Malign or Misunderstood?

It is a common point of contention between tabletop gamers as to whether or not monstrous non humans in games are aligned with fell forces, and therefore inherently evil, or if theyare simply ‘other’ and victims of a bad rap.

I grew up with AD&D, after starting with the magenta box. When we played B2, we slaughtered everyone. The damn hobgoblins had a larder full of human heads, and the DMG had that whole “nits make lice” essay about orcs.

Some of this stems from the fiction in Appendix N, like the extremely anti-human nature of the creatures of Faerie and Chaos in The Broken Sword, or the origin story of Orcs in LotR.

My preferred game system doesn’t have alignments, except for specialty characters that recieve powers from extraplanar entities, like clerics, and holy/unholy warriors, and half -infernals and half-celestials. On the other hand, even someone with demonic heritage can be forgiven by the gods, but they still detect as evil.

So, in a game where only the card carrying servants of hell actually detect as evil, the moral circumstances of inhuman creatures are subject to question.  Now, that said, there are creatures that (at least in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, my preferred game) have severely negative character traits, like bully, bloodlust, intolerance, and sadism. The kind of people you can’t win an argument with, or negotiate a lasting peace with.

In my personal game, goblins and orcs are members of society, although there are regional territorial disputes and percieved political slights that become protracted wars with atrocities committed by both sides, human and inhuman, largely because of the nature of mercenary soldiers, as opposed to the overall moral or amoral nature of entire species.

In my convention game, where I am demonstrating DF to an audience more familiar with D&D, my hobgoblins are devil worshipping slave takers that delight in torture, as opposed to the hemp growing sports fanatics and rope makers that they are in my home game.

Will they detect as evil? They will certainly detect as foes, although the priest may, as he is empowered by demons, but the bulk of the tribe will not. Are they villains who must be stopped? Yes. Is it possible that the young may be innocent? Perhaps. In this case, they were raised in a society that believes strongly in corporal punishment, reveres cruelty and revenge, and respect for their elders, (or at least those who hold positions of rank in the tribe). The young who are old enough to know the members of their group will certainly resent whoever murders their family, without seeing their personal exclusion from slaughter as an act of mercy.

Just the same,  adventurers with personal codes of honor or a sense of duty that extends beyond their friends and community (not entirely common in this game system, and actually lacking amongst the pre-gens for the con game, who are mostly murder-hobos) would feel some qualms about putting them to the sword. Those with bloodlust, callousness or the dwarven code of honor will not.

My home game is not so cut and dried, as seen here.

How do you treat the foes of mankind? Are they hellspawn, aligned spiritually with the lower planes, or are they a people with their own agendas and culture?

4 thoughts on “Malign or Misunderstood?

  1. Pingback: GURPSDay Summary January 18, 2019 – January 24, 2019 - Gaming Ballistic

  2. I think a basically malign people with their own agendas and culture is realistic and interesting.

    ‘Misunderstood’ comes across to me as mostly driven by understanding societal worldbuilding only in the context of a western industrialized society, and trying to map game races to subcultures within such a society. Worldbuilding as metaphor, based on a flawed understanding of humanity.

    I think a fuller understanding of the range of human social variation provides a lot of entertaining inspiration. For example, a lot of times nomadic populations and sedentary populations really don’t like each other. The past thirty years of physical anthropology are more fun than the dubious work of Margaret Meade.

    Alignment rules could be understood as cosmology and morality, or culture, or ideological factions. As culture, you could have two clusters of societies. These societies have cultures built so that peace is not really feasible between the clusters. Very incompatible customs with regard to the establishment of peace. One cluster is assumed to be where the players are coming from, and the other is your ‘always chaotic evil’ monsters. No alignment magic, you might be raised in one culture and choose another, and you guess ‘alignment’, who is trustworthy and who is an enemy, by dress and habits.

    I also find the Cold War, the conflict between the Communists and Anti-Communists, inspiring. Communist and Anti-Communist could be understood as an alignment axis. Or one could worldbuild similar ideological differences into a pure fantasy game.

    Going back to cosmology, some of the recent Lovecraft Mythos games define Sanity in terms of human religions. Sanity and knowledge of the Mythos and Mythos magic are conflicting attributes. This can be interpreted as 1) religious and cultural values are intertwined 2) a population which is a mixture of believers in two wildly different religions will not be uniform in its superstitions and magical thinking 3) Mythos lore and magical ability are founded on religious beliefs that shape the mind to find that flavor of mysticism most plausible. 4) Likewise Sanity, human religions, and more human normal superstitions and magical practices. I might want a fantasy roleplaying campaign with a stronger than usual Mythos flavor, or I might want to use alignment as a way to match culture and the mechanics of magic.

  3. For me, it all depends on the game but more and more I find myself straying away from the ‘orcs are always evil’ mantra. I just dont like the notion of a sentient species always choosing evil as that can lead to some very ugly thoughts about peoples in the real world. Something I definitely plan to explore in the rpg Unity ( given that the ‘evil’ races were created by the same benevolent deity that helped create the other species.

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