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Moral: Concerned with right & wrong conduct or duty to one’s neighbours; conforming to, or required, or justified by, conscience if not law.

Etihcs: The science of, or a system of, morals.

I don’t know why, but I always had the sense of there being a bigger difference between the two terms. Morals was always about right vs wrong, no question there, but ethics was always more about professional responsibilities. And I was all set to write a blog post contrasting the two in terms of the ‘professions’ of being the GM of, or a player in, an RPG.

Guess that plan’s been blown out of the water, at least in terms of using the definitions as I understood them. So instead, let’s just talk for a bit about the moral responsibilities that players and GMs have to both themselves, and to their characters, and their fellow players, and to the game itself.

Responsibilities to yourself

For players, this is fairly straightforward: Don’t do anything that you would consider immoral in any other sphere of your life. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, etc. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a character do any or all of these things, but a firm line should be drawn between the character’s actions and those of the player controlling the character.

For GMs

Things are a little more complicated for GMs. Not only do they have to place falsehoods into the mouths of NPCs on a regular basis, they also have to conceal the truth that lies behind NPC actions until the PCs discover it for themselves. They have to both lie and be consistantly faithful to the truth of the in-game situation at the same time.

Here’s how I draw the line: Anything said concerning the rules is always true. Anything said ex-cathedra, ie in the impartial voice of the moderator, is also true – but always reflects the player’s understanding of events and their causes; I never give alternative explanations in this mode of interaction, though I may point out errors of logic or established events that don’t fit the player’s theories if the PCs are smart enough to recognise them. I make no guarantees whatsoever when speaking in the character of an NPC.

The only exception to this rule of thumb is when a party is subjected to some mind-altering or distorting effect; the altered consciousness will always be reflected in my ex-cathedra statements.

Surprisingly, I am able to be truthful (excluding lies of omission) a surprisingly high percentage of the time, regardless of the mode I am using. Give the impression that an NPC is a liar and you can mix an astonishing amount of truthful statements into their dialogue; I simply twist the manner of delivery to put the “spin” on the statements that is appropriate.

Nevertheless, the morally right thing for the DM to do is to decieve his players at times.

Responsibilities to your characters

There are two conflicting and competing drives at play in considering a player or DM’s fidelity towards any given character they are running. The first is to be faithful to the personality of the character, regardless of the extent to which it might interfere with the progress of the game; the second is to sacrifice that fidelity in the interests of furthering the plot.

I have often seen it written that these drives are opposing, but that is not actually the case; in truth, they are complimentary. The first, the accurate roleplay of the character’s personality, is an expression of that personality as it now stands; the second represents a growth of that personality beyond the restrictions and boundaries placed on the character by his past experience – it is the mechanism by which the personality, which is to be faithfully rendered, evolves. That, in turn, defines how to maintain the fidelity of characterisation of the character.

There are big advantages to placing this evolution at a metagame level in this way. The most obvious is that it ceases to be a random set of spontanious reactions to events and can be directed, but there are others. For example, the GM and Player can ‘conspire’ to ‘prod’ the character’s personality growth in a particular direction. This in turn enables the GM to develop plots and subplots that both derive from the character, and which further develop the character in a direction that the player wants him to go. And this in turn ties the character to the campaign in a miriad of ways; in theory, you could have the same character in two different campaigns, and they would both be different.

The only requirement to this approach is that the GM has to understand the character almost as well, if not better, than the player who is operating him, and both have to be in agreement over that understanding.

Example: The Blackwing Evolution

There is a character in my Superhero game, Blackwing, who has had three different players. The first player was Nick; who played the character as a fairly happy-go-lucky ex-cop; sort of a Magnum PI with super-strength. At this point in time, Blackwing was named Knight, and was basically an ex-cop who had appropriated a suit of magical armour that enhanced his strength and resiliance from Demon.

Knight was Nick’s first attempt at creating a character-background-generated character, and his origin was full of holes, requiring a good cop to behave inexplicably corruptly at key moments. Nor had Nick really thought about exactly how the character’s powers worked in-game; he gave me carte-blanche to develop this aspect of the character, since I knew and understood the game physics and he didn’t, and to plug any holes in the character background.

As a consequence of this, there came a time when Knight was accidentally transformed into a Gargoyle shape (because someone tried to take the armour off him and it reacted by completely enveloping him). This transformation was intended to be temporary, occurring just to shed light on some of the dark and unexplained corners of the character.

At the same time, Nick was experiencing a personal conflict with one of the other players that ultimately led him to decide to drop out of the campaign, as this real-world situation was interfering with his enjoyment of the game. As a result, immediatly after the transformation, the Character was taken over by a new player to the campaign named Jonathon.

Jonathon quite liked the gargoyle idea and wanted to keep it. He also recognised that the character was a lot darker in tone beneath the surface and decided that these aspects of the character would be drawn to the surface by the change, which gave the character the licence to act on those darker impulses. He changed the character’s name to Blackwing, and made him more of a shapeshifter with enhanced strength, a mischevious sense of humour, and a dark, brooding personality. He also started to come to terms with the game-physics explanation of how the powers worked. Over time, the character became increasingly brutal and feral in combat. In a nutshell, he went wild with the character, but he also knew that sooner or later there would be consequences in the game for his character’s actions.

Events were just reaching that point when Jonathon had to leave the campaign for real-life reasons (a non-gamer girlfriend who objected to his hobby and then a job that saw him working at the time the game was played, most weekends).

As one door closes, another opens. The player who had created Knight had rejoined with a new character, and now another ex-player from the campaign decided that the time was right to increase his gaming involvement.

We went over the character with a fine-tooth comb, redesigned it from the ground up to reflect the game-physics explanation of the powers, found logical psychological reasons for his behaviour and mapped out a major character-development arc that would take the character to his lowest ebb, becoming everything that he hated, before letting him claw his way back to a position of emotional stability. We’re part-way through that story arc (a long series of subplots) as I write this.

The new Blackwing is a tortured soul, permanently altered by exposure to fell magics of an addictive nature (very one-ring), with some very dark shadows in his character’s past whose impact he spent far too long denying even to himself. There is some very deep characterisation in place, but it is a unified whole. At the same time, the character’s nature as a “dimensional interface boundary” (that game-physics explanation) has made him more of a cosmic figure than a simple shape-changer with enhanced strength.

Three different players, three very different interpretations of the same character – all different, but all Blackwing.

Player’s Responsibilities to their fellow players

This area actually relates more to my (incorrect) interpretation of Ethics than it does Morals. I view being a player as a professional occupation; the best players take the time to understand their characters, and what drives them, and what they can do, and to think about how to develop those characters within the campaign. The game isn’t just something that happens around the character, they interact with it, changing it by virtue of their involvement, and being changed as a consequence of this interaction. They study the relevant rules, they look at how the rules shape and interact with their character, and are always ready to roll the required dice when the time comes.

I never run a PC without getting inside his head and working out how he thinks and why, developing a backstory to justify those traits, and working out how best the character can participate in the game. Sometimes this can go too far… but I’d rather write an 80-page background to give to the GM than short-change him; I have too much respect for the amount of effort it takes to be a good GM!

What I percieve as a player’s moral responsibilities to his fellow players stem from this philosophy. Some are simple politeness – not treading on other player’s toes in terms of character abilities, not hogging the limelight, not trying to make your character more important than any other, not trying to sabotage another player’s enjoyment, and so on. Others are more impersonal – being ready to play on time, having the required dice on hand, making notes as necessary, and so on.

Player’s Responsibilities to the GM

Some of the player-to-player responsibilties overlap with a player’s responsibilities to his GM. Key attributes like preperation, participation, and respect are common to both. The GM almost always works harder than the players, both at the table and in preperations away from it, and players should always bear that in mind. They should listen when the GM speaks, always have their characters up to date, and be willing to trust the GM if something’s not quite clear.

GM’s Responsibilties to his players

The GM also has moral responsibilities to his players, and ultimately most of those come down to respect of some sort. He should respect the contribution that they make, he should respect their opinions, he should respect the sort of adventures that they want to go on and do his best to accommodate them. The game world is shared between Players and GM, and neither is complete without the other.

The GM should also ensure that he doesn’t cheat the characters. If they’ve earned some kind of reward then he should make sure that they receive it – just as, if they earn some kind of punishment or difficulty, he should ensure that thet get what’s coming to them.

GM’s Responsibilties to other GMs

And now we come to a subject that a lot of GMs never even think about. Most games, after all, are played in someone’s home, where there are no other games going on. My situation is a little different; most of the games that I run take place at a Friendly Local Game Store (to use the euphamism that has become famous through KODT) in company with two, three, or sometimes even four other games, plus the occasional boardgame, plus a CCG tournament or two. It’s perhaps more analagous to attending a gaming convention at the same place, and with the same people, every week.

There are always more games with seats available than there are players to fill those seats. The result forces us into a closely regulated monthly timetable. Moral behaviour for a GM in this situation, once again, is a question of respect: respect the other GMs and their games, respect the fact that players will sometimes drift from one game to another and don’t take it personally, and don’t deliberately poach another GM’s players. There’s a lot of ambient noise in such an environment; try to keep your game contained. If there’s not enough table space, you can even end up with two games running at opposite ends of the same table, though that’s rare.

Responsibilities to the Game

A player has a duty beyond the campaign to the game itself. That duty is to respect the conventions of whatever genre or genres to which the game belongs. This is one of the most neglected and unrecognised aspects of moral behaviour in roleplaying games. In an SF campaign, technobabble is meaningful. In a hard SF campaign, expect maths and engineering to matter. In a fantasy campaign, don’t expect everyone to be able to read and write. Don’t crack jokes (except possibly gallows humour) in a horror campaign. In a pulp campaign, don’t insist on detailed plans before you jump in with both boots. The GM has the same responsibilities as well, and it can be easy for players to take advantage of a GM trying to keep his game “in character”.


The golden rules when it comes to moral behaviour in roleplaying games are to always to treat the (other) players as you would like to be treated; to always treat campaigns as though they were your own; and to always respect the genre, the GM, and those around you. And expect the same of others. Always treat the game you are playing, whatever your role in it might be, as though this was what you did for a living, and do it as well as you possibly can. Your game will be better, more rewarding, and more enjoyable as a result.

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