Wednesday 8 May 2013

Dealing with ethics in roleplaying games

Rarely do groups sit down on a Sunday night around a table full of maps, dice and pencils to take part in cerebral sparring matches on the subject of ethics - and why should they? Heroes do what they do generally because they have to. But as a GM, thinking about ethics can provide some fantastic fertile material for adventures - throwing adventurers into moral conundrums that will surely have the party torn.

 I'm not just talking about the kid kobold scenario. This is where the adventurers in a D&D game flush out a nest of kobolds only to find young kobolds in the final room. The question posed to the players is whether to slaughter these defenseless children or keep them alive, giving them a chance to warn other kobolds or grow up to attack villages and whatnot. This is probably one of the more simple ethical questions, but I want to go into deeper territory.

A staple of fantasy roleplaying is the raiding of historically significal sites. There is no doubt that within these places the adventurers will find riches and artifacts that they will no doubt relieve those locations of. This is such a common event, but actually it may not be the most heroic thing to do. As a GM you should think about what repercussions there could be for tomb-robbing or taking items from temples dedicated to ancient gods. What does the local town or even society as a whole think about these actions? What gives adventurers the right to plunder these sites, some of which could be of great value to the populace? Suddenly, your usual dungeon-crawl has become a chance for the characters to reflect on their actions and weigh up whether they should be taking anything from these temples, caves or castles.

Take it a step further. Ultimately, characters end up with fantastic weapons of great power. But how does society react to this? High level characters, particularly in 4e D&D are almost god-like. It stands to reason that some people may not like their incredible magic historical artifacts in the hands of some random travellers. Monarchs will be worried about the potential of being overthrown by such powerful beings and may hunt them down as a result. Even gods from other dimensions could hear of tales of these adventurers, who may be recklessly using their powers, and become paranoid, sending out waves of demons after them. Having these threats will force the players to think about the responsibility they have in the world and at higher levels to learn that they have reached a new plateau of social complexity, where they are under the spotlight of kings and gods.

You only need to open a newspaper for inspiration for these ethical puzzles. What are the pros and cons of advising this queen to go to war with another country? Is it right for the kingdom to kill people for being of a different race or creed, even if they are deemed evil? You can adapt news stories quite easily in order to challenge your players.


  1. Very interesting ideas here. I also wonder, alignment-wise, what a LG paladin should do in the kid kobold situation. Is it "good" to allow evil creatures, even young ones, to live? Would it be like an exterminator taking out all the adult termites infesting your home, but leaving the larvae?

    1. Depends on their view on whether kobolds are seen as vermin or sentient beings with emotions. I would probably go with the latter.

  2. Interesting article Scott... For me, one of the main differences between "roll-playing" (where players are focused more on stats and items) and "role-playing" (where players are more focused on the overall story and that of their character) is by having complex NPCs that more accurately reflects "reality".

    That is to say, where the NPCs are not neatly divided into black/white good/evil etc but are a much-more complicated mix of greys. Perhaps the kobolds are misunderstood, perhaps the evil wizard thinks that they're acting for a good cause, perhaps the paladin has flaws in their character such that their actions are questionable. Incorporating more complicated ethics, motives and consequences ultimately makes for a more interesting story I think, and lifts it above a simple matter of "which baddie do we take down next and get all their stuff" ;)