Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Using Moral Dilemmas In Games

Moral dilemma will be defined in three ways, each relevant for the purpose of this article, and each definition comes from The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd edition.

1. Any problem where morality is relevant. Ex: I have promised to pick up my best friend from the airport. A writer I admire happens to be at the cafe I'm at before I'm to go pick my friend up. I start a conversation with the writer, and then am in a dilemma of promise breaking/valuing my friendship less than talking to someone I admire.

2. Any topic area where it is not known whether something is morally good/right or not. Ex: When someone asks if abortion is immoral in anyway this refers to abortion as a moral dilemma.

3. A situation where an agent morally ought to do each of two acts but cannot do both. Sarte's classic example: a boy who ought to care for his sick mother but also ought to join the resistance to fight the Nazis.

I will now go over why moral dilemmas ought to be presented in roleplay games, and give some suggestions on how they ought to be handled.

If you are interested in having your characters, or your player's characters act out complex issues, to discuss the consequences of their decisions, then you ought to use moral dilemmas. By their very definition, moral dilemmas are ambiguous, or at least challenging to reach conclusions to. It therefore ought not be possible for a player to simply roll a skill check to have the GM tell them what the "correct" answer is. These dilemmas necessitate the characters think, discuss, and possibly grow or conflict with one another over these issues. This creates drama and adds extra detail to characters.

It should be suggested now though that you ought not to create a moral dilemma where you, the GM, believe there is only one correct answer, and then judge the player for disagreeing with you. Similarly for players, having moral dilemmas in games requires some maturity and ability to both think as the character while distancing oneself enough to not judge the other players when they think otherwise than you. Conflict is drama. If you want the characters in your group to be more than monster killers or stats on a sheet this can help, but decisions and arguments in character should never be taken personally.

Also, for players, in moral dilemmas such as example 1. a more dramatic version of this: you have the opportunity to find out who murdered your wife by meeting a stranger BUT at that same time the rest of your group is fighting for their lives, and if you don't show up to help it is likely one of them may die. Personally, I like scenarios where knowledge (or any kind of growth) has a price. If the other players in your group are actor-types or at least think of their characters from a first person standpoint, it can be fun and rewarding to have your character take a dark turn, abandon the group to pursue knowledge solely for vengeance. Players who are more tactical might get angry at such a decision because you hurt the group's chance of winning a fight, but otherwise when presented with a situation where you can aid the group or aid yourself, in the right group, doing the "selfish" thing would be a way of exploring your character and creating interesting conflict in the group. Or, if your character misses the opportunity to go see the stranger to save the group this can give your character cause for depression or some resentment to the group. This creates drama and depth but will not be appropriate for every game.

It's advisable to not use moral dilemmas in games where the characters are meant to be the paragons of virtue. In such cases when they are GOOD then it is probably best their conflicts be with purely evil types. Putting these characters in moral dilemmas interferes with the player's ability to have the character the game is meant to have, and destroys the tone of the game. It's best when starting a new game to talk to players about the tone, themes of the game so everyone is in agreement about what kind of characters they should play and what kinds of situations they'd be dealing with.

Here's a link to some classic moral dilemmas that you can try to use in your stories.


David said...

This is an interesting post, as is the linked page at the end. I think it helps to define characters a great deal if they have to make big decisions with lasting consequences, and adding the moral aspect to it only helps further.

One thing I'm not sure of, however, is your statement that characters that are supposed to be virtuous should not have to deal with these dilemmas. In my opinion, these are the characters most affected by them, and thus should at least occasionally see one. Of course they can be overused, but how good is your Paladin really, if he never has to show his goodness aside from killing monsters?

Anonymous said...


I tend to agree that playing stuff that black and white all the time isn't that fulfilling, sometimes it can be fun though to not have to second guess every decision your character makes. I wouldn’t want to play a black and white game all of the time, but there is value in it. But unless you have discussed it with the player you should not let them draw up that paragon in a black and white world and then slam them with all sorts of moral dilemmas where they have to choose between two choices, either of which is going to be negative.

What I think that moral situations that the Paladin faces should be black and white. It isn’t always about slaying monsters, but self-sacrifice, helping those poor orphans, etc. If you are playing a character that is supposed to be a paragon, and every choice you face is between the lesser of two evils, it would make playing the character you chose frustrating, because you are trying to play a paragon and whoops, that's not possible in the game your DM/GM/ST is running.

An easy solution to this is just to make sure to discuss how you are going to run the game before-hand. If you don't want to run a game that is black and white, don't. Just make sure your players aren't drawing up characters that can't handle the gray scale, or if they are, that could be a major point of the campaign how this person who sees the world in black and white deals with a world full of grays, and you should make a point about talking to the player about how this will work. In any case, communication between DM & Player is key.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I actually think that it is both fun and (forgive me) educational to put people playing paragons up against the complexities of the real world. Think of the ranger devoted to preserving pristine woodland nose to nose with the paladin building a pallisade against a possible invasion of orcs... Think of the LG fighter who catches the consipritors who were planning to blow up the castle only to discover that they were honestly motivated by their perception of the tyranny and corruption of the governement.

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Andrew said...

Gotta love the spam bots...

This is a useful post for non-gamers too. I am in the process of writing a story for a fantasy book, and I am going to look at utilizing some "Moral Dilemmas" in the plot line.

Zane said...

Why should we use moral dilemmas in games? What advantages we can get from doing it? Is it important to do? Generally, I just play the game without using moral dilemmas in games.