Moral Choices in RPGs

MGibster

Legend
would boot a player for that stunt (trying to wreck the football). The time to make a moral choice is when the job is offered, not after the PCs have invested time and risk. At that point,. the football was the property of the group, and the PC had no right to deprive the others of their share.
I try to find a balance between allowing the PCs freedom and making sure everyone is having fun. Sometimes I fail at maintaining that balance. As a GM, one of the things I need to be willing to do is call a time out and talk to the player about the ramifications of their character's actions. Why did the PC think the home city was just as bad as genocidal mutants or slaver cyborgs? Why didn't he ever bring up those concerns before finding the NF? Does he understand that the city will most likely be destroyed without the NF?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I didn't pitch the campaign that way and the individual PC's actions were completely unexpected by all of us. For some reason, one of the PCs got it into their head that their home city was just as bad as the mutant city to the west and the cyborg city to the east who had joined forces to wipe their home city out. And while the home city wasn't exactly a shining beacon on the hill, the mutants to the west wanted to commit genocide and the cyborgs to the east wanted to enslave everyone. So a fight broke out when one of the PCs tried to destroy the nuclear football that belonged to the last president of the United States. During the fight, one of the other PCs thought it was a good idea to start lobbing grenades into melee. This ended up destroying the nuclear football, the PC who started it was killed, and at the end of the campaign the city was wiped out by the combined forces of the mutants and cyborgs. It wasn't a total loss though, the PCs managed to remove a world wide threat at the end. It just cost them their home and the 10,000 people who lived there.
That's both a good story, and much, much less fun for me.

For the past four years, I haven't played in a group where PvP (including stealing) hasn't been agreed to be off the table in Session 0, and enforced by the DM. If it wasn't pitched was a morally grey game where players may make choices that would estrange them from each other to the point of death, there would be a hard stop right then and there in the session and a serious discussion.

Again, not saying it can't be fun, just that it's something I actively avoid in my gaming. That's why I put so much emphasis about Session 0 to work out how to run a hard choices game like that while still avoiding inter-player drama.
 

I try to find a balance between allowing the PCs freedom and making sure everyone is having fun. Sometimes I fail at maintaining that balance. As a GM, one of the things I need to be willing to do is call a time out and talk to the player about the ramifications of their character's actions. Why did the PC think the home city was just as bad as genocidal mutants or slaver cyborgs? Why didn't he ever bring up those concerns before finding the NF? Does he understand that the city will most likely be destroyed without the NF?
Good questions. I don't tolerate players who, in the midst of a developed and complex plot arc, suddenly take impulsive actions contrary to everything that has already been done.

It is hard to see a positive response within the group when one PC abruptly undoes an agreed-upon plan for no real reason.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I try to find a balance between allowing the PCs freedom and making sure everyone is having fun. Sometimes I fail at maintaining that balance. As a GM, one of the things I need to be willing to do is call a time out and talk to the player about the ramifications of their character's actions. Why did the PC think the home city was just as bad as genocidal mutants or slaver cyborgs? Why didn't he ever bring up those concerns before finding the NF? Does he understand that the city will most likely be destroyed without the NF?
Those are interesting questions and, I think, highlight some of the differences between playing a game and living an experience. It's pretty easy to make certain kinds of moral judgments when you're at some distance from the situation, it's more abstract, or you don't really grok the nuance. And I think a lot of players, board participants, social media participants, etc exercise that behavior - something a lot harder to do if you are a real part of or really recognize the nuances of a situation.
It's a lot easier for a player to get a bug up their behind over something and consign 10,000 of their neighbors/fellows to death than it probably would be for a real specimen from that community.
 

MGibster

Legend
And I think a lot of players, board participants, social media participants, etc exercise that behavior - something a lot harder to do if you are a real part of or really recognize the nuances of a situation.
It's a lot easier for a player to get a bug up their behind over something and consign 10,000 of their neighbors/fellows to death than it probably would be for a real specimen from that community.
For me it's the age old problem of treating your character as a game piece versus trying to play him as if he were a real person. The sabotaging PC never formed any strong connections to anyone in the city and rebuffed my efforts to help him form those bonds.

From the same campaign, another player was an assassin for the mob before the bombs fell. I had him meet up with a former associate who offers him a lot of wealth to assassinate one of the leaders of the city. This was one of the wealthiest members of the community, had generally paid the PCs for several missions, lobbied to have the city give them a home and citizenship, and I honestly expected the character to play along in an effort to find out who wanted this guy whacked. Nope. He took the money and assassinated the guy. It ended with him being hunted by a lot of people and a confrontation where he was nearly killed by the PCs and was later executed by city officials. The assassination was bankrolled by the slaver cyborgs to the east. So that's another reason the city was overrun at the end of the campaign. Morale was low and one of their wealthiest supporters was no longer paying people.

I take responsibility for that one. If I dangle an option in front of a player I can't get upset if they take it. But it's a prime example of me expecting the PC to do the right thing and having it bite me in the butt.
 

S'mon

Legend
I am not that surprised at the difference, as attacking the couple is much less socially acceptable than killing prisoners. Both are bad though, and I think both are a bit about framing the scene, and its effect on outcomes.

I would guess that players playing modern NATO soldiers are less likely to execute prisoners than Traveller players playing outlaws/criminals. Traveller seems to particularly trend towards amoral play for some reason.
 

MarkB

Legend
I would guess that players playing modern NATO soldiers are less likely to execute prisoners than Traveller players playing outlaws/criminals. Traveller seems to particularly trend towards amoral play for some reason.
Perhaps because Traveller doesn't have an assumed morality for its characters. A game like, say, D&D is, at least, based upon heroic fantasy, but there's no particular expectation that a crew of space traders will be altruistic.
 

For me it's the age old problem of treating your character as a game piece versus trying to play him as if he were a real person. The sabotaging PC never formed any strong connections to anyone in the city and rebuffed my efforts to help him form those bonds.
That is very, very true. Personally, I blame D&D for its inward-focus of constantly seeking of xp, talents, and powers. Too many players who started in that environment remain heavily focused on what their PC will become, rather than what it is right now.
I take responsibility for that one. If I dangle an option in front of a player I can't get upset if they take it. But it's a prime example of me expecting the PC to do the right thing and having it bite me in the butt.
Never give a monkey a pistol. But we've all made that mistake.

Players are unpredictable. Last year I had an entire campaign end up revolving around the relationship between the party and a NPC who was intended to be a brief single encounter for local color.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I would guess that players playing modern NATO soldiers are less likely to execute prisoners than Traveller players playing outlaws/criminals. Traveller seems to particularly trend towards amoral play for some reason.
It's definitely a pithy statement. Not unsupported as Traveller games are often looked at one step away from Space Pirates, or being on the grift. I've played both games, and didn't really play any different; certainly in T2K being Vistula River Pirates, and stealing the Black Madonna. Reality I don't know what NATO would be like, but I have German friends tell me that their trainers were often former nazi soldiers, or trained by nazis. As for Americans I know, one a Marine Tanker said the guys used to shoot heroin in their tank, and another, a green beret said similar that a lot of post-Vietnam NCO's were in his words "drug addicted thugs." I also remember the caravans of prostitutes lined up outside bases in Germany. So what was NATO like?
 

The thing is, I don't want to punish the player characters for doing the "wrong" thing or necessarily reward them for doing the "right" thing. I just want their actions to have an impact on the flow of the campaign. And and the end of the campaign I'd have an opportunity to tell them the long term impact of their choices. Does that sound like fun?

One thing you can do, at least that works for me, is to do things like play out in your mind the full impact of say, a given NPC being killed by the PCs, or the consequences of one of their decisions. That doesn't have to all be bad, some it might be good. If they are in a situation where they have a hard moral choice to make and choose A over B, both could have led to good and bad outcomes, but the important thing is the outcomes would be different and palpable to the players in some way.

If you want something more spiritual, then tying cosmology and mechanics can be helpful here (things like the Ravenloft powers checks leap to mind). But that is more in the realm of punishing players for doing wrong: though in fairness the powers checks as written give both a reward and a punishment to entice evil).

I think another thing is to give them real moral choices, where there is appeal to the bad choice. A good example might be in a game with magic, if a player brings a fallen PC to be resurrected, perhaps they have to strike some kind of terrible deal in order to get the resurrection, or maybe the available resurrection method is unorthodox and has some kind of evil result (which you don't have to disguise from the player, you can be upfront about what the choice is).

Not sure if this is helpful, but I do think making moral choices a part of play can be interesting. It is also an area of the game where players can get quickly irritated if you aren't all on the same page.
 

MarkB

Legend
Ah, that makes a lot more sense.

I would boot a player for that stunt (trying to wreck the football). The time to make a moral choice is when the job is offered, not after the PCs have invested time and risk. At that point,. the football was the property of the group, and the PC had no right to deprive the others of their share.

Of course, I have a permanent and unbreakable rule banning PvP, to include theft from the party.
And that's kind-of the issue with the style of moral quandary the OP is trying to go for here. A true moral choice is something you make on your own, not beholden to anyone else, and then you live with the consequences. That simply doesn't work in a collaborative storytelling system, where your choices in-character can screw up the enjoyment of other players.
 

S'mon

Legend
And that's kind-of the issue with the style of moral quandary the OP is trying to go for here. A true moral choice is something you make on your own, not beholden to anyone else, and then you live with the consequences. That simply doesn't work in a collaborative storytelling system, where your choices in-character can screw up the enjoyment of other players.

You think a group of people cannot make a moral choice jointly? Why not? This seems like a radical individualist take on morality, which I agree is not well fitted to a party-based RPG like D&D. Though it should work fine in many storygames.

Edit: A lot of the fun of the Blake's 7 TV series was the different characters forced to work together to make moral decisions. This is arguably a better model for an RPG than the Star Trek 'captain decides' model.
 

MarkB

Legend
You think a group of people cannot make a moral choice jointly? Why not? This seems like a radical individualist take on morality, which I agree is not well fitted to a party-based RPG like D&D. Though it should work fine in many storygames.

Edit: A lot of the fun of the Blake's 7 TV series was the different characters forced to work together to make moral decisions. This is arguably a better model for an RPG than the Star Trek 'captain decides' model.
Except that, in Blake's Seven, characters frequently would go ahead and go behind the rest of the party's back, because they were convinced that they were right. That gets awkward, at best, in a game.
 

S'mon

Legend
Except that, in Blake's Seven, characters frequently would go ahead and go behind the rest of the party's back, because they were convinced that they were right. That gets awkward, at best, in a game.
I tend to agree that intra party conflict works best in storygames, but I've seen it work in old school games too. It doesn't work well in 'trad' games where the party is expected to always act as a unified entity. In that case the moral choice needs to be by consensus. AFAICS that is still a moral choice, though. A committee or panel making a moral choice, is still making a moral choice.
 

MarkB

Legend
I tend to agree that intra party conflict works best in storygames, but I've seen it work in old school games too. It doesn't work well in 'trad' games where the party is expected to always act as a unified entity. In that case the moral choice needs to be by consensus. AFAICS that is still a moral choice, though. A committee or panel making a moral choice, is still making a moral choice.
There's a difference between a choice and a decision. A committee can make a decision, but if your sense of morality leads you to believe that it's the wrong decision, are you still exercising your moral choice when you go along with it?
 

S'mon

Legend
There's a difference between a choice and a decision. A committee can make a decision, but if your sense of morality leads you to believe that it's the wrong decision, are you still exercising your moral choice when you go along with it?

I guess if you have no choice but to go along with it, then no.
But IME committee decision making by consensus very rarely has the kind of clear dissent you are thinking of. Usually by the end everyone pretty much agrees. Think of jury trials - the jury very often can reach a unanimous decision.
 

I guess if you have no choice but to go along with it, then no.
But IME committee decision making by consensus very rarely has the kind of clear dissent you are thinking of. Usually by the end everyone pretty much agrees. Think of jury trials - the jury very often can reach a unanimous decision.

There's serious question how often that happens where some of the jury simply isn't confrontational enough to push back the way they should if they were actually going with their ethical feelings. Its a bad mistake to underestimate the force of social pressure.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
For me it's the age old problem of treating your character as a game piece versus trying to play him as if he were a real person. The sabotaging PC never formed any strong connections to anyone in the city and rebuffed my efforts to help him form those bonds.

From the same campaign, another player was an assassin for the mob before the bombs fell. I had him meet up with a former associate who offers him a lot of wealth to assassinate one of the leaders of the city. This was one of the wealthiest members of the community, had generally paid the PCs for several missions, lobbied to have the city give them a home and citizenship, and I honestly expected the character to play along in an effort to find out who wanted this guy whacked. Nope. He took the money and assassinated the guy. It ended with him being hunted by a lot of people and a confrontation where he was nearly killed by the PCs and was later executed by city officials. The assassination was bankrolled by the slaver cyborgs to the east. So that's another reason the city was overrun at the end of the campaign. Morale was low and one of their wealthiest supporters was no longer paying people.

I take responsibility for that one. If I dangle an option in front of a player I can't get upset if they take it. But it's a prime example of me expecting the PC to do the right thing and having it bite me in the butt.
Why are you actually surprised by that?
The character in question was an assassin who murdered people for his organisation and got contacted by said organisation to murder someone. Why would you expect this character to not do it?
It seems to be that is more of an issue of you expecting the player to follow his own morality instead the morality of his character.

And imo that is a big problem in todays environment. Some people bring their personal morality into the game and assume that everything a character does in the game is also what the player of said character believes in, while other players completely divorce their morality from the one of their character.
And when you bring both people into the same group and player 2 lets his character do something evil then player 1 is shocked which can lead to problems between the players.
See the recent decision from Paizo to curtail slavery and especially the ability to buy slaves because some players freaked out when other players had their characters be slave owners.
 

Teo Twawki

Coffee ruminator
And imo that is a big problem in todays environment. Some people bring their personal morality into the game and assume that everything a character does in the game is also what the player of said character believes in, while other players completely divorce their morality from the one of their character.
Excellently said.

Taking on character roles to examine questions of choice, decision, and morality is, to me and my small group, core reasons to engage with role-playing games. I approach such role-playing in a similar manner to travelling various parts of the world: I leave my personal ideology in a private locker to come back and pick up later--sometimes very glad to see it again and other times ready to resize it based on recent experiences. I almost always try to play a character very much not me. And I rather enjoy sometimes playing a character who, as a real person, I would find abhorrent. I see it as a chance to gain a wider range of understanding and empathy about others. Much the same, perhaps, as the enjoyment actors have in playing a well-written antagonist.
 

I think that's defensible, but I also think people need to realize that even if people recognize the difference between in-character behavior and out-of-character behavior, that doesn't mean they want to engage with some things in the first case either at all, or at least on a regular basis.

Or, this is another case where "some people just shouldn't be playing in the same games".
 

Dungeon Delver's Guide

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top