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Looting the Bodies

Developing A Consistant Ethic: Theory to Practice

by Eric Swanson
Feb 19,2004


Looting The Bodies

Developing A Consistant Ethic: Theory to Practice

Last time I looked at some elements for figuring out how a player character would make decisions. What sources can be found that help a player to figure out whether the character chooses decision A or decision B or invents decision C. The Theory. Now the Practice.

I'm going to be using examples from my gaming experiences. Due to the diversity of source material, its setting and its depth of role-playing I'm going to focus on stuff from one game in particular. I'll avoid naming it and try to avoid any use of specific terms. Partly to avoid any possible proprietary hassles but mostly to avoid the trap of leading people to think that this is not generalizable across settings and games.

The first point to get an idea of the value set and decision-making capacity of a character is the same point one figures out other important things like race, gender, physical agility and whatnot--character generation. When one grasps the need to develop a cohesive set of mental and emotional mechanisms for this new character in the making, in order for there to be consistency, and thus realism, it is clear that the time to do this is when all the building blocks are being assembled and before in-game events begin to mold the character.

The setting I mentioned above can be likened to medieval Europe in space. Down to political, economic, religious and social parallels. A monolithic hierarchical church, fractious nobility, a rising and grasping middle class of specialists and barbarians in the hinterlands combined with aliens, psychic powers, high technology and space travel. This setting requires a lot of work to figure out any PC's value set.

Fortunately, source material is abundant, and any gamer with even a few years under the belt with fantasy settings will already have access to some body of knowledge on medieval Europe. The same holds true for sci-fi gamers and technology/space travel. Let's start there.

How a European of the period would make a decision during the course of unusual events (which is the condition of PCS much of the time) is heavily influenced by the pervading moral authority. A powerful and influential Christianity. Even if the European were not Christian, their practical reality was determined by the Christian Church's position on them. Here the game I want to develop this PC for has a direct (and derivative) parallel. The game's own material happens to lay out the institution's position on a lot of things as well as its basic theology.

Starting point #1.

Joad Agilon (the presumptive name of this character) will have to deal with the values of this monolithic institution whether in support of or in reaction to it. It is clearly such an omnipresent and omnipotent reality that it can't be blithely ignored.

The values of a medieval European are also heavily determined by class. A peasant and a peer have different educations, different experiences, effectively different realities. Source material on this is voluminous. After some research, I find some commonalities for each class. Now the system also already breaks down the 'character classes' into types that roughly parallel members of the major institutions. With the partial exception of the historical church, membership in an institution is based on class. The PC I want to play is a 'professional,' someone who has a specialized skill that the vast majority do not have but is not a peer or a representative of the church. In the setting, this is best represented by belonging to a Guild. The best historical parallel is that of the middle-class who come out of the craft guilds, but whose financial power and urban centrality allowed them to break the noble's lock on political power. Craft Guilds, as an institution, focused on maintaining a monopoly on a skill set and quality control of produced goods. After the middle-class developed, mercantile power as an end in itself becomes important. And social position is often important as the middle-class threatens the gentry.

Starting Point #2.

As a member of this group, professional pride, skill development, professional rank as a measure of social status and the importance of money are strong factors influencing values.

The high technology and sci-fi setting should now be accounted for. Unlike the Medieval element, there is no history to pull from. All source material is speculative. In these settings, communication, travel, and the influence of technology in daily life are all common themes. The (unequal) distribution of technology is also sometimes a theme. Here the specific game materials are a great help. Technology is limited, controlled, often sanctioned (either positively or negatively) by some institution. Travel is difficult, uncommon and time-consuming. Communication is mixed. Between peoples is easy, due to a common language and the ease of learning minor tongues, but across distances it is very difficult and usually amounts to hand-carrying messages.

Starting Point #3.

The setting describes a situation of insularity for those without access to transportation (inter-stellar in this case), lack of labor-saving devices and transmission of values based on location, class and wealth.

Three starting points are enough for me in this case because of the wealth of info that the setting materials and the historical references provide. Joad Agilon, whatever else he may be, will be someone who will make decisions based on a very strong value set. This value set will most likely come from those in his local community rather than from a distant group (as is the case with a TV-watching culture), with the strong class system and his place in its 'middle' he will, in order to be successful, be concerned with money, knowledge (of a practical and specific kind), respect from his professional peers and possibly with status as a whole. He will desire access to those things he needs for his profession. If his community is part of the religious mainstream, he will be heavily influenced by its moral teachings, superstitions, and temporal influence. If the community is on the outs, he might develop an ethic of reactionary rebellion, supplication or avoidance.

Now I can pick and choose between the options this gives me. It might look limiting at first (none of the things above point to someone who is likely to throw away his career, security or life on a lark) but it gives me a real cohesive and logical base for deciding what he would do at crisis points. I decide that professional status is important but secondary to developing actual skills. He will seek social status in his success at what he does. His community is like the burgeoning burghers of late Medieval Europe in that they are believers in the Faith but wary of both the mysticism and the political power of the Church. He values the tools and technology he specifically needs, so is a pro-technology partisan, but practical enough not to upset the established order for technology outside his area of expertise. Like those who grew up through the 'Crafter' Guilds, he is not much of an innovator, but jealously guards the secrets of his trade.

So to test.

If faced with a crucial decision will Joad Agilon make a consistent and realistic one? A simple but classic dilemma. Either save the poor wretch the villain has put into certain doom and let the villain escape with the plans for a secret device, or capture the plans, foiling the villain while leaving the innocent to die. The Faith values the soul over the body. His colleagues and professional superiors value hoarding practical knowledge and the status that the plans will bring, the community he grew up in taught him to value sturdy reliability over flash-in-the-pan heroics. Getting the plans and letting the innocent die, while a regrettable turn of events, is the clear decision.

This was a specific and practical example that I hope can be generalized to the fantasy-barbarian, the costumed 'mega'-villain, the secretive spy, or the Wild West sheriff in your game.

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What do you think?

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