Earlier in the month, Scott Rehm spoke about the importance of player choice during the life of a campaign. While there is certainly nothing wrong with traveling to a dungeon and clearing out monsters just for the sake of doing it, he emphasized that a DM should ensure that the party is actively choosing their path and making decisions that resonate throughout the campaign world. I have strived for this in my homebrew campaign, but I want to avoid making every decision a moral quandary. If you give players the same moral litmus tests repeatedly, then the campaign will become boring. I’ve been thinking about new ways to develop a storyline for a campaign that includes player choice, morality and potential conflict amongst party members. And when in doubt, I return to my roots in psychology.
While communicating with Sarah Darkmagic and others recently, I had the thought that a DM could benefit from borrowing concepts from some of the most famous psychological experiments to date. A great book for anyone even mildly interesting in psychological research is Forty Studies That Changed Psychology. One of the most ground-breaking series of studies featured in the book was performed by a Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, in the 1960s. In his research, Milgram set out to learn more about the behaviors and sense of morality that led to the Holocaust. He devised experiments that examined the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. The results demonstrated that ordinary people were capable of inflicting a great deal of pain on others when ordered to do so by an authority figure. Milgram summarized his work:
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
Below, I briefly describe Milgram’s research, and then offer an example of Omar, a well-respected NPC, to demonstrate how the concepts of authority and obedience can be used to engage your adventuring party with real choices throughout the life of a campaign.
Participants in the study were given the role of a teacher. The participants were informed they would be teaching to another participant – the learner. In reality, the learner was a confederate. The confederate was actually working for the research team, but the participant was not aware of this until after the study ended. The only participant in the study was the teacher.
The teacher and learner (remember, confederate) met in a room and were then separated into different rooms. The teacher and learner were able to communicate through voice but were not able to see each other. The teacher was given an electric shock from a device as a sample of the shock the learner would receive during the experiment whenever the learner gave an incorrect answer. As the teacher attempted to teach the learner the words, the authority figure reminded the teacher to shock the learner for every mistake. The teacher was also instructed to increase the dose of the shock with each incorrect answer. The “learner” voiceed their discomfort and complained of a heart condition and eventually stopped responding as if they were unconscious.
If the teacher attempted to stop the experiment and refuse to give out additional shocks, the authority figure asserted that the experiment must continue. The authority figure informed the teacher that he or she would not be held personally responsible. Milgram found that over 60% of participants administered the final possible shock, which was stated as a dangerous 450 volts. Instead of simply reading about the experiment, you can watch the participants’ reactions and distress when being told to continue the study while the “learner” is screaming in pain. The video below is a recreation and retrospective by the BBC in 2009:
Milgram’s research shocked the field of psychology (pun intended). It led to stricter ethical control in psychological research to the point that getting a study approved by an ethical review board can be more difficult than running the actual study. And it also resulted in re-evaluating the circumstances that led to the Holocaust. The implication from his research is that any of us could be influenced to harm others by the power of obedience.
Using Obedience with Your Group
To be clear, I am not advocating that you deceive your group into doling out electric shocks to NPCs. A DM can utilize obedience to offer the players choice points during a campaign. Before I present specific examples, I wish to discuss how the DM is already in an authority position with the group. The DM is leading the group and the campaign. The DM is either creating a homebrew world, running an adventure from a published source or some combination of the two. The DM may run a complete sandbox world where the players make every decision to affect the gaming world. I believe 100% sandbox campaigns are rare so I will focus on the more common approach for DMs, which is to prepare the details in advance the party are likely to encounter during each gaming session.
For example, the DM may create a roleplaying encounter with a NPC where the party is alerted to a quest, “Please retrieve the <Item> from the <Location>, which is currently overrun by <Monster Threat>.” At this point, the party is most likely going to accept the quest and move on with the adventure. It is likely rare for a party to hear such a quest presented by their DM and refuse to participate in that adventure. First, the party assumes the DM is steering them in a specific direction because that is the prepared path. Second, some players are just waiting for an excuse to use their powers in combat, so any threat is a good one to confront. Third, refusing to accept the quest poses challenges for the group in and out of the game world. If the party does not accept the quest put forth, then they must determine another course of action through investigation or further roleplaying. They are “putting the DM on the spot” to generate new content on the fly. These factors result in the party obeying the influence of the DM at the table. Every time a DM presents a specific quest, they are sending a clear signal to the group, “You should all accept this quest.”
The Omar Template
As discussed above, the dynamics of the game already include fertile ground to explore the power of obedience with your group. One specific plotline to engage an adventuring party is to create a well-respected NPC in the gaming world; for my purposes, this NPC will be referred to by the name of Omar (I love The Wire) throughout the rest of the article. Omar could be a religious figure such as a priest, a high-ranking official in a respected guild or a political figure such as a king. Make it clear to the party that Omar has the support of the masses and demonstrate this by a few good deeds.
Early in a campaign, Omar can offer support and guidance to the party. He can send them on straightforward quests to cleanse evil and improve the living conditions for the area. The party will likely trust Omar as a trusted advisor after a few missions. Omar never gives any hint of having ulterior motives for his work. Here is when a DM has the power to engage players in meaningful choices that affect the campaign.
Omar begins to send the party on quests that have more dubious aims. Instead of simple quests, “Clear out the goblin horde massing near Rae’s Creek,” he begins to make other requests, “Find these three men and bring them to me. They have committed crimes and must be brought to justice.” However, when the party arrest the men, they plead for their lives and deny any wrong doing. The party may begin to have mixed feelings about turning the men over to Omar, but are likely to trust him because of the previous experience with him and his position of authority.
Continue to apply pressure to the group to make decisions on how to interact with Omar. If your party is oblivious to moral issues, go way over the top to make Omar’s requests despicable after some time. However, if the party has a well-attuned moral compass, Omar’s quests may need to be more subtle. The research on obedience discussed above illustrate key points to be aware of when utilizing Omar in your campaign.
In order for Omar to create the most tension and obedience in your group, ensure that he has a positive reputation. Since Omar is respected in the community, the party may believe they are in good hands with him. Omar must make his case that his goals for the quests are very important. Even if the importance is vague and without detail, Omar can stress to the party how the quest is vital. The implication is that since Omar finds it to be important, and he’s well-respected, then it must be something worthwhile for the party to accomplish. Omar should offer the group a reward for their services through money, magic items or other prizes. The party will feel a stronger obligation to Omar if he is paying them for their work.
A final note is that Omar’s proximity to the party is another key factor to consider. If Omar sends the party on a mission that is hundreds of miles away from his location, then the party is less likely to obey his instructions. Conversely, if Omar sends the party on a mission three streets away in town, then the party is more likely to obey his instructions. The best way to crank up the pressure on the group is to have Omar join the party on a mission and continue to give instructions during the quest. The closer Omar is to the party, the more likely the party will experience pressure to obey his instructions. Below are some ideas to move Omar from a well-respected authority figure to a person the party may hesitate to obey.
Teach the monsters a lesson. Omar instructs the party that a collection of half-orcs (or monsters of your choice) have constructed a crude village away from their primary outpost. Omar believes the village is too close to the city and wishes for the party to push back the force and eliminate the threat. However, when the party arrives at the village, the half-orcs do not appear to be mounting a military operation as their numbers are small and their weapons crude. There are also women and young children in the community.
We need medicine. Omar instructs the party to recover a shipment of rare herbs and potions used to treat the sick in town. Omar informs the party the bandits are preparing to sell the items on the black market to the highest bidder. However, when the party finds the bandits, they appear to be poorly-armed peasants from a less-wealthy town. The plot may sound familiar if you are a Firefly fan.
The zealots must be stopped. Omar informs the party that a new cult has surfaced in town and that all followers are a serious threat to the city. He instructs the party to kill all members of the cult because their bodies are possessed by demon spirits and other forms of evil magic. When the party infiltrates the cult’s hall, they find a quaint gathering for a modest prayer service. There does not appear to be any demonic imagery in the hall; instead, there is imagery of a less-popular god in the kingdom.
Experiment with plotlines that will engage your adventuring party on a visceral level. Learn what is important to each group member. Is it saving innocent lives, earning wealth, gaining fame, or mastering power? For an example of how far you can push Omar and his authority, read a previous post by Chris Perkins on how he horrified his group with the behavior of a NPC in his campaign.
The party must make a choice to follow Omar’s instructions. That choice results in consequences. Staying with the three examples above, the consequences of obeying Omar are the realities of persecuting innocent members of another race, stealing medicine from the poor and killing people because of their religious beliefs. It is likely at least one person at the table will ask, “Hey, do we really want to do this?” This creates tension and adds a powerful dynamic to your gaming sessions.
Develop real consequences for when the party does not obey Omar. The consequences for disobeying Omar may range from simple disapproval and removal of privileges to treason, banishment and death. If Omar has been a trusted ally over many levels of a campaign, then the consequences will have a greater effect on the group than if Omar was recently introduced into the campaign.
- The power of an authority figure to gain obedience from others was demonstrated in a series of reasearch studies by a Yale University psychologist, Stanely Milgram. The studies produced dramatic results and demonstrated that any of us are capable of following instructions that can harm others.
- Use an authority figure in your campaign to create opportunities for player choice. Develop a well-respected NPC to send the adventuring party on a variety of quests. As time progresses, the NPC will instruct the party to perform morally questionable acts. Continue pushing the boundaries to see how far your group will go to follow the NPC’s instruction before refusing to obey.