Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Passive Aggressive Adventure

In yesterday's post I proposed a moral dilemma: if there are two adjacent cultures possessing markedly different technologies, so that one is vastly superior militarily than the other, what action might a D&D party in a campaign take?  Should the party distribute weapons to the destitute culture, or should the party work towards keeping the status quo?  It should be noted that choosing to do nothing is in fact choosing the second option.

The DM can make this more uncomfortable by having the party witness a slaughter of the weapons-inferior culture by the weapons-superior culture.  The DM can make it more uncomfortable if it is made clear that the weapons-inferior culture appears to be more ethically in line with the players' view of the world (not the characters, mind, but the actual players at the table).

It's also easier to back the weapons-superior culture if the weapons-inferior culture is "evil" ... nobody minds crossing the border and killing a group of orcs.  However ...

If you really want to screw up a party, consider:

What if the weapons-inferior culture is simultaneously harmless and yet morally reprehensible?  If I propose a culture in which incest is commonplace, abandonment of babies is widespread, prostitution and drug use is rampant and local political unrest/corruption is in the mainstream, what then?  Should a loathsome culture be tolerated and defended because it is obstensibly harmless?  What if the "harmless" element of this proposed culture refers only to its military ambitions?  To what degree does one accept the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases or the smuggling of narcotics into the military-superior culture?  And what if all attempts to peaceably educate the inferior culture end in dismal failure?  How does one stop emigration, and thus the spread of inferior morality and ideas?  At what point do you decide that genocide against helpless people is an acceptable choice?

Remember, this is D&D!  Hitler had to invent reasons to kill gypsies and jews; but you have it in your power as DM to create a race of creatures - call them 'the Mesta' or whatever you want - that actually HAVE these characteristics.  If its possible to conceive of pixies and elves, chimera and lizard men ... then why not moral deviants and creatures that are biologically irredeemable?  Every conceivable moral trait chosen by the human species can be inculcated into a race of creatures ... but does that make it okay to kill or imprison them if they are not outwardly aggressive?

Where is the party prepared to draw the line?

Let us suppose they stumble across a group of nomads who are outwardly friendly and generous.  The party is invited to join their fire, to share in their food, to hear a few stories.  But as the evening goes on, and the nomads grow drunk, things begin to get out of hand.  One of the cooks accidentally breaks one of the party's lanterns.  The party discovers someone has thrown up in one of their backpacks.  A horse goes missing and an apologetic nomad brings the horse back, saying he just wanted to 'try it out' ... but now the horse is lame.  The party thinks about leaving, but the nomads get a bit miffed and insist angrily the party MUST stay and eat a little more.  The nomads have NO agenda!  They are simply incredibly inconsiderate ... to the point that they begin to follow the party, and they keep turning up again and again, to wreck plans for the party, to insult people the party happens to meet, to slip into the party's camp to "borrow" things or accidentally kick a burning log on the fire into the mage's spellbook.

How long would a party let this go on?  Especially if the nomads are NEVER aggressive, not in the least bit.  It's just the little problem that they will not listen to reason.

And what about a shopkeeper who won't sell something to the party the party desperately needs?  Not because he wants more money, but simply because he doesn't like the party's skin color - or their foreign-backgrounds, or the fact that they ride horses?  What happens when the party is constantly thwarted in clean, decent behavior because the locals are simply too irrational to understand that horses CAN'T go about without shoes (despite a local ordinance about the use of metal for "luxury," as defined by the town council), or that healing potion ISN'T an intoxicating beverage, or that your female character isn't willing to cut her hair because this is the local rule?  How many stupid and inconvenient requests have to mount up before your party begins to recognize that not every aggressive action starts with using a weapon?  And what if, when the party pulls out their swords, everyone flees?  Is it okay for the party to use that aggression to start bossing everyone around?  It's an excellent opportunity to bring up the might makes right question - after all, who is in the right here?

These are difficult adventures to run - but oh so engaging!  There's nothing like a party so frustrated they're ready to start screaming, while at the same time restraining themselves from hauling out sword and commencing to butcher.  It's equally pleasant to let them do it, since that gives you, the manipulative DM, the moral high ground in whatever comes next - that is, the inevitable justice that must descend for a moment of poor judgment on the party's part.  I can tell you from experience ... there's no moment more pleasant than having the moral high-ground over a party when they KNOW you deserve it.

(sadly, there are many DM's who simply co-opt that position ... but that's another post)

My point is that passive aggressiveness can be a nasty turn in your world, in that it always compels a decision, but never a clear cut decision.  Just as you can't decide how much longer you're going to tolerate the antics of your roommate or life partner, tolerating a village or harmless group of NPCs can drive a party crazy to the extreme.

It can also be a lot of fun - as while the fighter is getting his backpack filled with vomit, the mage and cleric gain a moment to enjoy the "at least it's not me" perspective.  Watching bad things happen to other people is always a laugh riot.

1 comment:

JDJarvis said...

The folks I game with would gladly exploit the situation and treat the under-equipped culture as a source of labor, men-at-arms, and generally pillage the less materially advanced folk. They have little difficulty pretending to be Conquistadors. They seldom worry about being far from the moral high ground.