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Freedom in Oppressive Societies, or “Are You Free?”

May 15, 2012

Part of a continuing series I’ve dubbed, “To Be A Young Necromancer In Love,” updating Tuesdays and whenever the hell I feel like it.


During the game I dubbed the Dark Fantasy game, where the characters were the last good group of adventurers in the world, or the first in a long time depending on how you look at it (see, “Why Ducks Shouldn’t Wear Long Pants,” for description), the climax presented a very interesting problem to the heroes.

All throughout the game, the player characters were in many ways the vanguard of a better life. Every region they entered was ruled by tyrannical wizards who were more often than not insane. These wizards performed experiments on their peoples, made ridiculous decrees, and when their demands were not meant they would just cause further suffering. This game was, admittedly, somewhat comedic having long passed by the concepts of, “grim,” and “dark,” to be GRIM-DARK!* Comedy aside though, the players truly did want to create a better world for the people.

One of the running gags that began to crop up in regards to whether or not people were living the good life, was to ask them, “Are you free?”

Most of the time, the villagers would not really understand what was being asked of them. These were people who had been oppressed so much that they didn’t have a concept of what freedom was. To them, being beaten by undead creatures for no reason was just life. This would lead the party to inevitably raising their banner, and marching on the wizard’s lair with their army.

Then came the final session of the game, when the party moved to attack the eternal mage-king of the country. His vassals destroyed, and their lands conquered, the party finally moved to the central fiefdom that the leader of the country personally held. They were met with a white picket fence on the other side of which was verdant green grass. As they moved through this mage-king’s lands, they were met with similarly nice scenery.

At one point they came upon a town and learned that in comparison to the rest of the kingdom, if not the world, the standard of living was much higher around the capital. The villagers had access to helpful magical items, fresh food, education, and health care. While the color scheme was a smattering of blacks, greys, and whites, most of the people didn’t seem to mind.

Then would come the question of, “Are you free?”

Most people in the capital just sort of shrugged, and ended up questioning the very nature of what that question meant. One player clarified that it meant they were able to decide things for themselves. The average man on the street then suggested that he was free to decide where he went to eat, what clothes he put on that day, his career, and so on. At face-value, the man decided that he was free.

The players were down right shocked.

In the capital city, which was plunged into eternal night, people were actually quite happy, and they seemed to even be better off than in the player’s own kingdom. The players, as leaders of a massive army, were actually not even as well off as the average peasant in the capital. As one of the players described during that session, “I just always assumed we looked like medieval peasants, with shit and dirt all over our bodies because we only bathed once a year or so. Our armor’s probably covered in blood and mud, and we just look kind of…shitty.” Most of the players agreed with that sentiment and the idea that actual peasants in this world probably looked worse. Yet, in the capital, people were well-groomed, owned multiple sets of clothing for a variety of occasions, and didn’t intrinsically fear magic as a tool of oppression.

When the party came to confront the undying Lich that ruled over the lands, they described themselves as conflicted. The Lich was a dashing fellow who wore a fine suit, top hat, and despite having long ago lost all his flesh still possessed a devious mustache. He was excited that after nearly a century a group of adventurers had arisen to oppose him. Yet, the party was unsure if they actually wanted to unseat him since he seemed to be doing a pretty good job of running his nation. Only when he started ordering death squads to hospitals and orphanages did the players fight back, though they were amazed that he actually had a notion of hospitals and orphanages for his populace.

At the end of it all, the party had won, they had freed a nation from tyranny, but on some level it felt hollow to conquer a region that was probably better off before their meddling than it was after. After all, the party didn’t have any great wizards in their employ, and so they wouldn’t be able to maintain the magical output necessary to sustain the high standard of living that the people were used to.

This session truly raised two of the more interesting questions I have encountered in a Dungeons and Dragons game.

The first is the notion of whether an oppressive society can have benefits. This was a nation that had a military-police force that punished dissent, and regularly made sure that everyone was being kept in line. At the same time though, the people didn’t feel any reason to rebel. They were clean, they had good food, they were healthy, and they felt as if they were free. When designing this, I did take some inspiration from the various justifications that people had for living under pre-World War II fascist regimes. Mussolini made the trains run on time, and Hitler provided universal health care and created a great education system, for example. The structure and benefits that people were accorded in these oppressive regimes is what made them less willing to rebel.

Since after all, the greatest oppression is to convince people that they aren’t being oppression. The people considered themselves free because they had choices, but didn’t understand the many ways in which such choices were actually limited. That is the beauty of a well-constructed regime though, people don’t see the bars of their cage.

Notions like these is what leads us into the question of what it really means to be free. After all, the people in this fictional nation are “free,” or at least they feel free, and yet I have implied that they don’t understand that there were limits on their choices. This is because, at least to me, true freedom goes far beyond the ability to choose which grocery store to go to. To be truly free is to do whatever you want.

However, what you can want will inevitably be determined by your own colored perceptions. These perceptions are constructed by the culture in which you’re raised, and the interactions you have in your life that are often far outside of your own control. There is to an extent no true freedom, and some have argued that there is no such thing as free will either.

Free will, would be the ability to decide things for yourself. In a game like D&D, fate can be decided by a roll of the dice, and in the real world, we are bound by the laws that govern our own reality. There are studies that measure the brain processes that go into making choices, and some have data that puts the idea of free will into a grim light, while others cling to microseconds where choices aren’t being made to find the free will of humanity.

I like to consider myself free though, after all, I decide where I go to eat, and what clothes I’m wearing today…



*: Obviously we’re all familiar with the concepts of making things darker, edgier, and a tad more grim. Sometimes this works, but when you try too hard or satirize it, it’s best to imagine it as GRIM-DARK! Note that “GRIM-DARK!” is not actually yelled, but should be spoken with the Christian Bale Batman voice, or a Peter Petrelli Cool Guy Voice.

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