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Moral Responses to the Horrific: Or When Billy Killed a Whole Town With Fire

August 27, 2013

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.

For the past several months, I’ve been running a post-apocalyptic Hero game. Originally I conceived it to be slightly serious but it ended up going from slightly silly to balls-to-the-wall clowns throwing pies silly relatively quickly. This can be mostly attributed to one character who ended up as the de facto leader of the party.

From the character’s own background:

“Ever since Billy was little, he was obsessed with legends of the mysterious Ancient hero known as “The King in Rhine.” According to oral tradition, Elvis Priestley was a wandering bard who travelled from town to town spreading the word of the Lord and the power of rock and roll. The legends say that Elvis came from humble beginnings, but his great skills with gun and guitar eventually saw him become the much-beloved King of Lost Vegas.

Billy sought to model his life after the life of his hero. He taught himself to play guitar, slicked his hair back, and learned a few secrets of “karate” from every traveller that came though Claytsburg and was willing to teach him. Billy jumped at the chance to get out and see the world – he hopes to follow in the blue suede shoesteps of his idol, do some good out there, and perhaps see if he can find artifacts left behind by the King during his wanderings.”

Early in the game the party signed on as guards and explorers for a caravan heading west over the mountains and into the unknown. Since they were traveling west, Billy began to suggest that they should ultimately search for the Ancient City of Lost Vegas where the King once ruled from. Following a few more adventures, the players split from their caravan and decided to follow on with this dream.

Along the way they stopped at the Land of Grace (the King’s home) and while there Billy was struck by lightning from a cloudless sky. While unconscious he had a vision of Elvis telling him that “bad hombres,” were going to try and steal the Throne of Vegas and only Billy, who was special and touched by the divine, could stop this. Following this vision, Billy begins to develop various powers, as do the other party members. After encountering the bad hombres in question, and the party discovers that they simply have magical powers, they experiment with their abilities further pushing them well past the point of “might be possible,” and into the realm of, “it’s just magic.”

One thing happened in the first session that’s fairly important to this story. While standing guard over camp, one of the characters noticed a boar wandering close and fearing it might attack woke Billy (as the two hailed from the same town they trusted each other). Billy and the other character ended up scaring the boar away with a flaming branch they lit using the campfire. However, to make themselves sound more heroic, they related the tale to everyone else as Billy defeating a “Giant Mutant Wereboar.” This became one of their major boasts when coming to a new town.

Obviously, the moment that this was said I decided that at some point the characters actually would encounter a giant mutant wereboar. I waited for a long time and eventually plotted to have a whole session revolve around fighting a Giant Mutant Wereboar. However, not all was as simple as it seemed.

The PCs met a pair of Mormons who told them about a town called Jackson that was in dire straights, and suffering from many problems. While one of the Mormons implied that the town might actually deserve their problems for their wicked ways, they refused to elaborate as wishing ill was a sin. Being the do-gooding sort, the party headed right for the town of Jackson where they discovered them suffering from a poisoned well and attacks from a poorly described giant monster. Worse, the giant monster seemed to dwell in or near the river that was also the only source of clean water nearby.

The party decided to make a break for the river, and get clean water for the town. Their thought was that if they ran into the monster, they’d fight it as best as they could. If they didn’t run into it, they’d just track it down after the town at least had water that wouldn’t make them sick. As luck would have it, they found a cave nearby that was most likely the beast’s lair, and when they went to investigate it, the Giant Mutant Wereboar came out and instantly attacked them.

They defeated it, and that’s when they found out that there’s was much more going on. The Giant Mutant Wereboar was actually a magically and scientifically enhanced man. Wall murals and a journal told the story of how his people, Native Americans from the region had suffered at the hands of invaders long before the apocalypse (hinted to be nuclear war) but that his village was wiped out roughly twenty years ago when he was a boy by the people of Jackson who had just moved to the area. Using ancient science and magic, he turned himself into a Giant Mutant Wereboar and used a virus to poison the water source of the town.

The party was shocked and suddenly worried if they were on the right side of things. They searched the region and eventually found the remnants of a village and a mass grave based on descriptions in the journal of the village’s former location. While all signs were pointing to a village full of racist murderers, they decided that confronting the town would be the best solution because the journal of someone who would turn himself into a Giant Mutant Wereboar is probably not the best account.

Since Billy was a musician, they decided to lure everyone in the village out to a concert with the additional promise that they could cure the townspeople. The whole town assembled, and it was only after they could see everyone together that they also realized that everyone in the town was clearly closely related. Billy sang the town a ballad about their battle with the Giant Mutant Wereboar that slowly transitioned into a mournful song about the loss of the town at the hand of the people of Jackson.

The People of Jackson were thoroughly perplexed that the party would choose to portray such a triumphant moment in the town’s history as if it were bad. When Billy suggested that what they did was wrong, the town called him a race traitor. Billy paused and asked if anyone in the town denounced what happened or at least felt uneasy about it. A twelve year old boy stood up and spoke. He told Billy that he was proud to be from Jackson, and that if he had been alive he would have gladly clubbed an Injun.

Billy blasted them all with his spell of holy electrical fire, burning them to death where they stood.

 

 

Now, strangely this is not the first time we’ve discussed ethnic cleansing in this series. However, in our previous brief discussion it was much more related to the concept of “evil races,” in gaming and how this doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Obviously, no one will be always evil, and you shouldn’t judge an entire population on the actions of a few individuals.

Yet what do you do when all of a population proudly supports the actions of those few individuals?

That was the case here, as far as the party could surmise.

This however brings us to the question of whether or not Eye-for-an-Eye justice is a morally correct stance?

This town had slaughtered all but one member of a neighboring racial group for no other reason than they were and a different skin color. On top of that, the aggressors were recent transplants to the area. There was nothing to suggest that they couldn’t have merely gone somewhere else. Instead though, they decided to obliterate a town of people.

Does that make it justified to slaughter all of them in retribution?

Once again bringing the question of what justice is? Is Justice merely revenge or is it an actual objective attempt to punish and rehabilitate a criminal? Furthermore, even if justice is about objectivity and rehabilitation, what happens when you’re confronted with a horrible crime?

What could possibly be a just response to ethnic cleansing and genocide short of the deaths of those who commanded and carried out such attacks?

Can such a person be rehabilitated? Furthermore, does the answer to that question matter? If the morally correct answer is to attempt to rehabilitate them rather than just punish them, than the fact that they might not be able to be rehabilitated might not matter.

It’s also important to question how simple punishment is different from revenge? Is punishing a criminal merely the way to satiate a base desire for revenge before we begin the process of trying to reintroduce them to society?

The party themselves debated this for quite a while after the session ended. All of these questions being further complicated by the fact that there is also the matter of context for the character’s actions. They don’t hail from a world where there is a unified government or even some sort of rule of law. Justice is what the man with the biggest gun says it is, which of course only makes one wonder about the notion of moral relativism…

 

I will close with the notion that ultimately the party was able to handle the moral complexity without becoming angry with each other or me. At the end of the day we still had fun and that’s what matters in the end when gaming. Just remember that not all groups would be comfortable with this sort of plot line.

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One Comment
  1. Rehabilitation for criminal or otherwise immoral behavior is only possible with civic institutions in place – In a post-apocalyptic world lacking these institutions, the only justifiable punishment IS holy fire.

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