Friday, September 23, 2011

FtA: Ethics and Morality

As My GM can attest, one of my favorite things about role playing is using it as a construct to explore ethical and moral issues.

I believe Gary Gygax's alignment system is one of his more brilliant innovations.  It can act as a sort of lens through which you can view those issues, and allows you to develop a shorthand personality for your character - the skeleton that you build outwards from.  If you know how your character views the world, you can guess how they would react to a certain situation, you can start getting a feel for who they are, and the character becomes more real, with their motivations becoming more intuitive as you go.

There are problems with it, though.

First, it can breed lazy players and GMs.  Instead of developing personalities for their characters, they can let their alignments dictate their actions without bothering to come up with motivations - the evil archmage is trying to take over the world.  Why?  Because he's Chaotic Evil, and that's what Chaotic Evil people do.  The Paladin is trying to take him down because he's Lawful Good, and that's what Lawful Good people do.  Blerg.  I want meat on the bone, I want to know what drives them.  I don't need to know they were spanked too many times as a child, but I don't want mustache twirling villains and square jawed heroes either - give me nuance.

Second,  it can dumb down the storytelling aspect of the game.  Real people's actions aren't consistent enough to fall into an alignment.  People do good things one day, then bad things the next.  Hitler loved his dogs, JFK was a philanderer, so on and so forth.

Finally, you are ostensibly heroes (assuming you are playing good aligned characters), but if you look too hard at things, the moral righteousness of what you're doing starts to fray around the edges.  I played a Dragonborn Avenger in a 4e campaign a couple of years ago, who had a puritanical zeal to convert the world to Bahamut, one bashed skull at a time.  So long as I was killing in the name of Bahamut, all was well.  Then I got the Command spell, and I decided to actually start taking the "saving of souls" seriously, and things got... uncomfortable.

Kidnapping a kobold, I determined to convert him to Bahamut by a process of behavior modification.  With a liberal use of Command, I wanted to get him to "see the light", so to speak.  The DM ruled that my actions were leading the Dragonborn away from his alignment and towards evil.  Which really, it makes sense, I get it.

But it exposed one of the core flaws in the Alignment system - by depriving the kobold of its free will, I was acting in an evil fashion.  Had I simply killed the kobold, however, and deprived it of its will altogether, I would have been acting fully within the boundaries of my alignment.

So as I'm designing From the Ashes, I'm trying to do something different - rather than a fixed alignment, create more of a sliding scale, where your personal morality slowly calcifies over time, your actions determining your alignment, rather than vice versa.  Just like in life, you start tabula rasa, and over time, find out who you are.  I'm sure Stalin's parents loved him, and Ghandi lied to his mother every once in awhile - it wasn't until they had time to explore their worlds that they truly became who we know them to be now.

Further, I want your actions to be reflected on the world.  This is a brand new world, babe, and everything you do will have consequences.  As humanity digs itself out of the rubble, it looks to its champions and its villains to identify it, to form their own shorthand for morality.  So if you act in a morally upstanding manner, help those in need and do your part to create a better world, your example will lead others, but if you act selfishly and put your boot on the neck of your fellow man, they will do the same to others.

I have a vague notion of some sort of modifier to reaction rolls and increased or decreased chances of random encounters based on where you fall on the morality scale, but nothing concrete as of yet.

That leads me back to one of my problems that I mentioned above, though - how to judge the morality of individual actions - is killing the kobold a good or evil act?  I don't think there are any easy answers, but my hope is that the system that I hang on this concept can at least inspire some conversation, some debate, and get people who play it to question and discuss one of the accepted core concepts of role playing - that killing is good.


  1. Adam of Troy

    I remember my first experience with D&D circa '87-88; morning recreation period at Camp Barker -- a person could either go out in the blazing hot sun and dodge inflated spheroids of various dimension and velocity for the next 2 and 1/2 hours or one could stay in the cool dark cafeteria/meeting hall and discover a thing called Dungeons and Dragons -- tough decision.

    Anyways long story short I got incinerated by the fire ball of a Chimera (whose name I still remember - Tog the Three Headed), that fireball deprived me of gaining my first level, something I wouldn't do for another 4 years.

    Ok slightly longer version with a useful vignette about morality: Our intrepid party had encountered a coven of Kobolds deep within a complex of caves overpowering and sleighing all who opposed us. But now what did we do with the ones who hadn't? The female and young? Well as our DM explained, they were all evil, would grow up evil and have evil offspring themselves; so it was our duty to slay them all (I believe it was our cleric who posed the question; the neutral thief probably wouldn't have cared one way or the other)…

    "That is what you would probably do." he had said (mischievously I believe).

    So though no one ever stated it explicitly, that was the implication. Curtain drop curtain rise no more Kobolds (but it was ok because they were all mustache twirlers).

    Anyway, jarred from my revery, to the business at hand...

    So what was your alignment? How was killing converting? I certainly see how it increases the influence of Bahamut and I can see how the command spell would increase that influence as well…

    Personally I would have said bashing skulls was an evil way of increasing Bahamuts influence (because as you said it deprived them of their free will altogether, on this plane anyway), whereas I would say Command Spell realignment was not evil -- maybe even good -- because you weren't depriving him of his will, only altering it… (

    But I feel I am really stretching alignment far beyond the two dimensional origins of sword and laser pistol, of Michael Moorecock, Science Fantasy, Poul Anderson, and the bedrock on which D&D is founded (as well as the moral imperative of my first Dungeon Master). (

    And that leads me to my problem with/enjoyment of D&D's alignment system; it's interesting, but it's really stupid…

    I mean what's the difference if a good guy can engage in EXACTLY the same actions as a bad guy and say "I was serving a higher power vs. I was serving myself." There is no "Good" in D&D as I see it. There are however alignment factions, and each seeks to increase its influence (with the exception of "Neutral" which has the option of increasing neutrality or acting in opposition to whatever alignment the practitioners feel is "out of balance" thus, well… increasing neutrality.)

    That said, I really like your idea here "help those in need and do your part to create a better world" vs. "put your boot on the neck of your fellow man, they will do the same to others".

    I like the Idea that people can influence the actions of others, that players are those people, and the measurement of the players will not be in intent but deed.

    There's some real room here to develop characters not on their motivations but their actions - to actually give them free will. Because honestly as I see it, how could you deprive that Kobold of his free will if alignment had already dictated his response? D&D alignment had stolen that Kobolds will long before you sought to alter it.

  2. I think that putting concepts like good and evil into the the alignment system causes more confusion than clarity. Those notions are highly subjective. What is considered "Good" for one culture might be "Evil" according to a different culture's set of taboos.

    I think the Lawful - Neutral - Chaotic setup from OD&D works a lot better. Lawful characters are seeking to preserve the existing civilization, Chaotics want to tear it all down and possibly create a new civilization. It's more tangible and sidesteps a lot of discussions about right vs. wrong. It's not really a useful option for your setting though if there is no preexisting civilization or laws.

    It might be easiest to just set up your alignment system as a sliding scale based around the question "How do you treat those who are weaker/more disadvantaged than yourself?".

    Exploitative --- Selfish --- Altruistic

    This way killing a kobald (or whatever) just to see if he has some loose coins would rate as a 1. Kidnapping him and using magic to train him into becoming a follower would still rate kinda low, but maybe close to the range of "Selfish". You might earn a 10 rating by making repeated visits to the kobald's home. Bringing him food, tools, offering protection, and preaching the teachings of Bahamut.

    Good Luck! I like the direction you've chosen.

  3. @Adam - Those links were great, I always love finding out where that stuff comes from! I agree that there doesn't seem to be any "good" in D&D, or not in the sense that applies to the real world. There was an rpg published by Hogshead Games called "Violence" that illustrated that point by just taking everything from a D&D game and putting it in the real world. So instead of going through a dungeon, kicking in doors, killing the inhabitants and taking their gold, you wander through apartment buildings and subdivisions, kicking in doors, killing the inhabitants and taking their televisions and x-boxes. Suddenly those actions don't feel so heroic anymore.
    Thanks for commenting!

    @Quibish - great idea, using a scale based on actions, as opposed to intents, is exactly the sort of thing I'm looking to do here.

  4. Just tinkering with an idea for an expanded D&D style morality system, with more specific categories:

    * Legal Absolutist - Strong enforcement of laws in their strictest interpretation is necessary for all to avoid society sliding into total chaos or tyranny. Mercy doesn't factor in, showing mercy is as much a negation of ordered society as crime itself.

    * Thoughtful Lawful - Some laws may be flawed, but most rules were made for good reasons. Let's see how we can interpret them more appropriately for the betterment of all in a given situation.

    * Lawful Exploitative - Like all other aspects of the world, the laws are just another system that the clever or well positioned can use to get what they want out of life.

    * Lawful Apathetic - I don't really care much one way or the other, but I like living in town better than I would living in filth and digging for grubs to survive.

    * Dissenting - Some system of rules is good for social order, but the current system is flawed. I'm not encouraging violence, but we need change.

    * Anarchist - Law impedes personal freedom and hurts all. The least laws are best for all.

    * Ravager - Law is only a prop for the weak. Do whatever you can get away with.
    Sort of inspired by what you folks were discussing, I was thinking these might be less "alignments" than transient ethical "stances". If they wanted, characters could take different stances in different situations, providing them bonuses or penalties on certain skill checks.

  5. I like that alot. If I can tie those stances to the sliding scale, that would be just about exactly what I'm looking for!