About a year ago, I decided to introduce my girlfriend to the world of tabletop roleplaying games. I considered trying Vampire: The Masquerade, which can include a lot of roleplaying and storytelling. However, since she was nervous about the roleplaying part, I decided a D&D dungeon crawl might be a better transition, since she likes Diablo3 and board games. I would use the Keep on the Borderlands (B2-the module that came with the original Red Box, basic system).
So far, so good! She learned that the keep was on the edge of the wilderness. She listened to rumors in the tavern that spoke of monsters in the nearby mountains. A merchant described how he had been waylaid by vicious kobolds that had destroyed his wagon. He barely escaped with his life! Another unfortunate traveler agreed that the roads had become more perilous. Someone must do something! The captain of the guard even offered a reward if the party would help out in these dire times.
She made her way into the nearby hills on the edge of the mountains and quickly found a cave entrance to explore. Once inside, she was attacked by kobolds. As you know, kobolds are pretty much the easiest monsters in the system. I described them as small and goblin-like, with dog-like heads. She fought threw them and found herself in a store room, where another kobold had fled the earlier battle. She asked if she could capture it and talk to it, which seemed like a good plan. The kobold told her that the rest of the tribe were nearby and described their numbers.
This is when everything fell apart. She looked at me and asked sincerely “Why am I doing this? Isn’t this their home? It doesn’t seem right.” I should have expected a question like this; as DM, I’m supposed to be prepared for any contingency. But I wasn’t. “Ermm…what do you mean?” I asked. “Well, this is where they keep their food, right?” I nodded. “And this guy I captured lives here, right.” Again, a nod. “So, basically, the others I’m planning to kill are his family, and I just broke into their home and started murdering them.”
Hmmmm…I suppose so. But, wait!
I told her kobolds are evil and reminded her that they had been destroying caravans. She gave me a look that indicated that this was a totally insufficient response. Was I really suggesting that just because some kobolds had committed heinous crimes, we were now free to exterminate them on sight? Would we even do this to known criminals? Break down their doors and murder them and their family?
“Of course not!” I stammered. “But these are chaotic evil!”
“What does that mean?” she asked, clearly confused that I thought combining the words ‘chaotic’ and ‘evil’ somehow explained away genocide.
“Basically, it means you can kill them on sight because they would kill you. It’s like Diablo!” At this point, even I wasn’t really sure why she should be doing this, though.
She thought for a second. “So, they are demons? They want to destroy the world? Is that how all the monsters in this game are? Isn’t one of my characters chaotic….ummm…neutral it says here.”
“Yeah, your thief. It basically means selfish.”
She furrowed her brow a bit at this. “So, chaotic means you aren’t very good? And neutral means what?”
“No,” I answered. “Not exactly. Chaotic means you don’t have to obey laws. It’s the opposite of Lawful. The neutral part means your character is neither good nor evil, but in the middle.”
My attempt to use the alignment system, which we all know is broken (and will be the subject of a future article, once I’m ready to discuss something so over-discussed!), to fix the problem wasn’t working, and I knew it.
“I just don’t see what the point of the game is,” she finally replied. “Do I just kill monsters and take all their stuff? Why do I do that? I’m supposed to be playing characters here, right? It’s not like video games, where just killing things is the point, right? I mean, we could be playing Diablo.” She looked at me in a way that suggested playing Diablo would be a great idea right now!
She had a point. Roleplaying games shouldn’t just be murder simulators. They may have started out that way, and I’m sure many (including myself) basically played them that way when we first started gaming. I was only 8 years old, and the idea of killing monsters just sounded fun! I would stare at the pictures in the books for hours, imagining the worlds beyond the tiny windows of insight I’d been given. But my girlfriend is a grown woman. If she’s supposed to be playing characters, she wanted them to be people, not just stats on a piece of paper. One of them was even a paladin, she reminded me. Why would paladins do this?
I conceded that they probably wouldn’t, at least not without some real justification. And that was the end of the session. She was done, and I couldn’t really blame her.
We haven’t played a roleplaying game since that day, though I’m still optimistic about trying Vampire at some point. And I’ll definitely be careful about motivating her character!
Sometimes those of us who started gaming when we were young forget that a lot of what we enjoy is tinged with nostalgia. When I was eight, the world seemed pretty straightforward. There were good guys and bad guys. My characters were good, and monsters were bad. I didn’t know what words like genocide meant, much less consider that condemning a whole race for the actions of a few was very wrong.
Psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that our moral development occurs in stages. In this view, at 8 years old, I was incapable of reasoning abstractly; everything was concrete and absolute. Lawrence Kohlberg extends this idea by adding notions of an expanding worldview, which starts from a very solipsistic perspective but eventually becomes more universal and empathetic towards others. Carol Gilligan adds that women may experience this development differently from men (whether this is biological or social or some combination is still debated).
In any case, as adults, when we are trying to introduce others to our hobby, we need to remember that straightforward notions of good and evil are for children. Don’t forget to motivate the characters with nuanced ethical situations that require more than just killing everything you encounter.