#237: Morality and Consequences: Overlooked Roleplay Essentials

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #237, on the subject of Morality and Consequences:  Overlooked Roleplay Essentials.

This is nothing new, really; it is more nostalgic. 

I don’t recall the exact date, but late in 1997 or possibly as late as early 1998, when Multiverser was first published, I had been invited to join a mailing list group (remember those?) of game designers, and did so.  I had not been there long when Gary Gygax posted to announce that a couple of guys were trying to launch a new web site for role playing games featuring a forum (remember those?), and they were hoping people would give them articles to publish.  I wrote a draft and e-mailed it to them, asking if something like this would suit them, expecting that they would respond and I would edit consistent with their recommendations; a day or two later I found that the draft had been published on the new site, Gaming Outpost.

It was a long and mostly happy relationship; I was still writing for the site one way or another up to its demise a few years back, including my four-year weekly series Game Ideas Unlimited and my original web log, Blogless Lepolt.  Shortly after the article posted I joined the forum to interact with the response (of which there was virtually none at all).  Because my Multiverser™ and temporal anomalies material and this article were published under the name “M. Joseph Young” (a name I had used for some pieces of satire published in the early 1980s in The Elmer Times here in New Jersey) but my Dungeons & Dragons™ and Bible material was under the name “Mark J. Young” (the name I used on stage as a musician and composer and on the radio), and I thought that “Mark Joseph Young” was too long for a handle, I registered as “M. J. Young”, the first time that name was used for me anywhere, the name subsequently becoming so identified with me that many people who knew me fairly well could not have told you what the initials represented.  I have been trying to obtain data from the crashed site, in the hope of recovering some of that material.  Meanwhile, the editors of the French edition of Places to Go, People to Be are always scavanging the web looking for my lost material, and they discovered this through The Wayback Machine and provided me with the link to the original copy (which I have given below).

Although I had already started several web sites (most of which are consolidated now as M. J. Young Net) this was the first time I wrote a piece for someone else’s site.  That became rather common, and I probably write almost as much for other sites (mostly the Christian Gamers Guild) as I do for my own at this point, but this is the article that started that.

Thus with the caveats that even when it was published I had expected to do a bit more polishing on it, I give it to you in its original form, unedited save for updated links:

Morality and Consequences:  Overlooked Gaming Essentials

Almost twenty years ago, shortly after I first discovered Dungeons & Dragons and the “grand thought experiment” which is role playing, I was regaled with the arguments of those who believed that this wonderfully challenging and relaxing form of intellectual recreation was the tool of Satan.  Well, if you’re in ministry you’re expected to know these things, and to uphold the true path.  Trouble was, I didn’t know it, and the more I looked at the arguments, the more certain I was that they were mistaken.  I said so, and I won quite a few battles; my responses are still winning that battle.

One of those arguments seemed to me to be particularly spurious.  Critics delighted in citing a few gamers who had said that playing evil characters was so much easier and more fun than playing good ones.  I don’t want to argue about whether it’s more fun to be the bad guy.  But my answer now is the same as it was then, that it shouldn’t be easier, and if it is, the referee is doing something wrong.  And the words and attitudes of a few players who didn’t understand the difficulties of playing evil characters were adding to the evil reputation of a game which, in my opinion, had the greatest potential for exploring and expressing faith of any recreational activity short of smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.

Yet twenty years later, gamers are still saying that it’s easier to play the bad guy, and I find myself wondering why that is.  It was never so at my table.  Villains are particularly difficult to play, for reasons which to me are obvious.  Why are so many referees letting so many players get away with murder?

And that was the answer.  I already had two degrees in theology before I discovered gaming, and I played with college graduates from several fields, with people involved in ministry, with philosophy students and history majors and businessmen–people who knew that you couldn’t get away with murder.  But apparently the typical gamers were still in school, many of them still in high school; and although for years I ran a game for the local high school kids, most of them run their own games.  And therein lies the rub.  A lot of gamers define evil as “I can do whatever I want, and get away with it.”  I’ve had a few gamers come to my table with that attitude.  The problem is, too many referees think that evil means, “he can do anything he wants, and get away with it.”  DM’s, GM’s, referees make great demands of those who would be the good heroes; but they expect nothing of those playing the villain.  Yet in many ways it’s much harder to be the villain, and the referee should make it so.

The referee must always remember that the villain is untrusted, untrustworthy, and untrusting.  He has no friends, only cronies, henchmen and partners in crime who would sell him out in an instant, as soon as his value drops below the asking price.  The concept of “honor among thieves” is promoted by con men who want to lull him into a false sense of security, so that at the right time they will get the first, hopefully fatal, blow.  Evil characters will never risk their own lives to save a comrade; they will risk no more than the comrade is worth, unless they have good reason to want him to believe they are loyal.

One gamer came to my table from a series of games in which all the characters were evil.  In that campaign, as the adventure drew to an end, the closer you got to home the less everyone slept and the fewer characters were left alive.  Never once did two characters have to divide the treasure between them when they got home.  These players knew what it meant to be evil.

But all of this relates to party members; and although non-player character party members are one of the referee’s most valuable tools in running a successful campaign, his ability to influence players into turning on each other may be somewhat limited.  What can a referee do to make a difference?

Pay attention to societal rules.  There have been very few times and places in history where you could kill someone in public in cold blood and get away with it, yet game characters seem to do this all the time.  Kill one man, and even if you had a good reason and it was a “fair” duel, you’ve got someone after you.  Kill him, and you’ve become a threat to society.  Whether it’s the law, a lynch mob, or a blood feud, the evil character will find that he has a lot of people out to get him.

What will complicate his life even more is the lack of support he gets.  A hero comes into town, and if his reputation precedes him he will be welcomed.  Common people like to have heroes around, because they offer protection and preserve the peace necessary for life to continue normally.  Villains who want support will have to threaten or bribe it out of people.  They will be shunned by all who dare, and probably driven out of town by the townsfolk jointly, possibly based on reputation alone, and certainly if they cause any trouble.  No one wants thieves and killers in their midst.

No, no one wants thieves and killers in their midst–not even other thieves and killers.  The player character makes the mistake of thinking that because he’s evil, other evil characters will be his friends.  He has no friends.  He may flee to the pirate haven or the thieves’ hideaway about which he’s heard, but they won’t welcome him with open arms.  They don’t trust each other, and they certainly aren’t going to trust a newcomer.  He could be the law, trying to get inside and take them out.  He could be a family member of one of their past victims, seeking vengeance on one of them.  He could be a hired assassin or bounty hunter intent on bringing someone back with him.  He could be another thief or killer, one more person to watch, to eliminate before he becomes a problem.  His best hopes are to convince them that he’s useful, and so remain alive as long as they remain convinced; or that he’s too powerful to challenge, and so face only the risks of being killed when he’s not looking or meeting someone bigger than he; or that he doesn’t matter, in which case he’s bound to become the brunt of the fun, the toy, the victim of every vicious sense of humor in the place.

Evil characters are not trusted, not by other evil characters and certainly not by good ones.  They are not trustworthy; they will ultimately betray each other, and they know it.  They are also not trusting.  Evil characters tend to think that everyone else thinks like they do, that everyone else is in it for themselves and will stab you in the back.  It’s a survival instinct among their cohorts, who really will kill them when it is to their advantage.  But evil characters don’t trust good characters, and don’t believe that the good characters aren’t working some “angle” or “game”.  The good character sees good as an end in itself, but the evil character sees the good deeds of others as a means to an end.  The good cleric collects money to feed the poor, but the evil character suspects that it’s filling the priest’s retirement fund.  The good fighter protects the villagers from attack, but the evil onlooker believes it’s a setup for a power grab.  He can’t trust anyone, because he’s sure they all think like him, and he knows better than to trust someone like him.

Players won’t want to play this out.  They tend to work together like good characters even when trying to be evil.  But there’s much that can be done to sow distrust between them.  Here are some ideas.

Whenever they find something of value, make certain that no one is sure how much it’s worth.  It’s easy for a referee to say, “you found five thousand gold coins”; but how does anyone know that there are five thousand gold coins?  Better to say, “you found gold coins, several thousand by your guess”, and require them to count it.  Make it clear to each of them that they don’t know the facts, only the information provided by the others.  If Glag and Scruff count the coins, tell Glag that he counts 2000, and tell Scruff that he counted 3000, and let them decide what to tell each other.  Better yet, create a possibility that one of them miscounted by a couple hundred coins.  Now Scruff counts only 2700, but if Glag recounts it, he’ll get 3000.  Make them acutely aware of how dependent they are on each other, and how vulnerable they are to misinformation.  Never openly tell a character the value of something he would know if the others don’t know it.  Give them the opportunity to distrust each other.

Give them indivisible treasure items.  Nothing causes more grief between evil characters than a horde of a few thousand gold coins and a single magic sword.  Any character who can use the sword will think he should have it and his share of the coins; any character who can’t use it will think that the sword should replace a share of the coins, or better yet be sold to someone else to increase the number of coins being shared.  The same can be done with particularly beautiful (and possibly meaningful) pieces of jewelry, rare technological devices, and other things which can benefit only one character.  And however it’s decided, make it something they will regret.  If one of the characters gets the item, have a non-player character ask someone who didn’t get it if he thinks the character would sell it for such-and-such a price.  If they sell it, remind the player character who wanted it that it would have been particularly useful in some situation which comes up shortly thereafter.

Do the same things in combat situations.  We all know that characters will sometimes be in the thick of trouble and other times be on the fringes.  Point it out when it happens:  “Glag, while you’re fighting these three orcs, you notice that Scruff is still standing in the doorway.”  “In that combat, Scruff took fifteen points of damage, but Glag was unharmed.”  Make them feel the inequities of their situation.  Remember, a good character will generally assume that his companions are doing their best to support the group, but an evil character will generally assume that his companions are trying to shift as much of the danger and hardship away from themselves and onto him.  Encourage that perception in everything you describe.

In short, if your players think that evil characters are easier to play than good ones, it’s time to straighten up your program.  Isolate them, create suspicion.  Pass a lot of notes around; nothing puts players on edge more than the idea that the referee is discussing something with one of the other players about which they know nothing..  If the timing is right, have some party member turn up dead.  You could have your non-player character do the assassination, or you could have the non-player character mysteriously die of what cannot be proved to be natural causes.  You could tell one of the player characters that he doesn’t feel well–suffering from indigestion or something–and then have him die (or nearly die) of symptoms which could have been poison.  Make them believe that they are each other’s worst enemies, and soon they will be making preemptive moves against each other.

If after all that they still believe that it is more fun to play evil characters, let them enjoy the game.  There are good practical reasons why good generally defeats evil in the end, and evil characters should eventually realize that they’re on the losing side.  But it can be fun to lose, even exhilarating, if you play well.

Just as long as they don’t think being evil is the easy road.

–M. Joseph Young is co-author of Multiverser:  The Game and Vice President for Development of Valdron Inc.  His many web pages on diverse subjects from Internet law to infravision are indexed for convenience.

*****

Regretably, the indices no longer exist, although hopefully the web site is organized well enough to find the material that is here.  The Wayback Machine copy of this article is at this link, but is not different from what is published here.

2 thoughts on “#237: Morality and Consequences: Overlooked Roleplay Essentials”

  1. Interestingly, you overlooked the most basic of things that make being evil an issue: Most of the world is not evil, per se. At least not in the sense used here. The majority of human settlements have people who adhere to some form of good, or at least lawful, conduct and, further, the local authorities are going to impose some level of order that does not allow for random killing and theft. It’s bad for business, which means taxes.

    So it should be hard for evil characters wherever they go in civilized places. At low levels they won’t be a match for the city watch. That leaves fleeing, or hanging.

    1. I did touch on that in the section about “societal rules”. At the time (1997) in my own mind I had done mostly AD&D, a fair amount of Gamma World, some Star Frontiers mostly on primitive planets–not a lot of games set in structured societies of a sort that could follow a criminal to another city. That was part of it, but a small part, I think.

      I also think that, by the definitions of AD&D, most people actually are evil. But I’ve already drafted the alignment piece on that for the Faith in Play series, so I’ll postpone comment on it for the present.

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