Role-playing and Clashing Morals

by John Kim (November 2011)

         Sessions or adventures in role-playing games are often identified with stories - as seen from the name "Storyteller" for the house system created by White Wolf, to the identification of Narrativist play as "Story Now" among members of the Forge community, to the title "story games" for both an online community and as a title used for many recent games. The real relationship between interactive multiplayer games and stories, though, is quite complicated.

The Moral of the Story is...

         A common of understanding of "story" is a series of events told that has closure. That closure creates a point to the story - sometimes called the moral or the message. Of course, there are many different understandings of a typical story back to the time of Aristotle, and many alternate constructions. However, the basics of popular stories remain largely the same. The sense of closure comes from there being a distinct start to the story - an initial condition that is resolved. The start is variously called an unresolved situation, a break in the status quo, or a dramatic need.

         Role-playing game play is in some ways much like dramatic stories, but it is also quite different.

         In a story, there are two basic aspects to the moral: external and internal. A typical external moral is that in the end, the virtuous hero finds love and happiness, while the villains are punished for their sins. However, there is also a separate internal moral, conveyed by the dramatic arc of the main character. In the classical view, there is a sympathetic protagonist that the audience identifies with, and that character goes through an important transformation of their personality as a result of the story. For example, they may come of age, fall in love, or find forgiveness.

         Typically, the internal and external morals match up simply. In a simple tragedy, the protagonist has a flaw, suffers for his flaw, and by the end sees the error of his ways and is forgiven. However, it is possible for there to be a coherent moral message even if the internal and external seem at odds on the surface. For example, a protagonist might die in the end, but says that she dies happy because she found true love. Conversely, a villainous anti-hero might triumph in the end, showing the darkness in the world. The author can still make clear an intended moral message.

         In collaborative works, multiple creators may work together to create a story with a moral. Often, the creators will agree in advance on what the story will be, and thus what the moral will be. In traditional film production, for example, the director has a vision that guides the actors and crew. If there isn't such a guiding vision, the story is often said to have "mixed messages."

RPGs Can Have Clashing Morals

         In a role-playing game, there are multiple creators working together, improvising in real-time. This means that even if they arrange closure to situations created in the game, they will cast a different light on that closure in their part of it. While stories in static media have a moral message, games have a moral dialogue.

         This may seem like a subtle difference, but it has potentially very major consequences. One can divide morals in RPGs into two broad categories:

  1. Simple morals that all the players agree on. For example, the player characters fight against an obvious Nazi villain who at a crucial moment asks the characters to join him. The players all see the offer in the same way, a choice to join an obviously evil side.
  2. Conflicting morals that the players distinctly disagree on. For example, the player characters might be working for the Victorian English government. The players have fundamental differences on how they see the Victorian English government - some seeing it as oppressive and evil, while others see it as basically good despite flaws.

         Here is my key claim. Agreed morals are most likely to lead to structured, "story-like" closure. However, conflicted morals are most likely to lead to heart-felt dialogue about issues important to the players.

What do clashing morals look like?

         So how do clashing morals play out? There are many different ways.

         A simple and common case is a clash between two players, played out through disagreements over what the characters should do. The characters might just be stand-ins for the players, but that doesn't need to be so. The characters might stand for positions opposed to the players.

         As one example, I played in a long campaign set in late Victorian London around the time of Jack the Ripper. Reading about the conditions on the East End, I made my character who was a very law-and-order policeman. I portrayed him as violently racist, sexist, and even brutish. In this, I came to clash with one player in particular, whose character was a famous popular author in the mold of H. Rider Haggard. I didn't explicitly think it at the time, but in retrospect, the horrible bigoted policeman was my judgment of Victorian society. In turn, to me Mark's author reflected a less negative view. In play, these two frequently argued over what should be done.

         If this were a novel, these two characters might have a long-term conflict that resolves with a point made. However, in the game, we continued to push back and forth within the game with no distinct closure and resolution. The clashes were messy and unsolvable because they reflected our real-world views - conscious or not. The only way I could accept certain resolutions of that clash would be by disengaging from my real moral views.

How does the game-master influence the message?

         In traditional tabletop RPGs, the GM is dominant over external events, while the players are dominant over choices and portrayal of of their characters. ....

         One common way is this - some player characters do acts that the game-master considers morally wrong, but the players feel that the acts are justified given the circumstances. The game-master may genuinely think that this behavior only leads to trouble - i.e. "violence begets violence". Thus, elements under the game-masters control tend to play that out.

What do clashing morals look like?

         Clashing morals can be seen in many RPG situations. The simplest is where the players directly line up with their characters' views. So, two players might argue in character over what the right thing to do with a prisoner is. One demonstration of clashing morals can be seen in arguments among the players over what to do. For ....

Examples of Clashing Morals


         I think that this divide has been felt for a long time in design, but has not often been expressed clearly. In the 1980s and 1990s, many games emphasizing story encouraged structure in having a clear beginning that lays out the issues and a ending with a climax that resolves it. Games such as Star Wars, Deadlands, and Torg encouraged the GM to .... ....

Consequences for Design





John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sat Mar 24 00:21:45 2012