Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Conflicting Morality

I am the Warden!!

There's an interesting combination of films releasing this weekend and they're a prime example of how morality is not only subjective, but adaptable. Zero Dark Thirty, the complete account of Bin Laden's assassination (with details provided by the CIA) and Gangster Squad, a fictional story of cops bringing their own brand of justice to the mob in the 1940s. On the surface, they're two completely different films, yet their standpoint on morality creates an interesting social conflict.

The big controversy regarding Zero Dark Thirty is the interrogation scene and it's causing such a stir in American political circles, there's an upcoming congressional hearing to determine how much information was provided to the filmmakers and whether or not the CIA offered up a red herring to promote their view on the effectiveness of torture. Going solely off The Daily Show, mind you, the emphasis of the debacle appears to be the merits of torture in counterterrorism and intelligence operations. The truth about first world countries using torture to gain access to essential information can be almost as divisive as abortion and gun control, all of which comes down to the people's belief in being "better" than your enemies.

Yet Gangster Squad is specifically about good cops breaking the law to enforce it by shooting up unarmed gangsters and probably all sorts of vicious beatings. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a scene where someone's being viciously interrogated. In a sense, it takes the dilemma of Zero Dark Thirty and says "Yeah, so what?" while beating the shit out of a guy strapped to a chair.

C'est irony, no?

Entertainment is choc full of conflicting morality, not just movies. Since this is primarily a roleplaying blog, you know that's where I'm going with this. Morality plays a major factor in RPGs to the point it may be the primary source of how we define our characters. Of all the components players can invest in their characters (not including any mechanics), morality is an interpretive tool that doesn't require any ability to speak in different voices, enter long winded in-character speeches, or a knack for getting descriptive and improvisational at the table. Stick an unarmed goblin in front of two characters with different moralities and you'll see two different choices for handling the situation.

And so we come to group morality, an issue anyone who's ever played D&D will understand. Common sense warns us that mixing good and evil characters will be difficult and strongly avoided, yet even the difference between lawful neutral and chaotic good can cause conflict. When it comes down to it, the group must unite as a whole and agree to certain terms and outcomes.

It's something I struggled with a lot in an old AD&D campaign. My fighter, Markus, was a hard-nosed soldier willing to do whatever it took to win and achieve victory. There were a couple of times when we captured an enemy and wanted to lean on them for information, but to no effect. Markus steps forward and offers to get the answers quickly, cracking his knuckles as he did so. "Step out the room, all of you, and you won't have to know what's going to happen." Every time, it was shot down. Group morality won and I sucked it up for the group. (I was really looking forward to trying out an interrogation scene, to be honest.)

Playing a paladin was a massive hassle for many groups back then, as well as the players holding the paladin's character sheet. Unless the entire group ended up as lawful good, they were going to start acting lawful good anyways unless they wanted the paladin to downgrade to a fighter. We're not even talking about murder; theft is a common crime committed in many RPGs, despite our own personal views on someone actually stealing from us. Put a thief and a paladin in the same group and someone's got to give. It's why the idea of forcing morality onto characters is a slippery slope in RPGs.

They're not going anywhere any time soon. Even D&D holds onto alignment and that game hasn't had any mechanical benefit in close to five years. Discussions on alignment carry on almost every day online and across tables and Hangouts without any common consensus (I even tried entering the fray years ago with my d20 product, The Book of Alignment) for the sheer reason that it's way too abstract for such explicit purposes. You can write down as much detail as you like regarding any particular alignment, it will always remain up to interpretation of the individual player, the GM, and the group's morality.

Over the past couple of years, I've been able to see how morality changes to suit the story. Many of my friends who have played D&D as noble heroes easily make the switch to deadly assassins in Killshot. One week, they're debating how to save the innocent villagers from the foul orcs outside the walls and the next they're calculating how to kill the old folks living upstairs from the mark. Try and switch those efforts around and you'll break the game's intent, something players instantly accept.

Mind you, not all players can make that leap and some prefer to play a particular morality in their games (though in my experience, I've found these same people are steadfast in all their preferences), but the fact we are so willing to bend our morality to become a part of the story (whether it's as a viewer or an active participant) is incredibly interesting. It's almost as if the story becomes a part of the group and becomes the dominant factor of group morality. So it begs the question...

Why do we bother with morality in these games?