Human Nature

Good, Evil, or Oxymoron

Some time back, Peter Maranci of Interregnum proposed as the game magazine's topic of the month "Human Nature". His own response a month later invoked "Good and Evil". To me, both the nature of man and the nature of Good and Evil are Great Questions. The best minds of all the centuries have been trying to answer them. The efforts of even the most veteran role player are not going to significantly impact the Halls of Academia.

Still, any decent game creator must have some sort of answer to these questions. I for one dislike the "black and white" school of gaming, where man is portrayed as a good guy or a bad guy. I enjoy more the "shades of grey" school, where it is not always immediately clear the proper thing to do. The grey approach is both more realistic, and presents the players with more interesting choices.

Yet, while it is easy to build black and white characters, how does one build grey people? I'm going to develop some other traits of mankind. Man is a creature of instincts. Man is a creature of culture (or habit). Man is also capable of rationalizing his actions, so that however black his actions may appear on the surface, many individuals can portray themselves as white in the minds. Finally, after reviewing these other dimensions of human behavior, we can return to the original criteria of Good and Evil to see what is left, if anything.


Wild West

As an illustration of a human conflict that might be typical of an FRP scenario, I'm going to sketch out a valley of the 1800s North American Wild West. The valley features a fast flowing stream which cut a gorge between two mountain chains. A high plateau opens above it. The open prairie is below. The stream is one of the region's best sources of water. Living in the region are a half dozen characters, each of which might become a player character in a competitive scenario where not all of the characters win. More likely, one of the below individuals is leader of the PC group, and the rest become NPC opposition.

The Native American Chief has a treaty which says the valley is his as long as the grass grows and the sun shines. He has doubts about the treaty's worth. In past years he has made an uneasy peace with the cattle people, but now more white people are coming.

The cattle rancher sees the valley as open range, and as such it is open to him and to all. He opened this land, and has been the Big Man here, and is used to getting his way. As his ranch hands are numerous and loyal, few have challenged him.

The cavalry captain is here to keep the peace, and to follow orders from Washington. On the other hand, money talks. It can certainly can change the orders, and might even change how they are interpreted.

The Sheriff of the local town is also here to keep the peace, but at another level. He owns the saloon, and gets his cut from sales of alcohol, from gambling, and from prostitution. He's kind of ruthless, but is good at keeping 'the law' as he would like to see it. This mostly means he'll run off anyone who wants to run a competing scam. He's got an understanding with the cavalry captain, but the cattle rancher and his ruffians don't like him very much.

The young German immigrant farmer has a deed to some land just outside the valley, astride a ford used by most everyone. He comes with barbed wire. He's got the law on his side, a fair young wife, and numerous farmer friends whose lands are not quite in such a strategic position. The other farmers have also been having troubles with the cattle men, the Indians, and that ungodly sheriff.

The railroad robber baron has sent an agent to quietly do whatever it takes to get a road driven through the valley to the high plateau. If he succeeds, most everyone (white) in the region will become wealthier. However, this wealth will not be evenly distributed...


The Pack Hunter

When a student of animals describes a beast's behavior, it is natural and accepted that he would speak of instincts and drives. Some modern schools which would accent man's ability to reason and minimize the role of preprogrammed directives dislike attributing to men preprogrammed behaviors. The (expletive deleted) with them.

I'm going to talk of lions, wolves and men as sharing some basic drives. I'll review a drive. I'll show how the presence of that drive in moderation is healthy for the possessor and his dependents. In most cases, it can be shown that the lack of such a drive is not healthy, nor is an excess of that drive. When done, we'll have a partial list of basic drives which might partially define 'human nature'. At any time we can review our list of Wild West antagonists, and see that they share in various degrees all these drives.

This section defines how men are alike. In the next section we will examine cultures, and how the various Wild West antagonists twist the common drives to adapt to varying conditions.

Let's start with an easy drive. All lions, wolves, and men get hungry. Appetites result in eating, which is a healthy behavior. One with a too powerful hunger might over eat, and get fat, which is not so healthy. One with a weak hunger drive might not eat enough, which is not healthy either. All our antagonists get hungry. On the surface, hunger has nothing to do with the Wild West conflict, but we shall see about that later. One who responds to his hunger drive by eating in moderation might be a 'Good' man. One who stuffs his face in excess, perhaps ignoring the needs of others, might be drifting towards 'Evil'.

After hunger, let's move on to sex. There is a strong tendency among lions, wolves, men and other beasts for males and females to get together and produce young. At the center of normal acceptable behavior, you get affection, protection, nurturing and growth out of family behavior. At the abnormal extremes one might see rape, domestic violence, and dysfunctional families. It's getting easier to apply words like Good and Evil now, isn't it? Again, at first look, the above Wild West scenario has nothing at all to do with sex and family drives, any more than the hunger drive. Let's take a second look. What happens if the families of the Indian chief, farmer, cattlemen, or most anyone else has their supply of food threatened? As we shall see, the adults will do as necessary to feed the young.

On to the peer bond. While men (unlike wolves or lions) might hunt alone, they do not act and stand alone. Men of the same gender and age groups tend to gang together. Each Wild West antagonist in our example is the leader of a group of men that shares a common life style. Each member of each group might want to be a leader someday. There is a competition for status among each group. There are various traditions and prizes which determine who will lead should a crisis arrive. In a well working group, this competition for leadership might result in a more effective response to any external threat. Such behavior might be Good. Of course, bickering or excessive desire for status or leadership could divide the group or weaken it. Again, we drift towards Evil. Finally, if a potential member of the group is not inclined follow the group, it is weakened. Thus, the peer bond can be too weak.

Finally, there is the territorial instinct. For wolf or lion, each pack or pride must have enough land with enough game to feed the family. If intruders come, they are sensed, rejected, and driven off. It is easy to see the conflict for our western valley as an echo of an animal skirmish for territory. For men though, just land is not always sufficient. In a complex society, there are many resources that might be necessary for the members of the peer bond and their families to continue it's lifestyle. Would the cavalry fight to protect an valued ore found in the hills? How much will the railroad push for the smoothest possible grade on their projected route?

How can a man defending the land and resources necessary to feed his family and continue his way of life not be seen as Good? How can the outsider coming in to seize the homeland's resources not be seen as Evil?

What then is the Good man? He loves and protects his family. He protects the resources necessary that his family might thrive. He is a member of a group which uses similar resources, and is willing to defend them as necessary. What is an Evil man? He is a Good man, only more so.


A Creature of Habit

In theory, man is a creature of reason. Given a problem, he can reach an objective and logical solution. I won't deny the existence of reason or logic. In practice though, logic and reason are not overly relevant to the behavior of realistic human NPCs. As a crude model of how to set NPC behavior, I'd suggest that logic and reason should only be applied after the prejudices of the NPCs culture have gotten him into so much trouble that his livelihood and income is threatened. Even then, an INT and EGO check might be required.

Habit is the most important aspect of culture. What problems has a character encountered in his past, his father's past, and his grandfather's? What solutions were applied to these problems? The truly human NPC should solve today's problems using yesterday's solutions.

The cavalry commander is real good at catching Confederate supply trains, and hitting infantry in the flank. Has he ever fought Indians? Courage is the major status trait among the Indian warriors. Whatever solution they might have to their problems, it must involve the youngsters showing their worth. Talking tough with a few dozen cowhands with rifles at his back has always worked for the cattle rancher. What will he do next time someone tries to cross him? Many of the German farmers emigrated after the failed revolutions of 1848. Their ideas of Liberty, Law, Tyranny and Discipline are shaped by their failures in the Old World, as well as the promises made in the New World's Constitution.

The NPC must have a history. What problems did he face in his youth? How did he solve them? What problems did his parents have? How did they solve them? More important still, what are the abstractions made from these past problems? The Revolution and Civil War were fought for 'Freedom' and 'Liberty'. What do these mean to a young black cavalry conscript? Will these concepts at all effect what orders his captain will give him? If the robber baron and the sheriff have both heard of Darwin's "survival of the fittest", will their professions cause them to interpret the concept any differently?

Habit. Culture. The PCs are of course visitors from another realm. Their players are aloof from involvement, and full of 20th century values. It is all too common that a PC will use reason, find a clean and ethical solution, be a hero, and ride off into the sunset.

Does this make the PCs Good? In the pack hunter section, I used 'Good' to indicate an individual who exercised his instincts in moderation, and in such a way to benefit his family and peers. A reasonable, intelligent and habit free PC who applies his clean and ethical solution might also be labeled 'Good', even if the PC violates both human instincts and his culture of origin in solving the conflict. On the other hand, would such a PC really be acting in character in applying 20th century values and solutions to a 19th century game?

In playing an interesting and realistic NPC, reason and logic should be shunned. The Indian chief is not defending his territory so he can feed his family. Such a consideration is of secondary importance. First, he is defending his way of life. Your cattle drive is blocked by barbed wire. Your newly planted wheat is being trampled by cattle. Your newest troopers do not understand how important it is to do things By the Book. Your deputy was shot by a drunken cattleman.

What role has reason in any of this? Reason creates abstract ideas, some of which men are willing to die for. Money. Courage. Free grazing. Holy ground. The Law. The Flag. Looking at any given culture's past, one can see how such concepts can help a culture grow and thrive. This is Good. One can also see how these concepts mix explosively with the status drive of the peer bond, the territorial drive, and the instinctive readiness to see a rival peer group as The Enemy. This can be seen as Evil.

If men contested rationally for resources, compromise would be easy, there would be few conflicts, and the scenario would be boring. Route the train through the valley, but away from the tribe's village and the holy areas. Fence crop areas only, but leave open paths for cattle drives. If the other guy cheats at poker, protest politely.

The cavalry commander lost an arm at Gettysburg, a son at Petersburg, and is not going to lose any more of these goddamned niggers than he absolutely has to. He was also with Burnside's brigade when 'Taps' was first played. Hearing it brings back memories.

God created Man. Mr. Colt made them equal.


The Rationalizing Beast

The Robber Baron is an aloof and distant scum. Perhaps after he has bribed the U.S. Congress and the territorial governor into making his interests Law, he becomes more real. When his men start driving tracks down his so called right of way, he will be a presence. Perhaps then he'll speak of inevitable progress, rub his fat stomach, and laugh derisively at the others. Until then, let's leave him alone. Pick any of the others.

The shooting has started. A respected member of your peer group is dead. Your way of life is threatened. Your surviving peers are standing with guns at ready listening. It is time to make a speech. (These are the 1800s. They are really big on speeches.) Your way of life is threatened. Your means of feeding your family is not secure. Is there any doubt at all that you can convince your peers that you are the Good Guys wearing White Hats? If you declined, would not someone else step forward to make as good a speech? What values will you invoke? What past battles will you mention, to steal a little glory? And is there any doubt at all that the opposing group deserves to burn in Hellfire Everlasting?

Of course, any good GM has to be ready to drop one NPC, and pick up the mind set and persona of another. Yep, across the valley another leader is making another speech. Repeat the above exercise again, and again, and again...

There are no Evil Men in this valley tonight. There are only Good Men, only More So.


Good and Evil, Revisited

Smug, aren't you, sitting there with your 20th Century values and mind set. You can role play any of those Wild West people, then smile at their quaint historical irrelevancy. Of course all the nasty things that happened back then couldn't happen now. We live in an age of reason and intelligence.

Genera switch. Modern Cops. You became an inner city paramedic to help people and make a difference, but now there are wounded people lying everywhere, and you would have some tough decisions to make if you could just stop crying... Persona swap. Your camera crew has wonderful footage, blood everywhere, and are you going to scoop the other channels tonight! Persona swap. You are an innocent bystander, you just live across the hall, but the Pigs are cuffing and beating every black male in the building... Persona swap. Your partner is dead, and tonight you are not in any mood to read anyone their Miranda rights... Persona swap. Yes you must comfort the dying, and perform rites for the dead, but if someone doesn't get a lid on the living, your whole parish might burn...

Racism. Sexism within the force. Prostitution and other 'victimless' crimes. Gangs. Drugs. Arson. The Mafia. Metal detectors in elementary schools. Need I go on?

The NPC still must only respond to crisis in terms of how he or she has perceived previous crisis. They should only abandon old concepts and values after a major emotional crises shows the tried and true ways have crashed and burned. The NPC still has loyalties to peer and family. He still is too ready to see an opposing peer group as the enemy. He can still justify his actions if he is inclined to do so.

But if the 1800s were a Black and White century, welcome to the Age of Grey. Some of those people who love and defend their family and friends, would murder a stranger for pocket change. A 'good' cop is one who does what he can while looking out for number one. Very few would understand why in the 19th Century people capitalized words like Law, Justice, Liberty and Equality. For sure, in the 20th Century, the practice of capitalizing virtues is long dead. Have the virtues died too?

Not in fantasy role playing games at least. I'm a shades of grey player. But still, as a GM, I believe my players must believe they are doing the right thing. Most of my scenarios will involve the possibility of violence to liven things up. I prefer Hero Systems as a not too deadly combat system, where players don't have death guilt to worry about all that often. People get knocked silly before they die, mostly. So after the dust settles, the PCs can feel smug about having done the 'right' thing, and have defeated some scum who deserved to get defeated.

But still, the defeated NPCs are alive under the skin, or they should be. They have a past. Their response to the environment (or the PCs) must reflect that past. That past also gives them values, which are just abstractions of previous problems solved. If you are (fill_in_the_blank), everything else will take care of itself. Chose one value to live by, and a few back ups: Brave/ diligent/ clever/ loyal/ polite/ educated/ rich/ patriotic/ beautiful.

What then of Good and Evil? Do they exist, other than to make players feel good about beating up NPCs? Is that particular Great Question now irrelevant? Should I too stop capitalizing virtues?

I don't think so. Good and Evil are still an ancient part of our culture. In the section on instinct, I could apply Good to one who constuctirvly applied ancient drives to the modern environment. Evil was where a drive became too strong or weak, resulting in disharmony and no benefit to the individual, his family, or his peers.

In the section on cultures, a Good man might be one who knows how his father lived, how his father approached problems, and defends and continues The Way. An Evil man threatens another's way of life, and might perhaps force Change.

In the section on Man's ability to rationalize his actions, I proposed that most men can defend their lives and actions as Good, and can project those who oppose them as Evil.

Naturally, having developed these conflicting interpretations of 'Good', I can't leave them alone. I am compelled to confuse things by mushing them together to form some useful whole. Can one resolve the Great Question of Human Nature without solving Good and Evil too?

The instincts evolved. They are still evolving, though very slowly. Gene pools cannot adopt anywhere near as fast as cultures. Cultures evolve too. What works for one people, at one place, at one time, might easily fall apart a generation or two down the road.

If both instinct and culture change to adopt to new situations, can change be viewed as Evil? From within a culture, especially for the old, any force for change might be easily mistaken for Evil. That's just wrong. In these times, with technology inducing rapid changes, flexibility has got to be a virtue, and rigidity a high risk low probability of reward proposition.

There was another element I mentioned briefly, then discarded. What was it? Ah, yes. Intelligence and reason. Man supposedly has the ability to look at problems, without emotion, without prejudice, and without clinging to old and perhaps dated perspectives. Love not just the family and your peer bonded friends. Love everybody equally. Defend not just your own resources. Defend the Earth. Respect all cultures as the equal of your own. Grow flowers. Slash the defense budget. Ignore the impulse to scream at the fundamentalist Christian trying to give the moral choices of his obscure cult the backing of Law.

Dream on.

Finally, I must apologise that my example was not Politically Correct. The Wild West was a time of sexism unbridled. My examples thus got male oriented, and ignored the minor matter of the Conflict between the Sexes. I can only claim that that's another Great Question. My limit is two Great Questions per article. Besides, no Woman would give up her advantage by explaining Her Nature, and if a Man correctly stated Women's Nature, She would Change. (Naturally.)

Maybe next time. Meanwhile, consider a so called Hunter Gatherer culture where the males are hunters and defenders of territory, and the females are gatherers and caretakers for the young. Specialize the instincts by gender for these different roles. Drop the distant descendents of these hunter-gatherers into a high tech environment where many of both sets of instincts are obsolete. Mix well. Dive for cover.

Maybe next time...

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