Much has been said about the fun one can have whilst embracing their darker side in an entirely fictional setting, be it in a choice-driven video game or a tabletop RPG. As the old adage goes, it can be good to be bad, especially when your insistence on flamethrowering the knowledgeable prisoner actively hinders your fellow players’ mission. I speak here though in defense of the saint, the hero, the martyr, those characters so committed to doing what they feel is the right thing that they would sooner surrender themselves than see people hurt. Making people that are ‘nice’ goes against our usual fantasies of no nonsense badasses and in any other fiction an impossibly noble hero would be criticised, but in an RPG the narrative can adapt to exploit their conscience. It’s up to the GM to challenge the moral compass of the character, and often the player.
The first RPG I ever played was Mage:The Ascension, a pleasantly freeform game of modern day wizards and seedy goings-on. My character was a life mage who went by the name of Gareth Christ-Gautama. He believed himself to have been both Jesus Christ and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) in a past life. He’d supposedly discovered this when he became a Life and Spirit mage, able to communicate with the spirits of his past lives. He was a prophet and always looking out for people to inspire, the nice kind of prophet though. He had a polytheistic view, and understood if people didn’t believe him. He was in the group to help right wrongs and his ultimate goal was to create Heaven. He would become so powerful that he could preserve everyone’s soul in a state of permanent euphoria upon their death. This never came to pass, unfortunately.*
The GM threw a number of dubious scenarios our way that tested Gareth’s limits. I had to comment on everything, including the events that were tame by usual RPG standards. When a vampire promised us information if we stole 30 pints of blood from a blood bank for her Gareth wasn’t having it. People needed that blood to live. He decided to use his own blood as an alternative. With a little help from his necromancer friend he successfully spent a whole night rapidly increasing the rate at which his white and red blood cells were produced. The harvest was done, and no one but him got hurt. Unfortunately for Gareth, given his lineage, he was considered holy in the eyes of the universe, and, as we all know, vampires don’t like holiness. When the vampire took a swig of blood half her face melted off. She was livid!
Things didn’t go well for Gareth. Every attempt to make things better ended in disaster. When he tried to convince an NPC friend of the group to turn herself in she became enraged and set off on a flaming killing spree that would result in the death of several shady but perfectly human agents. Peering into the spirit world and seeing that the souls of the men would remain in eternal torment, Gareth had a crisis of faith, weakening the power of his magic and his psyche. To top it all off, the rest of his group, the other players (who had been kept separate from his encounter with the fiery friend), didn’t believe Gareth’s (my) account of the meeting. They didn’t trust him because he had hidden the truth of his secret communication with the agency from them. They locked him in the boot of their car, lest he cause any more trouble. This was the last straw. So angry was Gareth that he ran away from it all, transporting himself to the spirit world to meditate, and hopefully commune with his favourite past selves.
Gareth’s composure was pushed to the limit. He wanted to be a good person but the world is a cruel, harsh place, and his failure to do so almost consumed him.
As a GM I like to try and put the players in positions in which their moral compasses, or those of their characters, are tested. My own recently finished Mage: The Ascension campaign contained hypocrite politicians, cops struggling not to succumb to corruption and kids caught on the wrong side of the tracks in a magic-fuelled gang war set to tear New York apart.
I have great distaste for D&D’s tried and tested alignment system. While it can be helpful to get an idea of a character’s personality early on, making something so fundamental as one’s morality so strictly defined seems a shame. I much prefer the Nature and Demeanour systems of the World of Darkness games. RPGs are malleable of course. My experiences with D&D would have been much better if the DM had accommodated for my ‘ask questions first’ approach to encounters with Chaotic Evil goblins and orcs. I want no such distinction when I’m GM. No matter how morally ambiguous your world and NPCs are, however, at least one player will inevitably act like a psychopath, either on purpose or by mistake. When my group were attacked by a group of criminal werewolves and wizards they left one, a street kid who’d gotten himself tangled with bad people, so burned that his eyes had melted. To his credit, one of the players tried to put the fire out early by beating it with his coat but rolled so poorly that he too caught fire. After getting a small scrap of information from the teen all but one of the group wanted to be the one to put the guy out of his misery. There was much debate so they rolled for the honour. The winner set him on fire again.
Psychopaths, or openly evil characters, can really screw up a GM’s carefully prepared narrative, especially if, in the case of two in my game, they have overpowered traits that make them practically unkillable**. Half of my game was spent managing fights between the players themselves, which made for interesting stories but massive rule-fudging. The poor characters just trying to do the right thing ended up getting hurt. When our inhumanly strong faux-vampire wizard decided to pick a fight with an entire gang of werewolves, his mortal enemies, Opher the Spirit Dog from the future tried to send him to sleep and transport him to the spirit world where he’d be safe, only to fail his magic rolls, again and again. The same character, now a real vampire working for the game’s intended final boss, later ripped poor Opher’s throat out. When one player locked an arcana and information broker in a fluctuating state of vaporisation and intense pain by deleting her with her own magic smart phone all Ben wanted to do was help. He pressed the undo button on the phone and ended up locking the broker and himself in the same position in space, trapping her mind and body inside his. As someone who likes to think of themself as a good person it was disheartening to see things go consistently wrong for the nice guys. It didn’t help that they hadn’t specced for combat whilst the players who had done so chose to attack or taunt anyone they felt like. A failure to make non-combat solutions viable was the very thing that had irritated me about the D&D GM’s approach before. I’d made what I hoped was a well-rounded scenario with grounded characters but there was no compensating for the whims of players. That’s still one of the best things about RPGs though, so I can’t begrudge the way things went too strongly.
Morality and ethics are some of the most interesting and complex aspects of Philosophy. Few mediums can play with this in the way that RPGs can. It makes for a much more personal experience. So the next time you find yourself ambushed by ne’er-do-wells, consider putting aside that fireball and reaching for your sleep spell instead.
*This itself is a bit ethically dubious, but that makes their supposed goodness all the more interesting.
**This was my fault of course. I should have made Nine Lives, Insensible to Pain and Immunity illegal from the start.