Like every person in the world, I have my own opinions regarding politics and philosophies. Whether it be believing that the best way to govern the world is an A.I that decides everything, or saying humans are needed to manage the country, or on another topic I might follow a certain philosophy thinking it is the best thing ever.

When I am a player it is not a problem; however when I am the gamemaster I am in control of the entire world. This gives me the power to paint anyone I wish as good or evil. I could give spiked black armor to any group representing a philosophy I believe to be wrong.

Of course, I am self aware enough to not to go that far but previously I painted elves as unreasonable people that are against civilization in favour of preserving forests whilst people starve because I had some bad experiences with environmentalists.

After noticing this I thought I would ask here. How can i catch myself straw manning an issue in my game world?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm confused. Did real life Elves complain because you were strawmanning them? \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 14:10
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Related, though talking about race rather than philosophy: How can GMs make their game worlds more inclusive? \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 14:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you had player pushback about things you've done? I'm not currently seeing a problem here. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 15:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ >looks at top of page< nope, not Philosophy \$\endgroup\$
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 1:16

8 Answers 8


Go out of your way to understand the other side.

The best answer is to go out of your way to understand the other side. Before putting something into your game world, look into it a little. Remember most topics that merit this concern have real, rational people that believe the opposing view. They may actually be wrong, but they have a reason for their belief.

If you understand their reasoning, even if you still disagree, it easy to avoid subconsciously creating a straw-man when you understand their point of view.

If you cannot research their point of view, at least try to be sympathetic to the other side and pause and think about why someone might believe it.

At a minimum, avoid extremes.

The straw man fallacy can be nuanced and it is easy to engage in it without realizing it. However, the worst and most egregious examples tend to involve giving the other side an extreme belief that goes far beyond what any rational person on the other side would advocate.

For example, many environmentalists believe we have to be willing to accept some discomfort and give up some economic advantages for the sake of preserving the environment. Some people might disagree, but that is a rational and reasonable point of view. Very few environmentalists would argue that we should let people starve and most of those are considered extremists by other environmentalists.

If you avoid the extremes, then even if you engage in a straw man fallacy, you will still probably avoid ones that are completely unrealistic or offensive.

While more description than advice, the tvtropes article on this topic may be useful.

You can side-step the issue.

People come to role playing for lots of reasons. It is certainly possible to use an RPG as a meditative exploration of a deep part of life or philosophy.

But it doesn't have to be. If you don't want to engage in that as a GM or you are really worried about messing it up, you can side-step the issue by avoiding that kind of depth. You will encounter few philosophical concerns or worries of this nature in games focused on rescuing towns from the monster of the week.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For what it's worth, these are not terrible ideas in real life too. Understanding the other side is critical to preventing yourself from being deceived by group think. Extremes prevent you from holding conversations with people because they're so distracting you just fight over those. And side stepping the issues is something you often have to do in work and social environments so you can be productive. These are great for gaming, too, but they're really just general LPTs. \$\endgroup\$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 1:02

Avoid Monoliths, Show 3+ Variations

When you have some sort of belief in a setting, you can make it come off as Unambiguously Bad I Say So if you make it so that all believers possess some sort of trait/behaviour/etc. that players, especially players sympathetic to the belief, find deeply objectionable. A way to avoid that is to make sure that for each one big umbrella belief, there are at least three interpretations, sub-factions or other sub-groupings. And make sure all of them are visible.

Why three?

  • First, because making more for each broad belief is hard, so likely a lot of the times the count will top off at three.
  • Second, because having three (or more) allows you to, with minimal effort, avoid making them look like they're lying on a monodimensional spectrum (because beliefs and politics are effectively always more complex than that).
  • Third, because it allows filling the three common slots that factions take up in games and fiction (the dystopian villains, the regular decent-but-imperfect folks trying to get by and possibly caught in the crossfire, and the eutopian heroes).

On a personal scale, you can also think of a technique of three representatives:

  1. one that embraces the archetype of the faction and defends it wholeheartedly,
  2. one which rejects it and often objects to being reduced to the unifying simplified image,
  3. and one which fits some expectations and defies others but probably isn't all that self-conscious on the topic in the first place.

For an example of three ways a belief can work out and the corresponding three factions, consider your 'AIs should rule humanity' belief. Make three factions that were founded around those beliefs and managed to achieve something.

  • One ended up being a nice if a bit bland place where people only influence politics indirectly through algorithmic questionnaires and the help of their AI assistants, while the 'policy AIs' are making the big decisions based on such feedback (something like the European Union in Transhuman Space, only much more so).
  • One ended up being a dystopia where the AIs turned out to be as tyrannical as humans, and possibly as or even more irrational too, turning into something like Alpha Complex or Reign of Steel on their territory (but engaged in a DPRK-like MAD stand-off with the rest of the world so as to avoid being toppled from the outside).
  • And the third ended up ruled by self-improving algorithms which definitely strengthened the economy and made quality of life better, but are rather opaque to humans and often make very weird requests and give counterintuitive policy advice that they cannot explain to mere humans - and humans nonetheless go with that because they are willing to take some unknowability in exchange for better quality of life.

Different Worlds

Your game is set in a fantasy world where things are very different from the world we live in. Beliefs that are false here might be true there; beliefs that are true here might be false there. Beliefs that are important here might be irrelevant there.

As one example, I think Twitter is pretty awful. This has never come up in a D&D game that I have run. None of my D&D campaign settings includes Twitter as an element.

One example you've given is the belief that:

the best way to govern the world is an A.I that decides everything

and happily I think this is similar to my Twitter belief: unless you're running a very strange campaign, it's unlikely that this will ever come up.

Another example you've given is that of environmentalism. This might come up in your game, but the good news is that this, too, mostly depends on your worldbuilding.

  • Maybe in one world it's critically important to avoid building cities, because the presence of large quantities of concrete and steel allows demons from the Urban Dimension to open portals to our reality.
  • Maybe in a different world, it's the forests that are the threat, and keeping most of the population in cities is the only way to keep them safe from the dire wildebeests.
  • Maybe in a third world, the elves want to preserve forests while people starve, but it turns out that people can just take up druidcraft and cast goodberry a lot, so farming isn't necessary.

If you find that your personal beliefs are bleeding into your game, consider doing more worldbuilding, so that your world becomes weird enough that your personal beliefs stop being relevant.


I think I know what you're looking for and worried about here. It's not so much that you're worried about being unfair to the fictional elves, it's that you're worried about unwittingly presenting stereotyped examples of real world ideas (i.e., the eco-fanatic elves) or superficial, cartoonish examples of fictional ideas (i.e., the AI government factions.)

I hope I've summarized that correctly. If so, I share your concern, and I spent a long time thinking about these issues for my previous game; and I am in a game that touches very heavily on these issues, too.

First, A Caveat

Little of what I've learned really applies to hard core, mustache-twirling bad guys. The local band of beholders, the Borg-like AI supremacists, the doomsday cult of Tharizdun, the Lich-Legion of Orcus... none of these guys really merit fair treatment.

They deserve characterization and motivation, but not fair treatment.

The Fundamental Unit Of Interaction Is...

...the character. Everything starts and ends with individual characters. Almost every scene in most RPGs is individual or small groups of PCs and NPCs. All social, political, and religious groups are made of individuals.

When I concentrated on trying to portray NPCs as individuals who belong to X, rather than minions of X or servants of X or whatever, it got easier. Individuals have different reasons for and ways of doing things, even when they're doing roughly the same thing.

Now, it is a herculean task to truly individualize and personalize each minor NPC. So at times, I resorted to just keeping track of things by numbers: "Well, the last two elves they met were hard core isolationist jerks, so I should really make this one friendlier." I often wouldn't even bother coming up with a reason why-- I would just note them on my NPC spreadsheet, and if they became recurring characters, I would back-rationalize something later.

In a similar vein, people are people no matter what else is true of them. Social movements are all going to be made of roughly the same proportion of heroes, saints, jerks, villains, and lumps who belong because their parents did. This applied (I sincerely hope) to the social groups in my campaign that I tended to agree with and expected the PCs to ally with, as well as those I expected to be generally adversarial.

Both Individuals And Social Groups Have Histories

But this works in different ways. The history of an individual can often inform why they join the groups they do. Sometimes these reasons are good, ("I have carefully considered the options, and these guys sound right to me,") and sometimes they are bad ("Dad was a member," "This will really piss off Mom," "A member of that other group cheated me at cards once, so screw them!") But this helps to focus on the NPCs as individuals.

The history of a group, though, is a little different. Groups have institutional memories that sometimes function like a subconscious-- a long history of abuse (which is almost cliche except for how much of real world history it explains) can shape a group profoundly, and have members acting in habitual ways that most have little conscious understanding of. Or a history of scarcity, or a history of some recurring environmental problem, etc.

My isolationist jerkwad elves were that way because of their history; my compulsive wandering nomads were that way because of their history; my doomsday cultists (not actual villains) were that way because of things they believed would happen based on history.

As GM, You Decide What Is True And Untrue

This is the big one, for me, and the more fantastic or science fictional your game, the more true it is. When you design (or adapt) your campaign world you are, in a literal sense, deciding what is true and false and who is right and wrong.

The single most useful thing I think I did in my game was to sit down in the design phase and write my basic bible: This is what actually happened and why the world is what it is. Then when designing my factions and group, I resolutely refused to give any of them a monopoly on truth-- they all had some things they believed that were true, some things that were wrong, and some things that started right and got corrupted over time.

This made it much harder for me to put my thumb down too hard on the scale of any one of my social groups, if I knew precisely and in advance what things they were just completely wrong about.

This was a high fantasy game, of course, which made this much easier.

A Final Postscript

This last does not directly address your question, but it is adjacent and I think it's useful. It approaches the level of an rpg stack cliche to bring up a Session Zero approach.

But here, I think it can be useful.

The reason is that many players are primed (by previous games or by computer games) to think in terms of black and white, us and them, good guys and bad guys. That's not necessarily a bad thing-- sometimes you just want to work out some aggro on some conveniently contrived mushroom minions of Zuggtmoy.

But if you're running something a little more nuanced, it doesn't hurt to be up front and overt about this when preparing your campaign.


The advice for authors, which seems as if it would work for GM's, is to back away from any preaching. Don't link fantasy elements to real-world social issues, and don't have Important, Wise characters make boring speeches about why philosophy X doesn't work. Instead of trying to show both sides, show neither.

With those elves, humans built a town on the elves' land and the elves want the land back, and human-free. Sure, the elves will replant a forest there, but that's not the point. If you want a town with socialized medicine, it's because it has a big temple to the healing god, but otherwise it isn't better or worse, the taxes are the same, and no one has an opinion about whether this is right or wrong -- it just is. One town has a single state religion, the next has multiple gods, and the last doesn't allow clerics to be in government. But they're all just towns. If one of them is evil, it's because the king is evil, not because system X is more prone to abuse. Some towns mix races, others have sections they each keep to -- no reason, they just do.

In Glen Cook's "Garrett, PI" series, the City of TunFaire doesn't allow carrying swords or crossbows or other heavy weapons in public. That's mostly so he can get into fistfights and be clubbed over the head instead of bloody battles. There isn't a single mention of why that's the rule, or whether it reduces crime or not. No criminals have ever rubbed their hands together and gleefully said "good thing only we have swords". There's nothing for or against the US 2nd amendment anywhere.


In order to understand another side you can answer the following questions:

  • What are the core things the other side values?

    What are the core assumptions the other side makes about how the world or their pet issue works?

    How do the other side perceive themselves?

    How do the other side perceive others?

    When you answered the above, is it the answers the other side would also give, or is it just how you think they are?

That way you can understand how they work. That might be to complicated though, so an alternative is:

Show a good or bad take of the other side at different times, using different characters. This way it makes it look like it's less about the side intrinsically, and more about how the people on the side act.

So for example you could have a side that represent religion, and some of them are zelaous and fanatic and strict, and others are merciful and compassionate.

Then if you want to make it more complicated again you could make it so the zealous fanatic and strict ones actually have a point, and maybe we really do need to 'destroy the demon summoning hell portal in the middle of the city with extreme prejudice and damn the collateral'.

And if you wanna make it super complicated you can make it the same character. As long as there's still some internal consistency in why their acting so differently at different times it can be a cool way to add some depth to them. And it's really cool when the zelaous fanatic suddenly turns out to be forgiving in this one specific circumstance.

The important part is that their underlying reasons for acting how they act holds up.

Also notes that sometime it is okay to have a faction that are just generally unreasonable and difficult to work with. Or even outright evil. It gets really old after a while with all the "well in my world, the undead/orcs/demons can be good guys, and the angels/elves/clerics are bad".

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    – Someone_Evil
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 0:25

Ultimately any belief system a fantasy person in a fantasy world holds probably can't be a strawman, as the people who hold that view in the real world only hold it because of their life experience in this world, not in the fantasy world where they may very well come to different conclusions if they were raised there instead. I think what your question is actually needing to know is how to make belief systems and opinions more nuanced and realistic:

  • Everyone experiences different 'worlds'. Everyone has their own life experience and sees the world differently, having experienced only seen a tiny fraction of the world, but to each person that fraction is the whole world as they understand it. Psychologically everyone lives on a different planet.

  • Everyone thinks they're the good guys. People in their limited life experience has seen a certain amount of every kind of problem, and will believe the problem they've seen or heard about the most is the most important problem in need of solving. (whether or not that problem really exists)

  • People usually aren't as stupid as people who disagree with them perceive them to be. Someone isn't stupid if you can't understand what their reasons are. Everyone knows something someone else doesn't know, so what piece of information (true or not) could someone know that would change their perspective on the issue? Eg. All people are good/bad once you get to know them. The whole world will die if the great tree dies. We are not alone in the universe.

  • Upbringing creates different perspectives. No matter how good or terrible people are treated during their early development, people can get used to anything and can think that treating people terribly is normal behavior because they were treated horribly and are now used to it. Equally if someone was treated like royalty during their childhood, they will perceive that as normal, and see being treated any less than that as a form of abuse.

  • Is the belief actually true? Or partly true? As the creator of the world you get to decide what's true and what's not. Beliefs are often an explanation for something found in the world. This is often thought about the wrong way around, that the explanation is true because the thing is there, rather than the thing is really there, therefore we created an explanation that seems to fit as far as we can tell. The point is that every wrong belief will usually have a grain of truth at it's centre that they think proves their belief.

  • Goals vs Methods. Make clear if an "opposing sides" actually differ on their goals. Too often people can think they're on opposite sides when they actually agree completely in terms of what needs to be achieved. What they differ on is the methods they believe will work in achieve it. Eg. Kindness and reason vs aggression and slurs

  • Priorities vs 'binary caring'. For most people, real world morality is not a series of binary yes or no statements; "I care about this or I don't care at all". In practice morality is more like a numbered list where (whether you've thought about it enough to really understand your own opinion or not) you to decide that some things are (even just slightly) more important than others. Which is more important, keeping fed or keeping warm? Saving everyone for a short time or saving most people for a long time?

  • Beliefs are a consequence of the world and culture people live in. If food is hard to come by it may make perfect sense to a culture that stealing food is punishable by exaggerated violence or death as it can cause people starving to death. If food is cheap and plentiful then harsh punishment would seem absurd because the consequences of that crime in this environment are so low.

  • Demonstrating real world beliefs using fantasy worlds doesn't work. Political stances don't translate well into fantasy stories because you're creating an alternative world where you defined your opinion as true when you created the world rather than making a case for it. The argument you're making is not "this is the right course of action", it's "the world is this way", that your argument would work if we lived in this fantasy realm.

You'll find the most interesting fantasy beliefs emerge naturally once you come up with the living conditions of your fantasy world, a simple way to come up with new beliefs is to look up existing models of human flourishing like "Maslow's Hierarchy" and answer which parts of this chart are effected by differences between the real and your fantasy worlds, and how people would have to change their lifestyles meet each each of those needs there. It's also a good way to find ideas about what to change in a fantasy species, that they're able to meet those needs in a new or alien way, and how that change effects their culture.


Remember your game worlds rules may not be our worlds rules.

The assumptions that underlie your point of view are no longer valid. Ask yourself what assumptions are what I believe founded on, or just alter the underlying principles of the world and think about how they will change things.

What do I mean, perhaps your game world may actually be flat (and it is the round-worlders who are the nuts). Divine right monarchy may work just fine a world where the gods are real and take direct action in the world. Does feudalism stabilize if the lords have actual magical powers, or if they are actually answerable to a god who watches them, or if the farmers need constant expensive protection from monsters. This can even be an opportunity to explore the assumption that underpin your own beliefs.

I often had this problem with religion in games until I really thought about how a world will work if miracles are real, If you have multiple gods who actually intervene in the world, if people can visit the afterlife and come back and tell everyone the rules. What changes when faith healing not only works it is by far the best medicine available. And just as relevant what happens when that society discovers someone can gain the same faith healing power by forgoing contact with metal and living in the woods. What happens when people can actually become tainted and have their minds altered by contact with evil things. What happens when atheists are constantly beset by real demons or what if only atheists are not. What happens in a world where literal gods grant magical powers to the devout, but strident atheists develop a completely different set of magical powers.

Do empires work if you have instantaneous transportation and communication, what if how often your nation is attacked by monsters is directly linked to how powerful your king is or how strong their bloodline claim is. Does the free press hold true when cultists can print pamphlets that when read actually summon demons, or spells that can tell truth from lies exist, or the right words can literally control someone’s mind or of reading the wrong book can literally shatter your mind.

How is morality altered by the scientifically demonstrable soul or actually Evil species exist? How does religion work in a world where number of believers affects how powerful a god is, but doesn't affect how powerful the priests of said god are. Even better how does a a monotheistic nation/religion handle finding out not only are there other gods, but their god has been lying to them and is a relatively low on totem pole of power. Don't forget that there can be many interpretations of the same thing, maybe that last nation immediately fractures in factions with radically different ways of handling it.

Ask yourself how does society and morality change when the sacrifice of an innocent can literally cure hundreds of people from the plague, or if it powers the wards that are the cities only defense from monsters. What if the only defense a kingdom has from monsters relies on most of the population believing lies to function, literally the magic wards only work if enough people blindly believe they work, if everyone understood how they worked they would stop working.

In the end realize that your perspective is built on assumptions, consider how they are altered if you change those assumptions. Not only will it make you a better world builder, but you may find it makes you a better person, because people in this world work under different assumptions too.


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