Written by Jeremy Morgan, tabletop games editor, gamer, and software developer.
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Thoughts on Morality

19 March 2012

The topic of morality has been on my mind recently for numerous reasons. One is the ongoing speculation with #dndnext in regards to alignment (some excellent discussion on it here). Another is that the question of morality and how it’s handled in games is something I think about quite a bit. There’s a faint thread of it in my blogging. My interactions on Twitter touch on it from time to time, but I’m often reticent to discuss those types of things due to the medium (I find 140 characters is a difficult space for me to express thoughts like this fully).

My designer-brain engaged, and I started thinking of how I’d create a game who’s primary purpose was to explore the issue of morality. Consider this an initial step in that process: info-gathering on current RPGs that have morality as a predominant feature. Here’s my research list and thoughts so far.

These are in no particular order (seriously).

  • Star Wars (various flavors)

Obviously, morality plays a major role here with the Light Side and Dark Side of the Force. Honestly, I’m not as interested in this, as this is a little too black and white for me.

  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Sorcerer

These two intrigue me. I’ve heard rumblings of Dogs for quite some time now, but I just haven’t had the opportunity to play it yet. I’m less familiar with Sorcerer, but it might be worth picking up both of these when I get an opportunity.

I know the “fruitful void” comes up in discussion about these types of games, and that’s an interesting design space I may need to cogitate on more fully.

  • World of Darkness

This one came up in both its old and new incarnations, with Vampire being mentioned more than the others.

  • How We Came To Be Here

I know nothing about this game, not even that it existed.

  • They Became Flesh

I’m intrigued by this, although I know next to nothing about it.

  • Dragon Age

From what I hear, this one has morality all over it. The rub is that it puts characters in moral quandaries. This is a good thing and is applicable to what I’m looking for.

So what am I missing? I know there have to be some more games out there that deal with morality (either directly or indirectly). Hit me up on Twitter.


Simon T. Vesper said:

When is a morality system successful?

Planescape: Torment succeeds because there’s a clear link between the player’s choices and their alignment; there’s also a clear link between their alignment and the choices available to them. So a lawful good character can perform an evil or chaotic act, but there are times when they aren’t even given the chance to be chaotic evil, because that’s too far removed from their alignment.

World of Darkness (and its variants) makes moral choices relevent by providing incentives. Choose to be good and get a big reward later; be evil and get a small reward now. There’s also a fair amount of support in the published material to encourage creative applications by the storyteller.

I’ve never been fond of Star Wars’ morality system, but the last version I played was the West End Games “d6 System.” The problem, I think, was a poorly defined or delineated set of moral examples. What I did like was the heroic aspects of the game; unfortunately, those have little to do with morality.

I think that a game’s morality system needs two things to work: 1) it needs clearly defined boundaries. There should be enough room for interpretation to make things interesting, but not so much that the game devolves into philosophical arguments. 2) It needs clear rewards and punishments, and more often than not, the punishments should be minor, or inherent to the situation, so as to not overshadow the reward of choosing one moral stance over another.

There is another game that we might look at: but I can’t remember the name, and I’ve got other pressing matters. I’ll look it up and convey my thoughts later today…

TriskalJM said:

Still waiting on the remainder of your thoughts, as they fascinate me.

I like the two criteria you cited, but I’m of mixed opinion on both of them. I think the clearly defined boundaries can be part of the problem with morality systems, but that’s more of a critique of how those boundaries are implemented. Any mechanic can be poorly executed. The clear reward and punishment I agree with, but only if we say consequences either way instead. I think reward and punishment is too simplistic. This also means I disagree with your major/minor point. Certainly the severity of consequences should be related to the act, but to make punishments minor undermines the spirit of a morality system. It’s when the consequence for doing right is severe and we do it anyway that our true morality shines.

Simon T. Vesper said:

“It’s when the consequence for doing right is severe and we do it anyway that our true morality shines.”

Couldn’t agree more. And I think that’s the biggest challenge of any morality system in any game: how do we present the choice to the player such that it is a) viable and b) worthwhile?

Moral choices in the real world are choices because of our basic human nature. Cliches like, “it’s hard to do the right thing,” exist because they’re true (at least to some extent). I think most people, if they were being honest, would admit that it’s difficult to choose the right thing over the easy or selfish thing, because we’re inclined to be lazy and selfish. So World of Darkness mirrors this with a system that rewards good behavior with a big reward (at a later time) and evil behavior with a small reward (given immediately). (It also recommends offering these rewards if and only if the player sticks with his morals in the face of danger.)

I made my criteria as I did, however, because I’m having a hard time seeing how the WoD model can apply outside of a purely “good vs. evil,” “virtue vs. vice” format. Also, I’m not convinced that there should be punishments when implementing a morality system. I’ve been leaning toward the 4th Edition approach of only offering rewards, because punishments can easily hinder players too much, and are thus more powerful than rewards. Further, I personally believe that in-game incentives, such as networking with NPCs or making enemies, offer a reasonable incentive to a reasonable player (if used properly by the gamemaster) to not take certain actions. (For example: sure, you can level the building with your small army, but you’re gonna piss off the police in the process, which will have lots of repurcussions in the near and far future.)

This begs the question, then: do we need more incentive than that? The answer depends on the tone of the game, I think. If the theme and tone involve, for example, the struggle between order and chaos (like in a Planescape game), then a simple mechanic that represents this would be appropriate. It helps solidify the concept in the players’ minds; it gives them something they can relate to in a concrete sense.

By the way, the game I was thinking of is Exalted. It’s another White Wolf product, and I keep coming back to their work because they do such a good job of providing definitions and examples of their morality systems. In fact, later today I’m going to throw together a post that, I think, will flesh out my approach to a clarified morality system for Planescape.

TriskalJM said:

Could you drop a link to that post here when it’s done? I’d love to look at it, and I’m sure anyone following the discussion would too.

Simon T. Vesper said:

… so, I’m not sure if that’ll turn into a link or not… guess we’ll have to click “post” and see…


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