Morality in Fantasy Role-Playing Games

You’ve built your character very carefully, designing them into a realistic, if perhaps over-skilled person, one with individual characteristics, and perhaps even a somewhat planned storyline.  Then, you accidentally steal something.  You meant to select the shopkeeper or house-owner before you, but instead, you select their valuable health potion, and without hesitation, they attack you.  Your immediate reaction?  You don’t return the stolen item, or explain your mistake.  Nor even do you admit what you’ve done and accept a night in jail.  Often times, you don’t have the chance to do these things, and, when you do, well, it costs you less coin to just take out your enchanted mace and kill that poor shopkeeper.  Of course, then, the guards attack, so you end up killing them too, and before long, you find yourself on a city-wide killing spree that spares only children, and certain characters that will now certainly be necessary for a quest that your murderous character will later need to complete.

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This is Skyrim, only one of many popular RPGs with interesting moral and ethical setups and boundaries.  Skyrim is a different sort of game, of course, with a much freer range of quests, travel, and choices.  There are few limits to what your character can do, and so, if you so choose, you can indeed carry out the scenario above, even if it was not originally meant.  Of course, there are surely some Skyrim players that choose not to go on killing sprees — or rather they keep their killing sprees to gangs that hideout in caves and the undead.  Others, too, complete their killing spree only to load an earlier save.  After all, there are some in-game consequences to committing crimes.  Of course, these consequences don’t quite seem to always match up to your offenses, often limiting themselves to bounties, jail-time that you don’t actually have to experience (unless the quest calls for it), and fines.  In fact, the only time consequences become more serious is if you are attempting to kill a character considered innocent, at which point guards start attacking you with intent to kill.  This, however, is little different than many in-game quests wherein enemies are attacking you with intent to kill, and often, by this time, you’re powerful enough to defeat them, sometimes with little real effort.

The consequences for horrendous moral choices are so limited in Skyrim that the scenario I described above has certainly been fulfilled by countless players who feel no regret for murdering that poor old town-lady, that one who has been constantly complaining to the Dragonborn (the title of the player’s character) that her son is missing and has been captured.  Skyrim is certainly not the only RPG which allows for entirely immoral choices.  In Dragon Age: Origins, there are countless opportunities to do terrible things, even if there are less freedoms than in Skyrim.  There are no killing sprees, as combat tends to be limited to enemies that attack the player first.  Despite this, it is quite easy to make a purely evil character.  This is represented in a wide-range of mostly pre-planned quests, some optional, and some not.  Sometimes, this can even be involved in the more basic aspects of the game, such as choosing your companions.  Certain companions, such as Morrigan, tend to be very morally skewed, and encourage the POV character, the Grey Warden, to make choices that are also morally skewed.  Another potential companion, Sten, has been locked up for murdering innocents, including children, when the player meets him.  Morrigan suggests that Sven’s worth as a battle companion outweigh his crimes, and it is entirely possible to free him, and add him to your team.

Sten, imprisoned for his crimes.

Other opportunities for evil are more obvious.  At one point, the Warden must free a young boy from possession in order to save the boy’s father.  There is a way to do this without harming the boy or either of his parents.  Or you can make a deal with the demon possessing him, and sacrifice the boy or his mother in order to increase your own power, and access the morally dubious power of blood magic.  Later in the game, there is a quest in which the Warden discovers a secret, illegal, elf-slavery ring.  When the end of the quest is reached, and the player has defeated those running the ring, the big bad offers them a choice; let him live, and he will use (kill) all the kidnapped elves to increase the Warden’s power.  It is important to note, however, that these choices have in-game consequences that, while they differ from those in Skyrim, and the player is unlikely to be arrested or killed by guards, they actually seem to have bigger negative consequences than in Skyrim.

This is because, in Skyrim, paying a fine means nothing, as once wealth is accumulated, there is too much to even spend.  Nor does being killed by guards mean all that much either, as the player can just reload their game.  In Dragon Age, however, the consequences tend to appear in the form of companion relationships.  Of course, if the player has chosen to make their character evil, and chosen their companions accordingly by sticking to those who share their dubious morality, this may not matter much, but to those who have chosen more ethical characters such as Alistair, Wynne, or Leilana, consequences can become so serious that a companion may leave the Dragonborn’s side for the remainder of the game, with no chance of regaining their previous relationship status.  Indeed, if your character is romancing a character, and does something to displease them, it can also result in an immediate breakup.  It seems strange, that these consequences seem more serious than the ones in Skyrim, as in real life, fines, jail-time, and the punishment of death, but within the contexts of the games, it is much more effective to take away the Warden’s companions, decreasing their skills and power in battles.

Morality in RPGs has always been an interesting concept, and certainly, it seems an improvement that there are opportunities in these games to make your character both entirely evil, or completely heroic and morally innocent, if one considers the killing of enemies that have instigated attacks as innocent.  It does, however, seem, that the rules of these games would be more effective, or make the stakes more real and heightened, by ensuring that the in-game consequences of unethical choices are as serious or in-line with those offered in the real-world.  This way, the choice to murder a city of innocent people, or to sacrifice a child to increase your character’s own stats, is one that takes as much thought as other aspects of these games.

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