Article Header Image
The Moral Compass
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. Several months ago, Trevor Kidd and his dragonborn paladin left the game. Long story short, Trevor was moving from Renton, WA to Middle o' Nowhere, IA. His adventuring companions wept bitter tears not because they were going to miss Trevor's not-so-hot dice, but because they were losing their moral compass.

Since Rhasgar's departure, the party has been trending toward apathy if not outright evil. One player character forged a pact with an archdevil. Another character accepted a "promotion" to pit fiend. The party began plundering tombs, torturing captives for information, throwing their weight around, and seeking vengeance against those who had opposed them. A good deed was no longer its own reward, and the running joke was that the heroes were actually the campaign's main villains.

A few weeks ago, Trevor informed me that he was back in town for few weeks, and I was quick to write his character back into the show. Rhasgar's a big deal in the Dragovar Empire these days—the epitome of what makes the empire worth saving. A Dragovar warship delivers him to his companions, and he thrusts the heroes into completing a quest that's been languishing for months: the destruction of an evil star entity named Allabar. The moral compass is pointing west, and the heroes are anxious to follow and prove to themselves and to Rhasgar that they're not just a murderous mob of self-centered scalawags.

I am exaggerating. I wouldn't classify my Wednesday night group as "evil." There are faint flickers of evil, to be sure. After all, morally upright people don't go around breaking other people's fingers. CHRIS YOUNGS! They don't punch little girls in the face, either. ANDREW FINCH! Even the vaunted Rhasgar, champion of Bahamut, struck a blind man once. But hey, no one said being the moral compass was easy.

I believe most parties need a moral compass—a character to remind his or her adventuring companions that they're heroes, not villains. The moral compass urges the party to take the high road more often than not and also speaks to the importance of completing quests for the good of the realm. Without a moral compass to point them in the right direction, player characters are easily swayed by quests for treasure and personal power . . . not unlike some campaign villains we know. They also begin to forgo matters of decorum, knocking down knights, nobles, and political leaders like common rabble until everyone is beneath them.

A party needs a moral compass for no other reason than campaign stability. Campaigns centered on morally bankrupt characters tend to be fragile and easily shattered. The party might develop irreconcilable internal conflicts. NACIME KHEMIS! This could result in characters feeling alienated from the rest of the group. CURT GOULD! General apathy could also lead to character death. I'm pretty sure the Wednesday night group used to include a human fighter, until he floated away on a beholder and was basically abandoned by his friends. That probably wouldn't have happened on Rhasgar's watch. Just sayin'.

Lessons Learned

Some moral compasses point north-by-east instead of north, if you know what I mean. A slightly off-kilter compass is better than none, I suppose. As a DM, you gotta take whatever you can get. With many groups, the compass just sort of spins around and around, like Captain Jack Sparrow's. The truth is, you can't force a player character to be the party's moral compass—it just doesn't work. You need a character that's built for it, not to mention a thick-skinned player who's willing to be the good guy on occasion and say, "Uh, guys, is it cool to maim people we don't like?" RODNEY THOMPSON!

It's not the DM's job to be the party's moral compass. (The DM wears plenty of hats already, thank you very much.) However, in the absence of one, here are a couple little "rules" I use to keep my player characters headed in the right direction campaign-wise:

  • In my campaign, a good deed goes unpunished.
  • In my campaign, the low road is more dangerous than the high road.

Actually, they're more like guidelines. And they're meant to be applied subtly, not wielded like clubs.

For example, when my player characters show generosity, mercy, or forgiveness, I try very hard not to make them regret it later. If they spare the life of a villain, they'll be rewarded—somehow, in some way. It could be as simple as the villain never rearing his ugly head again, or even better, coming to the party's aid against a common threat. Maybe a simple act of compassion on their part causes some other NPC to view them in a favorable light. But I assure you, the villain won't turn around, slaughter a town full of innocent people, and write "Rhasgar was here!" on the dead mayor's forehead to frame the party.

The Wednesday night group caught the faint whiff of DM generosity when the heroes spared the life of a somewhat villainous eladrin girl who'd crossed their path. The characters bore her safely back to the Feywild and delivered her into the arms of her cold-hearted brother, an evil archfey. Granted, their reasons weren't entirely altruistic. Nevertheless, the deed earned the archfey's "undying gratitude," which hopefully will bode well for them in the future.

On the other hand, if a character has the gall to summon an archduke of the Nine Hells and cut a deal with him to raise the party's sunken ship from the ocean floor, or decides to get back at a troublesome island baroness by sinking her entire naval fleet, you can bet that act will come back to haunt the party six ways 'til Sunday. Not that I'm complaining, mind you—more grist for the mill, as they say.

Eventually, much to this DM's chagrin, Trevor will head back to Iowa, and the Wednesday night group will once again be without its moral compass. However, by applying two simple "guidelines" over and over, I can help my players navigate the campaign without one, never once governing their actions or telling them, "thou must do good!"

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Now that Baharoosh is out of the way, what Monday night character should Chris set his sights on next?
Bartho, a dim-witted human fighter whose uninspiring battle cry is 'BARTHO!' 273 17.4%
Alex von Hyden, a human wizard with a spirit of an ancient dragon inside him 270 17.2%
Oleander Fellswallow, a halfling rogue with his own worldwide spy network 253 16.2%
Kithvolar, a bloodthirsty elf ranger who talks with his swords 211 13.5%
Triage, a renegade warforged artificer who considers the halfling rogue his superior officer 209 13.3%
Kettenbar, a wilden shaman who longs to return to the Feywild but is trapped in Iomandra 197 12.6%
Kyle Rolark, a human battlemind who wants to rid the world of mind flayers 153 9.8%
Total 1566 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #70

 In which "direction" does your party's moral compass usually point?  
LE (lawful evil)
LN (lawful neutral)
LG (lawful good)
NG (neutral good)
N (true neutral)
NE (neutral evil)
CE (chaotic evil)
CN (chaotic neutral)
CG (chaotic good)
Can't say. It's busted.

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
Sort Items By: Newest First Oldest First Top Rated
There are no comments yet for this article (or rating). Be the first!

Create Comment
Follow Us
Find a place to get together with friends or gear up for adventure at a store near you
Please enter a city or zip code