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Creation Date: March 1st, 2010 06:15 PM
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Musings of a Knight of the Imperium.
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In Moot Member Blogs Moral ambiguity in games. Entry Tools Rate This Entry
  #612 New April 13th, 2021 07:19 PM
Way back in high school when I decided to change course from science and engineering to the arts and commercial feature films, one of the big issues was finding or creating the right story for the right game that I was going to shoot.

The white elephant in the room was that most gaming sessions have a portion of moral ambiguity to them. Whether your dealing with hack-n-slashers in 3e AD&D or some very "moral oriented" players with that one goof ball who thinks it's funny to open fire on anyone in some backwater town. Games offer that freedom in the narrative generated by players and game master that you don't get in novels, TV or feature films.

As such, when I first went after my career way back in 1987, I had thought to base screenplays off of the classic Traveller Adventures and Double Adventures. The issue was that those adventures are designed to test the character of the players involved; i.e. do you free the doughy eyed woodland creatures from Research Station Gamma, or do you help get the place organized and clamp down on the psi-powered miscreants? In Death Station do you try to bring those drugged up survivors to some kind of medical and psychiatric aid, or do you just gun them down and call it a job well done? That's kind of the unwritten test for key creative people who generate story material for the film industry; i.e. are your morals in line with law and order, or are you "chaotic good" in that you get outraged at every travesty you come across?

So it was that I had a hard time coming up with, wait for it, Car Wars' screenplays. I had a lot of cool action scenes, but no moral imperative. With Traveller it was a little different. I don't know why. I think perhaps because with Car Wars there's an element of "the old west" in there; i.e. you or a band of duelists are "lone guns" and you do what you want until challenged with a moral dilemma.

Traveller adventures are designed to see if you can be more devious than the outlaws all the while carrying out your mission. A lot of games are like that, but Traveller takes real world security scenarios and dresses them up as space ships, alien worlds and creatures, and codifies bad guys in the real world to those other existences. The result is that you get a kind of narrow segment of the scifi genre in the old classic Third Imperium.

One of the problems you have as a young writer is that you really don't know what to write about nor how to write in the first place. So you jot down what you think are decent or good ideas, and when you read them back to yourself you find that those ideas are half baked or just not that good in the first place. You have an idea of what to write, that is you have notions in your mind of concepts you'd like to codify and commit to paper, but your lack of experience and skill keeps those notions on the opposite side of a three story high brick and mortar wall.

You have a sense of right and wrong, but you're lacking a lot of the essential tools to sync up your core emotions with your intellect to place those concepts down in the written form. And so where you'll get outraged at that one jerk player who just killed a farmer and his family as you headed towards the local Hamlet to get provisions, the best you can do is just shout outrage and call that player a bunch of names. You really don't have the tools to fully and skillfully formulate your outrage in an intelligent and articulate manner. Again, you know right and wrong, but you don't have all the skills to effectively express it.

And Traveller was notorious for presenting moral dilemmas. But in a very clandestine manner that challenged your ability to judge what you should be doing. Do I help that little chirpr with a sad tale, or do I contact the authorities and make his life that much more miserable? Do you help the ruling family in that tech level 2 town with whom you're supposed to be establishing relations, or do you b-line it back to the starship to either effect an escape or hope to come roaring back to put down that invasion in "Night of Conquest"?

The game happens in Ogre, Car Wars, even SFB if you're playing the Federation. With Car Wars it's particularly egregious if you're in an arena in mortal combat to win the gold. Do you spare that driver who just escaped his flaming wreck of a vehicle while the dead corpse of his gunner smolders in the burning heap, or do you gun him down as he runs for the safety of one of the bunkers? In a pure gaming context you have fun and shoot him for the sake of it because it's supposed to be imaginary fun. In a novel or some other mass media that's cause for anger and revenge against the firer.

At best games serve up environments and plot frame works for stories. It the author's own personal convictions that make a tale compelling. That fight between a class one starship and a Klingon D7 out in deep space is worth absolutely nothing without knowing who and what the Klingons are. Presumably you know about the Federation's Star Fleet, and if you know them and what they stand for, then you know all about the aggressive Klingon Empire and their militaristic ways. It's what made the Klingons such great foes in the old days.

For Traveller things are a little more ambiguous but also straight forward all at once. The Zhos, the Vargr, the K'Kree, the Hivers, the Aslan, the Darrians, the Solis, the Droyne, all have their strengths and weaknesses, and all have some kind of agenda. Do you agree with that agenda? What are the strengths of their rhetoric? Does is pass scrutiny? What are their weaknesses as societies on the interstellar stage? Or, more specifically, what do you think of the characters, or what actions will you assign to them? That band of marauding Vargr are confronted by a ... "Space Dragon" in their 400 ton Corsair. Said Space Dragon is about to raid a human colony they were going to plunder. Do they risk like and limb to take out the beast to reap the rewards of the human colony, or do they wait and pick up the left overs after the dragon is gone? The real compelling story is to turn them into reluctant heroes who save the colony, but then are forced to land for repairs and are hailed as heroes by the local humans who shower them with wealth and praise as thanks for a deed well done.

Personally I did not like amoral or immoral players at the gaming table. Even when it was done in jest. I really didn't. It was an extension of my personality at school and elsewhere. It was my inner snob who did not like the mullet and denim vest wearing hack-n-slasher who power gamed and therefore killed anything and everything. It wasn't just that they had no appreciation for the history and myths upon which their favorite fantasy game was based. It was because they didn't have a set of moral codes of their own to bring to the table.

Whether I was out in the real world on the job, in class, shopping, ... whatever, I tend to be one of those uptight jerks who brings his personal character to wherever he goes. It's probably why I don't drink, don't enjoy public drunkenness and drug use, and why I've never understood people who really indulge in that behavior and forget about the rest of mankind to satiate their personal desires. And that's how I feel about RPers who game for the game, and game the game for the sake of getting advantages.

I remember one SFB game where our side was fighting against a Federation Carrier Group. We got several shuttle hits on the Fed CVA, but the owning player kept marking off administrative shuttles, or an empty bay, and didn't once touch his F14s nor A-10s. Okay, fine. Just don't expect any courtesy in return when you score vital hits on any of our ships.

Doing what's right in a game can be boring. It's part of the reason games exist; to let out our inner "bad boy" or "bad girl" to engage in nefarious or just downright wrong activities without the consequences. Me, personally, I just like my games straight, because the only "fantasy" I'm interested in is pretending that I'm there doing what I think is right in an environment that I'll never be able to indulge in real life.

Thanks for the opportunity to put this down.
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