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Exploration in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons: Putting the Adventure back into Adventuring

It seems that much of the content out there today for role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) focus heavily on dungeons and politics or rescuing the village and various other tired troupes. Whether this is the case for you or not, I’ve noticed that many adventures are lacking the element of exploration, which leaves a huge untapped reserve of mystery. Sometimes people refer to this as the sandbox game, where the players are going in their own direction and the GM keeps up, supplying the adventure as the game progresses.

For me, what has been lacking from games over the last several years has been the mystery in exploration. All to often it seems that exploring has been dumbed down or glossed over by the need to keep the story going, to keep the narrative on track, keep the momentum bouncing. This isn’t a bad thing, but the details, the efforts of travelling in a (fantasy) world are completely missed.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

This is a shame, because years ago the old AD&D adventure modules contained heavy elements of exploration, where the players were encouraged to explore and reveal the mysteries of a forgotten land. Adventure modules such as the Isle of Dread (X1, 1981 & 1983), a wilderness adventure designed for beginners back in the day (a long, long time ago) were designed purely with exploration in mind.

In my hunt to recapture the feelings of excitement and wonder (a running theme in my blog articles at the moment) I did a thing. I’ve sailed the ‘net sea, battled excessive blogs and wrangled with the web in the search of good, wholesome and entertaining ideas to make travel and exploration exciting again. Here are my thoughts and the results of my search with some helpful links at the end for your own ‘further reading’ on the subject.

If you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin…

Perceived Problems with Exploration

Mention in-game travelling and most players will groan. Understandably, players have not really had a series of exploration adventures that has given them a fun game, even popular digital games such as Skyrim or the classical Baldur’s Gate allow you to travel instantly or in a series of chunks in seconds. But that’s OK, it’s why you’re here reading this article.

Exploration games are said to take their toll on the GM / DM both in preparation and in running the game session. This is a fair point – as the GM of any game you are responsible for hours of planning (or maybe just 30 minutes before the game, if that’s your gig), which often you don’t want to see wasted and unused in the event of player party mistakes. So why would you waste hours of planning on just travelling and exploring new locations?

Finally, keeping the flow and narrative exciting can be a challenge. Inclusive adventures must bring elements to the gaming table where any character of any build or design with even the most jaded of tastes, offers a challenge to each player, a chance in the spotlight.

Are these issues insurmountable? Of course not!

So here are the suggestions I’m putting forward for you, should you ever consider running an exploration themes adventure game of your own.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setup & Writing

Character & Plot Hooks

It’s always important to have your players hooked into the concept of the game right from the start. How do you write or plan this sort of thing? Well I’ve written a previous article which you can find here, it gives some suggestions on how to approach a character hook by making the hook relevant to the character, which, hopefully, will entice the player too. As always, it’s best to get a feel for what your player wants from the game, and hook them in based on this information.

It may be that your party is simply travelling overland to get to a place that is uncharted, and the plot of your story is already written. This makes it very easy as the plot hook is the adventure idea you already have.

I’ve written a few examples here to give you an idea:

  • Searching for a missing person(s) of importance: perhaps they were kidnapped and the characters have been hired to locate and return them safely (imagine King Osric’s daughter from the Original Conan film, 1982).
  • Searching for a lost city or civilisation which may hold the key to discovering how to deal with a threat to a characters homelands.
  • Manhunt – a traitor, criminal, dangerous individual or group has evaded the law and must be hunted down to pay for their crimes.
  • The player characters are being persecuted either on their own or with a group of people and have been forced to flee into the wilderness or an unmapped land.
  • Expedition – the player characters are hired to explore the new world and discover its rich resources and lift the veil on its mysteries… and its threats.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setting up the Player Party

Every expedition known to man has always had planning at the forefront. Without planning, any expedition is doomed from the moment it takes its first step, leading to a variety of disasters, starvation being the primary one. So it’s important to get your players into the frame of mind that travelling and exploring brings its own dangers. Sure, there will be monsters in the untamed wilds, but losing your food supply or drinking all of your clean water, brings challenges all of their own.

Ask the players some of the following questions before you plan to start your game:

  • How much can your character carry?
  • What food and water supplies will you be taking?
  • Are you equipped for exploration or a dungeon crawl?

An important aspect of any RPG is the role play, above all else it is what glues the game together. Some people find this awkward, but when players have something to talk about, the role play becomes natural. Asking player characters to assume one of several roles in a travelling adventurer party is a great way to overcome this, and also lends itself to more of a game.

These roles are real life examples of what we often overlook during play. In reality, how many of us note down how much of our rations we’re eating? Probably not that many because it’s considered a minor portion of the RPG experience.

Giving the players extra roles also reduces some of the work for GM / DM. By allowing the players to organise themselves and keep track of encumbrance, rations and other supplies, along with mapping duties, it frees up the GM to give a greater insight into surroundings and encounters.

Here are some of the role ideas:

Leader / Voice

The leader is responsible for announcing all final party activity to the GM with regards to direction and pace. Characters can still act in a solo fashion as normal. The leader also consults with and organises the marching order of the other characters present, including any allies that may be travelling with them.

Watchers / Castellan

Let’s face it, you will be stomping through unknown and wild lands, it pays to give someone the task of checking the horizon for trouble, the bushes for traps and the camp for snakes! Watchers and guards are also responsible for finding a suitable place to set camp and how the camp should be organised. For the GM, this gives them time to decide what happens in the night, or if the player party gets surprised.

Navigator / Cartographer

The navigator and cartographer are responsible for guiding the player party on their adventure, keeping a look out for points of interest and landmarks. Their role also involves the blank hex map you will have provided them (more on this later), updating and annotating as they travel. In this way they answer the questions of other characters in a role play manner, rather than relying on the GM to constantly keep checking their notes.

For a character to create a worthy map in game will require some sort of cartographers tools (for D&D) or a surveyor’s kit. Get the players to roll any necessary skill checks to determine the quality of their notes and drawings in case they get lost, or someone else relies on the map in their absence.

Hunter / Quartermaster

Hunters and Quartermasters keep track of resources and the carrying capacity of the party and its allies. Their most important role is to keep track of food and water and find replacements when they feel times are getting desperate. This has a great element of role play as the characters fret over how much they are going to use and what happens if they start to run low.

Generally if the quarter master has no record of something, such as equipment, it does not exist within the party. And if there’s a tonne of things to keep track of, there’s no reason why two characters can’t assume this role together. All characters should have their own equipment list, but the quartermasters will keep a copy of that and update it, especially if one character is lost down a ravine while carrying all of the rope!

(Re)Defining the GMs Role

The GMs primary roles will have lessened from traditional expectations. The key responsibility, other than role playing villains and monsters and refereeing the turn sequence and dice rolls etc, is to keep a track of time. In an exploration adventure keeping a track of time gives the gaming session more purpose and also allows the players to note down exactly what they’ve used up or require more of. It also means the players are told when they are getting tired or possibly feeling the effects of fatigue.

mountain surrounded with trees

Friends, Enemies and Adversaries

It pays to have non-playing characters (NPCs) with the player party, at least for some of the exploration, particularly if you think that there may be character deaths likely to happen – you’ll need a way of introducing new characters for the players when this happens.

Adding allies to mix will also give the players some impetus if the motivation dips during play, because allies need help and tasks undertaken which they could not normally do on their own. Here are a few examples of NPCs to keep in mind, depending on the type of exploration adventure you’re writing…

Allies

The expedition financier or their representatives, the young noble out to cut their teeth, the enthusiastic but clueless scribe seeking lost lore, or the mysterious elf apparently seeking to discover the lost homeland of his or her people – these are all NPCs which can give motivation to the players when they are out exploring. It’s probably best if these NPC stay at base camp, several days behind the party. These can provide quests literally or inadvertently and give guidance if the player characters are struggling with concepts.

Collective Adversaries

If you want to quicken the pace of the adventure and give the players some tension when they are making the important choices, you can introduce another adventuring party who are seeking similar goals. This competition can be right behind, or always one step ahead of the ultimate goal, or they can be unfriendly and unhelpful if they’ve managed to get across the ravine but cut the ropes to the bridge!

Perhaps these other adventuring groups need rescuing instead, the price of their impetus or ignorance!

Enemies!

Perhaps the land under exploration is not entirely empty, and savage tribes use it as a hunting ground. Perhaps one of those tribes sees the party as a target for initiation into adulthood or worse, required components in a bloody ritual!

two person riding boat on body of water

Mapping: Hex or no Hex, you’re travelling

Hex maps have been around for decades and carry with them a nostalgic feel for the days of mystery. Whether you like them or not, the humble hex is a great way of mapping out where the player characters have been, are currently and where they will be, because a hex is more dynamic than a square and easier to handle than a circle.

A hex has six sides, allowing you to plan the direction of the party – there are 8 easily identifiable paths the party can take on a hex, using either a flat side of the hex tile or a point of the hex. If you make your map and overlay a series of hex tiles onto it, you can track the adventurer’s progress with distance, speed and direction.

I suggest you start by making a world map, nothing larger than you need for the landmass your adventurers are crossing or exploring. Each hex should cover maybe a half or a full days worth of travelling, so in theory the party is moving one or two hex spaces in a session. This gives you plenty of opportunity to write and pace the adventure.

Look at your map and make a note of the terrain type of each hex, or whichever is more dominant. Terrain types can be forests, plains, desert etc. You can go one level deeper than this to have varieties of these terrain types, such as adding a height or incline like hills and mountains or valleys which can block or provide a line of sight (more on this later).

Once you’ve got this sorted, you can begin to define potential problems with different terrain types – it can be as simple of slowing progress or speeding it up, using important resources such as food and water, or allowing the characters to restock. There may be monsters which lurk in certain parts of the map, such as green dragons in the forest, or trolls in the swamps (or whatever). Think about your land of mystery and get creative. As the adventure grows you’ll likely want to think about the same challenges repeating. This could get bland so be prepared to allow some hex spaces to be easier to get across.

pine trees by lake in forest against sky

Creating a Map

You’re going to want potentially a large map with plenty of areas and space to explore. Sometime over the next week I’ll write small tutorial on how to put in hex grids in programs like Inkarnate (the free version) and the GIMP . In the meantime, you could do some planning of your own and take into consideration some of the important aspects of your map.

Whether you’re creating something entirely home-brew or using a pre-written adventure or setting, you need to consider the ecology of your map. Just like anything in the real world, things in a region or area run alongside each other and effect each other like an ecology. This won’t apply so much in a fantasy setting, but your map should reflect a realistic expectation so that your players can make logical choices in how they travel and where.

Consider some of the following suggestions and ideas…

Travelling Speed

As a guide, you can break each day down into 4 hour slots, of which most characters will require sleep and rest for 8 hours. How far they can travel will depend on what they wish to do, and how fast they travel, such as by foot or on a horse. As the GM, you will know how far each hex is in miles or kilometers and can set the pace of travel accordingly.

Landmarks

Landmarks are vital to the exploration and travelling game. Without landmarks your players are simply making arbitrary choices based on cardinal directions on a compass. This is incredibly dull and likely to put your players off right away. Landmarks give the players a real choice, offering tantalizing bits of mystery and story to get them to move and explore.

But what can they see?

Well it’s fairly simply: when the players arrive at the edge of the map they will want to plan their direction. Did anyone pack a spyglass? Good – then they can start scanning the horizon. Are they in a forest, is there anything obstructing them from scanning the distant horizon? If so, they’ll need to get to higher ground… and already they’ve determined their first objective – find higher ground.

As a general rule, player characters can probably see about 3 miles over flat ground, far less in forests or hilly terrain unless they’re at a peak in the region.

The player characters should be encouraged to scan the horizon each time they stop to rest. As the GM you can now give them tidbits of information about the surrounding area (hex tiles) allowing them to assume control of their own destiny.

Landmarks also give the players something to talk about, mark on their own maps or confirm their location if they get lost – everyone gets to use the role they have been assigned or chosen when they planned the expedition. Let’s hope they packed some sort of compass…

Landmarks can be constructed buildings such as towers, or natural phenomenon such as giant waterfalls, unusual rock formations or the sun bleached bones of titanic creatures!

white and black abstract painting

Locations

Locations  can be considered like any other encounter in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. They will be the meat of your adventurer meal. Don’t overlook the dangers of exploring. Exploration is dangerous in real life, and so it should be more so in a fantasy RPG! Stay your hand though, exploring locations should be about the story and not everything should be dealing damage or killing off players! Instead, capitalise on the mystery and narrative of discovering a new land – temples, hallow cities, strange structures and signs of ancient battles – not everything will be covered in traps or occupied by hobgoblins.

This is the hardest part for the GM, but should also be the portion of planning that takes up the most time. Once your map has been created, you should start to focus on the set pieces of your adventure (because it is still your adventure). A location, like any good dungeon should offer potential challenges to each character type in your player party, whether that’s physical obstructions, strange traps, ancient lore, riddles, clues or puzzles which help unlock or reveal something about the area. This shouldn’t always be the case though – otherwise it may become a formulation of ‘we need to use the rogue, and now the fighter and now the mage,’ which takes the narrative aspect of the game away.

If you can tie the revelation of this location into other locations, you begin to knit your world together. For example, let’s say the player party successfully breaks into an ancient temple and reveal a mysterious artifact, such as a key. What does this key unlock? Does it tie into a different temple or building in the region? What does it unlock, treasure, monsters, a terrible and ancient evil?

By all means include things to fight and slay, but try to ensure that the fight isn’t just a random event. It makes much more sense to disturb a nest or lair, or tackle a timeless guardian creature than hack their way through hordes of pointless minions. Use the monster or creature wisely, build up to its big reveal and make the fight mean something. If they can’t defeat it, they must flee… but where do they flee to? Are they in any fit state to fight, should they fight? These are the tension building moments for your player party in an exploration game.

Throw in monsters and creatures that they clearly cannot defeat to get the player characters to consider their options more deeply, but again, don’t make a habit of putting in impossible odds all the time. That sleeping dragon can be left to sleep if they just tiptoe backwards slowly and come back another time!

beautiful countryside creek environment

So how do they explore a hex tile?

First of all, describe exactly what stands out about a region or hex tile – does that rock formation look like anything? Then, if they decide to stop and explore the area in more detail, you can begin a series of encounters. One very simple suggestion is to draw up a small chart based on how many hours the player party wishes to explore the area. You can begin by asking the players how long they intend to stay and search the area in terms of hours. Then, consulting your small chart you can determine that if the party stops and searches for say 3 hours, they will come across up to 2 encounters for that region. Here’s my example:

  1. Hour 1 – They find nothing, but are slowed by the forest and rough terrain
  2. Hour 2 – As above
  3. Hour 3 – They stumble upon the grotto of a forest troll, roll against the parties passive perception to see if either side is surprised.
  4. Hour 4 – They find a cache of old supplies and a few ripped up skeletons, likely the result of a troll attack.
  5. Hour 5 – A small hatch in the earth that looked like a bolt hole for a temporary encampment ( a micro dungeon).

The party may not stay for too long, or they may wish to camp, in which case the troll may come out at night looking for food (an encounter in itself) which provides something for the watchers and guards in the party to deal with before the attack starts in full.

How fast they move, how much attention they decide to dedicate to the searching and investigating is up to the players. They will soon learn that just stomping over ground in the hopes of bumping into something may prove detrimental!

Getting Lost

Sometimes even the most experienced rangers can get lost, particularly in a new land! Becoming lost should always be an option and you should never allow the players to simply retrace their steps if they’ve surged onward without paying attention or exploring different regions or hex tiles.

Perhaps permit them to roll for skills to see if they can get back on track by setting a high difficulty based on the terrain they are in, and any landmarks they can see from where they are, lowering the difficulty for each point of recognition they can muster. If they fail, they are lost and must spend time (and resources) trying to find their original path!

photography of mountain range during winter

Keeping the Motivation During Play

How do you reward characters in exploration adventures? We want to reward the players for exploring, because we want them to enjoy the exploration aspect of the game alongside all the other aspects of RPGs.

Well, I think it depends on the scope of your adventure and the desire driving the party onward. Beyond gaining experience for slaying monsters and villains, perhaps the player characters also receive experience for discovering new areas, locations and landmarks, BUT they then also get experience for making a region safe (multiple hex tiles in the same region) for anyone following them, such as the baggage train.

If you feel a particularly hard region to explore exists because it contains high powered monsters or traps, you could assign different hex regions a challenge rating to reflect the adversity of making it safe.

Perhaps early locations were inaccessible at the start of their adventure, but now they’ve discovered a key, a token or something which will help them get to the that earlier region. This is a great idea because it means that previously explored hex tiles and areas or regions are not simply redundant after use. It can also lead the player characters to explore for specific things, giving them even more motivation to search and explore areas!

Phew! That is quite a long article, apologies!

If you think you’ve benefited from any of this information, leave a comment below – it really helps us if people think we’re doing good, and gives us direction for future articles!

Further Reading

How to be the Dungeon Master (DM)

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

The Retired Adventurer

The Angry GM (really angry and potty-mouthed!

Giants in the Playground

Panic & Perturbation: When Dungeons & Dragons came Under Fire

Dungeons & Dragons had a bad rep in the 80’s and 90’s and was subjected to the moral bashing of the Satanic Panic during those decades. I’d like to tackle some of those moral implications and compare to some of my personal experiences growing up with RPGs.

Moral panic, according to Google’s dictionary is determined as; “an instance of public anxiety or alarm in response to a problem regarded as threatening the moral standards of society.” Moral standing sometimes seems to be the self imposed mantle of older generations and I guess you could also describe it as a fear of the new, or a fear of change, or of the unknown.

Nearly a month ago I wrote an article on the benefits of games like Dungeons & Dragons for friends and family, outlining the educational needs of not only standard subjects such as math, but also of morals and ethics, which could be learnt through experience in a safe role-play game environment.

We have seen a lot of moral panic historically: Puritans and the fear of Witchcraft in the 1600’s caused the murder of both men and women, purely on superstition. The prohibition era banned alcoholic drinks, where normal people had to go underground to get a drink or two in polite society. Most drug propaganda is scientifically defunct, and has been for years yet people still believe the end times will be the result of drug use. Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in places like Canada.

Back to D&D. I touched on a subject in the original draft which I later removed because some readers thought it would alienate the crowd I was trying to help. This article is the debate I removed; why dungeons and dragons got such a bad in previous decades and is still considered sinful.

I wanted to find out where the bad rep for Dungeons & Dragons came from, and what sources I could muster to get the message across that it is not a masterpiece of the devil, and is actually good for people.

ash background beautiful blaze

A simple google search ‘problems with D&D’ finds material related to the moral and ethical implications of playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) for kids. Websites like this still exist, where people are denouncing the “dangerous” act of playing this wonderful game. They are also the sort of groups that are pro-life and offer little evidence other than their own testimony. Here’s an excerpt on their opinion of D&D:

“We have serious concerns about “Dungeons and Dragons,” as well as some of the other popular fantasy role-playing games (RPGs).

“On one level, “D&D” is about strategy and mathematical skill, and there are players whose interest would remain strong even if its mystical and magical elements were replaced with other kinds of imagery. That doesn’t change the fact the game includes occultic elements. Some former players have said that “D&D” brought them into contact with demonic activity. Such claims need to be taken very seriously.”

“A second problem is that this game can become an obsession. Some gamers have been known to play for 48-hours straight, forgetting to eat or sleep due to their intense focus on “D&D.” Responsible parents worry about this particular aspect of “D&D,” and maybe you should, too. Entering a fantasy universe and assuming a different personality can be addictive for some gamers, particularly those who tend to be isolated or who have a hard time connecting with people in the real world.”

I’m going to treat this game and it’s creators as innocent until proven guilty – like any good lawyer, I don’t have to prove their innocence, I only have to cast doubt on the allegations.

Now, I’ve been playing D&D for years. It is a wondrous game filled with mythical beasts and adventures that know no real bounds. The sky isn’t even the limit. There’s no evidence provided to back up the claims that this site has made, particularly when it says:

“Some former players have said that “D&D” brought them into contact with demonic activity.”

Who said that, and on what record did they find this? Is it something they have logged themselves and have they reported this to a local authority to investigate? I suspect the answer is no – because the real world does not believe in demonic activity, only human activity, which can be evil.

While I’m at it, have you ever heard the news say that underage smoking is on the rise? Kids will say things to look cool to their peers. In all the people I knew in high school in the UK, a fraction of them smoked, the rest of us didn’t have the money or knew it was bad for you. If you ask kids if they smoke and tell them their answer will remain a secret, a good number of them will tell you they do smoke. Because it’s funny to lie to the authority and get away with it. The same can be said for coming into contact with demonic activity- sure, the demon told me to smoke, take drugs and piss on the grave of the high school mascot.

“Entering a fantasy universe and assuming a different personality can be addictive for some gamers, particularly those who tend to be isolated or who have a hard time connecting with people in the real world.”

I was one of these people who found D&D addictive. But what this fails to realise is that in order for me to play the game, I have to have people with me to play. You can’t play it on your own. It is only as addictive as reading a good book, or spending time with friends. And yeah, I had a hard time connecting with people at school – most of them were dicks. The people I enjoyed spending time with got me into the hobby, it was our escape from shitty high school politics and social constraints. It did us good and they’re all still good friends 25 years later, with families of their own and jobs which help them pay for the stuff they like.

This is the sort of argument which still goes on today. I will freely admit there have been times where I would rather be playing D&D than getting drunk under-aged on cheap alcohol (marketed specifically at kids). And yes, there have been records of people running marathon sessions of D&D for 48 hours – is it no the job of parents to know exactly where their child is and what they are doing?

As a kid, it would be impossible for me to play a 48 hour solid game of D&D and get away with it. I think they are mistaking D&D with online games like World of Warcraft. This is likely another example of a misinformed accusation, a likely bad parenting.

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So where did the moral panic begin with D&D?

There was a tragic series of events which were blown out of proportion, sucked up by the media platforms of the 80’s and 90’s and amplified through TV and various fundamental groups – one of these groups starting with single instigator, probably the most famous.

I don’t have a problem with this instigators, personally. I’ll briefly explain why.

I have sympathy for her – she lost her son, a gifted young man who was considered a bit of a genius. Patricia Pulling lost her 16-year-old son to suicide and like any parent she wanted to find the cause of it. It’s a natural reaction. Since she did not understand one of her sons’ hobbies and likely had a religious upbringing herself, the game of D&D become the target of her concern. Likely she feared its nature – fantasy and fiction. As the Jedi say, fear leads to hate and hate leads to the dark-side. Right up until her death in 1997, she campaigned against role-playing games like D&D.

Why?

She believed her son had fallen foul of a real-life curse through playing D&D. Occultism played a large part in the moral panic of that era. People genuinely believed that D&D was a gateway to doom or the devil. But why? What events in the universe allowed this tenuous link to take hold?

The Devil, Satan or whatever you call the moralistically-challenged entity that some people believe exists to tempt mankind to hell, is seen in all manner of daily things. Large businesses and corporations are surrounded by conspiracy theories. Some people think the Starbucks logo is the devils head upside down, in the form of a goat-like being. Of course, Reddit was the source of much amusement for this one.

I digress.

People thought that playing in a fantasy world would allow kids of the era to lose control of themselves, lead them into madness and dark places, struggle with reality. The fact that the world was already a dark place, with war, corruption, famine, plague and terrorism on the rise, meant nothing to these groups – it had to be the thing they thought they understood and ultimately feared.

So, what is wrong with the argument that playing D&D is likely to end up with your soul lost in the other world, unable to escape (other than sounding like the main plot for Stranger Things)? Well, other than not believing in the popular misconception of the occult (I’ve read too much horror fiction), it’s that you would have to play the game with some seriously shady people to act as the third-party sales person to Hell.

I play with respected friends who are now doctors, teachers, nurses and therapists, how about you? We all started in the spare room of a family home, secluding ourselves away to enjoy an adventure of the imagination. I enjoyed the ride and not once did I feel my soul pulling away. But what about the moral implications of playing a game where the moral alignment of a character gets murky?

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To see an original copy of the text that Puller was circulating to police, schools and other authorities, check out the escapist, who has scanned in the text for you to read. There’s a good page by page critique if you’ve got the time to read it too.

Most of what is said or argued is pretty loose when it comes to examining the details, and evidence is really pushing it as a description. Now, admittedly this was in the time before the internet – people didn’t have as much information at their fingertips. Education was something you either got from school, the library or church. No offence people of the 80’s, it wasn’t your fault.

The moral ambiguity partly stems from the alignment game mechanic. In D&D there is an axis of Law to Chaos, Good to Evil, with neutral being in the middle of both. You pick one from each axis, for example you could play lawful-good (a really upright member of a community) or lawful-evil (most politicians today), chaotic-good (Robin Hood sort of chap) or chaotic-evil (rampant, crazy and undoubtedly evil). So, what is to stop us all playing chaotic and evil characters and indulging in some crazy killing spree?

Well, nothing really.

But here’s where it is interesting – D&D creates situations where you may not have considered your actions thoroughly. The referee of the game, the Dungeon Master (DM) acts as the storyteller and explains what happens by interpreting the dice rolls of the players, gauging the success or failure of their actions and endeavors. The DM also tells or shows the story, acting as the narrator. A good DM thinks ahead. This DM/Player interaction is shared between a group of people, so the chances of it turning into a descriptive, murderous, sex-spree is unlikely. People are normal.

If a player wishes to play an evil character, they are usually the odd one out, and the DM, as a good referee of the game will point out that acting in evil ways will always have consequences, often resulting in the death of the evil character.

There are safe moral lessons in D&D – we may think that killing Orcs and Goblins in their cave lair is the right thing to do, but what happens when we stumble upon their young? It makes your players stop and think for a moment, asking themselves if there is a different way to approach this?

There are some powerful fictional deities in the fantasy world of D&D – do enough evil and you will attract the attention of the lawful good gods, controlled by the DM. Your character won’t last long.

Finally, D&D is a cooperative game, an evil character in the adventuring party is usually at a ratio of 1:4 – they will be outspoken by the other players and their game will not be as fun.

Ethan Gilsdorf says it better than I can in his book on fantasy role-playing. It was given to me as a gift by a good friend when at University who I had introduced to the game. Gilsdorf says:

“For me, the most interesting D&D games ask players to face murky ethical and morals situations, and force them into questionable behaviour” … “Does your ‘good’ character torture a goblin to get useful information that serves a higher goal? Is it okay to use a magic item that exerts mind control over other creatures to defeat a foe? D&D poses all these questions and provides opportunities for role-playing and testing ideas and decisions, all in a safe way, one that has no consequences in the real world but does teach us important lessons about how we might, or should, behave in the real world ourselves. Triumphing over that evil force helps reset our moral compasses.”

Ultimately society has to become far more objective and skeptical when we are approached by people trying to help us out, who tell is that we need to fear something based on their knee-jerk reactions and anecdotal data – even those who act as scientists have fallen fowl to speaking up without actually collecting facts and viewing them with an objective eye.

Fortunately science was able to correct the problem in the mid 90’s and sort out much of the lies and misinformation and admit that some of what was said as fact by therapists and officials was simply wrong. Science is good, but is easily misconstrued by false prophets.

Ultimately we have to learn, as a society, to see a moral panic when it happens. If we can do that, and not get caught up in the stinking mess, we may actually stand a chance at peace and harmony. Particularly if we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors – something which we need to maintain now that the generations of the world war are nearly gone.

J.D Ferris, CC

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