Is it possible to not be evil?

PT made an interesting comment on my „On Playing Evil” post; one that deserves it’s own discussion:

There’s also the VERY fantasy-centric idea that opposing evil by any means is inherently good. Literature and film are bloated with examples of tragic heroes that opposed what they saw as evil only to become worse than what they fought. But in any game with hordes of NPCs, you can slaughter millions and all the blood does is spit-shine that nifty halo. Good deeds, kindness, compassion, sympathy, are typically met with scorn by “Good” characters whose players prefer to simply kill the other side. Malicious, or callous acts are met with “its just a game” despite the hurt it causes IC *and* OOC. When taken in combination, this (to me) shows a fundamental lack of understanding of good vs evil.

This reminded me of Raph Koster’s seminal essay, “The evil we pretend to do”. I think that his colonialism and racism metaphor is a bit too strong, but he has a point. There are some MUDs; specifically certain MUCKs and MUSHes that don’t follow the diku tradition. There are a handful of NWN worlds that try to break out of the hardcoded diku model. Most MUDS, most NWN persistent worlds and virtually all MMOs follow the diku model. What is the main activity in diku style worlds? Unfortunately, it is butchery and theft.

Think about it for a moment. The core activity of a diku is a level of mass murder that would do a Nazi death camp guard proud and then… now we’re stepping up the heroics… robbery of the victims. Here is a tip. People don’t “drop” their robe when they keel over from a stab or gunshot wound. You have to remove the blood soaked garment from their still warm corpse. Your heroic and noble paladin is a whisker shy of being a Liberian warlord, if only because they probably don’t cannibalize the victims after robbing them. I’ll even go out on a limb and postulate that if a character could get experience points for it, you are guaranteed to see players justifying being a veritable General Buttnaked by saying that they are fighting evil. It’s no surprise that “evil” often takes the form of “nefarious” trappings like necromancy. How bad is a bit of necromancy after you have slaughtered an entire village? Given that even the good guys act like a murderous band of thieves, it is little surprise that the threshold for violence is low and that villainy – all too often – takes the form of being a jerk to other players instead of just to NPCs.

Players act this way because the world rewards them for it. Let’s look at a generic roleplay oriented NWN world for a moment. The live team (the GMs/DMs, builders and administrators) likely have a policy to the effect that roleplay is promoted over simply hunting. Then you look at the actual “hard” key performance indicators (KPIs) that the world uses to indicate character progression – usually experience points, money and items – and how they are gained. Hard KPIs are almost exclusively obtained via killing and looting. “Campfire” roleplay is a source of soft KPIs – general respect and forum kudos, but the reassurance that the world gives that it approves of your play style is withheld. If it is a source of hard KPIs (such as via direct DM granted xp), then it is only in relatively rare circumstances and is small in relation. I’ve heard stories of characters “leveling up” solely on “rp xp”, but I’ve never actually seen it. Perhaps Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster level up this way.

Why does the world reward them for it? Simply put, what would the players do otherwise? combat is one of the simplest and cheapest forms of content available. Even Bioware – famous for their story driven plotlines – uses a mind boggling quantity of combat in their RPGs. If they did not, then their 100 hour epic would be less than ten hours long. And yet, there are consequences to this design choice. Aside from the shady nature of the central gameplay, it creates an atmosphere where is it accepted that disagreements are solved violently. Two characters have a verbal exchange? It will nearly always end in violence and there are no meaningful consequences to such behavior. In the real world – as long as you are not in places like Liberia and Afghanistan – there are negative consequences even for the winner. It also practices autocannibalism. Because there are so many combat encounters during the career of a character, the difficulty of a combat encounter needs to be dialed down to prevent frustration. Because there are so many encounters, despite the difficulty being set to “easy mode”, serial martyrdom death systems are required; and this makes heroism impossible. In fact, one of the assumptions behind anti-permadeath arguments is that a character will be involved in a LOT of combat?

The same thing that PT pointed out as being a source of bad player behavior is also the reason why is it impossible to be a hero. Every character can plod to epic status, leaving a trail of blood in their wake. The only difference between characters being the number of times they themselves respawned. So, are there fun alternatives to killing and looting as primary KPI drivers? Some of the more complex crafting systems present viable alternative KPI sources and A Tale in the Desert makes this the primary KPI mechanism, but they are an exception and not likely to appeal to someone who wants a heroic alter ego. So my question is:

Is heroic fantasy (not based on genocide and theft) possible ?

Edited a typo: “It’s no surprise that “evil” often takes…”

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About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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7 Responses to Is it possible to not be evil?

  1. PT says:

    Heroes don’t emerge victorious over hordes. They defeat one particularly nasty villain (and they don’t always kill them, just prevent them from doing harm).

    You never see the broken families left behind by the dead bandits; the child never grows up to hunt the PC, or the wife never goes to the magistrate. When the Crimson Cult of Nod is killed, and the masks pulled off, it’s never contributing members of society that the players would miss; they don’t show up at the blacksmith to offload their loot, or call for the sheriff to collect the bounty only to find out that they were among the faceless cultists they killed. Part of the reason it’s possible to kill horde after horde is that they exist completely disconnected from the NPC society.

    Some sandbox games have done a good job at making every NPC “someone” that the player can interact with in a meaningful way; when you drive your Mack truck on the sidewalk, you might very well end up killing the owner of the only gun store, and crippling your chances of future success. This is almost always relegated to either single player games, or multiplayer games where NPCs respawn as if they never died. Others, like most NWN servers and Muds, in order to prevent griefing, make those characters completely unkillable.

    It’s a tough balance. I don’t really have a good answer for adding realism without hanging a big “griefers welcome” sign on the entire place.

  2. Silent Lamb says:

    I would prefer to see a system where the NPC dies for that particular player. Suzie can still stuff to the blacksmith but Bob, since Bob killed him, can’t. If you kill the NPC, they are permadead TO YOU. If you try to go in the blacksmith shop, Tom the Blacksmith just disappears, replaced by a grieving family. Just as when you loot certain things, they are one time only. Killing NPC’s should be one time only. The rest I’ll have to think about some more.

    • Silent Lamb says:

      And for the record, I agree. I generally play paladins because it’s really hard to be that goody-goody IG. The major reason is because you’re *required* to go on some genocidal rampage and wipe out all the (insert race here). My paladin gets played as a goody two shoes about a lot of things, much to the annoyance of of her party members in D&D games. One of her primary skills is negotiation. She’s very persuasive and good at settling things with words. This is something that very few RP games allow you to attempt. It always has to devolve to killing.

      However, in DM led games, this isn’t always the case. One incident in particular stands out. My paladin was sent to resolve a conflict between some orcs and a nearby human city/state. The priesthood of her order dispatched her after a plea and sizable donation from the locals to the coffers of her goddess. Being LG, she takes her orders, which are “to resolve the situation”, and off she goes.

      Upon arriving, she finds that the humans are violating a treaty that they signed with the orcs some years back. Humans are flooding into orc territory because gold was discovered there. Not only are droves of humans invading orc lands but many are enslaving the orcs to mine the gold and for other reasons. Taking offense at humans treachery and debauchery, she sides with the orcs, organizes them into an army, and lays siege to the human town instead because they refuse to withdraw from the orc territory. Finally, she forces them to capitulate and withdraw from orc lands.

      While the DM approved of her tactics, very few games off up that kind of scenario. I frankly think that one’s alignment should be able to change. IN the case of NWN-like games, paladins should be able to fall. If you steal, you should loose “goody” points. Inversely, evil characters should loose “nasty” points if they do nice stuff.

      One of the biggest issues is that there isn’t a good system for tying IG outcomes to IG behavior. These choices should also start to shape your other choices, like it does in real life. If you’re a convicted bank robber, you’re probably never going to be a police man. As you make those kinds of decisions, it should become more unlikely that you are even offered a “good” choice. And the inverse should be equally true. If you’re a paladin, the game should be less likely to offer you the “Kill everyone in the tavern because they’re stupid” choice.

    • PT says:

      Phasing of that sort is possible in proprietary server engines, where instead of the generic remote procedural call that always loads X npc, a condition is added that if the NPC is dead to that character, that asset simply doesn’t load with the rest of the level. I don’t know of any way to alter whether or not NPCs/objects are visible or interactable on a PC-by-PC basis in NWN’s engine.

      Warhammer Online and World of Warcraft’s WotLK expansion are showing the tip of the phasing iceberg.

      To their credit, WoW’s endgame Icecrown zone lets you actually be a hero through that exact process. A series of quests lets you liberate the zone for your side, which opens up new flight points and trade/quest hubs, where there were only large spawns before. It’s not high on the roleplaying meter, but it does add a new layer of immersion, and does away with the “this is the 10,231st time this quest has been completed and that goblin king is still alive” problem.

      • Dave says:

        It is not possible in NWN, just as instancing is impossible (albiet for different reasons). The only generally available engine I know of that allows for “phasing” (which is a marketing name for a special scoping technique) without c++ changes is Tony Richards’ Zen, in large part to be compatable with Memotica’s Stimuli. Memotica Stimuli presume that everything is “phased”, right down to what you are wearing.

  3. mule says:

    I agree with Dave the engine for leveling is mass killing of bad guys. This is mass genocide. It’s something that was often discussed in the DM forums for Markshire and why some of our policies were aimed at stopping the farming. The reality, however, is that characters want to and need to level, not everyone who plays that sort of game really enjoys intense, immerssive RP, and no one has yet come up with a better automated system for character leveling. As a DM I tried to hand out fair EXP bonuses to those who RP’d and did it well but inevitably those people who got the most EXP bonuses were seen as the DM favorites; whether they earned the bonuses or not.

    So the trick is to find a way of leveling characters that removes the need for the mass killing. Or better yet just remove the need for leveling. However, if you do that you need to install some other form of character progression that can be automated. If you took away exp then you could go the skill percentage route. I’ve seen a few RP systems where what’s leveled is skills and traits. Whitewolf’s system comes to mind. There’s a nominal level system I believe but really it’s about putting points in attributes and skills. However, then you come up against how to give the player the points. Well RP can work but see above about players wants.

    Now that i’ve outlined the basic problem what would be the suggestion? You could go the EvE route. They just made skill training a matter of time. All skills can be bought and then trained by your character. It takes the character X number of hours per skill (training whether you are on or not) and then the primary motivation becomes earning Isk (money) to buy skills and ships and equipment. This still leads to conflict (pirates) but it’s at least somewhat realistic.

    To sum it up this is a problem that has probably irked many game designers, at least in the computer genre. I would say that it is incorrect to call the kill mobs for exp the “lazy” way of implementing automated leveling but the only practical way that has been thought of. So far it’s a necessary evil. Someone comes along and invents a way of doing it that is both practical and more realistic (a word I hesitate to use with a game that has magic) then i’m sure it would catch on like wildfire. Bioware would surely implement it if they could think of it.

  4. Dave says:

    Mule is spot on about the alternatives. EVE’s choice of time based progression is certainly an option. In EVE, you train to fight, not the other way around. Another alternative is no progression at all, which certain has some degree of merit to it. Train to fight certainly has the advantage that actual fights can be made rarer and the drama level can therefore be hiked up. The problem is, what happens when you log in and there is nobody to RP with for some reason (everyone off on a raid/run/event, low population world in the off hours, etc.)? In the normal diku model, you can always “go hunting” and keep yourself busy until people are available to RP.

    Perhaps the solution- at least for mele combat – is some sort of variant on the train to fight using the deep physics idea that I had. Particular moves must be practiced to hone skill in them. Character need to spar against a particular move and a particular style to learn how to defend against it; encouraging players to RP – and very deeply – the role of a swordsman. If new moves could be added by players (custom content) and combinations of moves created that only the creator knows at first (until knowledge is passed on). This would replace mindless grinding and killing with something of the players’ creation.

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