Screw Morals, Just Keep the Game Moving

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 23, 2009

Sometimes PCs need to do what’s best for the game even though it may not be what’s best for the character. The PC’s personal politics, morals and ethics need to be set aside in order for the campaign to proceed.

An example of this scenario happened to our party in a recent game. Although we chose to do what was best for the game, it seemed really out of character for at least a couple of the PCs in the party. We’ve played these characters for almost a year and during that time we’ve worked to make them feel like unique individuals. They have distinct personalities and mannerisms. So what happens to all that character building when the adventure dictates that the role-playing be shelved during certain circumstances in order to keep the larger story arc moving?

Here’s a brief explanation of what happened in this specific instance. The PCs infiltrated the temple of an evil cult in order to recover a stolen artifact. In the process of recovering the item, the PCs learned that the cult was worshiping a powerful aberration imprisoned within the temple. When the PCs recovered the artifact, the cult lost its ability to control the monster and would inevitably escape. The PCs, charged with a greater task of returning the artifact to its rightful owner, left the cultists to handle the wrath of their angry god.

Even though the artifact didn’t belong to the cultists, the PCs learned that removing it from the temple would free the monster. Should the PCs have felt any obligation to destroy the abomination? At the very least should they have tried to find a way to keep it imprisoned?

Based on successful knowledge checks, the PCs knew that they were not powerful enough to face the monster in combat without suffering losses (possibly even a TPK). Although the DM didn’t come right out and say it, there was a strong implication that fighting the aberration was not part of the planned adventure.

The party is good aligned and has a Paladin among their ranks. Is leaving this greater threat unchecked something that should weigh heavily upon the PCs? How do you separate the moral obligation of your characters from the practicality of moving the campaign forward?

In the end the party justified its decision by saying that the temple was in an extremely remote environment away from any major settlements or civilizations. Even if the monster escaped the temple, it didn’t pose any immediate threat to anything important.

Has anything like this ever happened to your party? Do you feel that your character might have a problem with leaving this kind of potential threat left to its own devices? Do you think your party would continue with the larger campaign if they knew that staying to fight could result in their deaths? I really struggle with this one and would appreciate any insight the readers can offer.

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1 Lurkinggherkin June 23, 2009 at 2:45 pm

The PC’s personal politics, morals and ethics need to be set aside in order for the campaign to proceed.

I disagree. The very essence of a good campaign is precisely how the situation unfolds when characters’ personal politics, morals and ethics are confronted and challenged with difficult situations, and how they react. Setting those elements aside as less important than some predetermined storyline or the desire to advance in levels or loot is truly the abandonment of roleplay.

That said, there are solutions to your specific problem. A new quest to locate the newly-released monsters’ nemesis before it reaches civilisation – a race against time – would make for an exciting adventure.

.-= Lurkinggherkin´s last blog ..Spicing Up Magic Item Creation in 3rd Edition DnD – Part 1 =-.

2 Justin Mason June 23, 2009 at 3:42 pm

I have to totally agree with Lurkinggherkin here. Players should never be forced to abandon their roles, especially for the sake of the storyline. It defeats the entire purpose of a role-playing game.

If progressing the plot was important to the Game Master in this instance, then the storyline should have been modified so that there would be no conflicts of interests. Perhaps revealing later that the aberration had unwittingly been released by the adventurers, or perhaps the demon could have been made of an acceptable challenge for the party — I can see a missed opportunity for great irony here as the last few members of the evil cult fought side-by-side with the paladin against the greater evil.

To be honest, when I’m a player, if I start to feel like I’m being lead around by the nose to finish a storyline, that’s usually when I pack my dice up and leave the game table.

3 Suddry June 23, 2009 at 3:54 pm

I also disagree with the article – and I am the DM in question. You failed to mention that the temple was flooding. You guys were so focused on the water allowing the Anathema to swim out of its pit and escape that you missed the opportunity to seal the creature in and drown it.

More generally, I always, always, always enjoy D&D more when I am playing my character as I think the character would play. Sneaking in and snagging the item when you could also fight your way in, parlay with the dragon (you guys did that once much to the fighter’s chagrin), start a fight with an NPC that is doing something your character just can’t stand even though the possible consequences in game could be devastating. You get the picture.

While I know you are not implying that in-character decisions should be tossed aside at every turn, I think that a real chance for character building and party dynamics was lost in your particular example. In fact, I’d argue that it is the hard decisions like the one you mention are the most important times to play in character. Without the “roleplay”, the game simple dissolves into a bunch of counter dice rolls.

By the way, don’t be surprised if your release of a Yuan-ti Anathema into the jungles of Q’barra comes back to haunt you guys when you least expect it.

4 Talmerian June 23, 2009 at 5:18 pm

I agree with the DM, the situation as laid out seemed skewed in some manner. I have set up situations similar to this and had PCs overlook the simple solution, even with prodding. Sealing the Yuan-Ti in would have been perfect. Needless to say, I would hope that the Paladin at least would have promised to come back and defeat the abomination.

Moreover, my group probably would have gone against the aberration with an escape plan. There is no mention of PC levels, so teleport and word of recall may have been out, but dimension door gets you pretty far away, even invisibility sphere would work.

5 Wimwick June 23, 2009 at 7:26 pm

From my point of view I think that the commets above are correct, don’t rush the encounter because of time. Especially if that means playing against your character. The interesting part of this is that my character didn’t play against type in this instance. Let me explain.

First, I’m not the Paladin, I’m the Rogue. With an 8 Int and 10 Wis the character was not designed as a thinker. For the past 9 levels of play the character has been role-played as having little or no input on decision making. He does what he’s told. The character makes the most obvious decisions, he’s single minded in his focus. He also doesn’t think about long term consequences, often making very rash and dangerous decisions. The objective of the adventure in question was to retrieve a magic item. This item was suspended in the air 50 feet above the aberration. My character, with rope afixed to waist, dove into the pit, snagged the item and climbed out. Mission done, time to leave.

That the aberration would be released into the world would not have entered into this characters mind. Further the character is unaligned, though if he had realized this consequence he would have cared.

As a player I played the character correctly. As a player I also realize that the aberration will come back to haunt us, but the character is clueless to that reality. Or he was until the Paladin mentioned it when we were safely on an airship.

6 Toldain June 23, 2009 at 8:10 pm

There was a time, long ago, when I would have been one of the “sake of the game” types. But I’m not any longer. I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before.

Being a Paladin doesn’t necessarily mean “STUPID” is stamped on your character sheet. If the demon or whatever is too tough to handle yourself, maybe you go round up a bigger posse. That doesn’t mean you aren’t true to your character. In the specific case, there was another option to take out the critter, which didn’t occur to the players.

My favorite long-time DM likes to seed the party with an NPC or two just for situations like this. “Can they breathe underwater?” one of them might ask. Or maybe, “How many doors does this place have?”

What happened, happened. I suggest that you treat it as if you had made character decisions and those decisions have consequences. Maybe the Paladin is going to feel guilty about it, or double his resolve. Maybe the thief will sleep poorly once he understands what he’s unleashed on the world. And of course, this will motivate them further.

To me, this is the stuff that makes roleplaying fun.

7 Suddry June 23, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Hey Wimwick… I didn’t mean to make you feel like you played your character incorrectly. In fact, from a DMs perspective you’ve played your character brilliantly. (That freestyle bungie jump of sorts was friggin’ awesome btw)

The point of my original comment was that I think the game loses a lot when people choose to “Screw the morals”. It is the morals that set D&D apart in my opinion. If my PC died because he made an in-character choice I would be sad at first but ultimately I’d realize the satisifaction of knowing I played the correct choice.

8 Jubilex Begins with an "I" June 23, 2009 at 9:03 pm

This is less an issue of “player morals” than it is about metagaming. As a DM I would never want to foster a gaming environment in which character actions did not have real consequences, and as a player I lose interest very quickly when it becomes apparent that the party is simply being shuttled from set piece to set piece.

While being a Paladin by no means obligates a player to commit suicide in the face of certain death, I’d have a very difficult time allowing such a character to walk away from a situation like this. I know 4E doesn’t necessarily penalize Paladins for failing to abide by a moral code and has watered down the significance of alignment in gameplay, but once the party understood what would happen when they removed the artifact you’ve placed the Good-aligned characters into a Kobayashi Maru as the scenario was written.

If ever there was a situation that called for a Skill Challenge, this would be it. Of course the party would get its ass handed to it in a fair fight with an Aberration, but who said the fight has to be fair? Instead of forcing the players to face the monster in regular combat, a Skill Challenge could have been designed around ensuring that the Aberration would be either incapacitated or killed after being released.

9 Rook June 23, 2009 at 9:34 pm

I am so glad to hear everyone coming up on the side of playing your character’s personal politics, morals and ethics, regardless of meta-game consequences. I am a huge opponent to railroading the party for the sake of a predetermined storyline. Role-playing is all about creating the storyline as you go. That being said, I don’t see a problem with Toldain’s comment of using NPCs or whatever to subtly point out to the PCs all the options available to them. That way, hopefully they won’t miss interesting opportunities, like to “drown the monster” in this case.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..My Foray into 4E: Taking the “Role” out of roleplaying =-.

10 Ameron June 24, 2009 at 8:42 am

I agree. I think that the decision made by some of the players (myself included) to move forward quickly without taking the PC’s moral obligation into account should, and will, have in-game consequences.

@Justin Mason
The PCs weren’t “forced” to do anything, but we assumed (incorrectly it turns out) that fighting the aberration was not part of the bigger campaign arc, so we minimized its importance to the immediate encounter and left it. It has created some very interesting in-game role playing and will no doubt come back to haunt us long term.

Thanks for adding a few more details to the conversation. I’m glad that you’re planning to make this bad decision by the party into something they’ll have to deal with moving forward. We’ll call it a learning experience for the players and the PCs.

The PCs were 8th level. They had a good verity of resources at their disposal. However, they just put blinders on and focused on the specific goal without considering some of the (obvious) peripheral options.

I think you’ve identified the real reason for abandoning the character’s moral obligations – time. Because we were nearing the end of our gaming session the players made choices that would end the encounter quickly rather than doing what the PCs would feel morally obligated to do.

As the guy playing the Paladin, thank you for your comments. As one of the decision-makers in the party, the PC is going to have some issues coming to terms with his initial rationalization of the situation. I’m thinking some heavy guilt followed with actions to remedy the situation are likely in his future. It’s all about balancing the greater good.

I feel the same way. (Speaking as a player who has experienced character death many times.)

@Jubilex Begins with an “I”
I’m glad you brought up the alignment argument. I’ve been playing the Paladin with a very loose sense of morals. His point of view is always that things are never just black and white or good and evil. It’s the grey areas that he likes to explore. As long as his actions can be justified by a greater good then he’s open to doing things that traditional Paladins may object to. So with this in mind his decision to leave was justified by the greater good that completing the larger quest will bring about.

I like the possibility of handling this as a skill challenge. Our group usually has a lot of fun with them, and in this circumstance things may have turned out very differently. We may have seen some of the other options that DM has mentioned if we’d been less focused on the combat.

I second that. I didn’t expect so many people to support “player morals” but I’m happy to see that is the case.

11 j_king June 24, 2009 at 9:32 am

Sometimes one is forced by circumstance to go against their morals. The situation can’t tailor itself so that they feel all warm and cozy all of the time. Perhaps the good aligned paladin will begin to feel weakness or regret for having gone along with the party and fled rather than stay for the greater good. Perhaps in time he’d try and rationalize it to himself all the while the guilt starts eating at him and testing his faith.

It can still be role played, even if it fudges a little. 🙂

12 Ameron June 26, 2009 at 6:26 pm

The Paladin was the decision maker in this circumstance so it’s not even that he “went along” with the group, rather he was calling the shots. I am expecting to have some good role-playing opportunities as he starts second-guessing his decision.

13 njharman June 30, 2009 at 8:57 pm

It sounds like the party had no choice. They knew it was beyond their capabilities. Did the people who feel they didn’t role-play create suicidal characters?

It depends on the style of game you play.

Yours sounds storypath. If that’s the case then the players and DM have a tacit agreement. The players will generally try not screw the plot by going “off path”. The DM will generally warn players if they are heading for disaster. Very often, but it’s not required, the DM will also keep the characters alive. After reading the DM it sounds there was serious misscommunication.
.-= njharman´s last blog ..4th Edition D&D, a fun Game =-.

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