Morality Systems in RPGs Part 2: Morality in the World of Darkness

Greetings fellow gamers! I hope you all enjoyed last week’s analysis of D&D Alignments. Today I’m going to continue my ramblings on morality systems by talking about the Morality system in the Storytelling System as presented in the World of Darkness Core Rulebook.

Before I talk about this system, however, I’d like to address some things I’m not talking about. First, I’m not talking about the new Integrity system that has officially replaced Mortality as of the God Machine Chronicle rules update, and the reason I’m not talking about that is that while I understand the mechanics of Integrity, I’m not very clear on what those mechanics represent. I understand the difference between a character with a Morality of 7 versus a Morality of 5 (i.e. the latter is ok with behavior on par with arson, while the former isn’t), but I don’t really get what an Integrity score actually says about a character. So I’m sticking with the original Morality.

I’m also not going to talk very much about the alternatives to Morality in the games that share the World of Darkness setting. For example, while the mortal characters that the WOD book focuses on keep track of Morality (a measurement of how good of a person they are), the characters in Mage: the Awakening keep track of Wisdom (a measurement of how responsibly they use their magic). Mages, Vampires, Werewolves, Changelings, Prometheans, Geists, Mummies, and Demons all have their own traits which reflect concerns other than morality that are important to them. These alternate traits look a lot like Morality, but represent something different, so this discussion is focusing on Morality that matters to normal people and minor supernatural types, such as psychics or ritual magicians.

Ok, that shit’s out of the way, let’s talk mechanics!

If you’re not familiar with the Storytelling System used in the new World of Darkness games, the core mechanic is that your characters traits determine a pool of d10s that you get to roll. Each die that is an 8, 9, or 10 is a success, and the 10s get to be re-rolled for extra successes. The more successes you have, the more successful, you are. Most actions only require one success, but that’s not always the case.

A WOD character has a Morality rating from 1-10, with the average person having 7; in fact 7 is the starting value of the trait. You can increase Morality through experience points, and you lose Morality by committing “sins”. When your character does something bad, the Storyteller (i.e. GM) compares that action to this list found on page 91 of World of Darkness:

 

Morality    Sin

     10         Selfish thoughts. (Roll five dice.)

        9         Minor selfish act (withholding charity). (Roll five dice.)

        8         Injury to another (accidental or otherwise). (Roll four dice.)

        7         Petty theft (shoplifting). (Roll four dice.)

        6          Grand theft (burglary). (Roll three dice.)

        5          Intentional, mass property damage (arson). (Roll three dice.)

        4          Impassioned crime (manslaughter). (Roll three dice.)

        3          Planned crime (murder). (Roll two dice.)

        2          Casual/callous crime (serial murder). (Roll two dice.)

        1          Utter perversion, heinous act (mass murder). (Roll two dice.)

If the sin is at or below your Morality rating, you roll the number of dice listed for the sin. This roll is called a degeneration roll. If the degeneration roll succeeds, you get to keep your morality the way it is. If it fails, your Morality drops by one, and you have to roll the number of diced listed for your new Morality to avoid gaining a derangement; a mental or behavioral flaw, such as depression or suspicion, or maybe even something more sever like melancholia or paranoia.

So, a character with Morality 7 who commits murder must roll two dice to maintain her Morality. If she fails, her Morality drops to 6, and she must roll three dice to avoid gaining a derangement.

This systems has pros and cons. One pro that I think this system has over other morality systems, like D&D alignments, is that instead of putting morality into neat little boxes, Morality is present more as a spectrum. A character whose Morality is 6 isn’t a pinnacle of virtue, but isn’t a monster either. It’s a much more detailed, and I think realistic, approach than saying “good, evil, or neither”. It also takes into account that good people sometimes do bad things. Sure, my Morality 7 character stole that car, but it could have been out of necessity (e.g. I’m running from a really fast werewolf and I need to move faster). That single act doesn’t necessarily mean he’s become a worse person; if he succeeds at his degeneration roll, it means he hasn’t accepted burglary as an acceptable action. I also like that higher Morality characters have a harder time maintaining their Morality; a Morality 10 character has to make degeneration rolls every time she has a selfish thought, which is really hard not to do.

One of the biggest cons with this system is that it’s vague. We’re only given ten examples of what constitutes a “sin”, and when a character does something that seems wrong but isn’t on the list, it can be tricky determining what level of Morality that action falls upon. This is complicated further by the fact that a lot of sins can believably fall on multiple levels.

For example, lets say your character rapes someone…

Hey, don’t look at me like that! The “darkness” in World of Darkness doesn’t just mean the literal absence of photons! Exploring the more fucked up sides of humanity is half the damn point of playing this game. World of Darkness is not a game for the squeamish, feint of heart, or immature!

Anyways, your character rapes someone. Where does that fall on the hierarchy of sins? It’s an act that is certainly born from selfish thoughts (Morality 10), it causes injury to another (Morality 8) and it’s an impassioned crime (Morality 4). So clearly a character with Morality 4 or higher needs to make a roll. But does that mean a character with Morality 3 or lower can commit rape without facing consequences in terms of game mechanics? Could in not be argued that rape is a heinous act, one of utter perversion (Morality 1)? I would agree with that, but I don’t know if I’d agree that rape is on the same level as mass murder, which is the example given for “utter perversion/heinous act”.

Maybe you do think that rape and mass murder are on the same level, and that’s certainly a valid perspective. But it illustrates another big problem with the Morality system, it doesn’t account for the subjective nature of morality. Now the rape thing was an extreme example, but where does infidelity fall on this spectrum? Compared to other kinds of sins, like rape or murder, cheating on your significant other may seem like a minor selfish act, and at Morality 9 that means the average person doesn’t face possible degeneration or derangement. But when viewed in terms of the emotional impact that act of infidelity had on the person being cheated on, it starts to seem more like injury to another (Morality 8). Ok, still not a threat to the average person. But could this not also be called an impassioned crime? Sure, but is it on par with manslaughter? Because those are both Morality 4.

One other con is the connection to losing Morality and gaining derangement, a system based on Victorian (i.e. outdated and bullshitty) views on mental health, and it’s one of the reasons that Morality was eventually replaced with Integrity.

In summary I’d say that this Morality system had kind of the right idea, but could have been executed better. I think it’s better than D&D alignments, but it’s better in a way that, to me, really puts a spotlight on the difficulties inherent in trying to quantify ethics in a game mechanic. I’ll be doing another post on the topic of morality systems next week.

Thanks for reading.

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