March 22, 2011

Modern Morality + Medieval Mores

The majority of RPG fantasy settings are set in pseudo-medieval time periods, carrying with them a lot of the trappings of that earlier time frame. This is done because it gives the DM and the players a common ground to base their actions on. There are a number of assumptions built in when playing in a medieval time period as opposed to playing in a completely alien setting. There are kings and social power structures we can relate to, even if it’s just something we read in a history book.

However, there is a natural inclination to overlay modern morality onto our fantasy and medieval based settings. This only makes sense in that modern ways of determining what is right and wrong is what we are used to. We have not grown up in medieval times. We live in structured societies wherein “everyone is equal” and “everyone has rights”, at least in concept. This was not the case in medieval times. What we perceive as moral and just is widely different from what our game settings are based on.

In medieval times there was no equality of sex. There was no equality of birth/station. Certain members of society had the right to kill whomever they chose; killing being considered a murder was a matter of social standing. There was no right to own property. There was no inherent right to carry weapons. Cruelty to animals existed as a matter of course. The right to travel was restricted or denied. These are against all things most of us take for granted.

If we want a more “realistic” portrayal of medieval society and mores we would have to disassociate ourselves from more modern conceptions. However this requires knowing what the societal guidelines are. It is not intuitive to know the differences between the two. They would need to be spelled out ahead of time. This quickly becomes a case of the gap between character knowledge and player knowledge. Your character may know that it is the right of the Lord of the land to kill a peasant for the slightest grievance, but the player may not. In fact, if a character were to take umbrage at such an act he would be playing outside of the setting.

This is further confounded by the fantasy element of a setting. Is necromancy, or the raising of a body after it has died, wrong? There is no modern day situation comparable so we have absolutely nothing analogous to compare it to. We, as players and characters, have to make this up as we go along.

Taking the question of necromancy further, if necromancy is wrong, why is it wrong? Is it the removal of free will? Is it the desecration of a body? Is it the prevention of the soul to go on to its just reward? If we answer yes to all of these, then we have to ask if raising a corpse back to life, through the various Resurrection spells/rituals found in the majority of fantasy game settings, is also evil and immoral. Raising a corpse back to life also prevents the soul from passing on. It also desecrates a body. It also is done against the free will of the recipient, assuming no one actually asks the person before they died if they even wanted to be raised from the dead. These are all questions that simply do not come up in a non-fantasy setting and yet can be important questions of morality.

However, there is one nice caveat with a fantasy setting. Even if it has the trappings of a medieval time period, because it is fantasy it can be ruled that the setting conforms to modern day views of morality. Women suddenly are equal in society to men, murder is murder no matter the social status of the killer, etc. A fantasy setting allows separation from the morality of a medieval setting, simply because we are acknowledging it is not based in reality.

The only problem exists if all the participants in a game are not of the same mind. Some may be playing by a stricter interpretation of a medieval setting. Some are willing to wave medieval mores and adapt a more modern outlook for their characters and world. The trick here is to define ahead of time what system of morality is being used. In well established groups these sorts of things have usually worked themselves out over time, but in newer groups, with new people, there can be a bumpy road until everyone understands what the viewpoints of society within the setting are.

Have you ever see modern morality creeping into your fantasy game? Have the concepts of individual rights, or protecting “the little guy”, been the basis of an adventure? Have your characters ever righted a wrong that in a truly medieval setting would not be considered wrong?
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