Universalism in the Land of Good and Evil

I don’t know how many of you have seen “Grand Theft Auto Pacifist.” Probably very few. It is a short video series about a man who attempts to play grand theft auto five online while adhering to the law and moral values in general. Needless to say, the structure of the game itself makes it very difficult to live nonviolently and within the law, and the narrator spends a lot of time hilariously musing over the philosophical implications of this world.

I would like to start by saying that when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friends, I never expected to create a pacifist character. For one thing, even if I want to take that challenge myself it would be too much to ask of my fellow players. When one player said that he was going to be a conservative Pelorite, though, Pelor being a deity within the game, I thought I would be a liberal Pelorite. Particularly, I would be a universalist who believes that everyone gets to go to Pelor’s heaven.

Of course, since violence is built into the game, I had to have some modifications to typical universalism. Particularly, my character Zacchariah Holbrech developed a sense that murder and violence were simply sending people to the heaven where everyone eventually goes.

My father played with us, too, and inspired by the Pelorite devotion brewing in the party, he developed another Pelorite, one who actually was disinterested in violence. I think if given his way, he might have happily stayed at the Abbey and simply stopped playing with us once we went off on our adventure. Sometimes his character “Tom the Monk” will complain that really he just wants to bind books and that’s what he’s good at, not fighting. He fights anyway.

Zach is very comfortable with fighting, but for a while he tried to maintain a level of decorum. As a lawful good character, when he promised a captured bugbear that he would not have him executed in return for information, he was horrified to learn that overnight one of his non-Pelorite party-members smashed the tied up bugbear’s head in.

After some increasingly game-interrupting attempts at getting the party to agree not to kill captives that they had promised not to kill, Zach received a message from “Pelor himself” (AKA  the gamemaster – the guy that creates the whole scenario and tries to make sure everyone’s having a good time) that really keeping your word to evil monsters is not very important. As long as evil is slain, Pelor is happy, said Pelor. Zach took this message to heart, but when it came to a poor, mistreated goblin locked in a dungeon not in any position to hurt anyone, he couldn’t do it. Instead, he shouted and shouted about how he was going to kill this goblin until another party member mercifully relieved him of his Peloric duty. Eventually somebody who knew Goblin language talked to the goblin until the goblin said he believed in them (the party members). Then another party member made the theological argument that the goblin was therefore a Pelorite by extension.

It’s difficult to play any kind of character with whom I could remotely identify in this world constantly at war between two irreconcilable forces of “good” and “evil.” For example, continuing the fantasy tradition of writing that sounds like war propaganda, The description of the bugbear includes this passage, “when a bugbear holds its blade, it kills only when it can be assured that the murder will cause maximum pain and suffering to those its weapon does not touch; to a bugbear, the true goal of murder is to strike not at the victim, but at those who held the victim dear.”

This is, after all appropriate for a creature whose alignment, as defined by the game, is not to a particular faction or cause so much as just to evil. This notion of absolute evil makes the idea of everyone going to heaven a little confusing.

Nevertheless, despite his intelligence of only 10 (no better than average!), Zacchariah is pretty good at making theology work for him; he now takes a Rawlsian perspective. The bugbear did not choose to be a bugbear and therefore naturally inclined to hurt people. Taking a theological interpretation of John Rawls, although the bugbear’s actions are evil, when it loses its body the brain chemistry that gave it such pleasure at others’ pain is lost with it, and the soul that goes to Almighty Lord Pelor is pure. Thus, it is a kindness to kill evil creatures. I think  I’m just going to have to accept that Zacchariah is a straight up religious extremist like most of my party. Thank goodness this is just a game.

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5 thoughts on “Universalism in the Land of Good and Evil”

  1. I must say, I enjoyed your post. As the DM of a home brewed campaign, I’ve found myself struggling with the motivation of the enemies that are pitted against my players. Up until now (level 8), I haven’t given this a second thought – chaotic evil is… Chaotic evil. But what if I threw them a curveball? They’ve handled most situation with their weapons, and well I might add, but what happens when they encounter an antagonist that is layered and has understandable motivation? What if there is no black and white, but something gray and relatable? As a player (which I’ve never been), do you prefer the straight forward situations, or ones that require you to think in terms of ethics? I know every player is different, but I find myself curious if this sounds like something a player would enjoy. Heck, I should’ve just made a blog post ;)

    1. I have never been a dungeon master myself, although I would love to try and make a game with nuanced characters and challenging moral decisions. As a player, I think it would be fascinating to play a game in which I was encouraged to consider my enemies and try to understand them and the alignment system was thrown out in favor of something more applicable to real life. One thing that might be fun is to have the players stumble on a town with a corrupt and self-serving political class, but that will fall into chaos if they simply go in and murder all the illegitimate parliamentarians. Maybe an even worse group grabs power every time they depose the town’s leaders, and the players have to figure out if it’s even possible for them to save this town short of just sitting down and spending the rest of their campaign as well-meaning bureaucrats.

      1. I like that idea as it gives the players the immediate satisfaction of liberating the city, but shows that all choices have consequences later on down the line. I’m also working on a city concept that is unusually accepting, where Orc and High Elf can exist simultaneously. The more and more I consider it, the more I’m convinced that consequences are the key to engaging my players and having them truly make the world their own. Appreciate the musings. Try DMing sometime, it’s incredibly rewarding and creatively cathartic.

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