The problem with Evil races is not what you think


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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Sure- I’ve done it before in another thread on ENWorld when this came up before. I don’t remember the thread or details from back then, though.

What were the main enemies in Stargate: Atlantis? An advanced race of corpse-white creatures.

The Wraith - space vampires.

Sci Fi is a good source of advanced evil races but as you intimate in reference to the Omecs, even there they tend to be analogous to Elfs/Vampires (Wraith) or Hobgoblins (Kromagg). The problem of Orcs is them being cast as primitive other rather than merely hypermilitant.

The challenge is to present a race that is both savage-beastial and humanoid and not a therianthrope
 

pemerton

Legend
my own view is admittedly "skewed" by influences from sword-&-sorcery, Arthurian fantasy, anecdotal experience with combat, and etc. So, I ask questions as a way to explore where others feel the default lines of morality should be.
In another recent thread sparked by some of these same issues, I posted that I think that aesthetics don't always track morality.

When it comes to RPGing, and especially FRPGing, like you I am influenced by sword-and-sorcery and Arthurian/romantic fantasy. (I have no personal experience with combat.)

Sword-and-sorcery gives us (i) a lot of consensual violence - brigands, pirates, reavers etc who live and die by the sword - and (ii) a very low threshold for defensive violence. Whatever the truth of these as real moral positions, they are coherent enough (in my view) to be incorporated into FRPGing in a way that allows our heroes to come across as tolerably heroic rather than murderous thugs.

Arthurian romance also gives us consensual violence (jousts, and some chivalric warfare). It tends to frame defensive violence in more stark terms - the evildoers act in such a way that violence is the only answer (see eg the Battle of the Pelennor Fields). A third type of permissible violence that arises in the context of Arthurian-type romance is just retributive violence (this is a factor justifying the assault of Aragorn and Gandalf's forces against Mordor in the concluding scenes of Book 5 of LotR). Again, whatever one's views about punishment and retribution in reality, I think this can be incorporated into FRPGing in a reasonably coherent way.

For me, I'm not really sure what makes sense. I would agree that certain types of attack are seen as morally dubious. (That could be an entire discussion about combat and honor -lawfulness?- on its own. Is the long-range archer less good than the melee paladin? The unarmed monk using only their fists?)
I think a long range archer sniper is somewhat dubious, although if s/he only starts shooting once the battle is on that seems less egregious. And to make a typical FRPG game work, we have to make some allowance for archer PCs.

But whereas there is a plausible argument, within the broadly S&S or romantic/Arthurian framework, that a soldier who goes to battle has more-or-less consented to being shot at, the same doesn't go to striking without warning from secrecy. That doesn't rule out all ambushes - some are probably legitimate defensive violence, and if the place is known to be one where ambushes are likely (eg a disputed mountain pass) then there is at least a type of implicit consent. But assassination, sorcery delivered via long distance curses, etc all seems to me to fall on the dubious side of the line.

One the other end of the spectrum, there are canon examples of devils who were redeemed (and there's some level of consent and non-evil thought presumed possible by the elevation of tieflings to a PC race. With that in mind -in a game where killing creatures is assigned point values- I'm never sure where the general consensus about right/wrong is seen to be.

<snip>

It gets even more complicated when things like Mindflayers are considered. To reproduce, Mindflayers engage in an act which is a severe violation of a sentient being's body autonomy. So, how would a hypothetically "good" Mindflayer have a family without engaging in acts which would be seen as less-than-good by others?
I've got no views about hypothetically good Mindflayers. To me it seems to live in the same space as vampires in some contemporary fiction who drink cow blood or rely on blood drives or whatever. If others want to explore those possibilities of course they can go to town, but it's not something I'm going to default to in my own FRPGing.

(If the players, via their PCs, redeemed a vampire or Mindflayer that would be a different thing but no doubt they would have ideas about how to cross the diet bridge and so the problem wouldn't be mine to solve purely by hypothesis.)

As far as devils and typical vampires and mindflayers are concerned, I think the violence used against them is generally justifiable as defensive and/or retributive.

I prefer to play characters who talk first and hit second. Usually. I will sometimes play characters who are, how shall I put this? A-Holes. But I prefer for my characters to have reasons for any fighting they do. The reasons can and do change from genre to genre and campaign to campaign. There are some lines I will not cross for my own reasons. There are other lines I will not cross out of respect for the other players' needs.
I don't play very often. In FRPGing, my default PC is a knight of a religious order (so a cleric or paladin in D&D). But on the weekend a friend and I started a new Burning Wheel campaign with a PC each and mutual GMing.

My PC is a JRRT-style Dark Elf - I think the Tolkienesque way that BW handles Elves, Dwarves and Orcs is pretty amazing. My PC Aedhros does not intend to confine himself to morally permissible violence as I've described earlier in this post: when he and Alicia (my friend's PC) were robbing an innkeeper, I (as Aedhros) was ready to stab the innkeeper with my black-metal long knife Heart-seeker. But my friend, wearing his GMing hat, insisted that I make a Steel check to commit cold-blooded murder, and I failed and hence hesitated. This gave him, in his capacity as Alicia, time to cast a Persuasion spell and thereby persuade me not to kill the innkeeper.

I mention this as an example of the variety of moral textures that I think are possible in FRPGing.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
The Wraith - space vampires.

Sci Fi is a good source of advanced evil races but as you intimate in reference to the Omecs, even there they tend to be analogous to Elfs/Vampires (Wraith) or Hobgoblins (Kromagg). The problem of Orcs is them being cast as primitive other rather than merely hypermilitant.

The challenge is to present a race that is both savage-beastial and humanoid and not a therianthrope
Well…therianthropy and “bestial” kinda go hand in paw. It’s just a sliding scale. A spectrum, if you will. On one end, you’ve got more animorphic races like Kobolds, troglodytes, Sahuagin, lizard men, true anthropomorphic animals, etc. On the other, more human-looking types with exaggerated fangs, claws and suchlike. In the middle are the shapeshifters.

And as I noted, a race need not be bestial in any way to be evil.

But let’s say you WANT something truly bestial. 9 times out of 10, you’re probably going to use a predatory species.* You still don’t have to go with the usual suspects, the ones that get used in stereotyping humans. Why not something in the badger family- an evil race of anthro wolverine?

What about shrikes? Every one of those little guys is a tiny, flying Vlad the impaler.

Hell, I reworked the bat-like Seshayans from StarDrive into rulers of the Underdark, fallen into forgetful decadence, unaware of their former greatness.

Evil Hippos? Evil Elephants?

I did a homebrew race of anthro porcupines, once. Coulda been evil, with a penchant for coating their spines with toxins,

Or skip the middleman- evil Anthro poisonous frogs.







* Ibixians were CN, as I recall. Equicephs were LE.
 

Argyle King

Legend
@pemerton

I find a lot of what you say to be reasonable and thoughtful.

Most of my "struggles" come from when conversations about real-world bias intersectwith fantasy (especially fantasy built upon very different assumptions about what is "real") in a way which puts most of the topic into extremely binary terms of assumed offense on the part of the creator(s) of a narrative. In terms of conflict, morality has (I believe) areas of gray. Hypothetically, this is why many legal systems includes a human component in the form of a judge (and/or jury) rather than strictly adherence to written law.

(Related: On the other end of things, it's why I believe extremely lawful antagonists can sometimes be scarier than evil; there's a complete absence of empathy or emotional motivation for such a being. The cosmic horror of being so far beneath a being's view of "right" that nothing about you matters is like being a bug headed toward an inevitable windshield.)

Which, in and of itself is somewhat contradictory I guess because there are settings in which alignment (good/evil) is defined as tangibly binary.

In the past, I've taken the position that the "reality" of a fictional world would (to some extent) need to be considered to determine if something like "always evil" orcs is badwrongfun. But that position has been said to be bad because of a fallacy which I don't even personally agree is a fallacy from the perspective of either logic or ethics.

In world where they're literally bred and biologically programmed to contain "evil" -which is an actual tangible and objective thing, I don't see it as wrong for a PC to have the general attitude of "yeah, f' those guys."

In world where some higher level of sentience is ascribed and the conflicts are more nuanced than programmed bad guys, I think it's different.

In either case, I think it's a problem if all of the bad guys are made to look and act like a marginalized real-world group. So, I acknowledge that as why some depictions of D&D races are not acceptable.

Though, I am also find it worthwhile to ask what level of (if any) real-world inspiration is allowed to be used when creating a fantasy culture. When writing a story, can an author borrow aspects of a culture or religion upon which to base an idea? Is it expected that every aspect of a story is somehow wholly original? I would guess that the answer is somewhere between, but even asking those questions or trying to explore them often leads to assumed offense or assumed bigotry in contemporary culture.

None of which is meant to imply that the various -isms do not exist in fantasy. In many cases, they very clearly do.

This took a very different turn from how I thought I would respond. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I do not think the societal rules for what's okay and what isn't are always very clear, and I think there are times that it's even less clear when things such as art, narrative, and story are explored. If violent conflict is also in the mix, I think it's even less clear.

What are the generally acceptable rules of engagement concerning whether or not a PC stabbing a foe is okay?

As screwed up as it may sound, IME there have been times when it seemed reasonable to choose my own survival over something (or someone) else -even without wizards or demons being involved. Years afterwards, I did struggle with whether or not that made me a bad person, but it seemed to make sense at the time. I can't say with certainty that my own individual decisions would be different or better in a D&D world.
 

@pemerton

I find a lot of what you say to be reasonable and thoughtful.

Most of my "struggles" come from when conversations about real-world bias intersectwith fantasy (especially fantasy built upon very different assumptions about what is "real") in a way which puts most of the topic into extremely binary terms of assumed offense on the part of the creator(s) of a narrative. In terms of conflict, morality has (I believe) areas of gray. Hypothetically, this is why many legal systems includes a human component in the form of a judge (and/or jury) rather than strictly adherence to written law.

(Related: On the other end of things, it's why I believe extremely lawful antagonists can sometimes be scarier than evil; there's a complete absence of empathy or emotional motivation for such a being. The cosmic horror of being so far beneath a being's view of "right" that nothing about you matters is like being a bug headed toward an inevitable windshield.)

Which, in and of itself is somewhat contradictory I guess because there are settings in which alignment (good/evil) is defined as tangibly binary.

In the past, I've taken the position that the "reality" of a fictional world would (to some extent) need to be considered to determine if something like "always evil" orcs is badwrongfun. But that position has been said to be bad because of a fallacy which I don't even personally agree is a fallacy from the perspective of either logic or ethics.

In world where they're literally bred and biologically programmed to contain "evil" -which is an actual tangible and objective thing, I don't see it as wrong for a PC to have the general attitude of "yeah, f' those guys."

In world where some higher level of sentience is ascribed and the conflicts are more nuanced than programmed bad guys, I think it's different.

In either case, I think it's a problem if all of the bad guys are made to look and act like a marginalized real-world group. So, I acknowledge that as why some depictions of D&D races are not acceptable.

Though, I am also find it worthwhile to ask what level of (if any) real-world inspiration is allowed to be used when creating a fantasy culture. When writing a story, can an author borrow aspects of a culture or religion upon which to base an idea? Is it expected that every aspect of a story is somehow wholly original? I would guess that the answer is somewhere between, but even asking those questions or trying to explore them often leads to assumed offense or assumed bigotry in contemporary culture.

None of which is meant to imply that the various -isms do not exist in fantasy. In many cases, they very clearly do.

This took a very different turn from how I thought I would respond. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I do not think the societal rules for what's okay and what isn't are always very clear, and I think there are times that it's even less clear when things such as art, narrative, and story are explored. If violent conflict is also in the mix, I think it's even less clear.

What are the generally acceptable rules of engagement concerning whether or not a PC stabbing a foe is okay?

As screwed up as it may sound, IME there have been times when it seemed reasonable to choose my own survival over something (or someone) else -even without wizards or demons being involved. Years afterwards, I did struggle with whether or not that made me a bad person, but it seemed to make sense at the time. I can't say with certainty that my own individual decisions would be different or better in a D&D world.
This is absolutely spot on, on many levels. You’re right that societal rules are not clear on many aspects and in fact can and do change, even within a society, a sub group on a regular basis.

Which is why it is a problem when a group demands changes across the board to fit their vision, dismissing counter arguments as out moded. It’s a dance that’s been done many times before and like fashion and trends, yo yo back and forth.

For example, outside the topic du jour, discussions around game complexity. On many levels, 4E had attributes of a complex game and 5E, as a reaction to that, stripped many elements back (as did many other games conceived at a similar time). Looking at the current online discourse, there is seemingly an appetite once again for more complex elements.

Back to the topic at hand, a rule of thumb is to do what works for your table, ignore wider discussion and don’t worry about it. Anything you do can and will offend someone, somewhere on some level (michaelangelo’s David statue for example)*. Play the game, create the fiction your way and damn the rest.

*before the usual suspects pile on, no this isn’t me stating or advocating you have carte Blanche to go out of your way to create something specifically, purposely offensive to certain peoples.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Well…therianthropy and “bestial” kinda go hand in paw. It’s just a sliding scale. A spectrum, if you will. On one end, you’ve got more animorphic races like Kobolds, troglodytes, Sahuagin, lizard men, true anthropomorphic animals, etc. On the other, more human-looking types with exaggerated fangs, claws and suchlike. In the middle are the shapeshifters.

And as I noted, a race need not be bestial in any way to be evil.

But let’s say you WANT something truly bestial. 9 times out of 10, you’re probably going to use a predatory species.* You still don’t have to go with the usual suspects, the ones that get used in stereotyping humans. Why not something in the badger family- an evil race of anthro wolverine?

What about shrikes? Every one of those little guys is a tiny, flying Vlad the impaler.

Hell, I reworked the bat-like Seshayans from StarDrive into rulers of the Underdark, fallen into forgetful decadence, unaware of their former greatness.

* Ibixians were CN, as I recall. Equicephs were LE.

One of the many things I liked about the 2002 Master of the Unverse Reboot was that the bat-like Speleans and trogdolyte-ish Caligars were both monstrous races at war but both ‘heroic’, Indeed other than Snakemen practically all the Races of Eternia were treated as essentially honourable people with members who could be swayed to villainy or heroism

It might be the way to go - there are no evil races, just people who should be judged for their individual actions
 
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Doug McCrae

Legend
Tolkein’s Orcs were his fallen angels
Tolkien didn't think of his orcs as fallen angels, at least if fallen angel is considered synonymous with demon as it is in Christianity.

JRR Tolkien, The Annals of Aman (1958) in JRR Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring (1993):

Orcs we may name them; for in days of old they were strong and fell as demons. Yet they were not of demon kind, but children of earth corrupted by Morgoth, and they could be slain or destroyed by the valiant with weapons of war. (pg 109)​

In Letter #71 (1944) he seems to view them as separate categories (emphasis mine): "a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels." A similar separation is employed in Letter #131 (1951) (emphasis mine): "elves, dwarves, the Kings of Men, heroic 'Homeric' horsemen, orcs and demons, the terrors of the Ring-servants and Necromancy, and the vast horror of the Dark Throne." Letter #144 (1954): "Orcs (the word is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability)." "Phonetic" means the sound of speech, not its meaning.

However Tolkien did regard other entities in his fiction as demonic or even Satanic. The Annals of Aman: "in Utumno he [Melkor] wrought the race of demons whom the Elves after named the Balrogs." (pg 70) Quenta Silmarillion (1951-1952), in Morgoth’s Ring:

Melkor built his strength, and gathered his demons about him. These were the first made of his creatures: their hearts were of fire, but they were cloaked in darkness, and terror went before them; they had whips of flame. Balrogs they were named by the Noldor in later days. (pg 159)​

In Letter #153 (1954) Tolkien refers to Morgoth as "Diabolus". Letter #156 (1954): "the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron". In the same letter, Sauron's deception of the Númenoreans is a "Satanic lie".

It can be concluded that balrogs are the closest analogues in Tolkien's fiction to demons, while Morgoth and Sauron are Satanic. Orcs are something else.
 
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pemerton

Legend
Most of my "struggles" come from when conversations about real-world bias intersect with fantasy (especially fantasy built upon very different assumptions about what is "real") in a way which puts most of the topic into extremely binary terms of assumed offense on the part of the creator(s) of a narrative. In terms of conflict, morality has (I believe) areas of gray.

<snip>

there are settings in which alignment (good/evil) is defined as tangibly binary.

In the past, I've taken the position that the "reality" of a fictional world would (to some extent) need to be considered to determine if something like "always evil" orcs is badwrongfun. But that position has been said to be bad because of a fallacy which I don't even personally agree is a fallacy from the perspective of either logic or ethics.

In world where they're literally bred and biologically programmed to contain "evil" -which is an actual tangible and objective thing, I don't see it as wrong for a PC to have the general attitude of "yeah, f' those guys."

In world where some higher level of sentience is ascribed and the conflicts are more nuanced than programmed bad guys, I think it's different.

In either case, I think it's a problem if all of the bad guys are made to look and act like a marginalized real-world group. So, I acknowledge that as why some depictions of D&D races are not acceptable.

Though, I am also find it worthwhile to ask what level of (if any) real-world inspiration is allowed to be used when creating a fantasy culture. When writing a story, can an author borrow aspects of a culture or religion upon which to base an idea? Is it expected that every aspect of a story is somehow wholly original? I would guess that the answer is somewhere between, but even asking those questions or trying to explore them often leads to assumed offense or assumed bigotry in contemporary culture.
To me there seems to be a lot going on in what you've posted. Probably too much for me to fully respond to all of it.

I personally find the notions of bias and bigotry useful in some contexts and not others. For instance, there are studies (at least in Australia; I imagine also in the US, Canada and the UK) which indicate that resumes that are otherwise identical attract different degrees of interest from prospective employers depending on the race/ethnicity that is suggested by the job applicant's name. That seems like a phenomenon where notions of bias (be that deliberate or "implicit") might have work to do.

When I'm looking at a literary work, I'm not normally forming a view about the author. I'm interested in the ideas that are conveyed by the work. These might include elements that reflect or were shaped by bigotry - eg a certain conception of how certain racial/ethnic markers correlate with threats to human life and civilisation. Whether or not the author is/was a bigot would be a different question.

I think that there are two issues, at least, that one might want to keep in mind when drawing on real cultures - particularly "minority" cultures (ie cultures that tend to be on the receiving rather than dealing end in contemporary political structures) - in the fantasy context. One: don't replicate correlations/interpretations that are grounded in, or express, bigoted ideas. Two, and on the assumption that you are not a participant in the culture in question: be cautious that your work isn't crowding out the work of those who are participants in the culture in question bringing their conception of their culture to life.

I don't see that either of those issues dictates a particular answer in any given case. But there are probably some approaches to authoring fantasy worlds that they do rule out.

As screwed up as it may sound, IME there have been times when it seemed reasonable to choose my own survival over something (or someone) else -even without wizards or demons being involved. Years afterwards, I did struggle with whether or not that made me a bad person, but it seemed to make sense at the time. I can't say with certainty that my own individual decisions would be different or better in a D&D world.
To me this seems to raise a pretty different issue! One reason I prefer to work in political than moral philosophy is that I incline towards particularism in morality; and look to social and political institutions to resolve matters of interpersonal justice.
 

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