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…”