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Moral Challengers and Dilemmas

Source Pathfinder Unchained pg. 95
During the course of play, characters fight monsters, find treasure, and decide to take the left fork or the right, but there are other choices that come up in a game as well— moral choices. In most games, these choices are fairly straightforward. Do you help vanquish an ancient evil from the kingdom? Do you stop the raiders from pillaging? Do you put down the hungry troll raiding far-flung hamlets? Without mitigating circumstances, all of these can be seen as good (and probably lawful) moral choices, and can count as such when you are using this system. But this system really shines when the choices are not nearly so clear-cut.

Real moral conflict occurs through either moral challenges or moral dilemmas. A moral challenge occurs when something assumed to be a clear moral path is shown to be false or more complicated, requiring the characters to reevaluate based on the new information. What do characters do when they find out the ancient evil threatening the kingdom is actually a rebellion trying to feed the poor? What if the raiders are hill people who were displaced by a dragon and are just trying to survive? Perhaps that troll is seeking revenge for the slaughter of its mate and children by the hamlet-dwellers. What the characters do in these situations, and their reasoning for their actions, may cause individuals to shift on either of the alignment axes.

Consider, for instance, a situation in which a group of characters is tasked by a monarch with ridding the kingdom of an ancient order of cultists threatening the status quo. The act of taking the monarch’s quest poses no real moral challenges or dilemmas, and thus does not have a chance to push a characters’ alignment in any direction on the two spectrums, though an argument could be made that the characters’ obedience to their monarch might be an intrinsically lawful act. But for the moment, let’s assume the characters are being amply rewarded for such a quest (as they usually are), so unless a particularly lawful-minded character turns down such rewards, the characters can be seen as pursuing their own self-interest, which is intrinsically neutral within this system. Through the course of their quest against the disruptive cult, the characters find that while the cult is indeed working to undermine the monarch, its reasons for doing so are not even remotely evil. The cult is chaotic, yes, but good, and it seeks to throw down the status quo as a way of relieving the social injustices the ultra-lawful king pursues to keep his power nearly absolute.

What do the characters do? If they blindly follow the monarch’s commands, and even find themselves agreeing with the throne’s more draconian methods for keeping the peace, they will slide toward the lawful side. Depending on their level of support for some particularly heartless policies, they might also drift toward the evil side of the spectrum. If they throw in their lot with the cult and actively fight their former employer, they’ll shift more toward the chaotic end of that spectrum, and depending on their motivations, they could also drift toward either end on the good/evil axis. These are not the only options, of course! The characters could try to get one or both sides to recognize the concerns of the other. This would be the ultimate peacemaker role and, if accomplished, would be a major victory for the good of the kingdom as a whole (and thus a large shift toward good on that axis). It is possible they could also play the sides against one another, pushing them into a deeper and more bitter conflict, then take advantage of the power vacuum created by such strife, which would be evil and probably also chaotic.

Regardless of the outcome, it is only in moral conflict that characters have a chance to make decisions about competing moral goals on both the good/evil and law/chaos axes, and it is those kinds of challenges this system requires.

More difficult to design, and often harder to adjudicate, is the moral dilemma. Moral dilemmas are like challenges, but they contain moral paradoxes, meaning there is never a clear solution, and the PCs must struggle to find the solution that is best for them. A group of adventurers sworn to protect the king and the royal line finds out that the king is a power-hungry demoniac who is opening a gate to the Abyss, and the only way to stop the plan is regicide. Killing the king would mean a bloody civil war, and the characters would be branded as traitors. Not killing the king, though, could lead to deeper suffering, or force the PCs to try to defeat an army of demons before the fiends tear the kingdom apart. The adventurers must decide the best course of action when neither is optimal. Naturally, the point in these situations is not to make the “right” decision, but to see what decision the characters make, and adjust their alignments based on that decision.