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Author Topic: Magic and Ethics  (Read 6141 times)
Bert
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Posts: 58


« on: February 16, 2009, 02:03:43 PM »

I'm working on a magic system and I want magic to have an ethical component. This is intended to impose a great sense of personal responsibility on those who wield magical powers.

In the magic system so far, if you use magic to do bad things to innocent people, directly or indirectly, you run the risk of having it affect you as well. For example, say you send a couple of guards to sleep so you can get by without any trouble. One member of your party, last in line, puts a knife into each of them as he goes by. Suddenly you feel drowsy and stumble.

On its own, this would make evil wizards very short lived, which is not something I want. Evil wizards enter a pacts with a diabolical entities. This allows the wizard to sidestep the ethical payback, so long as they can put up with a few escalating changes in appearance and behaviour. Once the entity has fulfilled its side of the bargain, it releases the tide of accumulated horror and tries to take the wizards soul - or the place of their soul.

My questions about this are as follows:

Q1) How can I avoid hideous levels of GM largesse when defining who is innocent and who is not? What should bad mean and what should innocent mean?

Q2) Should the repercussions affect any person who harms those under magical influence, whether they are the caster or not? It would certainly make people think twice about messing with people under the influence...

Q3) What if somebody uses this effect to intentionally harm a wizard? Should it still affect the wizard? The person who was trying to hurt them? Both?

Q4) Does a magic system with a mechanic for dealing with ethics kill the fun? I don't want to get too heavy...

Bert


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Callan S.
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« Reply #1 on: February 16, 2009, 03:02:52 PM »

Well, I wouldn't say it imposes a great sense of personal responsiblity. I'd say it just trains them. Like you might train a dog to be quiet and obediant, or train a dog to attack on command. The 'ethical system' simply trains someone to act in a certain way. It's not really about that person having personal responsiblity, it's about that ethical system imposing it's will on people and training them to behave in a certain way.

And I wouldn't call the rogue stab a 'risk'. The rogues mind isn't an object of chance. That was the rogues personal responsiblity - either that or all personal responsiblity is blurred into a blob. That'd mean under that philosophy somehow the rogues own free will is part of the wizards, because he cast sleep on some guards. Indeed anyone who messes with the sleeping guards is somehow part of the wizards free will.
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Sergon
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« Reply #2 on: February 16, 2009, 05:31:25 PM »

   How does a wizard cast spells in your system? Does he draw power from a mana pool or is it more cast and forget like d&d. If its mana based you might consider lowering the amount of available mana after the wizard commits a questionable act with his magic. If its cast and forget the wizard could loose a spell from memory.
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dindenver
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« Reply #3 on: February 16, 2009, 07:04:28 PM »

Bert,
  I think the way that yo can make your system work for bad guys is to have them summon a spirit and have the spirit cast the spell. That way the bad consequences happen to the spirit.
  Of course, what price the spirit exacts for that service is another matter...

  I think the idea of unintended consequences is pretty harsh, you might want to scale that back a bit.

  I think if it is an equal and opposite reaction, then that removes the moral judgment from it. So, maybe every time a sorcerer uses magic, they receive the effect (scaled down to reflect how common you want magic to be) as well. Like if they cast a fireball that does 6d6 to 10 monster, maybe they take 6d6, save versus none.
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Ken
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« Reply #4 on: February 16, 2009, 07:08:36 PM »

I like the idea here, but what is your goal? Are you trying to make wizards ultra ethical, with the fear of punitive effects from their spells? Is the punitive effect cosmic justice, or guilt? Would an unethical, but not evil wizard just be knee deep is karmic pay-back here?

As far as what is ethical; if a wizard cast sleep on a couple of guards so he can go about his ethical business, then he shouldn't be responsible for someone else's unethical behavior. Now, if that wizard cast sleep on the guards so he could go about his ethical business, but is being chases by a horde of hungry goblins, or a dragon, or lava, or whatever, then he pretty much knows that he should have just fire-balled the two screws and got it over with. On that note, if an ethical wizard has to sneak past any guards, then they are obviously evil and it shouldn't matter what happens to them.

As far as meters of ethical and innocent are concerned, some sort of alignment type system would probably be in order. At the very least, the common and general beliefs of the wizard should probably be sketched out, so that ethics could be inferred in a given situation. Or, there could just be a wizards code. That would put it straight pretty quick. Break the code at your own peril.

Maybe instead of magic backlash, knowingly breaking the code shakes a wizards focus and makes it harder for them to cast subsequent magic until they can atone. In this case, unethical wizards would be unaffected by the penalty.

Just some ideas. Thought?

Ken
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Vulpinoid
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« Reply #5 on: February 16, 2009, 11:50:16 PM »

Maybe you need to consider what may or may not be ethical to the wizard.

A believer in the natural cycle of life might deliberately choose to kill the old king who is extending their life through mystical means.

A mystic of law might be helping to preserve the old king, because the king has been a stabilising influence in the kingdom and none of the king's children would continue the peaceful reign over the empire.

Neither of these mystics agree with what should be done about the king, and each of them has a strong moral standpoint for their beliefs about the situation.

In each others eyes, the other wizard is "evil". The first would plunge the empire into chaos, the second would continue the abomination unto the natural cycle.

Just some food for thought...

V
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Finarvyn
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« Reply #6 on: February 17, 2009, 07:44:09 AM »

Ethics in RPGs can be tricky, and sadly isn't as black & white as we might hope.

For example, in an AD&D game years ago a friend was playing a Paladin and thereby was unable to do any "evil" acts or he would lose his Paladinhood. The party was wandering through an enemy complex and came upon a kitchen and surprised an Orc chef. The chef dropped his meat cleaver and ran in terror. The Paladin leaped forward and hacked the Orc down from behind.

Does he lose his Paladinhood for this action?

1. You can argue that all Orcs are evil by nature and that killing one would ultimately be a good action.

2. You can argue that attacking any unarmed creature from behind, regardless of its alignment, is an evil act.

We argued this for a long time and eventually this discussion killed the campaign becasue we couldn't continue without resolving the issue. We never agreed.

Turning then to your thought about ethics and magic -- I think it has a wonderful notion behind it and it's neat that evil spellcasters can try to beat the system somewhat, but I wonder if you are going to encounter this giant "gray area" such as the situation I described above.

Perhaps the solution to the problem might be to construct a table of examples and say "no matter what your personal ethics might be, here are the guidelines for ethics in this campaign" such that killing certain creature types is okay or attacking from behind is not. As play continues your tables would evolve and eventually you might have a really great list.

Just my two cents.
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Bert
Member

Posts: 58


« Reply #7 on: February 17, 2009, 12:02:08 PM »

Hi Callan

Well, I wouldn't say it imposes a great sense of personal responsiblity. I'd say it just trains them. Like you might train a dog to be quiet and obediant, or train a dog to attack on command. The 'ethical system' simply trains someone to act in a certain way. It's not really about that person having personal responsiblity, it's about that ethical system imposing it's will on people and training them to behave in a certain way.

Okay, maybe not 'great responsibility' - accountability will do. I agree this would train people to think carefully about how they use their magic. Pavlov's Wizard. Nice. Even so, I think players will still make mistakes, or be forced to make hard choices, leading to some interesting and unforeseen situations.

And I wouldn't call the rogue stab a 'risk'. The rogues mind isn't an object of chance. That was the rogues personal responsiblity - either that or all personal responsiblity is blurred into a blob. That'd mean under that philosophy somehow the rogues own free will is part of the wizards, because he cast sleep on some guards. Indeed anyone who messes with the sleeping guards is somehow part of the wizards free will.

I would define a risk in this context as follows: anything that can effect the magic user adversely that is beyond their control or their ability to predict. I don't think this monkeys with free will - its the wizards choice to cast the spell (and be accountable for it) and the rogues choice to stab the guards (and be accountable for it). Saying that, this game has a funny take on free will - but this thread isn't the right place to discuss it.

I do see where you're coming from, though. This obliquely answers one of my questions about whether the person doing the stabbing should suffer the same consequences as the wizard. Perhaps not...

Bert

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Bert
Member

Posts: 58


« Reply #8 on: February 17, 2009, 12:36:17 PM »

Hi Sergon

How does a wizard cast spells in your system?

All magic is based on a dozen or so broad areas of effect called Arts. Sample arts include: impetus and inertia, light and shadow, form and substance, summoning and binding, scrying and divination etc.
There are 5 different approaches to magic, including mysticism, shamanism, sorcery, theurgy and wizardry. Each imposes its own limitations on how you can use the Arts.
Then there are schools, sects and lineages, which determine which Arts you know well, which Arts you know half well and which ones you don't know jack about.
A spell has difficulty based on what you want to achieve, determined using an 'effect points' system. If you can beat the difficulty with your score, you cast the spell.

Does he draw power from a mana pool or is it more cast and forget like d&d.

It uses a mana pool system using something called Harmony Points. The number of points lost is equal to the difficulty of the spell. You can overcast quite a bit and overcasting brings penalties as a result of spiritual dissonance. Usually Harmony recovers at 1 pt per hour, but for every multiple of your usual total you suffer a cumulative -1 penalty to all actions and move 1 step on the harmony regeneration rate ladder: 1/day, 1/week, 1/month, 1/year, 0/eternity.

Usually a wizard can pull off one fairly big spell per day and a few minor ones. Nothing large scale or long lasting. If their need is urgent or they'want something that has a BIG effect or lasts a LONG time, they can overcast as much as they like.

The system separates the weaving and casting of spells. You can weave a spell and leave it floating as an astral miasma around your head, releasing it by fulfilling the conditions set on weaving. This allows it to function as a D&D style cast-and-forget system. Spells cast using this approach are quick, but they don't always fit the situation. Weaving and casting takes a bit longer, but you get to tailor the effect.

If its mana based you might consider lowering the amount of available mana after the wizard commits a questionable act with his magic. If its cast and forget the wizard could loose a spell from memory.
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Bert
Member

Posts: 58


« Reply #9 on: February 17, 2009, 12:54:31 PM »

Hi dindenver,

I think the way that yo can make your system work for bad guys is to have them summon a spirit and have the spirit cast the spell. That way the bad consequences happen to the spirit. Of course, what price the spirit exacts for that service is another matter...

This is the way sorcery works as an approach to magic. Its what makes sorcery the most dubious form of magic in the entire game. Whenever a sorcerer casts a spell its like a temporary compact. While people might not be bothered by other types of magic user, they would happily burn a sorcerer - innocent or guilty, just to make sure.
 
I think the idea of unintended consequences is pretty harsh, you might want to scale that back a bit.

That goes a long way to answering some of the questions in my original post as a one liner.

I think if it is an equal and opposite reaction, then that removes the moral judgment from it. So, maybe every time a sorcerer uses magic, they receive the effect (scaled down to reflect how common you want magic to be) as well. Like if they cast a fireball that does 6d6 to 10 monster, maybe they take 6d6, save versus none.

That's why I had the same spell bouncing back if innocents were harmed, but for every spell - naughty or nice? Now thats what I'd call harsh - but it could be very, very interesting. It would make wizards pay a lot of attention to protecting their own butts. Interesting...

Thanks

Bert
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Bert
Member

Posts: 58


« Reply #10 on: February 17, 2009, 02:58:05 PM »

Hi Ken,

I like the idea here, but what is your goal? Are you trying to make wizards ultra ethical, with the fear of punitive effects from their spells?

My goal is to make magic users mindful of the consequences of their magic beyond the mere loss of magic points. I don't want to make them ultra ethical, because that would be dull. I'm going to need some pretty clear definitions of 'good' and 'bad'. At present I'm thinking 'bad' is anyone who has intentionally and directly harmed another and not experienced guilt. Too wooly? I think so - and it worries me...

Is the punitive effect cosmic justice, or guilt? Would an unethical, but not evil wizard just be knee deep is karmic pay-back here?

Most definitely cosmic justice, but more of a cause and effect kind of thing. I read about this thing in 'real world magic' called the law of threefold return, which goes something like this: any energy you send out comes back to you threefold. It sounds a bit flaky, but I like the idea. It feels right for my system.

As far as what is ethical; if a wizard cast sleep on a couple of guards so he can go about his ethical business, then he shouldn't be responsible for someone else's unethical behavior. Now, if that wizard cast sleep on the guards so he could go about his ethical business, but is being chases by a horde of hungry goblins, or a dragon, or lava, or whatever, then he pretty much knows that he should have just fire-balled the two screws and got it over with.

The way I see it is this: the wizard is accountable for his actions, not responsible for them. And yes, he could have just fireballed the screws and taken a risk. They might have been a pair of black hearted killers. Its a nice in-play decision to have to make when the dragon and his goblin minions are coming, surfing on a wave of lava.

On that note, if an ethical wizard has to sneak past any guards, then they are obviously evil and it shouldn't matter what happens to them.

Unless the wizard is sneaking past the guards because he's escaping from prison, or is up to something that illegal but which he feels is necessary, or are just millitiamen with families at home and no murder in their hearts, or...ad infinitum.

As far as meters of ethical and innocent are concerned, some sort of alignment type system would probably be in order.

Arrgghhhh!!!

At the very least, the common and general beliefs of the wizard should probably be sketched out, so that ethics could be inferred in a given situation.

Phew!

Or, there could just be a wizards code. That would put it straight pretty quick. Break the code at your own peril.

That's a very tasty idea. I really like the idea of a wizards code. That way I could provide a clear outline of what's 'good' and 'bad' and avoid the subjective grey-zone nature of real world ethics. That's a very neat solution.

Maybe instead of magic backlash, knowingly breaking the code shakes a wizards focus and makes it harder for them to cast subsequent magic until they can atone. In this case, unethical wizards would be unaffected by the penalty.

I hadn't thought of atonement either. Nice.

Thanks for the ideas Ken - they've been very helpful.

Bert
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Bert
Member

Posts: 58


« Reply #11 on: February 17, 2009, 03:24:56 PM »

Hi Vulpinoid,

Maybe you need to consider what may or may not be ethical to the wizard.

I'd dearly love to avoid subjectivism. A subjective approach would almost definitely mess up compacts and sorcery. All a player has to do is put "Maximinus Thrax has no moral issues with killing people, innocent or otherwise, to achieve his aims" and they'd have a license to print mayhem. I need a clear cut good/bad thing. I think Ken's wizards code idea has legs.

A believer in the natural cycle of life might deliberately choose to kill the old king who is extending their life through mystical means.

A mystic of law might be helping to preserve the old king, because the king has been a stabilising influence in the kingdom and none of the king's children would continue the peaceful reign over the empire.

Neither of these mystics agree with what should be done about the king, and each of them has a strong moral standpoint for their beliefs about the situation.

In each others eyes, the other wizard is "evil". The first would plunge the empire into chaos, the second would continue the abomination unto the natural cycle.

There's a mighty fine premise in there. I think an important distinction here would be that there are morals and then there is the ethical code of magic - which may not be totally in line with what most people consider to be good or bad. It might be against the code to kill the king, but perfectly in keeping with the morals of the nature mystic. The code is like gravity. If you jump out of a building, you're going to fall and hurt yourself - but what if the building is on fire? Is it right to jump?

Thanks for the brain food.

Bert
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Bert
Member

Posts: 58


« Reply #12 on: February 17, 2009, 03:34:36 PM »

Hi Finarvyn,

Ethics in RPGs can be tricky, and sadly isn't as black & white as we might hope.

For example, in an AD&D game years ago a friend was playing a Paladin and thereby was unable to do any "evil" acts or he would lose his Paladinhood. The party was wandering through an enemy complex and came upon a kitchen and surprised an Orc chef. The chef dropped his meat cleaver and ran in terror. The Paladin leaped forward and hacked the Orc down from behind.

Does he lose his Paladinhood for this action?

1. You can argue that all Orcs are evil by nature and that killing one would ultimately be a good action.

2. You can argue that attacking any unarmed creature from behind, regardless of its alignment, is an evil act.

We argued this for a long time and eventually this discussion killed the campaign becasue we couldn't continue without resolving the issue. We never agreed.

I sympathise. The ethical payback thingy is going to end up having a fairly major impact on somebody's character, so unless the code of ethics is rigorously defined its going to cause dispute. Subjectivism is a pain in the butt!

Turning then to your thought about ethics and magic -- I think it has a wonderful notion behind it and it's neat that evil spellcasters can try to beat the system somewhat, but I wonder if you are going to encounter this giant "gray area" such as the situation I described above.

Perhaps the solution to the problem might be to construct a table of examples and say "no matter what your personal ethics might be, here are the guidelines for ethics in this campaign" such that killing certain creature types is okay or attacking from behind is not. As play continues your tables would evolve and eventually you might have a really great list.

The gray area problem is why I kicked this thread off. I can feel it in my bones that this is right for this game, so I've got to resolve the issue. Even with a pretty solid code I think I'm going to need to be prepared to let it evolve, as you suggest.

Its amazing what you can get for two cents.

Bert
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contracycle
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« Reply #13 on: February 19, 2009, 06:42:52 AM »

I'd dearly love to avoid subjectivism. A subjective approach would almost definitely mess up compacts and sorcery. All a player has to do is put "Maximinus Thrax has no moral issues with killing people, innocent or otherwise, to achieve his aims" and they'd have a license to print mayhem. I need a clear cut good/bad thing. I think Ken's wizards code idea has legs.

For a lot of people who lived life informed by magical ideas, the operative concept was "sin",  or something like what we think of as sin.  Doing certain things made you inherently tarnished, and therefore opened you up to the influences of evil spirits.  This does not rely on the subjectivity of the magician or the players as such, and can be used as a form of setting exposition,laying out the cosmological influences of the world.
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Vulpinoid
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« Reply #14 on: February 19, 2009, 07:23:20 PM »

How about this suggestion?

All schools of magic have ethics that link into the types of effect they are able to cast.

In my earlier example of a mystic who believes in the sanctity of the natural order, their beliefs might have been reinforced by a range of spells that focus on the natural world above other concerns.

A mystic who believes in the laws of the state might gain a range of spells that focus on civilisation and law enforcement.

A mystic who performs darker spells involving the dead, or perverting the natural order might have a schools that imposes morals that mark their practitioners as "wrong" in the terms of the outside world. They cling to this "wrong-ness" because it marks them as very different, and therefore able to cast very different magics. Like the old ritual of breaking a taboo to release its power, no one wants you to do it, and you're socially outcast if you do; but once you do so you earn huge amounts of fear among your peers.

Characters who try to learn magics from two or more skills will find that their values come into conflict. One school says to perform a certain action, while the other school says to act in a different way. The character will have to break one of their codes of morals, and they will either lose prestige in the eyes of their school, or suffer some other type of weakness. That's the penalty they get to offset the diversity of magic they're able to cast.

Again...just some ideas...

V
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A.K.A. Michael Wenman
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