Anyone who has played RPGs for an extended period of time has run into the quagmire of morality. Let’s face it, 80% of most game books are rules on how to kill things. But does this make us all a bunch of amoral sociopaths with a death fixation? For the majority of gamers, I would say no, but the thought does creep in there as you revel in the slaughter of an entire village of goblins, or when you’re looking up the rules for interrogation to find out if the group gets a higher modifier for removing the NPCs teeth with pliers or a hammer. When, or should we explore morality in our gaming?
Characterization and Empathy
You never see news reports about chess leading to an increase in violence -- a game where the path to victory is devising the best way to kill as many of your opponent's men as possible in an attempt to trap his king, so he can be imprisoned and tortured until he surrenders all his lands and titles to the victor, at which point he is to be dragged through the streets of the capital and beheaded for the amusement of the townsfolk. Why is this? Well, because there is no characterization in chess, most people don’t name their pawns or devise elaborate backstories for their knights. In an RPG, this is what we are doing -- adding context to the fight, leading us down slippery slopes of morality. How can a character who routinely sticks a long sword through someone’s cranium be considered “good?”
Well, the answer is rather simple. While the real world may be filled with shades of gray, your game world doesn't have to be. For example, goblins are creatures of pure chaos and evil; they only exist to kill, maim, and destroy. They serve no function in the cycle of life. They don’t have a moral code they are attempting to uphold; they are not misunderstood, and they do evil things because they are evil. It isn't until we start applying all the high falutin’ subtext that goblins become tragic figures who are merely victims of their upbringing, more deserving of a warm blanket and mug of hot cocoa than an injection of cold steel through its vital vitals.
Why do we do this? Why do we feel the need to humanize the inhuman? I blame television.
Well, a majority of our modern entertainment to be precise; the world has always been a place muddied with moral ambiguity, but there has definitely been a shift in our popular entertainment over the last couple of decades to get away from the ideal good/evil dichotomy. A nice example of this is 2004’s Battlestar Galactica, a re-imagining of the 1978 show of the same name. When you compare the original with the remake you notice a stark difference in the overall look and feel of the show that goes beyond special effects.
In the ’78 series there is no question as to who are the villains, the justifications for their actions goes no deeper than the fact that they are the bad guys, and this is what bad guys do; but in the ’04 retelling we find much more ambiguity as to who is the true villain. We are asked to explore what it is to be Cylon, and whether they are morally justified in their mission to eradicate humanity. We are meant to weigh every action to determine if the ends justify the means, and who deserves to sit on the moral high ground, or if such a place even exists. We see this as mature storytelling, and I don’t deny the power of this style, but its vague conclusion, and bittersweet moralizing doesn't usually leave us fulfilled, or feeling very good in the end, and begs the question is this what we want out of our entertainment.
Is maturity really what we are seeking when sit down to roll dice and save the princess? As with most things, “different strokes for different folks” and how much moral ambiguity should you build into your game is a question that you and your players should answer before the game begins.
What happens when you die has been a topic for debate for as long as people have been dying, and we are no closer to an answer than we were when we were poking mammoths with pointy sticks.
This question has led us to others. What is the point of life? Do our actions have consequences for us post-death, and if so, what is the appropriate moral code to ensure a happy afterlife?
In answering these questions we craft our sense of good and evil, which is why we can’t quite nail down a universal definition for these terms. This is not the case in the game world, however.
Most systems have a very well-defined afterlife, usually filled with a pantheon of gods each with their own agendas and guidelines on what will win you a deluxe apartment in the sky. Combine this with the existence of resurrection spells, and death is merely a tick on your personal timeline, and is as substantial as your first haircut. Sure, your character may not have all of this information laid out in front of him, but you, as a player do, which means that you can weigh your decisions in the moral context of the game world, instead of that of the real world.
The major take away here should be that there is a huge difference how one acts in the real world versus the game world, and that you shouldn't feel guilty about slaughtering goblins because they’re going to a better place, and you know that for sure.