Ethics in Fantasy: Morality and D&D Part 3: The Moral Imperative of Fantasy

by Victoria Jesswein published 2022/11/12 09:28:20 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:28:20-07:00
This is the THIRD in a series of three articles which I wrote concerning Christian perspectives and misunderstandings about Role-Playing Games, by Tracy Hickman. by Tracy Raye Hickman


In the first two parts of this series, we have explored communication techniques which can help bridge the gap between critics and proponents of fantasy games. We also addressed the common concerns many people have about such games and, hopefully, have invited these concerned people to look into fantasy role playing for themselves. Now that we have brought them in, it's time to make sure that our games are as positive as we claim them to be.


Jeff's father is worried about his son being involved in this role playing game thing. Hey, there's been a lot of talk about it and not all that he's heard is good. Still, Jeff has talked with his dad and now, it seems, the two of them are going over to a friend's house to play the game together.
Doug is Jeff's friend and dungeonmaster. He's going to run their campaign, just like he does every other Friday night. Everything looks toward a promising evening.
The only question is, what kind of game will Jeff's father find when they reach Doug's house?
This isn't just a public relations question. While it may seem important that Jeff's dad find a wholesome activity it is more important that the game Doug runs really is wholesome. Role playing games, as we have said before, have a great potential for good. They also have a great potential for misuse.
Doug, the dungeonmaster or referee of the game, is the one that bares the burden and the responsibility for his game. Will Doug's game be real epic fantasy or will it be a lazy imitation filled with dark deeds? It's important the Doug knows how important this difference is.


In the beginning of time, the first entertainment form was the storyteller.
As the family or clan sat around the fire at night, the storyteller would weave magic and history for his audience. He kept the ancestry for his people and their deeds and stories and beliefs from generation to generation.
Time passed and the clans became civilizations. With such progress came the theater and the tragedies of ancient Greece. Now a story was told by a chorus of people rather than by a single narrator. Places were build for such presentations and many people came from far away to experience them.
Traveling storytellers soon moved across the land. They would bring stories from places that people had not heard of and news from countries far away. These Bards could sing the songs of many countries and entertain with wonderful stories gathered from everywhere on the road the took.
Print changed that. Plays could be sent far abroad to be seen by people wherever the sea lanes crossed their path. For that matter, you could read the play without every producing it. Books were easier to carry than a Bard.
Technology soon took a hand. Movies brought the shadows of plays to places that rarely experience anything but local theatricals. Tales were soon told by radio. You could enjoy all the wonder and history right their in your living room. Radio with pictures soon came along and now we can watch it in living color.
Yet with all these technological advances, something was left behind. The thrill of the storyteller got lost in the translation. The personal experience was somehow missing.
Then, in the 1970's, a new entertainment form emerged. Fantasy role playing began to revive the social art of storytelling.
Now, the referee of such a game, or dungeonmaster, is the modern bard. With him lies the ability to bring a group of people together and, with their help, weave a tale that is wonderful and exciting.

Game Master is many things

The referee -- or gamemaster if you prefer -- is many things. He is primarily an entertainer who should be watching his audience carefully for signs of boredom or excitement. He is a referee who impartially interprets the rules of the game according to the current situation. He is an actor playing a thousand parts in the course of the drama. He is a game designer as he modifies his game to suit his players or drafts one from scratch.
He is also something he never wanted to be but must accept. He is a teacher.
The Game Master as a Teacher
This is a role which the game referee usually does not want and of which is most unaware. Yet it is perhaps the one role the game referee plays of which he needs to be most keenly aware.

People learn whether we want them to or not.

From the time we are born until the time we die, the experiences we have teach us. Much of who we are is based on a some of our God given talents, our life time of experiences and the choices we made on the basis of our talents and experiences.
While we may, from time to time, concentrate on mastering tasks and information, our impulse to learn is not something which we turn off and on. Schools and Universities provide us with concentrated data and experience. While there we are offered the opportunity to absorb data (facts & theory) as well as experience (lab & field work). However, this does not mean that we turn off our minds once we leave the classroom.
Think of a student returning home after a hard day of study. He comes exhausted to the door with all his books precariously balanced in one hand. He realizes that the door is locked and that his keys are buried deep in his tight jeans. He stacked the books he is carrying carefully and doesn't want to take the time to put them down. Pondering a moment, he traps the books between himself and the door, reaches for his keys and unlocks the door. Hopefully he will be able to catch the books before the door opens.
While this student may have come home thinking he was tired of learning, he still has learned something. He's learned how to unlock a door while carrying too many books. He didn't list that lesson along side his trigonometry, history and political science classes when he woke up that morning. It was simply another experience from which he learned during the day.
When a small child touches a hot plate of food for the first time, the child learns that they shouldn't do that. The baby didn't set out to learn about heat and pain -- it was simply that the experience itself taught the lesson.
Experience, as the saying goes, is the Great Teacher.

Game Masters teach whether we want to or not.

Role playing is one of the most powerful of experiences. People project their imaginary characters into the games. Most people who play the game, when they talk about it, do not distinguish their character from themselves. Ask a player what happened in the game. They will tell you the story by saying, "I stepped through the door ..." or "I drew my sword ..." They rarely say, "My character stepped through the door ..." or "I had the character I was playing draw my sword ..." While part of this is semantic (it's easier to say "I" than "My character"), a large part of it is because the player was pretending that they really were there.
Because of this heavy identification, players in role playing games learn lessons from their games as though they really were experiencing the adventure. They don't set out to learn anything. It's just a game, isn't it?
No, they learn from their experience in the game.
Some of this learning represents only game play experience without any real world application. How often, after all, do you 'listen at the door' before opening it? You rarely have need to know the attack and defence difference between a mace and a morning star. Do you work out a 'marching order' when you walk with your friends? Of course not: these things are lessons which you apply only to your games.
Yet there are other lessons which are taught that are not so obvious and which do apply to life.
I often think about an experience I shared with the players in one of my own games. I was the 'dungeonmaster' for a D&D game. We were playing 'Ravenloft', an adventure written by my wife and I about a vampire.
On the surface, this seemed like a typical old movie plot; Eerie eastern European location with lots of fog and fallen leaves. There was the obligatory castle high on the craggy cliff with the wolves howling in the woods. Sure enough, the vampire was up there in the castle.
To most of the players it seemed like a straight forward task: find the vampire and kill him.
However, Ravenloft had more to it than that. The plot of the story behind the game dealt with why Strahd von Zarovich, the Count of Barovia had fallen from grace to become the first vampire. As the game progressed, one of the players began discovering this background.
The vampire had once been a great and noble warrior. When he conquered Barovia and established the castle there he sent for his family to join him. There was a particular girl in the town that he wished to marry. In the end, however, the girl fell in love with the Count's younger brother. Strahd blamed his age for the girls rejection and vowed to live forever through the dark arts. He believed if he could rid himself of death that the girl would somehow find him attractive.
Of course, the brother was killed by Strahd. The girl threw herself from the cliffs of the castle but her body was never found. Strahd found that his pact with darkness had caused that he should not die but that he should not live either. Thus did he become a vampire.
At the end of the game, my friend held the sword which could destroy Strahd. As his companions fell upon the vampire, my friend found that he couldn't kill the monster. He saw all the sadness and tragedy which the mans life had once been. Ultimately his companions in the game were forced to finish the job.
After the game, we spoke. "He deserved to die better than that," my friend said.
"Yes," I replied, "But that is how it is with people who fall from greatness. He chose his end when he first chose to kill his brother. How could it be any different?"

Just what are we saying here? (Unwanted lessons)

What we are saying is that people are going to take something from your games and incorporate them into their lives whether you want them to or not. The experience of your game is going to teach them something: perhaps not big lessons but subtle ones. Do thieves always get away with their crimes in your game? Do player character assassins murder at will? Do your players use torture without being tortured themselves? Are towns being ravaged by players without fear of retribution from the king?
If you answer yes to any of these or similar questions, then you are not only misusing the game but you are teaching false and negative lessons to your players. These lessons are false because they do not properly represent the nature of consequence in the world. They are negative because they elevate bad behaviors above good ones.
Games that allow such things are not only teaching the wrong lessons, they are bad games. The entertainment experience and enjoyment is far less than in a game with conflict, consequence and a firm handle on good and evil, notwithstanding anything you may have heard to the contrary.


Science-fiction, Cyberpunk, Fantasy and Epic Fantasy are all part of what I will call 'Fantastic Literature' Within Fantastic Literature, there seems to be a clear range of moral ground where these categories fall.
Cyberpunk as a literary medium is clearly counter-moral. It challenges our viewpoint with a depressing view of society and the future. Drugs in Cyberpunk are an accepted release from problems and heros (or non-heros) are those who do the worst violence. Not exactly a viewpoint I would want to advance in our society.
Science-fiction comes a bit closer down the line with its broad themes ranging from depressing dark futures to utopian inspirations. While moralistic science fiction has been written, the genre itself is amoral -- that is, it can as easily be written to portray a counter-moral viewpoint as it can portray a moral viewpoint. Science fiction spans the middle ground with a wide range.
Fantasy, however, and particularly epic fantasy has traditionally dealt with the conflicts of good and evil is fairly clear terms. Theirs little doubt about who's wearing the white hats in the Lord of the Rings.
Epic fantasy has heros who must conquer the foe. We all want to see ourselves as heros of some kind, vanquishing the bad things around us. We identify strongly with the hero or heroine in these adventures because we want to be them. It is this desire that makes fantasy such an appealing genre.
I believe that the notion of fantasy as purely escapist fiction is false. Epic fantasy deals with real questions of good and evil. Escapist fiction is only a distant relative.


At the heart of the epic is the struggle of good against evil. There are good reasons for this. Conflict is what makes a game work. It is the overwhelming of resistance in the game by the force of our play that makes a game such a pleasant sensation.
Years ago, there was a great deal of effort put into designing a game that was totally cooperative. The desires in this were very noble. When one person 'wins' a game, the other players tended to all 'lose'. Wouldn't it be nice if we could all play a game where we weren't pitted against each other.
What we soon found out was that games without conflict are -- well, boring. Without some obstacle to overcome, the essential feeling of mastery and accomplishment just wasn't there.
Take most popular board games, for example. In Monopoly you must combat your fellow players in a contest to see which of you can bankrupt the other first. Sorry! asks children to not only race around the track but to continuously send their playmates back to their starting positions in order to win the game.
Even in board games which have no obvious conflict or resistance it is still there. Life, for example, does not require much participant interaction but does determine a winner at the end of the game based primarily on who has the most money. The conflict in this game is represented by the rules themselves. Once again, we have one winner and a host of losers.
Role playing games themselves have often been portrayed as 'cooperative' gaming. This is, however, misleading. The game is filled with conflict -- between the players as a group and the referee of the game. The players pit the force of their characters scores and their own wits against the game design and the wits of the referee. The adventure itself, then, provides the conflict for the game.


As fantasy as a genre is basically a moral medium, so, too, should be the conflict within fantasy role playing games. This makes the adventure true to the fantasy form, but there are more important reasons for using this basic conflict.
Good against evil is an easily recognized form of conflict. When you say, "We go to fight the Garg, Lord of Evil!", everyone knows where they stand. When you say, "We go to fight Garg, Lord of Situational Ethics!" you may find your players at something of a loss.
By putting such conflict into the plots and backgrounds of your games, you give your players high ideals for which to fight rather than self interest alone.


Games which allow action without consequence are, at best, lazy. At the worst, such games teach a false view of the world to their participants.
The nature of conflict requires consequence.
We expect things to work a certain way. If they don't, they should at least work consistently wrong. If this weren't true, we wouldn't be able to plan anything. Imagine a world where every time you tried to use a hammer, it worked differently.
In role playing games, we expect our mace to do a certain amount of damage when we strike an opponent. If it didn't, we'd suspect there was some magical or other reason for it. Otherwise, we would all start complaining to the referee that he was being unfair or not following the rules.
This simple rule of action and consequence seems to be an obvious one. Unfortunately, the rule is seldom extended to the adventure or campaign. Pillage a town? Sure, as long as you don't mind the Baron and his army riding in hot and unending pursuit. Poison the King? O.K., so long as your prepared to deal with his brother, the paladin, and his army. Kill hostages? Fine, if you remember that each of those hostages has nearly a hundred relatives who will be willing to pay any price for your hide.
The characters actions in a role playing game must have lawful consequences just as surely as we expect a mace to do damage. Anything else would be a lie.

Games without consequence cheat their players

But it's fun to play an evil character, you say? I suppose it would be fun to be a bank robber if there were no police and other people didn't mind my taking their money. You threaten people with a gun and they give you money. You go down to the store and buy a stereo. You go to another bank, threaten people with a gun and they give you more money. You buy a car. You go to another bank ...
Is this real? You wave a gun in a bank and you might not live long enough to wave anything else again. Assuming you do get out of the bank, how far can you get before the police seal the roads? Escape on foot? Steal a car? It didn't work in Denver, folks. A T.V. News helicopter followed the guy wherever he went. Assuming you live through that and somehow do manage to get away, the money you have is most likely marked. A guy at the car dealership is going to sell you that nice new car for $24,000.00 -- all paid in crisp, new twenty dollar bills -- without reporting the transaction to the police?
An evil characters life in a properly run fantasy campaign should be a colorful, short one.
Interestingly, you are cheating players of evil characters by letting them get away with so much. Any thrill associated with doing dastardly deeds is dulled when you get away with it all the time. Where's the challenge? Where's the excitement?
Your evil thief character walks into a city. He goes to the richest neighborhood. He locates the house of a wealthy merchant. Picking the lock on the gate, he enters the front door. Everyone is asleep except the butler who's blind and deaf. The thief kills everyone in the house. He finds the treasure and walks out with a bizillion pieces of gold.
In this example, the character has pulled off some horrible crimes including senseless murder. Not a single character run by the referee has made any effort to prevent it. In doing so, not only has the referee given a horrible lesson to the player (killing is o.k. if it is expedient?!?) but has also cheated the player out of any challenge that playing his evil character might have given him.
In a game with consequence, the story might be a good deal different.
Your evil thief character walks into a city. The guards in the city probably will not allow him entry, since his reputation seems to have preceded him. The thief is forced to enter the city by climbing the wall at night. It only takes him four nights to do this since he was caught on the first three nights, beaten with staves and tossed rudely out the main city gates. Eventually he makes his way into a wealthy neighborhood in the city. There are more guards here and his ragged dress would give him away to them in an instant. He is required to take on a disguise as a beggar. Eventually he locates the house of a wealthy merchant. Late at night, he picks the lock only to be confronted with two guard dogs. He manages to kill these, but not before there is a terrible combat. The thief now limps from the bite wounds on his legs. Entering the house, he finds everyone asleep except the butler who is blind and deaf. The thief managed go find the strongbox and gets the bizillion gold pieces. The butler may be deaf and blind, but he is not stupid and his sense of smell has been greatly enhanced over the years. The thief, still in beggars costume, smells to the rafters. The butler sounds the alarm. The thief struggles with the butler but hears the rest of the household awakening and the local constables are breaking down the front door. The thief begins to flee, but the bizillion gold pieces weigh him down. A bizillion gold pieces weighs quite a bit. The thief is forced to leave the gold and leap out the back window. Loud cries from the authorities seem to fill every street. He disappears down into the sewers to make his escape. There he wanders for several days, the wound in his leg festering in the disease-filled environment. Having had his fill of roasted rat, he finally emerges from the sewers -- into the waiting arms of a guard. They all saw him going into the sewers and knew it was only a matter of time before he came out.
We leave our thief hanging by chains on a high wall, stripped of his weapons and clothing. His execution will be in the morning.
What a challenge for the thief!


A fantasy campaign without an ethic is devoid of direction. The question which then confronts us all is what kind of ethic should our games and campaigns portray?
Some ethics on which we may agree
There are many different cultures and ethics which exist in the world. Everyone has their own view of these ethics and their relationship to them. Still, there are some common elements to many of them on which we may be able to agree as a basic ethic for fantasy games.

The Omniscience and Omnipotence of God

That there is some order to the universe is a central theme of fantasy. Such order implies thought and conscience.
I have often been asked, how can I, as a Christian, write fantasy games with pantheons of different gods. Writing fantasy is the easiest of the genres for a Christian because of fantasy's moral basis. God is implied in all my writings and games. He may not be there in white flowing robes; He may be represented by intermediaries; but He is there nevertheless.
Putting someone in charge of your universe lets you set up the rules by which your universe is run. It insures consistency so long as you remember who is in charge.

The good redeems its own

This does not mean that the good guys will always be saved at the last minute by the cavalry. Bad things happen to good people from time to time. Good redeems its own in that good acts add to the better state of all humanity. When we help someone, we improve all life in some small measure. Ultimately, those who practice the principles of good -- even to their own discomfort from time to time -- are ultimately rewarded for their work.

Evil feeds on itself

This does not mean that evil will always fail right away. Hitler ruled most of Europe for years before he was finally beaten. Evil characters will, from time to time, be victorious.
However, those who are evil either make a mistake in their arrogance or, once they have conquered, find their fellows suddenly turning on each other. Devoid of sufficient outside threat, the self-centered evil nations quickly fragment themselves in contention with each other.

Man may choose for himself good or evil (Free Agency)

Central to the conflict of good and evil is the idea that man has the ability to choose for himself between the two. Free will allows men to see both the light and the dark around them and to gain perspective from the contrast of the two.

Consequences for our choices are mandated by nature

All actions have consequence. Establish this as a law. It should be the basis of all families, villages, towns, cities and kingdoms which your characters enter. Towns have laws and rules. Disobeying them should have consequence.
The god in your campaign will also have laws. That god, too, will require consequences for those who disobey the divine law.
Your own ethic is best.
As to the details of your game ethic, you know your own beliefs best of all. It is easiest to convey your own belief in a game setting, if for no other reason than it is far more convenient than trying to research out a philosophy different than your own.
If you believe in nothing at all, then I am sorry. Faith and hope are the wellspring of dreams and imagination. I cannot conceive of life without these things. I would encourage you to find those things. It won't just better your game -- but it will better your life as well.


Fantasy is not escapist fiction; it is a morally based genre. Good fantasy demands ethics and good fantasy role playing demands ethical play and design.
Ethics is not something which is outmoded; truth is not situation nor relative and we shouldn't pretend that it is. Our games are teaching people around us not just about a fantasy world, but about how we deal with each other. If we cannot learn to deal with each other honestly in our imaginations, how can we hope to deal with each other face to face in the real world?
Basing a fantasy world or character on evil is lazy: it's a cop out and a cheat. Creating a fantasy world that requires true heroism may not be as easy -- but it's a whole lot more fun.
There's one more benefit to Ethical games: when Jeff brings his dad to watch your game you can open the door wide. 'Come in and have fun. I think you're really gonna like this game!'

Ethics in Fantasy -- Part 3 / The Moral Imperative of Fantasy
Copyright 1989, 1996 by Tracy Raye Hickman. All Rights Reserved.

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