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March 4th, 2008


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12:22 pm - Morality & Magic in RPGs
There's an absolutely wonderful RPG.net thread about morality & magic in RPGs , definitely an interesting and moderately diverse group of opinions.

I was most impressed with the following discussion (which includes the brilliant quotes that follow) this post about various ideas about morality and magic, taken from a utilitarian consequentialist perspective. As someone who holds to an essentially identical morality, I'm am in complete agreement with statements like:
Black magic as addictive and drug-like:
Arg! Hate hate hate hate! Rip and tear and cut and hurt the inappropriate metaphor! Hates it! Hates it forever!

*coughs* Ahem. I...have issue with this particular license of dramatic useage as applied to game worlds. For one, all it takes is a character in the world deciding "I will not be corrupted." to kick the metaphor in its ass. If the Dark Side of choice is sentient and capable of mind control, then you can achieve drug-like results, but the minute you lose narrative control over a character (either to the dice, or to a player), you make it possible for a character to dip into the dark side and never touch it again. Essentially, either you make going to the dark once an act that results in instant loss of free will and eventual inevitable slide into evil mojo, or you have people freely dipping into darkness, paying the consequence, and moving on.

And let's say that you do portray going to the dark as addictive. So what? Make heroin freely available and eliminate its health side effects, and it's a harmless addiction. If it is channeling dark magic that is addictive, then you'll get people venting their dark rage on dead slabs of beef twice a day, and going on to kick wizardly ass and take names. The minute you wrap actual rules and effects around "This magic makes you evil!" tropes, they burn and die in the face of people not being dumbasses. Authors and GMs, make a note.

On morality as handed down:
If the manifest force of spirituality does not have the best interests of people in mind, fuck it. Given a choice between evil magic that results in less harm, or no evil magic that results in more harm, the only moral choice is evil magic. Morality can't be shifted around independently; it's contingent on the details of the situation at hand. Morality, if it is to have any meaning beyond "What force X wants at the moment" has to be universal and absolute; otherwise, what's the point of paying attention to it in the first place?
It was quite useful when someone pointed out that one of the reasons I am simultaneously bored and annoyed by all narrativist RPGs is (in addition to my fairly strong simulationist preferences, is that the moral questions they focus on are of little interest to people with morals similar to mine. From my PoV, far too much fantasy, and especially far too much fantasy gaming using one of a variety of divine command morals and ethics, which can be an interesting thought experiment in a novel, but are from my PoV, not all that interesting to roleplay on more than an occasional basis, and should certainly not be the primary option available.

I suspect that part of the problem is to be found in the fact that (starting with first edition D&D) some games quantified morality, and by the late 80s and early 90s, other games began to introduce more extensive rules dealing with it. Having never seen such rules that I do not utterly loathe, I naturally gravitate towards games with absolutely no morality related attributes or mechanics. However, even here, most game worlds that possess magic have an implied morality, either typically the black & white morality of many fantasy worlds or the rigid and punitive morality found in far too much horror fiction and almost all horror RPGs.

Interestingly enough, when I try to think of games with magic that either do not possess and inherent morality or which possess one that I do not find simultaneously baffling and repugnant, the only examples that come immediately to mind are Nephilim [[1]] and Conspiracy X, which definitely has something to do with why I ended up writing magic-focused supplements for both games. In any case, I've not seen any more recent games, and I think that there should definitely be more games with a utilitarian morality.

Of course, to a large extent Exalted fits in this category, since it's perfectly obvious that in that cosmology all divine beings are vastly fallible (if not exceptionally corrupt), and in that setting, it's fairly clear that the only valid morality is based on personal choice rather than divine command. If you explore the morality of Exalted from this PoV, then the only valid answers I can see either lead to mind-controlled authoritarian states or a decision to find a way to wipe out Exaltation (especially Celestial Exaltation) and to promote Enlightened Essence in mortals, in order to maximize human freedom and potential, which could definitely lead to interesting games, especially since it's fairly easy to see how seemingly humane individuals could argue for either alternative.

[[1]] At least if you assume that Nephilim are humans who have awakened to the immortal nature of their soul and to the awareness and ability to use magic. Viewing them as horrific psychic parasites is a very different matter, and an interpretation I have absolutely no interest in.

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From:hasufin
Date:March 4th, 2008 08:59 pm (UTC)
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I've found that even an RPG with a very authoritarian view of morality, a good GM can make it into an interesting story (granted, sometimes with a few modifications to render the game playable, but that's common enough anyway).

One of the campaigns I most enjoyed playing was in L5R, which has a "black" magic system with some pretty dire consequences if you practice it. I did find it interesting to balance my character's desire to make use of the abilities it offered while concealing the side effects, and applying it in a positive fashion.
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From:slothman
Date:March 4th, 2008 09:39 pm (UTC)
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I’ve been having an interesting time coming up with a framework for my upcoming Star Wars game that is set before the Jedi have codified the notion of a Light Side and a Dark Side of the Force. The thing that I use there is that passion is something that you can call on to give you additional power when using the Force, and doing so is a very intense experience, which can be addictive. The calm passions are more useful for some of the powers, the active ones for others; the active passions aren’t more powerful, but it’s hard to call on the calm ones if something has you agitated. The Jedi of the films are the ones who are playing it safe and telling people to avoid all the active passions (which I’m dubbing the Shining Way); the Sith are the ones who will take whatever they can get to become more powerful (which I’m dubbing the Dark Way). The path that they don’t explore is the one where you can use righteous wrath, fear for your friends, and other such active emotions to fuel powers, and resist the temptation to get that rush of intensity when passions are misplaced (which I’m dubbing the Glittering Way). The Glittering Way requires more willpower, but is more balanced.
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From:heron61
Date:March 4th, 2008 09:43 pm (UTC)
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Oooh, I really like that idea. Very nice.
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From:athenian_abroad
Date:March 4th, 2008 10:24 pm (UTC)
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You already know of my fondness for magic that poses actual moral issues for the players to tussle with ("Every child under the age of three contains one point of vis.").

But you got me thinking about the alignment mechanics of (un-Advanced) D&D, back in the days when there were just "Law" and "Chaos" (and, I suppose, "Neutral"). Which always seemed a little like "Fascists vs. Sociopaths". (Now there's a game title! Or maybe a new mini-series from Dark Horse.)

But my point...such as it was...is that some of the old alignment mechanics seem, in retrospect, a lot like the "factions" in World of Warcraft: just a tool for structuring a more-or-less arbitrary "us vs. them" conflict, with no particular "moral" content.
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From:slothman
Date:March 5th, 2008 06:51 am (UTC)
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I’ll bet it’s Creo vis, too. Heh heh heh...


You might enjoy my basilisk farming encounter.

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From:siderea
Date:March 4th, 2008 10:56 pm (UTC)
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It's been a long time since I've played RPGs, but one concept which always struck me as tantalizing is exploring the idea of cultural prejudice and privilege through the social constructs of White/Black magic, where Black magic does not have any built in intrinsic magical negative consequences, but where it does have negative social consequences because it is taboo or ritually unclean (also see Carla Speed McNeil's Finder graphic novels and the portrayal of the Sin Eater).

One of the consequences of the "black magic is addictive" trope -- which doesn't bother me, I think, as much as you; I perceive it to be perfectly utilitarian within its worldview -- is the implication/statement that black magic is more effective/powerful than white magic. After all, if black magic has a negative consequence, and white magic can accomplish the same without the negative consequence, who would use it? So any world in which black magic is a clear and present temptation is a world in which black magic is significantly stronger (or at least believed to be so) than white magic.

I've never encountered anyone treating the black/white magic trope as fully as I think they should. It raises theodicy and related social problems: what is the meaning of magic, in general, in a society which knows that black magic is stronger than white magic? Well, one obvious possibility is that it is understood that there is, properly speaking, no white magic, only really weakened forms of black magic. In such a society, all magic quickly becomes forbidden, and the only people pretending to "white magic" are a feared and despised secret minority -- not unlike the medieval/renassiance discussion of magic, actually. (That could be fun to play!)

Essentially, either you make going to the dark once an act that results in instant loss of free will and eventual inevitable slide into evil mojo, or you have people freely dipping into darkness, paying the consequence, and moving on.

I disagree. It seems pretty straight forward to me how one could represent addiction in a dice system, which is neither fatalistic, nor meaningless. It does involve loss of free will -- randomly and temporarily. If each time you work black magic, your "Temptation" score grows, and once an hour while the character is under any performance stress (e.g. wandering a dungeon) the GM roles vs. temptation, and if the character looses, the GM hijacks the character and has them use black magic to solve a problem. Meanwhile, Temptation declines over time, left to its own devices. So if you resist temptation long enough, it resets to zero, but if you don't, it accelerates, and more and more you lose control of your character -- just like how addictions actually work.

Alternatively, instead of modeling it mechanistically -- I prefer as a GM not to model psychological phenomena -- one could simply expose the player to temptation. "Spell X does Y damage. Unless you do this ritualized act of cruelty to an unwilling innocent victim first, in which case it does 10Y damage but anyone who does a 'detect evil' on you will see it like a signal flare. Up to you."
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From:mindstalk
Date:March 4th, 2008 11:32 pm (UTC)
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Easier black magic: defiler/preserver magic in AD&D Dark Sun, where preserver magic drained a bit of mana from a wide area, while defiler magic totally destroyed plants right here. Well, I assume defiler magic was easier... surely there have been systems out there modeling human sacrifice giving you a power boost.

And, heron61, didn't you have moral magic in Blue Rose? Sorcery and Taint/Corruption? With aspects of giving in making magic easier and more powerful, too, though some say the mechanics could have been better.

Recently on rpg.net -- maybe that thread? -- people were talking about nWoD morality/angst mechanics and redoing them. Someone suggested scrapping Morality, and replacing it with Other -- Beast or Rage or Hubris. Giving in to certain acts increased the score, which was also your power score.
http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=381773
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From:siderea
Date:March 4th, 2008 10:57 pm (UTC)
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P.S. I also think it would be way cool to play a society in which there are competing paradigms of White/Black magic, and what constitutes each. There's a rich vein of angsty goodness in the double-binds which will necessarily follow from that set-up. :D
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From:heron61
Date:March 4th, 2008 11:00 pm (UTC)
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Most definitely. I think there's a lot of potental in that idea.
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From:siderea
Date:March 4th, 2008 11:13 pm (UTC)
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Also interesting from that post:

Here's another issue that often gets glossed over in many forms of urban fantasy and modern magical tales; if magic or wizardly status is something inborn, doesn't that make the racists right? [...] You can't say that muggles are necessarily worse than wizards morally, of course, but you can say that they, like children, are inherently incapable of understanding the world at large (with its magical bits) and that like children, they need to be governed and cannot be trusted with free will.

Some of my professors would agree... which is why they don't believe -- literally, think is meaningless and has no real-world referent -- the concept of intelligence and IQ.

I disagree, of course. I think human beings differ in their capacities, and innate aptitude for cognitive work is one such. And I think that our society has completely and utterly failed to confront that fact in our civic moral development, and I think that is going to be disasterous for us as a society.

(This is why I despise the movie "Gattaca": it asked all the hard questions, then copped out and backed away from them at the end.)
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From:heron61
Date:March 4th, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC)
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I agree that cognitive capacities are variable, but it's somewhat less clear that they are fixed. I was fairly impressed with this article about the heritability and malleability of IQ. OTOH, you likely know considerably more about this issue, and I'd be interested to hear your perspective on this article.

In any case, I completely agree about Gattaca, it was one of only a handful of SF films that wasn't a ultimately an action film, but it also definitely copped out on most of the questions it was looking at. Instead of ending up with a simple (and not unreasonable) endorsement that capacities are not utterly rigid and fixed, it seems far more to support the idea that in some way the "Valids" were in some way inherently inferior to unmodified humans, which was both silly and ignorant.
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From:frater_treinta
Date:March 5th, 2008 12:27 am (UTC)
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I thought Mage: the Ascension possessed the advantage of an extremely morally-neutral system of magic. The rules didn't much care what you were doing, just how you were doing it.
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From:heron61
Date:March 5th, 2008 12:56 am (UTC)
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To some extent, but (except in those places where some of us attempted to work against this - something that was most obvious in the Mage: Rev book Convention Book: Iteration X) there was a strong inherent bias against both the Technocracy and modern technology in general.
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From:xi_o_teaz
Date:March 5th, 2008 05:22 am (UTC)
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No groups I ever really used the (A)D&D alignment system, unless someone picked an alignment-specific class like the Paladins. I completely ignored alignments when I was DMing, although I had lots of other ways of encouraging the player's to flesh out their PCs.
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From:mikkop
Date:March 5th, 2008 05:39 am (UTC)
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You've written a lot for White Wolf, and the current World of Darkness system has an attribute which tries somewhat to track morality. It's different for baseline humans and the various supernaturals, but the basic thing is that it's a value which changes according to what moral and immoral acts (from some point of view) you do.

How do you feel about this attribute? I'm just interested because I don't like morality attributes myself that much, and in most WoD games we've almost ignored the attribute aside from obvious mechanical effects.

We haven't played long campaigns, though, and we've been pretty low-powered and law-abiding, so the morality attributes haven't changed much.
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From:heron61
Date:March 5th, 2008 06:26 am (UTC)
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The only think I like about nWoD morality (and the related supernatural attributes) is how simple they are to utterly remove from the game, which is what I find most useful to do.
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From:rjgrady
Date:March 5th, 2008 07:13 pm (UTC)
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I've always liked gaming the Star Wars universe, because although the Light Side and Dark Side are "out there," the moral choices all come to integrity and the really personal. Naturally, I despise a lot of the EU for pushing the whole "This is your brain on the Dark Side!" angle. I've also had ... words... with GM Sarli on the matter of the Dark Side, which resulted in a locked thread on the official SW Saga forums.
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From:xuenay
Date:March 5th, 2008 11:40 pm (UTC)
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I find it interesting that you find narrativist RPGs to be boring and annoying because they concentrate on moral issues - in my experience, while there are a bunch of narrativist games that do that, it's far from all of them. And even many of the ones that have an implied moral stance - My Life With Master, for instance - can easily be ran in a fashion that concentrates on something else entirely. I've been running it, not as much as a game of moral dilemmas, but as a psychological power struggle - the Master is out to so utterly crush the psyches of the minions that they won't resist him anymore, by any means necessary. If the characters are hurt by being forced to do immoral things, then he'll make them do immoral things, but if it requires something else, then he'll use something else.

In the linked post, you mention that narrativist games are often built to make an immersive experience hard. There are certainly some elements about narrativist games that do this - for instance, both I and a friend have found aggressive, "jump right into the exciting bits" scene framing that's favored by narrativist games to make it harder to stay in character. But that's something that's easy to change, and I like the way that narrativist games are built to actually encourage roleplaying. The typical traditional RPG pretty much only has two rules that have anything to do with roleplaying: there are optional disadvantages that net you extra points at character creation and forbid you from doing specific things during the game, and then the "how much experience to award per session" guidelines typically have a vague mention of good roleplaying awarding you extra experience. Narrativist games, on the other hand, are built so that the majority of the rules guide you to roleplay your character. For instance, the Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday are one of the most brilliant pieces of game design I've ever seen, in terms of crafting rules that encourage role-playing and immersion.

It's probably also worth mentioning that the previously mentioned friend has said the My Life With Master campaign I'm running is one of the most immersive and intense games she's ever played in (though we've cut scene framing almost entirely and are running it more as a conventional RPG in that regard) - at times it's been intense enough that she's been near the point of bursting into tears.
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From:heron61
Date:March 6th, 2008 02:28 am (UTC)
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I've tried a couple of narrativist RPGs, and I find the focus on moral choices to be somewhat uninteresting, but my primary objection is that they are impressively anti-immersive. Much of this has to do with the emphais on metagaming mechanics and players affecting the setting and situations in ways that do not directly involve their characters. For me, that utterly kills any immersion I have. I discuss features in RPGs that I have found to promote immersion in this post.. Also, I specifically do not way rules about how to roleplay my character - I dislike all personnality mechanics and prefer stripping them out of any game I play. I want rules to govern the interaction between the character and the setting, not the inside of the character's head. For me, immersion is about getting inside the character's head, and personality mechanics seriously interfere with this.

Hmm, it might be useful to define immersion. The best description of the differences between the (radically) different definitions of immersion that are in use came from this post on RPG.net. I add my own comments on these definitions here. In any case, when I use the term immersion, I pretty much exclusively mean the first sort described in the first post - the sense of being in a particular place and experiencing both the place and the character I'm playing as fully as possible. At least IME, nar games seem designed to do something different and either orthogonal or antithetical (I'm not entirely certain which) to my preferred style of gaming.


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