Tests of Moral Worth

By Mary Kuhner < mkkuhner@kingman.genetics.washington.edu >

This was originally a post to the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.frp.advocacy, "Tests of Moral Worth", posted on Jan 26, 1999.

I started out thinking of a virtue I wanted to test, then trying to come up with a situation to test it. This never worked well: the scenarios were usually painfully obvious, and felt contrived as well.

I finally got to see various good GMs do moral-choice scenarios, and ran a few mainly by accident. I have a couple of generalizations, though pure artistry is certainly an important requirement.

  1. Support multiple outcomes.

    If the player realizes, on a metagame level, that going over to the Dark Side (or whatever) will remove his PC from the game, you're stacking the deck against real in-game player engagement. I remember vividly the first game in which my PC became corrupted by an evil power *and the GM just kept going from there*. Suddenly the moral choices seemed much more immediate and much more real.

    This can be hard--obviously if Luke Skywalker turns into Darth Vader party cohesion will suffer. But you can look for choices where there are significant consequences, but they're survivable and allow play to continue in either case. One might imagine the GM preparing both for Luke's rescue of his friends and for Luke's dogged pursuit of his training.

  2. Don't stack the deck.

    Published moral-choice scenarios tend to beat the player over the head with the "right" decision (probably for fear he'll make some other decision: see point (1) above). This doesn't work: moral choices are not at their most interesting when they're dead obvious, and it can also feel like preaching rather than GMing. Ideally, the GM should present a choice where she feels some real attraction to both options. The Skywalker example above works for me: I can see some virtue in going and some virtue in staying, so I can present both the good and bad consequences of the PC's decision faithfully.

    If you just ask a PC to choose between betraying his faith or being faithful, being faithful is kind of a no-brainer -- it's obvious what the "right" answer is. If you ask a PC to choose between being faithful to his religion or to a secular ideal he holds, that's got more teeth, especially if you don't pick a "right" answer but just present the situation. (Sometimes, as in tests put forward by deities, you need to pick a "right" answer, but it helps not to let yourself get too attached to it. Ideally you should be able to say "This is the answer the deity wants" rather than "This is the right answer.")

  3. Play to your strengths.

    Someone recently posted a situation where a PC had to choose between giving in to exhaustion or pursuing his mission. This is relatively hard to pull off (possible, with some players, but always hard) because the PC's fatigue is a lot less actively present to the player than mission success is. You'll get better results if both options involve things that are actively portrayed in the game: mission success versus personal ambition, for example.

    I like Skywalker again here: the player can feel strongly both about rescuing his friends and about getting the training needed to defeat the long-term enemy. (As long, that is, as game-contract issues don't require him to do the rescue, or specify that if he doesn't rescue them *of course* they'll escape on their own.)

  4. Work with the specifics of character.

    Published moral choice scenarios are generally bland (RuneQuest occasionally provides exceptions) because they are generic. You'll do better if you focus on the specific character, both in providing temptations and in describing or implementing them. An example from a PC of mine: the GM will get nowhere throwing pretty women at Markus, since he has two extremely pretty women at home already. But show him a woman who has something demonic about her, something preternatural...a woman who seems mysterious, who keeps secrets... one who would be a real challenge to hunt down and seduce.... that may do the trick.

I have to go now: I'll try to do an example scenario later.

Mary Kuhner <mkkuhner@genetics.washington.edu>
Last modified: Wed Dec 6 12:20:25 2006