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Series Info...The Medium #21:

Morality and Consequences

by Karrin Jackson
2004-06-08


The phrase ICA=ICC (in-character actions equal in-character consequences) is so common in some niches of the MU* community it has become clichť. In theory it sounds like a good idea: the actions your character takes have consequences. Itís a reminder of cause and effect as well as a warning that if your character does the wrong thing, he or she may pay for it later down the road.

The only problem is that what constitutes right or wrong is purely subjective. On our most basic, instinctual level, the only righteous thing is survival; to eat, breed, and successfully evade the predators who would make us lunch is hardwired into our reptilian hind-brains. Morality, i.e. a social code of what is considered right and wrong, is something people within a given culture more or less agree upon in order to make this 'civilization' thing run more smoothly. There is no one moral code so deeply entrenched within the human mind as to be universal and unquestionable. Not only does the concept of morality differ between cultures, even within a given culture there are sub-cultures individuals who rail against the unspoken agreement and seek to redefine its terms.

Given that morality is such a slippery slope, one can imagine that ICA=ICC gets confusing even without factoring in the players who try to cheat their way out of receiving their comeuppance. Worse still, most games don't even attempt to define any kind of morality within the context of the setting or theme--not only are the separate moral codes of a dozen or so players constantly clashing, there isnít even mention made of a guide by which they can possibly expect their characters' actions to be consistently judged. It isn't something most MU* wizards think to define, because of course what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. Right?

Wrong.

Think About It, Talk About It

In gaming, particularly in MU*, Iíve noticed developers and staff don't talk a lot about morality within the IC context of the game's setting and theme. Sure, there might be a news file or two discussing various IC laws and how they are enforced, but there is more to the concept of morality than laws. Laws aren't necessarily a reflection of morality, and one should not automatically equate one with the other. While laws might get discussed because they are written rules whose punishments are well-documented, morality gets little, if any, consideration. The consequences of immorality are less tangible than unlawfulness. Besides, people rarely seem to grasp the idea that their morality isn't the only one any sane, rational individual would embrace. The ones who do often hesitate to impose any kind of moral imperative because they don't want to come off all preachy.

What that means for MU* is that the creators of a setting oftentimes assume the players are going to automatically know and agree with what is socially acceptable and those who don't are obviously wrong, ignorant, or just plain sick. While this is an interesting point of view for a character to hold, for a staff member and/or creator of a setting it is a sure way to create a heap of misunderstanding and OOC conflict. I believe that a certain degree of OOC objectivity is required to create a comprehensive IC moral code, not only because different players come to the game with a different set of assumptions as to what is right or wrong, but also because stepping back from one's own OOC convictions allows one to embrace the IC ones of the game. Remember kids, separating OOC from IC is quite often considered a Good Thing.

Whether your setting is completely made up or based closely upon modern-day Earth, staff and players alike can benefit from opening an OOC dialog on the nuances of IC morality. Realize that everyone comes to the proverbial table with something different in mind, and try to broaden your own horizons in terms of what you know to be right and wrong; after all, it's not your convictions that define the game world but rather those of the characters populating it, and unless every single NPC believes exactly as you do, you're going to have to spread out a little to cover all the possible bases.

So think about it, talk about it. You might be surprised by how much more interesting your game's setting becomes once the ethics of its characters grow more complex and well-defined. For example, say a character goes to jail for stealing. Theft is against the law and she got caught, so that makes sense. However, what are the moral implications if she's stealing bread to feed her starving family vs. shoplifting a candy bar on an adolescent dare? How does public opinion differ in each case, and what are the consequences of this when itís time for the crime to be punished? The answers to these questions will say a lot more about the IC tone of the game than any news files.

Contradictions and Inconsistency

If you explore the concept of morality within your game setting with an eye toward the way it works in real life, youíll begin to notice that not only do different cultures believe differently, but people within the same culture canít seem to agree on anything. While a culture might agree that murder is wrong in a broad sense, that culture might also practice capital punishment and/or turn a blind eye toward the tradition of honor killings (i.e. the killing of a family member who has somehow brought shame to the family).

Rather than attempt to hammer out all the irrational contradictions into something that makes sense, embrace these quirks as part of the what makes human beings the wackiest of the primates. The fact of the matter is we just donít make sense. Run with it. If your gameís setting has strict laws against stealing, but a woman who steals bread to feed her starving family earns enough compassion from the IC community, she could just as easily become a public darling as she could end up in prison. These situations aren't even necessarily mutually exclusive. If the player of the bread thief plays her cards right, she could end up with a slew of NPCs (possibly some PCs as well) picketing the county lockup for her immediate release.

In a sense, it is the contradictions and inconsistency of human behavior that offers up the best potential for a players to shine, particularly when they have characters who have been caught in bad situations. The law may say that if you steal you go to jail, however if the gamut of moral conviction has been explored and incorporated into the game, players have the option of drudging up public sympathy or using public outrage to ruin and discredit a rival. Personally, I think throwing these wrenches into the works makes for a much more interesting game, as well as a more fun interpretation of ICA=ICC than the simple equation: Break Law X = Receive Punishment Y.

Implementing Morality

There are a variety of ways in which wizards could implement morality in a game's setting. The most obvious one is to write it all out and stick it in a news file. While this would certainly put the information out there, it would also make for either a long read that would take hours to trudge through or an incomplete glimpse that wouldnít provide all the information. Since morality is an abstract concept, I don't think writing long essays on it for your news files is the best approach.

One could not implement morality at all and just spring it on the players as various situations come up. While one might cherish the look of surprise on their faces when they find out that jaywalking in your version of Chicago is punishable by death, it isn't exactly a fair way to do things. When a character is expected to know and tailor his or her actions to a particular code of ethics, it helps if the player has some idea what those ethics are as well as how public opinion embraces them before the violation thereof, ideally.

The problem is striking the right balance between telling the players enough and inundating them with more information than they can process. Since the unspoken rules of our moral codes (and the many inconsistencies within) are learned over a lifetime, how does one adequately impart a fictional set upon a group of players in only a few paragraphs? Start with a baseline and work from there. Work out the laws of your setting, and then work out the situations wherein breaking those laws is considered justified from a moral standpoint. If there is a clash of public opinion, discuss that as well. Try to keep it brief tell the players enough to give them a taste of the game's moral climate, but donít discuss every little nuance in detail. If you want to give players an idea of the nuances, do so IC. Write an IC news article about a woman arrested for murdering the molester of her child, and describe the public outcry as some people call the killing justified and demand her release while others caution against vigilante justice.

In Conclusion

Morality can be an important factor in a game, but it needs to be defined. As a game's creator, don't be afraid of Ďpreachingí at your players this is IC morality. This a reflection of how the X billion or so NPCs inhabiting your world think and feel. Think about it, talk about it, and lay it out as clearly as you can, because rather than limiting IC options, defining the IC moral climate will open the door to much more interesting RP.

Ultimately, defining and describing the moral structure of your game world doesnít mean PCs end up in situations where they arenít allowed to break the rules. What it means is that the player of such a PC knows what to expect.

[ <— #20: Experimenting With Play Styles | #22: Experiments in Low Pressure —> ]

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