Monday, June 4, 2012

Moral Ambiguity to Irredeemable Evil Sliders

Well, I'm still trying to suss out what campaign to run with Saturday's group and have been tossing around a number of ideas. It's a tricky thing because, in truth, there's a bit of a disconnect between the various players' interests and my own. This isn't currently in keeping with their general play styles but also because most of them are in other games that scratch those itches and are after something a little different and a little more direct.

It's all good. Better to go with the flow than to dig your claws in and fight for supremacy! (Though that can be fun too).

Still, it's important to figure out how one thing can affect every other thing. So today I'm going to look at yet another slider on the campaign creation trail. Moral Ambiguity versus Irredeemable Evil. This isn't the same as greyscale versus black and white morality, where the philosophy behind the game is either 'anything can be moral given the right circumstances' compared to 'certain things are certain evil'.

No, what it's about is the state of the enemy (or the player characters themselves). Are the general foes they run up against absolutely evil or are they generally just a people with their own perspectives which may, right or wrong, cause pain and misery to others?

If the slider is right up on Moral Ambiguity side than the orcs are just a race of people with very brutal beliefs and nasty childhoods while if it's all the way over to Irredeemable Evil then they'll hurt you because, well, they want to hurt you. You can use this in World of Darkness as well. Are Changelings individuals or are they so fae-touched they've lost all connection with humanity or their conscience?

Generally, most campaigns vary the sliders up per race. The orcs have moral ambiguity but the tieflings are irredeemably evil. Some game worlds also vary the sliders. In the world of darkness, vampires are mostly evil with a fading spark of conscience and decency while changelings are ambiguous and spirits are irredeemable.

In a game with a lot of combat, generally what you're looking for are irredeemable evilness. This is why World War II makes such great fodder because it's easy to look at the Nazis as a representation of ultimate evil (never mind that individual Nazi soldiers were still human and prone to self-deception, pangs of conscience, and being unable to say no to the German war machine without being hurt for it).

When you're shooting Nazis in a World War II game, you don't want to deal with Nazis protecting German civilians or even a Nazi eighteenyearold nervously offering you a cigarette when you drop into the same fox hole. It's why even those games that do have the enemy surrender (I Am Alive, Skyrim) always have those same enemies stab you in the back when they have half a chance. Otherwise, you have the choice of either getting comfortable with cruelty or refusing to play the game (assuming there's not a second choice in-game, which there usually isn't). It's also why the evil paths in games are normally so ludicrously eeeeeeeevil. If it were a more realistic, human evil then it would be more relatable and easier to empathise with the victims.

On the other hand, in a game where you're meant to rescue people or even convert them to your path than moral complexity is necessary. I've seen Dungeon Masters run games where the victims are such selfish wankers who simply lack the backbone to be evil that I really didn't give two tosses what happened to their village.

Of course moral complexity has its down side in that, if you don't always know who the bad guy is then you have to be very cautious lest you become the bad guy yourself. Hell, on occasion, you WILL mess up and you WILL be the bad guy. After all, you're playing numerous adventures and you have a lot of tropes spurring you on (such as staying with the party - even if you don't like the party). You have to stuff up at least once. If you don't, it's because you've danced around with such caution that you sniffed out every possibly ambiguous angle before it happened ... and likely erred on the side of warrants and arrest then executions.

So have a think about your campaign and where you sit on the ambiguity scale and whether that's where you want to sit. If your players are being more cautious than you'd like, maybe you should allow some diabolically evil moustache-twirling villains into the arena.

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