Dungeons & Dragons and the ethics of imaginary violence
“When do we get to fight them?”
“What if I throw a fireball at her?”
“Yeah, but can’t I just cut his head off now?”
These are questions familiar to many who have crowded around a table to play Dungeons & Dragons, the turn-based roleplaying game, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974.
gradual descent into indiscriminate violence is, often, a built-in feature of a D&D campaign: the party will set off on an adventure, and their path towards success is dotted by frequently unhelpful, if not outwardly hostile,“NPCs”—non-player—characters that the Dungeon Master will wheel out to make the players truly earn their “experience points” (XP). By earning XP, characters become more powerful, giving them a leg up in subsequent games.
Slaying a few mindless kobolds is one thing, but D&D violence can assume much more imaginative and sinister forms. Take an example, from my own history of D&D campaigning: my character (Shamir, a 3200-year-old Chaotic Evil character) was, along with his party members, attempting to locate a map within a local inn. When the innkeeper refused to reveal the map’s whereabouts, Shamir began cutting off the innkeeper’s fingers, then hit the innkeeper’s wife, and then, when it was revealed that the map was actually hidden inside a different inn, he burned the inn down for good measure. (He later forced an orc to hold a crystal that induced uncontrollable psychic agony and vomiting.)
Why did Shamir, or rather, I do it? Because it felt like the right thing to do at that moment.
Bad guys pick fights
“Right” is a relative concept in D&D. D&D was one of the first commercially available role-playing games to come equipped with a system of “alignment," a table of ethical and moral frameworks, that range from Lawful Good through Chaotic Evil, informing the way a character interacts with the in-game world. (Countless infographics and memes have employed existing characters—from Doctor Who to Community to members of The Eagles—to explain D&D’s alignment system.)
So, though my actions as Shamir might seem repulsive to an outsider, it was, in that moment, my duty as a role player to act in a way that fit my character’s alignment, in other words, to be evil. But what does participation in a system where right and wrong are dependent on your alignment say about those who choose to be “evil” in D&D?
“[People pick evil alignments] for the same reason actors want to play villains. Good story is about conflict, and bad guys pick fights,” Neil Mussett, author of “Is Anyone Actually Chaotic Evil?: A Playable Theory Of Wilful Wrongdoing” from Dungeons And Dragons And Philosophy, told me. “I think most people have not given much thought about what it means to be a good person. ‘Lawful Good’ sounds like a bore; a character obliged to follow every rule, totally predictable, and with very little freedom.”
In other words, playing a bad or evil character just feels cooler, which explains why many first-timers—especially younger players—choose one of the evil alignments, or seek to play an all-powerful character who can shoot bolts of electricity at NPCs’ heads.
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A thought experiment
“Violent games” and the question of whether or not they, in turn, cause violence has been a hallmark of pop cultural panics for decades, though the scientific founding of these fears is still very much up for debate. But regardless of their impact on the real world, the catharsis that violence provides in some video games and online role-playing games is clear: players get to watch things (or heads) explode in real time, engage in hand-to-hand combat, feel the controller react in their hands. Even in LARP (live action role-playing), the distant “real world” cousin of D&D, you get to bonk other players over the head with your boffer.
What makes the tendency towards in-game violence—murder, torture, even rape—in D&D so intriguing, on the other hand, is that it’s almost entirely a game of imagination: your play tools are paper and pencil, some dice, maybe a miniature character model or two if you’ve really splashed out. Unlike video games, where players experience the images others create, action that occurs in D&D happens only if you (or the DM) suggest it. The question arises: is D&D violence more sinister because we are the ones manifesting it?
Clinical psychologist and games designer Dr. Owen Spear is not so sure. “Rather than playing an extension of who you or I are within the game,” he says, “I see it more as playing a fantasy character who can do whatever they want, and who doesn’t feel inhibited by social anxiety or fear of punishment or rejection. It’s an exaggerated version of how [the player] would like to be, but can’t. The game is a safe way to be this other person.”
And while D&D can get exceptionally violent, it’s rare that the DM will simply send forth row upon row of identical NPCs to be obliterated; a good, or even an average, game of D&D should not play out like the scene in South Park’s masterful, Emmy-winning episode, “Make Love Not Warcraft," in which the group endlessly slay low-level hogs in order to level up. Instead, in a good D&D game, the gameplay, and the violence, should encourage players to think deeply about where their characters’ choices might lead.
“[Considering] how your character's personality and alignment (good or evil, lawful or chaotic) would affect its behavior is a sort of thought experiment,” Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, says. “How does evil work? Is it free will? Bad upbringing? Or just a ruthless selfishness? If your character is a mercenary and was brought up to not value human life, that's an interesting point of view to consider. And maybe, over time, that character's ideas and morals can change, just as we all change over time.”
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In the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) fantasy role-playing game, alignment is a categorization of the ethical and moral perspective of player characters, non-player characters, and creatures.
Any crime has an aftermath
Despite the allure of being “bad," few players fully commit to the Chaotic Evil alignment. A truly Chaotic Evil character might murder every other member of the party while they sleep, which, it turns out, wouldn’t be much fun for the other players.
“Occasionally, I played D&D at game stores with strangers, and encountered some really creepy dudes,” Mussett recalls. “They would make sure to kill all our informants or villagers they encounter. However, they always seemed to keep the end goal of the mission in mind and cooperate with the group, very much against the spirit of chaos. They should be disorderly, disagreeable, and untrustworthy. They don’t belong in a ‘party,' they belong in a gang.”
When a character kills their fellow adventurers or wipes out an entire village of goblins, the question then becomes less about the players' violent actions, and more about what the Dungeon Master’s responsibilities are in terms of policing player behavior.
With a good DM overseeing things, players may find themselves surprised by the depths of their characters’ depravity. RPG scenario author Mark Morrison is still haunted by the actions of an evil character he played as a teenager. “I was trapped in a dungeon, and after some hours became very frustrated,” he recalls. “I attacked an NPC who was trying to help me escape. My dungeon master played it out coolly and showed me the consequences, and I think I became a better player and maybe even a better person. I’m still horrified [by my actions].”
Morrison, who himself has overseen countless RPG scenarios, has learned from his teenage missteps, and often takes the opportunity to explore complex moral quandaries, in-game. “If a player commits an act which is outside of the norms of our society, or the one you are simulating, the most effective response is to explore the consequences within the story,” he explains. “Any crime has an aftermath, real suffering, and real consequences. Played out correctly, it will make the player question their action.”
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Orcs are people too
Writing shortly after D&D creator Gary Gygax’s death in 2008, Slate’s Eric Sofge decried the game’s “endless hobgoblin holocaust," where “emotionally complex story lines are window dressing for an endless series of hack-and-slash encounters."
“There is an implication in these games, an assumed logic, that you are killing a bad thing,” Spear explains. “They—orcs, goblins—tend to be presented with snarling mouths and they’ll act in immoral ways; I doubt you’d ever walk up to a goblin cave and find two loving goblins lying in bed. I think that is more about an underlying assumption that it’s morally fine to kill a bad thing within that world.”
Morrison sees this tendency as evidence of the enduring legacy of J. R. R. Tolkien, whose The Lord Of The Rings had a marked impact on Gygax as he was designing D&D (Tolkien Enterprises at one point requested that D&D character races be changed from “hobbit” to “halfling”). And just as Tolkien’s War of The Ring saw countless foot soldiers of Sauron mown down by men, so, too, does D&D expect a certain number of NPCs to be slain in order for characters to gain XP.
“Tolkien is such a defining influence on western fantasy [that] killing goblins never seems like the wrong thing to do,” Morrison says. “It’s cartoon violence if the goblins conveniently fall over stone dead. It plays out differently if they collapse wounded, or surrender. Players often heal injured enemies and then have huge arguments—much longer than the original fight—about whether to tie them up, let them go, or kill them. If they don’t just fade out like a video game sprite, everyone remembers that goblins are people too.”
A good DM, then, will construct a world in which the in-game morals are far grayer. Rather than pulling the wings off fairies, that party of orcs you’ve just stumbled upon in a dungeon may, in fact, have been celebrating a child orc’s birthday.
“For me, the most interesting D&D games ask players to face murky ethical and morals situations, and force them into questionable behavior,” Gilsdorf says. “Does your ‘good’ character torture a goblin to get useful information that serves a higher goal? Is it okay to use a magic item that exerts mind control over other creatures to defeat a foe? D&D poses all these questions and provides opportunities for role-playing and testing ideas and decisions, all in a safe way, one that has no consequences in the real world but does teach us important lessons about how we might, or should, behave in the real world ourselves. Triumphing over that evil force helps reset our moral compasses.”
Just for the record, I eventually went back and apologized to that innkeeper for burning down his place of business. Turns out I’m really Chaotic Neutral after all.
Clem Bastow is a screenwriter, cultural commentator, and award-winning journalist. She is a contributor to The Guardian, The Age, and Daily Life. She lives in Melbourne.