RPPR Episode 49: Morality Role Play

Morality and alignment are two of the trickiest issues in tabletop RPGs. Every player has their own perspective, beliefs and biases and they frequently come out during play. How do you deal with conflicts over moral dilemmas? We go over several possible reasons why this occurs and how to resolve it. Tom forgot his letter at work, but we do have several shout outs and anecdotes:

Song: Fuck Your Morals by Nothing in Return

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  1. I think Ross and Tom think that the vampires keeped the hostages when part of the deal was that they were let go.Then agian, part of the deal was that Tom’s guy had no part in the deal.

  2. Excellent discussion!

  3. Enjoyed Ross foisting all of the blame for the Festival-genocide onto RJ’s character.

    And I quote, from the New World Gaiden Game – Ross: “It’s heresy. Burn the heretics.”

  4. Author

    hahaha did I say that? I barely remember games from last week so I just forgot the specifics.

  5. Indeed you did! Direct quote that I discovered on a second listen of the Gaiden. After I’d heard this episode. I couldn’t stop laughing for about ten minutes.

  6. Ross’s guy did call RJ’s guy out for tourching the Festival ,and RJ only did it cause that chick gave him “a nod”. Still, Rj’s guy is evil for going through with it and Eisenhorn is still unaligned for holding the survivers(and there families by proxy) hostage.

    Also, about the “Ross can’t remeber shit” thing, yeah. Along with the vampire thing, he also made a post on SA where he said he came up with the “Frog Jesus Dried for Your Sins” joke, when it was really Tom who came up with it.

  7. Author

    whaaat? I was sure I made up the Frog Jesus thing.

  8. Nope.

    Cody:”Hey little guy, want a bible”
    Tom” Remeber, Frog Jesus dried up for your sins”
    *Everyone laughs*
    You: “I would have also expected ‘Frog Jesus got eaten by a bird for your sins'”

    It’s all there in the podcast.

  9. How dare you? The blasphemy!

    If you are not careful you will be punished by the Holy Trinity.

    Father X – AKA Satan Claws

    Zombie Jesus

    and The Holy Ghost

    Plus guest superheroes Mosses (a plant based hero) and Mo Ham-Head (a ham based hero – don’t eat ham it makes him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s ham based angry).

  10. Author

    Clearly, I am a horrible monster and I should pray for death.

  11. Yeah, game morality is an awesome topic, and I hope you revisit it sometime soon. It’s an important one, too, because it can be such a group destroyer if it goes badly.

    I think the whole system of alignments tends to make a game weaker, not stronger. It was probably originally meant to promote role playing, but ends up being a barrier instead. Other examples include CoC’s Sanity mechanic and any system that uses an advantage/disadvantage point system in character creation. These mechanics will generally encourage min-maxers and weak role players to act out something against a game benefit. Had D&D left alignments out of the original system, more players would be killing kitties and townfolk for the XP to level up.

    With no Sanity stat, some players might just decide nothing about the Lovecraft universe is scary and play an inappropriate level of courage under supernatural threat. And some players would never choose to play out a psychological disadvantage like a phobia if it didn’t give them some game benefit. Others grow up, and begin enjoying complex characters with quirks and problems and difficult moral dilemmas, just like in good fiction!

    Having said that, I also think part of the kick of the whole fantasy genre is the utter fantasy that Good and Evil are really obviously delineated forces in the universe. Part of the attraction to Middle Earth is that there’s a really obvious bad guy, and it’s fun to imagine Good races that don’t otherwise get along uniting against a common Evil. Hmm…what 1940s geopolitical development does that resemble? Blind patriotism is another one of those fantasies in which Good and Evil camps are artificially drawn to make life simpler and easier to cope with. In reality, the line between bad guys and good guys is so rarely a bright one.

    I prefer my fantasy morality to remain an overcast shade of grey.

    Ross does a great job of pushing the morality buttons of players as a GM. Some of the best role playing moments in games like the New World Campaign come out of hard moral choices that he presents for the characters.

    Dirty World sounds like a really it has an interesting way to handle dynamic morality issues. Would you say that point-shifting mechanic helps or hiders the role playing?

  12. Your like Carlos Mencia x10.

  13. I liked the conversation, but it only brushed the tip of the iceberg.

    One thing I think is worth pointing out is that settings and genres come with all sorts of assumptions about morality built right into them. While you could feasibly apply you and your group’s relativism to each and every setting regardless of its origin, I think its more interesting to abide by the limitations suggested by your source of inspiration for a given campaign.

    For example, the clear morality of Lord of the Rings reflects Tolkien’s Catholicism and the heroic tone of the sagas he was mimicking for his own home-made British myth. Its also a little more complex than people tend to think – not a LOT more, but enough to allow for conflicted characters and moral dilemmas. There’s a sequence with Samwise pondering about the origins and motives of some unnamed servant of Sauron, noting that the guy probably felt just as convinced of his purpose as the fat slob of a hobbit was. That’s got to be at least a little informed by Tolkien’s WW1 experiences. Still, the setting affirms that Sam and Frodo are “good” and, despite their doubt and suffering, there is a redemptive ending awaiting them in one form or another. I think that’s an acceptable assumption to go with for the larger worldview in a Lord of the Rings-inspired game, even if it doesn’t mirror your own moral outlook or the moral outlook of your own characters. You could play an amoral cynic in such a setting, for example, but his player should be aware that he’s pushing against the tide.

    On the flip side, if you were playing a film noir game inspired by, say, James Ellroy novels, clearly just about everybody is morally compromised and corrupted, your ostensible protagonists included. They may attempt to find redemption for their sins or wallow deeper in the muck, but the setting is likely to make them squirm either way. If they attain some sort of victory, its likely to be somewhat subdued or counterbalanced by its cost. If they fail, chances are it will be tied to their own weakness. Either way, the world will remain a mostly murky and dangerous place.

    You can fiddle with these setting or genre assumptions, of course; you can riff on a Silver Age superhero setting and run a conspiracy thriller in which its revealed all these tights clad “heroes” are actually sociopaths, perverts, and God-complex mass-murderers. Alan Moore did it 25 years ago, after all. And you could probably take a grimdark-to-the-grimmest-dark Cyberpunk or Warhammer 40K game and portray a cinematic tale of heroic revolution of kung fu vs. robots. That idea is slightly less old.

  14. This kind of stuff is fascinating to me. I’ve never had the pleasure of playing in a group that had evil characters in it. DMs – or at least the ones I’ve played with – consider it taboo. As if portraying a murderer or arsonist would somehow incriminate the player as one. It’s a shame. I’m not fond of people who use RPGs to live out sick fantasies, but I am fond of people who act and improvise within the context of the game for the sake of entertainment.

  15. Yes, I would agree that Tolkien’s world, with its simplified moral compass, is still far more interesting than D&D’s rigid alignment structure. Cave full of Kobolds? My Lawful Good character kills them all with abandon. Babies and all. Nooooo!

    Lawful and Chaotic are equally problematic as complimentary colors on a rigid wheel of behavior. Whose laws? And are chaotic characters interested in actively undoing social order?

    Now that we’re not role playing in high school anymore, I find it much more interesting to explore and challenge the moral assumptions of a given genre than to treat them like simple modifiers in a board game. The card game Illuminati does a great job of satirizing a worldview that was particularly strong in the 80s. Communist is the opposite of Government, Straight is the opposite of Weird, etc. But I usually don’t want my role playing to be like a satirical card game.

    I totally agree that it’s worth drawing on the morality conventions of a given genre, but I don’t want that to be codified in a game mechanic. I do want (as a matter of personal taste) to push against or exaggerate those ideas as a matter of experimentation.

    Playing a moral cynic is an adolescent way to act that out. It’s more interesting to pick a character’s world view, commit to it and play it out to its logical conclusion. And there are usually plenty of possible interpretations available. Including characters that eat bowls of puppy souls. (What?)

    Ross and Tom put it well: Do what you think’s going to be fun, and what would help the group have the most fun. Moral choices in games should be made in the interest of the joy of the game – which extends to group cohesion as well as the individual player’s need to act out a particular moral direction. On a T-Rex.

  16. Ross don’t beat yourself. Remember that your faithful listeners are all merely heathens who need your product.

    It is we who are indebted to you.

    Truth be told, Cody’s imitation of you is pretty fucking funny. Oh yeah and you’ve no morals in any of the games you’ve played recently. Major Laser comes, vividly, to my mind when I think of Ross Vs. Morals… Anyway, I digress.

    Another great episode. Oh yeah and Tom, you are fucking awesome man!

    When I first started listening to RPPR way back when you guys first started out I thought I was going to dislike Tom as the annoying, mostly blathering sidekick. Ironically enough, I think I enjoy and appreciate Tom more than ever! Tom, sir, you fucking rock!

  17. Major Laser was less Ross v. Morals and more Ross v. RPing of any kind.

    “A wisened old Japanese man who is obviously a plot point sits alone in the room.”

    “Ok. Here, have a grenade.”

    True genius.

  18. Seejo, I have to say that after playing Locke, I found my own morality to be a bit grey. It always was, I suppose, but after being Locke for so long, I found myself becoming just a little bit more evil and justifying my actions in the real world. I’ve never been a fan of people who make excuses like that, but let’s face facts, even though we know it’s a game, putting ourselves in that mindset can make people change.

    For Dark Sun, I decided to play a character who was neutral, but more along the lines of good. No corruption here. Of course, I’ve only played two games with him, but I’m going to give him a shot.

  19. There’s moral dilemmas and there’s moral compasses. I think alignment for D&D works as more of a compass to help young role-players make decisions about their characters with some guidance. It gives them an aid in their decision making (and a mechanic for GMs to penalize those who act out of character). In other games that don’t have that guidance, it seems like only a good role player would be able to make rational, character decisions when faced with a moral dilemma, even when the “training wheels” of alignment were taken off.

    On puddleglum’s point, I have a player in our CoC game who plays with no moral compass. He does the dumbest, craziest sh*t because anyone could be possessed or a cultist. He does this with new characters! He has shot helpful NPCs for no reason. He’s threatened other PCs with guns. Every one of his characters ends up murdering someone innocent and with little motive beyond distrust. I don’t know how to handle it. I have corrected this by having his character arrested, with SAN penalties, and bulletproof bad guys. This hasn’t helped. Is that just bad role-playing?

  20. Yeah, bad role playing. Lazy. I can imagine someone wanting to take a character in that direction once in a while, or maybe as part of an overall story arc, but constant all-out baddiness just isn’t fun. Like when you get bored with the little quests in Grand Theft Auto and just start going postal on pedestrians and the hoards of police that follow. Fun for an hour. Okay maybe even four. But after a while, testing for consequences in an amoral sandbox just brings you back to the desolate plains of boredom. And the other players (and GM) get there long before Black Hat Cowboy does.

    I would still say that there are much better ways to approach the moral “training wheels” solution than to use an alignment system. One way is to create your own “cardinal points” for your world’s moral compass, and ask players to declare where they stand on key issues in the game world. In the New World campaign, Ross has posed several of these dilemmas for the players to chew on. Is it ok to employ undead NPCs for help? Do Ogres deserve to be appeased even if they attack settlers? So many examples.

    But yeah, shoot-em-in-the face guy has got to go. There are plenty of great video games he can play for that kind of thing. Alone in his little X-Box cave of narcissism.

  21. I guess part of the dilemma comes from how the DM sees the moral system of the world itself. Say you run a game world which has a deity who has laid down a specific, authoritative moral code and principle. How does that deity reveal their morality to the world (do people just know them via conscience, is there a book you have to read etc)? What are the consequences of not following that moral system (karma, lightning bolts from heaven, eternal punishment in hell etc)? The thing is even in a world like this, people are going to resent that a deity tells them how to live, and they’re going to not do it. Or even the most righteous and noble follower of that deity is going to slip up because nobody is perfect.

    But, if the fundamental assumption of your world is that there is no absolute moral system, and subjective morality rules, then you’re going to have to solve the questions about what is “good” and who makes the decisions about morality that count (is it the individual, is it society, are there mortal moral arbiters, are the gods in conflict about it?) What are the consequences of someone’s actions in this type of world? More than that, where do they get their moral compass from? Whoever makes the decisions that count, how do they make the decisions?

    I personally find that having these questions answered before I start running my game makes things a lot easier when it comes to making judgements about good and evil. Sometimes I let the players know how it works OOC, and sometimes I let them discover it for themselves IC.

    I definitely think, though, that fun is an important element to consider when making all decisions about gaming, morality included. As Ross said, there are many moral responses that are available (both at the time of decision-making and as a retcon if necessary) to explain why a character makes a decision or acts a certain way. People aren’t perfect, so there’s no reason to expect characters to act perfectly either (unless you’re roleplaying Jesus?).

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