Panel: Beyond Lawful Good & Evil: Ethical Concepts in RPGs at Gen Con 2015

evilmeterHow do you build a character with staunch ethical principles without stopping a game dead with the dreaded my-character-wouldn’t-do-that problem? Do RPG systems imply ethical philosophies? Should they? Caleb Stokes (No Soul Left Behind), Ross Payton (Base Raiders), Andreas Walters (Baby Bestiary), and Shoshana Kessock (Living Game Conference) discuss ethical concepts in characters, in game worlds, and at the level of design. Bring your questions and curiosity. This was recorded at Gen Con 2015.

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  1. If I was ever to make a game system, I would smite everyone who wanted an alignment system. And it would be good.

  2. While I wouldn’t add an alignment system to a game, I think alignment systems are fascinating. They are so different from reality and so weird and fantastical that I’d love to see a game that seriously explored alignment and all the interesting narrative you could get out if it (and easy magical alignment detection) instead of treating it like a necessary evil or, worse, an unnecessary one. Caleb does exactly that talking about the Calvinist paladin, although I think 3rd edition D&D onwards makes it clear that a person’s alignment can change (although characters don’t have to believe that). That’s not to mention all the magical ways to change alignments.

  3. I have always reverse engineered alignment from what my characters morality. If my character thinks X then Y Alignment. I think 5th eds backgrounds mechanic helps a lot for F20 play. Possibly because I started listening to RPPR before I started to play rpgs I promised myself that I wouldn’t fall into the more common traps also I used to play Warhammer so Playing with themes of moral absolutism is second nature.

  4. Nice job with the structure and progression of the panel; it’s a little disappointing that there wasn’t time for audience question, but you all covered quite a bit of material and provided a lot of great ideas for GMs.

  5. I really like this discussion. I love the whole structure of taking different ethical theories and thinking about how they could play out. Great food for thought. So here are some thoughts!

    1. On the “Polytheism Problem”: There’s a really weird combination in the standard D&D-style fantasy world, with a whole bunch of differing and competing gods but ALSO a single, absolute Good/Evil standard at the same time. Realistically, those two systems don’t really work together very well. That’s why, for example, a lot of Greek philosophers became increasingly monotheistic as they developed the idea of absolute Goodness. That could be an interesting tension to develop within a game, and could be resolved in a variety of ways.

    2. At one point, Caleb discusses how difficult many modern people find it to understand the historical justifications for slavery. I find grappling with alien ethical concepts to be one of my favorite things about historical game settings. For example, in my Civil War scenarios, a lot of the PCs hold racial views that no player would ever hold. Maybe being called upon to play such characters can give us a deeper understanding for how normal people can develop moral blindspots.

    3. I love the Calvinist Paladin, and how that kind of perspective could lead to totally opposite expressions of behavior. I could see other interesting “Paladin projections” from real-world religious perspectives:
    a. Maybe a Universalist Paladin doesn’t care at all about whether people do good or evil things, because everything is going to be okay — or maybe she feels that she can be totally ruthless in destroying evil, because God will forgive any mistakes she might make.
    b. Maybe a Karmic Paladin believes that he is obligated to proportionately reward and punish various good and evil deeds — or maybe he just accepts that whatever happens to other people is the just result of their own past actions, so he has no business interfering.

    4. Oh, the ol’ trolley problem. As dumb as I think most expressions of that particular thought experiment are, I do think it’s applicable to gaming. It’s especially important given the fact that in most games, the PCs are the most important moral agents in the setting. They’re the heroes who will either change the world or save the world. It’s a great idea to make them feel the weight of that responsibility, to complicate the power fantasy.

  6. Interestingly enough in Pathfinder there is an Inquisitor Archetype called the Sin Eater. Granted it mostly gives you the ability to regain hit points but narratively interesting.

  7. This was fantastic I was just thinking in how I hate fallowing monster archetypes,

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