Confessions of a DM: Assuming the Enemy

"orcs" | Art by sandara. Used with permission.
In Dungeons & Dragons, it is very easy for players to categorize the beings they encounter into “us” and “the other.” “Us” are often seen as the playable races of Dwarves, Humans, and Elves, and are usually good-aligned individuals who are friendly and easy to get along with. “The other” consists of the races typically characterized as evil: Drow, Orcs, Goblins, and anything else classified as a monster or described as ugly.

This concept is further aggravated as the book that contains the stats and descriptions for these “other” creatures is called the Monster Manual. Upon encountering one of these monsters, most players’ first reaction tends to be kill first, ask questions later. In a typical fantasy hack-and-slash game, this kind of thinking and method of gameplay can be expected and accepted as the way things are.

As a Dungeon Master (DM), this binary trope is often the easy way to let the players know what I want them to do. I recently set up an encounter where a human merchant was being attacked by a band of hobgoblins. It was easy to predict what my players would do; they assumed the hobgoblins were evil, attacked them, and saved the merchant.

After this encounter, I realized that I could continue this trend, but it would morph into a predictably boring game. The cycle of attack, loot, and ask questions later is easy, but not very interesting. There’s a whole lot of hidden fun that is left unexplored and ignored.

I don’t have to hide in the safety of my bubble with other like-minded people.

I could blame this tendency on my players, but the responsibility falls equally on my own shoulders. The players will often react in the ways that I train them. If every orc they encounter is described as horribly ugly and stinking of evil, my players will take the cue and start to assume every orc is the same. It is my job as the DM to keep my players guessing so that they do not fall into this habit of constant assumption.

Perhaps the hobgoblins were attacking the merchant because she had kidnapped their children. Maybe the ugly orc simply wants to find his long lost true love.

One of my players recently stumbled into a crypt and awoke a skeleton. Instead of immediately attacking, the skeleton said, “What do you want?” and a hilarious conversation ensued. This was far more interesting than an automatic battle scenario.

As the DM, I have the ability to set and break stereotypes. Assumptions about evil based on appearances or behaviour can cause us to miss out on a lot of potential to learn something new or have a fun encounter.

I wonder if this habit of “assuming the enemy” seeps into the game from real-life experiences. As a Christian, I learned from an early age that “the Godly” were good and “the secular” were bad. I went to church, hung out with my friends from youth group, went to Bible college, and was generally terrified of anyone or anything that existed outside the safety of my Christian bubble. This binary assumption was so strongly ingrained in me that I was at a loss for how to interact with “secular people.” My active imagination had formed horrifying images of midnight drunken sex parties and demon-summoning music. When I finally mustered the courage to attend a not-specifically-Christian D&D group, I was astonished to find myself surrounded by friendly, sober nerds who weren’t trying to corrupt my soul.

I don’t have to hide in the safety of my bubble with other like-minded people. In fact, I shouldn’t. I should live side-by-side with “the secular” and be a positive part of culture rather than fear and despise others for not believing the same things I do, or for being different than I am. When I took the time to get to know people outside my comfort zone and look past my binary assumptions, I found friendship and love. Christianity does not hold a monopoly on nice people, nor does the rest of the world contain only evil. In order to be an ambassador, I must begin with an open mind and genuine interest in the world I reside in. In the words of Miss Frizzle: “get out there, take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” You might even enjoy it.

Sheela Cox

Sheela Cox

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Sheela talks to horses, loves to dance, and adores making fancy outfits. She lives with a handsome young man in her cozy home filled with books and the smell of fresh-baked cookies. (Photo by Don Nowicki)
Sheela Cox

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