Are moral absolutes good for your game?

Table of Contents

Picture by Todd Huffman

Fictional Characters vs. The Real World

Your average D&D character will face orcs, dragons, the ravenous forces of the undead, impostor kings and many other problems, most of which can be solved by bashing the creature’s face/snout/gelatinous cubic body in. All of which the character is well equipped to deal with. Other challenges come in the form of deadly traps and vexing brain teasers. Still, adventurers are constantly dealing with problems that are easy for them to overcome and are fixed moral absolutes. How often in your ordinary life  do you encounter problems like that? True to life problems are very tricky situations when applied to your D&D games.

A note of caution about this one, this path is not for every group. It works best with a roleplay heavy group. Even then, some people play Dungeons & Dragons specifically to get away from problems like this. They want to play a world of heroics and moral absolutes. There is nothing wrong with that and they will be very grumpy if you take that away from them. However if it is right for you group you can get some amazing roleplaying moments. Here are a few examples of the types of big, real world problems that your players can face.


Many of the biggest problems in our world have no solution and continue to not have one even with magic added to the mix. Most D&D parties have a character who can spontaneously create food and water from nothing. But what if they were faced with a natural famine or drought? With all their resources the adventurers might be able to keep one town fed if they stayed there and dedicated themselves to it. If faced with a natural plague the players may be able to save a few people with their disease curing abilities but more than likely it will prove to simply be too big for them.

Against Society

Lets say for example that a group of adventurer’s is confronted by a situation of domestic abuse. The first instinct of the players will likely be to solve it how they solve all their other problems, bash the villain’s face in. Sadly, in a historical setting that sort of vigilante justice is illegal but some scumbag harming his wife and children is well within his rights. If the players tried to convince the wife to leave her abusive husband she would likely be confused. It is fairly normal behavior for the time. Even if she wanted to leave she’s likely to be completely dependent on the husband for survival. It is a case of our (correct) modern sensibilities creating difficult situations in a historical setting.

The Solution is Worse than the Problem

Fantasy characters regularly depose tyrants, it is one of the staples of the genre. In those cases there is usually a hero of the revolution ready to step up and be a benevolent rulers. Other times the rightful heir, who was robbed is his throne by the scheming of the tyrant, is conveniently waiting in the wings to take over and restore justice to the land. But what if those figures aren’t available? Dethroning a tyrant can lead to a bloody civil war for control of the crown. For a time it could be far worse than his rule ever was. Even after all that is over with there is no guarantee the replacement will be any better. Is that a choice the party is willing to make?

Have you thrown the tricky situations and moral grey areas of real life into your games?

11 thoughts on “Are moral absolutes good for your game?”

  1. The problem I see with the “disconnect” between modern sensibilities and a historically actuate game is that most fantasy settings include the ability to play a female character. However, to do that you’re basically breaking down a major section of the historical part. I play my D20 with a more modern feel to the society since there has already been a woman’s suffrage enabling them to be considered equals to men. That means your domestic violence case would NOT be average, nor would she be completely dependent on her husband (no more say than a modern day wife might be).

    The problem with your “unsolvable” situation is that you’re forgetting the fact that there are a plethora of NPCs who also know the “cure disease” spell. If there are enough clerics (perhaps even others sent in from far away branches) they could turn the tide of a disease.

    Of course there are plenty of points that are valid re: the poverty, certain spells begin reserved for those who can afford them. Plenty of social injustice to create moral situations.

    I too have thrown out the “race” alignment in favor of a more realistic individual alignment system. I had the players cooperate with kobolds to fight off an orcish invasion, and some centaurs who just really didn’t want anything to do with the PCs an treated them hostilely (even though their goals were the same, they didn’t take the time to even find anything out about the PCs).

    Good point, one I wish more people would recognize in the RPG world.

  2. In one Campaign I ran I had the PC’s run in to a situation where a young lady claimed she had been beaten and raped by one of the town folks, (here is where the problem of questions come into play). First she was a jilted lover who wanted revenge on her X-boyfriend for dumping her. Second how did the feelings of the PC translate into their actions? well the X-boyfriend was lucky that one of the PC’s in this instance had sense enough not to outright kill him. However it does bring into play the question of perception as well. Do the PC have the same perception of the situation as each other, or could there be some one in the party who perceves a threat/scenario as something completly different? This is where John has a great idea of the surveys. If worded right this will help you to gain a better understanding of how they feel about certain situations and how better to icorperate or word situations of morality.

    Also when dealing with real world issues in an RPG you can bring an element to the game that the PC’s are not used to dealing with and have a higher sense of challenge. However you may want to be carefull of anyone in your group who has been through a rape, assault, incest or like issues as this will not be a pleasant situation for them or for you.

  3. Against society is reliable fun– Dogs in the Vineyard is a game that regularly leverages modern vs. historical sensibilities to good effect.

  4. I like to add a bit of realism to my games such as critical hits and the like. It gives a bit more spice to the game sessions and doesn’t make the Players think their totally invincible. I also have limitations on healing spells and so far no one has been able to get any form of resurrection. After all, part of being a god is obtaining the souls of the living one way or another.

  5. One thing I have done is run a 4th edition campaign using the Birth of the Wolfen Empire storyline. For those who don’t know the wolfen, they are the large canine people from the Palladium RPG. While the game system itself is a bit problematic (to put it diplomatically), much of the fluff and backstory makes interesting reading.

    Basically, the 12 wolfen tribes lived through a particularly harsh winter in which they slaughtered their 13th tribe. After the winter passed, they realized what they had done, genocide, and decided to prevent such horrors from ever happening again. Thus, the million + wolfen living in the wilderness banded together and forged a grand Wolfen Republic. Out they went conquring their neighbors for resources, but instead of enslaving them they invited their conqurered to join their growing nation. The first separate state they ran into actually ASKED to join, thus putting the Republic on the path of Empire building.

    How does this relate to moral dilemmas? Well, in 4th edition the assumption is that civilization exists as “points of light” in the wilderness. With a large empire, however, bandits and monster attacks are dramatically reduced as the empire sends out patrols to deal with these menaces. Thus, the roads are safer, the small towns and villages have a chance to grow without the constant threat of being wiped out, and many enjoy prosperity as the empire protects trade and fosters a sense of community.

    Now, while this all sounds grand, many people will NOT want to be dominated, however beneficiently, by a race that just a century ago were considered backwards and barbaric, not to mention monsters. Most will work very hard to resist being conquered, but without another large civilization to provide the strength to resist, it is unlikely that a small town or even a single city can repulse them.

    And here is where I thrust my players: smack dab in the middle. I think they are going against the wolfen through sheer habit right now. But I have seen them thinking about what they are facing. The fast pace has kept them from dwelling too much on the details, however. I may slow things down a bit so they can hash that out.

  6. Hi all,

    Reading this, it reminded me of the twist i just gave my new 4th ed group going through KotS
    Their party consists of 2 dragonborn but at the Dragon Burial Site, the other members wanted to loot some dragon bones for a 2 quests (added by me) from the townspeople. Both would get them a reward and information.

    My question to the 2 dragonborns was : Would you let someone defile the grave and take the bones of your grandfather ?

    And that let through a nice RP moment with dragonborns going between greed and respect..

  7. @gull2112: You’re quite right. As much fun as it has created, I have also seen moral ambiguity grind a campaign to a halt and turn the party against each other in a non-constructive way.

  8. I think the most common moral issue to come up in my campaign and in many “standard” D&D campaigns, is what to do with the evil NPC who pleads for mercy?

    You know if you let him live he will just go on with his evil ways, but can a Paladin kill a living being that is pleading for its life, can he just stand by while another commits the act, making him a proxy accomplice?

    Often times moral absolutism (he’s evil, kill him!) is a usefull game device to move the story along. I can see both sides of this and it is hard to set a definite rule.

  9. I enjoy moral conflicts in my games. It seems to pull the players into the game when they have to make tough chooses. The rp is great also. Party members arguing what are right and what is wrong. In a recent game the party faced a grave decision. There was this great plague that was divorcing the land. An old wizard came to the party and reviled that an entrapped goddess may save the land; however, a secret organization that protected the seal to the god contacted the party and told them it was a demon. Throughout the game there was evidence that supported both. The plot was further fueled by the party’s cleric who was adamant about freeing the goddess; however, party’s changeling warlock (disguised as a cleric) was also adamant about freeing the demon. They would argue with the entirety of the party that it was the right thing to do. In the end the cleric saw through the changeling and they had a show down which saw the death of the warlock. It turned out that the demon was the one that was sealed but they found evidence that the goddess may be sealed elsewhere.

  10. As a GM I always push for more moral realism, and in a recent survey I gave to my players (I call it TQG, Total Quality Gaming) they favored more moral realism over moral absolutism.

    To me, the biggest issue with moral absolutism is seeing players playing “good” characters not batting an eye at slaughtering humanoids and other “monsters” to last man woman and child because “they are evil, so it’s ok.” One of the things that I have used to break down the line between moral absolutism and moral realism is to break the D&D conventions of race alignments. In my games these are more tendancies than set values. I also stress the number of “evil” civilized NPCs in most towns and cities. Not everyone is good, and evil does not necessarily mean “psychotic serial killers.” My reading of the DMG says that an evil alignment can be as simple as someone who isn’t worried about hurting others to reach their goals. Based on this you can have a NE merchant who simply uses weights that are heavier or lighter than “normal” ones to cheat when buying and selling. Is this evil? sure, but it isn’t something that the heroes can simply kill the evil npc over.

    Building something closer to a real world situation has actually added to the drama with the heroic actions of the players. The players have even begun to appeciate little victories such as helping an individual family, or doing what they can for the poor while understanding that they can’t permanently fix these types of problems and that many problems cannot be solved with a sword.

  11. I really like these ideas. I have put my players through these kind of situations, and Nicholas is right, sometimes it isn’t easy. You may put them in an amazing situation and sometimes the players don’t grasp the gravity of the situation (maybe not at the beginning).. But if you revisit it later, such as the 3rd example, and they return to the land and see the place in civil war or a new tyrannt is in charge the players suddenly realize what has happend. I often then have the citizens of the land treat the PC’s with hostility because they blame them for the situation that they are in for swooping in, killing or deposing of whatever, and then leaving without a plan of action…

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