The Scarlet Realm, Evil Empires, and Fictional Morality

Stephen Lea Sheppard has had some things to say on the subject of imperialism in Exalted, and he’s ruffled a few feathers in doing so. He’s written things like this:

The problem is that “Real empires” pretty much are “cartoonishly evil” if you look at what they do to their oppressed states. The Rape of Nanking and the Bataan Death March are real things that actually happened. That scene in Ghandi where the British military commander had his troops fire on a mass of peaceful Sikh protestors, including whole families, for no particular reason beyond “Well, I’m here, and I should do something about those people, and my only tools available are a bunch of troops with readied weapons?” That actually happened.

The Canadian government taking Native American children away from their families to be raised in orphanages where it was policy that they’d be beaten if caught speaking their native languages? That happened. That kept happening until the late 60s.

Spartacus’s slave revolt ended with the Roman government literally taking all the rebellious slaves they’d taken as prisoners after it’d been put down, like tens of thousands of them, and crucifying them along the main roads around Rome and leaving the bodies there to rot so that for the next year anyone traveling those roads would see what happens to rebels.

Read up on Quin Shi Huang, Ghengis Khan, and Stalin.

The problem is these all read like exceptional historic anomalies but if you actually look at history they’re normal. This is the sort of **** empires get up to all the time. The willingness to get up to this sort of **** is what makes for the successful spread of empire, because people, as a whole, really do not like foreign rule and will go to almost any lengths to prevent it from taking hold, so historically the successful conquerors are the ones willing to go even further in imposing it.

If we make the Realm a realistic empire it’s going to come off as Snidely Whiplash.

I personally don’t want to make the Realm unrealistically compassionate as empires go.

This has led some readers to suggest that the Realm—and other realistically-drawn states, societies, organizations, and factions—will be presented as Evil with a capital E, and that the Solars will be the Good Guys with two capital Gs, siphoning away all moral ambiguity from the setting and casting everything in black and white.

Such readers have things entirely backward. If one approaches the setting with the intent of playing a Solar as a “good guy”—by which I mean a character rooted strongly in modern universalist morality, believing that all human life is of equal dignity and worth—then one will see the Realm as the Evil Empire. Or, more likely, as an Evil Empire, as other societies won’t look significantly better.

But from that frankly sanctimonious perspective, our own world is a cesspit of capital-E Evil. We ignore (or even laud) immorality that we, our fellow citizens, and our governments are party to, while decrying perceived immorality from outsiders. And for all that belief in the equality of the human race is widespread today, in practice we tend to fall back on more primitive moral systems: traditionalism, authoritarianism, and—most importantly—tribalism. And it is these moral systems that predominate in Creation.

By and large, the peoples of the Threshold don’t hate and fear the Realm because the Realm exacts tribute from poorer peoples and crushes uprisings against their power. Common folk in the satrapies hate the Realm because the Realm extracts tribute from them and crushes them when they attempt revolt.

Self before kin, kin before neighbor, neighbor before stranger—this is a key element of the human character. Utilitarianism (and Mr. Spock) tells us that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but it takes a saint to put the lives of two strangers before the life of one’s friend, sibling, lover, or child. There are precious few saints on Earth. Creation is no better off in this regard. If you approach the setting with the belief that those who are not saints are wicked, then you will find not a shred of moral nuance or ambiguity—and the fault lies in your own perspective, not what’s on the page.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t play a character interested in making the world better for everyone, not just her in-group! But if your character holds everyone around her to a standard that we, the readers and players of the game, cannot adhere to, please acknowledge that that’s a character flaw rather than a mark of righteousness. And if your character recognizes the flawed humanity of those around her but still seeks to guide them toward her vision of a better world—well, let me finish this post with a quote from line co-developer Holden Shearer:

The thing a Solar may want to do as a hero, and which nobody in the setting has ever yet managed, is to create lasting peace, equitable and fair government, enduring happiness and boundless opportunity. Note lasting, as in, without a subset of those things being temporarily gained in such a way that it ensures later strife and calamity. To rule with grace and wisdom—there is no Charm for this. And if it seems that the best thing is not to rule, then to determine how best to wisely use the great power one has been granted—there is no Charm for this. To create a perfect world—there is no Charm for this, although there are Charms to create worlds.

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13 comments

  1. I keep telling people this stuff: If you, as an American (or Brit, or Canadian), can eat and enjoy a chocolate bar without admitting to some capital-E Evil (at the bare minimum, that’s being complicit in benefitting from *child slave labor*), why are you so eager to throw that label at the Realm?

  2. The problem is that however evil governments actually are, what’s important for the game is not the government itself but the stories told about it. Sourcebooks don’t catalog all of the sins of the Realm, they just catalog enough to inform storytelling. Which means that if the Realm is described as more evil in the books than the histories that most players are familiar with describe historical empires, then players will implement the Realm as more evil than those empires were. Remember the points of comparison the readers are operating from.

    1. > Which means that if the Realm is described as more evil in the books than the histories that most players are familiar with describe historical empires, then players will implement the Realm as more evil than those empires were.

      This is a worthwhile concern, but I don’t feel that whitewashing by omission is a satisfactory solution. Ideally, the text will provide sufficient context for the reader to draw the necessary inferences.

    1. Because reality is all too good in making any absolute arguments invalid – critic where one may point page references is always so much simpler than actual responsibility and defense of one’s supposed beliefs/views in life.

  3. I feel as though Masters of Jade provides a fairly good standard for how one can portray reprehensible, but understandable in context, actions by interesting and diverse characters without repelling the readers.

    The worst I ever heard people talking about that book was a couple of inarticulate arguments about it being an anti-capitalist screed obviously written by smelly hippies.

    I’ll remind folks that that’s the book that portrays Guild operatives as enslaving people and torturing them in a certain demesne so that their tears will turn to silver. It literally portrays the Guild as turning tears into money, yet I don’t recall anybody ever calling them cartoonishly evil.

  4. Have you considered putting this text in a gray box in the ST section? Or maybe a link to it?

    I’d really appreciate it if more people had this information present in their head.

    1. Seconding this.

      Also, if an ST Guide for 3E is ever written, THIS is the kind of stuff that should be included, not generic NPC statblocks.

  5. By the way Eric, it’s a little off topic, but since the moderator of /r/Exalted has a giant stick up his ass, I’m being forced to post this here, instead, since it’s the only question about 3e worth asking:

    Where is my fucking book, Eric? I paid $130 for a book that was to be delivered to me by October last year. That was *eight fucking months ago*. This is not acceptable by any possible interpretation of the word.

    1. Responding to myself because it doesn;t look like I can edit my comments: Now that I think about it, though, the way the moderator was acting is perhaps a demonstration of how people tend to start acting when given even a little bit of power, and given that this post was on the tyranny of empires IRL, maybe it was more on-topic than it appeared at first glance? Heh.

    2. If this is the way you’re behaving about a reward incentive for a donation you made, I’m not too surprised the mods banned you.

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