Allen Varney, writer and game designer



by Allen Varney

[Written 1991; published in Inter*Action #1, 1993]

Gad, what an argument! For an hour the discussion proceeded -- ``raged'' is the better word -- on the GEnie computer network's Gaming RoundTable conference, one Thursday night in early December. I in Texas typed madly at others in Arizona, Wiconsin, and nationwide. Their responses scrolled up my CRT screen as fast as I could read. This was a transcontinental coffeehouse, where anyone with a modem could insult a dozen people in five states all at once!

The quarrel revolved around my ``Roleplaying Reviews'' column in Dragon magazine (issue #175, Dec 1991). The favorable review of the new DARK CONSPIRACY roleplaying game from GDW mentioned that its premise of ``good PCs [player characters] fighting evil monsters is at least an improvement over the moral vacuum of the TWILIGHT: 2000 game,'' also published by GDW. A former GDW employee disagreed vehemently with this characterization of T:2000. The conflict broadened to cover the whole issue of morality in game design.

After an hour of rabid tappa-tappa-tap we had gained little beyond sore fingers and strained backs. But the issue haunted me: Can a roleplaying game design be moral, immoral, or amoral? If it can be moral, should it be?

Varying viewpoints drew me back and forth like a taffy pull, until I finally cast my thinking as a Galilean dialogue of sorts. Before treating the general issue, let's start with a sample discussion, the immediate cause of the argument:

Why is T:2000 amoral?

TWILIGHT: 2000 (first edition 1985, second edition 1990) postulates a full-scale nuclear war in Europe and elsewhere, resulting in the collapse of most nations by the year 2000. The PCs are American soldiers in war-torn Europe (usually Poland) struggling to survive and get back home. Facing enemies, illness, radiation poisoning, and a crippling scarcity of resources, the stranded troops are forced to -- well, they're not forced to do anything. The T:2000 game does not describe what kinds of adventures to run, the tone or conventions of its genre, appropriate character types, or their short-term goals beyond brute survival. In place of such valuable campaign advice it offers little more than the final message from HQ (``You're on your own. Good luck!'') and that distant goal: getting home.

That isn't amoral. That goal is completely natural.

So said my fellow reviewer Rick Swan in a 1985 Space Gamer review of the first edition: ``I've yet to come across a more engaging premise for a roleplaying campaign. And a war-based game that still retains such a strong sense of humanity is an accomplishment by any standards.''

Humanity? The game leaves the means to its goal utterly open. T:2000 offers no imperative or restriction on how the PCs may act, but here's how they sometimes do act. Heavily armed and backed by game mechanics that keep PCs alive far longer than NPCs, the soldiers loot, ransack, and strongarm their way across Poland. Why shouldn't they? Who will tell them not to?

Certainly not GDW. I do not find ``a strong sense of humanity'' in TWILIGHT: 2000 or most of its supplements. With a few honorable exceptions (such as Loren Wiseman's Bangkok: Cesspool of the Orient) its supplements focus relentlessly on hardware and practical survival techniques. Scenarios meticulously describe devastated landscapes with a neutrality that mirrors the game as a whole. Timelines describe the collapse of world civilization briefly, clinically, as though this were just a pretext for matters of real interest -- all those equipment guides.

There's nothing wrong with equipment guides. Nearly every game has them. And would the text be improved by obvious hand-wringing? Can't we safely assume that the designers disapprove of world catastrophe, without requiring ritual displays of Political Correctness?

The text's wording is not the issue. Rather, examine its focus, the matters it emphasizes as important.

T:2000 adventures take place all over Europe and the USA, but the indigenous culture that was blown away is of only passing interest. Goals usually emphasize gaining valuable equipment. (The notable exceptions here are several adventures that send the PCs to overthrow one or another minor dictator, or to oust Cuban invaders from Texas.) NPCs are seldom unique members of a unique society; more often, they are generic allies or antagonists, simple instruments, their motives drawn from a deck of playing cards. Again, the Bangkok supplement is among the few that treat locals as anything but targets, henchmen, or information sources.

One could argue that T:2000 espouses patriotic ideals, because it lets the PCs help rebuild a wiser America, one less likely to succumb to calamitous war.

In the adventures, rebuilding receives only cursory mention, often as a mere scenario hook (``Go find this prewar cache of truck parts''). The societies shown are fascist dictatorships, fanatical religious sects, and others that no one would be disposed to support -- though, again, descriptions are neutral and objective, with notions of ``good guys'' and ``bad guys'' entirely in the reader's mind. The climax of a given adventure is almost always a firefight. Even if the PCs want to rebuild, this soon becomes impossible in the published adventures, because war-induced climatic change has created crippling drought nationwide.

These products do not establish patriotic ideals, but an almost pure moral vacuum.

What's the beef with T:2000 in particular? Many games are like that. Nearly all post-holocaust settings, most of the ``cyberpunk'' games, and many fantasy RPGs give no thought to ethical values. (``Okay, let's go down into the lair of the monsters who haven't been bothering anyone, kill them, take their possessions, and then head back to town.'')

This is indisputable. T:2000 was simply the one mentioned in the review, thereby provoking the argument. Its amorality makes greater impact than most other games, because it hits close to home. We ourselves are the society it blows up eight years from now, for the sake of what its design notes call ``escapist entertainment.''

But almost any setting's inherent morality is worth examination. Pick a game and try it yourself. It's probably best to exempt from analysis the comedic RPGs, such as PARANOIA and TOON, and those intended as satire, such as the CAR WARS background or the old Games Workshop JUDGE DREDD RPG. Morality itself, or a vicious parody of it, can become the subject in these games.

What should a game do, then? Should it impose a moral code on the PCs? ``You can't legislate morality,'' either in society or in games.

In society, coercing others to follow rigid guidelines is wrong, narrow-minded, and obviously unworkable. It is the antithesis of freedom, because the coerced party cannot choose the guidelines nor escape them.

A game's setting, however, does not ``legislate morality.'' Nobody forces you to role-play in the setting as written. If you don't like the designer's guidelines, you drop them or drop the game. Instead, a setting offers suggestions, viewpoints, like those in stories or films.

But a good campaign setting should offer unlimited options. I don't like games that build in brute-force rules like ``hero points,'' mechanics that reward a specific agenda. A designer who tries to force the players into a mold just restricts adventures and players alike.

Flexibility in a rules set is great. My favorite system, Hero Games' Hero System, imposes no moral restrictions. The gamemaster has total leeway in constructing a campaign setting.

Rules are different from campaign settings, though. Just as a setting doesn't necessarily make for good adventures simply because you can do anything you want, so the reverse is true -- that a good setting doesn't necessarily imply unlimited freedom of action.

But this still doesn't justify placing restrictions on a setting. A reasonable designer could easily argue that an agenda limits the game's usefulness -- that life has no obvious agenda, so a game that simulates life shouldn't either.

Rules mechanics usually represent physical reality -- how people and objects move and act, effects of damage, and so forth. A campaign background represents the reality of a culture -- what the inhabitants live for and aspire to, and how they interact. To impose a moral agenda on the physical world (that is, the rules) is dangerous and limiting. But a useful, effective cultural background requires it.


Every culture depends on guidelines: how to determine status and procure justice, what is worth striving for, ceremonies of birth and marriage and death, definitions of good and bad behavior, and so on. Most of these guidelines vary widely among cultures. Some societies, such as ours, offer a bewildering variety of views on every issue. The point is, every society addresses them all in its own way. These are the universal concerns of life.

-- And the concerns of story. Characters in a roleplaying setting presumably face the same issues. Their varying solutions create the conflicts that produce powerful adventures. Players become more deeply involved in a scenario when setting and NPCs are plausible, when they address the same universal concerns that real societies do. This implies a moral basis for the society.

And that extends to the player characters?

Yes. A setting's morality lies in the actions it makes available to the Pcs.

Why would players become more deeply involved in an adventure when their characters' actions are restricted?

Say rather, ``defined.'' They act from points of reference. They know typical behavior, so that if and when they deviate from it, that departure creates drama.

Without societal guidelines, too, it's harder to acquire goals. Here's a line from writer Thomas M. Disch's 1981 story, ``Understanding Human Behavior.'' It concerns a man who has his memory erased so he can make a new beginning: ``The major disadvantage of having no past life, no established preferences [was that] he just didn't want anything very much.''

Not every way of establishing campaign guidelines can succeed, and some approaches are disastrous. At one extreme is, ``Here is the one true way. Stray not from it, upon pain of dismissal from the game.'' At the other is the game wherein PCs can bless or slaughter as they like, where every action equals every other, all occurring without significance against a background as impersonal and vacuous as outer space.

The latter setting is no more interesting than the former. A balance is the key. What actions in a setting are considered positive, what negative, how broad is the range for each, and how does the design encourage or discourage each? The answers make up the campaign setting's moral viewpoint.

But the gamemaster determines a campaign's viewpoint anyway! A group of players can just throw out the designer's definitions of right and wrong, then play the setting as they like. Some gamemasters and players don't want their games to be stories, or they prefer a neutral backdrop.

That's fine. They can play any way they want, obviously. The issue is the designer's attitude toward the material, and the kind of experience the design tries to create for the players.

A coherent moral viewpoint strengthens most adventures, because it inspires atmosphere, thematic unity, well-rounded characters who reflect their settings, and clear, believable goals. The products that players use are better for that viewpoint -- even if they discard it in favor of their own, or none.

If campaign settings should include imperatives and restrictions in order to reflect a moral view, what agenda should they offer?

``Morality'' here doesn't mean one particular moral agenda. I don't say every RPG should advocate, for instance, trade surpluses or Zoroastrianism or safe use of strawberry ice cream. ``Morality,'' in this case, means any reasonably coherent viewpoint about behavior, a sense that some actions are right and others are wrong, and a willingness to assert that view.

So the designer should have an agenda. Its details are a matter of choice, and open to discussion by the players.

I have moral beliefs of my own, but I see no reason to foist them on the players.

The morality of the setting need not be the designer's own code of behavior -- quite the contrary. The point is, the designer should convey ideas of right and wrong appropriate to the setting and its adventures.

Sounds like Dwight Eisenhower's assertion that everyone should have a religion, and he didn't care what it is. What specific RPGs express a morality, then? What kinds of games are immoral?

Among moral games, Chaosium's superb PENDRAGON game of Arthurian Britain stands out. Both mechanics and campaign material define the code of chivalry that guided the Knights of the Round Table. Then there are any number of games with less sophisticated (``mind-numbingly simplistic''?) good-vs.-evil conflicts, such as West End's STAR WARS RPG and all the super-hero games. Any game with an alignment system must also qualify, though I find these primitive and narrow.

(Morality advanced for didactic rather than dramatic purposes appears in the old DRAGONRAID game, explicitly based on Christian values and Bible knowledge. This, however, is not the approach at issue here.)

I have never seen an RPG I call immoral, as opposed to amoral, a subtle distinction. Friends tell of games that seem to inculcate racist hatred or other vices, but so far I have been spared seeing these, fortunately.

Some settings and games are amoral. So what? Why is that bad? Lots of people play them and have fun. Do these settings somehow corrupt players?

No, they don't. If the players have fun, that's great.

So what's the point here?

There are other grounds for discussion besides danger, though we seldom hear of them nowadays. The attitude often seems to be, ``If they don't hurt anyone, all approaches are equally valid.''

That works for real life (if only more people really behaved that way!). But craftspeople work by standards. Nobody argues that all approaches are valid when, say, building a piano.

In the craft of game design, attention to morality improves adventures. Most designers would agree with this pragmatism, and might even wonder why the fuss. But (according to least one moral agenda) a moral view is more than pragmatism, it is the highest professionalism.

Conscientious designers of scenario settings and roleplaying adventures do the best work they can, not to guarantee future assignments, but because self-respect obligates them to work to the limits of their powers. That must include the desire to communicate something worth hearing. This might be a joke or funny situation, a scene of beauty, or an insight into the way people live or the consequences of behavior.

In the last case, the insight must convey (at least implicitly) judgment. How does this behavior influence the setting? What are the strengths and drawbacks of this way of life? Without this judgment, the designer might as well leave the job to someone else and take up knitting, because this so-called creator's material is really saying, ``Look: No action is more worthwhile than another. All actions are justified. People are objects, societies trivial, and concern about how things turn out is pointless.''

Adventures in the field have come a long way from plotless numbered-room dungeon crawls. We still have far to go. I'm happy that the many designers I know are intelligent, ethical people who have no shortage of opinions and the willingness to express them -- to say the least! They can lead us on that ongoing journey, the quest to do the right thing.