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Recently in a Pathfinder campaign I encountered the following in a combat situation, after our group made an ambush on a castle inhabited by a small Gnoll clan. Our group clearly had the upper hand and the Gnolls started to evacuate the castle. On my turn my Thief went behind a house to get stealth again, but when he run around a corner he just ended up in melee range to a Gnoll who was covering a flank while behind him the Gnoll-children were being evacuated by 2~3 other Gnolls. So I said to our GM that I am gonna make a melee attack against that Gnoll. Which our DM responded to with:

GM: So you intend to kill the children?

ME: No.

GM: So why you want to kill that guard then?

ME: Cause he is threatening me and I am in melee range with him.

GM: He is threatening you because he is there to protect the children. If you just lower your weapon and walk away he wont even attack you.

ME: But how my character is supposed to know that? He is currently in melee having a weapon pointed on him, by someone belonging to a clan we just wiped out halfway over the last few minutes. Why would my character take the risk turning his back to that guy?

GM: Cause that's common sense that while guarding the evacuation of the children, he had no reason to start fighting you, if you not attack him.

ME: Ok, so since I clearly lack that common sense you talk about, tell me please, what would my character then do instead now?....

So I ended my turn after using my action for moving back to where I just started. This felt very unrewarding and despite I still disagree, that no matter what alignment my character has, he wouldn't have just turned his back to someone pointing his weapon at him, after my character just killed half of that enemies family. No matter what was going on behind that enemies back. But for the sake of this question lets focus on the following:

If I end up again in a situation, where everyone at the table agrees, that the actions I want my character to do are contradicting with what my char would be doing by common sense, how can I solve the situation without giving up player agency, despite I as the player lacking the interpersonal knowledge of what my Character is expected to do by 'common sense'?


Reminder: All answers must be supported by evidence or experience, per the citation expectations of RPG.SE and the Good Subjective guidelines.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by NautArch, Sdjz, mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 7 at 21:41

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I see the different question in title and in the body. In title it is about ethics you do not understand. In body, it is about reacting to information you have, your character does not have, but ethics you do understand. I'm a bit lost. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Mar 6 at 8:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ As @Mołot said. The title had me expecting a "my DM interprets my alignment differently than I do" question, but the body really strikes me more as a metagaming question ("How should I handle information I know, but my character doesn't (or vice-versa, according to the DM)?") and has nothing to do with alignment. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Mar 7 at 12:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have closed this question because all the answerers are simply giving opinions and showing no regard for our Good Subjective, Bad Subjective citation requirements. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 7 at 21:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk: To be fair.... After I made an edit to the post and the disclaimer was added, no new answers had been made (Or at least the amount of answers stood the same; haven't checked yet if there were new ones). I don't really what you expect, that the existing answers will all be out of a sudden edited by their posters to good Subjective/Objective answers? \$\endgroup\$ – Zaibis Mar 8 at 6:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zaibis The consensus among answers appears to be that it’s not about ethics so much as it’s about player/DM information disconnect, just with an ethical issue as the example. \$\endgroup\$ – 40355 says Reinstate Monica Mar 8 at 15:37

11 Answers 11

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Your GM needs to understand that if you can’t see what’s ‘common sense’ it’s because they failed to explain the situation

Sometimes GM’s forget that they are the player’s sole window on the world. In the situation above if the gnoll guard posed no threat then the onus is on them to make that clear to you before they require you to respond. You can’t exercise player agency in a meaningful way if you don’t know what’s going on.

Once you understand what’s going on you can choose to attack the guard (or the children) or not and deal with the consequences. At this point, if your GM or any other player says “you wouldn’t do that” then they are interfering with your agency. Saying “if you do that, the consequences are X, Y & Z” is not interfering.

Of course, you can debate if killing gnoll children is a bad thing or not - given that gnolls are normally the fantasy equivalent of Ridley Scott’s aliens crossed with a swarm of locusts, there is an argument to be made there; they are quite literally the spawn of Yeenoghu sent to eat the world. But perhaps in your world gnolls are hippie flower children.

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To me, this sounds like a disconnect in the importance of "alignment". Alignment is a simplified, post-hoc summary of your characters ethics and actions up to right now; they are in no shape or form a straitjacket1, nor does it dictate how to act; it merely raises expectations.

To answer the question of
"How do I role play my ethics according to the DM?"
I'd answer that
"You don't, you role play your ethics according to you".
The consequences of that usually remain in the hands of the DM.

If the entire group agrees that this isn't an {insert alignment} action, then you have 2 options: you can back out, or you decide that {insert alignment} might not have been the correct description in hindsight.

It is not uncommon for players to re-evaluate the alignment they put on their characters, when being compared to other PCs and NPCs.
"wait, this LN NPC acts just like I imagined my LG bard; I guess that LN would be a better fit after all"

It is also not uncommon for the character to actively change alignment, especially in situations like this. If your NG wizards' first reaction to seeing gnolls enter an orphanage is to fireball the place, he would shift to CN, right then and there.


1 About not being a straitjacket

A creature’s general moral and personal attitudes are represented by its alignment: {snip} Alignment is a tool for developing your character’s identity—it is not a straitjacket for restricting your character. Each alignment represents a broad range of personality types or personal philosophies, so two characters of the same alignment can still be quite different from each other. In addition, few people are completely consistent.

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To me, it seems that the DM went a little too far and should let you perform your action. Because in the speed of the action, there's no way your character will take a long time to analyse the situation. You see a gnoll guard with a weapon, you attack.

But, as a DM, after you killed the guard, I'll give you this description :

Now the guard is dead, and as you look in front of you, you just see 2 others guards evacuating gnoll children. And you feel bad, because this guard just gave his life to protect children.

At this very moment, I'll let choose between:

  • You keep your good aligment but you'll have to deal with remorses
  • You are now neutral aligment

But, let's back to the abstract question.

I feel there's 2 issues here.

The first issue is that sometimes you can't act properly (according to your character aligment and mindset) because you see the picture differently. The DM should inform and remind you when this is the case. In your specific situation, i think it was done poorly, but the DM did his job anyway.

The second issue is that you don't see how to respect your character ethic when you can't understand it. But i feel you already know how to do it. For instance you know your character will never kill a child, so you won't do it. If you play a character that will never eat meat, i'm pretty sure you'll know how to play it.

But let say your character takes time to analyse the situation. You are attacking a gnoll castle, killing every warriors you see. And now you ambush a guard who is protecting evacuated children. The DM should let you perform an empathy roll (or whatever equivalent in your game) and a success would give your character the information that's the guard has no willing to fight you. With that information, a good aligment character will never attack the guard.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 6 at 21:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ This reads like the problem wasn't that the PC was about to cross the moral line in question, but that the DM tried to show it... \$\endgroup\$ – 40355 says Reinstate Monica Mar 7 at 15:48
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This, to me, seems like a situation where the DM should step in and ask if you are certain you want to perform that action - rather than telling you not to take that action. Keeping your character from doing something he would not want to do was the right call, but doing so in a way that pulls your agency from that character was not.

What he should have done was ask "are you certain you want to kill the Gnoll guard? He poses no threat to you and is simply evacuating the children. It might be out of character for you to do so."

In a situation like this, it's clear you didn't have the full picture of the situation, and the DM was unaware of that as well. Stepping in to prevent your character from taking that action was the right move.

If you answer, however, was still "Yes I kill the guard", that's your decision. The DM should not prevent you from trying to do that.


That being said, even if he did not make his argument well, you do say that everyone at the table and the DM agreed it would be against your character's motivation to make this action, then you may want to consider backing out of a decision you've made. It's alright in DnD to make a mistake in assumptions, and to pull back your character's actions once in awhile if the assumptions you made are wrong. It's difficult to understand every scenario, and if the DM explains it in such a way that it would make sense for your character to hold back, you should consider doing so.


In short - you didn't really do anything wrong here, and the DM's heart is in the right place, but he should reel back how much influence he has on your character's actions just a bit. Likewise, you should consider whether or not it would have been wise for your character to take that action. Sometimes, it's okay to back away from your initial instinct.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Aaron You are correct - I'm not sure how or when that happened but several parts of my post's text got transposed into other parts of my post. I've edited it now, and hopefully it should be better, but I really don't know how that happened. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Mar 7 at 19:01
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Your DM needs to calm down and remember why you're at the table.

This kind of misunderstanding of the situation in a tabletop game is pretty common. Dale M explains how the GM is ultimately responsible for laying out the situation, and how you can't really be held responsible for making the wrong choice if they give you incomplete information, even accidentally. But, in your scenario, the DM went on to do just that by addressing your concern by clarifying the situation (in an admittedly judgmental and ham-handed way), and your response of asking questions to further clarify - especially once he told you the act would be serious enough to incur alignment shifts - was exactly what you should have done.

At worst this was the right response for both of you, done awkwardly, to which the only answer is that you get better with practice. But it's not the real problem here: this was a confrontation when it didn't need to be.

Your DM started off the discussion of conflicting player vs GM views of the situation with the guard by asking if you wanted to kill the kids. That kind of question out of nowhere as it was is what we call a 'gotcha'; it's what we expect out of political flame wars, not tabletop RPG talk. There are tabletop games where confrontation between DM and player is more appropriate, but they are the exception, not the rule. That phrasing sets the tone for the whole conversation, putting you immediately on the defensive, and taking what would have been regular dispute resolution and turning it into an argument. Even if this was his attempt to enforce a line or a veil, you were dealing with the guard, not the children.

Even your resistance to his attempts to mitigate the problem by clarifying the solution ("How was I supposed to know he wouldn't attack me?") had this introduction to blame, and his fallback on "it's just common sense" didn't help matters either.

Finally, it's a side point, but forcing you to stand by actions you declared when you didn't have all the information (moving up to melee range) even after the discrepancy has been discovered and dealt with it was a straight up screwjob.

So, how to prevent it from happening in the future?

Our table has a saying: "Are you sure you want to do that?"

When the DM says this, it's a signal that they think we're about to do something incredibly and needlessly stupid. That is my prompt to size up the situation and discuss what I see and what is leading to the decision, and that gives the DM not just a direct feed of what situation they've presented (and how it opposes what they thought they presented), but also an opening to point to the offending element and clarify. And then, we walk the details back until we're both happy with the situation.

It's all about collaboration and making sure we're on the same page, which you folks were certainly not.

An example from play:

Me: Alright, I'm going to pop my water walking spell here to get to the next island.

DM: Are you sure you want to do that?

Me: Well, I don't see any way to get to the next island without crossing the water, and water walking is so I'm not going under; what am I missing?

DM: There's another bridge from the last island you were on.

Me: Oh! Well I'll check that out next, then. Never mind on the water walking.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This reminds me of an old question that I can't find right now, where someone tried to knock out an NPC and accidentally ended up killing them--and thought the DM should have warned them, instead of just immediately rolling and saying "oh, you kill them". Having a set phrase is a great idea. \$\endgroup\$ – user3067860 Mar 7 at 18:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just as a side note, cause you were complaining on meta. I actually upvoted you here. No idea where you read me leaving a comment saying I downvoted your answer. Just wanted to clarify it ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Zaibis Mar 19 at 6:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zaibis Fair enough. I probably got it from “I’m downvoting all the unhelpful answers” plus “only one answer even addressed the question” plus seeing one downvote on my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – 40355 says Reinstate Monica Mar 19 at 14:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough. But no, I made that comment about downvoting since here are 5 or 6 posts I downvoted. And thats already a mention worthy high quote I think. \$\endgroup\$ – Zaibis Mar 20 at 6:26
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I think there's a bit of confusion here about what the GM told you.

There is no way for a GM to describe every little thing, every little feeling that's going on, so yours took a bit of a short-cut here, maybe too much of a short cut - I think he could have done a better job of describing the situation.

He is threatening you because he is there to protect the children. If you just lower your weapon and walk away he wont even attack you.

Phrased that way, it sounds like the GM is giving you out-of-character knowledge. You are right to wonder why your character would know this, after all he can't read the gnoll's mind.

However

It is possible to intuit these things, based on the gnoll's stance and body language - he could have said things that would make it obvious that the gnoll wasn't trying to attack - like that he is adopting a protective stance, that he's deliberately putting himself between you and the children, that he's shouting at you (even if you don't understand gnollish) rather than attacking you directly, etc. This might have been what your GM was trying to say .

Rather than using words like "common sense" it might have been better to refer to your reading on his motives.

In answer to your overall question of how to avoid this problem in future:

First of all, I think your GM needs to be more mindful of the PCs' motives and perceptions, and therefore more descriptive of how they know certain things. e.g. instead of saying what he said, he needs to give you the evidence as your character perceives it that he was protecting the children rather than attacking you.

But also you need to be accepting of what the GM tells you, and accept that it's in-character knowledge. He told you, therefore your character knows it or has figured it out. So by not attacking now, you're not giving up player agency, your character is just acting on knowledge he has.

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The short answer is: You can't.

However, I think the failure here is not common sense, but common knowledge: What is the moral and ethical standing of gnolls in that game world?

Common knowledge is a large and largely uncodified set of background knowledge that all members of a community are assumed to share: The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Common sense is a largely uncodified set of practical judgments that anyone of sound mind is expected to make in ordinary circumstances: If you want to travel west, head toward the setting sun.

In this case, the common knowledge in dispute includes things such as:

  1. Are gnolls best understood as humans in hyena-suits? Will they leave you in peace if you back off? Do they harbor selfless emotional attachment for their children? If you adopt gnoll children and raise them as human will they integrate peacefully into society?

  2. Or are gnolls best understood as human-shaped hyenas with actual sparks of demonic evil animating their actions? Will they turn to attack you as soon as their larval, unfinished soldiers (which you sentimentally call "children") are safe? Have all past attempts at socializing other larval gnolls resulted in adoptive parents murdered in their beds?

  3. Or is their status uncertain, at least to the players, and therefore a subject of exploration in the game itself?

Common sense doesn't mean a lot, if the answers to those questions are not common knowledge. My knowledge of Pathfinder is not strong enough to hazard a default answer (In D&D 5e, a common sense reading of the monster manual favors the second answer) but that's almost beside the point. The point is, what is the answer in the your GM's game world and how much of that answer are his players expected to know.

Therefore: Ask

The only way you can know that is by the GM telling you, possibly in response to your asking about it. If this really is a case of common knowledge in your game (and it sounds like the GM thinks it is) then asking that question in almost exactly those words-- "Hey, what exactly is the common knowledge about gnolls, morally speaking?"-- is fair game.

More than fair game, I would say it rises to the level of a responsibility: Your GM has a responsibility to make these things clear in advance as much as possible. But that's a herculean task, so players have a responsibility to ask if they think they're getting crosswise, and the GM has a responsibility to answer.

The defining characteristic of common knowledge is that it is common. No fair beating up on players if they haven't been exposed to that common knowledge, yet. But no fair hiding from it as players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You make a very interesting point here. As our GM described us Gnolls pretty much as "human-shaped hyenas with actual sparks of demonic evil animating their actions". Not her words, but in a break down that's it. And I kept that behavior in mind and first was confused why they would put effort in saving their descendants at all, not even considering why this should make my character assume he is save, by what he knows about Gnolls. And the "Common sense" point was directing to the fact, how I as player could assume that any humanoid being wouldn't put their children life over anything else. \$\endgroup\$ – Zaibis Mar 7 at 6:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ And I in that response asked how my character is supposed to know (by the given knowledge about Gnolls he got). And now after I read your answer I realized, the discussion most likely didn't have the personal flavor because of the misunderstanding, but rather, cause she has very likely a strong emotional feeling in these regards and was upset, cause I couldn't see (and hence my character couldn't either) How demonic beings become not a threat anymore just because of larval. And for her/in her campaign world "children" apparently have these effects. There must have been the view mismatch. \$\endgroup\$ – Zaibis Mar 7 at 6:46
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A third solution besides attacking the gnoll and not doing anything would be to ready an action to attack the gnoll if it attacks you. This way you are not "turning your back on an enemy" but you are also allowing the gnoll to escape with the children if it doesn't make a move on you.

I'm not going to try to mention anything about alignment or player agency since the other questions have it covered, I am just trying to point out there is a middle ground between what you and the DM thought your character should do. I don't necessarily think this is what you should have done nor do I think you should have been forced to.

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There's a bunch of stuff that could have fitted for a good character.

Assuming you were Lawful good, you could have told him to surrender, and if he refused, attacked him. If you are more good than lawful, could have given him another chance to surrender.

Neutral good might have been more keeping watch on him.

Chaotic good - beats the gnoll up to neutralize him as a threat, but does not try to kill him. Or otherwise intimidates him to drop his weapons.

You are in a combat scenario, you do not have to be an idiot.

Your real problem here though, is your group thinks they have a good grasp of morality when they don't. There's no way for you to resolve that. They've decided what they think, and you are not in a position to correct them.

You can run into similar issues when people around you have convinced themselves they have a decent grasp of other subjects, but their understanding is somewhat shallow. Poor grasp on what actually constitutes decent tactics is common for rpg groups, which seems relevant here, considering the 'good action' was very 'good stupid'.

This means all of the above suggestions are unlikely to have been recieved well, because "that's not what you are supposed to do", nevermind the gnoll seem to be acting like a 100% predictable actor, which is not what any npc should do, and is not believable.

So they are likely to do this again.

Therefore, stay observant how much they try to micromanage your behavior. Also check if tactical situations have logical consequences of a decent depth.

If they micromanage to much, or if there aren't any real consequences outside of what they expect, and especially if they refuse or are incapable of seeing things from your perspective, that is a red flag to get out of the group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Be sure to check out the tour and the help center if you have any questions. \$\endgroup\$ – Peregrine Lennert Mar 6 at 14:59
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Huge amount of stuff to unpack here.

What is the world/story genre?

Some games Morality is very black and white. Gnolls are irredeemably evil. Angels are the paragons of virtue. etc etc. Very often, in those worlds the "good guys" have an inherent 6th sense of if a bad guy is being treacherous or if they are truly surrendering. The good guy just knows if the gnoll is going to passively guard the children, or if the gnoll is going to decide the best defense is to kill this scout before he can alert the others.

Some worlds are like Marvel's Civil War where you have two "Good" characters coming to blows because they have differing ideas what the best idea was. You can be Team Tony or Team Captain, but what the "other guy" did, even if you don't agree, their choices still makes sense.

So what kind of world are you in? You might simply ask the GM quite often, what is the best (LG, NG, CG, CE, whatever) action for my character to take? Or you might just want to say, "my character does X, Y, and Z - what's my alignment now?"

For this, spend some time chatting with your GM about what kind of story this is supposed to be, and how you want to play in that world.

Next up....

Why were you attacking the castle??

Was this a good vs evil fight, a simple political fight, or a complex one? Are you driving out a marauding band that has been slaughtering villages wholesale, or are you just evicting some squatters? Is the goal to wipe out the Monstrous Gnolls? (In which case your best options are to slaughter the small monsters before they become a threat, or possibly capture the small monsters and attempt to rehabilitate them.) Or do you just need the building back, in which case using just enough force to convince the Gnolls to leave would be best.

The circumstances around the castle assault are going to greatly change what might be considered "good".

How thick is the fog of war?

Real life example here. Once upon a time I woke up, padded into the kitchen and gave my wife a hug. She was cutting carrots with a 10" chef's knife and didn't hear me. She freaked, and did a spinning slash and just about gutted me. Thankfully I dodged and she missed by an inch (or less) and I'm still alive today.

Some stories, again, the protagonists know everything and are never surprised unless the plot says so. Sometimes you react without all the information. If you end up in that kind of event, I usually just ask my GM.
"Hey, I know X, I think my character would know Y and based off that would do Z. Is all of that correct, or does my character know something I don't?"

TL;DR / Conclusion

Player Agency is the Player directing his Character('s Actions and Emotions). What the character knows can be directed by the GM (and dice rolls). If you feel there is information that the Character knows (via GM) that the Player does not - ASK! Some times the Why for the character doesn't make sense. That's ok, it happens. Accept that the character knows somehow and move on. Clarify after the game, with the GM, if the world isn't making sense.

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Your questions don't match the information you've provided. According to your quote, the GM said that it was common sense that the guard would threaten someone approaching himself and his charges with a weapon drawn. This does not mean it is common sense that you would not take the actions you were taking, nor is taking them necessarily a violation of your ethics.

All your GM (and your table) are saying in this case is "We don't understand why you're doing what you're doing." and GM is giving an out by letting you know that you can just walk away and there won't be a fight.

As for the question of ethics... I imagine what the GM is TRYING to say is that its a violation of your alignment because you'd be attacking someone who doesn't imminent threat. If so you and your table are communicating badly all around, and you should probably work on communicating intent and reason, as well as action.

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