The Morality Of Adventuring

2009 February 19
by Vanir

The more I play WoW, the more I wonder what kind of character I’m actually playing. You start out playing the game fresh-faced and ready to fight the Scourge, but what you wind up doing is clearing some scorpids out that are threatening travellers. Boring, but innocuous enough. Then, as the game progresses a bit, you’ll get some quests where some quilboars are bothering people in the Crossroads, and you need to go thin their numbers. Now we’re talking about killing sentient humanoid creatures. Dirty work, for sure, but it’s saving the lives of the citizens of the Horde, right? Well, as they say, “War is Hell”. You do what you have to.

Just Following Orders

I don’t know whether it’s just me, or if I’m noticing it more now, but it feels like the further I get in the game, the more morally questionable the things I have to do for quest become. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, I seem to remember there being a big controversy brewing about a quest involving torture about the time I bought the WotLK expansion. But I do find myself getting the occasional quest where my gut reaction is “you know, I really want the XP, but I’m not crazy about what’s going on here”.

There’s a quest where you have to steal Wolvar pups and give them to the Kalu’ak walrus people. The walrus dudes want you to do this because they want to raise these pups to be peaceful. I found myself wishing there was a quest for the Wolvar tribe so I could go steal their pups back and maybe kill all the walrus guys in the process (skinning them, of course, and making them into quivers).

This issue is, of course, much more complicated than it initially seems. Yes, the walrus dudes think it’d be great to raise all the wolvar pups in the way they think is right and if they do it enough then everybody gets along, right? Except they’re stealing babies (ok, well, technically I guess it’s me). A quest that goes with that one also has me murder their parents (because they stole stuff from the walruses). And all that murderin’ and stealin’ aside, they’re still trying to erase the entire Wolvar culture. Sure, I can understand them wanting to get rid of it seeing as they get “chewed on” by “powerful Wolvar jaws” occasionally, but the point is, do they really get to make that call? Well, as history shows us now and then, whoever is stronger frequently does make that call. But is it moral?


I am not, of course, worried that America’s youth is going to turn to torture and genocide. At least, not because of WoW. (American Idol, maybe.) My interest in the topic is purely for roleplaying purposes (on both sides of the table). As a player, I’ve got to figure out what to do with myself when presented with that situation. In a game like WoW, the consequences (good or bad) frequently take the form of Reputation. I must say I’m happy they sometimes make your actions affect one faction positively and another negatively. While it makes it hard to do everything in the game (at least on one character), I think it makes a vaguely realistic stab as to how your actions affect the opinions of those you interact with.

In D&D, of course, how your character is perceived is up to the capricious whim of real people. I see the most effect from this between players. Especially if there’s a Dudley Do-Right in the group, a character stealing a bunch of kids (even with the best of intentions) may find himself at swordpoint if another player disagrees. DM’s can set morally questionable situations up in advance to stir up some roleplaying — but be aware of the above effect of doing so on your players. You want to make things fun, try not to make the powderkeg too large.

Look Both Ways Before You Justify

The largest question in my mind about all this is, “how would my character deal with all this?”. People do some crazy things under duress, and under the influence of powerful leadership. There’s enough cognitive dissonance floating around in an entire world torn apart by war to rationalize goddamn near anything. So while I, as a pasty white Perl coder with a doughy middle and big screen TV, think these things are questionably moral — my shaman might feel differently. Before you draw a line in the sand with your character about something, take a few seconds to consider how they might see it. And keep an eye on the paladin when you tell the party what you’ve decided in case you need to duck.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. jamused permalink
    February 19, 2009

    I only played WoW for about a month, and never got beyond roughly 14th level iirc, but every “enemy” mob that I ever ran into attempted to kill me on sight. It didn’t matter if I was on a quest to deal with them, just picking flowers, looking for some lost trinket, or whatever. To see me was to attempt to murder me. And they’d all fight to the death, too. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned with, or negotiated with.

    So it seems to me that you don’t need any more complicated morality than it’s moral to defend yourself, even with lethal force, against a homicidal maniac or mad beast attempting to kill you in order to answer pretty much every moral question in WoW.

    I don’t know about the particular get the Wolvar pups quest, but if it’s like everything else I ran into in WoW all you’d have to do is go to the village to negotiate a truce and they’ll all attack you. When you’re finished defending yourself, and there’s nobody left then you can either save the pups by bringing them to the Kalu’ak, or leave them to starve. 😉

  2. Donny permalink
    February 19, 2009

    First person to start spouting “Gygaxian Naturalism” wears his guts for garters! Except me, of course.

    Role-playing is sticky like that. Freud wasn’t kidding when he talked about the monsters hiding within the bodies of people we would never suspect.

    I lost several friends for good after one too many “all-evil” campaigns. There are limits…it’s knowing which ones are picket fences, and which ones are barbed wire that makes you something other than an animal.

    As to WoW…I stopped reading quest text ages ago. Shit rarely makes any sense anyway 🙂

  3. Questing GM permalink
    February 20, 2009

    Interesting thought. I should try springing one or two morally questionable adventures on my PCs and see if they bite.

    Of course, the basic hook of ‘killing them and take their stuff’ has always been a morally questionable mindset. It’s called robbery.

  4. Donny permalink
    February 20, 2009

    …lol! but what if it’s the police that are doing it!!

    IT gets a bit fuzzy when you bring good and evil into the game.

    Clearing out a camp full of goblins? Ask the pally, did they do anything to deserve this? What about the dependents?


  5. that one guy you know permalink
    February 20, 2009

    Great post.

    A former WoW addict (clean for a few years), I slipped back into that mindset with a halfling paladin I’ve been playing in 4E. My DM had to have my god refuse to answer my prayers for a while before I realized that Bahamut probably wouldn’t be down with me killing a bunch of kobolds just for happening to be in the same canyon as my party.

    Needless to say, my adventuring companions no longer get away with graverobbing without a lot of guff from my little holy warrior.

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