Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Murdering those orc babies

So bold adventurers you have courageously fought your way into the Temple of the Bad Stuff while being beset by traps and ambushes set by the clever and evil orks who inhabit the place.  Leaving a nearly endless trail of corpses in your wake you descend one final staircase into the heart of evil, ready to use your bloodstained axes to decapitate whatever fiend you find there.  Now as you open the door you see (dramatic pause) a whole bunch of orcish babies and their caregivers hiding trembling in the corner of the room, obviously terrified of the maelstrom of death that you represent.  What do you do?

This is the sort of dilemma I really enjoy putting into my games when I GM a fantasy RPG.  For one it can generate really interesting conflict and discussion between characters and for two it makes them understand that the world is actually nuanced.  If every orc in the world is a bloodthirsty maniac intent on attacking the characters on sight then surely the characters are justified in acting like murderhobos but when the orcs have guards and militias to defend their homes and families just like everybody else things become much more muddled.

There is nothing wrong with some things being just inherently evil monsters whether they be bloodsucking undead, voidspawn, demons, or whatever else but to my mind it really pays to have some ambiguity in most situations.  There doesn't need to be a particular penalty or reward associated with challenging moral choices either - sometimes you let the scout you captured go and sometimes you kill them.  Occasionally those choices should matter change the story arc but sometimes all they need to be is a bit of worry, regret, or relief and a powerful moment to remember the campaign by.

The most classic DnD is pretty much just an endless dungeon crawl where everything is out to kill you and nothing makes sense.  I am not so much a fan of such things as if I want to play a pure tactical game I feel like I can do better than DnD and if I am roleplaying I want the world to be consistent and to challenge me.  Randomly smashing into people's houses to kill them and take their stuff so that I can smash into the houses of more powerful people doesn't strike me as consistent with being a moral and righteous hero, nor does it make for interesting decisions.

James Wyatt wrote an interesting piece on that today where he talked about worldbuilding and making decisions about things like "Do orcs even have babies?" and "Are orcs inherently evil or are they just often socialized that way?"  I think these are fantastic questions to have the answers to before you ever set out to run an adventure.  For example, orks in Heroes By Trade are available as a player character race and aren't evil.  They are scary, domineering, and militaristic by nature but killing them on sight is not at all justifiable morally.  They also have females that are bigger than males, who make up 10% of the population, and who are the ones in charge most of the time so they definitely have some interesting quirks and aren't just people that the characters can mow down without any qualms.

This came up in my game last week where the characters fought a couple of patrols outside a Troll city underground and then snuck into the Troll city itself.  They wandered up to the top floor of a building and kicked open the door, ready for a bloody brawl.  Instead they found a couple of Troll adults, a handful of children, a pet 'dog', and a strange looking boxy device the children were messing with.  The characters panicked a bit but then decided to run into the room, steal the strange device, and run out again.  After a moment's inspection they determined that they had in fact stolen a children's toy and elected to run away.  You seriously cannot make this kind of thing up; the brave heroes sneak into an enemy stronghold to steal toys from wailing children while making what seemed to be reasonable decisions at each step.


  1. It was indeed memorably anticlimactic. Though I guess if we'd really been pragmatic schmucks rather than aspiring Heroes, we should have massacred the lot of'em rather than let them make a racket and rouse the darn Troll village.

  2. Oh you say that now... but you as of yet have no idea of the consequences of your actions. The world responds to what you do and whether or not you are viewed as heroes or villains can be influenced by such things. :)

  3. As we learned playing Earthdawn, the best way to become a legendary hero is to hire a good Troubador or two. First butcher all your enemies, being sure to leave no witnessess, so that no one alive will ever argue with your version of events. After that, hire the right people to say and write the right things about you, and the troubadors will sing of your heroic deeds until the ends of time. In modern times, we call this process "marketing". ;-)

    But seriously, as a GM, I feel you need to be careful with these sorts of paradigm shifts, because its easy to become unfair to the players without meaning to.

    If all the players made the (concious or unconcious) choice not to have his character say: "I'm sorry, Mr. GM-GameHook, but I'm not going to go along with your 'Clear Out the Ork Caverns' campaign! I'm an Ork Rights Advocate, and you can count me out of all this!" in order not to be a jerk and ruin the evening for everyone, else, then it's not fair to punish that sort of spirit of co-operation later on.

    In fact, in a way, by having already played Hack-n-Slash, you've set the characters' ethicals for the players *already*. You've decreed, by thematic fiat, that it is considered ethical within their society to orphan ork children, and that ork baby welfare is not at the top of their list of concerns.

    In fact, if played consistently with an whiff of "realism" suddenly injected into the campaign, I would actully have to expect any character from a hack-n-slash campaign to have no more qualms with slaughtering an ork child in cold blood that a butcher would have with killing a calf for market.

    It's part of their job, it's part of their training, and they don't have to enjoy it to justify it as simply being a necessry part of what they do. That doesn't make them "unethical": it just makes them hold to a very different ethical standard than the one the players (hopefully!) adhere to.

    Just my $0.02, 'cause I don't game any more. But I do miss it. Garn GreatAxe was fun! :-)

    P.S. In my game, Goblins are a form of living fungus that breeds explosively. They look cute and wide eyed and innocent, make sounds like distressed babies, and have a nasty bite and endless hunger. A single goblin is no threat to an adult human: but they breed if the spores in them are activated, which happens when they digest anything, or when they die. A swarm of goblins is as dangerous as a swarm of army ants, only greener and cuter.

  4. Here is the thing: I don't view this as a punish or reward sort of thing. I deliberately don't set up these situations with right or wrong answers. The characters could have gone house by house butchering the trolls or they could have tried to talk to them, or fight the military but ignore the civilians, or whatever. I didn't know what they would do and any of those strategies could have worked depending on their implementations and rolls. However, which choice they make matters in the long run. If the trolls have been mostly wiped out they might retreat, or stage a desperate attack, and will likely attack humans on sight. If they have been negotiated with they might be useful allies later - or they might just be a nuisance since there are more of them!

    I really do just set up challenging situations to see what happens. Regardless of whether or not the characters decide they are up for killing troll babies is a powerful turning point in their personal stories but neither choice makes or breaks the campaign.

  5. Well, so long as the characters aren't being rail-roaded into taking an inconsistent position that doesn't fit their character, no problem. :-) I just don't like it when out-of-game factors are used to justify in-game decisions; if I knew that orks were going to be "people", I wouldn't have had my Lawful Good Paladin turn them into finely chopped salsa.

    It's the exact opposite to playing in one of those bad computer RPGs where you're evidently supposed to break open barrels and chest in NPCs houses, and steal their property right under their noses; none of them ever bad an eye or say a word if you do, and winning the game is a lot harder if you don't do it.

    It's fine if you know that's what you're supposed to do as part of the game, and isn't part of the realism. It's also fine if it's not. It's only a problem if it's inconsistent.

    It sounds like you're being consistent, so that's good. :-)

    My goblins are deliberately designed to invoke the initial ethical question of whether it's okay to kill them, and create a goblin army while people take time to debate on it and argue it, one way or another, with NPCs with a differing opinion.

    And in the end, once all the evidence is available to them, they will ultimately probably decide that hacking-and-slashing the little bastards to pieces is the only good course of action available, and never have to feel guilty about killing goblins ever again.

    Orks, on the other hand... are completely different. I never said the GM wasn't allowed to be a jerk to the *characters*; just not to the players. So long as the players are having fun, you're doing it right! :-)

  6. Oh, I am a jerk to the characters for sure. Their long lost relatives show up needing help, dragging them into conflicts they really don't want to be part of, people fall in love with them in the most inconvenient ways and times, and they often end up destroying things they really needed or keeping things that aren't much use. That is all to ignore the wounds, battering, and general physical suffering that goes along with being a hero. Hopefully the players find all these shenanigans entertaining though; I certainly do when I am on that side of the screen!

  7. *LIKE*. :-)

    If they didn't like it, they wouldn't keep playing. :-)

  8. I actually liked the Temple of Elemental Evil computer RPG for its attempt at consistency with regards to stealing from people's houses. You can steal from them but they attack you; you can murder townsfolk if you want but the rest of them try to kill you. You really do have all kinds of options as far as being good or evil in that game. Of course the optimal solution is to be good, do all the good quests, and then be evil and murder every single thing in the game except one guy to vendor stuff to. Which is great fun, though obviously it isn't much roleplaying as it is murderhoboing.