Chad Perrin: SOB

28 June 2008

In-Game Ethics

Filed under: Cognition,RPG — apotheon @ 11:55

Two things I’ve read recently have gotten me thinking about the ethics within a game system again — a subject I’ve thought about many times before, but until now a subject I’ve never really considered in much depth while I was writing a lot of essays about roleplaying for a Weblog. One of those things was the Motivation system in E8, in some respects a replacement for D&D’s alignment system.

Roleplaying games tend to impose ethical systems on their characters that are not strictly in line with the ethics of the players. Sometimes, that ends up being a subtle shift, and at other times it can be quite dramatic. This is not terribly surprising: often, the rules and metaphysical foundations of these gameworlds significantly alter the way one must think about the world. What still surprises me, after all these years of gaming, is that quite often the most dramatic shifts in ethical systems from those one holds in the real world can go not only unremarked, but essentially unnoticed.

Dungeons and Dragons games are the first, and in many ways the worst, offenders in this respect. Let’s take an example of how the skewed ethics of a typical D&D gameworld, in pursuit of the goals of a typical D&D adventure module, plays out:

You arrive at the mouth of a cave. After a few minutes of preparing yourselves — making sure your armor is securely fastened, lighting a torch, readying your weapons — you head into the gaping maw of subterranean darkness, eager to meet the challenges that await. Within the system of tunnels to which that cave entrace led, you discovered a kobold warren and vanquished the diminutive monsters, slaying them all and collecting some treasure for your troubles. You were victorious, and you will all be remembered as heroes in the surrounding human villages.

That sounds about normal. It’s probably a dungeon crawl for four to six second level characters, and might actually have been drawn from a module you bought at your local game store.

Okay, let’s try describing it slightly differently, without changing any of the actual circumstances:

You arrive at the mouth of a cave. After a few minutes of preparing yourselves — making sure your armor is securely fastened, lighting a torch, readying your weapons — you head into the gaping maw of subterranean darkness, eager to meet the challenges that await. Within the system of tunnels to which that cave entrace led, you by chance discovered a kobold warren and vanquished the diminutive humanoids, slaying the entire tribe and looting their corpses and nests for your troubles. You were victorious, having caught the entire community — which had no idea what trouble approached — by surprise.

I wonder if you’ve caught on yet. We can try again, in case any readers are so used to the typical dungeon crawl adventure that the ethical absurdity of this situation hasn’t dawned on them yet:

You arrive at the mouth of a cave. After a few minutes of preparing yourselves — making sure your armor is securely fastened, lighting a torch, readying your weapons, taking stock of how much healing capability your cleric and paladin currently have available — you head into the gaping maw of subterranean darkness, eager to slaughter the creatures that await for glory and riches. Within the system of tunnels to which that cave entrace led, you by chance discovered a kobold warren and killed all of the diminutive humanoids, slaying the entire tribe to the last unhatched egg and the female who protected it, and looting their corpses and homes for your troubles. You were victorious, having caught the entire community — which had no idea what trouble approached — by surprise when you stealthily invaded the caves and descended upon them while the majority of them slept.

I read something recently that posed the question: “Will I lose my Paladin powers if I kill the kobold babies?” Clearly, there are some players who think about these things, but most of the time the GM carefully arranges circumstances so that you don’t have to, and can just view the intelligent foes you face as treasure drops in the ’80s video game, Gauntlet, with zero moral implications to your actions and only reputation, gold, and experience points at stake. Does your GM ever mention the noncombatants in the dungeon, or is it miraculously populated only by males bristling with (primitive) weapons and bearing hateful sneers on their inhuman snouts? How do they reproduce, anyway, if they don’t just “spawn” in a given location as if you were playing Everquest?

Let’s add some detail somewhere in the middle of the scenario:

Having carefully made your way deep into the tunnel system beneath the hills, you approach a source of firelight ahead. The tunnels, you see, eventually open into a huge cavern, with a few scattered campfires. The smoke of the fires escapes through cracks in the cavern’s ceiling, and there are neighborhoods of sorts gathered around each, with dividing partitions creating semi-private living areas made out of hides suspended from primitive wooden frames. Dozens of kobolds lie sleeping within these partitioned areas, perhaps separated along the lines of family units, in some cases including obviously very young kobold children, in some cases an egg or two.

The paladin uses his Detect Evil ability, and discovers that all the adults appear to be evil. You heft your weapons in your hands, call spells to mind, ready to rid the world of the scourge of these evil creatures.

Okay, so . . . what about the children? It seems they aren’t evil, which makes sense — they’re just children, after all. How likely are they to survive after their parents are all slain? Won’t some of them, as an act that would be considered good anywhere else, throw themselves into the fray to attempt to defend their parents from these invaders? Perhaps you can set up an ambush outside, then have one character who is fleet of foot draw their attention to lure them outside — thus leaving the children out of the fighting. Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of how you avoid leaving a bunch of defenseless children to die. Surely you don’t want to adopt a bunch of kobold youths and raise them as your own, teaching them how to be Good — and surely they wouldn’t stand for that anyway, after you’ve killed every adult they’ve ever known.

Let’s just adjust that last bit, to deal with this little problem:

The paladin uses his Detect Evil ability, and discovers that all the kobolds — male, female, old young, all of them — are evil. You heft your weapons in your hands, call spells to mind, ready to rid the world of the scourge of these evil creatures.

Okay, that makes everything better — but wait! The children are evil? What makes them evil, exactly? Are they evil even if they’ve never done anything to harm another, and in fact never intended to do so?

Maybe they’re evil because they have sadistic tendencies — because they really desire to cause others pain and do unpleasant things to them. Maybe murder, rape, and theft are in their blood (and we’ll just ignore the similarity of murder and theft to what the PCs are doing in this dungeon). Is a kobold still evil if he realizes indulging those desires is bad, and resists them? Is someone with pedophiliac urges evil if he, through force of will, resists those urges and passes away in his deathbed at the ripe old age of 83 having never indulged such urges throughout his life?

I mentioned two things I read in the last few days that got me thinking about the ethics within a gameworld again. The other is the Violence RPG, available for download as a free PDF from its designer’s Website. The whole thing is a satire on the way dungeon crawl games are conducted, casting the dungeon crawl slay-and-loot ethos in the modern, “real” world. In the real world, of course, there are no kobolds, so you kill people from poor neighborhoods instead, and take their “loot”, since — unlike the rich — they’re not very well defended.

If the game’s too long for you to read, maybe you should check out the reviews on rpg.net instead. Really, though, the Violence game itself is worth the read, from what I’ve read of it so far. I particularly like the section on Orcs (no, it doesn’t say there are orcs in the game — it just talks about the place orcs have in games in general, since Violence is more of an essay on the state of the gaming hobby than a real, serious game). In that section, the author devolves into a discussion of an injection of dharma and buddhism into the realm of Quake. It’s brilliant.

It also points out some of the problems I’ve had with the stereotypical dungeon crawl D&D adventure for more than two decades now.

My question is: Why doesn’t everyone have these issues with dungeon crawl adventures, and the ethical skew of the typical gameworld as a whole? Dungeon crawl adventure modules fly off the shelves, offering exactly the sort of murder-and-loot approach to the game as Violence offers, but nobody seems the least bit disturbed — at least until they read Violence itself.

I, for one, have never had a paladin character wipe out an entire kobold tribe. Have you?

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License