Beyond Alignment: Adding Moral Complexity to your Game

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This article first appeared in the Silven Trumpeter (Vol. 4, Issue 2, June 2006).

Many people play roleplaying games in order to escape from the moral ambiguity of real life. They want to sit down, roll some dice, kill some goblins, take their stuff, and feel good about it. Perhaps the only personal growth that they are interested in for their characters is measured in terms of levels and experience points.

I find this to be a perfectly valid – and often very fun – way to play roleplaying games. In this article, however, I am going to talk about focusing your gameplay on serious moral questions and complicated moral dilemmas. Think about the goblin children that will starve to death now that their parents, mentioned above, are dead. This is not a new idea. People have been engaged in morally-focused roleplaying for decades. They have, however, been doing so without any guidance.

Conventional roleplaying games, such as Dungeons & Dragons and White Wolf’s various games, tend to address morality descriptively, if at all. They may have tags, like an alignment systems or virtue scores. These tags can provide a set of guidelines for roleplaying a person with a particular sort of moral outlook, but they do not in themselves regularly raise serious moral issues.

Recently, a number of small-press roleplaying games have come to print that focus strongly on some sort of moral question. Dust Devils is a game set in the American Old West that focuses upon the question of whether to shoot or to give up the gun. Another Western-themed game, Dogs in the Vineyard, casts the player characters as gun-toting religious lawmen who travel from town to town to set things right. With Great Power… is a super hero roleplaying game with the tag line, “You can save the world, but are you willing to pay the price?” The granddaddy of the indie game scene, Sorcerer, asks the simple question of “What would you do for power?”

These games have mechanics that are specifically designed to bring the moral issues that they are concerned with into play. In Sorcerer, for instance, you summon and bind demons in order to make yourself more powerful. There is no conventional limit on how many demons you can summon and bind, either in play or during character creation. Each time you summon or bind a demon, however, you risk a bit of your humanity.

This article is not designed for players of these games. Instead, I want to focus on how to ask interesting moral questions during gameplay when the game was not designed specifically around such questions.

Before you implement any of the suggestions I put forth here, talk to your players. If you don’t, following the advice in this article might destroy your game. I don’t want that to happen. Do your players want to be tested with morally difficult dilemmas? Are they interested in a game that asks tough questions? Do they want to have to second-guess their actions, or would they be happier killing goblins and taking their stuff?

Creating Moral Dilemmas

When creating a moral dilemma for a game, I try and remain aware of (and avoid the pitfalls of ) cliché and excessive frustration.

Of the two, clichés are easier to identify. Are the player characters in a position where they had to kill a pile of babies, puppies, and/or kittens in order to save the world? If so, you have a cliché. Using clichés may be an easy way to add moral dilemmas, but “easy” is not tantamount to compelling.

Frustration is trickier, insofar as it is necessary in moderation. Any challenge is a sort of frustration, and you want your players to be challenged. The frustration brought about by an intractable moral dilemma, however, can be particularly disheartening. When planning morally-charged situation, think about the frustration level of the dilemma before you use it. How will the dilemma frustrate the players: will it challenge them or will it simply aggravate them? The frustration level of a dilemma can be raised to unacceptable levels when a player realizes that she can’t make a difference, that her choices are irrelevant, that she don’t even have a choice, or that the game master forced her into the situation. If any of these are true, your players won’t find your plans for the game to be fun, and you need new plans.

With those caveats in mind, creating moral dilemmas isn’t difficult. My preferred method of dilemma-creation is to play on the assumptions of both players and characters. This is a simple thing to do, and it is something that many game masters do all the time, even if it is not usually done in a morally-charged context.

In many games, players will assume that a creature described to them as a monster is better off being killed. Similarly, they may assume that attractive and helpless people exist to be assisted and protected. When you spend time describing something in detail, players tend to assume that the thing you are describing is important and that at least some of the details you describe are relevant.

Every character comes with its own set of assumptions. A barbarian from the mountains might be intensely xenophobic, believing that those who were different from him are corrupt. A career soldier might assume that every situation can be solved through the application of straightforward rules. A businessman might assume that everything is for sale and negotiable. Similarly, both players and characters learn to trust certain nonplayer characters, social institutions, and their own abilities and methods.

The idea is not merely to trick the players into having their characters do morally questionable things. Doing so will only run the risk of alienating your players out of frustration. Instead, challenge the moral positions that the players and their characters hold.

How will the xenophobic barbarian react when, after being left for dead by those he trusted, he is nursed back to health and nurtured by someone from an alien culture? What will he do if, after returning to his homeland, he finds that his people are planning a genocidal war against this alien civilization?

How will the rules-bound soldier react when the rules tell her to destroy something she loves, defend something she hates, and defile something she has grown to respect? How will she change when she realizes that her life has been saved by deviating from her rules – or by dumb luck?

What will the mercenary businessman do when he finds that he has grown to care so much about something that he would never sell it? How will he react when his unwillingness to compromise hurts those he has grown to care for?

In addition to challenging a character’s morally-charged assumptions, you can challenge their habits. Consider the habits characters have that generally work out well for them. The barbarian may be usually successful when he charges headlong into battle. The soldier might function by deferring to those who claim authority over her. The businessman might quite effectively make extravagant and false claims when engaged in negotiations. It is often effective to notice these sorts of habits and nurture them. Give players a reason to rely upon them and have their characters develop the habits as worthwhile tools that they will depend upon. Challenges can then be easily constructed to test and refine these habits.

A far less effective, though very tempting, method of introducing moral issues is to introduce some sort of external moral authority and have this authority reprimand the characters for their choices. This forces the characters to either justify their behavior or atone for it. Quests for atonement can be a great deal of fun, but many players will become frustrated by them, particularly if they feel that they were railroaded into performing the act for which they are atoning and did not actually make a poor choice given the circumstances. The realization that you have done something wrong is more significant if you arrive at it yourself. Similarly, the drive to atone is significantly stronger and more meaningful if it is motivated internally.

Also, forcing characters to act in a morally-repugnant fashion is more likely to cause players to become frustrated than it is to engage them. Forcing them into situations where they are faced with an interesting moral choice, however, can be a lot of fun. As a player, I hate mind-control and paralysis, as they rob me of my ability to play my character. However, if the game master in a campaign I was playing set-up a situation in which I was mind-controlled into attacking my companions, but the mindcontrol wore off just as I was about to land a fatal blow on a companion with whom I had an intense rivalry, I would think that was terrific. I would be faced with a great moral dilemma: do I turn aside the blow now that I am no longer under
another’s control or do I pretend that the control has lingered and slay my rival?

Setting out to trick your players into acting in a way that they will be sorry for later is only reliably effective when the players can look back and honestly say that their characters ought to have known better. For instance, when a band of intrepid adventurers happens along a fearful dryad who is seeking to escape a horrible monster, the adventurers might well hunt down the monster to slay it. When it turns out that the so-called monster is a civilized, anthropomorphic beaver, they should probably consider the tool belt it wears or the enormous dam, well-crafted out of polished wood, that it comes out of, and realize that the dryad might have been a bit biased in describing it in horrific terms. If they simply charge in and slay the beaverman, then that is their choice, and they will have to live with it.

Creating Morally Interesting Characters

The most morally interesting characters are often those with deep-seated but subtle moral flaws. To be effective, such flaws ought not to be simply false moral principles to which a character adheres. If they are, a player can replace them as soon as they come under scrutiny. Instead, these flaws should be deeply-ingrained habits of character. An effectively-prejudiced barbarian character isn’t one who merely holds the statement, “elves are flighty, worthless cowards” to be true. This could be easily shown to be false, given enough exposure to dedicated and brave elves. Instead, an effectively-prejudiced barbarian might be one who mocks others by calling them elves, spits whenever he sees an elf, is unable to take an elf ’s competence seriously, and would expect to die if his life depended on elves.

Our other two examples are also easy to put into terms of habits. The rules-following soldier doesn’t necessarily think that every command from her superior is the right thing to do. Instead, she doesn’t make decisions on her own well. If she doesn’t have a rule that is applicable to the situation, she may flounder and hesitate out of uncertainty. Her rules-following might stem from a deep-seated insecurity about her own decision-making capabilities. She may also have a fear of taking responsibility for her own actions. If she follows rules she can blame any wrongdoings on the rules themselves, or whoever it was who gave her those instructions.

Similarly, it isn’t simply that the mercenary businessman believes that everything has a monetary value. He lives his life in such a way that, for him, everything does. Even if he doesn’t do so consciously, he implicitly assigns monetary values to relationships, people, and tasks of all sorts.Perhaps he does this because he finds himself incapable of caring about things unless they are put into monetary terms. He might be unable to form deep emotional connections to others. To him, love might mean nothing more than that he wouldn’t trade one he loved for a pile of treasure.

Developing moral flaws as habits embedded into a character’s psyche works well for both player characters and many nonplayer characters. There is a particular type of non-player character that demands special mention, however. This is the moral authority. Most moral authorities are normal people. They may be priests, mentors, or monarchs. What makes them moral authorities is often that they speak with the voice of experience. These characters might be just as internally flawed as any of those detailed above. The difference is that they understand their flaws and attempt to compensate for them.

When portraying a moral authority it is important to remember not to take away the players’ moral choices. Answering moral questions with a moral authority can shape the characters actions such that they are no longer acting based upon their own conscience, but are, rather, acting in accordance with what they have been told is good.

This is a particularly tricky thing to avoid when you are portraying moral authorities who are not mere mortals. It is possible to portray an angel or a similar character as something other than a one-dimensional caricature. In Dungeons & Dragons, the alignment system makes this particularly easy: there is no pure good. Celestial entities are either lawful good, neutral good, or chaotic good. These three moral outlooks can be distinguished by their flaws. The lawful good outlook might focus too much on justice, ignoring concern for relationships or individual liberty. The neutral good outlook might care deeply about individuals, but do so at the expense of both justice and freedom. The chaotic good outlook might focus upon protecting individual rights at the expense of other concerns. These dichotomies can be generalized to hold true independent of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system by realizing that instituting priorities into a moral agenda will create corresponding blind spots. In a game that encourages players to think hard about moral questions, even the angels should not be completely above reproach. In fact, providing the player characters with a reason to doubt the moral wisdom of someone who they have considered a moral authority could be a great opportunity for roleplaying moral growth.

Creating a Morally Complex Game

There aren’t any secret tricks that you need to learn to put these tools into practice. Given interested players, morally charged situations, and morally interesting characters, your gameplay will naturally begin to address these sorts of issues.

If you want to focus your game strongly on a particular moral question or issue, however, there is more to be said. In addition to designing morally-interesting characters, you may want to create large-scale social institutions that accentuate some of the themes you wish to address. You might also want to institute some rule modifications that bring the focus of gameplay onto the issues you want to be highlighted. It might be worthwhile to look toward some of the indie games that I mentioned earlier for guidance in this respect.



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