If Superman did not exist today, could we even invent him or would he be anything other than the half dozen or so postmodern critiques of Superman that have appeared from the pens of cynical authors? Role-playing games often end up trailing a lot of modern conceptions, in large part out of an overblown sense of nostalgia, but one postmodern concept keeps coming back to bite us, and that bite seems to get a little sharper every time: moral relativism.
The grand old dame in the room, D&D, is the very essence of positivist morality. The alignment system doesn’t simply exist as a roleplaying guide, but as something that exerts itself within the game. Ironically, the concept of evil as a force unto itself has even been heretical in the Catholic Church for 1500 years, but it’s been part of the D&D canon since they laid down the concept of detect evil. Evil and Good are forces that can be measured, weighed, invoked, or even abjured. As 20th century writers became more and more relativist in their outlook, this has become an increasingly significant challenge to game writers. I mentioned the problems that some gamers have with the misogynist agrarian god, Erastil, in Paizo’s home setting of Golarion, but the problem of positivist morality has raised its head in other places as well. Every time a writer takes on depicting the culture of an “evil” race – Drow, Orcs, Hobgoblins, etc. – the question inevitably rises again about how, where, and why it is justifiable to wander into the subterranean or fortress homes of these creatures, kill them all, and take their stuff. R.A. Salvatore has started digging into this a little in the ongoing adventures of Drizzt Do’Urden, whose dwarven allies have begun working out the terms of living alongside orcs, rather than hunting them all down. Such themes are interesting and show a broader panoply of moral consideration, but also diverge from that fundamental truth of the game – evil exists. If evil exists, is it ok to simply let it exist? We have, fortunately for the sociologist-gamer, come out of the time period where bestiary entries included such eugenic gems as “always chaotic evil,” as though the forces of anarchy and diabolism were encoded in the DNA, but we seem to keep whistling past the graveyard in the hopes that our XP-winning exercises in genocide don’t earn us reputations as psychopaths.
So alignment is a problem, at least if you’re not a believer in absolute terms of right and wrong, but D&D is hardly the only offender in this class, and the ever-growing field of what should be considered rhetorical has raised certain questions on the nature of the dramatic story itself. Vampire: The Masquerade seemed to postulate that a lack of empathy and kindness eventually led to degeneration into cannibalistic psychosis, but that only seemed to apply to Vampires – Werewolves and Mages were free to be unfeeling twerps – so maybe it’s a proto-Twilight thing. Mage: The Ascension was perhaps the closest to modern academic conceptions of truth and fact, arguing that reality itself was consensual. The problem with absolute relativity, at least in an RPG, is the implication for agency: It is, in theory, legitimate for me to defend my own agency and resist forces that attempt to impose their will on me, but is it ever legitimate for me to impose my will on another, even through something as seemingly innocuous as argument? If not, is any dramatic interaction involving competing drives morally justifiable?
If postmodern ethics make most of world history appear to be the acts of sociopathic hegemons, it makes most RPGs appear to be the power fantasies of would-be petty tyrants. To that end, I say – to the rubbish heap with most of postmodern ethics. We are perfectly capable of establishing ethics that respect the agency of most, while restraining those who would do us or others harm. Right and wrong, good and evil – these need not be punchlines for the “evolved” thinker (who is facing his or her own existential crisis as the notion of “progress” is challenged by the same critiques that launched the term “progressive”). We can, and we should, evaluate and re-evaluate what we believe in light of new evidence, but that doesn’t mean that the newest thought or critique invalidates all that has come before. The positivist outlook does carry some baggage, and introducing concepts of our own presumptions of intolerance in the form of orcs, kobolds, and the like can make for really good stories. We need not, however, dispense with the entire notion of right and wrong – that’s a baby that need not go out with the eugenic bathwater.