Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More on Good and Evil Missing From My Setting, Clerics, and their Role

My brother and I had a discussion about the concepts of good and evil in the new setting I am working on.  I explained to him that the concepts of god and evil as motivating forces don’t exist in any meaningful way.  Imagine a world whose entire history has been war in the pursuit of power. Don’t picture life as you know it in sunny ol’ Connecticut.  Picture life having grown up in one of those African countries where millions are hacked to death with machetes, where women are raped and their bodied mutilated on a daily basis, where babies are torn from their mother’s wombs just because one tribe doesn’t want the other tribe to continue.  That’s more like the world everyone lives in here.  The fairy tales tell stories like this.  Their history is made up of this.  There has never been a god of goodness, peace and love.  It is and has always been kill or be killed, survival of the fittest.  Even Halflings are more jaded, cynical, and untrusting than in most settings.   If the average level of “goodness and fellowship among men” on earth as we know it is 5 on a scale of 1-10, in this setting it is 3 at best.  People are in survival mode, fearful, untrusting of strangers, prejudiced, and suspicious.  It’s like a dog that has been trained to fight in pit fights.  Go try to pet one and see what happens.  At best, you have groups banding together for mutual protection and safety.  Trust is hard earned, and comes after a long period of demonstrated behavior. 

Dovetailing with this was Clovis’ question about my most recent post, wherein she asked “If there is no active role of the gods or divine intervention; what is the purpose of the cleric?  Who is to counterbalance dark magic and demonic forces?”

That question assumes clerics play a role of good guy against bad guy.  The active role of clerics in my setting is to gain power through might, gold, and magic in this world, in order to attract followers for their gods, in order for their god to gain in power, which results in the cleric going up in levels.  That’s it.  There are no gods of good, nor gods of evil.  No gods of death nor gods of light, dawn, and new beginnings.  The clerics act more like the mafia, in that they act as a force of protection or aid for their followers, while trying to take other faiths’ territory (followers) and erode their power bases.  As long as the end result is greater glory for their god, the means don’t really matter except on an individual basis, as to what each cleric is willing to do in pursuit of power. The religion itself doesn’t dictate means to an end, it just sets the overall goal.  Clerics try to attack, sabotage, and ultimately conquer other faiths, even at times other faiths of what were formerly their original pantheon.  In exchange, they give their followers aid and protection against threats, whether the threats be enemy faiths, evil demons, or the loanshark looking to collect money on an old debt. 

Devils, Demons, and the forces of darkness are no different, and very often less of a real threat, than the clan of elves over the hill, the tribe of orcs on the march through your pasture, or the cleric down the street who kidnapped your kid, blamed it on someone else, and “miraculously” rescued him in order to get you to convert to his faith.

Turning undead doesn’t exist as a clerical ability.  Any spell with an alignment in its name, like detect good or protection from evil does not exist.  There is no balancing of dark magic and demonic forces, because clerics themselves are sources of dark magic and demonic forces.  Whatever it takes to get followers. 

For example, take the goddess of agriculture.  Normally considered in most versions of D&D to be an airy-fairy type goddess, usually peace and goodness, with pseudo-hippies as followers.  It’s different in this setting.  Imagine you’re cleric of the goddess of agriculture in a small farming village.  You’re the main cleric in the village, the serving the god with most everyone in the village as his followers.  The cleric wants to protect his god’s power base by way of protecting the followers interests so they don’t leave him in favor of worshiping another god.  If the settlement up the river damned the river which provides irrigation water to your followers’ farms, you need to do something about it.  If the cleric of the god of agriculture has an amulet to raise the dead, he may sneak into the graveyard of the village up the river, raise the recently deceased members of the village, and let them loose on the village.  While dead grandpa is killing his baby grandson in the crib and then feasting upon him, the Bastion who works with this cleric will lead a hit squad to assassinate the village elders and village clerical leaders, while the rest of the followers smash the damn, and loot possessions of all those who don’t convert to the faith of the goddess of agriculture.  Since her might is obviously superior to the patron god of the village that damned the river, as demonstrated by the death and destruction they just witnessed, it is likely there will be some converts.

People tend to view others from their own perspective and life's experiences, and expect people to be similar, which is why this approach seems foreign to many. After talking with my friend who survived Haiti under the Duvalier family, and my friend from Serbia/Yugoslavia who survived the perpetual wars there, I know that this way of thinking about and viewing the world would not be at all foreign to them at all. It would be an intuitive way of looking at the world.

Maybe if I didn't call them human, elves and dwarves people wouldn't be shocked at the grim outlook, and it wouldn't be a shock to the sensibilities at how these folks in my setting act and view the world. The definition of human is a broad vague concept, depending on your point of view. Chimps share 99% of the same DNA as human beings, but they clearly are not human, right? How much empathy for your fellow human beings do you need to have to be considered human? People would be shocked at how many sociopaths are running around. Most of them are made, not born, but a shocking percentage of people are born 100% sociopathic---meaning they are born lacking any capacity whatsoever for human compassion. They would feel absolutely nothing if they stuck a knife through a kid's eye. Many of these people end up in jail, but what about the smart ones who know they are different, and realize that because human beings naturally never expect monstrous behavior from other human beings, they can take advantage of that lack of understanding and work their way to the top? These people end up at the top of the political, military and corporate establishments, where such behavior is rewarded because of the success it gives these establishments.

Definitions and social norms change depending on the time and place people live, as well. Consider the Romans—it was common practice to conquer a land, kill off any person able to fight, and sell the rest into slavery. Slavers followed the army around. They would literally commit near genocide almost everywhere they went. It was common practice, normal, and the slave thing was just another way to make money, not only for the slavers but for the soldiers who joined in hopes of plunder---just just gold, but rape and slaves.

Anyhow, if you want to put into story game terms, I am exploring the theme of greed, ambition and power through an rpg. Which I think is closer to the roots of where rpg's came from than many realize, what with the purge of all of that in second edition with the code of ethics and all that. Many people have never been exposed to such a game, and for many it is a taboo subject, violating political correctness.

I know the theme is not for everyone, but for me its far more interesting than the cliché and simplistic battle of good v evil.

(This viewing others through your own lens thing also explains why modern liberals are failures)

Read all columns by that author here.


  1. I think it sounds interesting, but would worry about finding enough players who are willing to adopt that mindset for the game. It seems most, at least in America, prefer the very westernized/modern USA take on all things, even in a ancient/medieval based fantasy world where that attitude makes no sense. Good luck with it, and please give us updates if/when you run this.

  2. This doesn't sound too far off from the Dark Sun setting for Dungeons and Dragons. There are no gods. Clerics there worship one of the four classical elements. Mages abuse the earth with their arcane power. Druids oppose them to save Athas' resources. (That's about as close as Dark Sun gets to noble causes.) Slavery is common and freedom is something cherised.

    A setting you may want to check out for inspiration?

  3. Interesting, I've never looked at dark sun. maybe i'll give it a read. is this the new dark sun or the original that you are describing?

    I do worry about finding players to game with, not only because of the non-standard stuff I put in there, but because its just hard to find people who like old school flavored games. My idea is to start up a connecticut old school meetup at the only game store in the state which provides space and tables for gamers. of course most every game there is a card game, and a once a week 4e game. i remember seeing lots of parents hanging out there while their kids did whatever it is they do with those magic type card games. i am thinking i might be able to entice them into dnd, if they played the original editions and had nothing to do.

    in any case, just designing the game and system is fun as hell. i find i am basically creating my own rpg while i write the setting, and they are very intertwined. i can't do one without tinkering with the other. it's also providing me a platform to write some short stories in, which i am enjoying.

    as long as i get to create, its all good.

  4. I'm more familiar with the AD&D version, but I've skimmed over the 4e version and most of the flavor is still there. My personal preference would be to play the AD&D version, but the books are a bit hard to come by and you'll find more players willing to play 4e, generally.

    Good luck with your setting!

  5. hey - i would like to play in that. time permitting.

  6. Sigilic, do you live near or in Connecticut?

  7. Perfect take on the cleric. I tried and failed to take my players into the good vs. evil game, and they pretty much rejected it outright. Thus, we are going in this direction as well.

    Now, I don't care about what they put as alignment. If they kill a guy, the gods are not going to come down on them for their morally repugnant action. However, the guy's brother might come looking for them...

    Their actions generate reactions based on common sense rather than moral judgement.

    I am working on an almost identical project, which is a house rule doc that has ended up including a lot of setting flavor. I'd love to trade docs with you. If you're interested, just let me know here.


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