I recently started running a DnD 4e campaign of my own. My goal was to make it an ethical dilemma for the players, to really give them a chance to play a game where character/personality based choices truly mattered. The campaign took place in a time of war between humanity and orcs, and I had envisioned it as a road with three options: the PCs join the orcs, the PCs join the humans, or the PCs join neither.

To make the internal conflict credible, I gave both sides their share of good and evil. Unfortunately, I think I have been too successful at that: at the end of the first encounter, I had at least one player going down each one of those three branches. Now the situation itself is quite hilarious, and I have a solution to sort it out on the short term that will bring an interesting twist to the plot. But it left me wondering: how can I run a campaign based on morally challenging decisions, while keeping my PCs from killing each other or separating, yet at the same time respecting the fact that all these characters have (as they should) differing ideas and ideals?

  • 16
    \$\begingroup\$ Sounds like one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "no matter how many scenarios you play out in your head, the players will find another one." \$\endgroup\$
    – Brian S
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 14:16

9 Answers 9


Choose 1 of the following: Individualized Plot Decisions, 4th Ed Party Cohesion, Respect Characters Ideals1. At the end of the day, your system and your goals don't match up well.

You can:

  • Present challenging decisions
  • Prevent PC conflict
  • Respect different ideas and ideals.
  • Run a game designed for murderhobos to have colourable excuses to kill everything.

At the end of the day, your choices oppose each other and are not particularly compatible with the game system you've chosen. If you want to present choices that matter, they have to matter: PC conflict must be allowed as the losing side must be allowed to escalate (see Dogs in the Vineyard).

While the same page tool is useful here, it's important to begin by articulating your priority of desires. If you want to require group cohesion, set up narrative (and if you can) mechanical incentives for consensus. If you want to present challenging decisions, figure out your characters' motivations and pry at them. You may find that your game of D&D doesn't fulfill your requirements well. This is fine. There are hundreds of game systems out there, and one of them will fit better.

Fourth edition can certainly present morally complicated decisions, but doesn't fufill your requirements as the decisions exist purely in the narrative area of the game. Therefore, they're an excuse to frame different set-piece battles, not have the possibility for party-conflict.

The way to think about it is that 4e is like a big summer blockbuster. There's plot, and there are action sequences. The plot does an absolutely necessary job of tying the action sequences together and making us care about them. In "plot" time, there are very little rules and the protagonists can shout at each other as much as they want... so long as the issues are resolved (to a point where they can banter with each other about them during the fighting at least) by the next "set piece battle."

4e's rules focus on set piece battles between the party and monsters. This conflict is built deeply into the game (mainly due to different rules for monsters and PCs). This means that PCs cannot engage in PvP: there are no rules for it. While you can fake it, fparty-conflict has never worked when I've tried it, save when one person betrays the party, discards their character sheet, and that character becomes a boss-monster for the party to kill.

Note the assumptions there. Things that interact with the party, by definition, die. Good encounter design in 4e is to threaten the party with death without actually killing the party. Note also the protagonist is the party not the individual characters within the party. More so than in all the other D&D games, parties are cohesive groups by the mechanics, and not simply a bunch of fellow travellers.

If you don't want a game full of tactically interesting set piece battles connected by however much plot you're willing to provide and your group is willing to engage in, 4e is not for you. The party, as protagonist, can certainly make these ethically challenging decisions: they inform which battles are to come and what framing goes on in those battles. The PCs can influence the party's decision making process, but cannot defect from it save by defecting from the game.

1On a 10+ choose 2, On a miss, the MC gets to completely derail your campaign.

  • \$\begingroup\$ So one of the major points here is to choose a different system that doesn't emphasise the cohesion of the party within its core mechanics (like 4e does). \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 9:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, though it's more that "it's possible with 4e, so long as the Party is making the moral decisions." (As it was in the extremely dark game I played). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 9:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1: for "murderhobos" alone. The perfect word for the long phrase I've been using for twenty years to describe the all too typical PC behavior: "heavily armed sociopaths with no home, family, or friends, who go around killing things and then looting their possesions." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 14:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ The party is the protagonist - Clearer than "don't split the party", this is a perfect encapsulation of how to address narrative goals in 4e. The mechanics & logistics of party/solo encounters can be tweaked, but the story has to follow the actions & motivations of the party as a whole. \$\endgroup\$
    – MandisaW
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 17:38

While there are mechanical methods of inducing a moral dilemma, they universally lack punch or any kind of real agony without a really really strong story and setup standing in front of the numbers. I would say that this is, in fact, system agnostic.

In real life, and in a game, no team can stay cohesive without a unifying goal. Under less challenging circumstances, teams that have diverse moralities can sometimes work together out of simple, mutual benefit. For example, if you have a co-worker who votes opposite from your preferences, you can still work together on the goal of making a living for yourselves, because your differing morality does not directly come into the matter.

In the sort of high-stress situations that tend to come up in roleplaying, where morality is the central issue, each character in the team has to have some motivation to stick around that is so strong that it overrides their lesser morals. For an upright and peace-loving paladin to work with a slavering, murderous barbarian, the paladin must be able to rationalize that there is some greater good that he can only accomplish with the help of the barbarian. As a real-life example, the FBI will pardon and shelter lesser criminals in order to get at the really horrible gangsters. Contrarily, the barbarian has to have some revenge or lust on his mind that is so compelling that he is willing to put up with the wussy and prudish paladin.

Long story short, if you want the party together, even if they disagree on morals or paths, they have to need each other. The greater the disagreement, the greater the overruling need has to be. As a GM, your job is to provide that need. It can be different for each character, but you have to come up with something. Simply providing a wide variety of moral options isn't good enough, and it isn't good storytelling. All of these decisions need that backdrop, or you will end up with bored and frustrated players whose frustrated and bickering characters will fight, split, and possibly kill each other.

When you do have that backdrop of need, then you can get to the really juicy moral issues, showing how far each character will stray from his or her or its morals to accomplish that ultimate need.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Very late to this, but I just want to add that it isn't the DMs job to give the party a reason to stay together, that is the job of the players when they create their characters (the basic premise of ANY party based game is that the party sticks together, otherwise it isn't a party). The DM should give a brief "this is the world" and the players create characters that have a reason to stick together in that world based on the lore the DM provides. The DM can help, but it is not their job. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 16:45

I disagree that there's a tradeoff between keeping your PCs together and making the moral dilemma real and weighty. You can present a dilemma, but in a context where your characters can't split up, or where it would be excessively costly to do so.

One option is to make them choose between positive options, rather than choosing between polar opposites. If it's "pick a side in the war," then a PC might choose to sacrifice themselves rather than help their party fight for the wrong side. Instead, give them a choice like punishing a villain vs. safeguarding their victims, or killing an ancient, good creature that's been driven mad vs. searching for a cure while it continues to kill innocents. Make either path difficult enough that it's clear it will require the entire party -- splitting up will likely doom them to the worst of both worlds.

Alternately, you could give the characters an external reason not to split up -- maybe they need to be together in order to accomplish an even more important task later on. Maybe they're on a ship or in a chain gang or under a curse and they literally have to stick together.

Or, make the choice to split up harmful in itself. Perhaps they're members of a secret order that's preserved the peace among its members for hundreds of years. Perhaps they're nobles or officers or well-known heroes and a show of disunity will lead to unrest and violence. This doesn't prevent them from making different choices, but it adds a heavy cost.

There's a little bit of railroading in all these options, but hopefully it will railroad them into some deep conversations and meaty role-playing. In the end not everyone can get what they want, but they can all grapple with the dilemma and respect one another's struggles. (or they can kill each other, if that's really what they want.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ These are good techniques, but they're not a panacea for inter-party conflict. At a certain point if you set up an intense inter-party struggle (between typically proactive, assertive, violent characters) it will end up with a separation or violence. \$\endgroup\$
    – C. Ross
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 23:01

The fundamental trick is to ensure that the PCs have more reason to stay together than they have to (immediately) commit to any one of your three paths.

The most obvious way to achieve this is making them family. In real life families can easily kill each other or separate over ideological differences, but for the purpose of fiction it doesn't require much suspension of disbelief to posit that one particular family will not readily do so. Other connections can stand in for "family" of course, that's just the most obvious fictional trope.

It might be helpful to run the campaign "normally" for a period of time, to cement the group together before posing the central moral question. At the very least, the players need to buy into the concept prior to character creation. Whether they are family or have some other connection, the campaign doesn't do what you're asking for if one of them "does a Kitiara" in session one.

If you do this, then you might find that by default the group as a whole takes the "join neither side" path in order to avoid anyone taking any actions that would cause others in the group to disavow them. Therefore you should be prepared for this, and provide ways for the group as a whole, or the sub-groups within it, to do some things to help or hinder either side without committing to a path.

For example, suppose one of the moral failings of the human side of the war is that their soldiers have standing orders to kill orcs on sight regardless of their military/civilian status. Then even the PCs who favour the human side might be willing to engage in group actions that "benefit the orc side of the war" by defending civilians or assisting their escape from an advancing human line. The next week they might counter one of the orcs' failings. The disagreements then, can be around specific compromises and trade-offs rather than half the party being implacably opposed to everything the other half stands for.

The natural end of the campaign might be the point at which it is no longer possible for the group to tread this line, and the group splits, or high-tails it out of the war zone in order to avoid the decision. So you naturally avoid the story being ruined by the party killing each other or (permanently) separating simply by recognising that the point where they do that is the end of your story, and building to that ending.

If they can avoid that, then the campaign "win condition" for a divided party could be for the group to forge some kind of peace between the sides. It's entirely up to you and your players whether this is best achieved by clever diplomacy or by treating the hawks of both sides as BBEGs and taking them down ;-)

I suppose another possibility is that the group joins one one faction as a group, despite some members favouring the other side. Then probably you can keep on running, although the potential for betrayal is obviously pretty high from that point. The group as a whole might not be trusted by the faction it joins because it contains sympathisers with the enemy.

You could perhaps look up Derek Pearcy / Steve Jackson games In Nomine (or Croc / Siroz for the original if you read French). Mixed PC groups of angels and demons are not unusual, and there's advice out there for running them. However unlike DnD, it's not necessarily expected that the PCs form a "team", merely that they interact without killing each other...


If you want to keep the PCs together, you should give them a reason to stay together that trumps all reasons to split up or kill each other. Give them a really, really strong reason to stay together, and then they have to discuss their moral choices and come to some sort of compromise.

Maybe they'll be surely killed if they split up. Maybe they're cursed to stay together or the world will fall into ruin. Maybe each side needs the other side to help them to get what they need. Or maybe they're family.

Figure this out. Or better: have the players figure this out, so they have immediate buy-in.

That's all I've got.


Use a PvP conflict as a cliffhanger for next session, make the minority group NPC enemies and allow their old PCs to make new characters to be immediately included.

While my previous answer stated that it's not possible, this answer uses "4e" and "intraparty conflict" as a given, and then posits the campaign that would result. While this is from my personal experience, it'll require very good players to pull off well.

The core idea (taken from when one of my characters became a solo for the rest of the party to fight) is that the players are very separate from their characters. This only works if high party turnover is OK.

Assuming that you have a group that is comfortable with frequent rerolling of characters, you can absolutely enable intra-party conflict with some house meta-rules. Set out at the beginning of the game that: whenever any of the party draws weapons against the others, the minority in the conflict will be turned into NPCs and fought as elites or solos next game.

In a sense, the various feuding powers of the world can for whatever plot-related reasons, vastly empower "treasonous" party members. (Make sure you have a good reason for this, as this empowerment must not violate suspension of disbelief). So long as the party has an odd number of people, whenever there is a "drawn weapon" a few things should occur.

  1. A ballot must be cast asking not for "who agrees with the majority?" but "which of these plot lines is more interesting?" By having the conflict be interesting-seeky, rather than consensus-seeky, many future conflicts will be spawned.
  2. Spend whatever remains of the evening fleshing out the faction of NPCs that "just spawned," their narrative resources, and the new characters.
  3. Write down the conflict and the stakes for the start of the next game. By opening the game with a description of the major battle that's about to occur (and whatever narrative manoeuvres were necessary for it to happen) and the player-agreed stakes of the fight, these sessions will open with a big bang.
  4. For the most part, don't have battles be to the death. Almost all conflicts should allow for different tactical end states such that factions are jockeying for power with "total war" being a very rare thing indeed.

This will produce a very odd and challenging, but potentially very rewarding 4e game. You may want to tack on REIGN for faction conflict, and have each player also run one of the major factions of the world, to keep the conflicts fresh. Make very stark ideological conflicts in a "dark n' grim" world to keep the moral decisions flowing. Make sure that there is no such thing as a "free" good decision, and that every narrative decision the party makes to help others costs them something.

Let us consider a worked up example of the above:

First, the world needs to be more outré than normal. Let us draw inspiration from the Ultima series as well as some of the very early computer strategy games that had ideals fighting each other. Furthermore, land in freehold exposes an empathic environment and a clustering tendency, to be near other land that shares similar opinions. When opinion changes, the land changes.

Therefore, we have a world of floating mobile chunks of land that correspond in size to their ideological population, an excellent basis for a series of short adventures with a moral basis. Each of the major "empires" should exemplify a given vice (however you want to operationalise them) and its virtues (such that you can actually have a social order).

Let us posit a small kingdom of sloth, modelled after Omelas. We have a cleric and a fighter from there, a wizard from a nearby sloth-anger (mmm, merging) police state, and a rogue and bard from sloth-greed corrupt oligarchy. They're on a mission against the wrath-pride "empire of awesome" when they come upon a moral dilemma (engineered into the adventure, as it's the whole point of the game.)

The slothy lands are lush and fertile, with lots of fruits, berries, and rolling hills. (Why farm when you can just eat grapes?) The wrathy lands are semi-industralized (to whatever extent fits the game) with granite tors and other impressive geography.

As the party journeys and encounters their moral dilemma, the cleric and fighter are obviously willing to sacrifice an innocent on their way to the objective. The rest of the party disagrees. An argument starts, and weapons are drawn. The game halts while people work up the consequences.

The party decides that the minority story is more interesting and because they want to explore questions of "the greater good." They then see what the consequences of the defection are (the cleric and fighter leave rather than coming to immediate blows) and the mission is a failure due to their defection. They decide that the new PCs come from some other land who also buys into the tyrrany of the majority, and the decide the cliffhanger conflict will be with the old characters who have come seeking the defectors with an "enforcement squad".

Here, the group is very heavily involved in building the narrative, which is unusual for a 4e game, but quite possible. The party conflict stops play and aborts the mission, which is fine as few missions are for extremely high "save the world" stakes or have represented a very long commitment. New characters are built to support the new party (and given how much character mobility exists, I'd recommend not worrying about anything but interesting plot-gear and just saying all characters always have level appropriate gear (excepting plot) on them.)

While you lose the experience of playing the same characters from 1-30, this sort of game does allow party conflict and "PvP" by turning it into PC v. NPC when weapons are drawn. The world is rather more grim than the typical adventuring world, but it fits the "moral dilemma" style of play.

It's possible, but it sure will be challenging to engage in.


First of all, scale down the decisions for the players. Too large decisions are hard to relate to for most people since we only make small ones in our daily life. They can be scaled up later as the campaign progresses. Also, before you can expect the players to make moral decisions they need to know their own as well as their friends characters.

I once played a dwarf in a game where dwarves were short lived and generally considered subhuman. He began as a very amoral and self centered character, but stumbled upon a moral dilemma when the daughter of another PC showed him respect and kindness. She was, in part thanks to him, possessed by a witch and suddenly he had to decide whether to tell anyone and risk his own life (her father would have killed me without blinking) or let her stay possessed and risk her life instead.

And that's where moral dilemmas really shine - when they are directly pointed at - or more accurately, wedged between - peoples most sacred convictions. A general idea like "it's bad to kill people" makes for a bad target unless it is a very important idea.

Make sure all your players characters have morals or standards that they hold in high esteem. As illustrated above they don't need to be morally good people per se, but they need to have clear convictions. Then you need to find the wedges for those convictions. You can balance low convictions with high ones. For instance, a person who would never harm a child, but also avoids harming others can be made to choose between one child and a large congregation of able men. Never make such a person choose between two children though, because then the actual choice is taken away since a child will die either way.

The group should only be engaged in moral decisions as a group if the group is united in its conviction or if the glue holding the group together is greater than the moral conflict. For instance, the group is in a situation where they must torture an orc they know is innocent to prove that they are themselves loyal to mankind. This is a good conflict if...

  • ... all the PC:s abhore both torture and orcs.
  • ... the entire group has sided with the orcs, but must infiltrate the human town.

Keeping the conflicts personal will help a lot with keeping the group together. Some conflicts can be kept secret too. In the campaign I used as an example we regularly did secret stuff that the others didn't know about, but most of it didn't involve the others at all. It allowed a bit of freedom in acting and it allowed the GM to hand us personal moral dilemmas without risking a group wide conflict.

So, in short: Keep it close and personal and you should be alright.


In theory, you could run the same players with multiple sets of characters, each set taking its own branch...but that probably would be a little too unwieldy. So what I'll suggest instead is that you set up matters in such a way as to run them through each of the options for a little while, letting them experience what's going on from both sides before drawing any conclusions.

At the beginning of the campaign, they should know a little of what's going on, but not enough to make any permanent choices. By giving them a chance to see both sides up close (and giving each side positive and negative things to see) you allow the characters to make an informed choice.

You see this sort of thing in books and movies often enough...character starts out thinking they're aligned with one group, something happens that throws them into contact with an opposing group and gives them food for thought, and they have to decide which group is really the one they want to be with, if either. It makes for some nice dramatic conflict, both inside and outside the party, assuming they can keep from having at each other long enough to get to the meat of the conflict.


I think what your asking for, kind of counters itself, if they have different ideas and ideals (in this case most likely ones that are opposite) why would they be on the same side? It would be one thing if they could each achieve their own goal by working together despite their differences, the problem you have is that they won't have a common goal if they side with opposing sides (unless a third greater force/enemy makes them cooperate for a new common goal -for a time-).

  • I would advice that you instead have the Characters make a decision as a Group (which side to be on), if necessary (for safety's sake they can have that discussion out of character).

Perhaps one way could be to have the characters not take any side in the conflict but still have their own view on it, perhaps they can work in the shadows to either halt or escalate the situation for another purpose/goal entirely (or just that they think doing what they do will cause the fighting to end faster).

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ It's unclear here what you're suggesting as a course of action here, beyond: "Have the characters make a group decision to play a subtle / shadow role in a conflict." This does not appear to very well answer how to pull off a morally challenging campaign though. Certainly there may be elements of this that come up whilst working in the shadows, but working in the shadows is not a solution alone. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 6:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, first I expressed that I felt that working together with different/opposing ideas/ideals wouldn't work, and in turn suggested having the decision being made as a group (where to stand in the conflict for example), but I also know that he wanted a harmony so I went on the bring up a senario in which it would indeed be possible for characters of different ideas/ideals to work together. But thanks for explaining how the answer is lacking. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lucifer
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 13:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Its true that if they have absolutly no common objective, the group can't work...but they can disagree on morals, personal goals and motives, as much as they want to.. if they have a common main objective, they alle work on together, that is more important than themselves, the group will instead have fun dynamics...dispite their disagreement. \$\endgroup\$
    – user11176
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 15:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ True, my major concern was that he envisioned "a road with three options: the PCs join the orcs, the PCs join the humans, or the PCs join neither.", and I couldn't really see a way for the campaign to keep on going if the PC's didn't all chose the same course. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lucifer
    Commented Mar 24, 2014 at 15:54

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