Morality Systems and RPGs


I say morality systems in the title of this article, but that may be too specific. I really mean any system within an RPG that seeks to classify NPC or other player reactions to others based on previous actions and scorings due to those actions. Morality systems seemed to be the phrase that brought the right concept to mind, but one could also say approval systems fall into the same category.

Within the past week I have read some comments on Twitter about some of the moral choices in Dragon Age the video game compared to Dragon Age the roleplaying system from Green Ronin. The GM commenting was @newbiedm and he had commented that his players were feeling the moral decisions that seem pervasive in the Dragon Age world even though there were not mechanics in the AGE system to reinforce this. Some of the comments had a feel that people would like to see a morality system within AGE to help reinforce the impact of one’s decisions along the way.

I am not sure I agree with that.

Morality Systems and Computer Games

Computer games seem to be the biggest driver to making morality systems a more common term. Games such as Fallout, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age to a degree all have some form of morality or approval system. These are obviously popular RPG style computer games and have the audience to shape a lot of people’s thoughts, sometimes spilling over to table top RPGs.

Morality systems in computer video games do make sense to me. In fact they are a great addition to the game as it can shape your game experience as you play. Your play through of the game might have several different twists than my play through just based on how I made certain decisions along the way. Computers make decisions based on 1’s and 0’s. To make these subtle shifts in game play they need a way to tally or keep track of certain decisions over the course of the game if they want to present different options later in the game. Morality systems and their likeness allow them to do this.

If I decide to let the helpless woman be accosted by the bandits on the road because I am not sure my party can help or are willing to risk helping, the computer can now track this decision and gauge my decisions on a statistical scale. It is the only real way for the game to make these customized options for me.

Morality Systems and Tabletop RPGs

I do not think morality systems and their likeness have a place in tabletop RPGs. Tabletop RPGs consist of living, breathing people sitting around a table. People that can make decisions beyond simple 1’ and 0’s.

Dragon Age the video game uses an approval system within the party to help shape the game. In tabletop gaming we have actual people playing characters. I think it is best to let these people make their own decisions and roleplay their character. I think applying a similar approval system to these players restricts them and treads on depriving them of their roleplaying opportunities.

Looking at the GM side of tabletop games and we again find a person fully capable of making decisions responsible for NPC reactions to the party of characters. The GM has seen how the characters have interacted with people along the course of the adventure and if word has spread of their actions. I want to leave the complete decision making power to the GM to decide how NPCs will react and treat the characters.

Bringing it Back Around

Characters should certainly feel repercussions for their actions along the way. An immersive RPG experience can be had when a GM is good at putting some consequence to actions. I just do not think we need to apply mechanical systems to gauging these reactions between party members or other NPCs. With tabletop RPGs we have the luxury of having people gathered around the table that are not restricted to needing mechanical systems for these interactions like computer games are. Let the players roleplay their characters and let the GM shape his NPCs as he sees fit and not turn this area into another dice rolling are of the game.

What do you think? Do you think we should have morality mechanics in tabletop RPGs or is it something to be avoided?

5 thoughts on “Morality Systems and RPGs

Add yours

  1. I agree with you in many situations, seas_of_stars. Except say, when a play in a high fantasy game takes a lawful good paladin, and then does evil acts.

    Or if an evil necromancer is the nicest, most charitable character in the game.

    Sometimes it just don’t fit. Unless there’s a story explanation to make it so. Story almost always trumps rules for me.


  2. I don’t think the lawful good paladin doing evil acts should go without repercussions. I don’t think we need a mechanical system in place to determine when the paladin has crossed the line. I think the GM will have the best feel as to whether the character has crossed that line from lawful good to something less so. And then enact repercussions within the realm of the fantasy world. Perhaps it is a stern warning from the paladin’s deity or order. Maybe the deity revokes the paladin’s casting and special powers until he or she atones. There are lots of things the GM has at his disposal to make sure there are relevant consequences without needing to put a moral mechanical system over the game.

    Totally agree on story almost always trumping rules in my games.


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