Today on The Mad Adventurers Society site, I spoke about about domestic animals and the purposes they might serve in a community, including the materials that can be cultivated, extracted or harvested from them, living or dead. Instinctively I avoided addressing the question of whether such harvesting – whether non-fatal products such as wool, milk, eggs, honey, silk or manure, or products harvested from a slaughtered creature, such as meat, bone, horn or leather – is moral or even necessary, particularly when alternatives might be available.
I'm not sure whether I dodged that question in case I was accused of hypocrisy (I'm not a vegan yet, though I am a vegetarian making a concerted effort to avoid most animal products when I can) or to avoid seeming preachy. Perhaps it's a natural product of my British upbringing to avoid confronting other people's moral stances. I'm not sure. I tend to be a little cagey when talking about my reasons for choosing to become a vegetarian for similar reasons, parts of society want to paint vegans and vegetarians as being arrogant and smug within their little bubble of moral superiority.
This isn't about scoring points or making you feel bad, so relax. At the end of the day, deciding to stop eating meat or do without animal products entirely has to be something you decide to do yourself, not something you're bullied into. What I want to talk about right now is re-examining social norms in a fantasy setting, particularly in terms of sapient, humanoid creatures and how they treat lifeforms of animal intelligence.
What can we do differently?
Here's the thing, we can't always apply western standards of behaviour or morality to our campaign settings. “That's how we've always done it” isn't a good enough excuse for not thinking about how we can make things better or what we could do differently.
Our worlds of fantasy and fiction are not earth, so why do we have to adhere to earth-like standards of behaviour or morality in these worlds? If we can acknowledge that there are gods walking amongst the populace, and wizards capable of defying the laws of physics with their magic, why should anything else be rooted in how things work in our society?
Whilst we humans have the benefit of being the only sapient species on earth, many fantasy realms have dozens of sapient species, capable of self-awareness, of expressing feelings of joy, hope, pain and fear. When you're no longer the only sentient species in the world, do your feelings about your relationship with the world reflect that? Can you see other species – whether or not they've shown sentience – as inferior to your own, only there to serve your needs?
Eating meat or using animal products doesn't make sense for many individuals, communities or cultures within fantasy settings. Even if such abilities aren't available to everyone, in a high fantasy world there are enough spell casters able to converse with animals, or at least make an empathic connection with other creatures that there would be a large subsection of society uncomfortable about the idea of consuming something that they know feels pain, feels fear and doesn't want to die.
Even if there is an argument that most commoners will not experience this kind of discomfort, or not learn of it from those that do experience, what about cultures or individuals that live in some form of harmony with nature, such as elves, druid- or ranger-led communities, or non-urban societies? The farming of domestic animals creates a drastic imbalance in the natural ecosystem, destroying natural habitats, limiting food supplies, and fouling water sources. It is unlikely a culture rooted in respecting and safeguarding the natural balance would rely on animal agriculture.
Hunting animals would likely be restricted in nature-respecting societies in order not to disrupt the food chain, depriving predators or reducing the natural population to the point where it can't recover. If it is necessary for such communities to consume meat (and what's to say that any race in a fantasy game needs to eat meat at all?), it is likely such creatures would be carefully chosen because of age, infirmity or injury, to ensure the continuation of the species or to mercifully end a creature's pain.
What's the point?
So, what's the point of this mini rant? What I want you to do is consider the place of animal products in your campaign, to examine whether eating meat, slaughtering living creatures or exploiting animal products or labour makes sense within your game? Does every society have to eat meat (especially in the sort of quantities that have become normal in modern western society)? Is the druid happy to benefit from the exploitation of animal labour by letting horses carry them or their belongings? If the norms of western society are no longer relevant in fantasy, why not create a little more variety in your world?
If you do want to know more about vegetarianism or veganism, and some of the implications of using animal products, I recommend checking out the Vegan Society, watching documentaries such as Earthlings and Cowspiracy (both address some hard-hitting truths in the ethical and environmental issues), and you can find all manner of interesting literature, blogs and videos with minimal effort. I'm happy to converse with you about any points I brought up in this article so don't be shy.
Image Source: Animal Recovery Mission/Facebook