Flavors of Benevolence

My wife had a craft show this weekend, which meant a bunch of time in the car for me. At indoor shows like this one, we take both cars out, I help her set up on day one, and come home. On day two I show up a little before the show ends and help her tear down and pack up, and then we both drive home. Since the show’s venue was about an hour away, I had some time to catch up on podcasts, and I spent the entire trip out this afternoon listening to the latest episode of the Min/Max podcast.

The topic du jour was evil characters or those serving evil masters (particularly evil dieties or beings powerful enough to be warlock patrons) and one of the things that struck me about the conversation was the point that evil characters are kind of boring on a fundamental level a lot of the time. They’re narcissistic and sociopathic. They often care about only themselves. Even if they ostensibly care about something else, it’s often purely because of what that thing can do for them. In Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos, he makes the observation that most mythos cults are fundamentally self-serving. Evil really is banal a lot of the time, even if it’s horrifying. Truly interesting and compelling villains often are interesting because there’s a spark of twisted good in there – to use some comic book examples, Magneto is significantly more interesting than Carnage. Magneto believes he is trying to achieve a noble end, and he’s mostly right, but it’s corrupted and harsh. The cinematic version of Eric Killmonger is compelling for the exact same reason. Carnage, by contrast, is pure malice, bloodlust and sadism. He’s scary, but he’s not interesting.

By contrast, I find good characters much more interesting – what has pushed this person past normal human decency into service, perhaps risky, costly service? Why have they chosen to do good in the way they do? How do they find the strength to keep going? I think a big part of it is that good is also inherently relational. Good is, almost by definition, the care of and concern for other creatures and places around you. It is externally-focused. When scripture tells us how to behave, it’s almost always in regards to other people – particularly in the teachings of Jesus.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:35-40

However, that external focus, because people are limited, tends to itself be limited, or at least specialized. When ministries or charitable endeavors are started, they typically focus on a specific type or at least a related cluster of types of need, and good characters tend to do the same thing. That difference in focus provides variety and interest.

It’s why I can play three different neutral good clerics in three different consecutive D&D games (The colony game, City on a Hill, and the Eberron game) and not get sick of them. And despite the similarities, I’ve come to realize that Lambert, Bertrand, and Nassir are actually very different people, and I have found some roleplaying challenges along the way because of those differences.

Lambert was easy, in a lot of ways. If he’d been a character in a short story or novel, you could call him an “author insert.” He was definitely an Idealized Self character, but in a lot of ways he was also a Doppelganger Self character. Lambert had a lot of my own personal issues. Intensity, the tendency to take everything seriously, the sense that he was responsible on some level for the actions of those around him, impostor syndrome, and a bit of a guilt complex. I didn’t have to stretch myself very far to portray him consistently because he was basically me, in better shape and with clerical magic, in a fantasy setting. I’ve written about him at length, and instead of trying to summarize here, I’ll just link you back to previous posts.

Bertrand and Nassir are proving to be more challenging.

Bertrand

Bertrand, somewhat to my surprise, has shaken out as a supremely-confident person and a bit of a smart alec. He’s undoubtedly a good guy, but he’ll stare three armed orcs down alone and act like he’s doing them a favor by not starting a fight. Because, really, if he wins, they’re going to get hurt, and he really doesn’t want that. He’s kind and friendly, but he’s also wary and a little suspicious. His confidence also extends to the other folks around him, though he finds Trather’s naivety a little amusing. I’m enjoying playing him a great deal because, again to my surprise, he’s turned out to be a very different kind of character from the other two clerics or even Desilav, the paladin I have running around the City on a Hill setting of Celansar from the episodes I guested on in season 1. Bertrand is giving me a chance to play a good person who doesn’t angst over it as much as Lambert (or I) tended to do.

And to me, that makes him interesting and a bit of a challenge. Because Bertrand is good kinda just ’cause why wouldn’t he be? He doesn’t even take it all that seriously. He’s had a decent life, he’s gifted with some skills that he can use to help people, and he likes to see other people happy and in good places. Minor acts of repair and healing are trivially-easy for him. He doesn’t put forth a lot of effort to seek out a cause to support because he doesn’t have to – all he has to do is walk down a random street and a bevy of opportunities to help will be right there. If they’re not, he’ll pick a street in a poorer part of town and try again. He doesn’t have to exert that much effort to help people in a lot of cases, so he just does it without thinking – that wagon wheel is broken and I’m right here, might as well cast mending on it, right? It’s literally six seconds out of his day. He probably won’t even be able to find a gap in the crowd that soon. He’s only level three, but in a lot of ways, he’s got an outsize ability to affect the lives of those around him for the better, and as he grows in power, that will only get more pronounced. This isn’t to say his care isn’t genuine, but it’s far less conscious than that of Lambert, Desilav, or Nassir. In some ways, that’s aspirational for me too – it’s the kind of goodness I see in people like my parents, and I desperately want to get so good at it that I don’t even think about it any more.

Bertand, despite his outwardly self-confident air, represents a very humble sort of virtue. He’s not really thinking about himself or even the condition of his own character. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, he is not thinking about humility. He’s very often not thinking about himself at all.

Nassir

Nassir is way outside my experience. He’s three times the age of the oldest humans in the real world, and he’s been through a tremendous number of ups and downs. His central point of caring is for the poor and the downtrodden. Nassir, rather than being Diligent like Lambert, Kind like Desilav, or Humble like Bertrand is Generous as his central virtue. He is a “have” and feels a strong pull to lessen the suffering and raise the station of the “have nots” in the world, to the point where he’s sometimes a little ridiculous about it. He hands money out freely and knows Charlie (the party’s resident fire sorceress) because of his charitable work.

But he’s also something of a meditation on mortality and death. Nassir is very old, and is also very dangerous. Moreso than any other PC I’ve played since I started in 5e, he is a lethal warrior if the circumstance demands it. (And he’ll get really deadly at level 5 when he takes the Revenant Blade feat) He is not just ex-military, he is the closest thing the world of Eberron has to an actual commando, and after his time in the military of Valenar, he did a stint as “security contractor” for House Denieth. He’s functionally a former SEAL who then went and worked for Blackwater for a few years. In addition, he is tied very strongly to the Undying Court, which feeds his benevolence, but also makes him very closely acquainted with death. He has ravens and broken chains tattooed on his arms, he carries a skull mask, and he is generally … pretty Goth if I’m going to honest.

Nassir’s goodness is at least partially motivated by the fact that while his life is long (and is likely to be much longer, perhaps even near-immortal if he winds up as a member of the Undying Court himself some day) the lives around him are often tragically short. He sees human lifespans like unto the way we in the real world see the lifespans of our dogs and cats that we’re especially fond of – just when you really get bonded to them and really love them deeply, just when the relationship is at its apex, they’re gone.

I’m still trying to get a handle on him, but I think at least a chunk of his goodness is motivated by grief, and some part is probably also informed at least a bit by moral injury (he fought for Valenar after all). He’s seen way too many good people die, he may even have killed a few in the Last War, the millions of lives around him are like smoke, and he just wants to make sure they’re not as horrible as they are ephemeral. At the same time, his 300+ years of life and movement from belonging to isolation and back again multiple times has given his a great deal of calmness and perspective.

So his compassion and his skills as a warrior exist in a kind of uneasy balance. He’s very willing to accept surrenders and even provide healing to downed enemies (in the first fight we had with living people, Nassir used Spare the Dying on the one enemy that was dropped in the fight) but he’s still extremely capable of being an embodiment of death, not just a student of it. That constant tension in his person makes him very interesting to me. He wants to alleviate suffering and give people around him good lives, but he can also kill in the blink of an eye and he himself isn’t completely at peace with that dichotomy.

Inversion

I find these characters interesting and fun to play over the long term because they have traits that interact with the rest of the world in interesting ways. By trying to make things better, they inevitably bring change – in their environments, in those around them, and one can hope, anyway, in themselves.

An unrepentantly, unambiguously evil character gets none of that. If a good character is like an artist, shaping and creating beautiful things in the world, then an evil one is an arsonist. That house may have been burned down for sadism, because it was in the way, or to commit insurance fraud, but in any case, there’s just a pile of ashes now.

If Bertrand was evil, he’d just be another harsh, greedy, grudge-bearing dwarf with a bunch of fire and metal spells. But there’d be no reason for his beautiful shield of stained glass, his sense of humor, or any of the other things that make inhabiting him fun and cool.

If Nassir was evil, he’d be another tiresome BloodSkullDeathMurder edgelord character. A pitiless killer who could slaughter innocents with a yawn before collecting his fat paycheck. He’d still look cool, but the things that make him fun, challenging, or endearing would be absent.

There can definitely be some value in playing less-moral characters. They let you work things out, examine the consequences of immoral actions and so on. But to me, the really interesting stuff lies in playing characters who are, or at least want to be, a force for good in the world.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

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