Moar Morality Mechanics

(N.B.: A mechanic is just the way something works in a game context. For example, rolling dice to determine the number of squares you can move is a mechanic.)

One of my recurrent interests is the representation of morality in games*. I recently encountered a couple of interesting and creative uses that I thought were worth sharing.

I’ve heard good things about (but have not played) a phone/tablet-based game called 80 Days which puts you in the role of Passepartout in attempting the titular round-the-world trip. As far as I’m aware, it’s a largely text-based pick-a-path adventure, with apparently huge amounts of detail about the world, the cities you visit, and the Steampunk/alternate-history setting.

The aspect of the game that I want to mention is that there is some sense of reputation in the story. One of the writing team has talked about a part of the game where (potential spoilers) you can choose to take a quick ship to another city, only to find when you get there that—because the crew of that ship are slave merchants—no-one else will associate with you, and your only way to progress is on a slave-hunting journey (end spoilers). I like the concept of, rather than your character having a tally of good/evil points based on the choices you made, other people have a measure of like/dislike based on what you’ve done (or are believed to have done). Others cannot see your intentions, or the limited information/options you had at the time. I suspect in this case, it’s a narrative device and not a specific mechanic (i.e. the system is not tracking any sort of “reputation points”), but I’m glad to see game designers thinking along those lines.

The other mechanic isn’t from a video game; recently I was introduced to Lords of Waterdeep, a “German-style” board game set in the world of Forgotten Realms. The gameplay is built around a set number of rounds during which players acquire resources in order to complete quests (which give them points). Naturally, you have to compete for those resources, and there are various cards that can be played which create additional bonuses/penalties, and so on.

The expansion (Scoundrels of Skullport) introduces a “corruption” mechanic, which does a good job of presenting a moral dilemma analogous to the real world:

  • There are new moves/cards that provide greater resources, but using them also gives you corruption tokens (“Is it worth it?”).
  • There are also ways to reduce your corruption tokens, but that uses up your (limited) turns and generally costs resources as well (“Restoring your reputation takes effort”).
  • At the end, players are penalised for every corruption token, with the amount determined by the total number of corruption tokens in play (“Less benefit if everyone’s cheating”).

This makes for a very interesting game mechanic. As the game progresses, people can get fairly concerned about how much corruption there is, and how much of a penalty they are going to get hit with. I’d like to make additions to this mechanic, but I realise they probably wouldn’t work for this particular game (they would either not fit with the setting, or would overcomplicate things):

  • A sense of reputation, based not on “how much?” corruption you have, but whether you have any. Certain choices could be unavailable to those with a sullied reputation. This adds an incentive to being “clean”, as opposed to just being less corrupt than the other players.
  • The mechanic falls down slightly in the last turn. At the very end, the potential benefits of corruption skyrocket for the less-corrupt players, mainly because they can be more certain of the size of the penalty (and know that the other players will receive a greater penalty). It could be better if the cost were unknown until after everyone has finished. Perhaps the corruption tokens in play could be randomly distributed amongst the corrupt players?

It pays to remember that any mechanic has to fit with the type of game it’s used in, and the setting and tone of that game. My suggestions/preferences lean more towards idealism than cynicism; I generally like a bit of hopeful optimism, but I realise that’s not always the effect you’re trying to achieve. Either way, it’s nice to see something other than the clichéd “good/evil points”.

* I’m mainly interested in video games, but there are lots of interesting aspects to other types of games, too. In particular, a board or card game has to keep any mechanics simple enough to be feasibly enacted by people sitting around a table, whereas a video game can get away with extensive calculations that the player need not know about. This means a successful board game is usually a good case study in game design, as the mechanics will have been carefully refined and simplified.

(Only one footnote? I must be under the weather…)


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