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Looting the Bodies

Ethics and Decision Making In-Game and around the Gaming Table

by Eric Swanson
Nov 13,2003


Looting The Bodies

Ethics and Decision Making In-Game and around the Gaming Table

This column will look at ethics in RPGs and gaming. A nice broad ambiguous statement, that. To be clearer, in this column, for however long it should run, we'll look at dilemmas and difficult situations in character and metagame and how we make decisions about them as game masters, players, and people.

This will not be an ethical lecture telling you "don't loot the body, that's wrong" or "loot it and divide up the spoils, that's practical". Though, like anyone else, I have strongly held beliefs and they will inevitably come to the fore on occasion. Rather, I hope this will be a place to examine the kinds of questions that we see come up frequently in our hobby, if we are paying attention. I've found that looking at this stuff helps me create a more convincing character as a player, a more convincing story and world as a game master, and make decisions in real life that make me a better person.

Since there will, hopefully, be valuable discussion and, inevitably, will be flaming, it might help keep misapprehension down if I introduced myself and told you where I'm coming from.

At 34 years of age I'm a gamer just old enough to be called "old-school." Though when I started this hobby at 12, "old-school" was a bunch of mustachioed white-guys with tape measures standing around a sand table filled with Napoleonic miniatures or Micro-Armor Sherman tanks and we kids with our AD&D books and graph paper were "the downfall of the hobby."

Growing up only an hour from the Lake Geneva/Milwaukee, WI area that, at the time, seemed the nexus of the RPG world, I gamed throughout high school-- RPGs and board war games. AD&D was the game all others were measured against. TSR was undisputedly on top, SPI went under, Reagan was in the White House, RPGs were proclaimed an element of evil by the fundamentalists and panicked parents who thought kids should be outside with footballs rather than inside reading about monsters. My groups played everything under the sun and switched games every few weeks. TSR, Palladium, GDW, FGU, West End, Tri Tac, and many others all got money and time from us.

I joined the US Army out of school and had only a little time for gaming, AD&D and BattleTech comprising the majority of it. I lost touch with the gaming community and what innovations were going on in the industry. It wasn't until return to civilian life 3 years later that I got a taste of what one new company had done to shake up the industry and to make ethical questions a larger part of RPGs. That company was White Wolf and its flagship product, Vampire: the Masquerade.

College took up the next 3 and a half years and for gaming there was only a little increase in time. Besides courses, I was writing an opinion column and doing movie reviews in my college paper, as well as, to quote South Park's Stan Marsh, "getting political and stuff." D&D 2nd Edition was the giant but I had no interest in the system. Vampire was blossoming but I had no time to learn a new system, especially one with as much published material as that had even then. And Magic the Gathering was the flavor of the month I avoided like the plague. Our group's focus instead was on Palladium Fantasy and a nice little Tri Tac game called Bureau 13 (previously titled Stalking the Night Fantastic) which was the X-Files before the "X-Files" were cool.

This whole period was the burgeoning of my social and political consciousness into a Socialist and political progressive (yes, I used the "S" word). This filtered down into my hobby and I came to see that it was a closed system. RPGs had opened my eyes as a kid to history and geography and mythology and acting and creative writing and all the other wonderful things that we have all taken from this great hobby of ours. Those things led me to look at the real world around me and understand it better.

So, older and more experienced, I delved back into the hobby as time allowed and got into White Wolf, the then-new d20 system, and other games. I was bringing in the perspective that I had grown beyond slay and loot, basic puzzle solving, and 2 dimensional social interaction in my games as both a game master and player.

This circle brings me here. I've written freelance for a couple companies (one defunct, one still a giant in the industry), I've studied and lived in the heart of some real world conditions that parallel what characters face in RPGs (from holding a gun while bullets fly overhead to marching peacefully down a street facing a line of riot police), I've spent time in different cultures and I've thought long and hard about what my characters, my NPCs, and I should do under conditions of ambiguity. I've gotten so much from this hobby and I ought to give back.

So, since I've used much space already, I'll just take a small situation to play with in the bit of space left. Should a player (not a game master; that is another, longer, discussion) use a character to develop, explicate, or inculcate her own political and social positions with the rest of the gaming group, and how can that be handled?

First, it seems that if the player does this, she should be clear on which of those things she is trying to do, as they are very different things that will be received very differently by the people around the table. Developing positions is a very internal matter for the player during the creation and play of a PC and seems at the outset to have little effect on player group dynamics. Explicating positions is much more public and, in my experience, only works if the campaign has a specific set of problems looming large (i.e., the canon Werewolf: the Apocalypse setting) or if the player restricts it to a defined problem that comes up in the session (i.e., police characters finding a rape victim could be the right conditions for a player to use her character to get the other characters, and, by extension, other players to look at rape as a social condition that needs addressing rather than turning the session into a simplistic revenge scenario). Inculcating values and positions via a PC is a very dicey matter indeed and is likely to create tension in the playing group and dissension in the character party. This is a specific condition that needs more musing later. Perhaps another column.

I admit to doing this with characters from time to time and once, in particular, in a classic fantasy genre game in a very ham-handed over-the-top way so it was clear that I didn't intend to seriously evangelize anyone at the table. I took a look at what I did with the PC and how the group reacted after that campaign was over and wondered why I played it that way. I decided after-the-fact that I wanted nothing more than to explore how my positions translated into that kind of world (classic fantasy-version of European Feudalism) and how it would change the way NPCs (who represent the various aspects of that world translated through the game master's understanding and views) reacted to me. This created situations that seemed perverse to the "heroic" and individualistic spirit of most Euro-American RPG campaigns.

The defining moment came early in the campaign before we had access to great magics or mighty weapons. When the town is plagued by zombies from the old abandoned mine on the edge of town, many of us, as players and as characters, immediately think, "Let's saddle up and delve into the mine, slaying as we go." I, as a player, first thought that too, and it was clear that was the game master's intention. But playing in-character my "man of the people" Clergyman thought, "We have hundreds of strong healthy townsfolk here with tools and the mine is abandoned. Rather than putting ourselves in a place of tactical disadvantage, let's organize the town and seal the mine. Thus stopping the monsters and keeping the deceased miners interred." The game master, like many of us, is used to problem solving on an individual and competitive basis and so had nothing prepared for this possibility. This basically stopped game flow for almost 2 full sessions as everyone tried to scramble for their piece of the game-time pie.

At that point I faced the dilemma. I've had the opportunity to look at how certain real-life 19th and 20th century perspectives can affect a classic fantasy social system. Do I continue this to make a point or do I take what I learned so far and then accept that the paradigm problem solving position is going to win out among the players and thus their characters? I backed off. The character maintained his perspective and it continued to color his opinions and behaviors, but when it came time to decide how to resolve something facing the party he took the expected route. I learned lessons from that.

Firstly, it is alright for me to use a character to examine specific social, political, economic perspectives if my purpose is to experiment. Second, that most people I'm likely to game with (in the US anyway) are expecting, regardless of my PC's personality, that I will resolve problems in the tried-and-true "American Way" of competition, confrontation, and rugged individualism. Third, that if I am not going to meet that expectation I need to make it clear at the outset of the campaign.

Later, I will look into this again, from a player's perspective, in more depth as well as this issue for game masters.

Now this is, again, not a guidebook on how you must handle these things. Rather, it is my internal dialogue writ large. I hope you will join in it.

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What do you think?

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