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Over the decades, I've run several times into disagreements about whether or not some circumstance excuses a sin on the hierarchy, or whether inaction leading to a a sin-like event occurring indirectly is grounds for a degeneration roll (e.g. whether refraining from touching the infamous trolley switch should cause the degeneration check for 5 deaths).

These disagreements are of course a result of the fact that some players and GMs view the sin hierarchies through deontological eyes, and others through utilitarian eyes. There's also the suspicion that this may have been influenced by people being introduced to the mechanics through different editions, which may or may not have leaned in different directions on the matter.

  1. Do any of the books indicate which of the philosophical stances is assumed or at least leaned towards for the purposes of applying the degeneration mechanics?
  2. Are there differences in the stance between different editions of VtM, or between VtM and Chronicles of Darkness?
  3. Are there indications of contradictory stances in different books (or even pages of a book!) within an edition?

    'Edition X and Y book texts do not indicate a stance, leaving it up to the GM' is a valid answer to this question if it is based on actual knowledge and not a guess.

Illustrative Pattern

Since the above may be unclear, here's a typical simplified structure that demonstrates the possible different approaches. Imagine a situation similar to the infamous trolley switch case, where the default outcome is an event that is similar to a path rating N sin (e.g. someone gets killed etc.), but it can be prevented by actively performing a path rating N+1 sin (i.e. 'flipping the switch' requires committing a 'milder' sin). This is a classic dilemma. Which of the ways of resolving the dilemma, if any, has any support in the letter of the rules:

  • (a) flipping the switch results in a degeneration roll for a rating N+1 breach, doing nothing leads to no degeneration because there is no sinful action (deontology-leaning interpretation);
  • (b) both choices lead to degeneration rolls, but whether one flips it determines the breach level (N or N+1), because both are sinful choices ('damned if you do, damned if you don't');
  • (c) flipping the switch results in no degeneration roll because it's a net increase in utility; doing nothing leads to no degeneration roll either ('soft' or 'carrot' utilitarianism);
  • (d) flipping the switch results in no degeneration roll (as above); doing nothing leads to a rating N degeneration roll because it's still a sinful choice even though it requires no action ('hard' or 'stick' utilitarianism);
  • (e) some other resolution?
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is a lot like a D&D alignment question which we close because they inevitably degenerate into opinion. This is well formed so I’m going to leave it for now but answers that aren’t book cites will be deleted as not an answer - no one cares what your personal philosophy/morality is. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Mar 15 at 12:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related, but not an answer (no specific book citations, just a philosophy on why kidnapping can't be definitely pinned to a specific Humanity rating on the chart): rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/47463/… \$\endgroup\$ – gatherer818 Mar 15 at 12:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ To clarify: is this asking for details on Humanity and all the Paths of Enlightenment as well, in terms of rolling for degeneration? Or just for rolling for degeneration of Humanity/that path of morality? The other Paths do vary quite extensively, like those like the "Path of Redemption" emphasising duty - which would be deontological - and others being the opposite of more "go with the flow", but I'm not quite sure if details on any of them are being asked for. \$\endgroup\$ – anon Apr 23 at 22:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @anon Handling of degeneration. Added an explanation/demonstration to the question. \$\endgroup\$ – vicky_molokh Apr 24 at 6:05
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In Vampire: the Masquerade prior to 5th Edition, they are arbitrary, as designated by the ST.

Both Vampire: the Masquerade Revised Edition and the V20 core book have the following text:

The system is simple: Whenever a character takes an action that the Storyteller decides is morally questionable, the character may suffer degeneration - a permanent loss of Humanity.

[…]

Degeneration checks may seem arbitrary or ill-defined. To some degree, they are, but this is intentional. Moreover, degeneration checks are not random so much as they are subjective. A Storyteller has carte blanche to monitor character morality in her chronicle. This is a huge responsibility for the Storyteller, but one that ultimately makes for a great deal of tragedy and horror, as the characters gradually descend into a state of utter monstrosity though the desperately rail against it. Storytellers, beware - players should never feel that you are screwing them out of Humanity or, consequently, their characters. Use degeneration checks consistently but sparingly, lest the tragedy erode to an incessant series of failed die rolls. Because this mechanic is so heavily entrenched in the Storyteller‘s line of duty, her own morality is often reflected in how she applies the rule. This is encouraged, as it illustrates literally what Vampire may do only in allegory.

[…]

To lend a sense of order to degeneration checks, consult the Hierarchy of Sin here…Whenever a character commits a dubious act, see how that action relates to the hierarchy. If the action is at or below the level of the character‘s Humanity score, a roll is warranted - as a character falls further down the Humanity scale, she becomes increasingly callous, and minor peccadilloes cease to bother her. The use of the term violation in the hierarchy is deliberately vague, to aid the Storyteller. A violation may be anything questionable, and is presented to avoid inclining the scale toward any single transgression.

[Emphases added.]

In sum, the text takes no stance as to how the Storyteller should decide what triggers a degeneration roll; even the Hierarchies of Sins are just guidelines to allow the impression that the ST is "playing fair" and not calling for checks on a whim. The disagreements you're seeing are (or, for the past 20 years, have been) emergent from the game, and should be decided based on whatever the group will bear, including the Storyteller's personal view on ethics and morality.

In 5th edition, the mechanics are quite different.

There are no hierarchies of sins at all; instead, what causes Stains and potential subsequent degeneration are strictly vampire things—like embracing or ghouling a mortal—or acts that violate the chronicle's Tenets, which are set by the players and storyteller as part of the campaign design. These can be things like "Do not engage in cruelty," "do not stare into the abyss," "act like a person, not a monster," or "Snitches get stitches." What causes degeneration is, again, arbitrary, but it's based on themes the play group wishes to explore, rather than any link to specific external ethical or moral landmarks.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you know if it changed in 5th edition? \$\endgroup\$ – okeefe Apr 24 at 17:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Any reasons why you specify that this is prior to 5th ed, but you don't mention 5th ed afterward? (Or did I just miss it) \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Apr 24 at 17:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ It did — so much so that I figured it might no longer be relevant. \$\endgroup\$ – Jadasc Apr 24 at 19:22

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