Sunday, December 5, 2010

Gaming and Ethical Questions

One of the things I love about tabletop RPGs is they provide an excellent laboratory for interpersonal interaction and ethical dilemmas. Most of the time people keep the game at a very surface level, but every once in a while it goes deeper, or prompts an interesting question.

For example:

I'm in a Pathfinder game that just started a few weeks ago. We've only had a few sessions, so I'm still developing my character and finding my role in the party. One of the things I knew for certain is I did not want to be the party's voice/smooth talker; it's a role I've played many times, especially as a GM, and I wanted to try something different. Accordingly, I deliberately built my character without the social skills and traits I would need to be good at that role mechanically; one of my favorite parts of RPGs is how game mechanics interpret and reinforce the story, so leaving Diplomacy off my sheet is an important reminder that I'm not supposed to be the diplomat.

It's also important to me not to be the social character because there's another player who is running a social character - a Bard. I don't want to step on her toes, especially since she's never played this type of character before. I know how easy it is to get discouraged from trying to play a Bard well; you worry so much about being clever or a smooth talker that you over think it, and sound more like a bad theater or English major than a silver-tongued scoundrel of legend. So mechanically and behaviorally I have incentive to let other people take the lead in social-based encounters.

Our most recent session was a lot of fun, but there were several moments that I felt I was overstepping my character's bounds, letting my personal "sneaky-bastardness" substitute for my characters. It worked - and more importantly was a lot of fun! - but afterwards I felt...guilty? That's the closest I can describe it. And it got me thinking: is it more important for me to act in the group's best interest, even if it means overstepping my bounds, or to let designated group member do their job and risk failure?

The question extends beyond gaming. I saw this type of situation develop time and time again working with volunteer groups. In almost every one of those situations the "helpful" volunteer was severely overstepping their bounds, and their action was detrimental to the group in the long run because they taught the newbie to depend on them rather than do it independently, or weren't able to focus enough on their other tasks, or ruined other plans they were unaware of in their narrow view of the situation.

It's easy to write off people those volunteers as "more interested in their own status than the good of the group"; frequently that's true, but there are also people that legitimately have the group's best interest at heart, and just don't understand the full consequence of their actions.

On the other hand, there are moments when timely action on your part can save a project from the incompetence or inexperience of the person that should be doing it. Inaction at those moments is as bad or worse a crime as whatever it is you should have prevented; you can't, for an extreme example, allow your company to send out toxic cat food just because quality control isn't your job.

The trick is in determining which type of situation you're in; that's often an easy call as an armchair quarterback or after the fact, but can be very difficult while you're in the moment. It's easier said than done, but I find that if you can honestly focus on the good of the group you will usually make the right choice.

So did I make the right choice? I think so, because it contributed to the enjoyment of the entire party and I didn't overshadow any of the other players, deliberately or otherwise. Ultimately this instance is not terribly important - this is only a game, after all - but the question it prompts is.

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