Our Dungeons & Dragons game has steadfastly steered clear of the classic fantasy game tropes and expectations, but has instead focused on an alternate-Late Antiquity setting with classical mythology and Biblical themes, but also is increasingly focused on the question of what “good and evil” is.

The characters are Roman citizens — a former legionnaire who is plucked from obscurity by the young and new emperor that he babysat while on campaign with his father (Marcellus); the cleric from Africa who is traveling the empire trying to find enlightenment (Augustinian); the bard from a good family that exiled him for his “trashy” occupation and refusal to marry an influential Christian girl in the court of Emperor Valens (Calvinus); an anchorite monk who is “barukhim” (a blessed one or aasmiar) and a trained “demon killer” who has been hiding from the world since his mentor was murdered by a nephalim (tiefling), and who has been called into the world by the archangel Michael to fight the armies of the Lie — Satan (Icio); and lastly, an Allemani dwarf (or “zwergi”) from the Alps who has a penchant for killing goblins (Carrus.) They are all “good” in alignment — some chaotic, some lawful.

But what exactly is good? One of the things we encountered early on in the campaign was that Roman law allowed for criminals that were caught — in this case a small village of Vandals (goblins) that had been terrorizing the surrounding countryside and which had taken some people as slaves — to be made slaves. By today’s standards, this is evil with a capital E. However, this was the law at the time, and not considered that much of a moral outrage. Hell, two-thirds of the Roman economy was worked by slaves.

In that case, the good/evil dichotomy wasn’t really that tough. The Vandals had taken Romans as slaves illegally. Rescuing these Roman citizens and enslaving the baddies might be problematic for a 21st Century player, but at the time, there was no question that this was the right thing.

In another instance, they had captured a few assassins that had been sent after them. They had attacked the party, which was by this time under imperial writ. Marcellus was a legate — an ambassador/general. Attacking him was a crime against the state. Executing the miscreants was under his purview. Again, for people raised on Enlightenment notions of due process, opposition to abuse of authority and cruelty, this was…evil. Again, lawful, but evil.

In our last night of play, the party was headed south to Mediolanum to meet the empress regent (Emperor Valentinian II is only four.) following a spectacular victory over a Quadi (hobgoblins as stand-ins for Goths) army, then head to Greece to try and find something called “the Shadow” — some kind of wall between the world and other planes of existence that Satan is looking to tear down. They had stopped in Cambodunum, a ruin of the old capital of the province Raetia and which is sparsely populated. They had found lodging in the distillery of one of the residents, only to be attacked that night by a troll that they had previously encountered, and who had tracked them because it was upset they were profiting from the story that Carrus had killed him.

In the process of fighting the troll, they accidentally blew up the distillery, and the explosion brought an avalanche down on the town. After rescuing their fellows, Carrus, Icio, and Marcellus, were aiding the townspeople in finding a few missing people and some of the livestock. Hearing a scream, they returned to the house of the distiller, which had been badly damaged in the avalanche.

Inside, Augustinian — who had been badly injured — had just wakened. Calvinus and Carona — a satyress they have been traveling with and whom Carrus has taken up with — were taking care of him when they were attacked — the front door kicked in by the troll they’d thought dead in the avalanche an hour prior. Carona panicked and played a frightening strain on her panpies, but before the troll could escape into the night, Augustinian threw a hold creature spell and trapped it. Encouraged by Augustinian to kill the creature, Carona went to cut its throat…but when confronted with a terrified, helpless creature, she couldn’t do it. It was unfair. Wrong.

Evil.

Augustinian shortly after lost his concentration and the troll escaped out to be met by the other characters, who had been returning. Surprised by the blubbering monster that was protesting, “she tried to murder me!” Icio was overcome with a moment of compassion and tried to talk the creature down. It wasn’t an option I’d even considered in the planning for the adventure, but with the monk’s moral compass, and his mission to try to turn evil to good, the player and I were in agreement it was definitely the way to go. He was able to get a good persuasion test and calm the troll a bit. The idea of even talking to it never occurred to the other players — but their characters, it turned out, was another matter.

After establishing that the main beef was the fraud they’d perpetrated by calling Carrus a “troll killer” (something the dwarf desperately wanted to “fix”) and that they couldn’t go around lying about him. The second was that they attacked him for defending his bridge (not quite how it happened, but he is obviously a bit dim.) Marcellus pointed out it was the Roman’s bridge, not his, and that is could be argued the troll stole it. Augustinian piled on about the complexities of property and ownership, and when it was right to attack someone. Perplexed, and well out of his intellectual depth, the troll eventually promised not to haunt bridges looking for victims if they wouldn’t lie about him, then stumped off into the night.

A game about killing monsters and stealing their treasure turned into one about avoiding conflict and attempting (at least on Icio’s part) to teach a troll the Ten Commandments. But more to the point, it was about playing their alignment — an element of the Dungeons & Dragons rules that always annoyed me. There’s always the question of moral relativism when trying to define good or evil, but in a game where those distinctions tie to rules that can affect how or if a spell works on a creature, how your character interacts with others, or how they behave in general, it’s important to figure out (in game terms) what they mean.

The encounter left Icio and Augustinian questioning the nature of morality, and if it could even truly exist in a poly- or pantheistic framework, where every god had an area of authority and subjective morality. Carrus was frustrated — he knew, in some way, they did the right thing, but it still felt wrong to let the creature go! Marcellus and Calvinus didn’t quite know what to think…

These quandaries bring up some interesting questions. If you serve an “evil” god, but your intent is to follow the precepts of that deity, are you doing evil or good? A real world example might by the thugee of India, who worship Kali, and who would waylay and murder travelers as a form of worship. Is that evil? The British overlords of India certainly thought so (as, I suspect, did the victims), but what did they think? Sati, where a wife was burned with her dead husband, was considered right and proper. Good. British authorities disagreed. Egyptian emperors were buried with their slaves and servants. Evil? Or was it, if these people went willingly because they were serving their emperor and gods?

A week later, the party finally arrived on the Via Claudia Augusta at Mediolanum, the capital of the Western Empire, where they were met by a legion of men dispatched to bring Marcellus to the empress regent. In the city, they were presented an ovation — a parade through the city to the palace, where the characters were presented accolades for the defense of Castra Stativa against the Quadi. Marcellus received the appellation “Quadius” for his victory and with Carrus were presented coronae and philerae (medals) for their actions (as well as finally paid for their three months of service…) The rest were given Crowns of the Preserver, a high award for those civilians who have saved a soldier’s life. Augustinian and Icio were also given the title pius felix.

Afterward, they retired to a villa that was set aside for them. There were already some issues with men wanting to buy Carona as a slave, but more worrying was Bishop Ambrose’s reaction to her — a demonic creature, and one that is supposedly fornicating with one of their number! That is bestiality, as best! Icio knows she is good, but the Church has decided that she is an unclean thing. Is he good for trying to defend her, or evil for being influenced by her?

Ambrose, nevertheless, impressed Augustinian with his rhetoric and intellect, and vice-versa (as was the case in the real world), leading our cleric to start dallying with Christianity.

That evening, a gala for the heroes (minus Carona who — it was suggested — should stay at home) led to Marcellus making one hell of an impression thanks to boosts from the cleric (eagle splendor) and band (bardic inspiration). Marcellus not only awe Empress Justina with his martial prowess and his story of the Shadow and Satan (she’s seeing it as an End of Days scenario), but he was able to charm the pants off her…literally. The empress is worried about the Nicene influence in Mediolanum; she and her family are Arian Christians and she is worried that Ambrose’s push to eliminate their sect may lead to instability. Since he is also friendly with Gratian, the junior emperor, she is hoping he can be a bridge between her and her stepson, for the good of the empire. Meanwhile, she has authorized a legion for him to take to Greece to meet this extraordinary threat (Satan.)

While Marcellus and Calvinus were getting familiar with their respective ladies in the palace, Icio and Augustinian escorted a very drunk Carrus home to walk in on a couple of masked men trying to kill Carona. That seemed like a good place to end for the night.

It was a good character night. Their beliefs and basic purposes were challenged — something that I think pushed character exploration and growth in ways that beating the crap out of monsters does not. Carrus was distinctly torn between his desire to kill the troll, or go along with the diplomatic solution that Icio and Augustinian pursued. Icio has been reeling from meeting Satan, and having that foe ask some very good questions about the nature of gods, angels, and his own people, the barukhim; he then followed it up by showing mercy (and having it work), and later finding himself in between his bishop and his friendship and experience with the satyr, Carona. Marcellus knows getting involved with the empress and her causes is dangerous…but he is also a creature of duty and order, and being part of an attempt to save the empire cuts straight through his better judgment. Calvinus is having trouble with the voice in his head — a telepathic link to the succubus that seduced him a few sessions back — that is trying to turn him slowly against his fellows.

The ethical and moral conundrums are making for a truly enjoyable game where the players are having to really figure out what their characters want, believe, and know. I’m pretty pleased to see that my instinct to move away from hack-and-slash and dungeon crawls was a good one.

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