I’m currently preparing to play a wizard in a D&D 5e game that a friend of mine is running (my first ever wizard, in fact. I prefer the sorcerer playstyle, but I wanted to branch out). My wizard is exceptional because, as part of a curse, he has perfect recall of his own memories and those of his parents and grandparents.
While I’ve played elves and other long-lived races before, this curse/blessing had me keenly considering the implications of a character with a very large scope of experience—specifically, how that large scope would impact that character’s approach to ethics, systems of right and wrong.
After mulling it over last night into this morning, I figured that this character’s perspective must naturally make him a consequentialist, one who believes that the ends justify the means. In particular, this character, being the aloof, hyperrational wizard that he is, might believe that, given the right proportion of impact to effort, the ends always justify the means. On too many separate occasions over two and a half lifetimes, this character has seen the damage done by making a feel-good decision rather than a hard or unpleasant one that would produce better results.
This extreme consequentialism is the kind of thinking that, in D&D’s nine-point alignment grid, falls squarely into the category of lawful evil. It’s the kind of mindset that defines many a comic book villain: sure, killing someone slowly and horribly is definitely a bad thing to do, but if doing it will save fifty lives, I’m getting out the belt sander.
As I kept thinking about it on my way to work, I realized that while it’d be fun to play this angle, to explore this rather severe value system, I didn’t want it to become trite. “If I go overboard,” I told myself, “the character’s going to seem cartoonishly villainous. Plus, he’s got a Charisma of 6, so he’s not going to be too good at explaining himself.” I started considering other options for how this character’s memory might color his personal ethics, but by this time I’d been thinking about the consequentialist perspective for so many hours that I kept circling back to it. Was I doomed here? Within a long enough time frame, would prioritizing long-term benefit over short-term discomfort become the only viable ethic? I shot the question over to my DM. Her response startled and delighted me in the way that only being proven wrong can:
[…] I would argue that you wouldn’t fall into consequentialism because you’ve seen that choices ripple across generations in unpredictable ways, meaning there is no end to an action to justify it, right?
Of course—the ends can’t justify the means when there’s no hard-and-fast end! It’s that zen parable about the farmer’s alternating good luck and bad luck—while we may see what we think is the end result of an action during our lifetime, if you zoom out and consider a long enough timeframe, you’ll see the results of that action continue to manifest over and over again throughout history, in ways beyond what most people could ever expect. Nothing’s ever really done happening (at least, until the inevitable heat death of the universe).
As of this writing, I’m no closer to pidgeonholing this character’s ethical code, but I’ve had a lot of fun trying to understand how his brain may work. That fun, of thinking through and trying out new value systems (and then getting to play them at the table!), is the core of this theory of the tabletop roleplaying game as an ethics playground.
We tackle ethical thought experiments and TRPG scenarios with the same processes—unlike simple analogies, which invite you to compare two scenarios or images in order to find a few shared elements, ethical quandaries and roleplaying challenges invite you to place yourself in the shoes of a character so as to accept every detail of the scenario, to consider the problem from every angle and account for every factor, and to come up with your own solution that responds to its context but is not beholden to it. You’re certainly allowed to cleave to socially accepted or expected standards of behavior, but you haven’t truly answered an ethical problem or a TRPG challenge until you’ve come upon your solution by your own reasoning and are able to defend it. Even then, you might have failed to consider factors that lead you to a wildly different result than the one you expected.
Another example of applying ethical thought to roleplaying: nearly everyone who’s played an introductory-level tabletop game has either been or known the player who bucks the behavioral codes of the game world and goes hog-wild. That’s a fantasy defined by hedonism—pleasure is the greatest good, so let’s do whatever would be the most fun. You can play a hedonistic character this way, or you can play a chilled-out hedonist who hangs out with the party because they enjoy the company of their fellows, and who hates combat because combat hurts!
With its nine-point alignment system (which in 2017 has long since escaped its context and become a meme in its own right), D&D introduces you to considering your character’s belief systems—but delve a little beyond that, into the fundamentals of ethics, and not only does character creation become way more fun, you get into the part of roleplaying that expands your perspective, makes you more thoughtful of others’ value systems, and, ultimately, makes you a better human being.
Disclaimer: I am an ethics hobbyist and have no credentials in the academic field of ethics. The definitions I’m providing here are not included to serve as absolutes; they’re here to pique curiosity. -ð