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The Mad Cleric: How to Challenge PCs Morally

Well, my PC killed somebody again.  And, no, not in a justifiable “the orc attacked us first” way.  In a vengeful “your family has a blood feud with my family” sort of way.  It was straight-up killing.

In terms of gameplay, it was exciting and cinematic.  My character’s obligation had been rolled in Edge of the Empire and my character’s motivation demanded he do it!  The other players were stunned as the vibroknife sunk deep into the unarmed NPC (whom we had just rescued from a group of Imperial agents).  Our medic rushed to save his life, while the other characters held mine back, as he ranted and raved of his family’s honor.  But, you know, it was still old-school, settle-the-score murder.

Back around Halloween, I wrote about evil themes in tabletop roleplaying and how they impact our conscience as players.  But what about as a GM?  Do we want to invite our players into situations where they will be forced with such a moral dilemma?  To kill or not to kill?  Well, I guess that is the question.

Should gaming venture into the realm of morals?

As with my advice in the article on horror and conscience, this will vary depending upon your group.  As someone who lives right on the edge of the Bible belt in an area that is historically Roman Catholic, I have found that most of my players enjoy talking about things spiritual.  In fact, they even enjoy a bit of robust debate!  So my home group is well-suited for so-called “moral challenges.”

If your group is a public group at your FLGS, or a group wherein new people are welcome, you might want to keep it light though.  There’s no real benefit in risking offending your players.  As we’ve said in article after article on this site, the goal is to provide enjoyment for all players.  Do not risk that essential tenet in an effort to provide a provocative, morally-charged storyline.


In the grand scheme of things, there is a spectrum of moral challenges that you can present.  And some are more easily utilized than others:

The Easiest and Safest Moral Challenge

So what sorts of moral challenges work well for my group?  The individual moral dilemma is a classic.  This is a situation in which a player is forced with an option: (1) make a sacrifice for the greater good or (2) get what they want at the expense of others.  My PC was faced with that this week: settle a personal vendetta or go against his motivation for the greater good of the Alliance for the Republic?  He chose the prior.  In terms of the moral challenge, he failed.

What happens when a player fails an individual moral dilemma?  There must be some natural repercussion!  In the Star Wars RPG, your Obligation increases or your Morality score gets dinged.  In the classic fantasy setting, your character has just earned a nemesis who will return stronger than before.  As a GM, if you are going to introduce moral challenges, you are obligated to ensure there are consequences.  The player needs to learn something from their challenge, whether they fail or succeed.

So what if a character succeeds in the individual moral dilemma?  Well, you don’t want over-inflated, prideful PCs.  So how do you combat that?  Make the cost of success palpable.  Character death is, of course, an option on the table.  But that’s not a tool you want to use too often.  What other sacrifices could players make?  Their own agendas?  Their money or resources?  The success of their quest?  As you get to know your characters, the most effective sacrifices will become apparent.  But that is the nature of moral challenges, is it not?  To sacrifice one’s own desires for the greater good?  As a GM, make sure the sacrifice stings.

A More Tricky Moral Challenge

Individual moral dilemmas are a classic storytelling device.  Another option that is just as common is the group moral challenge.  But why is this more difficult to employ as a GM?  Because different characters have different desires, intentions, and propensities.  What one character may be willing to sacrifice, the other may not!  Of course, this is why I don’t allow evil-aligned characters into a group of otherwise good or neutral alignment.  That always, always, ALWAYS ends badly.  But if you’ve got a relatively cohesive group, what kinds of challenges could you present?

Saving children from a burning orphanage is not a group moral challenge.  That’s just an opportunity for heroism.  But forcing players to choose between saving the orphans and completing their year-long quest… now that’s a moral challenge.  And that’s just the kind of malarkey that villains love to introduce in the end game.  Some characters who love treasure may feel very torn about the conflict.  Meanwhile, your paladin has already rushed into the flames.  Therein lies the challenge: do we work together or does the fellowship dissolve?  And that’s how you get an awesome story, motivated by moral challenge.

To succeed in this group moral challenge would mean to save the orphans and thus fail the adventure, would it not?  Only if you’re a vindictive GM.  A kind GM will  find a way for the characters to be “good guys” and still succeed at their overall goals.  Likewise, would failing this moral challenge mean “winning” the adventure, getting the gold and the glory while the children perish?  I’ll put it this way: if “winning” is your players’ goal, you probably don’t want to pose group moral dilemmas to them.  Just let them hack and slash through to the BBEG.

A Word of Warning

We do not game in a vacuum.  Be careful when you introduce individual and group moral dilemmas.  It’s not very cool to mimic current national or world tragedies in your games.  And it’s completely offensive to parrot (knowingly or accidentally) one of your player’s personal tragedies in a game.  Again, this is why you need to be very cautious with a group of players you don’t know well.

But if you’re in a home group that you know very well, give moral challenges a chance!  If you want to test the waters ahead of time, ask your players if they might be interested in the sort of challenge you are considering.  Generally describing the circumstance won’t ruin your story.  And, if anything, it may help players prepare and consider how their characters might respond to such a situation.

In the end, moral challenges can be a rich way to strengthen your storytelling.  Indeed, we see them played out in the earliest and most revered of human stories.  Wield them wisely and your group will thank you for the challenging stories of honor and courage that result.


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