Monday, August 25, 2008

Being Heroic in a Morally Ambiguous Setting

Heroism in many settings typically implies a strict division between good and evil. Why is it meaningful if a group of adventurers stops the big bad, if they themselves are also big bads? I often run into problems like this when I think of what kind of setting I want to portray in games. I want moral ambiguity because I find it realistic, but I also want to give the players' characters a chance to shine and be heroes. 

I think this is doable, but because realism is being asked for in the portrayal of morality then it also must be asked for in the portrayal of psychology. Antagonists who are evil just for evil's sake do not account for the types of evil that exist in our world. Really, "evil" people are either mad - in which case are they morally responsible?- have some awful biological/social deterministic element that causes them to act a certain way - in which case they are tragic - or their values are alien to the values of our cultures - or other cultures - in which case they are simply different. 

On this last point - alien values - a moral realist might argue I'm simply pleading cultural relativism, and I think that is the point I'm making, but I strongly doubt our ability to question our values in an objective manner and then assert their goodness over alien values that are our opposites. This is not meant to defeat moral realism, but merely provide practical skepticism to it. 

I worry I'm rambling and not making myself clear. In a standard Heroic game I would allow evil antagonists to reach cartoonish levels of evil. They'll twist their mustaches and tie women to train tracks just for the sake of doing this activity. 

In a morally ambiguous game I expect an antagonist to have a more relatable goal or something that is self-serving, but in contrast to what the players' characters want. If the antagonist kidnaps one of the PC's girlfriends he doesn't tie her to the train tracks - he does so to get a ransom OR if he does tie her to the train tracks, it's only because the PC killed the antagonist's lover and so he's claiming vengeance. This doesn't make the antagonist's action good, but we can understand their motivation and maybe even empathize with what they feel. 

In future games I'd like to explore morally ambiguous settings with characters who are Heroic. My worry with this though is that Heroic characters would be one dimensional compared to morally ambiguous villains. If villains are relatable in morally ambiguous settings, than heroes need to be too. So Heroes in this setting will need strong self-motivation on why they go out of their way to fight evil. Good for good's sake doesn't seem to hold any more water in this type of setting than evil for evil's sake. In a way, this makes the Heroes selfish in the weak sense, but deeper for the purpose of this kind of setting. 

What are your thoughts on morally ambiguous settings v. Heroic characters? 

postscript: I'll be in Chicago for a few days (probably no update till Wednesday). I have an interview Tuesday, and I'm hoping if that goes well I'll be moving up there soon. 


Tony Law said...

I think you can have morally ambiguous villains AND Heroic characters in the same game. Just because the villains are not cookie-cutter evil does not mean that the heroes have not be cookie-cutter good. It's like Batman and Superman existing in the same universe. Batman is morally ambiguous in his methods but Superman is not. Both work well together.

Ravyn said...

It's certainly possible to play heroic in a morally ambiguous setting. I try to make an art form of it, personally; one of my best characters is simultaneously a shining light of heroism and the most outright vicious, ends-justify-means member of the party. It was all about the internal motivation, really; she had rather distinct reasons for her actions, particularly the heroic ones.

Zach L said...

I hate to keep bringing up Magic, but, even with the five colors causing strict regimentation, there's a surprising amount of moral ambiguity.

Black and red, for instance, are typically seen as the 'evil' colors, and indeed demons and other nasties are amongst its ranks. But the philosophy of black isn't defined in terms of goals (rule the world, kill everyone, etc.) but in terms of means -- black is most willing to harm itself to achieve its goals, and most willing to manipulate others as well.

All of the colors are described in that manner -- in terms of what a character is willing to do to achieve its goal, as opposed to what the goals are. so while "white" is a traditionally "good" color, it may very well seek to subjugate the world, if only to "stop all needless bloodshed." White is a color of control and strict hierarchy, and all the good and bad things about it. It's about approach.

So, a good approach to moral ambiguity in this sense is to consider not the intentions of the character, but the actions the character takes. A morally ambiguous villain is more likely to be casual about serious actions, for instance, or more likely to perform multiple crimes if he feels the outcome will outweigh the bad he does (Adrian Veidt would so be blue/black.). Whereas a hero may want the exact same thing as the villain, but instead be more interested in non-violent solutions, or perhaps they feel that their goals outweigh any violence they may cause.

"Heroes" are usually defined by noble purpose, whereas villains are defined by cruel actions. By flipping this on its head -- define heroes by what they do to succeed, and villains by what they intend to do -- you can introduce a good layer of complexity, while still keeping things simple and clean.

Vampir said...

I don't like thinking about my NPCs and characters in terms of morally ambiguous/heroic. The approach I like to take is to plainly ask "why?"

Why is a character behaving this way?
What happened in the character's past to make him make this decision?

I just don't like characters that do things because they do things...

Ripper X said...

I think that by nature, evil will always fail, simply because of its methods. Evil always takes the most powerful route, regardless of the fact that they really can't control it. Evil takes the easy way and the fastest way to gain their goals, while good does not. Good thinks about their actions before they do it, they look at how what they chose will effect others and themselves in the long run.

Yes, evil will win in the short term, but as a power, they are always doomed to fail because all they do is consume, without replacing the things that they are taking. In the land of Might is Right, there will always be a youngster to slay the leader and take everything for himself.

Good characters do falter, but they can be redeemed. Some of the evilest acts in human history were done with the belief that it was a sensible and right thing to do at the time.

There is also loyalty to think of in a RPG. Good factions often wage war in regards to their beliefs on how a society should be. BOTH factions could be right, but the PC's will start off the game knowing only one side.

Being heroic is what makes the PC's special. It is what makes them stand out from the rest of society. They can inspire others to stand, but first THEY must stand. It is a cool thing, but we can't have a hero without a villain who is tougher, meaner, and seemingly superior to the PC's in every way, with the one exception, of course being that eventually the villain is doomed to fail BECAUSE of the choices that he has made.

That is how I look at it, anyway.

Jack Phillips said...

zach l.: "So, a good approach to moral ambiguity in this sense is to consider not the intentions of the character, but the actions the character takes."

I agree with this, or at least I agree that we ought to look at consequences as well. Ethically speaking I come closest to be a consequentialist and I find it odd that in many cases those of us who think the end does in fact justify the means are portrayed as villains (usually these villains are just egotistical but rationalize their ends as "Good"). But I guess I shouldn't complain, folk wisdom also says that "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." So I guess those "intentions matter" Kantians are also portrayed as "bad" at times. I might explore this issue further after I've thought it out. Right now it's just a long, observational digression.

I like your method of asking "why?" instead of categorizing characters in broader terms. This seems like an excellent method that avoids pigeonholding characters.

ripper x,
I like your point about loyalty. it defines the "heros" in terms of virtues, and although virtue ethics is a major moral theory, i hadn't thought of that option. That's probably an interesting route to explore as well, especially because we often think of morality in more absolutist or consequential ways.

Other people said some pretty interesting stuff too, sorry I'm not replying to the rest of you.