RPGs: 5,000 Shades of Grey

The notion of good versus evil is a very common dichotomy. It runs through just about every corner of society, shaping our interactions and shading our perceptions. Ever since stories have been told, they have recounted tales of heroes and villains. Mainly in an effort to convince small children not to disobey their elders.

Throughout the years of conquest and colonisation down through the ages, propaganda increasingly played a role in presenting the world in two distinct camps: us and them. Games children played were undoubtedly subverted by the simple idea of someone is a good guy and somebody has to be the bad guy: cops and robbers, cowboys and injuns, Allies and Axis. It isn’t such a stretch to humans and orcs, marines and aliens, Hogan and Andre. Over the centuries, though, the idea of “black and white”, “right and wrong”, “good and evil” blurred slightly as the world grew increasingly more cynical but proved too strong a conceit to break entirely.

If life is a film, then good versus evil is the constantly re-worked script and our moral compass, the director.

Only that doesn’t appear to be enough anymore. It isn’t realistic or high concept enough. Watch a film or TV show or read a book today and chances are you’ll end up liking the supposed villain at some point. George RR Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ saga is a good case in point. Clearly we are meant to cheer on the Starks and boo the Lannisters – except the Stark’s are almost unanimously cretins and Tyrion and Jaime are just about the coolest characters in the books. The modern era is just not content with black and white, everyone has to be grey.

Dexter Morgan, Chev Chelios, Eric Draven, Lisbeth Salander, Jack Sparrow, Scarlett O’Hara, The Man With No Name, Rorschach, Severus Snape, Kara Thrace, Jim Stark, Tom Ripley, Jules Winnfield, Daria Morgendorffer, Tony Soprano, Walter White… I could go on. I won’t.

Of course, anti-hero protagonists are nothing new and almost universally far more interesting. From Biblical characters like Samson and Jonah to English literary staples such as Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, historic literature is full of them. Even a few of the author’s themselves were considered to exemplify the archetypal romantic ‘hero’ (ahem, I’m looking at you Byron). But the proliferation of such characters appears to have reached saturation point, where almost everyone on TV seems to have misplaced their aforementioned moral compass – or at least, it doesn’t quite point due North anymore.

So what does this all mean for roleplaying games? That’s the reason we are here after all. As I see it, since my roleplaying heyday in the early 90s, there has been a significant cultural paradigm shift that has effected settings, characters and, ultimately, the players themselves.

RPG Settings

At first glance, Call of Cthulhu seems very much about good versus evil. All those normal folk running around with a pistol and an old book (if they are lucky) trying to stop malevolent beings with unpronounceable names from destroying the world. Simple, right? Not really. The system is built around a horror story mentality, with frail humans searching haunted houses for nameless terrors. The game is predicated on the idea of survival – in a world where the last thing you’d really want to be doing is living long enough to face the Great Old Ones. You can almost see the story unfold in your head in 1920s sepia. Our vision of that time is coloured (pardon the pun) by Pathe news casts and Fritz Lang’s terrifyingly beautiful expressionist dystopia, Metropolis. Cthulhu is murky and subversive. While the inhabitants learn and develop, so their exposure to the Cthulhu Mythos slowly sends them insane. There comes a point when everything about the places the characters investigate becomes suspicious.

Call of Cthulhu Mad Genius  Source: www.sectarios.org
Call of Cthulhu Mad Genius
Source: www.sectarios.org

Cthulhu still has its nominal good guys and gals, of course, even if half of them are deadbeats, gumshoes and alcoholics. Where Chaosium Inc affords you the opportunity to play the traditional underdog hero, however flawed they may be, that is not the premise of White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Such monsters were once the domain only of the GM. They were the antagonists, the villains of the piece attempting to feed from virgins and unsuspecting NPCs. Now players were able to play them too, allowed to channel their darkest motivations and do things that ‘heroes’ weren’t supposed to do.

Roleplaying games with such settings have proliferated since the late 1990s. Board games picked up on the trend much later, mainly through villain versions of hero games. Role-play games have always allowed the players to inhabit worlds with hidden motives and fiendish incentives to do wicked deeds – from shooting a fleeing goblin in the back, to premeditated murder and general evil-doing. It’s no wonder 1980s rulebooks had such blatant disclaimers inside. All Palladium games such as Rifts and Heroes Unlimited came with clear warnings: “Some parents may find the violence, magic and supernatural elements of the game inappropriate… may be disturbing for young readers… none of us condone or encourage the occult, the practice of magic, the use of drugs, vigilantism or violence… We suggest parental discretion.”

Role-playing had been burned by the 80s backlash in some quarters against D&D, long before it was really understood and accepted as a fun hobby. Now that role-play games have become generally acceptable teenage pursuits, the conservative right has turned its attention to Marilyn Manson and his peers. But this hasn’t stopped companies from making their intentions and thoughts quite clear. As the lines between good and evil got blurrier, so writers and publishers have become more cautious about how their materials are viewed and used.

80's Media scare-reporting on Dungeons and Dragons. Source: www.flashbak.com
80’s Media scare-reporting on Dungeons and Dragons.
Source: www.flashbak.com

It is still normal around the world for governments and countries to take exception to fictional worlds and characters. German schools sought to ban Harry Potter for encouraging witchcraft (when they should have done it for killing its best character – no spoilers). Films and TV are cut all the time, censored and rated before being released. There isn’t the same level of censorship with books, including RPGs, who may carry warnings and suggested ratings but are generally accessible to all. There is a huge wealth of storytelling and backstory included in each and every RPG core book and even more in supplements and companion guides. The artwork, especially high fantasy art, is often criticised for objectification and titillation. Most of this is readily available and often given away as a marketing tool for selling-in future products. Very little of this criticism and outcry has stopped publishers from creating ever-darker worlds, blurring the lines further still.

There would have been a time when playing a vampire would have been unthinkable. It would have been dead cool, but they were the villains. Trolls were mindless enemies and orcs were axe-fodder. Now, in the modern world of Shadowrun, for example, Catalyst use these monsters as player races. Pathfinder too has every conceivable race available to players and they have seemingly relished the opportunity to explore the look and feel of these creatures. Being human and a creature of habit, I play elf characters almost exclusively in RPGs, and where possible in board games too. But elves are proud goody-goodies, dwarves are brave and stalwart, humans are skilled and honourable, halflings are humble and homely. There was always room for playing a creature with a different hue and cry (I use this common law term quite incorrectly, of course, but I liked its feeling of colour and language!)


And so with that segue we can turn our attention to the characters themselves, the poor saps who find themselves wandering the wildernesses and caught in the crossfire of these grey and grisly universes. It isn’t just the choice of race that defines a character on the scale of good to evil. There are plenty of options open to players who seek to twist the conventions of the traditional hero character.

The most obvious of these is the character’s alignment. This is in the hands of the GM, of course, and it would be quite easy to rule that all player characters should be at least good in nature. Most GMs, for their own sanity, would disqualify players from playing evil characters – its just too difficult to role-play a cohesive group with openly evil machinations. There’s normally always one player who asks, more to test the boundary than because they think its a workable idea.

It doesn’t end at ‘good’, though. Now we are into scruples and upbringing territory. A character can be naturally good, and perhaps always should be to get the most out of the experience, but their history fleshes out the content of their character – nature and nurture. Here the player is presented with a few more options, usually, although not exclusively, lawful, neutral and chaotic. Some character classes suit certain alignments more than others: a lawful good half-orc rogue would perhaps be an odd combination, for example.

The Good Doctor?  Source: www.thoughtyoumayask.com
The Good Doctor?
Source: www.thoughtyoumayask.com

Chaotic good seems to be a favoured choice in my experience. You are prepared to do the right things and always for the good of others, but sometimes you just need to break a rule or kill an unarmed foe… you know… just to be sure. At times like these, chaotic allows you a little more breathing space to go full barbarian on an enemy. There is always neutral, of course. Neutrality affords the opportunity to think outside the law and put aside discussions of the consequences and impact on others before stabbing someone in the back or stealing the old woman’s priceless heirloom (I know its priceless because I passed my Appraise roll, oh, and the druid says he senses magic in it. Justified.) At the end of the day I’m still one of the heroes, let the good ones snipe and lament about my naughty deeds. They won’t be chuntering so loudly when the guy they convinced me not to stab turns on us and uses the priceless heirloom they refused to let me borrow to raise a horde of undead. Plus, playing a character with shades of grey is just so much more fun.

Its not like RPGs haven’t always had skills available that seem suspect for a principled individual. Hell, the whole rogue class is hardly archetypal hero material. Anything the players choose that allows them to sneak, bluff, steal, circumvent laws, break rules and con other characters is moving outside the bounds of traditional good guys. RPGs contained these character shades long before Martin decided to write Tyrion Lannister as a shifty, funny, endearing, twisted, engaging, charismatic, proud, muck-stirring bastard. It just seems so much cooler, and much more acceptable, to play these kind of characters today.

Modern RPGs such as Fate work because the player’s character has both traits and flaws. Often what the character struggles to do, has a fear of, or in some way compromises their inherent goodness, is the key to these systems. Cubicle 7’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space awards additional character creation points if the player chooses a weakness like cowardly, selfish or forgetful. There is a whole section of the internet dedicated to quirks in GURPS-driven games. A quirk can be pumped or stacked so that its negative effect gains you positives elsewhere or just cause character moments that are fun to role-play. Whether they aid the character, hinder them or are just there to create additional flavour, flaws certainly smudge black and white. The more flaws, the greyer the character, the less defined they are by the character sheet and more by the player. When moderated well, that can only be a good thing.


With all these grey choices to be made, players have a greater number of actions they can make. While the norm would be never to do anything down-right evil or sadistic, at least the possibility is on the table. It tends to depend on the players themselves. There may be a very different feel playing a law-abiding, self-critical gnome to a hack-and-slash, all for glory warrior. However, they could both be chaotic good and pray to the same god. The difference isn’t necessarily the race, the class or their respective attributes. The difference is the type of player with their hands on the character sheet.

There has been a trend in recent times for games with hidden roles, traitor mechanics and semi co-operative adventures with secret agendas: we are all playing together until its confirmed that at least one of us actually isn’t. I’ve made it quite clear before that my number one board game is Shadows Over Camelot, and its for that very reason. Winning or losing with a traitor round the table is just fun (or it sucks, but in a fun way). Bash semi co-ops all you like, almost all RPG sessions are semi co-op in nature. Unless each and every character is a lawful good elven cleric. Only then is everyone likely to be on exactly the same page.

Who do you trust?  Source: www.x-files.wikia.com
Who do you trust?
Source: www.x-files.wikia.com

“Trust No One” was such a big part of the cultural zeitgeist while I was growing up, thanks to The X Files. But the theme of trusting nothing existed long before Chris Carter’s seminal early 90s sci-fi show and has only snowballed since. Everyone is a cylon… or a krull… or a zygon… or Mystique… until proven otherwise. GMs can use this suspicion to create tense and immersive campaigns where player interaction is heightened through the fog of potential treachery. As long as it doesn’t steal the focus from the adventure at hand, a little rivalry between the elf and the dwarf or the Jedi knight and the Corellian smuggler can help to liven up the table talk.

The shadow of suspicion is cast even longer upon the NPCs the players interact with. I’m sure the lowly innkeeper was, at one point in the history of D&D, just keeping his inn. End of story. Now they are questioned by players with as much mistrust as the big end-game bosses. Passers-by are interrogated with guilt-confessing guile, especially if those NPCs are unlucky enough to be wilfully non-human or an enigmatic magic user. The traitor mechanic clearly doesn’t exist with the same function around an RPG table, yet players seem more mindful of it now. I was surprised during a recent Pathfinder campaign session how many times the players I was GMing used Sense Motive. Now I’m not saying its not a wise thing to do, better to be on the safe side, right? But those NPCs we used to take for granted and were allowed to shuffle on their way after a chance meeting in the marketplace don’t get away so lightly anymore.

Nothing in life is black and white. Good and evil exist in antiquated books and warfare propaganda. The traitor mechanic is fully functioning in the real world. Roleplaying is a way to escape real life and its quite possible that a group of players want to play lawful good characters. Cubicle 7’s The One Ring, where players establish their own fellowship, is one such system that rewards the virtuous. However, there’s no doubt that grey provides depth and detail. As long as a character’s flaws and vices don’t become self-destructive, or worse, destructive to the group, then I’m all for GMing a band of anti-heroes.

The Byronic romanticism of the combination of mad, bad and dangerous to know cliches are unavoidably appealing. Mainly because we aren’t like that in real life. At least not the people I play with. Good versus Bad still very much exists (the Axis of Evil, anyone?) and Fox News and the UK Daily Mail will try and convince you they have the right label for everyone. But good and evil just doesn’t give us enough boxes to put everyone into. As fascinated as we are, or at least were for two millennia, with the distinction between the two, postmodern philosophy’s skeptical approach to this simplistic binary opposition has taken root in most aspects of our lives – even in the fictional games we play.

Knowledge and ignorance. Presence and absence. Diurnal and nocturnal. Cowboys and injuns. Donkeys and Elephants. Swords and sorcery. They are all much more interesting when shuffled and smudged. They might well have been that way in the first place, before intelligent humans came along and sorted them into two neat boxes. Maybe we’ve all grown more cynical. Maybe we’ve all grown up and grown weary. Maybe we’ve all just learnt how to make our gaming more fun.

Now go Google the words ‘Chaotic Good’. More fun than LOL Cats, I promise.