An Ethical Question


Here's a curious thought that sprang to my mind this morning.

OK, so within the context of a fantasy world (or, if you make appropriate substitutions in what follows, a high-tech world), it is possible through magical means to alter people's state of mind.

Let's consider the spell 'Remove Fear'. I was considering the idea of having a magical sword that (whilst not wishing to start another alignment debate!) is what you would call 'good-aligned', or maybe 'tries-to-do-the-right-thing-aligned' if you prefer. I was thinking that this sword would be called the Mercyblade. Why? Because, as it inflicts a fatal wound, it casts Remove Fear, and maybe Remove Pain (a reversed Wrack spell, if you like), on its target, so that they don't suffer as they die.

Then I thought about what might happen if you took this further. How about some kind of magical effect that meant the deceased's relatives and friends wouldn't feel any grief at their loss? That would have to be some pretty powerful magic, I'd agree, but not without precedent - there's a spell in the Book of Vile Darkness that causes the target's loved ones to take damage. If you reverse that concept - something that causes the target's loved ones to feel no pain.

Then I realised that I'd created an ethical nightmare. A weapon that kills without causing anyone pain. What deterrent would there be against its use? The wielder, knowing that they wouldn't cause anyone pain, might be tempted to lower their threshold for drawing and using the blade. They might even start to use it frivolously, or for greed-based reasons rather than self-defence, because they could justify that by killing someone and taking their stuff, they hadn't caused any pain, and had improved their own lot.

The road to Hell, paved with good intentions indeed.....

...that's a freaking awesome sword. I can already see the dark hero wielding it...nice.

I think the ethical dilemma here is played up a bit. I don't think someone would commit an act like murder (in real life) more often just because it's painless - it's still wrong, and it's not the pain that makes murder wrong. Now, in game, however, in a players hands, I can easily see a player using that justification (unfortunately), so I wouldn't recommend giving this to the players. It would be an excellent bad guy weapon, one of those things that makes the players pause and think, "Who is this guy?" leading to more depth in the villian. Now that I think of it, I might use your idea...:). What would also be an interesting weapon, roleplaying wise, is one that doesn't take away the pain of the victim, but takes away the guilt and pain of the wielder, effectively making him/her a psychopath on the field of battle. That would be cool, and very interesting to play. Huh, I might use that, too....

I would agree with you that it's not just the pain it causes people that makes murder wrong, though I think discussion of this lies somewhere on the boundary between ethics and morality. But someone could, as you say, allow themselves to be seduced by the idea that no pain = no wrongdoing - and they might be able to argue that point very eloquently.

This is fatastic. it's exactly the kind of thing the gods in my setting *would* put in the hands of mortals. They're two selfish and one selfless...that make up one religion with two sides. They would certainly put this out there to see whether it became a force of good or not. There's no Hell to go to for evil doers in my stting, so the ramifications are in the living world, not the afterworld. What exactly would this blade do to a good doer? Or an evil doer? Fantastic.

I think the ethical dilemna is very real with this. Especially if it takes away the pain of the loved ones.

A slippery slope for sure...consider your idea stolen.

Another rather twisted possibility is the idea that, if that blade is ever destroyed, everyone that has lost a loved one to its edge will suddenly feel the pain of loss.

Or....if the wielder is ever slain.

To really make sure that it was only used in the direst of circumstances, the sword could have been crafted to transfer the pain and suffering of the victim and their friends and family to the weilder and their friends and family. Enter the only-slightly-good-aligned hero who then proceeds to use it on his friends and family first so they won't feel the pain of all the evil-reaping he knows his life will entail. (I came up with this because I'm a firm believer in Lawful Crazy as a necessary alignment in some's probably my own alignment, so there has to be at least *some* PCs out there that are the same)

Dude, that shouldn't be a hero - that should be a villain. Just imagine when the characters learn that he slaughtered his own family. Then when they learn why. That sets up a perfect ethical dilemma for them. Especially if slaying the wielder would transfer the pain of the death. Wow. This idea gets cooler and cooler.

Gherkin, you might just have written all of us a new campaign.

Antiheros make my world shiny and bright; I think it's a little obvious to put it in the hands of a villain.

I think that this is a question that can only be answered by the players. The pattern I'm noticing here is that none of you trust your players enough to use it. Now I understand that every group may not be like my own, but I think that you can be truly surprised about how some players may act about certain things.

In the most recent campaigne that I was a part of I had a character who was a duskblade and could cause incrediable damage. The character herself was the type that would do whatever was necessary for good to win and evil to loose. Typical lawful good mindset. She saw the path that her magic was taking her down though, and she realized that she was just as tarnished as some of the people she was fighting. She resolved not to use her magic while fighting, which unfortionately led to her death, but it was such a huge step for her as a character that I wouldn't take it back even now that I know she would die as a result of the decision.

I apologize in advance for the use of a cliche, but with great power comes great responsability. I think that you would be surprised how players may step up to the plate and go above and beyond your expectations of them if given such an item.

If the player attempts to use it in a way that you don't agree with, then it is easy to implement repercussions that would make them wish that they had never used it. The sword could creat madness in the character if it is used without mercy seeing as it is called Mercyblade. If you see no problem with them using the item that way than let them be. But I think that it is the character's choice, and an excellent opportunity for development.

To the contrary, I *absolutely* trust my players to have something like this...that's exactly what I was suggesting. Knowing all the mental turmoil and such an item like this could potentially cause and having the players find out about it would be mildly interesting. Watching them go through it because *they're* the ones that have the item...far better in my mind.

I still think it's best in the hands of villain. Perhaps in a minor villain. That way, when they take him/her out, it passes to them. Perhaps that's the only way to avert the loved ones from feeling the pain - to take the burden as your own. Dunno. I still think, that as ethical dilemma's go, it's best in the hands of a villain.

To the contrary (as well) I trust my players, Wroe. Or the ones I used to have. Life's gotten so much more depressing since my group fell apart...oh, well. Besides, it's not about trust - it's about seeing what they would do with it. I can react well enough to that. It's not an unbalanced weapon - there's no reason not to trust them.

I guess the villain vs. hero question can only be properly answered by your individual answer to these two questions:

1) Is it better (and therefore more enjoyable for you as a GM) to have the players observe this dilemna, or to experience it themselves?

2) Will your players have more fun observing this dilemna, or experiencing it themselves?

I'm all for big bold experiential campaigns whereby people grow through the actions and circumstances of their own lives rather than the observational and thereby second-hand nature of someone elses life (ie: an NPC). So are my players. If i gave something like this to an NPC they would certainly enjoy it's inclusion in the campaign. Were I to have it fall into their hands in some way, they would enjoy it exponentially more. From my point of view...I work for the players; so I, by that rationale, have no choice but to make sure that their gaming experience is everything I have the ability to make it.

That was a bit low.

You totally misunderstand, man. I'm setting up a different ethical dilemma. If the bad guy got his hands on this sword, slaughters his own family then goes about doing something bad (or, this being my campaign, morally questionable, with emphasis on the question part). The sword takes away the pain of the victims and those the victims know (who would feel pain from their death), but, if the wielder dies or the weapon is destroyed, the pain returns, full force. See the ethical dilemma? The fun is them finding this out, and then laying out the big decision for them. Now here I should emphasize he's a small time villain without any designs of world domination. But should the players kill him for his actions? They have to choose between letting him have his little piece of the world and saving people from a lot of pain and guilt (make sure they know at least one or two of these people very closely!) or fighting against what's wrong but potentially making things a whole lot worse (at least for those people they know). The best part is if you have paladin players who will, not without sadness, take down the villain. Now the sword passes to them. What will they do with it? It gets what you want, but also what I want. Also, it makes the sword much cooler and more interesting. So they're not "observing" it, they're fully participating in it, in the myriad ethical dilemma's presented by it's existence.

See? See?

It seems the curse of the sword is already working!

Both of you, Tzuriel and Scott Free, know your players well enough to understand what will work best in your own individual playing groups. There's no right or wrong approach to how this idea is used in a campaign.

LOL...yes LG it seems to be.

Tzuriel, I don't mean your idea is wrong. I mean that my group would find my way better. I don't know what I said that was a bit low. By my two questions I merely meant to point out that the only people who can decide how to use this idea (or any idea) is you and your group. If you and your group find one thing more fun than another, do it that way. If you find a way to do both, then sally forth my friend! I do understand that you're setting up a different ethical's just one that my players have explored in a semi-similar way several years ago and they wouldn't like the rerun. The trick with ethical dilemnas is that you can't reall ymake them "better", you can only make them different. Ethics being what they are, what turns one groups mental crank would bore another.

My group however would never let me get away with having it in the hands of a villain then fall into their own hands. I've done that and similar things far too often to get away with it anymore.

Now that I think about it...the most original solution for me would be to have it on sale in a magic shop for a few gold. LOL. I haven't done something like that in over a decade. Ha!

lol Exactly. I haven't been playing with my (currently disbanded :( ) group for very long, so I can still get away with certain things. However, considering that members of my group use this site, I couldn't use the sword on them anyway, as they would see it coming.

Well, it seemed like you were saying I would rather have my players just watch my amazing storyline than participate in it. I'm pretty sure we're all agreed that's the mark of a bad GM. And I like to think I'm something of a good I felt it was a little low. But I now understand where you're coming from, so all's forgiven. Good luck using it in your campaign. Make the magic shop owner cool. Cool magic shop owners rock.

HA! That part was sarcasm. I think I'd get run off the block if I even included a magic shop in my setting, let alone put up a sign outside that said "Ethically Ambiguos Swords: Tuppence A Bag".

Well, as long as you don't put it in a dark cave (or townsquare) mystically stuck in a stone, with a ray of sunlight directly on it (no matter what time of day), just waiting for the perfect ethically ambiguos dark hero to come along and pull it out...