Saturday 23 February 2013

Roleplaying Ethics

I have a feeling that the narrative ethics post (the last one of 2012, if you missed it) seems to have gone some way to giving an account of why we, as wargamers, accept some games and reject others. Combined with the idea of a horizon of our personal experience and the sorts of questions we ask ourselves, it does seem to account for many of the major features of the ethical landscape of wargaming.

I am not claiming, of course, that a narrative ethic gives a full understanding of the ethics of wargaming. It does feel, to me, at least, a bit too empirical, and a little too woolly. The problem here is, of course, that it seems to be somewhat subjective. We can, or at least, most of us can, agree that however much we might like wargaming with SS Panzer units in France in 1944, they were not the clean living Teutonic warriors that myth has made them out to be. The graves of those shot by them bear silent witness against that.

So the question to ask is whether narrative ethics gives us any sort of traction on the whole question of the ethics of wargaming. One of the hallmarks of a decent theory is, of course, that it is more widely applicable than might be at first thought, and so the next step in developing the idea is to see if it applies outside the domain for which it was invented. In this case that domain was historical miniature figure gaming. The aim now is to widen the question into another area, allied by not exactly the same.

There are a number of possibilities here. We could discuss board wargames, or computer wargames, of science fiction wargames of the Warhammer variety, all of which would be entirely reasonable candidates for such an analysis. The problem is that I do not know very much (if anything) about them. I do, however, have distant and foggy memories of a variety of role playing games, both fantasy and other, so I think I might be able to comment coherently on them. We shall see.

The first, and obvious thing about role playing games is that the player is playing a role. In a miniature wargame, this is also the case but is not quite so obvious, in that the wargamer in a miniature games plays at a variety of different levels. A miniature wargamer is a general, but also a unit commander, often a sub-unit commander, and so on. Even in a skirmish game, the player would have a variety of roles. In a role playing game, as I recall, a maximum of three or so player characters could be run by a single player, but it was better the fewer there were.

This, then, counts towards the application of a narrative ethic in roleplaying games. The player identifies with the character, and thus what happens to that player-character is part of the life story of the player.

The second point about at least most fantasy role playing games at least is that there is, in many of them, a decisive moral landscape. In Runequest there was chaos and the Lunar Empire. The barbarians of Prax were, more or less, the good guys, while the Lunars were at best ambiguous. Even more marked in Call of Cthulhu was the division between good and evil.  The aim of the game was to cling on to those shreds of civilisation and sanity that was threatened by cultists and ancient horrors.

In other words, in these sorts of games, there is actually little room for moral ambiguity. The lines of good and evil are more or less drawn in black and white. ‘We’, as the player party, are the good guys; ‘they’ are the bad guys. There may be some people who are neither us nor bad, from whom we can get help and information, and there may be others who are simply not involved. However, the politics of most fantasy worlds seem to be drawn in fairly stark terms. We know that we are good.

I recall, years ago, being given an unmistakably evil character for a campaign, and my task was to capture a city, poison the wells, and slaughter the people and so on. Even as a callow youth I recall being slightly uncomfortable with this, although I confess, under the strong persuasion of the game master, as a group we were successful. The second part of the campaign was with our ‘normal’, “good” characters, sent along to right the wrongs, restore normality, heal the wounds of the land and so on. I still recall the sense of relief from the group as we picked up the good side again.

So was that campaign merely tasteless, the imagination of a callow youth, or was it an exploration of the dark side of ourselves, a bit like Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat did to enter the mind of a master criminal?  

Of course, more sophisticated role playing games bring increasing moral ambiguity. Even in Runequest questions could be asked: was there a ‘good Lunar’? Was stealing money to buy food a good thing to do? If nothing else, this does remind us that the real world is morally ambiguous, but the question we are asking is about our player-character’s actions in some other world. Can we make those speech-acts in our world which reflect evil actions in the role playing world?

I think that the way these sorts of role playing games are set up the answer is ‘no’. There would be little fun in playing a mad cultist in Call of Cthulhu, for example. There would, essentially, be no game at all. So, overall, I suggest that the way these sorts of games are set up is a support for the idea of narrative ethics in wargaming.

Of course, not all roleplaying games are set up in this way. Paranoia, for example, has no real evil or good, as do, so I believe, the Warhammer family of games. But whether these games enter into our ethic, or whether the ‘pure escapism’ defence is sufficient will have to wait for another post and, possibly, someone else entirely to write it.


  1. In some more recent RPGs, one of the concepts used is to describe the party as 'a troupe' or something similar - to put emphasis on playing a role (rather than dress ourselves up as dwarves, if you see what I mean). I think that when we get those uncomfortable feelings in RPGs, we are in a sense, playing the wrong game - we want to play someone somewhat akin to ourselves, the game demands that we be actors or actresses and play someone genuinely different.

    On another tack, some RPGs I have played have really felt like a cross between a tactical wargame and Cluedo, where good or evil is scarcely relevant.

    1. I certainly remember one paranoia game where the party had to organize small unit tactics to get anywhere (it turned out that we were not supposed to get anywhere..), so the cross over between tactical combat and investigations can be a bit moot.

      On the other hand, role playing games are about creating narratives as a group; wouldn't it be a bit boring if all we were playing was ourselves?

    2. What I was getting at is that RPGs are probably even more complicated than wargames when we look at them from a narrative point of view, as the expectations, abilities and attitudes determine how the game runs to an even greater extent.

      For instance, most RPGs I played when I was younger where entirely tactical in their challenges, regardless of the genre - or rather, the 'characters' had relatively little personality, they were more like a set of tools to help 'unlock' certain challenges. Later on, players tended to graft on more personality - but generally as an extension of their own personalities as allowed in the mythos. I think this is the point where the players would have had most difficulty with playing an 'evil' character. It was only later that actually the 'role-playing' came completeley to the fore, and at that point, players would have been happy to take on that - not entirely comfortable, but little different from playing Richard III in am-dram - kind of character.


    3. I think there used to be a specific word for the non-role playing RPG player - munchkin?

      Someene who maximised all possible characteristics, and was never anything except a large scale monster slayer and treasure grabber.

      In my umpiring days I managed to winkle them out by giving them ambiguous treasure, like golden skulls whose original owner would like it back (ever tried fighting a gold skeleton? They bend rather than break) or items which can burst into flames at a moments notice, but which can be taken over by someone else...

      ultimately, and I think the last campaign I ran, I found the answer was to make the PCs powerless, relatively, so they had to negotiate. More like real life, or, as you suggest, am-dram.

    4. Yes, it is munchkin. But, D&D, which I suppose really started at all, is pretty much designed to be a munchkin game. As more complicated/involved/atmospheric games evolved, it isn't surprising that not all players evolved with it I guess. Maybe the situation resembles the difference between a film like Where Eagles Dare (where character is almost totally irrelevant) and Lawrence of Arabia (where the characterisation is what makes the film) - but both equally valid narrative forms?


    5. I guess that there is always a progression of players from teenage power-groupies through to sophisticated role players. Where one stops depends on the group and the individual, as well as the game.

      My favorites landed up being Flashing Blades as a GM, and Toon as a player. I got banned from Toon eventually for being too good at it; the secret was to always do something, no matter how silly.

      But ethically, I agree, the narrative element is much stronger in RPG than in historical wargaming, and so the discomfort is greater when playing evil. This is solved, I suppose, either at the munchkin end, by not caring much, or at the am-dram end by drawing a stricter division between the player and character.