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Sunday, June 12, 2011

DCC: Nihilistic?

As a follow-up to both the post about the word "hero" and my impressions of the DCC RPG beta, I want to tackle this blurb for DCC:
"You’re a reaver, a cutpurse, a heathen-slayer, a tight-lipped warlock guarding long-dead secrets. You seek gold and glory, winning it with sword and spell, caked in the blood and filth of the weak, the dark, the demons, and the vanquished."
A lot of people cite this as proof that the game is nihilistic. I'm not seeing it.

A couple of those character types are described in violent terms, and a "cutpurse" definitely has a morality problem. The problem is, even most of the literature intended to be heroic is filled with violence and theft. Jason and the Argonauts is about a raid or heist; they sail to another country and steal the Fleece by force, not because they were in danger, but because Jason's father told him to do it -- in the hope that he'd die in the attempt. Hercules kills a couple people, not all of whom deserve it; he also steals the girdle of the Amazons. Even Theseus, slayer of a monster that's killing innocent people, goes on to abandon a girl who helped him and later kidnaps a woman because he felt like it. The Arthurian tales are a little better, but there's a lot of good knights who later betray each other, and there's still a lot of killing going on that isn't strictly necessary. Robin Hood is considered good, but he's taking people's property by force and occasionally killing some people who get in the way.

Next, consider a lot of modern stories that have criminals as main characters. Even though they've done illegal stuff and may even have killed a couple people, they aren't always killers and thieves through and through. It's a standard cliché in a lot of '30s and '40s movies to have a gangster type who is also patriotic or who has a soft spot for "dames and kids". Even in later Mafia films or other gangster films, there's frequently some kind of moral code and sense of honor and duty: don't rat out your buddies, don't betray your family, sometimes even a "no women, no children" policy (there were a couple real-life mobsters killed by other mobsters supposedly because they broke the "no women, no children" code, although that code may no longer be enforced.)

My point? When I said that not being a hero (in the lofty moral sense) doesn't necessarily mean that you are a villain (rotten to the core,) I'm thinking of the mixed moral bag of pre-20th century heroes of legend and the mid-20th century heroes from Hollywood. They've either made a decision to not be strictly moral, because of a character flaw (gambler, drinker) or disrespect for the law, but that doesn't mean they are amoral. They may think of themselves as basically good people, and may help others out. They've just got this moral blind spot, which they may even reconsider. You don't have to play a sociopath to seek gold and glory.


  1. "nihilistic"? What people haven't been playing adventurers that seek gold and glory, winning it with sword and spell, caked in the blood and filth of the weak, the dark, the demons, and the vanquished for decades now?

    I'm with you a lot of the "heroes" of old, were on occasion real creeps. That didn't stop them from being heroes.

  2. I guess we still don't have any agreement about what "hero" means as a term of art.

    Even Dartagnan doesn't always behave like a perfect mid-19th century gentleman (though he does some growing up whenever he behaves against his exemplary instincts and has to assimilate the consequences of his actions).

  3. People seem to be taking these statements as if they're proscribing other types of behavior. Now, I'm sure many realize that they can play the game in whatever manner they wish, but I personally see great potential in accepting it as written.

    Every religious and moral code I'm familiar with isn't about acknowledging that we are at all times perfect paragons of virtue, but instead striving against our (natural or induced) urges to behave otherwise.

    So I'm perfectly willing to enter the game as the reaver, the cutpurse, the heathen-slayer, or the warlock. It doesn't mean I have to revel in it, and it definitely doesn't mean I have to stay that way.

  4. also, I'm not sure why warlock is now a term with a moral colour, unless it's shorthand for gnarly gnarlington.

    I'm sorry, I couldn't resist.

  5. Robert Holdstock has an extraordinary version of 'Jason' and the heroes of Homer are a childish, selfish and petty lot by modern standards.

    A hero is someone who fulfills a role in his own culture and may seem a complete villain to another. I have found that in practical matters of gameplay heroic characters are loyal to their own, which is the party of adventurers, a microculture. All others are fair game.

    A heroic band of villains is quite possible as long as they are not villainous to each other.

  6. I don't understand the current fascination with wanting to lump things into the categories of 'nihilistic' versus 'heroic' and suspect that if I did know more, I would probably reject said categories simply because they fail to offer insight into much of anything other than the taxonomist's bias.

  7. "Nihilism" is, for most people who use it, little more than a buzzword without any real content. It gets thrown around a lot in discussions online and rarely means much beyond "Your rejection of my morality makes me uncomfortable and I cannot coherently articulate why." Even according to that rather weak understanding of nihilism, I don't think DCC RPG qualifies.

  8. I agree with everything that's said here. But John, I think you should have addressed the line "you're no hero." You make the very good point that even heroes have their "moral blind spots." (Maybe especially heroes?)
    But the DCC blurb either contradicts you by assuming that heroes are pargaons of absolute virtue OR implies that the PCs will not be mobsters with hearts of gold, but out-and-out villains.

    But I wouldn't necessarily call this nihilism, just marketing (the same thing?)

    Although the blurb more honestly describes the way D&D is generally played, I would prefer to preserve some tension. Saying that the PCs *aren't* heroes has the same problem as saying that the PCs *are* heroes-- closing off some of the most interesting challenges.

    I like games where there's some challenge to do something probably wrong, but in the least wrong way-- e.g. kill the king, but not his guards. Or even do something right with minimal collateral damage-- e.g. rescue the king without killing too many of the mook jailors.

  9. I interpret the "You are no hero" blurb on the DCC RPG as being a narrative reference, in the same way that James Garner plays the 'hero' of the Rockford Files... Rockford's character may not always be 'heroic,' but because Rockford is the star of the show we can be reasonably certain that the action will revolve around him and the writers won't kill him off in act 1. Goodman could have written, "Your character does not have death immunity."

  10. I agree with limpey about the "You are no hero" slogan. It's not a comment on your morality. It's a comment on your power.

    However, I would agree that DCC, like LotFP, is quite obviously nihilistic. Let's define the term this way:

    Nihilism-the view that that there is no right or wrong, or at least that while we might label certain things as such, right is in no way superior to wrong in any objective way.

    This is implicit in DCC in any number of places:

    1. The magic rules, where all (virtually all?) wizards appear to have to traffic with pretty obviously evil entities, perhaps gaining weird and grotesque "corruptions" along the way.

    2. The irreverent tone used to describe good spells or effects-a shining halo appears above your head, a choir of angels sings behind you, etc.

    3. Defining the great moral struggle of the universe as one of Law versus Chaos (not Good versus Evil) where Law is pretty clearly not a PC stand-in for Good (as it may sort of have been in OD&D).

    And so on.

    As a Christian and a Catholic, this concerns me. Do not misunderstand. I use the term "concern" carefully. It doesn't mean I don't like these games, or think they are bad or shouldn't be played, etc., etc. Actually, I like both games. Both games are clever and full of cool ideas, and I think they would be great fun to play. It may even be that their nihilism is in part what makes them fun. Perhaps that's part of the appeal of Appendix N sorts of stories (minus Tolkien and a few others)-as is perhaps suggested by John, above.

    But the concern remains. To be honest, and speaking only for myself, I’m not completely sure how that concern can or even should be resolved.

  11. If I were Robert Anton Wilson or otherwise into General Semantics, I would start putting subscripts after every instance of the word "hero", to indicate which definition of "hero" we're talking about. Or at least I would if the Blogger comments form allowed the SUB tag.

    "Hero[1]" is someone who's trying to make his life a little bit better; "Hero[2]" is kind of the same, but with a focus on being morally better; "Hero[3]" is actually a superhero, or modern action hero at the very least; "Hero[4]" is a perfect stand-in for a moral code, and "Hero[5]" is a combo of Hero[3] and Hero[4]. Hero[5] is the common interpretation of the term in high fantasy, and I don't read anything more into the "You're no hero" statement than "we reject Hero[5] as the kind of character you *should* play in this game."

  12. Isn't Hero[5] a strawman? Or maybe a bogeyman? As in "don't let the high fantasy gamers get you." Even in Tolkien, Hero[5s] are in short-supply. "You're no hero-- you're a burglar-- who takes six meals a day and doesn't leave home without a spare handkerchief."

  13. @Brian: depends on what you mean. If you mean no Hero[5] holds up to scrutiny, of course not. But have people created such inhuman paragons of virtue? Well, there's Galahad... T. H. White puts a negative spin on Galahad specifically *because* he seemed so perfect. There's a number of fantasy writers copying Tolkien who put forward their ideas of a perfect hero, even though that perfection didn't hold up well under outside scrutiny. Outside of strictly medieval fantasy, some implementations of Superman are perfect examples of Hero[5]. If Superman ever does something wrong, it turns out he's being controlled by an evil villain, has been tricked, or things are not as they seem. That happened often enough that there was an entire website devoted to Superman being a smug prick.

    The trend in medieval fantasy superheroes who can never be wrong subsided when hack writers stopped ripping off Tolkien and started ripping off Another Fine Myth or other novels with incompetent protagonists instead. Plus, the whole anti-hero thing became popular, because a lot of fantasy writers started rebelling against the pure and good.

  14. I think it's true that "nihilistic" is a bad word to use to describe - well anything that isn't proper philosophical nihilism, but I think it's fairly clear that when people use the term to describe the DCC blurb they're not using it in the technical sense. I think they're using it to mean something roughly like what I would call "grimdark".

    I don't think the back-cover blurb in DCCRPG is "nihilistic" but I *did* find it a little bit eyeroll-worthy, because it seems like it's trying too hard.

    Like Brian, I kind of think that Hero Five is a myth (I can think of *literally zero* examples in either fiction or mythology) and therefore it strikes me as foolish to *reject* hero five so explicitly. It's like publishing an RPG in 2011 which proudly bosts "NO LEVELS OR CLASSES" on the back like it's something new.

    I'd also point out that the examples the game chooses are not merely unheroic but *actively unpleasant*. The game doesn't say "you are a wanderer, a rogue, a vagabond" or "you are an ordinary man, a peasant, a ratcatcher" it says specifically "you are a reaver, a cutpures, a heathen-slayer". Those aren't morally grey or morally neutral concepts, they're genuinely bad people ("heathen-slayer" in particular bothers me, since it seems to imply that *cultural genocide* is apparently a big part of the game).

    Ironically, as near as I can tell, *none of this* actually makes its way through into the actual game. Players don't start off as reavers, or cutpurses, or heathen-slayers, they start out as undifferentitated level zero characters and (presumably) never actually get around to cutting purses or slaying heathens becuase, well, they're going to be crawling dungeons.

  15. ...Ironically, as near as I can tell, *none of this* actually makes its way through into the actual game. Players don't start off as reavers, or cutpurses, or heathen-slayers, they start out as undifferentitated level zero characters...
    "Confidence Artist," "cutpurse," "smuggler" and a few other possibly less-than-upstanding occupations that are a part of the long list of possible occupations that your 0 level PC might have before entering 'the funnel.' (see Beta page 15). Of course, depending on the luck of the dice, you could also start out as a cobbler or jester.