OUT OF ALIGNMENT: Cultural Morality in RPGs

Good and Evil, particularly in the context of Good versus Evil, has been a mainstay of roleplaying games since the very beginning. There are multiple very good reasons for this, not the least of which is that Good and Evil are concepts which go back right to the very earliest storytelling cultures. As a general rule of thumb, roleplaying games cast the players as heroes. And every hero needs a monster to fight. Whether it’s Beowulf against Grendel or the Rebellion versus the Empire, Good and Evil are hardbaked into our storytelling, for better and for worse.

It’s that ‘worse’ that’s been coming up a lot lately. For an example, we need look no futher than the humble Orc. Ever since Lord of the Rings was released, Orc has become a synonym for evil monster. Thanks to franchises like Warhammer 40,00 the Orc, or rather the Ork, has even spread from fantasy to science fiction. In the vast majority of depictions, they are incredibly homogenous. A horde of brutal, angry and violent thugs, destroying all in their path. Sometimes they have a society of their own, but it rarely extends beyond a loose tribal structure ruled by the strongest.

There’s a valid conversation to be had about the fact that orcs are often described with fairly racist descriptors. I.e. that they are explicitly non-white. But I’m going to put that aside for the time being. What I’m going to focus on is the other way in which orcs are being presented as ‘problematic.’ Put simple, a lot of poeple take issue with the idea that orcs are evil by their very nature, and that even a good orc must battle against evil raging in its blood. This is a trope that’s played straight in our old favourite Dungeons and Dragons. It’s worth pointing out that Wizards of the Coast have listened to tehse complaints and are working on the matter internally. By and large, I like what I’ve seen from their recent statements. I’ve never been a fan of D&D’s racial modifiers and moncultures. Or their alignment mechanics for that matter. Anyway, for the purpose of this article, though, I’m going to be looking at things through a different lens.

Let’s imagine a species. Call them Orcs for the sake of argument. Our hypothetical Orcs are the bad guys of our world. They run around the Galaxy in warships destroying all in their path. When they take prisoners, it’s only so they can torture them. They’re coming for human territory and are going to kill us all unless our brave human heroes can stop them. So far, so evil. But does this run into the problem D&D has? Well, let’s look at some possible explanations.

Explanation One. Orcs are Evil. With a capital E. Their side of the story doesn’t matter. There’s no negotiating, becaus eyou can’t negotiate with absolute Evil. This is a favourite fallback of science fantasy like Warhammer. Some things are Evil and must be killed. There’s no need to worry about the morality of the situaton, because the Orcs are symbolically Evil. Like Tolkien’s Orcs, they exist as a mirror of humanity’s own problems and failings. Kill them all and everything is fine. This works well for storytelling in general and fro roleplaying in particular. Most roleplayers want to kill evil monsters. This explanation gives them the perfect opportunity to do so, leaving their consciences clean.

Explanation Two. The Orcs choose to be evil, but are really no different to humans. This is, essentially, the Darth Vader option. Yes, they do terrible things, but there is a chance for peace, for reconciliation, even for redemption. This is where most modern roleplaying happens. The idea that both sides have their story to tell. Maybe the orcs are fleeing from something worse and have become desperate. Maybe the oncoming fleet is composed of renegades hunted by the law, and the players can ally with the Great Orc Republic to stop a war. This can work, but it does pose a problem of its own. If everyone is free to choose their own path, why is it that Orcs choose evil so often. It both explains the One Good Orc trope, while also making them less special.

Explanation Three. Orc morality cannot be compared to human morality. This is where I increasingly find myself falling. Imagine the Orcs as locusts. Locusts are incredibly destructive. They can devour crops and leave villages in ruins. But they are not evil. EVen if those locusts started using guns and spaceships to achive their means, they would not be evil. Why? Because evil does not exist in the worldview of the locust. No Orc considers itself evil. To them, there is only Orc and Other, and the Other must always serve the Orc. With this ecplanation, you can give Orcs a civilisation and culture of their own, while still keeping the threat. They can be as violent and bloodthirsty as you want, and still not be evil. I’d even say you don’t need to explain a lot of it. They are not human. They are not an evil race, they are simply another a species entirely, with its own laws and customs and beliefs. Everything about them is alien,a nd onc eyou take away the need for a reasonable morality, that alienness is all the more apparent.

I’m not saying these are definitive answers. Despite my best efforts, I am not a professional games designer. What these are, are ideas. And ideas are what makes science fiction the genre it is. You can have heroes blasting away at Evil hordes, you can nuanced debate on morality, you can have the truly alien. No one method is better thanthe other. As with most things when it come sto RPGs, find what works best for you and your group, and then roll with it. At the end of the day, only one thing matters: It’s a game, it’s fun, however you choose to make it so.

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