GM Advice: 6 Moral Dilemmas for Your PCs

Some of the best roleplaying experiences I’ve had stem from fellow players exploring their PCs’ personalities and background. A good way to force the PCs to do so is through the judicious use of moral dilemmas.

Sneaking Up on Goblins by William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

I’ve used moral dilemmas in my Borderland of Adventure campaign with great success. Not only have great roleplaying moments resulted, the players have had to delve into their PCs’ personalities. For some of the dilemmas I posed them, they are still dealing with the consequences.

Some of the moral dilemmas I’ve used include:

  1. Kill the Innocents: Lots of adventures are set in an evil humanoid’s tribal lair. The PCs attack and kill all the warriors, loot their bodies and complete their quest. After the dust has settled, what should happen to the tribe’s young and noncombatants? Depending on your worldview all orcs (for example) could be evil or they could just be predominantly evil. In any case, slaughtering the young (in particular) is likely to cause moral problems for some PCs. But, if the PCs don’t kill them, what is to become of them? Will they be left to starve to death, are the PCs going to cast them out of their home, leave them to be preyed on by stronger neighbouring tribes etc.? If the PCs don’t deal with them, what will the consequences of their inaction be?
  2. Kill the Helpless: After the battle is done and the PCs stand triumphant, the dead and the dying likely litter the battlefield. I’ve seen some PCs who — after a hard battle — like nothing more than a good beheading, but others might object strenuously to this practise. Beyond those they have vanquished in battle, the party could also encounter  imprisoned evil doers (such as members of rival tribes), the ill, injured or infirm. Do they all deserve death? If so, should they be slaughtered out of hand?
  3. Kill the Prisoners: If the PCs take prisoners, they’ll likely interrogate them (see “Torture” below). Once they have learned all the prisoner knows, what will they do with them? Kill them? Take them back to town to stand trial for their trials? Set them free? Whatever the solution, it is likely to engender a lively debate.
  4. Torture: How far are the PCs willing to go to get the information they need? Lawful good types are unlikely to condone torture while for others it might be more of a hobby. However, if the PCs have captured someone who clearly has important information they desperately need (perhaps to save innocent lives) the issue becomes more thorny. This situation often results in the objecting PC being easily distracted by one his fellows. This is a cop-out and I highly recommend styming this approach to the problem, if at all possible!
  5. Rescue the Prisoners: The PCs are deep in a dungeon when they rescue some prisoners. The prisoners are grateful to be rescued and beg the PCs to escort them to the surface or nearby town. The prisoners are clearly weak and unable to survive without the PCs (and indeed may not survive the party’s continuing adventures), but if the PCs retreat they give their enemy time to retreat or regroup. What should they do?
  6. Work with Evil: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. In some cases this might mean an evil NPC or group offers an alliance with the PCs against another evil group. Some PCs my baulk at this, while others might be prepared to work with anyone to achieve victory.  Working with evil raises many questions, including: Can they be trusted? Why are they doing this? What do they want in return for their help?

At the end of the day, such moral dilemmas are not for all groups. Even in games when they come up, they shouldn’t come up that often. The downside of introducing moral dilemmas into your game is that the ensuing discussion can go on for quite sometime. While this is fun on occasion, such rambling discussions can slow play dramatically, and kill the game’s momentum.

Help Fellow GMs

Do you use moral dilemmas in your game? Have I missed one or do you have a tactic for making it work? Let us know in the comments below, and help your fellow GMs run a better game today!

 

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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23 thoughts on “GM Advice: 6 Moral Dilemmas for Your PCs

  1. These are excellent moral quandaries, but the GM needs to be careful how they use them in the campaign, especially if the players have not previously encountered such difficulties or if the quandary is outside of their regular expectations for play. A recent Paizo thread involving whether the extermination/killing of “little orcs” should be an evil act highlights that such quandaries can be very divisive if the playes are not properly prepared for the decision.

    During the Living Greyhawk years, we encountered this very issue during a regional special we wrote involving the local dwarven class securing the boundaries of their newly-reclaimed homeland, with the moral quandary involving whether or not to exterminate a lair of duergar, including their young. One player at a table (playing a paladin of Hieroneous) managed to location an orphanage (in a player-created town that was a part of our regional Town Project) and left the young there, but many others simply ‘checked-out’ of play and reacted poorly. While I had though that we, as the regional campaign administrators, had properly prepared our players for shades-of-gray choices – I don’t believe that what we did was sufficient for them to expect that kind of situation. There was a bit of a firestorm, which eventually died down – but was enough for us to step back and take a closer look at the kinds of situations we presented to our players.

    • I think it’s much harder to pull this kind of thing off in a living-style campaign. It works best of you know your players and can predict (at least roughly) how they’ll react to any given situation. Living Greyhawk was great for that shades of grey style campaign for people well versed in the setting. Others just wanted to hack and slash and ignore the subtle flavour of the setting.

      But then, I may be biased.

      • You are absolutely right – it was much harder to do in that campaign venue. And I don’t regret doing it – it made for a very nice shift in dynamic from the “3 fights and a bag of gold” routine that many adventures had become. But it was also a substantial paradigm shift for a number of players (those that were less invested in our new storyline). Which was my point on this – if your players aren’t prepared for this kind of adventure, it can wrench them out of the moment. The social contract for play must ensure that players are aware these types of choices can happen. Are you playing a Game of Thrones-type campaign, or a Middle-Earth-type campaign? The answers to those questions help shape how players respond when faced with these excellent situations.

  2. When we played Retribution the players managed to disable the main bad guy (trying not to give spoilers) and they revived him to question him. It was interesting seeing slowly dawning realisation that while they could have killed him in combat or even coup de graced him afterwards that simply putting him to the sword after bringing him round and getting answers didn’t feel right (eventually they ended up taking him to Meylor Vosper in Wolverton at the request of Ruan).

    I’m running them through Shadowed Keep at the moment and they’re probably going to clear out the watchtower tonight. I’m looking forward to them dealing with the prisoners, especially as they’ve just been joined by a paladin of Darlen.

  3. Ahhahahahahaha! Moral dilemmas? My group? Even the CG ones will kill everything in their path just so they can get the XP. Why? Because chaos. That makes them evil? Does it affect their class? No? Then go for it. The consequence is sending more people after them? Good, more XP. And coup-de-grace them all so they’re guaranteed the XP. MAKE ME LEVEL 20 NOW!!! Oh, I’m dead? New character. Let’s start again.
    Give us information. No? Dip you in lava. You’re our prisoner and being annoying. Kill you off, solves everything. We needed them alive? Speak with dead works. There’s no such thing as innocents, just more people to slaughter in the XP farm.
    Evil’s around? That’s nice. How you doing? Let’s make a pact. Then I’ll screw you over, and kill you, because chaos. More XP, and more wealth. You owe me level 20 and 880k in gold. The book says so. Hop to it, GM.
    Oh, you’re kicking me out because you can’t deal with my attitude? Cool, the rest of the group is leaving too, and you no longer have a group, because we’re a hive mind. Oh look, the new players you just found are exact clones of our personality, and you kicked them out too. Enjoy your loneliness and lack of games.

    It doesn’t matter if I’m GMing, or playing, I deal with players like this and there’s NO escaping it. Not even leaving and joining a different group. Conventions are by far the worst because it’s a one-shot and they have absolutely nothing invested in the game so CHAOS!
    I’m doing more PFS nowadays because when you play like that, you lose your character and are kicked out. We’ve actually kicked out a HUGE number of players thus far. We’ve been running the system since Season 2 came out, and only now do we have enough players who play it straight, that we need multiple GMs to run scenarios. Think about that for a second.
    I like dilemmas like this, but then I play it straight. I don’t play games like they’re MMOs that owe me a maxed out character. I miss games like this.

    • Man, that sucks. I hate players like that. I can play a board game if all I want to do is just kill everything.

      I’ve taken to playing games without XP. Just level up when the GM deems the story milestones have been met. Sadly, it sounds like your players would still kill anything that moves just for the joy of rolling dice.

      Granted, role-playing such a nutcase character could be fun, but it sounds like you’re talking about players who do this regardless of character. I am fortunate to be around players who don’t do that. It makes it easier to kick those out, but if you have no other options, then you have a real-life dilemma.

    • I think your group has chaos and evil confused. Killing got selfish reasons is evil, not chaotic in the sense of alignment.
      Being chaotic has more to do with their views of/relationship with laws and structured society.

  4. Good stuff. The moral dilemmas don’t always have to be life or death situations, either. They can be of less consequence, keeping the game a bit lighter, but at the same time forcing the players to make decisions that define their character’s beliefs and values.

    Recently, I had my players take down a bandit hideout. There among the bandits ill-gotten loot was a crate addressed to a nearby temple. It contained more than a dozen potions of cure light wounds. The players might have kept it, especially since there’s no real healer in the party, making this stuff valuable to them. They decided to return it to the temple, though. The monks were of course grateful, and now they have allies in town.

    • Great point.

      What to do with the possessions of fallen PCs is also a good one. Bury them? Loot them? Return them to their family?

      As an aside, I once played in a campaign so lethal the main source of loot were the possessions of fallen characters. We’d jokingly ask the player of the new PC to bring certain items with him as we really needed them. Sadly, the GM didn’t take the hint.

  5. Interesting. I’ve got a CG character in a moral quandry right now. She was transported into this world unexpectedly. The world she was from was we’ll call it “Good dominant”. The one she is now in is the remains of a planet that was taken over by an evil beurocratic start empire. The big problem, is that I have to ally with neutral and evil characters to overthrow the evil empire…..I’ve actually stopped some of the part members from doing some heinous things. (Being the only healing cleric they know – helps a lot! :-)). I’m currently running my character as having been affected by the world she is in, and slightly moving her alignment towards neutrality….Not enough to lose her clericalhood I hope….This is the most fun thing that I have ever done. But as comments above have said – it has to be handled very carefully by the dm, with a good understanding of what moral impact activities will have. If those lines aren’t clearly drawn misunderstanding can happen, and then things can really go south!

  6. “Others just wanted to hack and slash and ignore the subtle flavour of the setting.”
    Oh boy *this*….

    Said “paladin” I mentioned on my “evil in good party” post did the “cleanse with fire” option on the chaaaaos-gnuuuumes’ non-combatants… (so, option 1. but my character finished off any combatants that had attacked us, so, a smattering of option 2, but she’s just evil enough to not care)

    Then the demon chimera showed up last night, rubbed it in his face, and now his Smite Evil is kaput… (hehehe };> )

    We are sort of doing this as an aside between two major campaigns though, so I don’t think the PCs are as moral/serious as they usually are. It’s definitely squeezing us on the loot though as PallyPC is ignoring 80% of the sidequests for his own quest (i.e. no loot as the meatshield keeps walking up the mountain and won’t go in the cave so we have to keep on after them as the rest of the party is a bit less robust).
    A lot of it at the moment is several of the players have had a hard time in RL currently, and “just want to kill things with their mates” though. Another of the players is “getting his *silly* character out of the way” before he plays a serious calculating PC in the next game, for example (so it takes the combined efforts of the rest of the PCs to keep him “on task” and not wandering off and smelling/drinking/killing while we have a discussion about what to do about an evil artifact)

    I can put up with that for a while…

  7. “Where’s the babies’room!” is the battlecry used by Dwarves when they attack an orc settlement. I think that sums it up right there.

  8. I placed a helpful mummy in a tomb to test the players. They are still trying to decide what to do about the mummy (who showed up to detect evil as “mid-level bureaucrat”) I’m looking forward to seeing what is going to happen in the love, usurpation, and revenge story.

  9. Great article, and some solid advice.

    I did notice though that you’re using William McAusland’s artwork for the header image, so I’m guessing you got his art packs (like I did – they’re great!) Just thought though that you should check the license agreement within it, because you’re supposed to attribute his work on anything you publish, as he lays out in his guidelines. Just don’t want to see anyone get into any snafoos when they can be avoided!

  10. In my games, my PCs are free to choose how their characters would act. They can face consequences for certain actions. Alignment is more of a guideline pertaining to what the character is comfortable with, and not so much what they are capable of. The consequences are often penalties for having to deal with the moral crisis of going against your nature. They might kill the little orcs, but anyone with a good alignment will lose sleep, have trouble concentrating or eating, and so on, resulting in some pretty gnarly penalties, as time goes on, until they find some way to cope with it.

    Also, lawful is just as likely to condone, and even promote torture. Spanish Inquisition, McCarthyism, and so on. These people believed so strongly in the right of what they were doing, and apart from these action, they were good people. They were just led astray by fanaticism.

  11. Emphasis on “judiciously.” Most campaigns are about heroism, and players of certain classes have little desire to risk their alignments on thorny issues. That said, I don’t mind seeing the darker side of war on display. Civilians caught in the middle of a battle are a part of the realities of adventuring.

    I also recommend the use of “the law of unintended consequences” in moderation. Sometimes, you do something for the immediate good that you’ll have to revisit because of a factor you hadn’t considered. Those kobolds you killed? Yeah, they were keeping the giant spider population in check, and guess what? You’re now standing in the middle of their new feeding ground, the village that hired you to take out the kobolds.

    Point? As adventurers, be heroic, but get some information as well.

  12. Your Diet-Coke-evil humanoids (orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, as opposed to the more demonic gnolls and bugbears) are still the creations of thoroughly evil deities, notably Gruumsh and Maglubyet. I hate to say it, but their young cannot be “broken” of their inborn natures.

    Kill them. Kill them all, and it really, honestly is for the greater good.

  13. I once had a medicine man who hunted dragons to make medicines from their body parts. A dragon was horrified and angry that the human had killed his brother and came to kill the man. The PCs stood between the dragon, and the human who killed his brother to sell his corpse. The PCs had a hard time deciding whose side they were on, and even when they ended up siding with the dragon, they had a hard time with his desire for vengeance.