Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” -Matthew 9:13 (ESV)
We had a very interesting moment in our D&D game this past weekend.
First, a bit of set-up. The player characters had been sent off to explore a previously-unexplored area of the island with the goal of finding minerals, specifically iron ore. While looking around, they encountered a massive, 12′ wide track where the vegetation had been stripped down to the ground. A bit unnerved by this, the player characters readied weapons and cautiously followed the track. At the end, they found an absolutely ENORMOUS beetle gnawing placidly away at the vegetation and moving at a pace that would make a sloth seem like a drag racer by comparison. It was huge, but it was also profoundly non-threatening.
And that’s when the faerie dragon decided to start messing with us. Unbeknownst to us, we had wandered into the territory of a non-malicious, but extremely mischievous one, and it started its pranking of us by attempting to get my PC to ride the beetle like a rodeo bronco via a suggestion spell. Lambert, being a cleric with both a high wisdom and a proficiency bonus to his will save, beat the spell handily, but Grant described the suggestion as a strangely-strong but fleeting impulse. Lambert had just finished describing this to the rest of the party when the giggling in the woods started. Aster, the party’s rogue (played by Grant’s wife Krissi) immediately fired an arrow at this unseen, giggling force in the woods. What actually took place (as we discovered later) was that the dragon used an auditory illusion and flew off to prank us more in the future, which resulted in some real hilarity and a detente with the faerie dragon over fruit compote (yes really). That was all later in the session, however.
What happened immediately was the PCs hearing a scream of agony that trailed off into the woods. And this is where it really got interesting. The party rushed into the woods to investigate, and found Aster’s arrow stuck in a tree. What followed was a discussion where Lambert expressed concern that they had harmed something that wasn’t actively trying to harm them (riding the beetle probably would have gone unnoticed by the beetle) and also worried a bit that they’d made an enemy of something with mind-controlling abilities. Aster countered (reasonably) that she hadn’t actually been trying to harm anything and the arrow was intended as a flushing tactic. There was a bit more back and forth with Lambert looking more than a little distressed and Aster asking him what she should have done instead (which Lambert really did not have a good answer for). Aster ultimately apologized to Lambert and said she’d alter her tactics in the future (a promise she kept later in the session at some personal risk).
Toward the end of the conversation, Krissi said to me “Lambert is just starting to realize what a different set of base assumptions Aster lives with, isn’t he?” Aster had a much rougher background than Lambert. He had grown up as the son of loving parents and then went into the clergy, and from there into a monastic order where he spent 15 years in a monastery surrounded by natural beauty, holiness, and peace. His background had taken a core of kindness and civic responsibility and nurtured that until those traits defined him.
Aster, by contrast, had probably stitched up a knife wound somewhere on her own body by the time she was eight. The illegitimate child of an elven noble and a barmaid, she’d grown up on the streets and had finely-honed survival skills that depended on being the fastest shot and the quickest thinker. She hadn’t had the luxury of being able to reflexively go to mercy and kindness in her life – those traits would get you killed, messily, on the streets. Much like in a modern prison, you had to be tough if you wanted to keep on being at all.
In the context of that background, the arrow shot made complete sense. In Aster’s world, you rarely got any warning at all, and when you did, you sure didn’t want to waste it. Parley is a luxury the streets will seldom allow you. In the context of Lambert’s world, it was different – even in this new place far from home, he was already safer than Aster. Encased in armor, carrying a shield, and possessed of a high resistance to mind-influencing magic, he did have the luxury of parley. The list of things that can one-shot an armored healer with strong mental resistance is a lot smaller than the list of things that can one-shot a lightly-armored rogue. (The reverse, however, is also true. The rogue can put a much larger list of things down quickly thanks to sneak attacks . Have I mentioned lately how great 5th edition D&D is?)
No matter how you slice it, though, Lambert’s morality was a privilege he had born out of privilege he’d already had. And so it is in real life, too.
Desperation can push people to do all kinds of things society frowns on. Poor areas are dangerous because poor people are desperate, and desperation makes things like robbery, drug dealing, and murder seem more reasonable. It also makes things like drug use seem more appealing because it offers an escape from the misery. Children are born without one or more parents because accidental conceptions happened (again as a brief escape from the misery of daily life) or something deprives the child of one or more parents, whether it be through death, prison, or abandonment. It can lead people who aren’t cruel, evil, or even particularly short-tempered to do things like firing an arrow at someone who may not have meant them any real harm.
That in turn makes it all the more meaningful when one of those people, used to desperation and a hard, unforgiving world actually takes a risk and suppresses those instincts, which is exactly what Aster did later on in the same evening. The fact that Lambert had been disturbed affected her enough that when she went up against the mysterious, pranking force again, she left her bow out of it and ultimately set the stage for us to make at least a temporary ally out of the faerie dragon.
She rose above the pain and horror of what she came up through to spare the feelings of a friend with no such baggage who had expressed concern about her actions. If that’s not redemption, I don’t know what is.