There’s a post today at Wizards of the Coast’s D&D Website about how every group needs a moral compass “to remind his or her adventuring companions that they’re heroes.” I would tend to disagree — there are some play styles and some campaigns where having a moral compass might be useful or encouraged, but i think it’s a stretch to say that every group needs a moral compass. After all, who ever said that the PCs have to be “heroes”?
There was a time when I would have agreed with the WotC article, when I would have shaken my fist and said “yes, that’s what my group needs.” In those days, I developed campaigns not unlike movie screenplays or novel outlines, and a lot of the time my players messed it up. They wouldn’t go where I wanted them to go, they wouldn’t act the way I wanted them to act. I found myself building barriers to discourage the “wrong” choices and trying to suss out what kind of sticks or carrots I could use to get my players to go the “right” direction. Did they want money, or glory, or fame? Could I kidnap a family member, or threaten them with the King’s Justice if they didn’t obey? Those were very stressful times for me, and I’ve been moving slowly but steadily away from them.
The point is, an adventuring group only needs a moral compass if there are wrong choices for them to make. And more and more, I feel that framing things so that any choice can be wrong kind of misses the point of Role Playing. Sure, if you have a certain style of game you want to play — say a heroic quest where the PCs fight against the Big Bad Evil Guy — then there are guidelines you need to set down so that everyone (including the DM) has fun with the game. But the heart of Role Playing is making choices based on who your character is, and for me the best role playing is when your character has to make a tough choice — and that usually requires the character to choose between Good and Evil in some way. If the going-in assumption is that Evil is always the “wrong” choice, then there’s no choice at all.
In my games, all choices have consequences. All choices change the world in some way, and that change will come back to affect the characters in some way. Good acts will sometimes have negative consequences, sometimes doing bad things makes achieving your goals easier. Players are free to choose to be the Heroes, and that can be awesome and fulfilling, but if my players want to fracture the party and raise armies against each other, I think that should be just as valid. If players choose to be villains we should let them, and they should reap the benefits and consequences of their actions regardless of what those actions are.