Friday, September 20, 2019

Race, Racism, Alignment, and Evil

Apologies in advance: I should probably break this down into a number of separate posts. But I'd rather just lance the whole topic in one shot rather than prolonging the suffering.

Let's start with the basics: I'm about 10 seconds away from cutting alignment out of my D&D game. Yes, this is something that some folks (like the much esteemed Alexis Smolensk) has been advocating for years...blogging about it as recently as last week. But it's not Alexis who finally broke my back on the subject (even if he did lay a lot of the initial groundwork); rather, it was G.A. Barber's recent posts on decolonization, integration, and racist tropes in D&D.

And orcs. Thinking about orcs. Really just...orcs.

We're going to bring this around to the Icespire Peak thing in a second (that's a factor), but let's start with the orc thing first. I wrote a rather long comment/response on Barber's post that was either eaten by the internet or hasn't been approved. Doesn't matter either way because it was kind of dumb. But here's the summarized thought (refined a tad):

- While I understand the tropeyness of monocultures (an "elf nation," "orc nation," etc.) is both banal and uncomfortably similar to racist stereotypes (e.g. "all African nations are the same"), it's tough to separate from this when I want non-humans to represent a small segment of the world's sentient population (in comparison to humans, who are prolific and diverse). I'm more inclined to handle these monocultures as Gygax does the Drow in module D3: have a variety of internal factions, conflicting political/religious groups, and rogue independents within the monoculture. Another example might be the dwarves of Krynn as presented in the novel War of the Twins.

- That being said, there's an additional challenge: I like my tropey evil species. I like dragons that are greedy. I like goblins that are sneaky gits. And I like orcs to be scourges on the civilized species, whether because of some genetic curse or their innate subservience to some Dark Lord (Sauron, etc.). I understand this is a callback to European views of the Mongols or Huns (did Eastern nations view Alexander in the same fashion? Maybe) and, admittedly, lazy as far as world building. But what's the alternative? Feeling bad about killing orcs and taking their stuff? When we could be building bridges with and finding empathy for another sentient, misunderstood species?

[this is still D&D we're playing, right? A certain type of escapist fantasy that allows us to expediently resolve conflict with swords and spells, unlike the real world. Superhero fantasy (where conflicts are resolved with mighty fists instead of thoughtful dialogue) is similarly lazy and escapist, but sometimes we want that, right? Or not?]

- But even saying I go partway here towards "understanding orcs" (at least understanding that they are a group of homocidal, unreasoning inhuman humanoids), we can start to say HEY there's really no such thing as "evil races" and "good races" only SELF-INTERESTED peoples. Just like real life nations. Dwarves (or elves or orcs or whoever) might appear stand-offish to outsiders, but if your interests align with theirs, they're happy to become helpful, friendly allies. On the other hand, when your interests and theirs conflict, they're similarly likely to become enemies at the gate. And unfortunately for the orcs, the ethics and values of their particular "society" (such as it is) is quite likely to be at odds with those of (most) human communities.

[side note: I think it was the 2nd or 3rd edition of Warhammer 40,000 that suggested or implied that orcs were a plant-like species: the green skin/blood being related to chlorophyll, their seeming indifference to pain or lost limbs, their driving motivation to compete and expand like a hostile plant being introduced into an unprepared ecosystem. I do kind of like this idea, but D&D already has vegepygmies]

[hmmm...are vegepygmies kind of racist?]

Moving on from Barber's post (and my comments), this idea of "self-interest" echoes back to my thoughts on the nature of capital-E EVIL in D&D (advanced or otherwise). I wrote about this waaaaay back in 2010, when I realized there really shouldn't be a separate "holy" and "unholy" version of spells, water, and symbols. To the priest of Satan (or whoever), her symbols, spells, and special ointments are all "holy," and the implements of different faiths/religions are "unholy" or "blasphemous." Our perceptions are colored by our own values and self-interests, especially as ingrained in us by our parents/family/elders/teachers/society.

That doesn't mean everyone is a SELFISH BASTARD! There are still people in the fantasy world that are taking actions that enlightened 21st century (and, in my case, Christian) folks would consider "good" or "altruistic." Self-interest doesn't preclude acts of charity and kindness, if those things are of value to the particular fantasy being in question. Orcs, however, may not have those values by definition of their "particular society." A few outliers aside (as always).

Back to the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure: the adventure background concerns a white dragon moving into the territory and setting up shop. This sets in motion a number of events, including the forcing of orcs (the dragon's convenient prey) out of their usual territory, forcing them into conflict with the nearby human settlers. Again, I will say this isn't a terrible premise for an adventure...it is in fact, a very reasonable, realistic scenario. In a fantasy world of monsters eating and enslaving other monsters, it's only natural that such a chain of events would occur (the dragon in the adventure is youngish and was forced out of its territory by other, more powerful dragons...similar to a young lion being forced from the pride by the alpha male). The problematic part of the adventure is the execution of the scenario: kill encroaching monsters (orcs or otherwise), level up, kill dragon, yay...all for little or no reward.

Do I want to take out the orc fights? No, not necessarily. Do I want the PCs to peaceably "integrate" the orcs into their society? No. Even if they were re-skinned as "barbarous hillmen" (or something) I want to retain the cultural differences and conflict. I do not want my Dothraki walking around and enjoying the culture of King's Landing in some fantasy version of Renaissance Venice, okay? Keep that shit to the final episode...er, session of the campaign when you're done with "adventuring."

But do you see where I'm going with this line of thought? There's no need for alignments...especially monster/species designated alignment...in a campaign world based on thoughtful self-interest and reasonable motivations. THAT is why I'm finally, finally willing to take a hard look at axing alignment from my game, after years of resisting the idea. In B/X this isn't difficult: "evil" (for purposes of detect evil, protection from evil, etc.) is only limited to supernatural evil of the undead or demonic variety, with "evil" being defined as "contrary to the natural order of the world." Here are the only other considerations, as far as I can recall:

Alignment language: I don't use it anyway.
Intelligent magic weapons: even without alignment, such items have an ego and an agenda, and will attempt to control a character. I see little reason to do the "gotcha" damage from picking up a weapon of different alignment; being mind controlled by an intelligent sword is "gotcha" enough.
Alignment changing magic items: there are better, more interesting cursed items to include in a campaign world.
"Good" alignment play for adjusting XP acquisition: No.
Alignment restrictions based on class: I'd address this on a case-by-case basis.
- Assassins: originally required alignment was "neutral." Evil is as evil does: no restrictions.
- Bards: requiring "some sort of neutral" is the same as no requirements. Duh.
- Cavaliers: PHB only, please.
- Clerics and Druids: see the bit about holy symbols above. Priestly types are expected to follow the tenets of their particular faith in order to produce magical effects. Failure to do so might result in loss of abilities.
- Monks: have you not seen Iron Monkey? Look at the main villain.
- Rangers: I'm not running a Middle Earth campaign. These are outdoorsy hunter dudes, and that doesn't require a "good" alignment. Other restrictions certainly apply!
- Thieves: plenty of examples in fiction of "heart-o-gold" thieves; see Grey Mouser. Not sure why there was ever such a restriction (I think, back in the day, we house ruled this to "non lawful" instead of non-good).
- Paladins: the most problematic of the bunch, and my main impetus for years for keeping alignment (even when not playing AD&D!). I know that I still want "behavioral restrictions," but I don't want to tie them to DM fiat of what is or isn't being "true" to the lawful good alignment. Are the paladin's abilities supernatural? Yes. So then, as with other spell-casters, they are tied to their beliefs as self-imposed strictures (like a wizard's taboos against weapons). As such, I'd probably set a number of tenets/laws (similar to the cavalier's "code of conduct" in the UA) that such a character would not be able to transgress without the loss of her abilities.

All right. I think that's about all I want to say on the subject. Next post will be shorter (I think) and address the "vanilla fantasy" setting that is the Forgotten Realms.

Not all orcs are alike.


30 comments:

  1. I agree about Alignment, especially in BX. I just don't see the need for it. The one caveat I can think of is that GG may have considered it an important part of *ROLE* playing so it is there to (further) define the character's role in the world and restrict player's from "doing whatever they want" with no repercussions. It may seem unnecessary, but then again "meta-gaming" is a thing. Sometimes we need that additional, structural limitation.

    As for racism...meh. D&D exists in a world of Good and Evil (which many people don't even think actually exists anymore). The Nominalism of our current society is a bankrupt ideology but it has a lot of pull right now. G.A. Barber's post (rant?) about how poorly POC are represented in a fantasy setting and how monsters are just stand-ins for racial injustice, is nothing more than current Nominalist thought in spades. As I recall, Kara-Tur was considered one of the absolute best expansions to D&D and people still rave over Oriental Adventurers. I've got no use for PC zealotry. Just play the game.

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    1. @ pugbuddy:

      I don’t think Barber is ranting so much as examining the game from a different perspective (I.e. that of a person of color). It doesn’t come off as zealotry to me. And I appreciate getting a viewpoint from someone whose life experiences I couldn’t ever expect to have (seeing as how I’m a white dude living in the USA).

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  2. The 3rd edition Codex: Space Orks did teach that the Greenskins were fungoid creatures.
    The most important part of this post of yours.
    Your welcome.

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  3. I haven't used alignment in years, it's a weird thing. I think Don't think it offers anything.

    Now on racism and colonialism in D&D - yup, it's there. Othering, exotification, essentialism and whatnot abound. I Don't think It's malicious or authorial intent, but B2 at its core is about murdering the swart savage natives of the frontier, burning thier heathen temples, stealing thier treasures and appropriating thier land for the European coded colonizers. It of course has long been recognized that it doesn't have to be... loot the keep, work with the orcs, but That's not the normal way of play.

    I don't dismiss the problems of D&D as they relate to the unthinking adoption of the colonialist and herrenvolk ideological underpinnings of the post WWII US, but I do think they can be mitigated by open world play.

    Didactic anti-colonial play risks the same danger as any forced morality or narrative game, removal of player choice and consequence. It's precisely in the opportunity for colonialist evil that the game subverts itself under a decent GM. Consequences, opportunities reflection and playing out nightmare scenes of orc baby massacre can themselves have a profound effect on player attitudes and subvert the colonialist narrative by offering the players the same vile choices to enact the same massacres and genocides with the moral weight falling on them.

    It doesn't always work, and some effort should be made to avoid racist and colonial tropes (lay off the damn accents and racialized descriptions of humanoids) but moral play, that is allowing moral decision by players and placing moral quandaries before them, is both a key aspect of classic play and an effective way of making people think about ethics.

    Also, never make any species of humanoid incoherently evil. Like sure, ogres eat humans, but not all of them a cruel about it, sonme are ethical about it even. Make humanoids reasoning understandable, if not always sympathetic. Also more h7man bandits, less goblins.

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  4. While I understand the tropeyness of monocultures (an "elf nation," "orc nation," etc.) is both banal and uncomfortably similar to racist stereotypes...

    I'd always taken Wood Elfs, Grey Elfs, Aquatic Elfs and Drow to be the way of handling this. It's like dividing humans into Primitive, Nomadic, Barbarian, Civilized cultures based on settlement size and other patterns (the way RuneQuest did). Within each cultures would be Kingdoms/tribes/nations but games don't define that level as they'd be different in every game world.

    The real problem is they never really broke up the 'evil' humanoid cultures the same way.

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  5. Why don’t you just play 2019 Seattle Ren Faire instead? Because what you are describing is not remotely d&d.

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    1. @ Scott:

      Because it lacks alignments?

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    2. There are a number of incongruent assumptions you are making, but the one that sticks out most sharply is that is seems as if you are worried about perceiving racism in a game featuring imaginary people of imaginary races.

      It’s not actual racism, (which can be interesting grist for the mill of heroism) but imaginary racism (play-acting) regarding imaginary people and even imaginary species.

      This is the main thing that strikes me funny.

      There are others but they’re less interesting.

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    3. As with many fictional universes over the years (Star Trek is the one that comes immediately to mind) non-human species (“races”) in D&D have become a stand-in for different (i.e. non-mainstream/majority) cultures and ethnicities, only growing more so over the evolution of the game. It’s not a *major* concern for my own game (since I run older editions and try to play up the alienness of different species, as opposed to making them “humans with pointy ears”) but it’s something to be aware of and to consider in world-building.

      I’m not afraid of appearing overtly racist (I am what I am) or of being perceived of as running a “racist” game. I’m just trying to be thoughtful (defining the whys and wherefores of my antagonist monster species) and considering another person’s feelings on the matter has led me a deeper...or at least more nuanced...line of thinking with regard to the interaction of fictional sentient beings in a fantasy setting.

      To me, it’s both an interesting and valuable thought pursuit. Besides, I’ve always dislike alignment languages.

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  6. My solution to dealing with alignment was to think of it as someone actually aligning themselves with a cosmic force. In D&D, you originally had Law and Chaos. If you actually had some kind of pact with the Lords of Law or Chaos, then you took on that alignment. Otherwise, you were neutral. Whether you are a kind and gentle soul or a murderous cutthroat, if didn't have any kind of cosmic affiliation, you were neutral.

    Taking this idea a step further, you can make new alignments that better suit your setting. Not every setting needs to be a Moorcockian battle between Law and Chaos. If your patron deity is Athena, then your alignment is Olympian. Whatever pantheons exist in your setting become alignments.

    It also means that alignments don't have to be some kind of personality gauge. They simply determine what cosmic force you aligned with.

    Detect Alignment no longer becomes an easy tool for sussing out good guys and bad guys either. Sure, some pantheons may be more sinister than others, but the morality of worshipers still varies within it.

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    1. This “aligning with cosmic powers” makes more sense in a setting containing opposite powers (like Moorcock’s Law-Chaos axis). That being said, it’s not like Elric ever loses in power or ability from his fickle switching between sides (the usual penalty for AD&D...level loss...wouldn’t appear to model well with the fiction).

      My upcoming publication (a campaign setting book for B/X) uses alignment in a similar fashion: as a measure of one’s commitment to humanity or evil. It even has some (slight) mechanical systems to back it up. But I could probably cut it pretty easily and still make the setting work. Probably.

      To me, detect alignment has always been just a cheap version of detect lie.

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  7. An Orc isn't any more human than your dog is, and yet we apply human empathetic identification to the behavior of dogs and many other species ... mad as a hornet, and such. Folks have been trying to identify with, and humanize, orcs since the good Professor put them in his trilogy, which is erroneous. They do not, and have not, been stand-ins for any group of human; rather as a manifestation of Melkor in mockery of the elves of Middle-earth - which, by and by, are not a human race either, being spirits of 'good' created by the Queen of the Valar.

    Human definitions of good, evil, and the morality of the traditional fantasy races is more polarized (IMHO) due to the fact they are not human, and variations such as High Elf and Wood Elf are slighter than human racial/cultural lines. The Drow - due to their fall from grace in D&D lore - are just as homogeneously polarized as evil for the same reason other elves are polarized as good.

    I don't think modern sociopolitical trends can be applied to these fantasy tropes any more than judging the creations - or men who created the - Conan, Elric, Cudgel, Cthulhu, or Sauron. They were all entertaining products of a time few of know or remember.

    It's your fantasy game, however, so you can modify it to your modern sensibilities; Sanitize away without my or anyone else's judgment. Wizard of the Coast did and so do Most players of both modern and OSR/Old School games do, it seems.

    Heaven forbid an embodiment of evil (or good, for that matter ) actually (or fictitiously, in our topic here) exist or anything.

    YMMV ... :P

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    1. I’m not sure doing away with alignment “sanitizes” the game. Rather, it requires a deeper understanding (by the DM) of the world being built. “Why are we fighting orcs?” Because they are servants of an evil god? Because they are cannibals that see humans as meat/livestock? Because they are encroaching on our territory (having been forced from their own)? Because they are a genetic aberration that renders reasonable discussion impossible? Many possible answers, none so simplistic as “they’re just evil.”

      In pursuing an *advanced* version of the game, I think it’s all right to take a slightly more sophisticated look at these things.

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    2. You have said it better than I have or could say it. Thanks.

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    3. I think unless you're writing the sort of science fiction where the point of an alien is to examine what a truly non-human intelligence would be like, I think it does a weird disservice to fantasy fiction to claim that non-human people can have nothing to do with real world human affairs. It'd be weird to argue, for example, that as a fantasy series Narnia had nothing to do with Christian theology. For another example, I certainly find Gimli's arc in Lothlorien to be a touching story, and one that's pretty broadly applicable to a lot of real-world situations (many of which have nothing at all to do with race relations). It's not that they map 1-1 with any particular human ethnicity so much as they can be representative of different types of people or ways of looking at the world.

      Plus while Tolkien himself described orcs as resembling "unlovely mongoloids," so comparison to specific human ethnicities isn't exactly out of left field, the argument "orcs aren't humans and therefore cannot be representative of human morality" is an argument from within the fictional reality of the text, whereas when people talk about orcs and racism they're usually coming at it from the angle of "this fiction is the way it is because of decisions made by the author, let's discuss". I think the second is generally more useful when talking about fiction, but mostly I find it's just helpful to establish where you're coming from in the conversation.

      Tolkien also seems to have had a lot of different thoughts over the years over where goblins/orcs came from and whether or not it was advisable that they be irredeemably evil, so I'd say that putting some thought into what you want an orc to be in your particular game is not exactly textual heresy. Even if you want orcs to be irredeemable footsoldiers of Evil (which I think can totally work and be very interesting), it behooves you to think about, at least at a very basic level, what Evil is and what Good is and how those things will be represented. Tolkien's own orcs are, among other things, representations of people who have been completely brutalized by industrialization, which is an interesting and particular version of what Evil is, just as much as them being short, swart scimitar-wielders with slanted eyes and red tongues is a specific vision of what evil looks like.

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  8. After years of vacillating, hemming and hawing, and waxing poetic on the subject, I still find Alignment useful in the war-gamey sense of OD&D. They don't describe a moral code of behavior, but rather an adherence to a particular side in a larger conflict. It is a shorthand for quickly determining if two creatures are willing to cooperate in any given situation and why or why not. Lawful and Chaotic creatures have antithetical goals and therefore won't work with each other because to help the other would be to harm the self. Neutral will work with anybody because they see advantage in working with all sides. Period. The rest is world-building to explain how the goals of Lawful & Chaotic creatures are antithetical.

    Thus, it is a tool for the referee to quickly make decisions about NPC and monster behavior and it frees players from the non-sensical moral prison of later alignment systems.

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    1. @ Fr. Dave:

      It is certainly possible to run a campaign in that fashion.

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  9. I've been working on alignment for Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 that ties Law vs Chaos into the right and left-hand paths, even dipping into today's hyper-partisan political climate. Should be interesting...

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  10. Or you could assume non human races are humans outside the accepted as human preference bellcurve and assume these are simply cultural templates.

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  11. I use alignment primarily to represent supernatural “side” with personality type as at best a secondary correlation, at least among humans. Most self-defined Evil people are dicks, but there are plenty of venal, greedy, and bigoted folks on Team Good and decent people on Team Neutral.

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  12. This would have been so much easier if "alignment" was called "alliance" in the beginning. If that was the intent, it would be less confusing than what it turned into.

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  13. Blasphemy! The alignments are traditional core game rules and this talk of "good orcs and goblins" is talk from some dark lord! If these foul humanoids not be killed out they multiply by the thousands and mankind is destroyed! Most of all, it's not real, it's fantasy.

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  14. Racism and colonialism is a tricky subject in traditional-style D&D because it’s not totally avoidable without changing the shape and flavor of the default campaign (i.e. pushing the frontiers of civilization outward). The trick to being responsible about it is to acknowledge the potentially problematic aspects and then (1) don’t include things that will reinforce them (like intentionally assigning negative racial or cultural stereotypes to evil or “monster” groups), and (2) to the extent you can do so without turning the game into a lecture, contextualize and critique them. That absolutely doesn’t have to mean making the Evil races non-evil but it does (at least IMO) mean being clear that Evil is actual allegiance to the lower-planar powers actively working towards destruction of the universe in blood and fire and not just rivalry over resources.

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  15. I don't see a reason why (if you weren't going to go with inherently Evil orcs) you wouldn't want the *possibility* of them integrating into the PCs fantasy town. If you're running the various factions here as self-interested, then such an outcome is probably unlikely, especially if the PCs do nothing. But if they go out of their way to try and make it happen, building bridges between factions with opposing incentives, forming alliances, planning and looking for solutions to seemingly intractable conflicts, and getting into and out of fights and scrapes..... why, that's adventuring!

    It's also, conveniently, entirely at the players' discretion. If they're not interesting in engaging with the scenario in that way, playing the various factions as self-interested works perfectly well as a standard kicking doors, grabbing loot type of affair. Enemies with understandable goals can be interacted with in a variety of more interesting ways, even if the players are still ultimately trying to rob/trick/kill them.

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    1. @ Tom:

      If I wrote (or implied) there should be no possibility of integrating orcs, then I was being both hasty and unimaginative.

      That being said, I wouldn’t want integration to be the only “win” scenario, nor add any sort of moral imperative to the PCs behavior.

      Except with regard to paladins (of course).
      ; )

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  16. I don’t buy the line that the humanoid races are inherently/irredeemably evil so everyone on Team Good is morally obligated to commit genocide against them. That said, I also don’t buy that they’re just misunderstood or targets of slanderous propaganda. They really are murderous and cruel and delight in torture and slavery and destruction - but they’re that way because they’ve been culturally conditioned that way for centuries or millennia, a cycle of abuse and exploitation perpetuated by a hereditary caste of demon-worshipping priest-kings.

    Genocide isn’t the answer (at least not the best answer) but neither is peaceful coexistence or integration - at least without first removing the bad actors and a long term, very difficult process of evolution and adaptation that’s outside the scope of what I’m interested in playing through at the table. The actions of the PCs may undo millennia of conflict and lead to a world where in 100 years orcs and goblins will leave peacefully alongside humans and elves, but in the short term, there is going to be a lot of very justified conflict.

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  17. My friends and I abandoned alignment pretty much immediately after we started playing. Anything beyond Law, Neutral, Chaos was not really meaningful or useful. I think the only time alignment was a factor was if someone played a paladin and that was extremely rare.

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  18. What this did get me thinking about though is the idea of factions. A concept often used in video games to determine NPCs initial reaction to the player, it could fill a similar roll in RPGs. What if instead of alignment we picked factions and that dictated the default reaction of NPCs to the player.

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