Morality and the single PC

2008 January 3
by Vanir

Have you ever noticed how relative and odd the concept of morality becomes in a D&D campaign?

A couple weeks ago, before the holidays completely annihilated our beautiful regular gaming schedule, Dante and Kanati sent our intrepid adventurers into a city ruled by women. The men were considered second-class citizens, and were not even allowed to speak without permission lest they be beaten. Since I was playing my intrepid formerly-womanizing rock star bard Bat Loaf (and I was under the influence of a lot of E.L. Fudge), it is not surprising that I landed us in hot water by mumbling something about it being “that time of the month” in the presence of the city’s Queen.

What? I was roleplaying!

At that point the guards held Bat Loaf down and had been ordered by the Queen to whip him when the proverbial feces hit the proverbial fan. Our paladin and his weaponmaster buddy got very, very angry and started ranting about how outraged they were that this could happen in a civilized society and that no human being (regardless of race, gender, or culture) should be treated with such indignity. Things got heated enough that I wasn’t sure if the players were angry (they claimed later not to be but at the time it was a little freaky). And then they declared that they would die before they allowed this indignity to take place, and both drew swords.

They were promptly subdued and placed into the same uncomfortable position as my bard.

There is a point to this post aside from fond memories of our last D&D session. In my experience, players tend to either eschew morality (as the feat) and do whatever they feel like regardless of situation or (ew) alignment — or they take morality REALLY SERIOUSLY, and blades get drawn at the slightest offense. Think about it, how many times have you witnessed a dispute between two party members, and one’s drawn steel on the other? Or decided that a character’s actions were “evil” so obviously they must be evil and OMG I’M SWORN TO DESTROY EVIL!!!!! KILL KILL MAIM CLEANSE!!!!!

The interesting part about all of this to me is that I don’t understand why this is. It’s like their PC’s morality programming consists of directives like Robocop’s, and they must commit endless, senseless violance against any violations of such. I believe this makes sense for some characters, especially paladins. Any time you’re on a holy mission to do something, sense tends to get left by the wayside. But when you get a 2nd level wizard charging a squad of orcs armed only with a dagger and righteous indignation, that’s just not good roleplaying. Also, it is stupid.

To finish the story, my bard, (who has no shame in times of need) promptly grovelled spectacularly and pretended subservience to the female party members to enough effect that he avoided a beating and managed to keep the other two alive (although not untouched by the cat-o’-nine). Our paladin swore to return one day to “educate these people in the ways good people live”. Which is sad, because our cleric can’t true res yet.

Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon in their D&D groups? We’d love to hear your tales.

P.S. What’s that? You thought I had abandoned you? Of course not, I was just lying dormant, waiting for the perfect moment at which to strike! (Or five seconds of free time, which is sort of like that.)

5 Responses leave one →
  1. catdragon permalink
    January 4, 2008

    Its a function of “having fun.” If being morally righteous is the path to enjoying the situation, then any hint that works will be what the PCs follow. On the other hand, if drawing steel and throwing down with the absence of morals is the path to enjoying the situation, then that is what the players will take. Of course, having the right player mix, and being on the same level as the GM’s enjoyment has *a lot* to do with this.

    In an old old campaign, we had a player who enjoyed… er, disturbing characters. One of his characters suffered from MPD (multiple personality disorder). The GM (who was one of my best GMs ever) even went so far as allowing the PC to have different classes depending on the personality (this was AD&D days). However, the players of the campaign, instead of saving the world, spent at least 3 sessions dealing with either Murder, Prince of Doom and Distruction (a CE fighter) or Ray o’Enflauvoment (a CG cleric/hairdressor of the flaming variety).

    We loved it. Who cared about saving the world? We wanted to play and enjoy this unique PC.

  2. catdragon permalink
    January 4, 2008

    One last thing, just cause it was funny, at one point one of the PCs was down and bleeding to death. The player of the paladin said, “I fall to my knees and lay on hands to stop the bleeding.” A cleric said, “I cast cure moderate to hopefully get the character back up and mobile.” Ray o’Enflauvoment (the aforementioned hairdressor of the flaming variety), said, “I do her hair,” in a sing-song lilting voice. Ray’s player was a beefy, slightly-overweight guy. The entire room where we were playing went silent. James (the player) said, “What? her hair is a frightful mess! And that blood…” and he dramatically shuddered.

    The entire room collapsed in laughter and it took at least a half-hour before we could resume play.

  3. Vanir permalink
    January 4, 2008

    I think the person who played your paladin and I would get along well at the D&D table. 🙂

    Ray o’Enflauvoment seems like a really great character, and it sounds like your group was kosher with how his dark side got played. We’ve had some evil characters as well over the years, and their actions have yielded some pretty great memories too.

    That being said, though, I think doing things in the name of “having fun” needs to be tempered slightly to make sure it’s not a disruption to everyone else’s fun. It’s no good for anyone when a character’s antics and/or personal quirks continually hog the spotlight too much or get everybody killed.

    As we say occasionally here, “there are other people at the table”, and as long as that gets remembered and everybody’s having fun…. hell, murder a bucket of puppies for all I care. 🙂

  4. Ted Lee permalink
    January 8, 2008

    Perhaps the best part about playing “moral” characters to me is finding a way to justify every action.

    There once was a paladin in my group that would do things that might have not been exactly “lawful” or “good,” but found a way to spin his actions. Once, a fellow paladin died who had an incredibly awesome greatsword (which our paladin envied very much). Our paladin immediately picked up the blade and shouted that he would avenge his death and began to strap on the magical armor as well, while our sketchy, kleptomaniac rogue watched helplessly at a lost opportunity. Other times, he would tolerate rather unsavory characters (even ones who may be diametrically opposed to his ideals) for a specific skill or to gain information, shrugging to the other moral or religious characters and saying that now they will perhaps have the chance to save his soul by persuading him to convert to their cause. And one time, he snuck up on an NPC leading a pack of evil creatures and rather “dishonorably” stabbed him in the back at night without raising any alarm, justifying his sneaky, supposedly un-paladin-like actions by reminding the party how many lives he saved this way.

    Paladins especially tend to get the short stick in roleplaying as stiff, unyeilding, one dimmensional characters, which shouldn’t really be that way. I think they’re a lot of fun to play and play with, when done properly. That paladin in particular was a very complex, sometimes unpredictable character, which meant he was that much more fun to play with.

  5. Vanir permalink
    January 8, 2008

    We had a half-celestial paladin awhile back who probably got a lot more leeway than he really ought to. (Telling peasants “I AM PELOR!” probably was crossing the line. 🙂 )

    However, I like it when paladins get into creative-justifications-for-their-actions mode because I think it fits their characters very well. Holy warriors base their entire lives on faith and acting in a certain way — it makes complete sense that even when they step outside the bounds of what that ought to be, their minds twist it to where they’re doing just what they ought to be under the circumstances.

    Which works great, of course, until the god granting you your super awesome holy powers stops doing so because you’ve launched a pre-emptive strike on an orc preschool (think of all the lives we’ve saved!).

    I wish orcs had preschools.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS