Moral Conundrums & Tough Choices in Your Game

Posted on March 17, 2011 by

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One of the things I’ve learned since I began DMing Dragon Age is just how good placing moral conundrums in front of your players is.  The Dragon Age adventure philosophy, by design, encourages this approach to story-telling, and I’ve found that it really makes players become more involved in the story you are all trying to tell.

So as I’ve been trying to develop adventures and stories in this fashion, I’ve thought of ways to introduce these concepts at the table.  It requires you to put on a storyteller cap, rather than an “encounter designer” one, but it’s a pretty rewarding thing to see players scratching their heads trying to figure out what the right course of action is in certain situations, or what the moral thing to do would be.

One of the ways to approach this is to introduce your players to NPC’s early on in the adventure, and then place those npc’s in danger.  That way, a relationship is built from the get-go, and the choices involving those npc’s are all the more harder.  I’ll give an example.  In the Amber Rage adventure for Dragon Age, the village the party is in is invaded by these savages infected with a poison that makes them rage.  One of the scenarios has the players faced with a decision involving children.  Two kids are being attacked by the ragers, one is running away, chased and about to get caught, the other is under a wagon fighting off some ragers.  Both kids are pretty screwed either way, and the party is faced with the decision of which kid to save.  Now, as written there really is no real connection between the kids to the party, and the drive to save them is really just the fact that they are children.  But by introducing them early on in the adventure, the party had an emotional attachment to the kids.  At my table, these weren’t just kid A and kid B, but rather they were the kids whom the party met in the festival celebrating the construction of a fort nearby.  The kids were helping in booths, and interacted with the characters a bit during the celebrations.  The choice of which kid to save suddenly became harder and had more meaning just by adding this little touch.

Another way to do this is to tap into your players’ own humanity.  Yep, not the characters, but the players.  Now some might say that doing it like that is a bit too metagamy, but as a DM, you need to know where and how to hit your players emotional notes so that they have impact at the table.  I have a player who is all about honor and respect, so I set up a situation for him that I knew he’d fall right into-as a player.  The party was investigating a tomb, they opened a sarcophagus, and a rogue stole some weapons that were buried with the body.  The other player would have none of it.  I sat back and watched the roleplay become a real discussion on honor and morals.

Don’t be afraid to steal.  This is old DMing advice, but worth noting time and time again.  Take existing stuff, and reflavor it.  Spock said it best in Wrath of Khan:  “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.  This is an excellent thing to dive into in your games.  Used with moderation and skill, it can be reused a few times without your players crying foul.  You can look at it at the micro level:  the cure for the Amber Rage disease is actually the food of a group of fairy-like creatures that depend on it.  You take it to save the town, you kill these few fairies.  Or, look at it at the macro level, spanning nations or worlds:  The Nation of Kalemar depends on the substance X  from the small island country of Dirling–all the substance, which the island nation needs.  If Kalemar goes, so goes the world they say.  Kalemar must be saved.  Now what?  There are plenty of opportunities for morality-based storylines using Spock’s question.

Tough choices, tough decisions make for a better roleplay experience, as long as your players are willing to go along with it.  Sometimes people want to roll dice and kill orcs, and to hell with morality choices.  That’s fun too.  Don’t force anything into your game that your players aren’t interested in either, as it may just backfire on you.

Some situations that may place PC’s in tough spots:

  • The party stumbles upon the remains of a bandit attack, a woman and her children have been assaulted, their wagon set ablaze.  The bandits are riding off in the distance with a scroll she carried containing a powerful ritual.  There are only seconds left to decide, stay and save their lives, as they are badly hurt, or go after the bandits with the ritual that can unleash a tremendous amount of mad mojo in the area.  What do they do?
  • The source of water for a country is revealed to be a genasi kept in an elemental state as a punishment handed down many centuries ago.  He was sentenced by the ruling magocracy to become a water elemental through a painful ritual, and left forgotten he’s now the main source of water.  He was recently discovered, and communicating through the party’s wizard it is now revealed that he is in pain and begging to be destroyed.  What happens?
  • A bandit camp is made up of mostly mind controlled teenagers.  The spell can be broken, but these guys are fighting to the death.  Their parents are the adults in town that asked the party to both find their kids, and stop the bandits!

I would love to read how you guys introduce these concepts in your game, as I find it to be a challenging exercise to do so.

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Posted in: Advice/Tools, Gaming