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The Culture Beneath The Stairs

Facing Challenges: Morality and Roleplaying Games

by Conan McKegg
Oct 08,2004


The Culture Beneath the Stairs

By Conan McKegg

Facing Challenges: Morality and Roleplaying Games

"You're standing on a bridge and can see that two people are currently drowning in the river. One person you recognise as a highly respected scientist whose work could possibly lead to a cure for cancer. The other is your mother, a woman who has brought you up, cared for you. You're not a very good swimmer, so you will only be able to save one of them before the other is swept out to sea. Who do you rescue? Why?"


Okay, the above is a paraphrasing of one of the first questions I was ever asked when I started doing Ethics and Social Philosophy. It is an example of some of the many thought-exercises that ethicists like to use to show how complex and grey ethics can be.

These thought-exercises also tend to seem straightforward and easy until someone points out the issues with your choice - and no matter what choice you made, an ethicist can still point out how it might have been better to choose the other person. The case here isn't about if you could have saved both - for the sake of the exercise there is some reason that means you have to choose. Most of Social Philosophy and Ethics boils down to this common theme - choices.

So why am I giving a small lecture in ethics? Because as roleplaying games have developed more focus on narrative structure and more complex themes, a great deal of people have started to try and bring moral dilemmas and challenges into their games.

With this in mind I want to discuss the virtues of doing so, and the pitfalls of taking on a topic that can be fraught with pitfalls.

Ethics, Morals and Social Values

To begin with, let's have a little discussion about terminology. I have chosen to establish three categories that are often mixed in common speak - even though they are not exactly the same. By clarifying these definitions, hopefully it will be easier to understand what I will be discussing later on in this article. Note that these are my own definitions based upon my studies in the field and will not necessarily match with the common definitions. I choose to use these clarifications to better explain what is a much more complex issue in social philosophy.

  • Ethics: At the core of all ethical theory is the concept of ethics. While often mistaken for morals, Ethics are really a separate set of values. Ethical values are essentially the core ideas of right and wrong that every moral philosophy attempts to identify. While they are related to morality, ethics tend to be considered universal. For example, do not murder. Honesty is good. Depending on which ethical view you ascribe to ethics are provided by God, simply are absolute or are agreed upon by the members of society. Most ethicists believe that there is a kind of absolute set of ethical theories - the more secular philosophers argue that they are absolute not due to any universal design, but because they are just so straightforward for social survival that they simply are.
  • Morals: Often when people speak of ethics they are speaking of their set of moral values. This is a common confusion. Ethics are both the underlying values of right and wrong - but they can also mean someone's chosen set of values. Morals are essentially the ethical and social values that people ascribe to. They also are how a given philosophy has chosen to define the absolute ethical values. For example, do not murder may be the ethical value; but the moral or social value will define what actually constitutes murder. Morals can often contain many values that are not, strictly, ethical values...
  • Social Values: These are values of right and wrong that society has declared favourable. They are not strictly ethical values, and can sometimes be remarkably unethical in nature and sometimes even contradict a society's own moral values. Other times these will be values that are not relating to any morality, but simply to behaviours that help or hinder the way a particular society operates. Often moral relativists will point to social values to explain why one cannot declare any moral absolutes. However, social values tend to relate to a rationalisation by the society in question and not to any innate concept of right and wrong. This means that the society may even believe that the social value is wrong, but it has become so ingrained that to remove it would harm the society even more.

What makes a Moral Dilemma?

So what actually makes a moral dilemma? In a published game I one read there was an example given of a hospital burning with psychiatric patients trapped inside. The game claimed that the PCs were faced with a moral dilemma - do they save the people or not? That is not a moral dilemma; it is a tragedy.

I say that with such conviction because there is no moral dilemma involved, there is a dilemma regarding self-preservation - but for it to be a true moral dilemma there needs to be more of a question over which is the best option. If the players were all scientists who weren't particularly fleet of foot and poor physical skills in general, then being the hero would have a high chance of them dying and thus not being able to save other people later. (Isn't it funny how often the genius scientist shows up in these exercises...) Or if the PCs are heroes and the people burning in the building are not psychiatric patients, but murderers.

Essentially a moral dilemma should make the question become something quite difficult to know which is the right choice or not to make. Often they are challenges that require a split second decision, the idea being to challenge an existing set of morals so that you can then ask yourself why you chose one over the other.

While the initial example from the game could have been made into a moral dilemma, it set up that the PCs have a number of other people around who are already helping people out of the building. This creates an imbalance in the challenge, as the risk of death was very minimal. If the players were all alone and were not skilled in rescuing people from a burning building - that would have been a moral dilemma.

Why have a moral dilemma in a story?

This is the crux of the situation. Moral dilemmas are a form of conflict that can show us a lot about the people in a story by showing what values they hold dear. Much like the thought exercise at the beginning of this article, a moral dilemma is more about why a certain choice was made rather than which choice is the best choice to make.

Another reason is to show a certain theme within the story. For example a story about charity and honesty would have a number of moral dilemmas that would question the protagonists' individual values of charity and honesty. By doing so we are shown the consequences of each individual's choice.

My main issue with a number of games and GMs has been the rather trite way these dilemmas have been used to create a sense of drama without any thought about the dilemma itself. Morality isn't something that should be placed in your game to simply be "kewl" - it needs to firstly, be a real dilemma. Then you need to make sure it relates to the story you are telling.

Most importantly never presume which choice is the better choice - rather place the challenge to see what choice the players make in relation to their PCs and work from there. This is not about showing how smart you are, it should be more about challenging the players to see if they would make different choices as their characters. At the end of the session, I would even recommend asking them if they would have made the same choice if it had been them rather than the PCs in the situation.

I certainly agree that using a strong moral dilemma can certainly spice up a game and provide some excellent roleplaying opportunities - but be certain to capture the seriousness of the choice that you are placing before the players. Also, make certain that it is relevant to the story and characters.

Some games I would recommend hunting out for some good examples of moral challenges in roleplaying are:

  • Unknown Armies: This is a great game about choice and consequences. A number of the adventures provided in the series do raise some excellent moral quandaries and are all good examples of how to build a moral dilemma into a game for both theme and character.
  • Violence: This is an interesting metagame that was produced by Hogshead Publishing. I'm not too certain how easy it would be to find now, but if you can get a copy - it is an interesting exercise around challenging players to stop and think about why they make certain choices in character while roleplaying.
  • The Collectors: This PDF game using the FUDGE system is still, in my view, one of the best examples of challenging players preconceptions about ethics and morality. The players take on the role of Collectors, Demons who are sent to collect the souls of the truly sinful. Not as religious as it may sound, the game handles a truly loaded set of themes with a remarkable maturity and skill. This game will make many players uncomfortable because it puts forward some very ingenious moral challenges that are not simple to resolve. I cannot recommend this game enough if you are serious about using morality in a roleplaying game to create conflict.

So there you have it. I've only just scratched the very surface of this issue - the idea being that I want to hear from you about what you think about using morality in your roleplaying games. Given that a number of games provide "moral" alignments as part of their structure, I think that this topic certainly has a lot of scope. I will be returning to the concepts of ethics, morals and values at a later date.

Next week: I'll be turning back to discussing pacing and other ways to improve narrative flow based on observing other influences in our lives.

Remember - you can always contact me at Culture Beneath The Stairs if you would like to discuss any of the ideas I mention, or have any other questions relating to this column.

Until next time! Take Care!

Conan TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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