Morality Systems in RPGs Part 3: Subjectivity vs. Objectivity

So I’ve talked a bit about a couple of different morality systems, and the one common problem I’m seeing is that morality is subjective, but game mechanics are objective.

A character with a high Strength score is going to be more likely to succeed at a Strength check because the stronger someone is they better they are at performing feats of strength. That isn’t an opinion, and it’s not open to interpretation. That’s just the way it is.

We tend to thing of morality as working the same way; right is right, and wrong is wrong. But our rhetoric on morality doesn’t really reflect the truth of it. We interpret, we make exceptions, we rationalize actions we would otherwise consider “evil”. Most people agree that it’s wrong to kill other people… unless you’re a soldier in a war, or if you’re killing out of self defense, or if the person being killed really fuckin’ deserves it. Furthermore, we have degrees of how bad we think something is depending on the circumstances; we tend to think of pre-meditated murder as being worse that an impassioned or accidental killing. They’re all wrong, but one is more wrong than the others.

Can this be reflected in game mechanics? Maybe, but it seems difficult. As I’ve said before, game mechanics are a reflection of the physical laws of the game’s setting. A sword’s damage rating reflects the way sharpened metal of a certain size and shape interacts with flesh under the application of force. A race’s base speed reflects it’s capacity for locomotion as determined by biology. It doesn’t matter if you think you can move faster, you can’t. But what you’re character thinks about her choices and actions should matter, as should the opinions of those affected by those actions. This is an element of morality that has a tendency to get lost when cramming subjective, gray ethics into objective, black and white game mechanics, leaving players and GMs in the position of often making exceptions and judgement calls to the rules. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing that, but you’re game’s systems shouldn’t make it necessary.

The better question is, should morality be reflected in game mechanics, and the more I think about it the more I want to say no. This seems like something better left as a role playing element. Yes, a character’s actions should have an impact on her; if she begins her adventure claiming to be a pacifist but ends up slaying a bunch of bad guys, that should have an effect on how you play her. But don’t rely on a game mechanic to tell you how to play your character, the rules don’t know her as well as you do and can’t possibly tell you exactly how those changes will manifest. Does she become crazy and maniacal, fully embracing the path of destruction she’s set out on? Or does she become quiet and withdrawn, overcome with remorse over the terrible deeds she’s done?

And hey, GMs, this isn’t all on the players! Does the character described above have a chance at redemption, and if so, how can that be achieved? How will the society around her be impacted by her actions? Is she a celebrated hero for ridding the village of the barbarian scourge that plagued them, or is she seen as a war criminal who went too far? If the character’s player decided to go with the homicidal maniac archetype, how exactly does her madness manifest?  Is there a higher power in your world, and if so, how does it react to this woman’s crimes?

These are all big question that deserve more careful and in depth consideration that “make a roll” or “change your alignment”.


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