Gauging morality

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Moving is tonight.

Tomorrow starts a week in New Orleans.

Now is the time to be distracted.

One of the things that I claimed I was going to talk about when I began this blog was morality in gaming. I don’t mean the morality of gamers at the gaming table, but rather how gaming can have moral content in various ways. For instance, about a year ago, I wrote an article for the Silven Trumpeter about adding moral complexity to your game as a GM. I need to double-check, but I think I still have the electronic rights to it. If I do, I’ll post it here.

Anyway, I have a half-written doctoral thesis on moral epistemology sitting around collecting dust these days. I figure that I should put my academic training to use in some way.

What I am going to talk about right now is lay a bit of groundwork for future discussions by laying out some examples of how different games quantify morality. There are three big options that I’ve run into:

No-scale Alignment
This is the granddaddy of moral systems. Whether it is the Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic trichotomy of early D&D, the 9-position map of the current system, or one of various offshoots, these methods have a few things in common. First, they are primarily used for mapping morality – they are descriptive in the sense that they indicate an individual’s moral position. They have few, if any, tools for creating or managing interaction between a character’s morality and elements of the larger game system.

Single-scale Morality
Morality in this system takes on a single value (sometimes 0-10 or 0-100). Humanity in Vampire the Masquerade is one such version of this. Arguably, so is Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity, Aberrant’s Taint, and the old FASERIP Marvel Super Heroes’ Karma. Usually, but not always, there is a threshold below which a character becomes unplayable: your vampire succumbs to the Beast or your investigator becomes one with the straightjacket or whatever. The number attached to morality in these games usually has a good deal of interaction with the game system. In Vampire, humanity determined – among other things – how well you could function during the day. In MSH, Karma acted as both experience and as spendable currency to boost effectiveness of your character. In Aberrant, Taint can be used to buy abilities more cheaply… and higher taint inhibits your ability to deal with normal people. A single-scale morality system is typically fairly simple – characters tend to be rated according to the same criteria. This could lead to some problems, such as the fact that all Karma in MSH was lost if you killed someone… which made playing characters like the Punisher or Wolverine problematic.

Multi-scale Virtues
Multi-scale virtue systems are similar to single-scale morality systems, except that they have ratings across a number of virtues. Exalted, for instance, uses Compassion, Conviction, Temperence, and Valor – each of which is rated on a scale from one to five. Unknown Armies uses a 5-scale Madness Meter. Like a single-scale morality system, these systems typically interact with the rest of the game mechanics. They are typically a bit more complex than single-scale systems. Also, a peculiarity of these systems is that it isn’t always good to have high values in all ratings. An Exalted character with a 5 in any virtue is, essentially, insane.

Some games use multiple systems. Vampire, for instance, uses both single-scale morality and multi-scale virtues.

At this point, I am just describing the major options that I’ve seen. I’m sure there are others.



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