A controversy charred the pages of Dragon Magazine in the summer of 1984. In issue #89, author and contributing editor Katharine Kerr wrote a long opinion piece on the evil of running "evil campaigns" in fantasy role-playing games. Kerr wrote that "there are too many arguments against playing evil campaigns for me to review all of them here" and so she focused on the psychological harm that these games inflict on their participants: "I maintain that spending all that time pretending to be evil is dangerous to the players themselves." Her point was that playing a villain warps your personality by normalizing violent behaviour and eroding your natural sense of compassion. She even included a story about "a gamer I'll call Bob" who embarked on an evil campaign that left him and his friends "emotionally and morally calloused".
|Author Katharine Kerr
This debate kindled a broader discussion about alignment in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. AD&D, of course, strictly categorized all living beings into one of nine alignments based on the permutations of Good, Evil and Neutral on one axis, versus Lawful, Chaotic and Neutral on the other axis. Thus, in issue #93, one correspondent posed a series of questions about whether this alignment system is based on a medieval European morality or a "20th century, Judeo-Christian, American morality". Actually, that's rather a good question. Dragon Magazine answered with articles on "The Neutral Point of View" in Issue #99 and a plea for a less black-and-white approach to alignment in "For King and Country" in Issue #101.
What to make of this brouhaha? Well, let me start by saying that I've got a lot of time for Katharine Kerr. Besides being an accomplished author, she wrote one of my favourite magazine articles of all time, a thoughtful breakdown of medieval army logistics called "An Army Travels on its Stomach" (in Dragon #94). So I don't want to dismiss this dispute as a simple matter of hyper-morality. Rather, I think Kerr's article and the aftermath were the product of a special point in time.
The most striking part of the whole debate is how seriously people took AD&D. It seems that in the 1980's, the imaginary world of the role-playing game cut much closer to the bone than it does in our more jaded and ironic present. Reading Kerr's article and all the responding letters conveys an impression that the gaming sessions of the mid-1980's were viscerally linked to one's personality and outlook on life. What happened on the gaming table mattered, and said something about you as a person. In this sense, there was a thinner barrier between the realm of fantasy and the world of reality. (Incidentally, the muddled boundaries between the real world and the imaginative realm of 1980's D&D players is something captured well in the period piece Stranger Things.)
One thing that lent spice to the debate about evilness was the moral panic that engulfed Dungeons and Dragons during this time. I still remember the mistrust with which teachers and administrators at my school regarded D&D in the wake of movies like Mazes and Monsters (1982) or 60 Minutes special in 1985. While anyone with a shred of familiarity with AD&D knew that it wasn't a portal to demonic possession or mental illness, the controversy around the game jangled everyone. Thus, a conversation about evil PCs had higher stakes in 1984 that it does now. In fact, I don't think that sense of heightened concern wasn't as bad even a couple years before -- for example, in 1982, Dragon published a playful article about playing an evil character and there was no blow-back or debate ("How to Have a Good Time Being Evil" by Roger E. Moore in Issue #45).
It's also important to put the "evil campaign" dispute in perspective. At the same time that Kerr and company were fighting over morality and psychological health, an equally acerbic debate was going on in Dragon Magazine... about how to properly calculate falling damage in accordance with Newtonian physics. This argument also spanned several issues and engendered withering criticism. (My favourite line: "While I admire the detail of research and reasoning in Stephen Innis' article, I think he's made an error by comparing the proportionate weight of a dwarf expanded to six-foot stature to that of a six-foot human.") Which is to say, flame wars were a part of gaming culture long before the rise of the internet.
The only thing that truly troubles me about the 1984 controversy is that one one mentioned the most important and obvious part of evil characters: however evil they may be, they never actually see themselves on the wrong side.
I bring all this up for two reasons. First, I love travelling back in time and seeing how attitudes towards our hobby have changed, even within my lifetime. And second, I want to introduce you to my own evil campaign...
In the meantime, do you think there is any problem with playing evil characters? Does that question seem too naive to even ask it?