One of the things I enjoy about the swords and sorcery genre and about much vintage weird fiction is that it doesn’t bother itself with good and evil. The rogues and warriors are morally ambiguous, and often wicked or selfish, but both the writing and the character possesses a charm that makes you come back to their travails anyway. Sometimes the struggle is between law and chaos, while at other times it’s a less overt setting device invoked by barbarism, the decadence of society, or some sort of historical lacuna or frailty of man.
The picaresque is a great gameplay-adaptable narrative model here, in which a scoundrel (or pack of them) selfishly ambles through life, occasionally helping people or places through no conscious choice, but without the predatory motive typically associated with evil. Treasure, booze, women, weird cults, momentous forces of society, savages, customs, and weird creatures all fall before the wiles of the protagonists with often nothing more complicated than an exciting tale told. There’s no greater comment necessary. It’s just fun or exciting.
Moreover, in game terms, this freedom from confinement to a moral role opens up avenues of activity and problem solving. I’ve been rereading the updated Judges Guild classic Caverns of Thracia, and the way into the darkest depths of the dungeon involves four sacrifices. Now, these don’t have to be sacrifices of damsels in distress or unblemished virgins — any four sacrifices will do. Gnolls? Sure. Lizard-man? You bet. Hapless retainer? Okay, if that’s how you want to play it. Sacrifice isn’t going to fly with a paladin (probably), but for a Conan, Cugel, or Mouser type, it’s just a detail before moving on to the next action sequence or moody set-piece. It shows that these are bloody times, and that hard men drive them. Moreover, they don’t linger on the details of the sacrifice with unsavory zeal. They have no good or evil component of their own.
And a lack of moral compass makes for other dramatic elements that have their own weight. For example, what of the adventuring party that puts its torchbearers through the ominous portal first? Hardly “heroic,” but certainly “adventurous.” What about the seemingly doomed last stand against the monstrous hordes that — improbably! — survives and makes its way out of the dungeon only to pass the corpses of two other PCs who fell to squabbling over treasure and knifed each other during their exit? It completely invalidates the sacrifice in a morality tale, but it’s a perfect element of an adventurer’s story that gives a lingering redolence of gallows humor. Dark times for hard men, indeed, but high adventure doesn’t have to invoke shining knights. The Pagan Lands are like this. They don’t care for good or evil, but rather rely on concepts of empire, the melancholy of dying cultures, and the impermanence of the memory of Man. Morality doesn’t often enter the equation.
This is certainly at odds with my work on Vampire, which was almost wholly a morality passion play under my stewardship. My Frostholm proposal, similarly, revolved around turning up the morality in standard adventure gaming. Using this different focus doesn’t take anything away from those other efforts. It’s just a different exploration of game content that results in very different stories being told around the table.