Ethics and Game Design [for serious, Luke]

edited August 2009 in Story Games
Okay, so we can discuss the meaning of ethics in life and play and games all day, but, as Luke says:
Posted By: Luke WheelJust like all of the theoretical nonsense that's emerged in the past 10 years, this is useful because it helps us understand what we're doing. Understanding helps sharpen our designs.
So, how 'bout them designs?

How does / will / would an understanding of ethics affect your game design? Or how you play? Your usage of a game text/rules? (yes, modding game = design,
also: "play > design") How you design rules? How you write a game text?

Please don't argue for definition or theory. Please share actual experience! This thread is "for serious."

Comments

  • Are you talking to me?

    All of my designs have an overt (kind of retarded) ethical bent to them. You are meant to take a stand and really fight for shit you believe in. So, uh, yeah.

    But that's not what I'm talking about.

    I struck upon this "definition" of mine when I realized that 99% of RPGs provide explicit context for ethical choices, while 99% of other games do not. For me, it's just an idea to have in my back mental pocket when I'm looking at the range of choices available in designs (and how those choices are incentivized).

    But I don't design from a theoretical standpoint. I design from a, uh, behavioral standpoint -- or something. How do I get you to do what I want you to do? What has to happen at the table for you to buy into my design and ultimately create the kind of fiction I'm after.

    -L
  • I think it's hard to create stuff without ethics getting involved. Mind you, designer ethics has very little to do with the definition Luke proposed in that other thread, but it's still interesting to talk about.

    When you create for an audience, you're communicating with them. When you create a role-playing game, it probably has a fictional ethical system all tied up in the game play. You're communicating to your audience to play a certain way, using a certain fictional ethical system. It might be a vile ethical system and you might have designed it that way on purpose to get a point across. Look at Vincent Baker's games for different shades of this design ethos: kill puppies for satan and Poison'd, especially. So designing a vile fictional ethical system doesn't alone make you a vile person. You're responsible for what you communicate, which is a thing deeper than the material.
  • How do you keep from hammering your players over the head with ethics, or whatever you consider to be the "right" ethical decisions when designing?
  • Make it fun.

    I mean, really, don't worry about it. Look at Dogs in the Vineyard or 3:16. Those games have pretty strong messages. People love the games. Some people don't. Oh well.

    If you are writing a game, and you have an ethical message you want to convey, you can either totally sell out your beliefs and ignore that message or you can go with your heart and do what you think is right.
  • Posted By: mike_the_pirateHow do you keep from hammering your players over the head with ethics, or whatever you consider to be the "right" ethical decisions when designing?
    Posted By: Adam DrayMake it fun.

    I mean, really, don't worry about it. Look at Dogs in the Vineyard or 3:16. Those games have pretty strong messages. People love the games. Some people don't. Oh well.
    Indeed, look at Dogs. The reason that its strong messages don't grate on players is that never once, in the entire book, does Vincent ask "What do you suppose might be the problem with taking revelation as the basis of moral judgement?" He never says anywhere that it's possible to be too enthusiastic, in the original sense of the word. He never points out that teenagers are very poor at judging risk and harm, especially over the long term. He just says that we should tell stories about teenagers enthusiastically making judgements about risk and harm, based on the truth as it's revealed to them both via the traditions of the Faith, and as the King of Life talks to them each day. He mentions it might lead to trouble.

    Yet again, the example of Saint Vincent shines forth yea with a light like unto a beacon. Go and do likewise. Arrange for your theme to come up in play via the rules. Let the players make it their own.
  • Posted By: mike_the_pirateHow do you keep from hammering your players over the head with ethics, or whatever you consider to be the "right" ethical decisions when designing?
    But in games like the ones I think you're referring to (Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard), the idea isn't that there is a "right" set of ethical decisions the designer or GM wants the players (or characters) to make. The idea is that you want their ethical decisions - whatever they turn out to be - to be front and center in the fiction of the game. As opposed to off to the side, unremarked upon.
  • ... and it's the job to pose the questions. In Dogs, you say, "Oh, it's OK to have sex for money if you love the guy? What about... if she only likes the guy?", town by town. Every town is a question, or a set of questions. If you have answers in mind, you don't get to find out what the players' answers are.

  • My follow-up question: what do you make of games that choose to keep the morality off-stage?
  • Like what?
  • edited August 2009
    Posted By: mike_the_pirateMy follow-up question: what do you make of games that choose to keep the morality off-stage?
    I sometimes play in a Deadlands game. There isn't a shred of remotely moral or ethical behavior on the part of the PCs - they are murderous bastards. Which is played for laughs. Dealing with the fact of their murderous bastardness isn't the point of the game. It isn't even addressed by the players. (Which, to check back to the innumerable "ethics" threads, is not the same as saying there *are* no ethical choices).

    It's a fairly common way to play RPGs, I think. There's nothing wrong with it, although I think the more games you play that *aren't* like that, the less satisfying it gets. Or maybe that's just me.
  • Posted By: mike_the_pirateHow do you keep from hammering your players over the head with ethics, or whatever you consider to be the "right" ethical decisions when designing?
    Shun, eschew, omit, run from ethics mechanics.

    Instead, present and interesting or compelling situation.
  • There isn't a shred of remotely moral or ethical behavior on the part of the PCs - they are murderous bastards.

    You just answered your own question.

  • Oop, I somehow missed Luke's post.

    Luke, Beliefs are part of an ethics mechanic.

  • Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanYou just answered your own question.
    I think you mixed me up with Mike. I wasn't asking a question.
  • If you include concrete ethics in your game, and punish players for not following them, it becomes unfun for anybody who doesn't agree with those ethics completely (this is what Luke means by "ethics mechanics," I think).

    Beliefs in BW are there to be questioned. In Dogs, the GM presents a town, and the players (as their characters) have to figure out a solution as best they can. But teh question arises from the GM, right? In BW, the player writes his Beliefs and says "this is what I want my character's ethical questions to be about." Then the GM is supposed to challenge those Beliefs.

    But those questions are all generated by players. You can put and ethical question in your game, too. Take Luke's post-apocalyptic setting Under a Serpent Sun. The only people who have the power to save umanity from extinction get that power by victimizing other humans. No matter what your Beliefs are, the question of how you deal with that is unavoidable. It's not the same as hammering players with "X is right! Y is wrong!" like, say, Humanity in Vampire. But you do have to have buy-in from the players.
  • Posted By: BWAIt's a fairly common way to play RPGs, I think. There's nothing wrong with it, although I think the more games you play that *aren't* like that, the less satisfying it gets. Or maybe that's just me.
    I think a lot of people feel like their own ethics are being challenged even when they explore ethics in a fictional setting. They want to bolster their own ethics with play, or simply ignore them and have fun. They don't want to ask a question in-game, because they might have to ask a question in real life, too.
  • Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanOop, I somehow missed Luke's post.Luke, Beliefs are part of an ethics mechanic.
    Your ability to point out the obvious is truly awe inspiring.
  • If you want a game about ethics, reward unethical behavior.

    Works every time.
  • D&D isn't really about ethics so much as tactical squad based war-gaming and the heroic fantasy arc. It rewards unethical behaviour (murder) exclusively.

    Because of the way the the setting contrives the situation, ethical decisions (particularly those involving how we ought to live) are largely ignored. Play rarely amounts to anything more that a well worn morality tale.
  • Posted By: Nathan WilsonIt rewards unethical behaviour (murder) exclusively.
    Not quite. Depending on the edition, you get the XP for treasure, not killing -- so it rewards mining more than killing. Or stealing, whatever you want to call it.

    And you can get the full XP award for overcoming a threat in a way that doesn't include killing it. Good ol' Charm Person!
  • Posted By: Simon_PetterssonIf you want a game about ethics, reward unethical behavior.
    You mean reward behaviour that is considered unethical in the game's fiction. As Nathan says, D&D rewards unethical behaviour, but nobody plays it like it's about ethics.
  • Good point, Johnstone.
  • Dogs rewards conceding points in arguments; that is to say, taking Fallout from Talking Blows. But the games is more or less about ethical decisions. I think how it does this is to not hard-code any sort of moral framework and to give the players as much power as they like while encouraging the GM to resist their actions as much as possible without judging them.

    I think it's been stated before, if not in this thread than another: the only way to make a game be about ethics is to give player real and unconstrained choices. These choices can and should be resisted by other players (GM or otherwise) to make them meaningful and not arbitrary. However, there certainly shouldn't be any sort of metric (quantitative or qualitative) by which these decision will be judged by. At least, not within the rules.
  • Dogs rewards shooting people in the face.
  • Dogs rewards both -- and asks you which reward you want more!


    What do you mean by unconstrained choices, Nathan? If a game has a constrained setting, it limits your choices, right?. In UaSS, there's really no way to succeed in a way that a normal person would call fully "good" or "right." (There IS one way, but it's not a feature.) The setting limits your choices and rewards certain behaviours more than others. I agree it has to be real choice, though. For sure.
  • One way to encourage ethical decisions in play is to judge based on causality, not on right and wrong.

    In Dogs in the Vineyard, I divorced a man from his wife, and had her marry another man. The GM shouldn't think "That's the wrong thing to do, so I'm going to punish him with this..." He should think "The man and the woman loved each other, and will be reasonably upset. It would be likely for them to do this..."

    Obviously there's going to be some ethical judgment in the interpretation of consequences. It's basically impossible not to. But the trick is to do your best to not judge as omniscient observer, but instead to judge as individual characters affected by the decisions.

    If you slaughter an orcish village while the hunters are away, then it makes sense that the orcish hunters will attack a human village. It's not karma, or divine balance. It's causality. The players may decide that the orcish attack on the human village isn't indirectly their fault, and instead is simply vindication that orcs are monsters who need to be wiped out. That is an ethical decision.

    This isn't anything done with mechanics. As a designer, the only way I see that you can encourage this is to talk about it in the rules text, possibly during scenario design advice.

    Mechanically, the important thing is to make sure decisions have teeth, that the players have a way to make their decisions matter within the fiction. Most games do this by default. Slaughtering a village can be handled by the combat mechanics of pretty much any traditional game. Dogs in the Vineyard allows this a different way, by saying "Say Yes or Roll the Dice." The Dogs say "you are now divorced. You will be married to this man before we leave." And the people of the Branch either do as they're told, or they defy the Dogs, and probably bring it to dice. If the Dogs win the dice game, then they still get what they want. What happens afterward... Well, that's causality.
  • Posted By: Simon_PetterssonDogs rewards shooting people in the face.
    No, it doesn't. Dogs rewards getting your characters into conflicts that are over their head. The character advancement comes from Fall-out dice, particularly Fall-out with a d4.

    Face-shooting is just one of the many wonderful side effects of a Dogs game.
  • Getting more dice when you decide to shoot isn't a reward?
  • Posted By: JohnstoneGetting more dice when you decide to shoot isn't a reward?
    You are rewarding for escalating, yeah.
  • I'd argue that Dogs /encourages/ shooting people. You get more dice, bigger dice and bigger fallout, and that extra d4 because it's a gun. Dogs *wants* you to shoot people. I don't know that Dogs /rewards/ shooting people...
  • Posted By: JohnstoneGetting more dice when you decide to shoot isn't a reward?
    Technically, no. Technically, that's feedback.

    "I pull a gun. What happens?"
    "You get access to more dice."
    "Oh, cool."

    The reward is in fallout.
  • edited August 2009
    Why does everyone forget that if you start at physical, fighting, or shooting, and then go to just talking, that's escalation? There's nothing special about increasing the violence.
  • edited August 2009
    The thing is, it's very easy when you're talking about reward mechanics to forget the feedback stuff. Like, sure, escalating isn't a reward. But it's sure as hell rewarding, looking at the mechanics. You're rewarded for it. The fact that it's not, technically, a reward mechanic is of less interest. At least when I'm in a conflict in Dogs, I'm not thinking "How can I get the best fallout from this?", I'm thinking "How can I get this fucker to admit he's a sinner?" I'm trying to win the conflict, and escalating brings me closer to that goal. I mean, who the hell plays Dogs and chases fallout?

    The fallout thing makes taking the blow a more alluring option and balances it with the other choices (escalating and giving in). But that's not what you're chasing in the conflict.

    So that's how Dogs makes you take ethical stands. It says "You can win this, but you're going to have to [i]shoot him in his motherfucking face[/i] to do it." Which makes it a hard choice.

    Also, Marshall: Because nobody plays it that way. And with good reason. First of all, going into a conflict guns blazing is rare. Second, if you do that more often, the game won't work. It's clearly stated that the three choices of escalating, taking the blow and giving in should be about equally hard. Face it, "You can win this, but you're going to have to talk to his motherfucking face to do it." isn't as punchy.

    (Edited for bad formatting)
  • Posted By: Simon_PetterssonAlso, Marshall: Because nobody plays it that way. And with good reason. First of all, going into a conflict guns blazing is rare. Second, if you do that more often, the game won't work. It's clearly stated that the three choices of escalating, taking the blow and giving in should be about equally hard. Face it, "You can win this, but you're going to have to [i]talk to his motherfucking face[/i] to do it." isn't as punchy.
    Pfft. Go watch 3:10 to Yuma again.
  • Simon,

    Speak for yourself.

    Not only have I played DitV and deliberately chased fallout, but I've also escalated to talking (or whatever lower arena of conflict) on several occasions. And yeah, choosing to talk at someone while he's still sending bullets at you is definitely punchy.

    Your general points aren't wrong. But if you're thinking there's only one good way to play DitV, you are seriously, seriously missing out.
  • You guys are probably right. I'm not that experienced with Dogs. Played it a couple times. So, yeah. I give. Where were we?
  • edited August 2009
    Although it's true you can escalate from guns to talking, the general effect of that rule - and, I think, the intended one - is that people escalate to guns. So I think you're essentially right, Simon. Although don't let that stand in the way of a good argument, if you guys would like one.

    Graham
  • Stone, I'm having trouble articulating this but here it goes:

    What I mean by unconstrained choice is maybe not that but a choice that is first, free to be made. That is to say that my options aren't limited by mechanics. Sure, they might resist my choice, or it might not be an optimal choice, but at least it's possible. In Dogs, I have the choice between 'dodging a bullet' and 'having the bullet be deflected by my holy Coat.' Mechanically identical but different fictionally. Moreover, I had a great deal of freedom to choose what happened. Second, that these choices can't or shouldn't arbitrary. To ensure this, other players ought to be stressing or antagonizing my choices, so that they aren't easy choices to make.

    It's just occurred to me that when designing for ethics or ethic-centered play, fiction matters.
  • @ Rewards: Ah, sorry, jargon fail, I see the distinction you meant. I like the way Adam put it best, though.

    @Nathan: The choice you make should be about your fictional persona interacting with other fiction personas. It's the pressure that the other players put on you that makes it mean something, while the glowing orb that lightning bolts anybody with an evil alignment is bogus. Like that?

    And that, because it's the characters that matter, it's not the dice you look at when you respond. Like I respond differently to your Dog if he's a cold-blooded sniper or if he shuts his eyes and shoot blindly 'cause he's scared, even if the dice show the same result? Because it's more the fiction that matters than the mechanical die roll?
  • On Dogs and Escalation.

    You should only escalate from guns to talking when its actually an *escalation*. When the words coming out of your mouth are more harmful than the bullets coming out of your gun, that's when you can do that.

    Like "Luke, I am your father" is way more damaging than getting your hand whacked off by a lightsaber...so that was escalating from lightsabers to words.

    Saying "Hey, can't we all get along" in the middle of a fire fight just to get more dice...probably isn't.

    This is where the "go with the most critical person at the table's judgement" comes in.
  • Nope, escalation always happens when you change arenas. You can always get those dice; that's why they're there. d10s for Fallout is what keeps you in line.
  • You need to make a raise in order to escalate. A raise has to be something that can't be ignored by the target. "I love you" is a legitimate raise, therefore a legitimate escalation. Just like hugging someone is. Or then grappling so they can't get away. Or shooting them when they do.

  • Nathan, Nope right back at ya.

    Joshua's exactly right.

    Plus "I love you" only gets to stand as a raise as long as no one at the table calls Bullshit. If there's no "moment" behind the words...then you don't accept it until they actually do something that not only can't be ignored in an abstract sense, but also is meaningful in the fiction. If "I love you" doesn't mean shit to your opponent...then your opponent can ignore it...then it isn't a raise, and there is no escalation.

    Who gets to judge whether "I love you" is unignorable by your opponent?...the most critical judge at the table.
  • Nathan is right.

    Joshua is just... more right.

    But I think we're moving off the general topic. I helped, so m'bad there.

    I find that I don't necessarily have much more to say. To summarize my view, the best way to handle ethics is to not be explicit. Yes, you can have mechanics that directly deal with ethical decisions, but it's more powerful, I believe, if the ethical decisions arise from the fiction. Nathan's last line a couple posts up nails it. The fiction matters. The mechanics should support the fiction, but shouldn't incline you to judge one way or t'other.
  • Yeah, why don't we assume, for the purposes of this thread, that everybody would do something appropriate for the fiction, when they raise, escalate, or say "I love you."
    'Cause we would, right?

    One thing that kinda makes me wonder, and chime in if you can enlighten me. Nathan's example of unconstrained choice was within a conflict, it was about the fiction attached to a raise or see (dodge bullet/deflect bullet with coat). But Lance gave an example of choice at the what's at stake level, where he divorced the couple, and made the woman marry another man. What's the difference, in terms of the way they feel, how those two "levels" affect your choices, and how they play out ethically? Do you feel there's more choice in one version? Or am I just seeing something there that isn't?
  • Posted By: JohnstoneHow does / will / would an understanding of ethics affect your game design?
    In building a random events table that I was gonna build anyway, I made a mental note that "Hey, the mini-situations that are generated here should be obviously ones where characters can make value decisions! Or, well, more of them than 'none' should be."

    And there you go. That conversation into my design, in a direct path.
  • My Game Chef '08 design, Spectre of the Beast, was an interesting case with regard to designing for ethics. The game is about the Spectre of violence in human history, and the price in suffering that's paid for 'progress." A heady topic, indeed, and certainly a loaded one. I tried to step out of the way of pre-answering the central questions ("Is making a better world worth all the violence and oppression? Will it even BE a better world?") by providing tools with various incentives and drawbacks and leaving the players to their own devices.

    You do get a bonus for using violent means to achieve your ambitions--but those extra dice you roll have both positive and negative results. They increase your chance of winning the conflict, but certain die results produce brutal unintended consequences, and increases the overall level of suffering in the world. Too much suffering ("Beast Points") and they'll overwhelm the Hope points you're desperately accumulating and wreck your utopia. I've tried to weight the procedures so there's no statistically obvious path to victory, but there are clear advantages and drawbacks to different approaches, and they ring true in their fictional context. Like Lance points out, it's about causality.

    Players all choose how to interact with that system. I've seen some (there's one in every game) who choose All Violence, All the Time, just to see what'll happen. They generally--not always--win their Ambition, but leave a trail of corpses in their wake. A lot of players go kinda middle of the road, and pick violence or not based on circumstance. I've seen players start out peaceful and benign, then as they start to trail in Victory Points, get desperate and go over to violent means. I've had one player stick with peaceful means, all the way through, AND achieve his ambition.

    So the takeaway seems to be, as has been pointed out, that you've got to build room for meaningful choice into the procedures. usually that means, like Dogs, the rules skirting carefully around the issue you really want to address. If you ARE going to include a mechanic that directly ties into Theme ("Humanity" in Sorcerer, "Trust" in the mountain Witch, "The Sword" in Spectre of the Beast) then you probably want the incentives to be a mixed bag, and make DAMN sure the mechanic doesn't constrain behavior.

    Peace,
    -Joel
  • Thanks for the anecdotes, guys. Interesting stuff!
  • My Game Chef entry last year was Sex/Magic, where you short-circuit the conflict resolution system and avoid failure by accepting a real-life truth-or-dare challenge. (For example, if you just lost the conflict with a bad card, you can trump that loss with a win by asking me for a truth or dare. If you answer the question or perform the dare to my satisfaction, you win the conflict.)

    The idea is that players use slowly escalating truth or dare challenges to learn about their friends during play. That information is feedback into making play (which revolves around character magic powered by acts of sexuality) more intense.

    As a designer, I had some rough choices to make. Do I make a game about a touchy subject like sexuality? Is it okay to ask players to bring their real lives into play? How do I make it as safe as possible?

    My design incorporates a number of ideas to protect players. For example, there's an "arousal" mechanic that /requires/ a player to pick up a card and /wordlessly/ give it to a player who has said something that arouses them. Why? This is important feedback for people to get when they're putting themselves out there, talking about sexuality. I was afraid that either it wouldn't be given during play, or it would be given with joking laughter, or people would mock stuff. The dare mechanic is entirely voluntary, too. There's nothing saying that you ever have to ask for or accept a challenge. It's just an option you have to win a conflict you already lost.

    I could have been more careless with the design, but that would not have been ethical.
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