Mar. 4th, 2008

heron61: (Gryphon)
There's an absolutely wonderful RPG.net thread about morality & magic in RPGs , definitely an interesting and moderately diverse group of opinions.

I was most impressed with the following discussion (which includes the brilliant quotes that follow) this post about various ideas about morality and magic, taken from a utilitarian consequentialist perspective. As someone who holds to an essentially identical morality, I'm am in complete agreement with statements like:
Black magic as addictive and drug-like:
Arg! Hate hate hate hate! Rip and tear and cut and hurt the inappropriate metaphor! Hates it! Hates it forever!

*coughs* Ahem. I...have issue with this particular license of dramatic useage as applied to game worlds. For one, all it takes is a character in the world deciding "I will not be corrupted." to kick the metaphor in its ass. If the Dark Side of choice is sentient and capable of mind control, then you can achieve drug-like results, but the minute you lose narrative control over a character (either to the dice, or to a player), you make it possible for a character to dip into the dark side and never touch it again. Essentially, either you make going to the dark once an act that results in instant loss of free will and eventual inevitable slide into evil mojo, or you have people freely dipping into darkness, paying the consequence, and moving on.

And let's say that you do portray going to the dark as addictive. So what? Make heroin freely available and eliminate its health side effects, and it's a harmless addiction. If it is channeling dark magic that is addictive, then you'll get people venting their dark rage on dead slabs of beef twice a day, and going on to kick wizardly ass and take names. The minute you wrap actual rules and effects around "This magic makes you evil!" tropes, they burn and die in the face of people not being dumbasses. Authors and GMs, make a note.

On morality as handed down:
If the manifest force of spirituality does not have the best interests of people in mind, fuck it. Given a choice between evil magic that results in less harm, or no evil magic that results in more harm, the only moral choice is evil magic. Morality can't be shifted around independently; it's contingent on the details of the situation at hand. Morality, if it is to have any meaning beyond "What force X wants at the moment" has to be universal and absolute; otherwise, what's the point of paying attention to it in the first place?
It was quite useful when someone pointed out that one of the reasons I am simultaneously bored and annoyed by all narrativist RPGs is (in addition to my fairly strong simulationist preferences, is that the moral questions they focus on are of little interest to people with morals similar to mine. From my PoV, far too much fantasy, and especially far too much fantasy gaming using one of a variety of divine command morals and ethics, which can be an interesting thought experiment in a novel, but are from my PoV, not all that interesting to roleplay on more than an occasional basis, and should certainly not be the primary option available.

I suspect that part of the problem is to be found in the fact that (starting with first edition D&D) some games quantified morality, and by the late 80s and early 90s, other games began to introduce more extensive rules dealing with it. Having never seen such rules that I do not utterly loathe, I naturally gravitate towards games with absolutely no morality related attributes or mechanics. However, even here, most game worlds that possess magic have an implied morality, either typically the black & white morality of many fantasy worlds or the rigid and punitive morality found in far too much horror fiction and almost all horror RPGs.

Interestingly enough, when I try to think of games with magic that either do not possess and inherent morality or which possess one that I do not find simultaneously baffling and repugnant, the only examples that come immediately to mind are Nephilim [[1]] and Conspiracy X, which definitely has something to do with why I ended up writing magic-focused supplements for both games. In any case, I've not seen any more recent games, and I think that there should definitely be more games with a utilitarian morality.

Of course, to a large extent Exalted fits in this category, since it's perfectly obvious that in that cosmology all divine beings are vastly fallible (if not exceptionally corrupt), and in that setting, it's fairly clear that the only valid morality is based on personal choice rather than divine command. If you explore the morality of Exalted from this PoV, then the only valid answers I can see either lead to mind-controlled authoritarian states or a decision to find a way to wipe out Exaltation (especially Celestial Exaltation) and to promote Enlightened Essence in mortals, in order to maximize human freedom and potential, which could definitely lead to interesting games, especially since it's fairly easy to see how seemingly humane individuals could argue for either alternative.

[[1]] At least if you assume that Nephilim are humans who have awakened to the immortal nature of their soul and to the awareness and ability to use magic. Viewing them as horrific psychic parasites is a very different matter, and an interpretation I have absolutely no interest in.

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