Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Rant on Morality and Alignment in RPGs

So it's been no secret that I have never been a fan of alignment systems, but after playing Star Wars the other day it got me thinking even more about morality in games.  You see the weird thing is in Star Wars the Force acts as a judge and jury on what is non subjectively right and wrong.  Acts are clearly good and clearly evil.  Now while within the mythology of that universe that makes sense even there I have issues with non subjective views of good and evil.

Now I'm not saying somethings aren't just plain evil any ways you slice it like killing a defenseless kid for no good reason or other extremes, but not everyone acts in extremes.  The issue came from an issue where our heroes were faced against a ship captain that was very paranoid and a little bit mad. Long story short the droid in the party made a bad threat claiming to be from the Empire not realizing this captain is in fact hiding from the Empire and would kill anyone who he thinks would bring him in.  The group's Jedi tried to talk him out of it, but isn't very skilled in the whole "talking thing" which actually heated things further to the point that the captain shot the droid with his blaster as a warning to the living characters that he is serious.

This is where the rub came in.  As the Jedi saw it that captain just killed one of his friends (The droid was knocked unconscious as he had been pretty beat up through the story already) and since talking once didn't work continual talking will just get his friends killed.  No a Jedi is never to resort to violence unless they have already been attacked or a living creature is in immediate threat that can only be prevented through violence.  In the Jedi's eyes that is what happened.  The problem is in Star Wars eyes no LIVING being had been even hurt.  The captain too a warning shot at a droid which as far as the universe is concerned is the same as smashing a toaster. Since he hadn't actually hurt anyone and was still talking (even though it was more as threatening questions) the Jedi's code told him violence wasn't the only resort and thus attacking this man would be evil (only a little evil, but still evil).

The funny thing about this is Star Wars is the closest thing I can think of an acceptable setting where morality isn't subjective as there is an all encompassing power that governs right and wrong, but even in this morality play black and white setting we can across a situation that didn't sit well with me.  At the time I ruled with the setting as it is the game we agreed to play and I have to do my best to not make exceptions. (Especially since the entire situation was caused by a player acting out igniting everything.) but at the same time a setting that claims to be 100% knowing and a moral compass puts characters in roles that as far as the universe is concerned have lives that don't matter.

To put this in perspective this is like watching R2-D2 get blown up and any everyone expected to just go about their day with the mentality that they could always buy a new one. This might sound extreme and in truth nothing is STOPPING a player from caring, but they do get punished for it which is basically a way of telling a player they are playing "wrong".  It also means that if any of the other players were shot instead they would be justified in "defending themselves" making the droid player less important.  Now to be fair within the setting a NPC choosing to shoot a living being is a different and more violent mindset than shooting a droid and thus IS actually more of a threat and needing to be defended against to the players a fellow player was just attacked and I don't blame them for not seeing past that.

And for anyone that says "well it's the players fault for playing a droid they knew what they were getting" would you feel the same way if in a fantasy game someone was playing a half orc or half elf and a human shot them because "half breeds have no home and don't matter"?  The answer is no because that guy would be a racist dick head.  Sure playing a droid doesn't mean you have flesh and blood, but even in the setting they are sentient.  They can have self preservation, a fear of dying, and can think for themselves.

With all that out of the way I know I said this would be an article about morality AND alignment and not just a "this is what happened in my game this week".  Well honestly I think this story perfectly explains why I hate the whole alignment idea.  Star Wars is a great example because even when there is supposed to be a single concept of good and evil everyone shares there are tiems when what/s good and what's right don't mesh.  IF you take that to a game like D&D where different gods and cultures that all see things differently, but there isn't a power above them al lthat gives a single answer then how is there is singular "good" or "evil".

As I said extremes are easy and yes genocide of innocent people isn't good, but is stealing from an enemy kingdom for your own kingdom good?  It wouldn't be good if you stole the same thing from your king, but because they aren't part of our group and we're supposed to hate them its ok?  Is killing monsters smart enough to speak and communicate no evil because they're evil?  I'm sorry but honestly the idea that "because they're evil it's ok" counting as good is bull because evil creatures readily kill other evil creatures because they are in there way.

With all this said I want to make something VERY clear. I'm not trying to say WHAT is good or evil in a game.  What I'm saying is those are relative terms and putting blanket morality over an entire world don't actually work if you think about it.  That said if a paladin follows a god and that god says "this is evil" then guess what to that character it's probably evil. If the GM at the beginning of a game lets everyone know that this is what we are counting as good and evil and you agree to play then that is what it is.  It just bugs me when it's mechanically locked into place with some weird close mindedness that actually means unless you remove it you can only tell stories from a single perspective.

As a side note back onto Star Wars for one second.  One thing I found disturbing after reading was where they talk about other religions in the galaxy.  It basically boils down to other people might not believe these things are evil, but the Force does and eventually they will pay by falling to evil for their beliefs.  This section is what is actually making me rethink a blanket idea of good and evil even in Star Wars.  It's that scary super religious philosophy of if you don't believe what we believe it doesn't matter if you're good and kind you're going to hell and yea even in a morality play that rubs me a bit raw.


  1. It's a very fair point.

    As you note, sometimes you have to work within the precepts of the genre, but the grey areas can pull us out of the fiction and break our own in-game suspension of disbelief.

    When measuring human (or alien) behavior along a single or two-axis system, you have to make some accomodations for the abstraction.

    I once toyed with trying to measure an alignment along multiple axes such as:
    Selfless v. Selfish
    Empathy v. Sociopathy

    But I was still never quite satisfied (or even knew how one would interpret/enforce through game mechanics).

    1. I think if handled correctly, the gray areas can be the most enlightening or cathartic areas of the game that can be run. Role-playing allows us to explore different aspects of our personalities, and allowing the players to explore their reactions to moral gray areas can be a tremendously engaging experience. One of my most vivid memories regarding role-playing involved a heated debate over whether to return a kidnapped otherworldly girl to her rightful place as princess of wherever, but if we did so we would be ensuring the continued enslavement of an entire sentient race of people. The discussion got so heated that at one point my cleric turned the ghost of another character (long story that I mostly don't remember). I remember that moment, that story, even though I don't remember a bit of the rest of the adventure. For that reason my favorite adventures are the ones where my players are presented with a moral dilemma. I don't do them very often, as they are emotionally taxing, but those are the games that are remembered.