Today on Twitter, I went on a bit of a tirade about a couple of my favorite topics – but then I remembered, “Hey wait, this is what I have a blog for!” Specifically, I wanted to talk about exploring some of my favorite themes and doing so in tabletop RPGs. Lately I’ve become kind of obsessed with the idea of what it is to be good, and how the facets of justice and mercy and kindness tie into that.
I blame a long-ago D&D player of mine who insisted that playing a lawful good character was boring because “there’s no conflict in being good all the time.” Which, I like to think, is sheer madness. There are some IMMEDIATE possible conflicts that spring to mind, largely revolving around the fact that sometimes both sides are right and sometimes there is no one right answer. That’s something I’m trying to weave into a game I’m working on right now, so I’ve been doing a lot of research on that type of moral conflict. I wanted to look into some philosophical discussions pertaining specifically to mercy vs justice, and the compatibility or lack thereof of those two concepts. Some arguments insist that mercy is inherently an absence of justice, which I personally would disagree with but absolutely understand as a moral position. And how do you define “justice” anyway? Is it the punishment of the guilty or is it the protection of the innocent?
For that last bit, I also specifically blame Terry Pratchett, and his book Night Watch, which is at least partially a fantasy take on Les Miserables. Main character Samuel Vimes (who is an absolutely FOUNDATIONAL lawful good character in my mind) is contrasted with Inspector Javert of Les Mis. Javert is obsessed – to the degree of mania – with finding, apprehending, and punishing one man who he perceives to be guilty. That’s his role at the barricades; shutting down the rebellion (a force of good) for the sake of the established order (a force of law). Sam Vimes, on the contrary, is at the barricades because he is going to save as many people as he can, even if he has to die to do so. His entire goal there is to ensure that no one dies a needless death. The Glorious People’s Revolution is comprised of innocents who have suffered at the hands of the regime and he is there to protect them as best he can.
I hadn’t realized it until I started writing this post, but Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is also an excellent demonstration of my next point: hopepunk. Hopepunk is the rising response to grimdark which is about doing the right thing – specifically, the kind thing – in a crapsack world. The universe being dark and uncaring is not an excuse for us to be dark and uncaring, after all. It took writing this up for me to realize that Sam Vimes is extremely hopepunk, as a character (and this is why these posts don’t work on Twitter). At any rate, one of the key things about hopepunk is that it treats kindness as a radical, political act. When the world is cold, we don’t let it turn us cold. So I think it’s important to note that one’s definition of “goodness” or what it means to be a good person, is extraordinarily political. A lot of what I’ve found while researching has been theological – God’s mercy and God’s justice. That’s not territory I wanted to get into so much, but for many, religion and politics are inextricable, so I suppose it’s fair play.
Looking for non-biblical sources on traditional stories revolving around these themes, I came across the book Fair is Fair: World Folktales of Justice by Sharon Creeden. It tells an assortment of parables from around the world, then compares them to real-world legal situations and lessons that can be learned pertaining specifically to the law. I highly recommend it, if you can get your hands on it (it does not appear to be available as an ebook, if that’s a dealbreaker for you). One classic story that I was surprised to see was not included: the classic Cinderella story.
It was only a few years ago that someone really opened my eyes to some of the deeper elements of the Cinderella story. The idea that Cinderella’s true rebellion wasn’t going to the ball and marrying the prince – it was daring to remain kind when those who were put through similar trials became as cruel as their abusers in time. “Have courage and be kind” is the repeated mantra in the more recent live-action version of the story, and I think that gets closer to the heart of the story than any of the previous iterations. Remaining kind when the entire world is telling you not to be is an inherently brave act, which is what I’m saying with the hopepunk ideal. But really, the idea that Cinderella’s kindness and goodness earns her a happy ending, while the cruelty of her stepmother and stepsisters earns them nothing but grief… is that not a kind of justice? I suppose not in the traditional sense – there’s no court, no judge, no direct punishment – but in the moral sense.
The Cinderella story tends to get dismissed along with a lot of the other early fairy tales, because obviously when a story ends in marriage, it must be anti-feminist. But I would argue that the marriage isn’t and never was the point of Cinderella. It’s about the survival of and recovery from familial abuse. And moreover, it’s a comeuppance for the family that doesn’t (in most iterations) involve some form of death or dismemberment. I like to think of it as revenge by living well, a model I’ve always subscribed to.
At any rate, these are the things that I’ve been trying to explore in my work more recently, that I’ve been thinking about a great deal. The idea of goodness as a multi-faceted ongoing effort. Goodness as a thing that is done, not a thing a person is. And if you want to help me with this research (for a game that hopefully someday I’ll be able to tell you about), you can help by answering these questions: what is “lawful good” to you? Do you have a mental image of what a paladin is, and if so, what is it? What are the conflicts a lawful good person might face in the world?