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Am I Not My Brother’s Keeper? or: Yo Ho, Not A Pirate’s Life For You.

July 10, 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.

My first time GM-ing a larger campaign in the Hero system has become known as The Colonial Horror game. The basis of the game was that it was set in an alternate universe where Roanoke had survived and within the first decade or two of the 17th century had become a bustling port city in the New World. Larger even than Bridgetown since it now served as a launching point for expeditions into the continent and further colonization.

The PCs at first were a group of down on their luck sorts who were looking for any easy way to make money. They were fellow barflies at a lower-class pub and banded together one night to fight what they (due to poor Knowledge skill rolls) thought was a mob of very angry Jews that for some reason had bitten the local Chandler in the neck. This lead them on an adventure in which they fought a witch who could control the dead and shoot fireballs.

They found themselves working together from that point on, and eventually discovered magical powers of their own that both frightened and empowered them. Over time, the PCs grew as characters, established themselves amongst the city of Roanoke, and generally became upstanding citizens. This was in part due to their status as the city’s secret force against evil magic. When not dealing with their own issues, they would occasionally be drafted into fighting things that were explicitly endangering the city of Roanoke. This could be anything from Spanish saboteurs, to a unit of mind-controlled Royal Navy sailors that were collecting all the orphans and street urchins in the city to be eaten.

It is that last bit that actually brings me to this story.

The characters were an interesting sort, the two longest running members of the party were Nathaniel Blackthorn and a man named Braxton. Nate, as he preferred to be called, at the start of the game was a disgraced boat pilot, but he eventually developed water magic and rediscovered his own confidence and skill. By the end of the game he had designed and powered a vessel made entirely of iron, was becoming a competent shipwright, and was eventually named the first Lord Roanoke. Braxton began the game as a former pirate that had been pressganged into a military service he barely remembered. All he could recall was that he had a horrific experience in a church while the bells were ringing. Afterward, he fled to the new world where he found work as a guard and eventually ascended to being an animal shaman, small business owner, and founder of a local college.

The third character was at the time of this session relatively new to the group. He was an Irishman named Sean who was a drunkard and a semi-competent smith. Sean wielded a longsword that he shot bolts of lightning out of, and would occasionally be possessed by the spirit of his long dead Grandmother.

They were sort of a weird bunch.

Playing off the hints and hooks laid in Braxton’s back story, the PCs ended up in an adventure in which they were called in to investigate why there was a drastic reduction in the amount of urchins roaming the streets of Roanoke. Normally it wouldn’t be seen as a problem, but it was too drastic of a reduction to not bear a quick look into.

What the PCs discovered is that a group of Navy sailors were rounding up the orphans and street urchins in the city and dragging them to an abandoned church the PCs had previously fought a demon in. It was quickly revealed that this was Braxton’s old unit, a group of mind controlled press ganged sailors who were given horrific powers by consuming the flesh of children. The team was lead by the mentalist who enslaved them, and a powerful sorcerer. In a sense, they were a similar, if far more horrifying, group to the PCs. They traveled the British Empire fighting magical threats, in exchange they would take care of the unwanted children that fueled their vile magic.

Obviously, the party would have no part in the eating of children, and were appalled that their beloved Crown would approve of such an action. So, battle was joined.

What happened after the battle is what matters though.

Rather than just leaving the urchins to resume their lives, Braxton, being a former orphan himself, suddenly recognized the life he had once lead in these children. Rather than dooming them to lives of piracy and crime, he strove to do something about it. He gave the children room and board, and set about finding them apprenticeships across the city. When he couldn’t find them apprenticeships he would hire tutors to educate them, teaching them letters, numbers, philosophy, science, and so on. Eventually, Braxton established a school for wayward youth and young men in general, because he believed in the betterment of all.*

I bring this up because that always struck me as one of the most interesting moments in the campaign. It was for the last several sessions, a sort of minor foot note to the PCs goings-on, Braxton was running a school for urchins so that they too might have Great Expectations. Yet, every time I think back on it, it strikes me as one of the most interestingly and human moments I’ve probably ever seen from a player character.

Charity is an interesting beast.

There is this question I feel that gets raised with charity that only occurs when you consider it from the point of view of the every day action of giving. Are we charitable because of a moral duty, or sentiment?

As I recently discussed there are feelings and reactions that we have, perhaps even should have, that are based in sentimentality. Yet, sentiment is not a driving force of ethics. It can lead you to do good things, morally right things, but it is not necessarily good on its own or capable of providing a polestar that will allow you to properly judge what is and is not good.

Sentimentality is not a moral imperative, it is not time`, and it is certainly not rational thought.

The question is whether or not charity is one of these things that’s driven solely by sentiment?

My gut reaction would be to say no. This is because there is a lot of moral thought and discussion around the notion of being charitable. It is exceedingly selfish and unhelpful to society as a whole to horde things beyond what you may comfortably need. Clearly, we deride billionaires who don’t give back to the world for some sort of ethical reason. Obviously, as a society we believe that on some level we have a duty to be our brother’s keeper.

If this weren’t the feeling there would have never been support for things like welfare, unemployment, social security, and the current health care bill. There certainly wouldn’t be so many countries with far greater social welfare programs than what we have in the United States.

It is your duty as a person to try and be good, and to do good works. Goethe once expressed that the greatest thing a man can aspire to do is to leave behind a lasting work of good. Granted in his own time this might have meant reclaiming a swamp so that there was more arable land, but the structure is there. To not only assist those worse off than you, but to create a system that allows them to better themselves, is a beautiful thing to do.

It’s the classic adage, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” Obviously, we believe that someone should be out there teaching men to fish, regardless of whether or not they’re going to be compensated for it. There’s a clear moral duty here to help your fellow man.

Yet, is that what we think of when we give to charity?

Do we think of the prestige that comes with being viewed as charitable? What about the embarrassment of being seen as miserly? Is that embarrassment, that guilt, linked to the moral aspect or once again, is there some sort of amoral sentiment involved?

I personally give to the Salvation Army around Christmas time, like many people do. Yes, I’m aware that they’re more likely to give kids bibles than scientific literature, but yet I can’t hold it against them. I grew up putting money in that little red bucket, I’ve rang the bell next to that little red bucket, and I’ve been derided while ringing the bell for that bucket. When I put cash in there now, there are a lot of memories that come up. There’s a lot of feelings.

And when I walk away, there’s that question of whether or not I could have given more. Sometimes we realize we meant to give a five and only gave a dollar, or the inverse how we feel when we meant to give a small amount and ended up giving a large amount. There’s a lot of complex feelings involved with charity, because whether or not it is a moral duty, it is definitely far more than that.

I remember a time when my credit card was compromised and I was going through all of the false charges. At some point in his spree of spending, the identity thief had given a nice donation to the American Red Cross. It was attached to a small micropurchase, and you know I wasn’t sure what to do. It was clearly a fraudulent charge, but it had done some good in the world. You don’t want to call up the American Red Cross and be like, “Hey, you owe me money.” It just doesn’t feel right. But does it feel wrong because it’s immoral, or does it feel wrong because I know what they do and I feel some sentiment.

This is one of those complex questions, and I raise it knowing full well that there’s not an easy answer. The easy answer is to just not worry about it, but that doesn’t seem right.

Because if we don’t believe in the moral duty of charity, and we’re just giving because of some memory or tradition, we are not doing the best that we can. We would not be a morally just society.

Of course, as has also been discussed previously, the moral life is not an easy one, and most people prefer the easier path.

 

 

*: Some bitchy feminist inside of you might be shrieking, “Well clearly not everyone if it was just men,” remember the game takes place in 1615. The idea that landless white boys without family names should be educated is pretty damn progressive.

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