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?

13 Comments

  1. I must confess that I’ve never given ethics too much consideration either, although I have given some consideration to it.

    I do generally ignore non-combatants unless absolutely necessary. My encounters are generally with adult combatants only, mainly to avoid such a sticky situation.

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 28 June 2008 @ 05:12

  2. In a game it’s okay to kill NPCs even young ones. That’s because ethics only apply to reality. There is no ethical dilemma in regards to how you win a game. If you enjoy applying ethics to your game play, by all means do so. I did feel a touch bad when I betrayed all my friends and joined the dark side in Jade Empire, but I enjoyed having the option to play that way. I might not play that way if children were watching. But then those ethics are based on the real world.

    Comment by Seth — 30 June 2008 @ 07:49

  3. Movies are the same, really. http://www.cracked.com/article_16377_6-great-action-heroes-who-should-be-convicted-murder.html

    Movies have managed to climb above the censors by:

    a) persevering so that they become a part of culture b) making lots of money

    Computer games will follow this route for sure. When all the old people grew up with violent computer games, they won’t see the big deal.

    RPGs are a little different because they’re not as popular. They’ll probably never have that mainstream feel. So, as a result, there will always be those who fear what they do not understand who will try and censor them.

    Comment by Shackleton1 — 30 June 2008 @ 07:54

  4. Seth:

    Ethics are a part of roleplaying games, and (in case you haven’t actually played them, since the closest example you come up with is a computer game — not the same thing, even if they call it an RPG) they’re not usually played to “win”. When you’re playing a paladin in D&D, the idea behind the character is that he or she is someone devoted to law, order, justice, and goodness. How do you reconcile that with genocide?

    I have nothing against playing an evil character. I’ve played many evil characters in the past, as well as good characters. The problem isn’t having a character that does something evil — it’s playing nominally Good-aligned characters that engage in acts that, in any sane definitions of the terms, would be called Evil instead.

    Shackleton:

    Censorship is a completely separate issue from the issue I intended to address. You want to play an evil character? Go for it! Censorship certainly won’t help anything. Sometimes, good people like to portray evil characters, too. Gary Oldman has played some of the most evil bastards in modern cinema, and has done an excellent job of it. Many actors have commented on how much fun it is to play a villain. That doesn’t make the actor a bad person, or the resulting movie something that isn’t fit for viewing. In fact, with a very talented actor playing the role of a really interesting villain, it might make the movie even more worth watching — and any attempts to censor that are just wrong-headed, as far as I’m concerned.

    What bothers me is the tendency of people to, as pointed out in the link you provided (though I think a couple of the examples are a bit exaggerated to make the point), overlook criminally negligent acts that predictably harm and kill innocent bystanders without any specific need to do so — and worse, in many instances to overlook malicious murderous actions such as genocidal extermination in D&D games as performed by supposedly Good-aligned characters. “Oh, it’s okay — they’re just monsters. It says so right on the cover of the book, Monster Manual.”

    Comment by apotheon — 30 June 2008 @ 09:01

  5. This bothers me too, and it was half the motivation I had for creating the campaign setting I use now. Why it doesn’t bother more people is sort of beyond my understanding, but at the same time I’ve never had difficulty in breaking someone out of the dungeon delving mentality when I run them through a game that forces them to think a little more closely about who they’re killing and why. I think what Seth said has some truth to it, in that people are willing to suspend the normal sense of ethics they operate under as part of the game. How much they’re willing to suspend them might be a good question, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that limit. For example, my players have resorted to torture to get information out of people in just about every game I’ve run, and only twice have I had a player object to this.

    I don’t think this is all too different than when we see people suspending their general sense of ethics in real life under certain situations. It sort of reminds of the mindless jingoism that allows people to justify bombing civilians, actually. Probably the same mental factors at work, though there might be additoinal appeal in the game world for a black and white system specifically to escape from having to think of the complexity the real world forces on you.

    That’s proabably enough for most games, but I tend to think D&D takes it a step further because it presents a moral (alignment) system that’s rather absolute. There’s not much of an explanation of how it works in detail, so I’m confused as to how action even interacts with alignment. Players can change alignments, but it doesn’t seem like certain creatures can, specifically the ones that are from the hell inspired planes. Celestials can fall, but, say, a redeemed succubus will always ping as evil if a paladin turns on his evil-dar. Which is kind of ridiculous.

    I think I’m kind of rambling, but what I’m trying to get to is the thought process that goes something like this:

    Good nurtures and protects life. Evil destroys life. Destroying evil protects life, thus destroying evil is good.

    and detect evil becomes all the justification you need for doing anything to anyone that shows up as evil. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but I’m not even seeing this as a misreading of the alignment system. I think taking the default metaphysical layout of D&D will neccesarily result in some of these weird situations where “good” bears no resemblance to what we would consider ethical in real life.

    Comment by Mina — 2 July 2008 @ 02:09

  6. For example, my players have resorted to torture to get information out of people in just about every game I’ve run, and only twice have I had a player object to this.

    Well . . . I’ve had characters resort to torture as recently as last week, but they were never lawful good paladins. It’s not so much the fact that people have characters that do bad things that bothers me, as that people have characters that do bad things and they still think the characters are good. In fact, torture may not even always be wrong, per se, on an individual ethical level. My complaints about torture practiced by government are that:

    1. It’s bad at getting useful information. A lot of the time, the information you get is just wrong, because they’ll tell you anything to get you to stop. Allowing government functionaries to use such techniques is a great way to get innocent people arrested and tortured, as the victim of the original torture (even when guilty) is prone to give up any names (s)he can come up with to alleviate his/her suffering.

    2. Government has to operate under a framework of rules, rather than be trusted to make sound judgments, because it’s not a person — it is, itself, nothing but a framework of rules. There will be bad people acting as agents of government, period. If the rules under which they operate are not designed (pretty much solely) to protect people from the inevitable bad person who gets into a position of even minor power within government’s social machinery, innocent people will suffer for it. Period.

    As for the ethical character of torture itself — the right to be free from torture is like any other right. You have it until you abdicate it. That’s why it’s not unethical for a sexual sadist to torture a sexual masochist — and, to draw a parallel with other rights, that’s why it’s not unethical to incarcerate a murderer of 27 people: by demonstrating a willingness to ignore the rights of others so thoroughly, the murderer has demonstrated that (s)he does not value individual rights, and has therefore abdicated them. If torturing someone who has abdicated his/her rights could actually (reliably) serve to protect the rights of others, I’d say go for it, ethically speaking. It just can’t do that, in the general case.

    . . . and a lawful good character should really be acting in a fashion that would be supported by good laws. That’s sorta the point of the alignment.

    I don’t think this is all too different than when we see people suspending their general sense of ethics in real life under certain situations.

    Well . . . that depends on some other matters, too.

    1. Is the person really suspending his or her ethics, or does such behavior fit within his/her actual ethical system, regardless of how he/she wishes to be viewed?

    2. Is the person under duress? Being subject to threats of force can break people out of the restrictions of their usual ethical beliefs temporarily, and it can even be excused to varying degrees.

    So, yeah . . . it’s possible for people to act outside their ethical belief systems in a limited manner.

    It sort of reminds of the mindless jingoism that allows people to justify bombing civilians, actually.

    Most such people are not as ethical as they’d have you believe. Most such people are unwilling to consider the real ethical impact of their actions — which means they’re acting in willful negligence. That’s unethical, and typically not really a result of fear of threats of force. As far as I’m concerned, such people — given a chance to revise their opinions, perhaps, with a cold hard dose of reality — are more culpable in the deaths of innocents than the people actually pulling the triggers, since the people actually doing the killing are typically under orders and fear the consequences of failure to follow those orders. In other words, the killers themselves may be operating under threat of force themselves, while the civilians blithely and unironically saying things like “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” are not, which makes the behavior of the people doing the killing more excusable. “I was just following orders!” is not justification — but immediate fear for one’s own life is a reasonable excuse.

    . . . and that’s basically the difference between murder and justifiable homicide in a court of law.

    Celestials can fall, but, say, a redeemed succubus will always ping as evil if a paladin turns on his evil-dar. Which is kind of ridiculous.

    No disagreement from me.

    I think taking the default metaphysical layout of D&D will neccesarily result in some of these weird situations where “good” bears no resemblance to what we would consider ethical in real life.

    I think that actually depends on how the GM runs the game, actually. I don’t tend to send PCs into situations where they’re expected to invade a kobold warren and kill all its inhabitants. If they do have to invade some tribal home, it’s for something like freeing a prisoner — and if they’re presented with any moral quandaries, they’re the sort of moral quandaries you’d encounter in a similar situation in the real world (Torture? Collateral damage?), not the kind of thing you’d expect from the ethos that requires that genocide is sometimes an act of good even with nominally non-supernatural beings as the targets.

    Part of the problem, of course, is that a lot of it is in the hands of the GM. Will (s)he be prone to constructing circumstances in the gameworld that are predicated upon obviously broken moral and ethical assumptions? If so, the players are fairly well screwed, unless they can find someone else to run a game instead. Do the players even care, though, if that’s the case — or are they happy to accept such completely broken moral and ethical assumptions? Do they, somehow, think that’s normal?

    Do they have to kill the kobold baby — and do they think it’s odd that they have to do so, at all?

    In my experience (and estimation, since I can’t be 100% sure what’s going on inside someone else’s head), the answer to the second part of that is all too often “no”. Of course, none of this necessarily indicates that the players are ethically broken, themselves. It’s just a game, after all. On the other hand, utter failure to even privately consider how ethically broken the game is from time to time might be something of an indicator of a certain willingness to let others define moral and ethical assumptions for them without question.

    . . which is a definite weakness of character, in my estimation.

    Comment by apotheon — 2 July 2008 @ 09:58

  7. It really depends on the players & GM. I tend to play with really good roleplayers, which is to say most of them come up with interesting personalities for their characters, and ethics are a function of those personalities. Whether my character wants to kill the kobold babies or not then becomes a function of that character’s ethics… and I’ve been in games where this sort of thing gets argued over vociferously between characters.

    But then, we don’t play with off-the-shelf modules much AT ALL. :)

    Comment by heather (errantdreams) — 5 July 2008 @ 12:01

  8. I tend to play with really good roleplayers, which is to say most of them come up with interesting personalities for their characters, and ethics are a function of those personalities.

    That certainly sounds like a great way to define a roleplayer, to me. I’ve got a great group of roleplayers right now, and had such in high school, and even when I was in the Army playing with other US military members in Europe. I’ve also had the occasional disappointing experience with rollplayers, too.

    Whether my character wants to kill the kobold babies or not then becomes a function of that character’s ethics… and I’ve been in games where this sort of thing gets argued over vociferously between characters.

    Wonderful. Sounds like you had some great games.

    But then, we don’t play with off-the-shelf modules much AT ALL.

    Ditto. Most modules are mindless dungeon crawls, with a little “background” window dressing. Not really to my taste.

    Comment by apotheon — 5 July 2008 @ 12:10

  9. One of my favorite parts about defining a character and then playing within that character’s ethics is that it can push you to really think about why someone might feel or act a certain way, or how they might justify something to themselves. When done well (i.e., not just ‘I play an evil or selfish character as an excuse to act out’), whether you play a character whose ethics are ‘better,’ ‘worse,’ or just different from your own, you can learn a lot about yourself as well.

    and even when I was in the Army playing with other US military members in Europe

    Heh, most of my current gaming group is made up of current or ex-military members of one sort or another, or their family members.

    Comment by heather (errantdreams) — 5 July 2008 @ 01:24

  10. It sounds like your gaming proclivities very closely mirror my own, heather.

    Heh, most of my current gaming group is made up of current or ex-military members of one sort or another, or their family members.

    Any particular reason for that — or are you just lucky?

    Comment by apotheon — 5 July 2008 @ 07:02

  11. I think we’re just lucky. It’s one of those odd stories—we made some friends while playing Warcraft of all things, and it turned out they lived close by. We met up with them, and here we are, two or three years later, having made a whole raft of friends through them. They’re like family to us now. You just never know.

    Comment by heather (errantdreams) — 6 July 2008 @ 06:02

  12. You just never know.

    True, that.

    Comment by apotheon — 7 July 2008 @ 01:31

  13. […] A great post on the ethics of RPG adventures. […]

    Pingback by Errant Thoughts » Blog Archive » Time Off — 7 July 2008 @ 08:10

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