Qualified to Die

Eric Lis

Last week, we considered whether adventurers should have the right to choose to run headlong into combat with monsters and foes capable of ripping them to shreds without so much as batting an eye. Today, I'd like to take the same question and rotate it ninety degrees: do our characters have the moral right to kill people?

Let me come right out and get one thing out into the open: I'm ambivalent about the death penalty. As a generally left-leaning and liberal individual, I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that the system doesn't have the ethical right to execute criminals, no matter how horrific their crimes. On the other hand, as a die-hard pragmatist and occasional misanthrope, I also feel that a small percentage of criminals really are incapable of learning the error of their ways and that maybe some people, particularly repeat sex-offenders, should be killed, both for the safety of society and for our own schadenfreude. For better or worse, I live in Canada, where my ambivalence doesn't matter; capital punishment was abolished here decades ago and the last official execution was in 1962. The funny thing is that most people I know don't share my ambivalence -- they're strongly against the death penalty -- and yet, if you hand them a character sheet and point them at a necromancer, they'll happily hack the poor fool to bits without necessarily bothering to verify if any laws have actually been broken. The point I'm making is that there's an apparent hypocrisy at play: people who might protest against executions in real life seem to be happy, and often keen, to carry them out in game worlds. Our games reward it; games like Dungeons & Dragons are designed around killing the villain and looting his lair, and most storytellers that I've played with are actually at a loss as to how to assign experience points if the players don't actually resolve every problem with violence.

What makes this really interesting is that I'm not altogether convinced that most villains in the D&D world deserve to die. I agree that most of the villains that our characters confront are certainly reprehensible and sufficiently one-dimensional that it's safe to assume that they're incapable of becoming productive members of society, and it may be that killing them really is the only way to ensure that the world is safe from their madness, but from an ethical point of view, I question, not whether they deserve execution, but whether our characters have the moral right to carry it out. Last week, I raised the question of whether an adventurer is competent to choose to risk his or her life, and today I question whether the villain is competent to be killed.

Let's take a moment to consider some of the relevant real-world law, specifically the case of Ford v. Wainwright. Ford v. Wainwright was a case heard by the United States supreme court in 1986, wherein a man who had been found guilty of committing murder, and who had been competent at the time of the murder, developed a mental disorder during his years in prison, and by the time that his execution actually rolled around, it was unclear if he was competent to die. See, in theory, at least in the United States, capital punishment doesn't exist first and foremost to get a dangerous person off of the streets, because once the person is imprisoned the assumption is that society is protected. Rather, the purpose of execution is twofold: to punish the offender, and to deter others from committing the same crime by showing them a frightening outcome. On evaluation, Ford was felt to be too ill to understand 1) that he was going to be executed, 2) that his execution was because of a murder he had committed, and 3) how he was going to be executed. As one of the justices in Ford's case put it, the execution of someone who thoroughly perplexed and disorganized "has questionable retributive value, presents no example to others, and thus has no deterrence value, and simply offends humanity." Another justice put it in different terms, pointing out that if a prisoner was not "aware of his impending execution and of the reason for it" then the execution could not be carried out, and to do so would be not only cruel, but also pointless.

Does this apply to our games? In some ways yes, and in some ways no. Think back over some of the more memorable villains that you've faced in your gaming career and ask yourself: how many of them were competent to be executed? If they truly believed they were doing the right thing, or if they were so dissociated from reality that they couldn't judge the morality of what they were doing, then there's every possibility that killing them was immoral, no matter how much they might have deserved it. On the other hand, the modern United States justice system has something that most game worlds don't: reasonably reliable prisons. In the real world, very few people on death row ever actually escape from prison, which means that imprisonment does play a role in protecting the populace. In contrast, most of our games take place in world with no particularly effective prison system, and enough magic or magic-like technology exists that dangerous criminals escape from such institutions routinely, inevitably to offend again. In the real world, we have the luxury of reserving the death penalty as an actual punishment, whereas for your characters', capital punishment might simply be the only realistic way to get a murderer off of the streets. Depending on your own personal leanings, this might be a tragedy, a shameful lack of creativity, or a convenient excuse. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on February 22, 2014. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system