East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Heroes & Villains


The Keep, (1983, F. Paul Wilson, publ. NEL, 0-450-05455-1, £1.95, 379pp, pb)OK, I’ll start this suggesting you a good book, because … hey, because it’s a good book, and because it’s only right that you can get away from yet another one of my rants with something good.
The book is F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep, a vampire story with a Lovecraftian twist, pitching a Wehrmacht unit against a creature called Molasar, during a long Carpatian winter, in World War Two.
It’s really good.
There was also a movie, directed by Michael Mann, that was quite good but got butchered before distrinution and then sank into oblivion.
But check out the book.

The Keep came to my mind yesterday as I got involved in a conversation in which I was asked if I ever raped a corpse.
Yes, sometimes things get weird hereabouts.

The topic was playing Nazis in a Call of Cthulhu game.
And if you are not into roleplaying games, maybe you are already yawning, bored to death. I understand.
But anyway…
Of course my games feature Nazis – I am an Indiana Jones fan, after all, and Nazis make for good pulp villains. Maybe not as good as undead cannibal pygmies, but a lot more easy to slip into a game or a story. You can have them die horribly in a variety of ways, you can feed them to the dinosaurs or to the piranhas, you can mow them down in large numbers using superscience or a plain old machine gun, and of course if you are into two-fisted action, your characters can kick their asses creatively.


So there, Nazis in my games (and in my stories) are the bad guys.
And I usually get a little uneasy when one of the players goes “Wouldn’t it be cool to play as Nazis?!” because… no, I don’t think it would be cool.

Let’s play some guys that killed six-odd million civilians because they considered them sub-humans.

And this led to the question of playing “evil” characters in roleplaying games in general.
Now, full disclosure: I always considered moral alignments in D&D and similar games absolutely daft. It probably came from being a reader of sword & sorcery before I was a gamer – sword & sorcery often features characters that are morally ambiguous (yes, Elric and Kane and Cugel, I am looking at you!) but that in the end are heroes, they do the right thing. Or fail spectacularly in their evil plots, and that’s the fun bit of the story.


So, screw alignments.
This is the same reason why, honestly, I find most grimdark fiction boring. A lot of it feels like a write-up of Kenny’s Lawful Evil dark-elf warlock/assassin. I can envision good old Kenny, in his mom’s basement, as he snickers and pounds on the keyboard… “and then he kills the child!”
If I want to read stories about complete bastards, I want them to be as funny and glib as Harry Flashman.

But I am digressing. My counterpart in the players-as-Nazis discussion asked me if, as a gamer, had ever played “a corpse-raping evil wizard” or “a true degenerate bastard pirate like Blackbeard”.
I replied that the idea of a fun gaming night as a corpse rapist had never come to me, and I admitted my limitations. Considering gaming should be an exciting and pleasurable experience, it all depends on what gets you excited, I guess.
That sort of killed the conversation dead.

61nP55GRRWL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_But, evil wizards apart, I did play pirates in my time, and I love swashbucklers. As kids we’d go and see movies like, say, Swashbuckler, and then fight endless duels in the courtyard, and as grown ups we all saw Pirate of the Carribean and decided it would be neat to play a game of 50 Fathoms or 7th Sea.
But the idea was never “let’s play degenerate bastards”.
The idea was to be swashbuckling heroes against the evil governor of Antigua or, indeed, the evil degenerate bastard Captain Grimm … or whatever.

But playing the bad guys as proper, irredeemable bad guys?
“Tonight I feel like playing the role of a degenerate bastard!”
What’s wrong with kids today?

Which brings me back to The Keep, a book that taught me to make a firm distinction between Wehrmacht soldiers and SS, and taught me that you can be a decent guy in a German uniform, but not if that uniform is a Nazi uniform.

I realise that my conviction, that players (and readers) want stories about characters that are not only different from what they are, but are also better, in some way, from what they are, is an old-fashioned conviction.
But what can I do, I past the milestone marked fifty, and I still believe heroes are important.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Heroes & Villains

  1. My mum used to have a copy of this in her collection. I never read it, but I spent hours looking at the creepy cover art. (I was a bit weird as a kid).


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