Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pondering the Greater Good

Yesterday I talked about how if the cruelty of man is in many ways inconceivably evil to the average person, how could we understand supernatural evil?

Today I wonder the same thing... about the forces of good.

I'm not interested in goodness in terms of calm and peaceful times. In the context of a role-playing game, such times might as well not exist. If things are calm and happy and that situation is not at all threatened, chances are your game's focus will quickly move elsewhere. Content characters make for bad adventurers.

Good under stress, now that's interesting. Good that's threatened, good that has lost the ability to deal with the world on its own terms... that's what this post is about. Anyone can go berserk when threatened and tear their enemy to teeny tiny bits when threatened, and not be blamed for it. But acting justifiably is not the same as being good in my eyes. Adversity introduces a man to himself, as the saying goes.

It's difficult to think of goodness under pressure in the real world, as life is almost never about good guys and bad guys. That's one reason why it's fun to play around in imaginary worlds where good and evil are more concrete entities. Even in games with a bit of moral complexity, figuring out the right thing to do may be difficult, but making the good choice is often pretty easy.

I've thought of an unquestionably good thing.

D-Day. The assault on Normandy Beach has to be considered a turning point of World War II, correct? And stopping the Nazis can't in any way be considered a bad thing, right? Taking up the fight against evil is a good thing to do, right? But for the soldiers on the ground, that was an absolute killing field. A slaughter. The Allied Command knew they were sending countless young men to die, ripped apart by bullet, bomb, and mine. But wasn't that the right thing for them to do in the situation they were in?

Real-world religion probably has the examples most applicable to the point of conceptualizing supernatural good. Look to the Old Testament. There is some righteous destruction (in more than one sense of the term) happening there, and things which seem inexcusably cruel to me. But certainly Jews and Christians do not think that the actions of God in the Old Testament are evil. Quite the opposite.

I would think that if the PCs in a role-playing game were to become agents of a Good power, or at least become involved in the schemes of the same, they wouldn't feel very good about the situation at all. I daresay from the perspective of mortals (who would absolutely not be informed of the Grand Plan, and probably be unable to ever comprehend it anyway), there would be no observable difference between the forces of Good and Evil.

In a multiverse where Absolute Good and Absolute Evil are in conflict, who's to say that the utter destruction of the PCs' entire plane of existence isn't just a tragic necessity, a smaller loss for infinitely greater gain elsewhere, in Good's efforts to fight Evil?

"Would you ever really want to see an angel?"

7 comments:

  1. "But certainly Jews and Christians do not think that the actions of God in the Old Testament are evil."

    I think many don't know about some of God's OT behavior but even more know and pretend not to.

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  2. Agents of Good who end up being the cause of great destruction because they believe it's necessary is great fodder for a game.

    It's a fine line between great and poorly done cliche in game, but I also like to give the agents, when they are the PCs, at least some knowledge of the reason why it has to be done. It gives each decision they make greater gravity, when done right there's even a little hand-wringing of the non-whiny sort.

    Most importantly, it gives them a chance to wonder if they really have to do so much damage to do what's supposed to be the right thing. I love it when my players go off-book.

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  3. Another angle on the D-Day element is the fact that half of the units manning the bunkers and beach defenses in Normandy were comprised in large part of non-Germans--Russian POWs, draftees from occupied countries, etc. Brings up the issue of when forces of Good are applied against the wrong target...

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  4. Good and evil is a lot more complex than most rpg's portray it. Sometimes that makes me sad.

    Good post. Well said.

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  5. Well. Like James, I have no problem if the morality of the game reflects that of its players, and in most cases I find it preferable to a simulation of a supposedly medieval or otherwise alien mindset. I therefore think that if the referee wants to include exemplars of absolute good and evil in his or her campaign, there should be a meaningful distinction between the two, even from the point of view of mere mortals; otherwise I have to question the point of even distinguishing between the two in the first place. The term "good" has no meaning in a campaign where the forces of Absolute Good are -- from our point of view -- just another bunch of extraplanar bastards. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; it is certainly a viable option to play in a setting where Good is in fact bad (for us). However, I would not blame the players if they thought that the whole thing comes across as a rather heavy-handed critique of certain codes of morals.

    I do agree with James that the ineffability and even cruelty of supernatural good is something that should be emphasized whenever the players come into contact with its agents. However, I think there should always be more a mortal can relate to when it comes to good than when it comes to evil. Uncaring and inhuman evil is evil, but uncaring and inhuman good is not good. I also do not accept the premise that beings of near-infinite compassion, wisdom, and resources would ever be confronted with a binary choice between the destruction of an entire plane of existence versus the destruction of something even greater, as is the case in James's example. As the Jewish saying goes, if you are faced with two alternatives, always choose the third way.

    Transcendence would therefore be key in my portrayal of the supernatural forces of good. A paradox, of course, given that good is defined in terms of its opposition to evil, but running with it might produce interesting results. An unfallen angel in league with demons? What exactly would that even mean for the characters' worldviews? How about an angel administering terrible punishments to the faithful while the unfaithful continue to enjoy all the pleasures of the world? I am reminded of the story of the Zen student who attained enlightenment after a Zen master had thrown enough stones at him to knock him unconscious.

    What I'm saying is that I think moral ambiguity in terms of modern Western values is achievable without blending the Greater Good and Great Evil into one big soup of Not Good For Us. Ideally, an enouncter with supernatural good should be like a Zen koan; always difficult, sometimes painfully so, but given the right circumstances you'll come off the better for it.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful posts on the matter, James.

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  6. I concur. If “Good” is just another collection of inexplicable extraplanar bastards, then they’re not Good in any sense of the word that’s meaningful to us. If you want to run it that way, use Moorcock’s Law & Chaos as your labels, not Good &Evil.

    I think you can have credibly mysterious and unworldly extraplanar Good (with a capital G) beings, while still making them kind, understanding, forgiving, and otherwise representative of markedly different values than beings of Evil (with a capital E). Check out Wolfe’s books Wizard and Knight for some examples. And just because they’re great books. ;)

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  7. I concur. If “Good” is just another collection of inexplicable extraplanar bastards, then they’re not Good in any sense of the word that’s meaningful to us. If you want to run it that way, use Moorcock’s Law & Chaos as your labels, not Good &Evil.

    I think you can have credibly mysterious and unworldly extraplanar Good (with a capital G) beings, while still making them kind, understanding, forgiving, and otherwise representative of markedly different values than beings of Evil (with a capital E). Check out Wolfe’s books Wizard and Knight for some examples. And just because they’re great books. ;)

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