D&D 5E About Morally Correct Outcomes in D&D Adventures [+]

Emoshin

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
This is a + thread 🙏

The intent of this + thread is to offer a psychologically-safe and efficient and effective option to discuss the basic premise described below.

By participating in this thread, please make positive contributions to the premise. If you don't agree with the below premise, that's totally valid. Just asking you to refrain from arguing about that here in this thread.

Last but not least, due to the sensitive nature of this topic, please don't make assertions about other people or their games or their moral code.

An insight from a small and humble poll

When asked "Which of these endgames do you like to see in every WoTC 5E adventure as written?", these have been among the popular answers:
  • At least one heroically "good" ending (PC can achieve a morally correct outcome)
  • And I am good with [2 or more] possible endings examined & explored in the adventure as written
While not a scientifically accurate representation of the entire D&D 5E community, this poll may suggest that a significant* number of D&D 5E players prefer each WoTC 5E published adventure as-written to examine and explore a number of suggested endings, one of which should have a "good" / morally correct outcome.

This + thread treats this idea as an "invitation" to engage in some hypotheticals...

* albeit an estimated percentage is not possible to assert without robust data

But wait, what is heroically "good" and "morally correct" anyway?

When we run or (re)write adventures for our own group, chatGPT says:
the specific setting and narrative created by the Dungeon Master may include their own laws and consequences for [certain] actions. Additionally, it is important to consider the social contract of the players at the table and what actions are considered acceptable within their game.

And what if you are a writer at WoTC? If tasked with including a "good" ending with every adventure, how do you navigate the issue of every gaming table having different expectations and moral codes in the fiction?

This reminds me of a book called "How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question" by Michael Schur. The author seemed to be in a somewhat analogous situation, trying to define good and bad in the fiction for the TV show "The Good Place". Here's an excerpt:
The initial idea behind The Good Place was that a “bad” woman, who had lived a selfish and somewhat callous life, is admitted to an afterlife paradise due to a clerical error and finds herself ticketed for an idyllic eternity alongside the very best people who ever lived — people who’d spent their time removing landmines and eradicating poverty, whereas she’d spent her life littering, lying to everyone, and remorselessly selling fake medicine to frightened seniors. Scared she’s going to be discovered, she decides to try to become a “good” person in order to earn her spot.

I thought that was a fun idea, but I also quickly realized I had no idea what it really meant to be “good” or “bad.” I could describe actions as “good” or “bad”—
sharing good​
murder bad​
helping friends good​
punching friends in the face for no reason bad​
—but what was underlying those behaviors?

What’s an all-encompassing, unifying theory that explains “good” or “bad” people? I got lost trying to find it—which is what led me to moral philosophy, which then led me to producing the show, which eventually led me to writing a book where I spend twenty-two pages trying to explain why it’s not cool to randomly coldcock your buddy.

Now I have zilch experience at moral philosophy, so I found this book very interesting. For example, it describes The Trolley Problem -- in essence, is it OK to cause the death of one person in order to prevent a bunch of other people from not dying? And then goes about explaining ways of approaching this thought experiment.

The Trolley Problem reminds me of potential situations in D&D too, such as: is it "good" or "evil" to extrajudicially murder a handful of brainwashed cultists who are actively trying to summon the elder god from destroying the entire city full of innocent people? You may have your own, even trickier, example from a previous game.

One possibility is, since the fiction is never set in stone, the author could attempt to avoid writing the kind of story that expressly puts the PCs in morally ambiguous situations.

Another possibility is when the author writes the adventure story that sets up morally challenging scenario, but not really provide any suggested guidance of good and bad, which may obfuscate understanding of what exactly is the heroically "good" / morally correct outcome that some D&D gamers prefer to see in the adventure as written.

OK, what if...?

Hypothetically, what if every WoTC 5E adventure as-written examined & explored 2 or more suggested endings, including at least one heroically "good" ending where the PCs can achieve a morally correct outcome?

How would that affect your game?

On the flip side, if you worked at WoTC and were tasked with the above, how would you approach it? What kind of moral code/framework you would you draw from?


EDIT: updated the + section for clarity
 
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OK, what if...?

Hypothetically, what if every WoTC 5E adventure as-written examined & explored 2 or more suggested endings, including at least one heroically "good" ending where the PCs can achieve a morally correct outcome?

How would that affect your game?

On the flip side, if you worked at WoTC and were tasked with the above, how would you approach it? What kind of moral code/framework you would you draw from?
How would it affect my game? Very little. Players make choices based on available information and their own moral compass, consideration of their character's role, and emotional needs at the time. Some days you just want to stab people, some days you want to save the princess and stab the villian. There just needs to be enough information of all the moving parts for the players to make emotionally satisfying conclusions.

If I was a writer? Well, I wouldn't be one for long, it seems, because I wouldn't write for two specific endings. I would write for one ending I deemed most likely, but present enough information of all the moving parts for the players for them to find their own conclusions. The moral framework would be my own, mostly summarized as "be kind, and don't be a dick." Any kind of moral conundrum would probably be the ending assisting the player's choice of two lesser evils while still contributing to the greater good. A not in an Ozymandias / Watchmen manner. Great story, less than great game.

A big thing is what kind of adventure it is. If it is supposed to be an emotionally draining, cathartic experience I draw on plays like Terra Nova, All My Sons, or Goodnight, Mother. If it is more intriguing, then St. Nicholas, The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime. The focus of the conflict strongly implies the most likely ending.
 

aco175

Legend
I think it will be hard for Wizards to tell everyone what the 'good' thing is. They are saying one thing and moving in another direction.

My group does not have any ambiguity in killing orc babies if the orcs are evil. If they came across a good set of orcs, they would likely act differently. When I write adventures, I generally only present situations and let the players decide how to act. My players tend to play good alignments and act a certain way, but I have been surprised on what I thought would happen is not what they chose.

I would be ok if published adventures had some sort of objective outcome the author intended. I think the general outcome is listed someplace, like rescue the child or stop the giants from attacking the village. This usually involves killing the monsters, but an author may think differently. They can be a what if section for further adventures if something else happens, but this takes up page count and may not be needed.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
And what if you are a writer at WoTC? If tasked with including a "good" ending with every adventure, how do you navigate the issue of every gaming table having different expectations and moral codes in the fiction?
See below...
OK, what if...?

Hypothetically, what if every WoTC 5E adventure as-written examined & explored 2 or more suggested endings, including at least one heroically "good" ending where the PCs can achieve a morally correct outcome?

How would that affect your game?
Short answer: it wouldn't in play. As DM, write-ups on more than one possible ending might help answer a few "what-ifs" for when - not if! - the players do something unexpected.
On the flip side, if you worked at WoTC and were tasked with the above, how would you approach it?
This ties in with the other question above, and the answer is the same: all I could do is just write what I'm gonna write, but make sure to account for the possibilities of different endings/outcomes. Why? Because I'd be writing in the full knowledge that whatever I-as-author might have in mind* is very unlikely to play out at any given table; and if you've ever run the same adventure for two different groups of players you'll have seen this in real-time: no two groups are the same. :)

* - unless the adventure is set up as a hard-line railroad that can only end one way, but I wouldn't be the one writing that adventure.
What kind of moral code/framework you would you draw from?
Nothing specific. The default ending would almost certainly be one where the PCs win and maybe in/by so doing become celebrated heroes, as that's the usual expectation; but I'd try to at least nod to other outcomes e.g. if the PCs fail, or if they decide to join the enemy, or if they just bail on the whole thing.

One thing I would very intentionally avoid, though, would be any appearance of trying to moralize or preach to the DM in hopes that such would be (intentionally or otherwise) passed on to the players during play. Why? Because I'd never want to buy or run such an adventure, and I'm not about to write something I wouldn't want to run. :)


p.s. I must say these threads are proving very useful to me in one regard: I'm currently in process of writing up some adventures, and there's lots of food for thought to be found here.
 

Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
I feel like this discussion needs some context... which unfortunately is going to seriously cut it's knees off.

There's no one moral identity that people ascribe to, entirely. So any attempt at creating a moral/heroic outcome is going to have to focus on specific aspects that will leave people hanging in other ways.

Like how destroying the Death Star in Return of the Jedi was a big hero moment that most people agree is entirely moral... but the consequences of which would wipe out the Ewoks and anyone living on Endor. For a Consequentialist, you've just traded the Rebel Alliance's stronghold (open military target) for a boatload of bystander civilians uninvolved in the ongoing war between the Empire and Rebellion.

So a massive ecological disaster compounded by a war crime on a planetary scale as "Collateral Damage".

Pretty much every moral person uses a combination of different moral philosophies to define themself. For some things it's the outcome that matters. For others there's hard-lines on what is or isn't acceptable. And a whole lot of grey area in the middle (especially for anyone they care about on a personal level).

So writing a moral ending is always going to be difficult not only based on the specific moral framework of a given author, but the moral framework of each player, and Narrator, at a given table.
 

Emoshin

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
I feel like this discussion needs some context... which unfortunately is going to seriously cut it's knees off.
I am not too familiar with that expression, but this is a safe place to discuss, as long as it's part of the +++++ and I think your points are valid! So no worries and all good on my end!
 

Irlo

Hero
For me, it would be more useful for published adventures to suggest several potential end-states and describe how individuals and factions in the fictional world would perceive the means and the end results of the adventurers' efforts. It would not be useful for me at all for the author to present their own moral assessments.
 

Cruentus

Adventurer
For me, it would be more useful for published adventures to suggest several potential end-states and describe how individuals and factions in the fictional world would perceive the means and the end results of the adventurers' efforts. It would not be useful for me at all for the author to present their own moral assessments.
Yes, this. What I want from an adventure/module is a clear "story" that is internally consistent, externally consistent (within its game world or framework), and has a clear purpose: what is the party being asked to do/volunteering to do.

Within that clear purpose and stated goal, then it would be helpful to have some sidebars about going off the beaten path, but the written ending should flow from the original goal of the adventure.

The biggest challenge is usually how to accommodate for different playstyles. It can be almost impossible for a writer to cover every base that a party might do (I'm still surprised by the choices my parties make, and I've been playing with them for 40+ years). So, to sum up: have a clear goal/beginning; several avenues to achieve the stated goal of the adventure; have the ending, assuming all goes well (i.e. 'follows the script'), and then several 'what ifs' and their consequences.
 

aco175

Legend
I recall a few adventures I played in where there was a situation and the PCs needed to do several things to guarantee success, but they had a sliding scale of success if they only completed a few of them. I recall one where a village was under threat (may have been Isle of Dread) and the PCs could help fortify the village, gather supplies from the wrecked ship, make allies with the local tribes, scot the region, etc... The adventure gave certain bonuses for completion of each side quest when the village was finally attacked.

I'm not sure if the PCs were penalized more than just not getting the points for completing each side quest, but there could be problems that would hinder the adventure if the PCs failed something.

I'm not quite sure how this ties into the discussion. I like the idea of several avenues for the players to decide from. Maybe there is a option to deal with orcs and try to get them to help. Some groups may not take that quest and try to dam the river instead, or fight the orcs to keep them from joining the other side. There can be many options, but that makes the author write a bunch that might be in play or makes the DM have to juggle everything.
 

Clint_L

Hero
I like moral dilemmas in stories. I do not like having the author tell me what the "correct" interpretation of those stories is.

Similarly, I want D&D adventures that tell stories that allow for complex character interactions, but the solution to those interactions and the interpretation of them should be left to each group.

I guess I am unclear on what OP is suggesting. Would this be something like having the conclusion of the adventure list different outcomes and sort them by alignment? e.g. the "Lawful Good Ending," the "Chaotic Neutral Ending," etc.?
 
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