Do the Ends Justify the Means? 7 Moral Dilemma Seeds
Moral Dilemmas seem to be a hot topic lately. Last week I was formulating a plan to write this article and then, the very next day, Stephen Radney-MacFarland (SRM; neogrognard) posted a great article about moral issues on the Wizards of the Coast website. The next day my friend, NewbieDM, wrote a great article on the same topic over on his website, newbieDM.com. Luckily neither one of these articles renders my contribution moot, and in fact I think these three articles are very complimentary to each other.
SRM goes a long way in telling you why moral conundrums are important in your game; among many other reasons, they keep the story fresh and the players engaged. NewbieDM’s article strengthens the points SRM talks about and then adds a couple of examples and tips. This article will expand on those by giving you 7 system-neutral moral dilemma seeds to work into your game.
One of the key ways to determine if you have an appropriate moral conundrum is to listen to the questions the players have about the situation. These may not be stated as questions, but will usually be put forth as the reasonings of the PC as the party investigates and discusses the issue. Those are really statements about the assumptions of the PCs and they can tell you a lot about what the party thinks is going on and who they believe to be the “good guy” and the “bad guy” in any given situation. If the party is sifting through a lot of options and opinions, you have probably done a pretty good job of setting up a meaningful moral conundrum for your players. Because these questions are so important to gauging the effects of the situation, these seeds provide lots of questions to help you design an appropriate moral dilemma for your group.
1. Hostage Release
This is a set-up found in many popular books and movies. There are two ways to get to this situation: 1) a villain purposefully takes hostages in an effort to obtain something that he/she wants, or 2) the villain is forced to take hostages as he/she is caught in the midst of a crime and feels cornered. The hostage taker can be of many minds and motivations, enjoying the murder of innocent hostages, feeling trapped but not wanting to hurt innocents, or anywhere in between. Exploring this motivation is where you can make situations feel fresh and new. This scene should be played up based upon how the party reacts. For example: If one party member takes the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” attitude, the villain may just end up killing all the hostages and the party may become unpopular with the locals. If the party wants to offer the villain a deal, but does not have the proper authority to negotiate, who do they have to go to? Whose debt will the party be in if they need to call in a favor to resolve this situation? What if they decide the villain has been set up and pushed into this action unjustly? What if the party turns up at the scene and finds that the villain is a known and trusted NPC?
2. Neutral Villain
This villain is not evil for evil’s sake. In fact, this person may be doing something bad for all the right reasons. Perhaps the villain has a sick loved-one and has found that the root of a particular plant/tree relieves the symptoms of the illness. This root is the primary food of a group of (normally good aligned) creatures that lives in the forest and bad things are happening to the town because the creatures perceive that “townsfolk are stealing our food.” The villain is not actually committing an evil act, but when confronted will refuse to stop, thereby forcing the town to endure the attacks of the creatures. Once the party finds this out, they have to find a way to convince the villain to stop stealing the roots. That sounds innocuous enough, right? It sounds not really very much like a moral conundrum – obviously you would want to side with the human in this story, right? Didn’t hit your moral outrage button? Okay, change the plant/tree root in the above example to blood from children under age 10. The villain doesn’t kill them, but has to kidnap them and perform a bloodletting before releasing them. Now it sounds very villainous, doesn’t it? Remember that the impact of a moral question is based upon the beliefs of the players – if the party is full of nature-loving druids, the first situation described might be enough to cause them to act.
This is a situation that consists of an evil act for a good cause. The basics of this moral dilemma are that a (usually) non-evil NPC is causing harm, directly or indirectly, to another for a good cause. Another Example: Rescuing a child by sacrificing someone else. The main question here, and in many good moral dilemmas is, “Do the ends justify the means?“
3. Mob Mentality
Taking on the mob mentality makes people do things they would not otherwise do, especially if they had to face their victims one on one. Does that absolve one of responsibility? Does it equate to temporary insanity or coercion? This set-up can be difficult because it requires the party to take on an investigation task and that is not always easy to set-up and pull-off in an RPG.
Here is the scene: a local man has been accused of theft and brutality by several of the women in town. They did not actually see the face of their attacker, but they are sure it is the accused man. The party has been hired by the local constable to look into the incidents and bring someone to justice. While the party is still investigating, several locals (hereafter referred to as the mob) get together, go to the home of the accused, ransack the house/property, and then murder the man. None of the mob members realize that the wife was home but hiding in the cellar, and that she witnessed the murder first hand. Now the party is not only investigating the initial attacks, but the murder of the accused. As the party’s investigation continues the members of the mob all point to one main instigator and try to deny responsibility for their crimes, deflecting guilt back upon this organizer. Where is the moral conundrum? Several places actually… You can tell because we have lots of questions. Remember, if the players have questions and make assumptions about the situation you are on the right track.
If the murdered man was actually guilty, then did he deserve to be murdered? What if he had assaulted not only women, but children as well? Was the mob right in offing him or should they be prosecuted? Is vigilante justice okay in this town and world? What if the man was innocent? How do you decide who to bring up on charges – the man who organized the mob or the one that delivered the killing blow? Both? All members of the mob? At this point the party may find that the original assaults were actually perpetrated by someone else (the mob organizer, an as yet unidentified NPC, maybe even the wife of the accused, or one of the victims). If that is the case, how does a small adventuring party parse out the truth and make recommendations of arrest to the constable?
4. Stolen Goods
Buying stolen goods and the party finding out they were unknowingly buying them is always a good conundrum to get into. How do you turn it into a big moral issue? The players may not care about what seems to be petty thievery, so you have to make this story more about the characters than the theft. It is always good to create a relationship between the party and NPC before springing this situation on them.
What if the person that sold them has become a friend to the PCs? When they find out it has all been stolen goods, do they rat out the NPC? Do they hold the threat of exposure over the head of the NPC to get even better prices? What if they are hired to find out who has been stealing from NPC #2’s warehouses? What if the NPC seller is the member of a noble merchant family and exposure would plunge the city into an economic downward spiral? What if the NPC seller was simply trying to compete with a corrupt company/guild that is known for taking callous policies towards the poor? What if the NPC started fencing the goods to feed her starving family and the business bloomed because she found she is a good saleswoman? Unfortunately she cannot gain entry into the merchants guild because she is not of noble birth – should the party turn her in? What if they will anger their benefactor, lose payment for this job and not get future jobs if they don’t turn her in? This is the situation where the party is faced with the decision to turn on a trusted ally or friendly NPC to avoid unpleasant circumstances later. But, no matter what, they will have betrayed a friend and that always has consequences, even if their intentions were good and morality was on their side.
5. Turncoat Advisor
This is a situation where a trusted advisor to the party has been found out. The advisor is unquestionably guilty of performing morally questionable acts. This is another situation where the party must have a relationship with the NPC before this can come to be. It is much more powerful and thought provoking when a trusted and well-liked NPC has a dark side. Did she (the mentor) do it for good reasons? Did she unknowingly get involved in something evil? Did she do it after a particular event? Has she been participating in evil the entire time the party has known her? What does that say about the party? Will their reputation change because of their affiliation to her now that she has been exposed as corrupt? What does the party have to do to clear her name (and their own)?
6. Turncoat Party
This is a fun situation in which to place the party. The villain, whom the party has been tracking and pursuing for a long time, has something that the PCs need. Because the party did not know that the villain had something valuable to them, this comes as a shock. The only way the players will get what they need is if they work with the villain. This is an unpalatable choice, at best, and can lead to dissention in the party if some members want to work with the villain while others think the price is too high. If the party agrees to comply with the villain, the quest for redemption could fill up an entire tier of play (or an extended adventure arc). The questions raised here are similar to the turncoat advisor; If the party agrees to work with the villain, what does that say about the party? Will the party lose the faith and respect of their allies? Will the party have to hide their collusion with the villain? Will they have to go to great lengths to restore their good names?
7. The Needs of the Many
This is the classic moral problem of weighing the needs of the many against the needs of the few (or the one). The easiest way to set this up in your game is to force the players to make a choice between saving one important/loved person versus saving a group of people. The group usually consists of innocents but having their morality in shades of grey adds layers to the problem. How bad do the crimes of the group have to be for the party to deem then unworthy of rescue? Is the group composed of creatures (e.g. goblins or kobolds) and therefore unlikely to deserve rescue? What if it’s a nest of young creatures? What if it’s a group of good aligned creatures? What if the individual needing to be saved is actually a villain and the party just found out and might not believe it?
Hopefully these seeds will help you incorporate interesting moral dilemmas into your game, spice up your campaign, please your players, and make your game that much more enjoyable. Thanks to the RPG Musings contributors (@Wolfsamurai, @psychopez, @icu_seamus, and @mikesdndblog) and to @deadorcs for great conversation about moral conundrums last Tuesday night (3/15).
Did I skip a great moral conundrum that you just love throwing at your players? Tell us about it in the comments!
Until next time, I wish you good gaming.