Imaginary People

There’s been a lot of discourse lately surrounding Wizards of the Coast’s enlightened approach to fantasy races going forward. In the context of this discussion, many folks are asking how they can build interesting narratives without stock evil fodder. While I have a lot of thoughts on this, none have been articulated better than by game designer Chris S. Sims, who has graciously agreed to allow me to republish his comments here as a guest article. Chris has also published an annotated version, which I highly recommend you go check out on his blog. I have faithfully reproduced his original comments below, adding emphasis for easier readability.

Before we jump in, a little about Chris. He’s an award-winning creator with decades of writing, narrative and game design, editing, and graphic art. Chris has done work for outfits such as Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Undead Labs, IDW Publishing, Schwalb Entertainment, and Onyx Path Publishing, among others. You can read up on his accolades here, which are far too numerous to reproduce herein. Without further ado, here’s his thoughts:

Creating complex imaginary people is better for play and design. It’s better for games as cultural objects and as spaces we learn in. (Play transmits values embedded in the tools of play.) Also, heroes consider the nature of their actions and their use of their power.

In a fantasy game, we needn’t treat a whole strain of people as evil any more we need to treat every human as evil. Every elf. Every dwarf. Every halfling. The belief that we do for escapist fun, heroics, or moral lessons is a misguided failure of imagination at best.

We don’t need to depict whole races as evil for us to have games much like they are now. Why? I’ll use Nazis as examples in a heroic fantasy context. (And it’s context still much simpler than the real world.)

1) The “Nazis don’t make all humans bad” rule. You can have evil humans (or Germans) without all humans being evil. Upper echelons in a society can be evil without the average citizen or folks in another society being evil.

2) The “It’s okay to punch Nazis” rule. When members of a society are bad actors, it’s okay to smite the villains. When everyone’s steel clears the sheath, you don’t always need to consider a baddie’s moral character.

3) The “It’s not okay to punch the Nazi’s kids” rule. People associated with the villains might not be bad. Some are innocent. It’s reprehensible to harm and kill people guilty only by association. I get not wanting moral quandaries in your game about goblin kids. Well, then, don’t put goblin kids in the goblin bandit camp. If you do, you’re inviting the quandary. That’s on you.

4) The “Some Nazis went to prison” rule. It’s also okay to capture villains and see them tried for their crimes. Killing doesn’t have to be the end of any clash with baddies. Even the worst ones.

5) The “Germans were liberated from the Nazis, too” rule. When a bad regime falls, the people the regime oppressed have the opportunity for change. They too no longer suffer the evil.

6) The “Humans are more complex than their Nazis” rule. Having complex people opens the design and play space. It allows for more and more interesting stories. Stories that defy expectations, of understanding, of heroes being heroic in more ways than smiting evil.

7) The “Anyway, we still got Nazis” rule. Even with complexity, we have plenty of villains. Cruel human bandits. Bloodthirsty goblin theocrats. (Bree Yark for Maglubiyet!) Nihilistic apocalypse cultists. Heartless halfling bootleggers. We’re not short on potential foes.

8) The “The Nazis aren’t the only problem” rule. Plenty of evil beings exist that aren’t people. Other monsters are destructive or predatory. If you want beings that can be smited without moral considerations, don’t make those beings people.

9) The “Nazis are people” rule. When the war is on, you might not consider your wicked foe’s moral character, but it can be interesting if you do. Doing so shows your own moral character. That’s what makes heroes shine—considering the personhood of their adversaries.

10) The “Being better than a Nazi doesn’t make you righteous” rule. Real heroes consider the meaning and ramifications of their actions. They consider the moral context of their own behavior and power. Some of the best stories come from mending misunderstandings. From finding common ground with potential enemies. You know, solving the real problem instead of beating one side into submission.

11) The “Nazis aren’t aliens or devils” rule. Supernatural evils, such as demons and some undead, are often described as absolute. That can mean sapient but supernaturally evil creatures, such as many demons, exist in a moral space irreconcilable to those of mortals. That’s true of alien moralities. Mind flayers in D&D fall into this category. However, myth and fiction show us fallen angels, rising devils, and communication gaps crossed. Nuance in these creatures still provides flexibility that’s good for design and play.

12) The “Nazis aren’t automatons” rule. Zombies, constructs, and other automatons often fall outside morality. Such creatures not only aren’t people, they often have no personal will. They’re controlled. Controlled by a villain, they are foes who aren’t people. They also provide a way you can have foes that require no moral considerations when you fight them. They’re automatons, not people. Some creatures that used to be people exist in this design space, such as the darkspawn in Dragon Age or typical zombies.

13) The “Fantasy Nazis can have mythic archetypes” rule. Imagine the Nazi god. A demigod leader. Nazi necromancers and diabolists raising undead or fiendish hordes. Also, what if from within Nazi-oppressed lands rose a folk hero, an ally to other heroes?

14) The “It’s okay to like punching imaginary Nazis” rule. Heroic fantasy often uses violence to resolve conflict. It’s okay to enjoy the fiction and the play. I do. I’m not decrying that. Complexity in imaginary people still allows for that enjoyment. This place is where the statement “it’s just a game” has broader validity. That statement loses validity when dismissing content others find uncomfortable or objectionable. We can have complex imaginary people in design and still enjoy the game our way.

Let’s all work together to make and run better games.

Thank you so much to Chris S. Sims for allowing us the honor to share his thoughts. Don’t forget to check out the annotated version over on Chris’s blog. The cover image adorning today’s post is from the original cover of Marvel’s Captain America #1 (1941), and has been included for its topicality. For more content, and to support ThinkDM, check us out on the ThinkDM Patreon!

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