For centuries, humans have designed and played games - from the mentally engaging game of Chess to the physically demanding game of Football. Games such as these provide a venue for competition and stimulate growth in the players, whether it be intellectually or bodily. In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published a new type of fantasy tabletop role-playing game (RPG) called Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).
Games like D&D depart from traditional mass-battle war games and, instead, assign each player a specific character to represent. A player’s character then embarks upon an adventure within an imaginary fantasy setting. A story teller, also known as a Game Master or Dungeon Master, serves as the game's referee and moderator. He or she maintains the setting in which the adventure occurs, as well as role-playing any non-player characters (NPCs). The players’ characters form an adventuring party who interact, individually and as a group, with the NPCs and each other. Together they solve dilemmas, engage in battles, and gather treasure and knowledge. Over a series of game sessions, players’ characters earn experience points to become increasingly powerful. Through it all, players constantly evaluate what is the best course of action, practically and ethically. To help players make these choices, the game provides a character attribute called alignment.
Richard Bartle's Designing Virtual Worlds noted that alignment is a way to categorize players' characters, along with gender, race, character class, and sometimes nationality. Alignment was designed to help define role-playing. A character's alignment categorizes their outlook on life. A player decides how a character should behave by choosing an alignment and should then play the character in accordance with that alignment.
Alignment is a guideline to a system of values. These values are what the character believes are the definition of “good”. Alignment is the guideline to vices that define “evil”. RPGs give players the perfect set of tools to adopt a value system that is like their own, or slightly different. All the variations of alignments use the human template as the reference point. For example, a lawful good character is compared to the righteous knights of Medieval times, or the noble Police officer of today. Even with the deviations of race in RPGs, the values exercised by those characters are the same values we understand from our human experience. The further a character’s race gets from this human reference point, the less meaningful their alignment is. As players, how can we relate to the value system of a rock creature whose ideals have nothing to do with anything from our experience as human players? There is no exercising of the soul when said rock creature makes a choice in the game. It doesn’t impact us as players, it becomes only a trite mechanic.
The conflict of good versus evil is a common motif in D&D and other fantasy fiction. Although players’ character can adventure for personal gain, rather than from altruistic motives, it is generally assumed that the players’ character will be opposed to evil and will tend to fight against evil creatures. However, there should be more to the game than a black and white approach to the moral dilemmas. If choices were easy to make, they would not count as dilemmas at all. Nor would the act of choosing really exist. As a player, one would be strictly following the alignment of their character with little freedom to deviate. If that was the type of game one wanted to play, there are much better systems in which to do so. Namely, video games.
The true potential of RPGs is found in the vast number of conundrums in which a character finds themselves and for which there is no easy, right answer. Tension is created around the table when players realize their character must suffer the consequence of making a choice that will result in a difficult future. Making the hard choice is the epitome of what makes a hero heroic. True heroism isn’t running fast, climbing far, or even sticking a sword into the gut of the raging monster. Heroism is making the choice to perform a “good” deed with full knowledge of the potential harm to oneself. In the US ARMY, a few Soldiers are decorated with the Medal of Honor, the highest award possible. The Soldiers who have earned this recognition didn’t do so because they were super strong, exceptionally fast, or brilliantly intelligent. They earned the Medal of Honor because they made choices and acted upon them with the knowledge of the potential deadly consequences and consistent devotion to a value system. RPG heroes should be the same.
To do so, the Game Master should design an adventure to include difficult situations focusing on moral decision making. While many games allow us to experience the joy of vanquishing a foe, only RPGs allow us the experience of questioning whether or not we SHOULD vanquish the foe. And, if we should, what are the myriad of consequences to doing so?
“And they lived happily ever after” isn’t the conclusion of true heroics.
Consider the game Dark Souls. It’s a challenging video game that pits the player against the minions of evil, culminating in a fight against the grand boss. Dark Souls is much like the table top board games Dungeon Saga, Descent, Wrath of Ashardalon, and numerous others that depict a dungeon crawl. The satisfaction of killing evil monsters is entertaining, for sure. Sharing the experience with the other players around the table also heightens one’s enjoyment. Yet, at no time do we experience the level of moral complexity that a RPG provides.
In a role-playing game, we should share the experience of not only adventure, but the angst of moral dilemmas. THAT is a truly bonding experience! That is the dynamic which separates RPG groups from other gaming groups. The role-playing game celebrates the act of being “heroic”, where as other games celebrate being “efficient”. On the moral battlefield, efficiently slaying all that stand before you is rarely the “good” course of action. If there is no morality to explore, we might as well play one of the many games that expertly provide the black and white “kill all the things” dynamics.
Imagine the adventure dynamic as lived by the modern-day ground troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. Superimpose the concept of “adventuring party” with the terms patrol, squad, or fire team. It is common for a patrol to travel in hostile territory, while armed with deadly weapons and body armor. Much like a wizard, able to shoot magic missiles to kill whatever opposes him, the modern-day Soldier points his M-4, squeezes the trigger and, most likely, kills whatever opposes him. Yet, the Soldier doesn’t have the freedom to just point and shoot, even when surrounded by hostile villagers, or unarmed enemies. In his case, the “bad guys” look just like all the innocent NPCs that inhabit the area. Additionally, he is keenly aware that killing someone has huge repercussions, not only to himself, but to his squad, his ARMY, and his nation. Every single day, the modern-day Soldier lives a life of an adventurer and yet doesn’t run around “hobo-killing”, like we often see in RPGs. This tension, this danger, this moral restraint, could, and should, be pursued in role-playing games.
Using a common situation in Iraq, let’s contrast what happens in RPGs vs. real adventures. Imagine your adventuring party enters a town that is known to serve as a refuge for local “evil” war band. While a few of the town’s inhabitants are happy that you are there to provide security, and enforce law, most them resent that you are projecting your own values on their culture and occupying their town by force. Then, there are the members of the war band themselves; they don’t want you there and are dedicated to not only pushing you out of town, but want to kill you in the process. Imagine that the members of these factions look the same to you. You can’t tell who is the friend and who is foe.
While on a standard patrol through the town, one member of your adventuring party is mortally shot by a man who sniped from a second story window. The sniper is able to duck inside before anyone in your party gets a good look at him. But, you know which house he is in. Your first choice is, what do you do with your slain party member? Second, do you assault the house of the shooter, or do you leave the area? If you assault, what do you do when you burst in the house and see a family with numerous women, children and elderly? What do you do when you discover a crossbow, and other weapons, (all legally owned)? What do you do when everyone in the house swears they didn’t shoot anyone and they love that you are there to save their town. You are now is a situation where your actions will have great consequences no matter what you choose to do. Imagine if the shooter of the crossbow was actually a 13-year-old girl.
It is this type of moral dilemma that reveals heroes from the “hobo killers”. Sadly, a typical group of gamers would think nothing of slaughtering the whole family. And, even worse, the typical game master would fail to describe the consequences of that action. The game master should answer the question, “to whom are the characters held accountable (besides their own moral compass). To which institution do they have to answer?” Paladins have their holy military orders, Clerics have their churches. Even thieves might have a powerful guild that judges their every move.Role playing games should be more than rolling D20s. They should be more than accumulating experience points, +1s, and leveling up. Role playing games have a potential that no other game system can offer. It is our obligation to utilize that potential.