Friday, July 23, 2010

Teaching Virtues with an RPG

My wife and I encourage our children to lead meaningful lives by "teaching to virtues." What this means is we point to well-defined virtues* as examples to guide their behaviors. Now the truth is that my wife is more focused than me on this, and she's way more consistent about taking advantage of "teachable moments" (to use the terminology of the Virtues Project) to reinforce the virtues. I want to get better, though, or at least not make things worse.

Is there a way to teach the virtues through an RPG?

I think there is, but there are some pitfalls to avoid. An obvious one is that the kids can't start to think of D&D as school or lessons. The moment the game feels like a class to them, that's when the magic ends. The focus must always be first and foremost on having fun. Everything after that is gravy, but if the kids aren't having fun, they won't play, and there go your teachable moments.

So I toyed with the idea of adding something called "virtue points" (VP) to go along experience points (XP). The idea was that whenever one of the player's characters exercised one of the virtues, I would award some VP to the player. I would say something like, "And here's 50 VP for showing gratitude to the spirit Naga." VP would help a character level up just like XP.

The more I thought about it, though, the more the idea rankled with me. For starters, levels in D&D correspond to improvements in battle competence, spell casting, or turning undead, etc. The virtues are not logically tied to these things in any way. Generosity, for example, will not help you draw a weapon faster or develop a whirlwind attack.

More importantly, awarding special points for demonstrating virtues through play is so obviously transparent that kids will see right through it. Worse, it would railroad the kids into certain behavior patterns and discourage them from "letting go" and expressing their creativity through the development of their characters in a natural way. In other words, I would rather learn about who my kids really are by watching how they play their characters than dictate to them how they should play the game.

Still, I'm the parent, and I do want to take advantage of this situation to shape their character. The better way to do it, I think, is through natural in-game consequences.

For example, my oldest daughter, who we shall refer to as 'O' (age 11), has played her character as a person of great generosity, mercy, and self-restraint. The first time I noticed this was really interesting. The party had just rescued a raving lunatic from an oubliette. Once rescued, the man was eager to get away, because he was (1) hungry, (2) unarmed and nearly naked, and (3) alert to the presence of monsters nearby. O gave him a bit of bread, but she did not want to let him leave. She was interested in keeping him around as a guide. He begged and begged, but she did not waver. She considered casting a Sleep spell on him, tying him up, and dragging him behind them as they went through the dungeon. The man became so desperate that he took a swing at her. I rolled an 8 on a d20, a miss. O had this look on her face of mingled confusion and pity, and said, "Ok, you can go." She did not strike back. It was an odd moment.

A few days later they ran into the same guy in town. He was feeling better, more himself since being fed and clothed. It turns out he's a bard who was accused by the local lord of "kissing" his wife (have to keep it clean for the kids), but what really happened was she kissed him. The perils of having an 18 charisma, right? But I digress. He thanked the party for their mercy and restraint and volunteered to guide them around town, no charge. O's restraint at the oubliette paid dividends, and I didn't have to clumsily call out the virtues.

Later the party fought some kobolds, and a few surrendered after their buddies abandoned them. Now when I was growing up, my players would have tortured the captives for information and killed them, or perhaps pressed them into service as guides and kill them later. Under no circumstances would they have been allowed to live. Apparently that's not how O rolls, though. The room had five exits, and her only concern was that the kobolds would know which way the party went and blab to the others. So she used ("wasted," my old chums would say) a Sleep spell and the party slipped away through one of the exits while the kobolds snoozed.

They're still in that dungeon. If they get lost, they may run into one of those kobolds again, and maybe he'll give them just the tiniest bit of aid for the mercy she showed them.

I just had another idea. I could keep a tally of the characters' virtuous behaviors and award bonuses to charisma-based rolls for things like diplomacy and bluff** checks. This makes more sense logically because a character who is seen as virtuous will be considered more trustworthy. I'd want to keep it kind of behind the scenes, though, for the same reasons that I wouldn't want to have an explicit VP points system. The way I'd play it is I'd tell them the DC (difficulty class - I'm not going to assume all my readers*** are gamers just yet) is 14 instead of 15 or something, and say something like "you have a reputation for your honesty" and/or "people are hearing about how you treated [fill-in-the-blank NPC] with respect." That way the behavior is reinforced more often than not, but it looks like the luck of the dice when they succeed. And it would still have that element of chance. I'm not sure about this approach yet, though. It probably needs some work.

* I'm all about teaching to the virtues, and the Family Virtues Guide is an invaluable resource, but something about this site just rubs me the wrong way. What it is, I'm not certain. Something about the branding just makes it seem so, I don't know…smug?

** Hmm, bluff: "Great job using your virtues, kids! Now, roll a d20 to see if the NPC believes your lies."

*** lol "ALL" my readers. Plural. Ha!


  1. I agree that you can teach the value of virtuous behavior through a RPG.

    And I agree that virtues ought not be a value of their own, if only because I don't think real virtues are a value of their own, and think it would therefore be a poor model of the world.

    Virtues reduce chaos, external costs and transaction costs while increasing investment and diversity of labor. Those salubrious effects make Good behavior good. I sound evil for breaking it down that way. But there it is.

    The direct karma method (you scratched my back -- I'll scratch yours) is plainly limited, for you still have no reason to be decent to folks who cannot help you or whom you cannot trust.

    I like best your indirect karma approach: you have a reputation for acting honorably, or we heard about how you treated our friends.

    I can see N instructing a prisoner, whom she has beaten and used as slave labor, to say only nice things about her to others, or she'll kill his family: manufactured karma.

  2. I would think the best way to teach virtuous behavior in game is by having the player deal with the consequence of their actions both good and bad. Well that's how I do it in my games.

    By the way I'm another "homeschooler" that is playing AD&D with his kids as a teaching tool.

  3. This reminds me of a 3-part article by Tracy Hickman (the creator of the Dragonlance world):