Monday, January 23, 2017

You Want Me to Think About How the Orc Feels Before I Kill Him? What Are You? A Pervert?

title unknown by Richard M. Powers

The other day I was reading reddit, as you do, when I ran across a thread that got my attention: Killing people is hard, but not in RPGs. The basic premise of the opening poster is that in life it's incredibly hard to kill people because reality is a complex bastard and that we should transpose this moral complexity over to our role-playing games and find a way to reflect that difficulty in how we play. 

This insistence on playing in a world of complex morality, where every decision should matter morally to me as a player has never appealed to me. Our real world is filled with that complexity and I deal with it every day so why should I deal with it in my game world too?

I don't and I won't. 

The real world that I live in is filled with moral complexity and I don't need to imagine what it feels like to deal with the fallout from terrible people doing terrible things and trying to keep my family safe with murderers, thieves, drug addicts, and criminals of all sorts living around me. I don't need to wonder how I would feel if I have to deal with rape survivors, the families of murder victims, or what it feels like to be robbed. I know all of those things too well and have no interest in replaying them in my games.
No, I would rather play in game worlds where things are morally simple. There are firm lines in what is good, and what is evil. We kill orcs because they would kill us, our families, and everyone we know or could ever hope to know. Why? Because they're evil. We don't worry about the moral repercussions of our actions because they're evil and fuck them. Role-playing games can be that simple, and for me they will be because I live with the complexity that some try to emulate every day. 


  1. I have no beef with morally simple.

    But this made me realize something. I think the way I use "moral complexity" is not on an emotional level. Rather I use it as part of the puzzle. Sometimes the players have to weigh the response of NPCs to possible solutions. Sometimes that have to weigh it against the reactions of other PCs. Sometimes they have to weigh it against the "code" they’ve created or assumed for their character.

    1. I actually like that sort of complexity. It's fun as opposed to the whole, "Now you must all imagine what it's like to be a person of X circumstance that makes them different from you."

  2. Our standards of Moral Complexity regarding the subject of bloodletting is vastly different now than in the Medieval era (For instance). Hell, our standards in the "west" are vastly different now than in the rest of the world. Across the Middle East, for example, people are regularly stoned to death for minor things like criticizing rulers or accusations of infidelity or for religious reasons. Petty thieves have their hands removed. In China, women are regularly arrested and forced to abort their children at gunpoint if they have too many, often resulting in the death of the mother. In Africa it is common for accusations of witchcraft to result in the death of the accused without even a shrug from the village.

    I think it's a specious argument based on the bulk of human history.

    Given the extraordinary level of danger in most fantasy RPGs I would think that a high level of bloody violence is not only expected but rewarded.


    1. I'll be honest Mike: I have no idea what you're responding to here.

  3. How's the orc feel befor you kill him? The orc feels like shagging, killing, and eaating you and not necassarily in that order. That's why you don't have to feel bad about killing the orc.

    1. I need this as a placard that I hang over my game table.

  4. Thanks for posting this. It brings to mind a Grognardia post from a few years back where someone took issue with the idea of "heroes" slaughtering a village of goblins or to "barge into a dungeon room with swords drawn" instead of showing a drop of mercy to one's foes.

    I guess it depends on the circumstances within the actual game, but as I commented on his post, "I have no problem taking my character and cutting down a village of goblins (or orcs or gibbering mouthers if there were such a village). To me it's the same as blowing up entire star fleets of evil aliens in Galaga."

    Here's the link to the post in case you're interested:

  5. I often struggle with this dichotomy.

    There is an attractive simplicity to white hats vs. black hats.

    On the other hand, if people want immersive role playing (where their character truly grows emotionally through emergent gameplay, not just through XP), there is something to be said about offering that character moral or ethical choices and letting the player consider "What would my character do vs. what would I do" in those circumstances.

    Emergent gameplay is a bit like lightning in a bottle. Sometimes things happen where you think "ok, wow... that was really unexpected, but super cool that we got to that place." There is a lot of rich role-playing goodness that can come out of these moments. I believe these moments are likely to be found more in a world that isn't paper cut outs of good guys vs. bad guys.

    One of the best examples was a campaign I was running a few years back. One of the primary antagonists of the party decided it would be better if they fought for him... So he actively tried to recruit them. His new purpose was to illustrate that his goals and the party's goals were not necessarily at odds such that he could forge an alliance.

    The game started to really get interesting at this juncture as at least 2 of the 5 party members started to seriously consider this option. Unfortunately, the campaign ended due to outside real life forces just before that situation was coming to a climax.

    The point being, that gray space between good and evil has a lot of really fascinating places to explore. If my guy had just been the "Big Bad", there is no moral complexity. But because, in his mind, he was out to save the world with a "the ends justify the means" way of thinking, the campaign experience was richer for both the DM and players. Think of The Watchmen, or perhaps even Rogue One. A deeper form of storytelling can emerge from that gray space.


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