Goblin Babies and Wasp Nests: Too Close to Home?

Friday, September 25th, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons is getting rid of inherently evil humanoids, maybe even race-based ability scores, and so on. I’ve personally always disliked alignment for various reasons, the old “slaughtering goblin babies” problem being one of those, and I also don’t put humanoid women-and-children in the path of adventurers, so the problem hasn’t come up in my games.

But I do want a way to have “these are probably not things you want around” to be a thing with monster-types because…well…such things do exist in the real world, even if they aren’t rampaging barbaric hordes wielding steel and magic. I like monsters for heroes to overcome.

For example, in the real world, we Raid-bomb wasp hives that are built on our houses, and you would probably stomp a nest of black widow spider eggs into goo if you found one, and cockroaches that have set up shop in our walls are going to a roach motel. And we feel–and probably are–justified in doing so. But there’s a lot to explore and unpack here.

I’m going to use goblins and goblin babies as an example for this post, and you can probably see–or at least think you see–where I’m going with this: “building a case that compares and makes equivalent wasps and goblins.” But I’d like you to stick with me to the end here; don’t be a bad psychic and presume.

First, there is a valid objection in that making this kind of comparison is seriously problematic when doing so involves a sentient humanoid species that can make choices–especially in light of all-too-numerous instances of this sort of horrible thinking used historically in the defense of brutal racist actions against other humans–the murder of children because “nits make lice” among them.

Here’s the kicker about those wasp hives: we Raid-bomb hives even though it is well-established that insects have individual personalities and emotional lives as much as any other creature does. This is pretty important. I was vegetarian for over twenty years because of the ethic that “I wouldn’t want to be killed and eaten either.”

So if we accept all things (including insects) have emotional lives and don’t want to die, the argument regarding sentience being a bright line in making that comparison commits the sin of de-individualizing other living beings because they have six legs and look weird. It is a failure to empathize.

Since all living things make choices and have feelings–they aren’t robots–the argument that the comparison is problematic simply because they are sentient humanoids isn’t necessarily a very good one…it turns out we just draw that line because reasons.

And yet I will still Raid-bomb a wasp nest in my yard without (much) guilt. Does that make me a bad person?

Or does letting wasps swarm my kids and grandkids just for playing in the yard make me a worse person?

This is the ethical problem writ large: whatever the argument about a being’s inherent-evilness-or-not, or about their status as living beings, you still don’t want a nest of wasps on your house. You don’t want cockroaches skittering through your kitchen. You don’t want scorpions in your kids’ playroom. Because: pain, destruction, disease. Whether or not these things “mean” to harm you or yours, that’s just what they do.

Thus the question can be raised “What if goblins are the same way?”

That is, goblins aren’t evil, per se, they just do-what-they-do. They murder and steal as an imperative in response to stimuli; ie: wasps swarm and sting, like assholes…goblins raid and murder, like assholes.

And if goblins are literally “wired” to be narcissistic sociopaths? Then you don’t want them around you and you don’t want them breeding where they can hurt you, your loved ones, or your community. You can’t really co-exist with them because they aren’t going to co-exist with you.

Obviously, unlike with wasps in real life, in the fiction of the game goblins can be communicated with. Goblins can think and reason and self-reflect in response to the information contained in those communications.

Even if they’re instinctual murderers, because of the above, they wouldn’t necessarily be slaves to their basic instincts. They can make decisions and self-direct their actions. Since they are sentient, they could choose different behaviors, right? De-humanizing them as being like wasps or scorpions is wrong because they can make informed, moral choices about their behavior, and could be raised to do so.

But it is possible from our human perspective of how sentience and self-reflection works, for a goblin to make that choice.

But there’s a monkey-wrench here: you, human being, are full of all sorts of daily behaviors you don’t even recognize nor could even conceptually understand as stupid and terrible. I’m not talking “subconscious bias.” I’m talking stuff you can’t change because it is fundamentally icky wrong to do so, if not flat-out impossible.

We can understand this more easily through parable.

Let’s say we discover a sentient species on another world, who for some reason slaughters and eats half its young during their pre-adolescence (maybe those individuals would devolve their gene pool into pre-sentient barbarism, letting them live would decimate the ecosystem, or something else that can’t quite be quantified so easily).

Now say this activity was celebrated in every culture around their world as a moment of full self-realization for the (surviving) young, and of glorious service to the community by its elders. It forms the basis of their art, philosophy, their being-ness, in every culture around their world.

You, human, could never quite get over the feeling this act–the cannibalism of thinking, feeling children, and of its celebration–was all very wrong and horrifying, and that they should change and stop doing that, even if that species simply could not conceive of it as wrong.

Really, we humans can’t see that as anything but wrong. We can’t see it as anything but a cultural value and a choice. We might be able to intellectually understand why the aliens are doing this, but not on an emotional, accepting level because we are wired in an incompatible way.

Now let’s say another sentient species shows up on Earth’s doorstep, and this species finds experiencing and celebrating the concepts of sadness, anxiety, and individuality horrifying and immoral, even though much of our greatest art is produced due to these feelings, and we consider their invocation in that art beautiful, moving, and humanizing–yes, even the saddest and most heart-breaking of feelings are celebrated in our art.

You, human, could never quite conceive of endless bliss and non-individuality as a good thing, and would likely be stringently, if not violently, opposed to any enforced change or cultural erasure of such “for moral purposes.”

Here’s the issue: you are the child-eating cannibals now. The Happy Hive species may even want to Raid-bomb any nests humans put near their territory, because humans are diseased, engaging in and spreading horrible behaviors and ideas. Meanwhile, humans want to make sure the Happy Hive species stays the fuck away with their evil brain-eating devices and book-burnings and Louvre-disintegrating lasers.

We can conceive of the idea of species-based morality, but we could never really get over the feeling other races have got it wrong and are following an actively and obviously immoral set of behaviors, and that if they’d just see it from our perspective they’d change their behavior or opinions to either 1) join us or 2) leave us alone. (Depending, of course, on who is in the force-dominant position in the relationship.)

But would they?
Or should they?

If a powerful alien species comes along and declares we’re backwards and immoral, that we’re causing severe harm to ourselves and others, and we’d better stop doing the things they find wrong–at least those things that are literally part of our biological and psychological imperatives as humans–we’re going to resist that the way we’d resist any foreign conquerors trying to rule and brainwash us.

If the Eternally Happy Hive Aliens are Raid-bombing human colonies for the same reasons–because humanity is spreading mental and emotional degeneracy that is destroying their people (fractured Hives plagued by suicides thanks to radio-waves and inter-species contact), and we swarm their Brain-wipe Happy Ships with missiles and lasers to keep them away, because the option of either allowing our own genocide or losing our fundamental humanity are simply untenable?

We see the aliens as the monsters. OUR monsters. Our morality wants them to self-sacrifice for our good. Our ethics demand we wipe them out if they come near us because otherwise they will destroy us.

And vice versa.

There can be no peaceful co-existence. We are fundamentally incompatible. There is no way we can avoid harming and killing one another because that would require we not be us and they not be them, and for one side to commit their own species-wide genocide.

So…back to the goblins…If humans come along and declare goblins are backwards and immoral, that they’re causing severe harm, and they’d better stop doing the things we find wrong that are literally part of their biological and psychological imperatives as goblins, and our argument is “but being sentient, the goblins can change“…

we are the foreign conquerors brainwashing and enslaving another species to a human morality. That they are sentient is a paper defense of forcible colonialism and humanocentrism under the guise of woke morality.

And yet if we aren’t going to enforce change on the goblins, or if we can’t, then how do we deal with them when they build nests in our territory and try to murder and eat us? If wasps and goblins are mean little fuckers…and since you’re not going to be able to teach wasps not to sting, and they’re simply going to hurt people and destroy property…and, likewise, since you’re not going to be able to teach goblins not to raid and murder, and they’re going to hurt people and destroy property..?

Thus the question: if something is dangerous and destructive, and is never not going to be dangerous and destructive, then is it OK to just mass slaughter those things before they hurt you and yours? Raid-bomb the nest. It’s justified and logical.

Under this paradigm, despite sentience, goblins are a form of horrible alien that can’t not try to wipe us out. From our standpoint, we want them to self-sacrifice either as a species, or psychologically–and be something they can’t be–for our good. We believe it should be possible and fine for them to do so–we humanize them as having our own psychology and drives and emotional and moral perceptions.

But if they won’t do that, if they can’t do that, they remain a hive of dangerous, deadly monsters–no matter how intelligent they are nor that they, too, have feelings and a drive to exist and survive…

Thus the ethical question in the traditional problem: if you leave those goblin babies to grow up, and they grow up to be murder-machines that wipe out a village or two, what does that say about you? Isn’t that just like declaring, because of all the baby wasps, you’re not going to Raid-bomb the wasp nest on your house until they swarm and hurt, or even hospitalize and kill, your kids or neighbors?

But if you go with that “until” logic? You’re probably making a mistake. You’ve failed to draw a functional line. You’re actually a monster for not protecting your family and for actively allowing preventable harm to come to them from a clear and present threat.

And if you draw that same line with other human beings? You’re probably making a mistake. You’ve failed to draw a functional line. You’re actually a monster for treating other human beings as monsters that need to be destroyed and cannot be reasoned or co-existed with.

How we deal with this cognitive dissonance, as humans, is to draw a line where, when dealing with wasps, cockroaches, and other living beings with emotional lives, but are incompatible as neighbors, we “other” them. We dehumanize them into things instead of beings. Because we have to, just to protect things that are ours, just to survive…because if we don’t, we will die. Other people will die. Sickness. Disease. Harm. You can’t share your space with them. You can’t let them breed and spread. You can’t reason or safely co-exist.

Even the best of us can destroy wasp nests and fire-ant hives and cockroach infestations without becoming genocidal nutcases, because we can (mostly) successfully circumvent our own ethical psychology on a situational basis when it comes to insects–they don’t look human or act human or talk…even if we logically recognize those insects are actual, emotionally-independent beings, who feel fear, who can be shy, aggressive, adventurous, etc.

If you have a fully developed empathy and sense of ethics, you still probably feel a bit sick at yourself once you think deeply about it. Why, if humans are individuals with feelings, isn’t it OK to slaughter them where they live, yet it is OK to slaughter wasps in their hives, even though they are also individuals with feelings?

It is uncomfortable to realize there’s really no difference between wasp babies and goblin babies and human babies, except for the ethics and biological instincts inside our head. You’d (hopefully) feel super-racist if you went out and killed human babies just for being from a foreign country, and yet you don’t feel racist at all when you kill future asshole, poison-injecting wasp babies.

At some point your basic ethics could paralyze your ability to act. So where do you draw those lines? Can you really “other” wasps and trees safely? Can you ever not be a monster? Or does reality only allow for being the least monstrous? How do you draw those lines? You have to draw lines or you can’t functionally survive–to do otherwise can only result in action paralysis.

But we’re talking about tabletop gaming here, and before we dive too much more deeply into this navel, the question here is really: is it safe to draw that line with humanoids in tabletop RPGs?

And THAT is why the argument has existed since the first edition of D&D.

As humans, we all have basic similar reactions and psychology that holds across nearly every member of our species (example: fight or flight; mirroring; social needs; conceptual fallacies). As humans, we humanize things that aren’t, we give them human traits, we see them as human in behavior and reason. Animals. Robots. Plants. Objects. It’s a natural and normal state-of-affairs with any normal human brain. It’s a common cross-cultural human behavior throughout history: when we find injured or abandoned baby animals, we take them in and raise them. Even knowing “a full-grown leopard wandering around the house is still likely to eat my face”…because BABIES.

Well, except for wasps. Fuck those things.

I’m being flippant, but my point is serious: you don’t think about wasp babies when you Raid-bomb their nests. You don’t raise mosquitoes from larva to adult bloodsuckers. And so on. They’re dangerous and can’t be trained otherwise.

Even though we care for other dangerous, non-human creatures that will eat us. All the time. We have a weird empathy for a lot of other creatures with behaviors that are dangerous to our health and safety, that have non-human thinking and behavior that aren’t going to be “trained-out.” We draw weird lines between what is and isn’t acceptable to kill.

Even if we, say, put the baby goblins in little suits and ties, clutching ledgers and screaming “PROFITS BEFORE PEOPLE!” Even when they’re screaming about profits and face-eating, to the human brain, we think “they’re babies!” and also “they can change!” and so killing baby murder goblins still feels the same as “killing babies!” We are fundamentally wired not to do that.

So sociopathic, narcissistic goblin babies that will grow up to abuse or murder you still get this weird pass in the brain…

…unless you bypass that wiring entirely with “goblins are just evil. Kill them all.” Circumventing that whole empathic, humanizing imperative. As you circumvent with wasps and various insects. With hunted animals. Terrifyingly, some people, with people.

Throughout human history, bad people have used the psychology of “othering” to their advantage. They have convinced people to do terrible things to people who are not unlike them, or who are exactly like them except for some obvious, but essentially superficial thing. Or you convince yourself all on your own, because you’re taught by culture or peers those people are “other” and are “things.”

History and modern society are full of people who have presented other people as “things” that will grow up to abuse or murder you and yours, or convinced you that other people are less-than-people. Simply by tapping into the inherent ability to short-circuit your natural ethical framework to ignore our basic propensity for humanization.

Even though human people won’t, actually grow up to murder you and yours. Even though it is the most extreme form of racism to believe they will, and especially to act on the belief they are and will. Because human people are humans. Because people aren’t baby murder goblins.

Which means, for a lot of people, circumventing that subconscious imperative with humanoids in a casual social game feels a little too close to real racism, and committing or defending historical genocides against real people. Humanoids look and act too much like real people, so we feel like they are also human people, and at least see them as stand-ins for human people. So that line is problematic when it comes to humanoids (or any sentient species) in role-playing games.

You can’t necessarily escape human ethical or perceptual reasoning: your brain is not built for it, creating the icky conundrum of feelings versus concepts that is part of the problem, and why people who short-circuit the natural process of humanization (by viewing murder goblins as assholes) get a real squick look by others: because most people see people and babies instead of “alien murder goblins”, whether or not that’s “rational” from the perspective of understanding the idea of alien murder goblins.

Yes, you’re not logically wrong if you choose to draw that line, but you’re stepping on a lot of toes that make people rightfully uncomfortable, because you’re rejecting baseline reactions about “babies” and in general beings that look like us. Even if you can ignore those automatic perceptions, and you can conceive of baby goblins in a warren as baby wasps in a hive, others see that viewpoint as disturbing because you’re approaching it from an upsetting ethical reference frame that does an end-run around basic human perceptions and reactions…they may wonder, unfairly or not, what else you might do an end-run around.

There are valid philosophical concerns here about engaging in imaginary genocide against groups of dangerous, sentient predators that look human, if only because human brains (often to our detriment) run on appearance and similarity. Consider that one of the ways racists dehumanize entire groups of people is through triggering subconscious comparison to something already considered “other”–for example, referring to the peoples being dehumanized by using the name of an insect pest…just like I’ve been doing with goblins.

Consider that I’ve been making this very logical, very rational argument for how goblins could be defined as inescapably vicious brutes, but that the design of that argument comes uncomfortably close to modern and historical examples of justifications and arguments for real peoples being falsely and unfairly called inescapably vicious brutes. That is why that kind of argument is rightfully going to make other people at the table uncomfortable regardless of the logic or intent.

It does an end-run around the natural human reaction of humanizing other beings, it uses arguments tied to racism in the real world, and the unspoken question is going to arise: if you use that argument, does it say something about your view of other humans as human? Maybe not. Probably not. But that doesn’t change the concerns. Goblins and orcs can’t ever really be viewed like wasps and trees without stumbling over these problems, no matter how those beings are are described or understood rationally.

Which makes it really hard to make monsters. At the very least human-like monsters.

As humans, we also have to consider the fact we can’t really play beings that are not human, mainly because we can’t think like not-humans. The vast majority of us are not that talented. (No, you can’t, I don’t care what you/your mom/your gaming group/your focus group/etc think. You are not part of the startlingly small group who maybe possibly could.)

When a fictional species is described physically as human-like, even if they are conceptually not human in motivation, is it possible to perceive or portray those humanoids as essentially non-human? Is it possible to see goblin behavior as actually biological and not merely cultural, and to separate that from humanity’s merely cultural and not actually biological behavioral differences? Even if that species is described as actively dangerous to humanity, can we portray them as such without the actual humans at the table feeling that wiping out goblin nests and goblin babies is just too-close-to-home as a stand-in for genocide and baby-killing?

Simplistically and realistically for gaming, because you’re human and interacting with other humans in a casual tabletop gaming activity, the general answer is–and perhaps has to be–“no.”

We can’t truly role-play alien murder goblins without them presenting as human.

Goblins look like people, and they have thinky-thoughts they can communicate to us through understandable speech. They are people in our heads even if a species’ technical description is “Well, they’re like wasps. They’re just assholes.” Even if we intellectually define them as not human in their nature and will eat your face because you have a face.

We cannot help but humanize them, we say “OMG BABY GOBLINS ARE SO CUTE! BRING THEM HOME AND RAISE THEM! BUT WHY NOT?”

This is probably the biggest argument against depicting humanoid monsters in tabletop gaming as inherently “evil” or immoral or incompatible with human existence: regardless of any intellectual understanding otherwise, our brain sees them as human.

The concern is that this could possibly translate into subconscious views of other actual human people as being, fundamentally, “a certain way” because they look a certain way. Because we do that already, and historically this has been, and still is, an exclusively bad way to interpret the world when it comes to other human people.

A human-shaped figure is a human figure, and whatever we do to that figure, we see as being done to a human…unless we dehumanize it. Then we’re dehumanizing a human-shaped figure, and is that something we should do in a game?

Even if the conceptual design of goblins is as dangerous, sentient predators who will not stop just because you try to reason with them that what they are doing is wrong, and even if those beings’ basic neural wiring is described as so different as to be incompatible with (and incapable of truly mirroring or accepting) human norms and peaceful co-existence, we can not actually ignore the surface similarities and our automatic mental reflexes without problematic re-conceptualizing to ignore those similarities.

To be clear, something being problematic is not bad, and does not need to be avoided or banished from experience–art is problematic, life is problematic, everything is problematic–removing problematic things from our consciousness and experience is an endlessly deep rabbit-hole, and at some point you have to build a platform in that rabbit-hole and say “Yes, this is problematic and I understand why, and I’m OK with that.”

Meaning: if you want to have alien murder goblins in your game, no one is stopping you–but your gaming group needs to go into it with your eyes open, understanding the problematic underpinnings of doing so and ready to carefully consider the issue in play. You have to ask yourself: is slaughtering baby goblins in a game of make-believe over a pizza really one of those platforms?

Or do we need to just make goblins into people in our shared tabletop fiction? Do we need to decide they actually are like people, and aren’t born to an inescapable life of simply stinging everything in range of their nests?

I think yes.

Remember, we are talking about humanoid beings in a hobby game, being portrayed and described by humans. We are going to have this argument forever if we don’t just decide humanoid species have cultural and not fundamental psychological differences with humanity and the other humanoid races. So killing babies is killing babies, because they aren’t and shouldn’t be presented as alien murder goblins in this specific venue.

Perhaps you feel this might take something away from the game (“What then is the point of humans in funny hats?”), but as people in a casual hobby where we pretend to raid dungeons and fight bad guys for fun for a few hours a week over snacks, we’re not really set-up to handle the weighty problems of exploring non-human motivations of a social humanoid species while avoiding our own biases as humans. We’re not writing deep social science fiction here. Not as a whole hobby.

So this isn’t really taking anything away that was ever actually there–face it, your humanoids have always been humans-in-funny-hats. All accepting this does is open other avenues of exploration, the same that Star Trek and similar entertainment properties have always relied on to tell stories: using “aliens” as stand-ins for people, to highlight the social problems of the day or ask questions about society and life…or as simply humans with behavioral quirks, just like every other human.

That nest of goblin babies from the goblins who’ve been raiding you? What do Captain Kirk or Picard do when they defeat a Klingon vessel that has attacked the Enterprise? What do the captains of Starfleet do with children and non-combatants? Well, we know they don’t blow them up. We’re all acutely aware as viewers that such would be something the bad guy does and would ‘justify’ in a demanding monologue to the heroic opposing crew, and we would know that in doing so they have crossed a moral bright line.

Because those goblins are people.

Which is what inclusivity and diversity strive to teach: humans are humans are humans. We see and internalize things as humans, even not-remotely-human things (like office ferns and snakes and tigers and goldfish and stuffed animals and robot vacuums). We conceptualize them as human with human personalities and motivations and behaviors, and attach feelings to them. We view them as people, we treat them as people, and so how we view and treat them in fiction (and in the rules-behind-the-fiction) says something about how we view and treat people, or more-to-the-point, how we should view and treat people.

You love your tree-hugging elf character because you recognize they are just like you despite the pale skin and pointy ears, and you see your always-angry half-orc character as a person just like you, despite the drooling tusks and gray-green skin, because humans are humans are humans. You don’t perceive them as not-human.

Making this the best way to deal with humanoids in D&D. It is the best concept to embrace for them, because it plays on our existing mental structures regarding visual perceptions and our proclivity for humanization–it celebrates and encourages that different-looking people are just people.

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