Monday, June 16, 2014

Campaign Tone - What is the Morality of your World?

  Part II in a series of articles on campaign tone, the first can be found here.
  Where the first was about what I call the tenor of a campaign, this one is about the morality. If 'tenor' is 'the emotional foundation' then 'morality' is the 'moral foundation'. In short, the overall morality of your campaign world has an effect similar to the tenor t by setting the boundaries of plot, conflict, character development, and overall arc.
  If your tenor is humor you will not have a lot of character development towards, oh, being a better person. Let's contrast the tenor of two films: Liar, Liar and The Firm.
  Yes, really.
The protagonist of Liar, Liar is a relatively amoral lawyer heavily focused on making money. By being forced to confront the manner in which he earns his living he grows to understand the importance of moral courage and honesty and saves his family, becoming a better man.
The protagonist of the The Firm is a relatively amoral lawyer heavily focused on making money. By being forced to confront the manner in which he earns his living he grows to understand the importance of moral courage and honesty and saves his family, becoming a better man.
  That's right, the character arc of Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise are the same. But we know very well that the actions, conflict, and depth of growth for the character Mitch McDeere was much greater than for Fletcher Reede. Why? because the tenor, or the emotional foundation, was different.
  In the film with a tenor of humor the threats facing Fletcher were having his ex-wife marry an objectively better man. losing a case where the person he was representing was scum, and not making much more than his already large salary.
  In the film with the tenor of drama Mitch faced the the murder of his wife and brother, his own death, or (at best) the loss of his livelihood and the potential of years in prison.
  At the end of his particular character arc Fletcher is vaguely back with his wife and son, won the case for his scumbag client (but felt a brief pang of remorse over it), and is making a bucket of money.
  Mitch's arc concludes with him avoiding his own death or the murder of his wife, the death or imprisonment of his co-workers, a reconciliation with and redemption of his brother, and the life-long spectre of his own death at any time.

  I hear you say,
  "The title says 'morality' and you're talking about 'tenor' again. What gives?"
  Trust me, we're getting there.

  As I just showed you the tenor of a story is important because it helps define and limit the cpacity for the DM and players to generate and maintain conflict, to motivate PCs and NPCs, and to determine and define character growth.

  Morality is much the same. In addition to helping define how GMs and players can and do emotionally interact with the setting the setting's morality defines and limits the potential conflicts, motives, and growth of characters, PCs and NPCs alike.

  Before we go on in this vein let me do my usual self-description. I have a degree in Systematic Theology and part of my day job involves business consulting on ethics, morals, and similar issues. I read about, think about, study, compare, contrast, teach, and talk about ethics and morality all the time.

  OK, now that that is out of the way.

  What is it that defines the morality of your campaign? Like I did with the tenor, let's look at the Dying Earth;
The picaresque Dying Earth is set in an Earth about to be snuffed out as the sun goes dark. The characters are morally repellent. The clearest example is probably Cugel "the Clever": he is a liar, thief, con man, swindler, rapist, coward, fool, and malingerer. Of course, the majority of his victims are likewise, only more clever than he.
    Just as the tenor of the Dying Earth is grimness, loss, and despair its morality is dark, evil, and ambiguous.
  Compare this with Barsoom of Burroughs;
John Carter is a gentleman and man of honor who would rather die than break an oath. His captor, Tars Tarkas, a savage Green Man, is likewise honorable and true to such an extent the two men of vastly different species become fast friends. Even among the First Born, a society of priates and slavers, the character Xodar, himself a man of great honor, reacted tot he virtues of John Carter and faced off against his own people to ensure that Carter, to whom Xodar owed a debt of honor, could survive and escape.
  Again, Barsoom's tenor is optimistic and positive its morality is also good, positive, and honorable.

  There are many more protagonists in both worlds than Cugel and Carter; a number of other viewpoint protagonists exist in both worlds. The fascinating thing is that in the Dying Earth there is very little character development compared to Barsoom. Some of the later novels set in Barsoom are effectively roman a clef tales.
  Yes, some of this is unavoidable; as I said, the Dying Earth stories are essentially satires while the Barsoom tales are largely drama (and the origins of Planetary Romance, might I add). But please consider this - Vance, a skilled author, picked a grim tone and moral ambiguity specifically to prevent his characters from developing very much. Burroughs, also a skilled writer*, picked an optimistic tone and moral clarity because his goal was character development.

  Just as tone can really impact how others see your campaign world, so can morality.

  One of the campaigns I played in longest was Lew Pulsipher's Tonilda campaign, set in a unique world of his own make. Tonilda is a remote frontier city far from any other real civilization. It is physically isolated and threatened almost constantly by foes. The local political leader, the baron, vanished inside his keep over a decade ago and the collapse of authroity left the Bishop in charge of the eastern portion of the city, an evil cult in possession of the western portion and a 'neutral' area in between rife with everything from spies to street fighting between factions. Several days tot he north was the keep of J.C., a retired cleric adventurer and the lst safe spot for anyone to travel.
  The tenor of the campaign was one of isolated struggle; the morality was clear - the Bishop and his forces were good, the cultists were evil.\
Another campaign  I played in was Jim henson's (no, not that one!) Iron Mercenaries campaign using Palladium FRPG rules and set in the official Palladium world. The players were a loose band of amoral mercenaries whose goal was the amass as much money as possible. Our employers were often treacherous and far worse than any villains we faced. The tenor was a dark one of collapsed empires and rising evil, the morality grey on grey. 
  These two  campaigns were radically different in tenor and in morality while ostensibly both being about bands of brash adventurers teaming up to creep through dungeons.

  So how do you build a campaign morality? I think there are four elements to doing this on purpose:
    1) Are there NPCs who are good and trustworthy? Evil and devious? Is every 'good' bishop really greedy, corrupt, or stupid? Is every noble an avaricious scumbag? is every wizard a necromancer wannabe?
    2) When the GM puts moral choices before the PCs are they always murky or unclear? To save the princess must they always sacrifice a village to the dragon? Must they kill the orc children to clear the dungeon every time? Are they never sure that their mentors/employers have good ends?
    3) Much like with tenor, are 'day-to-day' NPCs, like barmaids, trustworthy or not? Is every lovely girl flirting with a PC really a prostitute? Is every linkboy a spy? every beggar a thief? etc.
    4) Do characters have the ability to have a character development arc based upon morality, good or bad?

  Talk with your players and visitors - is the morality of your world clear, ambiguous, of indeterminate? Do the players feel like they can make moral and ethical choices in a way that matters?

  *Yes, ERB was a skilled writer. He wrote in a variety of genres, including non-fiction and journalism, and sold 60 million books in his own lifetime, at least that many since. He experimented with a number of styles and was the most-read writer in English of the first half of the 20th Century.

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