Are fantasy RPGs inherently conservative?

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AuthorTopic: Are fantasy RPGs inherently conservative?
Lack of Vision
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I’ve long suspected that fantasy RPGs often present a “conservative” worldview. By “conservative worldview” I don’t mean they’re anti-abortion or pro-Iraq war, I mean they present a picture of their reality in which a structured order to the world presents the “good” and a revolution against this order represents “evil”. It seems most fantasy RPGs are about some ancient hierarchy, which ruled with wisdom and beauty, and is being challenged (or has been successfully overthrown) by evil usurpers. These evil usurpers seem to often be of bastard lineage or made-up lineage. And evil is usually immediately identifiable because it is ugly.

If that is true, then the world is one in which “evil” revolutionaries are ugly and different and often of ambiguous gender, while “good” is beautiful, mostly in an Aryan master-race kind of way with strictly-defined gender and class roles where position in society is set by birthright. White elves are good and dark elves are evil.

A lot of this can probably be traced back to general RPG development laziness and adopting the Tolkien paradigm of a fantasy world – a paradigm which Jeff Vogel obviously does not use. But is there something more? By this I mean are typical RPG players more likely to buy a product that contains this Tolkien paradigm because it seems more “true” to them or reinforces their desired worldview? In other words, do we get a flood of conservative-worldview reinforcing RPGs because most RPG gamers want that and the market gives them what they want?

If this is an accurate description of what is going on (at least on some level) with the RPG market, that may also explain why the average SpiderWebber tends to be more liberal. After all, both Geneforge and Avernum seem to, on some level, consciously express a liberal worldview in that there is inherent dignity owed to all sentient beings, and birthright-derived power structures tend to corrupt, if not outright destroy, humans and freedom.

I don’t have any particular answers to these questions, so I throw them to you for discussion. What do you think?

Z

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Posts: 186 | Registered: Thursday, February 27 2003 08:00
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Ugh. Too early in the morning for a full treatment.

I've also noticed that in SpidWeb games you can have a lot more empathy with the 'baddies'. Think of Nethergate, where you can play both sides, or Geneforge with its factions.

As for the same plotline for nearly all RPGs, I think that's mostly laziness. In fact, most of the mainstream games lately do nothing to challenge the genre.

'Cause hey, if it sold before, why not rest on your laurels?

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Master
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Its difficult to find creative people, you know. Most films I saw about aliens, for example, all looked quite the same. Games isn't very different, is it. Most RPGs also seem to be set in a sort of middleages, in which magic is very important. lets face it, as Dintiridan already said: Why make things different when it is well as it is?

Maybe changing it will also cost more. People will ahve to be paid to do the thinking, which takes time.

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There are two factors that would cause this: The first is the original source for fantasy settings, which are fairy-tales. Being very old and also usually pushing some kind of moral, it is clear that some of that world-view would come over to fantasy. The second is the gross delineation of good and evil (partly caused by the former factor) that results in a binary scene where the good smart beautiful (white) humans slaughter the bad dumb ugly (non-white) goblins. Replacing the labels of White and Black Magic with Light and Shadow/Darkness has only partly disguised this. However, one has to recognize the efforts of authors like Rick Cook ("The Wizardry Compiled") and J. K. Rowling ("Harry Potter") for including one or several token black White Wizards.

Why can I still play/read it? For the same reason I can listen to fairy-tales and discuss politics/religion with my grandmother - the module responsible for hypocrisy and suspension of ethics goes into overdrive, making me feel vaguely uncomfortable, but simply looking past it.

As a point of interest, Jeff's games contain several hints to a worldview that is not conservative but rather libertarian. It cannot be conservative, really, since the Evil Emperor is neither a bastard nor a usurper, but is the legitimate king to many centuries back. On the other hand, the Church of the Divine Lucre, the prevalent concept that even the poorest beggars will reward you in coin if you help them (although that is part of the generic RPG cliche) and such things are indicators of capitalism. The priest Paulo, in the inn of Pergies, in fact appears to be an Objectivist, if not a LaVeyan Satanist ("anyone who needs the help of others is a parasite").

But I believe TM can argue that point much better. :P

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I'm not really sure I agree with your analysis of RPG's as having a conservative moral outlook. Games such as Final Fantasy contain a good bit of moral ambiguity.

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Posts: 536 | Registered: Sunday, September 7 2003 07:00
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Great topic, Zorro!

"A lot of this can probably be traced back to general RPG development laziness and adopting the Tolkien paradigm of a fantasy world"

I'd suggest, further, that this is the result of adopting only that part of the Tolkien paradigm which is most superficially visible, while ignoring the meat below it.

This surface Aryanism is characteristic not just of fantasy games and fantasy literature, but also of most myths and it is in fairy tales almost categorically. I think this provides a clue. In fairy tales as in Tolkien, heroes are usually good-looking; even if they start out as an ugly beggar/stepdaughter/whatever, before the end of the story they are transformed, so that their outer appearance matches their inner goodness. Appearance functions as a metaphor, a very bare metaphor.

The ambiguous gender thing is interesting, because in fairy tales and myths such characters usually aren't evil or good, they are just liminal -- they are on the fringe of society, on the fringe of being human, they are powerful and dangerous and have to be approached with care. (Ironically, Ex/Av preserves this by accident, with the accidental gender-swapping of the dragons.)

I can't actually think of many RPG villains who are ambiguously gendered; Kuja, of course, and some others from Final Fantasy. On the other hand there are also RPGs with gender-switching or androgynous heroes (Ranma) and plenty of stories with the same (The Wizard of Oz, or, to go back to Tolkien, Eowyn).

Now, Jeff has consciously moved himself away from this kind of fairy story. He designs his games for a "family" audience, which means that many things that are common in fairy tales, such as rape, are entirely absent. He includes people that never show up in fairy tales and rarely in fantasy literature, such as lesbians. There is no "underlying" significance to the story; any kind of moral about the dignity and freedom of sentient creatures (for example) is pretty blatant.

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About "dark magic", when people lived in caves and defended themselves with clubs, night was when predators came out to eat them. Later, when people started believing in magic, night became time when werewolves, demons and other evil comes out. Real predators were less of a threat, so people's imagination filled in new dangers. Night is dark and scary. Day is light and removes the night's fears. Death is associated with sleep, night, darkness, etc. So the idea of "black magic" being evil is way older than any sort of racial tensions in the western world.

As for Spidweb players being liberal, there is a simple reason for that: as somebody said, "if a young person isn't liberal, he has no heart. If an old person isn't conservative, he has no head." Most Spidweb players are well-educated people in late teens/early twenties, which is the most idealistic age. There are also some conservatives here, but fewer than if this forum had significantly higher average age, or lower education level.

[ Monday, April 10, 2006 08:33: Message edited by: Zeviz ]

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Yay! I have no heart.

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Posts: 536 | Registered: Sunday, September 7 2003 07:00
Nuke and Pave
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quote:
Originally written by Smugglers' Alliance, Chief of the:

Yay! I have no heart.
Or you are old already. :P

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Seeing as I never was liberal, was I born old?

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Chalk up another heartless young person!

(Looks at the other posts, one of which took place in the time it took to press the reply button). Wow. There goes that theory.

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Law Bringer
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I think RPG clichés have less to do with adoption of fairytale paradigms and more to do with knowing the market. Most players do not want ambiguity. Most players want the good guys, who are good, and the bad guys, who are bad, with no difficulty besides getting the former to stab the latter. Such a view of the world comes much closer to the conservatives' black and white, us and them mentality. Liberals lean more towards seeing both sides, which makes slaughtering the enemy more questionable, and thus sometimes less fun.

There are benevolent kingdoms thrown into dark days by the evil usurper, but there are just as many plucky rebels trying to topple the evil empire. (Empires are evil, kingdoms are good!) The rule by council is always better than the rule by monarch if any council is available.

—Alorael, who doesn't see much racism in RPGs. Human vs. non-human speciesism, yes, but that's not quite the same. Prevalence of whites, yes, but that's because the setting is usually taken from the traditional, idealized, wholly white world of pseudo-medieval Europe. Real medieval Europe was overwhelmingly white too. Gender roles and gender portrayals all come down to what the target audience (roughly 10-30, mostly male) wants to see.
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quote:
Originally written by Smugglers' Alliance, Chief of the:

Games such as Final Fantasy contain a good bit of moral ambiguity.
Absurd.

Final Fantasy is THE prime example of the Roussea-romanticist charge Zorro is pinning on RPGs.

Final Fantasy II's main villain tried to take over the world by using a mechanical Dreadnaught.
The villain of IV used airships, a giant mechanical tower and a giant robot.
The story of V talks about an ancient civilization with machinery that collapsed because it used too many resources.
Magitek in VI is obviously anti-industrial.
And if we couldn't get even more obvious, there's Makoro (literally Devil's Furnace in the Nihongo) in VII.

Good lord. The Final Fantasy franchise is the absolutely most romanticist line of games to exist, period. The reason for this is that Japan is one of the few nations left in the world that has not realized that conservatism as an ideology from liberalism has ceased to exist. They have borrowed the psychology of Jung to pursue their luddite-liberal beliefs in order to revive the last remaining kindles of their butchered nationalism. (Think, for instance, about folks like Mishima-- or, rather, how recently the Meiji Restoration is in Japanese history.)

Vogel is no romanticist, though. He's a libertarian-- for instance, if you look at BoE's version of ASR, it's clear that both sides are still wrong, but there's more emphasis on the tortured people and there's practically no political commentary. The BoA version, on the other hand, practically smears liberalism all over the "good guys," deeming Stalker to be a "communist" and Jaen a "monarch/feudalist."

Or, for instance- look at how the Geneforges have progressed. The "Shapers" have always been unequivocably bad from the modern liberal democratic standpoint: They're oppressive, bad for business, use slaves, yada yada. And yet, the Takers and Awakened have been changing: On the one hand, the Takers start off in GF1 in a situation far more capable of generating their beliefs, and their faction ultimately achieves the end promised- wiping away the burden of the Shaper's yoke of alienating labor. Of course, it still is Vanguard Theory in an agrarian society, but it gets progressively worse: In GF2, it's concluded that the Takers cannot beat the Shapers, the Takers are far more violent and bloodthirsty, and their leader is far more egotistical- Stalinist, if I may. Furthermore, the Awakened turn into a more mercantile faction in GF2, they remain rational and don't seek to overthrow the government, but rather further the mantra of "free trade," which is the capitalist's ultimate dream.

Exile has always been libertarian-land. And goddamn, if it isn't getting consistently worse.

quote:
So the idea of "black magic" being evil is way older than any sort of racial tensions in the western world.
True, but it is a very convenient ideology when docking wages and chasing druggies on the lam.

quote:
As for Spidweb players being liberal, there is a simple reason for that: as somebody said,
Try "Winston Churchill."

quote:
"if a young person isn't liberal, he has no heart. If an old person isn't conservative, he has no head."
"If a person is liberal without being conservative or vice-versa, s/he is very confused."

quote:
Liberals lean more towards seeing both sides,
Are you seriously trying to BS me like this?

quote:
—Alorael, who doesn't see much racism in RPGs. Human vs. non-human speciesism, yes, but that's not quite the same.
So wait- promoting the mass slaughter of intelligent, sentient humanoids isn't a racist ideology? Am I hearing you correctly?

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Not unless you're using race and species interchangeably. I won't claim that elves hating humans and dwarves hating elves and everyone snearing at those little hobbits hasn't replaced different colors of humans, but I don't think any fantasy "race" is a stand-in for a human race. We've gotten past that. Sure, killing goblins on sight might not be politically correct, but because there are no goblins in the real world people can accept that goblins are always evil and move on.

There are several very good looks at goblins and other cannon fodder in fantasy, but ultimately they're only meaningful because goblins are fodder. Fantasy needs fodder, and goblins are better than humans with slightly different ears. Remember, ugly fantasy people are evil fantasy people!

—Alorael, who thinks that that's one of the key points of contention between liberals and conservatives as long as you aren't considering them interchangeable for unclear reasons. Conservatives say that the terrorist bombers are evil and should be eradicated. Liberals say that the terrorists have good reasonss to be bombing, like getting bombed first. Realistically, both sides are somewhere in the middle, but those are the extremes.
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Agent
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quote:
Originally written by Hors d'oeuvre or ordure+V?:

Conservatives say that the terrorist bombers are evil and should be eradicated. Liberals say that the terrorists have good reasonss to be bombing, like getting bombed first. Realistically, both sides are somewhere in the middle, but those are the extremes.
Huh... by that example I am a liberal.

I concur, btw, that this is a great topic. Very good read. I feel too illequiped to join the parlay I fear. There are other RPG's besides Spiderweb games? I suppose I have played warcraft much. I rather enjoy being the orcs.

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Yep, it's still funny.

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Posts: 1001 | Registered: Tuesday, August 19 2003 07:00
Law Bringer
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quote:
Originally written by Zeviz:

As for Spidweb players being liberal, there is a simple reason for that: as somebody said, "if a young person isn't liberal, he has no heart. If an old person isn't conservative, he has no head." Most Spidweb players are well-educated people in late teens/early twenties, which is the most idealistic age. There are also some conservatives here, but fewer than if this forum had significantly higher average age, or lower education level.
That somebody was Winston Churchill. ;)

Edit: This is what I get for not reading other people's posts thouroughly. Anyway, I'm still right, even if TM said it first. :P

[ Monday, April 10, 2006 19:05: Message edited by: Tyranicus ]

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quote:
Originally written by Butt Paladin:


quote:
"if a young person isn't liberal, he has no heart. If an old person isn't conservative, he has no head."
"If a person is liberal without being conservative or vice-versa, s/he is very confused."

quote:
Liberals lean more towards seeing both sides,
Are you seriously trying to BS me like this?

I get the sense that different definitions of the word Liberal are being used in this debate, and unfortunately I cannot really describe any of them, let alone decide which is the correct one.

Could everyone who uses it in the future please define what "liberal" means to them, whether (and in what way) they see themselves as one, and whether the term is positive, negative or neutral when they use it?

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I prefer the darker, grittier style of game. One where there is moral ambiguity, conflicts of interest and intrigue. One where almost nothing is set in stone, and the choices are yours to make.
 
I enjoy thinking through each particular moral dilemma, weighing up the options and finding one that does not betray my rather unique sense of ethics.
 
Unlike me, many people do not find that enjoyable, and are unwilling to think out complex moral dilemas; usually because they reveal that they are not as good a person as they'd like us to believe.

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By Committee
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I don't think that it's so much that RPGs reflect a "conservative" outlook so much as a "stoic" or polarized outlook. I don't know that conservatives really own the monopoly on the "Greater Good," as much as they would like to believe it.

If anything, it seems to me that most RPG PCs are trying to shake up the status quo for the sake of the "Greater Good," a tactic which is more frequently associated with Liberals. :P

In all seriousness, though, I think that most RPGs adhere to a strictly good-evil paradigm for two reasons: (1) players are looking for an escape from our morally ambiguous world to a paradigm, where choices are simple and "good" choices are immediately rewarded; and (2) from a developer's perspective, it's much, much easier to develop a game that runs the gamut of all possible political motives and effects.

The games that come closest to achieving the real world mentality, I think interestingly, were developed by the now-defunct Black Isle Studios - FO1 & 2 and Planescape: Torment (the Knights of the Old Republic games are kind of a pale immitation of Torment, though similar).
Posts: 2242 | Registered: Saturday, April 10 2004 07:00
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quote:
Originally posted by Zorro:
I’ve long suspected that fantasy RPGs often present a “conservative” worldview. By “conservative worldview” I don’t mean they’re anti-abortion or pro-Iraq war, I mean they present a picture of their reality in which a structured order to the world presents the “good” and a revolution against this order represents “evil”.


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I think that this aspect of heroic fantasy demonstrates how much imitation plays a role. All modern heroic fantasy of the sort described in the first post is directly or indirectly influenced by Tolkien (or D&D, which was influenced by Tolkien). There are those who try to break off from the Tolkien model, but one of the first things that they do, usually, is introduce moral ambiguity and greater realism.

Tolkien was working from epic predecessors, and the interesting thing is that he was not primarily working from Greco-Roman predecessors. Think about how that story would've turned out: there are no bad guys in the Homeric and Vergilian epics! The Aeneid has a more sympathetic side (Aeneas) and a less sympathetic side (Turnus), but it would be hard to make the case that Turnus represents evil.

Tolkien was instead working from Germanic sources, and these Germanic epics do have bad guys. (Interestingly, D&D apparently drew from the same sources at first, which may have been equally influential.) Beowulf, for instance, has Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon, all of which are pretty distinctly evil monsters and need to be killed. As far as I know, the Germanic sources generally have a definite sense of evil and represent that evil in monsters and villains. Ultimately, modern heroic fantasy is imitating imitations of imitations that eventually trace back to these Germanic sources.

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quote:
Originally written by CPeters:

quote:
Originally posted by Zorro:
I’ve long suspected that fantasy RPGs often present a “conservative” worldview. By “conservative worldview” I don’t mean they’re anti-abortion or pro-Iraq war, I mean they present a picture of their reality in which a structured order to the world presents the “good” and a revolution against this order represents “evil”.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

quote:
Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.
Traditional or restrained in style: a conservative dark suit.
Moderate; cautious: a conservative estimate.

Of or relating to the political philosophy of conservatism.
Belonging to a conservative party, group, or movement.
Conservative Of or belonging to the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom or the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada.
Conservative Of or adhering to Conservative Judaism.
Tending to conserve; preservative: the conservative use of natural resources.


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quote:
Originally written by Kelandon:

Beowulf, for instance, has Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon, all of which are pretty distinctly evil monsters and need to be killed.
John Gardner, but nevermind that.

quote:
I don't think any fantasy "race" is a stand-in for a human race. We've gotten past that. Sure, killing goblins on sight might not be politically correct, but because there are no goblins in the real world people can accept that goblins are always evil and move on.
That people can accept "x is always y" is itself a massively apathetic if not outright evil ideology.

quote:
Conservatives say that the terrorist bombers are evil and should be eradicated. Liberals say that the terrorists have good reasonss to be bombing, like getting bombed first.
I beg your pardon: These ideas are not mutually exclusive. Keep in mind that just as Locke introduced materialism, he also introduced (paradoxically) meritocracy: The liberal argument would not be that these terrorists have a good reason to bomb, but that despite their good reasons to bomb, they are still evil and must be eradicated.

In fact, the "conservative" arguments being thrown against Islamicists tends to be that terrorists have not yet embraced Enlightenment-era progressiveness enough. Because as much as liberalism's roots have determined the cause for the terrorists' actions, liberalism's ultimate response to terrorists is a command-form issue to change.

And okay, you can argue a more "sensible" form of liberalism by extending materialism and attempting to further the understading of Islamicists in policy-making, but the same justifications you might give towards the Islamicists demand further limitations on freeom, and at that point, you contradict the very "liberty" upon which liberalism is founded.

quote:
Could everyone who uses it in the future please define what "liberal" means to them, whether (and in what way) they see themselves as one, and whether the term is positive, negative or neutral when they use it?
Liberalism: "Liberalism is an ideology, philosophy, and political tradition which holds liberty as the primary political value.[1] Broadly speaking, liberalism seeks a society characterized by freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on the power of government, wealth, and religion, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy that supports private enterprise, and a transparent system of government in which the rights of minorities are guaranteed."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism

I consider liberalism in a negative context and do not consider myself one. I believe that freedoms are necessary, but not inherently good, and certainly not the ultimate achievement of a government.

quote:
I don't know that conservatives really own the monopoly on the "Greater Good," as much as they would like to believe it.
In fact, Mill wrote on the "Greater Good" far more than, say, Burke.

quote:
If anything, it seems to me that most RPG PCs are trying to shake up the status quo for the sake of the "Greater Good," a tactic which is more frequently associated with Liberals.
True. But RPGs also tend to favor conclusions which are in-line with a modern liberal democratic form of thought, which smacks of conservatism. Because ultimately, as much as the "conservative" government exists in-game, the message of such an RP outside of the game is a support of the ethics of the status quo, which makes RPGs as concurrent with Paine as they are with Burke.

Now, it seems as if many of you seem to believe that there exists a conservatism-- and to that, my answer is no. A lot of what is associated with conservatism is actually quite liberal (since our tradition at this point IS quite liberal), and that which isn't is more accurately described as "reactionary." Anti-liberal, religious, etc. sentiment is not conservative since there is nothing to CONSERVE. It is reactionary since it seeks to go back to what was rather than maintain what is. Final Fantasy, for instance, is in some ways reactionary when it isn't liberal: That would be called romanticism, a form of luddite nonsense that the Bush administration (as well as other fascist organizations) has become steeped with.

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quote:
Originally written by Butt Paladin:

Now, it seems as if many of you seem to believe that there exists a conservatism-- and to that, my answer is no. A lot of what is associated with conservatism is actually quite liberal (since our tradition at this point IS quite liberal), and that which isn't is more accurately described as "reactionary." Anti-liberal, religious, etc. sentiment is not conservative since there is nothing to CONSERVE. It is reactionary since it seeks to go back to what was rather than maintain what is. Final Fantasy, for instance, is in some ways reactionary when it isn't liberal: That would be called romanticism, a form of luddite nonsense that the Bush administration (as well as other fascist organizations) has become steeped with.
Nice. :)
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I would like to point out that Geneforge is the complete opposite of the "basic RPG mold" outlined in this topic. I find this refreshing, if not morally fufilling, and is probably what has made Geneforge so popular.

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