Today was a hard day because none of the prompts really inspired me. Or, I should say, the only one that did (Nemesis) was too close to not only a previous entry, but the one from yesterday!
So, with that being said, here’s a piece about Crime in tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs).
One of the main motivators behind most of the earliest adventures I played or ran, I believe, was to bring justice to criminals of different kinds.
Since my earliest experiences in TTRPGs were in fantasy worlds, it’s not something surprising. Moreover, these early post-Tolkien fantasy worlds shared many of the Professor’s underlying values and ideas, so there’s actually a Good with capital G, and a capital E Evil that has to be punished.
Which leads me to my main issue with that kind of treatment of crimes and criminals that, sadly, has remained more or less the same 20 years later.
All crimes in TTRPGs in those days had to be punished. There was little to no redemption of the criminals, no change of heart or rehabilitation. Disturbingly enough, criminals were mostly, well, killed. These early days criminals were often the Other: Orcs, goblins, dark elves, etc.
All in all, a quite problematic look at both crime and the criminals.
My experience nowadays with crime in TTRPGs is quite different.
First of all, the TTRPG mainstream is now moving more and more towards recognizing that these absolute views on good and evil are harmful, even if it is just part of a fictional world. It’s undeniable that stereotypes such as evil species and fundamentally do-gooders who kill without issue are problematic, and cannot no longer act as the games default, even less so in the case of the most popular like D&D.
On the other hand, the indie TTRPG scene is now filled with games in which crime and criminals are understood in a much larger socio-economic context, one in which criminality can no longer be blamed 100% on inherent evilness. Instead, crime and criminals now get a much deserved dose of humanity.
This moving away from Manichean good and evil is perfectly embodied in the upcoming and already successful (at least when it comes to funding) Avatar Legends. In that game all characters have principles and their internal struggles are between opposite principles, but good and evil are never in the picture. This creates a scenario in which almost everybody can be redeemed, and this is a fantasy world intended for young people and up, which makes this proposition even better.
Something similar happened with D&D Fifth Edition and their removal, as of last year, of alignment (a highly controversial, extremely Manichean moral compass) from monsters and NPC stat blocks. To this we have to add the change in race-based ability score modifiers, which are now free to choose for the players and no longer static.
All of these are little steps in a game whose overall fictional structure is still highly problematic, but steps nevertheless they are. They demonstrate that the designers at Wizards of the Coast are at least aware of the problems and doing something about them, even if their “solutions” seem like too little too late.
I imagine that in the near future the reduction and sometimes disappearance altogether of cops in our society will have an impact in the stories we tell and our fantasy which, in turn, will influence TTRPGs.
At least from my perspective, crime should be examined and explored in TTRPGs as a way of humanizing criminals and trying to go beyond condemnation and punishment as the only solutions to it. It’s also a nice way of approaching the discussion of related topics such as wealth concentration, class struggle, and the heroics associated with defending the poor and struggling, instead of acquiring wealth through murdering, basically.
So these are some of my thoughts on crime and TTRPGs. I find it a difficult topic to talk about and handle, especially considering the problematic history of games and their treatment of this topic.
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