This post initially started as a comment to this post on Hack & Slash, regarding what to do with the noncombatant offspring of evil humanoids, but it grew too lengthy to be a comment, so it is presented as a post here. It was a rather short post, but the comment discussion that follows really develops the topic well, and is one of the best examples of reader/blogger interaction I’ve seen.
The post outlines an adventuring party’s typical responses to captured enemy noncombatants based on character alignment, as quoted below:
What to do with the Orc Children?
- Lawful Good: Kill Them!
- Neutral Good: *Hangs head*, kill them!
- Chaotic Good: Kill them!
- Chaotic Neutral: Uh, maybe we shou-nahh Kill ‘em!
- True Neutral: Look at what you did to my garden! DIE!
- Lawful Neutral: Eliminate them!
- Lawful Evil: ENSLAVE THEM!
- Neutral Evil: Run free to die in the wild!
- Chaotic Evil: KILL THEM!
Players coming to the hobby more recently may not remember it, but monster lairs in 1e modules were frequently populated with plenty of noncombatants, with no real notes about what to do with them after the heroes dispatched the monsters who could fight back. Strangely, the practice seemed to disappear in modules of all subsequent versions of the game.
Taken in the spirit I believe it was offered, some of the original post was funny – especially the neutral’s take about what happened to his garden (since the 1e rules specified that Druids were the only true neutrals). It was funny, not because I think slaying the helpless is humorous, but because those responses rang true with virtually every 1e Dungeons & Dragons game I played in, mastered or even observed; it was funny in the same way a political cartoon can be funny. While it is important to note that my being in my early teenage years at the time may have influenced my views on the topic during the 1e days, I totally understand the place from which the post’s author is speaking.
Speculating on that realization marked the point at which my intended comment for that blog became a full post here. The fact that some of those commenting on the post disagreed with the morality of slaying evil noncombatants – when many 1e veterans, myself included, didn’t give the matter a second thought – showed a juxtaposition worthy of exploration. How far can a hero go when dispatching evil creatures? Are we just using the labels of good and evil to justify violence in the game? Given that it is a fantasy game with an emphasis on combat, does it even matter if we use labels for that purpose?
From reading comments made by the post’s author, it is clear that the author is of the mind that, in a fantasy millieu, orcs are evil incarnate and, in the context of a module like Keep on the Borderlands, suffering them to live is to invite destruction on your children and grandchildren. In light of how the module described what would happen if the heroes fail in their quest at the Caves of Chaos and the description of orc in the 1e Monster Manual, I agree with that perspective.
That perspective, however, led me to a larger question about the presence of evil noncombatants in the first place. In keeping with its wargaming roots, logic and realism predominated in both the rules and modules of 1e AD&D (with the exception of the flumph and flail snail, but exceptions are required to prove the rule); thus, having a humanoid tribal lair without noncombatant females and young is as bad, from a design standpoint, as designing a lair without sources of food, water or even air, or mapping a building with fireplaces that don’t align with a building’s chimneys. That dedication to realism – or at least to internal design logic – created the quandary of noncombatant young. The responses given in the original post typified how most adventuring parties acted when faced with that quandary, and all of them rang true during my 1e days.
The author’s position that orcs are evil incarnate – which, as even a limited perusal of the 1e rules and discussion board posts made by Mr. Gygax suggest, was probably the position of the author of 1e AD&D – morally justifies the action of killing the noncombatants. Of course, the fact that monsters are evil is used as justification for much of the violence in the game; this argument about noncombatants is only the most emotionally provocative form of that concept.
The idea is similar to one explored by this article on Yahoo! Movies, which posits that the original Star Wars trilogy is inferior to the subsequently released prequel trilogy, since the lines between good and evil in the earlier films were so clear. The author of that article, Timothy Sexton, states that the original trilogy was more successful than the prequel because audiences like to identify with “the good guys,” and that American audiences in particular favor stories about underdogs banding together against overwhelming odds, as such a plot mirrors the way American schools teach American history. Sexton continues that in the prequels, we see a different view of the Old Republic, one not so worthy of reverence as in the earlier films.In the prequels, the Republic is a government that, through its own democratic processes, steals freedom from its citizens. Sexton suggests that the moral quandaries presented in the prequels, which are addressed by flawed characters and result in terrible consequences, make for a more realistic, and therefore better, story, even if we Americans can’t – or won’t – identify with it.
The quandary of evil noncombatants presents a similar problem. It certainly makes for a more realistic story, and D&D heroes can be morally justified for committing what would otherwise be an atrocity because the noncombatants are “evil,” in original Star Wars Trilogy fashion. If that view of game morality works for the DM and players of a given campaign (and no criticism is forthcoming if it is), play on. But what if that morality doesn’t work with everyone at the table?
One commenter on the original post made an especially lucid observation about what happens when that case applies:
Imagine it: a player has succeeded in winning against impossible odds, and then the GM marches the victims of his ambition through his character’s newly-built castle’s yard, where he can see the widows and crying children of his enemies being forced off into prison camps. The player futilely demands for fair treatment of the vanquished, but the GM brings in a parade of vapid and cruel underlings tied down by their medieval mores, refusing and incapable of understanding his wish to not be tarred as a monster. It is clear that the GM is now driven to prove that the player’s struggle for victory was ill-conceived to begin with, and he’s the real monster of the story. This is certainly great drama, but the GM who is doing this in a D&D game (as we play it here) would be stepping outside his purview: the GM has no right to moral provocation in this game, it’s not the subject matter and it’s not for him to be the accuser. It’s as if the Banker in Monopoly refused to shut up about the poor tenants who’re going to be left homeless when I build my hotel.
The phrase “moral provocation” is what triggered the thought behind this post. It suggested to me that, as a DM, there is a line that perhaps I shouldn’t cross, or that I should at least weigh the consequences of crossing, with respect to moral quandaries.
If I had my way, I’d avoid including evil noncombatants in the game in the first place, even if results in less realism. If I had to include them, though, I’d like to see them released (as thy pose no immediate threat) or enslaved (if the players are convinced that a not-so-immediate threat is still too dangerous).
What do you think? Please consider sharing your thoughts on this topic in a comment to this post.