Friday, January 4, 2019

Sidebar: Ethical Drift

Update: after much consideration, I am no longer considering this post to be part of the RPG 201 syllabus.  While I stand by all that's said here, I have come to consider it an opinion and not properly supported by earlier classes and conclusions.  Therefore I am leaving it on the blog but I am stepping back and reconsidering how the 22nd class should have been more properly based on earlier material.  I mean to go in a different direction from what's discussed below.
Alexis, Jan 10th 2019 

Quoting the last class, I ended by saying that the setting we create (and by extension, the game), must exist as something the players will want to play. That was perhaps too obscure a point; I should rather have said that in giving our setting meaning, we must enable the players to make meaning for themselves ~ just as we discussed in an earlier class. The players must be able to make sense of their situation, and of the relationships they have with NPCs. The players must be able, with experience and awareness, develop a consciousness of the setting that rivals their ready consciousness with the real world, the one they’ve occupied since becoming self-aware.

It is for that reason that we don’t want to become entangled with the mechanical structure of the campaign too early in our design process. The setting’s lay-out or appearance should not be our priority. Those things matter, of course; and they need to be addressed before the setting can be called ready. But first we must understand how our setting will function in terms of the purpose it serves – and that purpose is to provide an opportunity for the meaning players will ascribe to their characters, their goals and themselves.

We address this process according to those things that I listed at the end of our last class: the ethics, values and emotion the campaign possesses. It would be fair to expect, without examination, that the DM’s perception of these things will play a strong part. Where the game pays off the players for their actions, we would expect that if the players act according to the DM’s ethical code, they’ll be rewarded. If they value what the DM values, they’ll receive the DM’s endorsement. And if the players retain an instinctive mood that matches the DM’s, they’ll be made to feel welcome in the DM’s setting.

Yet it need not be so. The DM may not expect the players to be so aligned ~ but rather, create a setting that functions much more like the patterns of the actual world. For example, that allows both ethical and unethical behavior. That provides for the pursuit of values that reach far out of the DM’s interest. And the display of emotions and mood that challenges the DM’s equanimity. In such a setting, the players are not compelled to seek success through actively making meaning of the DM’s worldview … but rather, their own.

To have this, we are challenged as DM’s to step out of our personal meanings and into a potentially universal meaning. But while that seems well and good in theory, I would not be surprised to find that most of this class would be puzzled as to how to approach the problem.

We can start right immediately. Let’s talk about ethics ~ not the ethics of the participants, nor the ethics of proper game play … but the ethics expected of player characters in a setting that potentially treats their ethical behavior with relative indifference. Just as any of us right now might act without ethics, in small ways, and receive no consequences.

Ethics are commonly defined as the difference between right and wrong, good or ill, or as role-playing would have it, Law and Chaos. And while these have an esoteric function in our minds where meaning-making is concerned, I would propose a practical duality for ethics that will better describe a role-played character’s perception of their world: “Do no harm” versus the freedom to “inflict harm intentionally.”

This immediately invokes a common perception with role-playing games, that we touched upon earlier in our discussion of heroes. A hero, we perceive, sets out to defend justice, to distribute benefits fairly, to act with kindness and not malice, to do good, to vanquish evil and to sacrifice for the greater good. On the other hand, a “murder hobo,” as contrary players are often described, seek for themselves, care nothing for other values and beliefs, grab all they can, kill maliciously, benefit themselves and if they do good and kill something evil, it has less to do with goodness and all to do with removing the evil as an obstacle.

Suppose we graph these ideas.  Imagine a midpoint between two extremes, represented as a vertical line.  At the top of the line we have the ultimate forces for benevolence and justice: entities that wish only for the best of all things.  These forces are then in conflict with forces at the bottom of our imaginary line ~ forces of malicious intent, cruelty, sin, however we choose to label it.  This is easy enough.

Now let's expand that line out into a 2-dimensional graph, as shown on the right, by adding time.  The red line on the graph represents the player party's ethical drift, as time passes.  If the party acts with malice, they move upwards on the chart, against these labeled entities for responsibility and benevolence.  If the party acts to defend justice, they move downwards on the chart, against entities for self-interest and malevolence.

This seems counter-intuitive; we would normally suppose that moving into the green part of the graph would be "joining" those forces.  However, the game, and the party's movements, is driven by how the players conflict with the world's ideals.  Thus, as they move towards the lawful forces of the social system, they impugn upon those forces.  And vice versa.

So as they get started in a barfight, ignoring the bartender and creating a disturbance, they flee the patrol before it arrives.  The party loses a purse; they go after the pickpocket; get into a brawl with ruffians; continue to hunt into the darker areas of the city, learning from a gangmember that there are girl slaves at a brothel.  They rescue one girl and rush to find solace among law and order; to get there, they have to make a deal with a usurer, who hides them long enough to let them escape.  Then, safe, walking past a fruit cart, one of the party steals an apple.

These are mostly issues with locals ... the sort that might be in the bar with the party (10 meters), on a nearby street (100 meters) or somewhere in the town (1000 meters).  When they have the barfight, the patrol cares because it is nearby; but the guardhouse and vicar are quite a lot further away and aren't likely to be involved.  The captain of the guard or the judge that makes a circuit of local towns will probably never hear of the incident ... as long as the party flees the scene.

On the other hand, the owner of the brothel where the girl was saved might be across town ... and probably will hear about the theft, thus we draw the line down past the actual travel distance for the party.  The line represents the party's influence on the top and bottom of this graph.  We might suppose the news might reach the crime guildmaster overlooking all the brothels within 100 km ... but that is up to us.

Our goal here is to imagine for ourselves as setting creators how those distant forces are influenced by those forces close to the party.  How is the power structure of our world organized?  Is it static, where every being has its place except for the party, which wanders back and forth between different factions ... or is the state of the world's power forces in a state of flux.  We can easily see how the motion of these entities on both sides have the potential for moving on their own trajectories, towards the party or away from it.

Whichever we choose, we need to see not only how the world is structured, but how does that world function in real time, as those entities we define create their own ethical drift?

We will be discussing that with our next class, as we take up the subject of value, both that of the players and the non-players.


JB said...

Huh. This feels like it's getting to the heart of some of the more abstract concepts found in How to Run. But I can't find the references I'm thinking about (with just a brief perusal...probably need to go back and re-read the book!).

Danielle Osterman said...

This is fascinating. I'm excited to see where this goes.