Monday, October 5, 2015

Thought Eater: Evil

Good morning. How's your Monday? Here is a pair of new essays for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

These two entries aren't by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers assigned to write about: The Use of The Concept of Evil In Games for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "EVIL1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

The Use of the Concept of Evil in Games

The age-old fight of good versus evil, paladins versus demons, good deities of light versus twisted lords of the abyss. So over-used, so boring.

Let’s be just a bit honest here: that duality, as is presented in most fantasy settings, is not in any way a stimulating way of exploring human (or elven, or dwarven, or orkish) morality. It is, at best, a good shortcode to build a system around. Not a belief system, but a system nonetheless.

That being said, if we are able to ignore the greater ideological qualms of good versus evil, it could perhaps be better phrased as good means altruistic, evil means selfish (the Brazilian Portuguese translation of AD&D even uses those words to describe the “Neutral X” of both).

That is how I use it in my games: work for the greater overall happiness, even if you’re being a dickish utilitarian, you’re doing good deeds; work for your own selfish objectives, to get rich and powerful, you’re doing evil deeds. Gods are usually technically evil, even when they expect their followers to be good. But that’s all fluff, all in the backstage.

The actual use of that is: evil is a reward. Rather, getting to be evil without becoming seen as evil is a reward. In that way, I like to use it less like a moral compass and more like the L5R honour system: the altruistic things you do, the more selfish you can be without becoming driven (only) by your own greed, or at least being seen that way by society.

So, from the player’s standpoint, this is the view: Good or evil are really just opinions and propaganda, right? So as long as I keep them balanced, I should be great! I mean take Mother Theresa: seen as this beacon of good, even though her philanthropy only reached those who converted to her religion!

In-game, it might even end up leading to more interesting villains! It brings down the moustache twirling villain, who does stupid crap for the sake of evil, and in its place puts a much more interesting NPC, with strong motivations and that will stop at nothing to achieve them!

And because the ends don’t justify the means, at least in the public’s eye, the so-called heroic murderhobos end up having to play by the rules in order to not be seen as the villains themselves, unless they do enough good to allow them to use whatever methods are necessary to get the job done.
That’s the way I use evil: A social reward for good deeds. 

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "EVIL2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

The Other Evil

"The Other" is different from or alien to the self ... opposite to being "us". When used as a verb it means to label...and then exclude those who do not fit a societal norm. In geographic terms ... somewhere along the margins, where the societal norm does not reside. [​Paraphrased from Wikipedia​].


It goes without saying that people, in general, conflate “evil” and “the Other” in real life all the time, and you need look no further than the comments section of any news article whose headline contains any of the following words: liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, gun control, abortion, feminism, men’s rights, Islam, Scientology, Christianity, atheism...


a) The orcs see that they’re clearly outmatched. They surrender. “Okay, we take their weapons and tie them up. What should we do with them?” They appear willing to negotiate with you, escort you around the area ­ “Orcs are evil. I think we should kill them.” They plead for their lives, they’ll tell you anything, please ­ “We can’t leave a bunch of witnesses behind us. Easier just to kill them.” Great, the party cleric just turned into the villain from an action film. “No, we’re the​good​guys.” I know. I know. “It checks out, we cast ​Detect Good ​and everything.”

b) The most prolific serial killer in human history barely broke a hundred kills. Jack the Ripper killed eleven people ​more than a century ago and people are still trying to solve that case. That’s not even enough to hit level two. “But he didn’t kill orcs.” Exactly.

c) “I cast detect evil.” Okay, yeah, he’s evil. “Excellent. I start cutting off his fingers until he tells us where his boss is.” Aren’t you supposed to be good? “​Chaotic ​Good. And you just said he’s evil, so it’s okay.” Right.

d) In Dungeons and Dragons, the conflict between good versus evil isn’t about morals, but eugenics; you don’t kill orcs because of what they’ve done, but because of what they ​are. “Are you saying D&D players are racists?” No, of course not, I’m saying that the primary antagonists are an expression of the Other: ‘evil humanoids’ (orcs, drow, goblins); enough like us to “know better” than to do evil yet different enough that they’re not really people e.g. we can kill them and take their loot without feeling guilt. The fear of like­us­but­not­like­us evil is the fear that drives racism. “I don’t think it’s okay to kill helpless captive orcs just because they’re orcs.” Okay, fine, but grant me that it’s ​more ​okay than killing helpless captive humans.


a) “We tie his hands and feet, then I tell him I’m going to start breaking finders if he doesn’t tell us where his master’s lair is.” Okay, you win, I’ll tell you everything I know. “This is a black op. We can’t leave witnesses behind us.” No, please, I have a wife and kids. “Alright. I take his wallet, write down the address on his ID, and tell him that we’re coming back for his family if he crosses us.” Oh, thank you, I swear you’ll never hear from me again. “We cut him loose.”

b) “So anyone in this city might be a vampire, or working for the vampires, and they look just like us, except they’re stronger, and faster, and have access to way more resources.” Right, and they need to suck you dry to stay alive. Don’t worry, though, it’s only about 1% of the population.

c) “I don’t understand. Are you saying Night’s Black Agents appeals to the OWS crowd?” No, well, yes. The other that looks like us, that wears our skin and walks among us but ​isn’t us ­ this is the Other we fear the most. It’s why players in NBA spend hours planning their routes, establishing safehouses, eliminating their trails, ​hiding,​despite the fact that the game ​explicitly allows you to forego this ​with an in­game mechanic that lets you go “oh, I spent a point, we planned for that”. And of course by fear the most I also mean hate the most ­ which is why you might or might not spare the captive orcs (well, “orc farmers” or “orc midwives” have a shot, anyway, they’re ​humanized​) but no one lets the vampire go free. “Didn’t you lead with a question about OWS?” Right, of course, the point isn’t that rich people are vampires, it’s that we hate people who have more than us, for not doing the things (we say) we would do if we had that much, or are you telling me the vast global vampire conspiracy is ​poor?​Of course not, and this is the catch ­ take a minute, really imagine what kind of setting has a global conspiracy/network struggling to make ends meet ­ aren’t they the good guys?


a) “We can’t leave any witnesses behind.” The cultist of R’yleh makes horrible, gurgling noises. He might be trying to reason with you, if only you could understand what he’s saying. You all take sanity damage.

b) “They’re completely alien. They don’t think like we do, they don’t look like us. They’re far, far, away, but they’re coming. We don’t know when, but soon. When they get here, it’s over. We can’t stop them.”

c) Yes, I’m talking about the Chinese. “You already did a bit on racism and other cultures.” You’re not listening, the orcs are ​us​, they’re ​our culture, they’re the part of us we deny, the people who should know better in safe­to­murder packaging. Lovecraftian horrors ­ they’re the cultures we don’t understand, there are more of them than us by orders of magnitude and they live where we can’t/won’t and we can’t understand their language but they’re coming, the first wave is already here, they get stronger every day and our society is wholly unequipped to face them. “I’m Chinese.” No, not ‘Chinese people’, Jesus, I mean “​the Chinese”, ​forty years ago it was “the Russians”, and before that “the British”, I’m saying we’re Oceania and Eurasia is coming, any day now, and Eastasia is our only hope. “You’re not making any sense.” We are playing Call of Cthulu.


a) Importantly, these are ​the ​same players. ​The party healer solves problems in D&D by kicking down doors and killing everyone on the other side, then spends weeks of game time in Night’s Black Agents hiding, designing safehouses, and meticulously planning a kidnapping only to let the target go once they get information out of him. As the hitman. We might have only two or three combats in an entire Call of Cthulu campaign, period.

b) Note that there is no ‘real’ e.g. mechanical game rule reason why players couldn’t just start kicking down doors and killing people in NBA, or planning the perfect heist across a half­dozen sessions in D&D. In fact, I’ve found players are actually in (significantly) more danger in the average 5e combat compared to NBA, even accounting for the fact that they rush into things more often.

c) The action, ​the action​, in all three systems is still about the struggle against evil; each of these games deals with a different type of evil, that is, a different part of “evil”, and each of these requires a different response. You don’t complain that Call of Cthulu doesn’t have enough action just because you aren’t killing dozens of starspawn every night, not because you can’t kill starspawn in Call of Cthulu but because that’s not how you fight an unknowable enemy from beyond our shores / stars and besides even if you did there are infinite more where that came f r o m . “ G o o n a s t a k e o u t ? T h e d r o w a r e r i g h t h e r e ! I c a s t ​F i r e b a l l . ​”


a) “Give me something gameable.” Not part of the essay prompt, but alright, bear with me one minute longer. These systems steer you ­ players and DM ­ towards certain styles of gameplay, certain story arcs, certain campaigns not by the rules but by the nature of evil they present. “D&D has vampires too.” Sure, but it never occurred to you to run ‘track down the vast global vampire conspiracy’ ​in D&D. “Well, NBA is designed for exactly that kind of game, why would I run it in D&D?.” Alright, so you own it, and I own it, but I bet most people who play D&D don’t, and it ​still never occurred to them.

b) “Something gameable.” Fine, here we go: ​change the nature of evil​. Give your D&D players a conspiracy to unravel. “All this build up for that? Boring. Lots of city adventures revolve around conspiracies.” Let me try again. Sit down with your D&D character sheets and ​play Night’s Black Agents, with the D&D ruleset. Do you understand? If you sit down with the same DM and the same players and run through the ​exact same adventure​, I swear to you, hand­to­God, the game goes in a completely different direction if ​it is understood that you are playing ​Dungeons and Dragons, Night’s Black Agents, or Call of Cthulu.​Moreover, this will happen ​even if you never roll any dice. ​It’s not, can’t be, the rules, but an implicit understanding of the nature of evil and, consequently, the rules of engagement.

c) I ran a session of D&D using ​Betrayal at House on the Hill and it was the single best session we ever had. “So what do we do?” The house is evil, and maybe one of you is too. Try and get
out. “What do you mean, the house is evil?” You hear footsteps coming towards you from down the hallway. “I run the other way.”

d) This only works/is interesting if it runs contrary to expectations e.g. you have a NBA adventure, a FASERIP adventure, whatever, ​in the context of your D&D campaign. You can, of course, run a whole campaign using a different paradigm of evil, but it won’t stand out, and another system might be better suited anyways.


  1. It’s not, can’t be, the rules, but an implicit understanding of the nature of evil and, consequently, the rules of engagement.

    Whoooaaaa, that just blew my damn mind. Like, maybe one of the most important things that defines an RPG is the nature of the conflict (hit it with your axe, outmaneuver it with your network, outthink it before you go crazy, etc.). And mixing those up, cross-genre-wise, could really liven up a campaign that might have gotten too familiar.

    For example, in a Star Wars campaign the PCs tend to do a lot of shooting cannon fodder. It's understood that Sith or other Force users are a different kind of thing, but what if you ran the Sith/Dark Side as a Cthulhu-esque perversion of reality that can only be stopped at immense cost?

    Or what if you surprised your CoC players with wave after wave of cultists to mow down? Might shake them out of comfortable assumptions about looking for tomes to hold off Great Old Ones if they're too busy killing the cultist horde that's trying to eat them and the rest of the town.

    Anyway, the upshot is that by giving me a new way to think about this stuff, it's given me a whole pile of gameables. Very nice.

  2. "what if you ran the Sith/Dark Side as a Cthulhu-esque perversion of reality that can only be stopped at immense cost?"
    Isn't that pretty much the Cliff's notes version of 40K?

  3. Ha, yeah, good call.

    I guess my problem with the Sith is that the Dark Side is supposed to be seductive, but we don't really see that much in the movies. The closest is at the end of ROTJ when Luke is hammering on Vader, and clearly has the upper hand because he let his anger take over. The prequels make the Sith out to be master manipulators but the idea of the Dark Side as a seductive, corrosive force (or Force) doesn't really come through.

    I think maybe this is an opportunity for RPGs, though. Like, players come in with the idea that the Dark Side is pretty much what they've seen in the movies. But it could be a lot more. Maybe a little less martial arts + techno-fascism and more vampiric, Cthulhoid, or Hannibal Lecter. Maybe you end up serving the Dark Side without even really realizing it. Hard to pull off in-game, but probably a worthy goal.

    I feel like the GM should be like the little red devil on the Jedi character's shoulder, pointing out ways to get ahead by subtly (at first) misusing her powers. Doing the right thing shouldn't be easy - it should be like trying to run in waste-deep water.

    Maybe I just need to read some 40K GM advice on Chaos - any good stuff out there I should check out?