Keeping The Morals Gray

Posted: February 11, 2014 in Brass Tacks
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I’ve said a few times before that my players prefer a world that feels more real and that means a place where morality isn’t usually black and white. In the real world, it seems most governments, organizations, religions, and cultures are not perfectly good or evil. Often, this is because people are usually not purely motivated by the desire to be good or evil. They have other desires that are motivating their actions. Tradition, prosperity, and self-preservation are all motivators that can drive one’s actions. The morality of those actions are in the eye of the beholder. The most interesting antagonists usually are not evil for evil’s sake, but have another force motivating them. Similarly this applies to protagonists and good. Think of these examples in pop culture.

  • In Les Miserables, Javert is so dedicated to the law of the land that he doesn’t care about Jean Valjean’s moral character.
  • In The Punisher comic book series, Frank Castle seeks to give criminals a taste of their own medicine by mercilessly murdering them. He is both a damned criminal and savior.
  • In Game of Thrones, most of the characters without the last name Stark (and some with that last name) perform questionable actions in the pursuit of their goals. Several people believe themselves best suited to the throne for the sake of Westros, but only one of them may wear the crown and thus leading to violent and ugly actions on everyone’s part. (I’m trying intentionally to be spoiler free.)

Defining Gray

When we talk about morality being gray, it’s not usually a matter of half the time an entity is good and half the time that same entity is bad. A Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde situation isn’t relatable or sympathetic for most players. Often a world that is morally gray puts entities into situations in which there is no clear cut good or evil choice. Perhaps some are a shade darker or a lighter, but most cannot point to another and say with 100% confidence, “Well clearly, you should have done this instead.”

For instance, in Bragonay, the warforged were built as slaves for the dwarves. Bragonay has an entire economy who’s foundation is placed on the backs of these beings whom the dwarves created for just that purpose. However, these beings are completely sentient and turn out to be people in their own right, many of whom do not want to be enslaved. The dwarves are in a tricky spot. Freeing the warforged might be the morally right thing to do in many people’s eyes, but the dwarves will lose much and risk their country falling apart if they do free all these beings. The choice isn’t so easy, especially since, in many of the dwarves eyes, this is what the warforged were built to do. If not for their slavery and use to Bragonay, they would never exist in the first place.

Bragonay also recently tried to conquer all of Findalay, because they feel that Aeranore, Taliana, and Marrial were taken from them. Some might say the dwarves are correct. They settled all of Findalay first and welcomed the other races to their lands. As these other beings began to expand and took more and more of Findalay for themselves, the dwarves felt as if their hospitality had been taken advantage. So they retaliated and war began. The other nations united and defeated Bragonay, carving out pieces of the continent for themselves. To this day, that stings for the dwarves and they have tried multiple times to take back Findalay for themselves.

So to be a Bragonaian dwarf does not necessarily mean being a power-hungry slaver. Nor does it necessarily mean being on a crusade to take back the lands that were once Bragonaian. It could mean one or the other or both or none. It might mean being proud of one’s heritage and defending the choices of the dwarves while fostering a grudge towards Findalay’s other nations. Or perhaps a dwarf is more progressive and wishes to see the end of Bragonay’s slavery and a true peace within Findalay. All of these beings can be found within Canus and therefore the world is deeper and more complex. An argument could be made to support the actions of any of these people, though you or I may personally not agree.

That’s just Bragonay. Questionable actions in desperate time have been committed all over Canus. Fearing the end of their farming exports as other nations began to produce more food, Taliana poisoned the crops of other nations secretly, forcing them to buy from their people. The Metallic Dragons feared the aberrants, so they opened a portal to The Nine Hells and released a horde of devils upon the land. In response to a mad king’s purging Aeranore of gnomes, a group of gnomish wizards forms an organization of deadly assigns to kill the king and all his servants, who continues operating even after the success of their mission. Two rival guilds of mercenaries fear the other stealing work and resources and begin a bloody gang war. These are the kinds of events that make up the history in Exploration Age. They have lasting repercussions and give the world layers where the characters can take a stance.

A Pinch of Black and a Dash of White

In a fantasy world, it often helps to have a few entities that are, at least, trying to do the right thing, as well as to have some forces motivated purely by selfish, destructive desires. The small white spots in the world make PCs feel like they are in a world worth saving. Likewise, a dark force that can unite two entities with a strained and complex relationship is also a good thing to have on hand. Two parties who don’t trust one another working together for the greater good can be a very rich story indeed.

The goodly folk are the little people. Kindly farmers, halfling vigilantes, another party of adventurers, a waitress in a tavern, etc. Rarely are these good guys all together in some type of organization and they never makeup an entire army. This keeps the interactions with good people on a more intimate scale and it helps the PCs believe there is something worth fighting for. Since there is no army of purely good guys, they’d need to take up that standard, should that be the road they choose to take. Perhaps they will laugh at the kind farmer and thief with a heart of gold, call them naive, murder them, and take their loot. That is the other extreme certainly, but their interactions with these people could fall anywhere on that spectrum. Either way, these good guys have a purpose – to show the PCs there are people other than themselves worth fighting for.

In Exploration Age, I’ve tried not to overload the world with dark entities, and I’ve let them be in stasis mode at the start of the campaign, so that I can use them as little or as much as I want. Here’s some examples.

  • The Tarrasque, a terrible, iconic D&D engine of destruction, was defeated and imprisoned in a mountain by minotaurs on Verda 400 years ago. The minotaurs built a city atop this mountain and serve as guardians, should the Tarrasque ever be released.
  • In Taliana, a lich tried to take over the nation with the help of a cabal of werewolves known as The Brotherhood of the Moon. Though she was defeated, her phylactery was never found and the Brotherhood of the Moon still operates within the country’s borders.
  • A group of brain controlling parasites, the mystuak, seek to conquer every living being in the land and make Canus their new home.

Let the Players Decide for Themselves

When it comes to the actions of the players, I’ll let them decide for themselves if they want to be pure good, pure evil, or gray. However, because of the nature of Exploration Age, they will be placed in situations where the choices aren’t easy. That’s part of the fun of the world. Maybe a PC is being forced by a government to cooperate because a family member has been imprisoned and the PC’s service is a chance to reduce that family member’s prison sentence. Maybe the party seeks to overthrow a slaver, but that slaver has a family of ten mouths to feed, and freeing his slaves may actually result in a violent riot, since the slaves themselves have a psychotic, rebellious leader.

The important thing as a DM to remember is that a decision does not always have to be one thing or the other. That’s the beauty of D&D. Characters may do anything they might in the real world – there isn’t computer code telling them they only have two dialogue options. Always be prepared for your players to try to manipulate a situation to their advantage. Just remember all actions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences cannot be foreseen. That’s what makes a rich, complex, gray world.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcast on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

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Comments
  1. Michael Robbins says:

    I agree and like the morally gray issues too…I would also say that alignment is one of the systems that I dislike about D&D because of some stamp that gets put on the character about someone being definitively good or evil, and it flows over into game mechanics like spells or magic items that do more damage against targets or specific alignments.

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    • Totally. One of my least favorite things about 3.5 and earlier editions were the alignment restrictions on classes and in spells. Why can’t a barbarian be lawful? Or a monk chaotic? That was frustrating. It seems like Next is doing away with a lot of those alignment restrictions. Morality isn’t always clear cut… that’s why life is so complicated.

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