Bad Choices, Ripped From The Headlines

For those of you who have been living in a box hidden in someone's garage and haven't endured the ongoing media blitz, Osama Bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals in a compound in Pakistan this past Sunday night. This act is complete. It has passed the threshold and joined the vastness of history.

The act itself isn't the interesting part. The good decisions made amongst bad options leading up to the act is interesting, and so too is the aftermath of reactions and analysis, though to a lesser extent.

Kobiyashi Maru Made Flesh
Here we have an intelligent man at the head of a group of fanatical people who have convinced themselves that God told them to kill infidels. Furthermore, He would pardon the killing of any innocents and have lavish rewards awaiting in the afterlife. Sounds like a sweet deal, and if you believe in an afterlife it's actually a logical deal to take.

On the other side, we have the infidels who can't afford to turn the other cheek since there's this guy out there convincing people to kill us even at the cost of their own lives. The infidels need to stop the madness, but how? Given the history of rallying around martyrs and spilling more blood, killing leaders doesn't seem very effective. But what's the other choice? Continue enduring attacks until the citizenry runs off and joins other "safer" countries?

And now that the decision has been made and the act completed, the reactions run the gamut from we-just-won-the-Superbowl drunken celebration, to anger against breaking the moral law against killing. And the people reacting in a certain way have a hard time accepting when others react differently. "How can you not celebrate a monster's death?" "Do you think giving up our morality was a justifiable price for a little security?"

Yes, it's a sin to take a life. Every rule in our land and religion tells us this. But is it OK to take a life when that person has caused so much pain and death? And who gets to make that call?

The infidels have fixed a problem, but the fallout may be worse. The infidel country descends into moralistic second-guessing, and the fanatics reorganize and plot vengeance for their fallen leader. Is this a better situation than the original? And yet, how could the infidels not have taken the opportunity when presented?

How do we GMs engineer situations like this in our games? It's so easy to justify putting aside morality in games because we understand that it's not real. So it's up to us to make it feel real, to make our players invest in the debates they have in character.

I know when I'm doing a great job as GM because I can leave the room and the in-game debate goes on while I'm not there. Sometimes I'm not even sure how it happens, but I'm overjoyed with the results. Generally I pick a handful of awful events and set things up so the PCs can only hope to do one of them. This fits into the "Overworked PCs" school of GMing which is still on my to do list to flesh out.

For me, the main way to motivate the players involves mining their character for plot hooks. Find the thing that motivates the character, and the player will engage with whatever plot hook is happening. If the character is a dwarf interested in protecting his kingdom, he should respond to intelligence about a planned goblin invasion. If you can find two hooks, you can turn a simple choice into an agonizing bout of self-exploration. If stopping the invasion of the dwarf kingdom carries a cost of letting the goblins overrun a human settlement, that's a moral dilemma the party can sink their teeth into.

Now here's the tricky part. If you have different characters on different sides of the issue, you can let them debate what to do. Not to the point of ripping the party to pieces, but definitely let them talk out the pros and cons of their positions. If it starts heating up and the rest of the party seems like they'll let the weapons start flying, I'd bring in an NPC to remind them that they're all on the same team.

Trust your players. They can do wonderful things and create solutions to impossible situations if you let them.

Not For Constant Use
I wouldn't recommend making every choice impossible, so always leave room for straightforward adventures. Nothing unifies the party like a basic dungeon crawl, preferably by debating previously-made moral choices during combat. Constant tough decisions will grind the party down and eventually make the game more of a chore than an escape, so remember to give them some humor to brighten the mood and keep them coming back. Remember the best TV shows are comedies with serious themes.

You'll develop a sense of how much seriousness is too much. Just listen to your players and, as my theatre professor Susan always said, "Use intelligence guided by experience" to make the call about how impossible a choice to give the party next.

Now go forth and create impossible situations for your PCs to tackle and emerge as heroes.

In the trivia bucket, this is my 50th post. Who knew that time could pass so quickly? And finally, happy Star Wars day. May the Fourth be with you.

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