that point in another way, responding to Kerr’s accusation that players engaging in evil fantasies are “weak”:

“As to Ms. Kerr’s assumption that those who play evil PCs are ‘weak,’ I must ask: Who is weaker — he who resists temptation or he who walls himself in so as to face no temptation? Any player of a good character who had that character murder an innocent, helpless victim could, and should, suddenly find himself at a lower experience level due to alignment shift, or even, as in the case of paladins and good clerics, stripped of all his power. The ‘thrill’ of committing such an act is hardly worth the cost, so this is no temptation. But what of the evil thief who, in the course of robbing a manor, chooses not to kill the sleeping guard, knowing that he could do so easily and with no repercussions? Which player has shown greater strength of character?”

Even as a snot-nosed teenager, I could see the wisdom in this.

I realize that it’s probably unfair to judge someone by what she wrote in the ’80s on this subject. Katherine Kerr’s position may have changed by now. But then again, maybe not: her past self still speaks for many, and in the next post I will look at some recent comments on my blog that evoke the same concerns. In particular, rape seems a sensitive subject, even for those who advocate the transgressive spirit of the old-school.

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Base-Under-Siege: The Classic Format of Doctor Who

I love the base-under-siege stories in Doctor Who and would define the format as follows. The Doctor arrives in an enclosed area, where a small group of people (usually technically-minded scientists and/or soldiers) are under some form of attack. The Doctor helps them defeat the enemy, but with great difficulty; there are often heavy casualties. In the new series the locations (bases) have ranged from the edge of a black hole to the orbit of a sentient sun; from a church graveyard to ancient monastery; from a tourist shuttle to a submarine; from a lunar space station to space station on Mars; from a futurist space train to a town submerged under water. The stories have a claustrophobic feel to them, urgent pacing, and tight suspense.

These stories can also open up larger philosophical issues: the value of faith in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, the consequence of exploiting sentient lifeforms in 42, the question of coexistence between aliens in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, the nature of identity in The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, the dilemma of killing one species to save another in Kill the Moon, inescapable fate in Under the Lake/Before the Flood. Other stories are Doctor-centric and explore his flaws: his powerlessness in Midnight, his megalomania in Waters of Mars, his arrogance in Mummy on the Orient Express. There is no lack of substance in the suspense-driven format. Here’s how they rate.

satan pit1. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (Season Two). 5 jelly babies. The first effort of the new series remains the best. The voice of Satan is terrifying, and as a godlike adversary the Devil gives both Sutekh and Fenric of the classic series a run for their money. The dread and claustrophobia never let up, the tension is relentless from start to finish. Rose and the supporting cast battle the Ood on the sanctuary base above, while the Doctor free-falls blindly into Satan’s Pit below. When Rose and the others are screamed at by the Devil in the confines of the escape hatch, it’s the kind of visceral terror of rated-R films. And yet around all the suspense, it still finds a quiet room to explore the power of faith in a sci-fic context. When I finally caught my breath at the end, I remember thinking, “Okay, it’s official: we’re in a new golden age of Doctor Who.”

midnight2. Midnight (Season Four). 5 jelly babies. This is basically an inversion of what you’d expect from both a Russell Davies script and a base-under-siege. In the first case, and by Davies’ own admission, it’s a low-budget afterthought that entertains what would happen if Voyage of the Damned were turned on its head. That garishly bombastic Christmas special was about feel-good togetherness and people bringing out the best in each other when united against an outside threat; Midnight is about the beast inside everyone bringing out the worst — and in a much smaller space, against an oppressively demonic force. In the second case, the people under attack aren’t scientists or soldiers, just ordinary tourists, and yet it’s one of these simple folk who sacrifices herself and saves the day. The Doctor is left possessed, powerless, and at the complete mercy of passengers who have gone homicidal. This is something unique in the Tennant years.

OrientExpress3. Mummy on the Orient Express (Season Eight). 5 jelly babies. The setting is a plush space-train that recreates the Orient Express, and it’s one of the most gorgeous set pieces of the new series. And fitting for a farewell episode: Clara can no longer deal with the Doctor after the way he treated her in Kill the Moon, and so this train-ride is supposed to be their last hurrah. Peter Capaldi channels both Tom and Colin Baker brilliantly, with brusque humor, jelly-baby offerings, and an astonishing callousness that demands innocent people die willingly while feeding him information in their last minute of life. Despite all this, Clara realizes she can’t let go of the Doctor after all. This is the best story of season eight, and fossilizes the vastly improved chemistry between Clara and the Doctor, which is so unlike her previous hollow relationship with Matt Smith. The mummy is like something out of the Tom Baker years, and truly terrifying.

sun4. 42 (Season Three). 4 ½ jelly babies. Yes, this is a complete rip-off of The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, but I’m a sucker for spaceship-in-distress stories where sweating crew members fight hopeless odds, race against time, and get picked off one by one. Here the Doctor and his companion appear on a ship which is going to crash into a sun in 42 minutes. Like last time, they get cut off from the TARDIS almost as soon as they step out of it (thus preventing a convenient rescue and escape), and just as before, we get possessed crew members (this time by an angry sun), suffocating claustrophobia, and the Doctor going EVA. Because the drama unfolds in real time (Doctor Who episodes are 45 minutes long), and punctuated by a nerve-racking countdown, it keeps your blood racing. 42 may be derivative but I’ve no complaints about it at all.

mars5. Waters of Mars (Special Episode). 4 ½ jelly babies. Waters of Mars is a ripper that works on two levels, the first completely successfully, the second not as much. The straightforward level is a base-under-siege in the classic sense, as crew members on Mars are being infected by water that turns them into lethal zombies. The other level attempts to explore the Doctor’s dark side as he violates the laws of time. The problem is that his crime doesn’t seem particularly reprehensible, because there’s no convincing reason why the deaths of this particular crew on Mars are so unalterable as “fixed points” in time. If Adelaide’s death is supposed to inspire more outer-space missions, that inspiration could just as easily come from some result in a new timeline where she lives. In any case, this is an incredibly suspenseful story.

moon6. Kill the Moon (Season Eight). 4 jelly babies. Yes, this one has a preposterous premise (the moon is really an egg) and a laughable moral dilemma (no human being would hesitate to kill an unknown alien to save her own planet and species), but neither ends up mattering for two reasons. One is the insane level of suspense: the spider-creature attacks are the most terrifying sequences of the new series; these base-under-siege elements are the story’s selling point. Two is the clash between the Doctor and Clara, which is the ugliest companion spat ever. Not even the Ninth and Rose in Father’s Day, the Tenth and Donna in Fires of Pompeii; the Eleventh and Amy in The Beast Below, hold a candle to it. It takes Doctor’s asshole-imperiousness to a record high, and Clara’s rejection of him is staggering to watch. Kill the Moon works brilliantly as a moral parable with inflated drama and disturbing tensions.

Sleep No More_17. Sleep No More (Season Nine). 4 jelly babies. An unconventional format, a nihilistic ’70s horror-film feel, and unhappy ending (the Doctor turns tail and runs)… what’s not to like? Apparently a lot, judging from fan reactions, but I love this story that wrong-foots us at every turn. There’s not even a title sequence, which aligns with the sketchy found-footage format. It’s a format I usually don’t care for, but it works surprisingly well here, and allows Doctor Who to carry an oblique unnerving edge. The setting is a dystopian future, where competitive greed has produced a means to make sleep unnecessary so people can work around the clock. The byproduct of this process are hideous creatures, who in this story terrorize the Doctor, Clara, and a rescue crew on an isolated space station orbiting Neptune. For a while it seems that the footage is from the rescue team’s helmet cams — until a more disturbing truth settles in.

lake8. Under the Lake/Before the Flood (Season Nine). 3 ½ jelly babies. This is a story about ghosts, the causes and effects of time, and whether fate can be escaped. The Doctor is caught in a Bootstrap Paradox, traveling back in time to initiate a past event which ultimately leads to a future action, thereby creating an infinite loop of cause and effect. In other words, he goes back in time to create the chain of future events that causes him to go back in time in the first place. In this light, the revelation that his ghost is really a hologram used for passing messages between his two timelines — rather than a fate for him to avoid — feels like a cop-out and missed opportunity. In any case, the ghosts are effective and scary creatures, never uttering a sound while muttering strange words, with black holes for eyes. The tension is carried on fleeing these bastards in the underwater base, baiting them to chase when necessary, and avoiding their ghastly touch.

silurian9. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (Season Five). 3 ½ jelly babies. The next two channel the classic series with a vengeance but don’t quite end up delivering as they should. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood in particular taps into how everyone remembers the Pertwee era, and also the Colin Baker period, with protracted torture scenes and luminescent underground sets. As in the Pertwee classic, the story takes a tired cliché and turns it on its head: the alien invaders aren’t really aliens but “Earthlians” who have as much claim to the planet as humanity. The problem lies in the resolution: the Doctor (rightly, by Time Lord standards) bends over backwards to put the Silurians on the same playing field with homo sapiens, but the Silurians are too diplomatic in agreeing to a negotiations table-session, which is preposterously orchestrated. It robs them of menace and somewhat kills the dramatic conflict. But on whole a good story.

monastery10. The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (Season Six). 3 ½ jelly babies. An isolated monastery is the base, used to produce clones (gangers) who resemble the humans they’re based on to a tee. The gangers know and feel everything their human originators do, which forces critical questions about the sanctity of life. The Doctor (rightly) sees the sanctity in each. The problem lies in his glaring inconsistency which drives the plot. His goal from the start is to destroy Amy, whom he suspects is a ganger. That in the process he shows himself to be concerned with fair play to both humans and their gangers doesn’t effect this conclusion; in the end he callously blasts almost-Amy to smithereens. His moral outrage over the murder of the other clones can hardly be taken seriously in this light. Like The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, this story is saturated with homage to the classic years, but it could have been much grittier, deadlier, and better.

cold war11. Cold War (Season Seven). 2 jelly babies. By season seven, Doctor Who was dying. There were virtually no good stories at all (I really mean that), and even this one, a cut above the rest, was torpedoed by the horrible dynamic between Clara and the 11th Doctor. The resolution is a farce: Skaldak decides to spare humanity, showing mercy and deactivating his missiles; the Doctor salutes the Ice Warriors as they depart in peace. If previous Matt Smith stories (like #9 and #10 above) diluted the enemy’s menace, season-seven stories like Cold War walked away from it entirely. The premise is great: the downed submarine is atmospheric, with dark corridors, flashing lights, and random bursts of steam. If Skaldak had been used properly as a bad-ass, this base-under-siege could have been properly awesome.

Quote of the Year: “Anger makes no sense”

harrisssSam Harris deals with a lot of public hate and misrepresentations of his views. It’s amazing how he always keeps his cool in these situations, and I’m sure a lot of it has to do with years of Buddhist-like meditation. Science shows how disciplined mindfulness leads to increased compassion and non-judgmental behavior. But in yesterday’s Huffington Post interview, Harris explains how his view of free will (there is none) assist him on a more philosophical level.

“Seeing through the illusion of free will can also change my emotional reaction to unpleasant people, directly in the moment. As you know, I’m constantly confronted by people who maliciously misrepresent my work or who attack me on spurious points, purely for the purpose of defamation. My first reaction is often to treat them as the real authors of their actions, and to react with anger. But when I can step back and actually reflect on the causes of their actions, my attitude shifts. I suddenly feel like I’m in the presence of a wild animal or a malfunctioning robot. I still have to respond to lies and bad behavior, but anger no longer makes much sense. There’s no longer a place to lay emotional blame. It would be like blaming a hurricane for its bad behavior.

“People are walking around with the sense that if they could rewind the movie of their lives, they could behave differently. But if you could return the universe to the exact state it was yesterday, you would do the same things, speak the same words, and think the same thoughts – and so would your enemies, for precisely the same reasons. Realizing this can keep you from taking everything so personally. If you found yourself in the presence of a grizzly bear, you would fear it, of course, and you might even kill it if there were nothing else you could do to protect yourself, but you wouldn’t hate it in the way you might hate a bad person. That extra level of entanglement – hatred – is born of a philosophical error.”

I’ll remember this the next time I’m dealing with hostile conversation partners. They’re just malfunctioning robots.

Full interview here:

Sam Harris is not Religious, but He’s Spiritual