On The Moral Compass

Posted: 21 June 2012 in GM Advice
Tags: , , , ,

I feel like I’ve been talking about alignment a lot lately. Maybe it’s just me.

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.

  1. casewerk says:

    I completely agree with you that it really should be all about choices rather than trying to force a particular kind of behavior. Agency is incredibly important; indeed, central. That said, in my opinion before any campaign is begun, the GM should sit down with the players and discuss what kind of game they’re interested in. Do the players want to run Squeaky-Clean Heroes(tm) and take down unambiguously evil warlords and mad mages? If so, the GM’s dreamed game of morally questionable double dealing, grey areas and antagonists that aren’t evil, just on the “other team” might be highly unsatisfying to them, and by extension the characters that they’re going to make. Conversely, if they want all sorts of hard moral choices and politics, yet another dungeon crawl might evoke a yawn from them. It helps a lot if folks are reasonably clear on their expectations. Yes, “waht my character would do” is an important consideration… but if there’s a pretty clear direction the GM and otehr players would like to take, then it’s also the players’ responsibility to make characters that “would do” more or less what the campaign will ~broadly, not specifically~ expect of them.

    “It’s what my character would do!” is a valid consideration, but it’s also the first thing that is used to justify every Chaotic Stupid or Stupid Evil act by players everywhere that really jsut want to be disruptive. The trick is to sort out which is which. 🙂

    • Jack says:

      Agreed 100% — players and GM really need to have a clear understanding of what everyone wants to do before the game gets going, or else you’re headed for a lot of disappointment and hurt feelings. But that’s advice that cuts across the board, from whether or not you want to play an epic game of cosmic Law versus Chaos or whether dwarves make guns and have large digging machines.

      The notion that every party “needs” a moral compass is only meaningful if there isn’t a broad understanding of why everyone comes to the table every week. If you WANT a group of misfits guided (more or less) by a single Jimny Cricket then that’s fine, but it’s hardly a requirement.

      And yeah, “it’s what my character would do,” is often the first defense of a disruptive player, but (1) a disruptive player is going to be disruptive whether or not they have that excuse, and (2) in general I think “it’s what my character would do” should be taken at face value and other methods should be used to deal with problem players — up to and including simply ejecting them from the group.

  2. […] are a couple posts I read today about alignment, and since alignment is something I care about quite a bit, I wanted to toss my two cents […]

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