Shades of Gray in D&D

Two articles that have recently appeared on RPGBloggers really got me thinking about the way people play D&D. The first one, the, in my opinion, poorly titled “Dungeons & Dragons & Racism” tackled the idea that races in D&D are stereotyped. The second, “Don’t Play Monsters the Same Way“, deals with exactly what you’d think; not every enemy in D&D should be run the same way by the DM. To me, both articles drove home an all-important point; black and white D&D is boring.

Here’s a scenario: You’re walking through a city and catch a scene out of the corner of your eye. There’s an orc in an alley. He’s hassling a human for money. They get into a fight. Who does your character help? The human? Why? The orc? Why? That’s what I’m talking about when I say “shades of gray.” According to the Monster Manual, orcs are evil. In that world, the PC would attack the orc because he’s evil.

But what if the orc wasn’t evil?  What if the human had approached the orc for protection money and what your character witnessed was the orc trying to take his money back? Or what if the human had simply short-changed the orc on a business transaction and the orc had asked the human “to step outside” for a moment? Both of those scenarios, to me, are a lot more interesting than “orcs are evil, orc takes money from human, pc protects human from orc,” ad nauseam.

In a recent comment on one of my posts, binaryturing stated the following:

in my corner of the world, gm/dm is a role accepted by default. everyone wants to play, no-one wants to be dm.

we buy adventures, and ad-lib the surrounding world and generally accept that meticulous planning hasn’t happened.

While that obviously flies for their group, and as long as they’re having fun, don’t look to me to knock their gaming style :) , I would find it boring to have every species, every race, pretty much every character/npc/monster act in the exact same fashion. Heck, I can see someone pulling out the Monster Manual, looking at the tactics for each monster, and decide that every monster attacks like it says in the book.

So here’s my challenge to all you DMs past, present, and future: Shake it up! Don’t play the monsters as written. Don’t play the races as written! Make them unique. Make them stand out. Make them surprising. Challenge the PC to decide whether the orc in the alley is innocent or victim! You never know; you might just have fun doing it. ;)

And here’s my challenge to my readers: Comment below and tell me about the times you’ve shaken things up and challenged your players by “going against type.”

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6 Responses to “Shades of Gray in D&D”

TheLemming February 2nd, 2009 at 4:21 PM

Very interesting post, I fully agree and would actively recommend every dungeonmaster to try putting a few orcs (or the like) into the right light. Make them a special hero, I mean things might be a bit harder if your group has a few dwarves or other creatures in it that have some innate hatred – but how will they react if some orcs actually help them or save them…I am afraid that’s a lesson most players learn the hard way – but it ‘s a really important one –
I still remember my players faces from probably around 8-9 years ago, when they slaughtered the warriors of an orcish tribe without real motivation – and faced the utter silence of two rather beautiful women whom they knew pretty well – they faced the faces of orcish families (ok I was really a pain that session) – but ever since those players ( i guess ) have changed their general approach and senseless slaughter wasn’t all that much fun all of a sudden :).

I think one highest arts of dungeon-mastering is the point when you stop worrying for the things you’ve prepared because your players either kill it or ignore it and I think it goes together pretty well with the “playing monsters in different ways” for me. The more often I read the article of WorldofAlidor the more I hope I’ll make the next adventure with it in mind. It’s unfortunately one of the things I tend to forget every now and then…

TheLemming´s last blog post..epic preparation – p9 – Conclusions

Anarkeith February 2nd, 2009 at 5:15 PM

I had a whole dungeon full of Drow, basically peacefully existing under a human city. Then the PCs showed up, found their way underground, and over the next several months proceeded to start a war.

They were warned, passively resisted, tricked, and finally when the Drow body count got too high, the party was attacked.

On several occasions the Drow tried to communicate with the party (there was a language barrier to overcome, but there are spells for this in 3e.) I left it up to the party and they decided Drow were “evil” and should all be killed.

Elton February 2nd, 2009 at 6:31 PM

Yes, I am a real person. Jeeze . . . .

Anyhow, I haven’t been able to DM for a while now. But I see the point in both articles and your commentary. ;)

Elton´s last blog post..Shaper

kaeosdad February 2nd, 2009 at 7:31 PM

Challenge? Man, when I got back into DnD (I used to play when I was a kid and when 3rd edition came out I started playing again) it took forever for me to get over the stereotype races presented in DnD.

These were my solutions when dealing with races.

1. throw alignment out the window, races are never inherently evil. There may be evil groups, but not races.

2. Never segregate races and always create factions. The first part of the rule gets broken when those in power are in fact evil and commit evil acts on a regular basis.

3. come up with plausible reasons why someone would attack to kill the PCs or why they would go out of there way to help the PCs. Most people wouldn’t go out of there way to help a complete stranger, even less would attack on sight without reason.

Mike Kenyon February 11th, 2009 at 1:47 PM

I have always played with Shades of Gray in my games. Since I have had the pleasure of indoctrinating all of my former and current players to the game, they do too!

The reason behind this is that I started playing RPGs in D&D’s Eberron. The entire world is based on the idea that nothing is as it seems. Gray adds that extra level of involvement, and thus fun, to the game.

reveal February 11th, 2009 at 3:15 PM

@Mike – That’s one of the reasons I really got a kick out of Eberron when it came out. :)

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