How to allow for moral ambiguity while still giving clear choices to players?

I ran a successful playtest of a more freeform adventure yesterday, but I ran into the same problem that I had when running trad D&D: I gave too many morally ambiguous situations. For example, there were a couple squatters living on the property of some shut-in sharkfolk ladies who wanted to know who was in their abandoned cottage. The squatters were defensive but polite, and ultimately the players chose to leave them be and go off on other adventures. That was fine by me, but later they asked me the question: “Were we supposed to fight those people?”

I like to give my players some latitude to solve problems as they choose, and I also like weird slice-of-life situations where it isn’t clearly a problem, or it isn’t clear who is at fault. This sometimes creates a bit of confusion for players, understandably, even if they still have fun with it. I think this makes for a richer, more interesting world, but perhaps for a slightly muddier gameplay experience.

So how do you present morally ambiguous situations that still give players room to make clear choices? How can the tone and structure of the game make it clearer that there isn’t a right answer to these kinds of questions, so players can spend less time worrying about what they are supposed to do and more time doing what they want to do?


I actually think people somewhat overestimate the significance of morality in game design (says the guy who made a game where Karma is one of the core diegetic gameplay mechanics…). This might sound like an overly simplistic answer, but I believe it to be true, that so long as the consequences of player action are interesting, that will satisfy for moral ambiguity as well. If the campaign matches the tone of what is expected by the players, is sufficiently modular and flexible, and the PCs actions matter, morality will be what it will be.

In the case of these squatters, maybe one of them is actually a person of significance, or will become a person of significance, and they will remember the interaction later. Or on the flip side, maybe there will be consequences for having allowed them to squat, like the sharkfolk lady holds a grudge, or maybe tries to deal with the problem via some other means since the PCs didn’t remove the squatters, and an altercation of significance ensues. It shouldn’t be about rewarding or punishing players for their moral decisions, but there are just natural consequences that may occur as a result of their actions or inactions, and those results can be interesting, whether it works out immediately in their favor, or adds a complication that is at first disadvantageous but is ultimately fun and propels things forward.

If players see that there are interesting and logical (regardless of whether good or bad) consequences to their actions that are significant to the course of events, they will be less worried about whether they’re making the “right” decisions, and instead can embody their characters do whatever feels right to them.

I basically build all my adventures out of morally ambiguous situations. Players used to more contemporary traditional (5E etc) or videogame design can find it daunting - but its a fairly important component of Classic design and really very useful for creating a type of play that RPGs do better then any other medium.

It sounds like you did fine. You created an open ended problem and let the player decide how to solve it. Now presumably there are consequences: shark ladies are annoyed at them but squatters aren’t hostile. Generally that’s how faction intrigue works - forces in the setting want the PCs to do things. If they do the faction may do something in return, pay, or like the party better, but the faction’s foes or rivals will not.

The two important bits are: reasonable consequences and leaving morality in player hands.

Consequences doesn’t mean punishment for bad acts, it means results that cjange the setting in a way that follows from the players choices.

E.g. PCs that rob a band of refugees on the road - get a pittance of gold and learn the nearby town is almost as heartless as they are. If thry rob the local tax collector they learn that the local lord has a large and aggressive cavalry squadron that hunts down daring tax robbers.

Leaving things in player hands is important as well, it avoids questions like your players’. You can say (and maybe should) that they weren’t supposed to do anything and its up to them, but then explain the consequences of the squatter situation and point out that in the future stakes may be higher.

Will some players react to this freedom badly? Yes? Will some suffer from choice paralysis and others decide to turn your game in a violent mafia story? Likely. The upside is that if you manage consequences well (and there are both pluses and minuses to becoming a criminal or trying to do good) it is a great chance to define your setting, play with moral questions, build character identity beyond flat backstory, allow player choice, and pull your players into caring about the world. Also most players grow out of being desperados pretty quick.

But … it is very bad at allowing one to remain on an adventure path though, so a bit will depend on the needs of your system.


I may just be echoing sentiments already in the replies above, but I think you’ve presented a false dichotomy. “Morally ambiguous situations” is not the direct opposite of “allowing players to make clear choices” - in the sense that one may act directly with agency, even in the midst of morally uncertain circumstances. Real life is full of such situations, of course.

If I’m reading (between the lines of) your question clearly, the real problems involve players either wanting to feel comfortable that they are on the right side, or players perhaps trying to map themselves onto ‘your story’. The latter can be handled, hopefully, by talking openly with them about their agency. The former…well, if you’re all on the same page, then perhaps weave a few situations and characters that YOU think clearly involve right and wrong protagonists…making it clear to the players that they can do what they want about it. Yes, there are brigands planning to burn down the village as an object lesson to other villages behind on their ‘protection payments’ - and that is WRONG. Yes, this world contains situations that call for heroes willing to face down evil.

On the other hand, that kind of world can still include shut-in sharkladies with a squatters problem, and that doesn’t make sharkladies or squatters evil.

Yes, and I think this is part of the issue. The players at my table have far more experience with Skyrim and 5e than Honey Heist or Maze Rats. Some of them have played Breath of the Wild, and that might be a good touchstone for helping people think more laterally…

Perhaps I should be explicitly saying “There are no ‘correct’ or expected solutions to these problems; go with your gut and do what you think your character would do.”

For sure! I think I struggle more when it’s a location that the players aren’t going to visit again, or especially in a one-shot play session.

This is great advice. I think the problem might not be presenting the players with morally ambiguous situations, it’s presenting them with situations that were ambiguous because there weren’t interesting enough consequences.

If the sharkfolk had offered a big reward to evict the squatters, or if the squatters had tried to convince the players to retaliate against the sharkfolk, that might have given the players more to work with when choosing how to proceed. I set up an annoying neighbor scenario when actually I needed two warring factions.


This is also part of the issue. The players wanted to be on the right side, but they also assumed that everyone was being deceptive with them. In reality nobody was being deceptive but I don’t use intuition/deception checks so it’s hard for the players to know for sure.

How can you break players from the general paranoia that every traveler in the road is a disguised robber, every shopkeeper is a snake-oil salesman, and every fairie is trying to trick them?

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Have you had or would you be comfortable having an open conversation with them about this?

The last time I ran an RPG (for a group of kids), the players came back to me hours later, and then again the next day, with the comment that “Player X thinks that the NPCs we helped in that big fight in Faery were actually the villains.” My response was to point out that they were all villains; basically, the players were there to rescue a kidnapped mortal and they were able to pull it off by manipulating power struggles among factions in Faery. But there was that impulse to identify “THE” good guy side… :slight_smile:

Again, I really wonder whether it might just help to talk with them, pull back the green curtain a bit, so to speak, and say “hey - as a matter of fact, those characters weren’t deceiving you. I want you to know that deceit could happen, but you don’t need to be paranoid, and we may have a lot more fun if you don’t act that way … too much.”


I’m totally comfortable doing this, especially at the beginning of a session, but sometimes during play I forget that I can just pause, explain what’s actually going on, and then continue. I appreciate your advice!


I think that often that green curtain has to be pulled back. 100% agree! There are many ways to do it, but making sure people are clear on it is pretty key.

I think this is why I have concern about more modern games talking about perception checks with people and lying. I think that leans us toward confusion more often than not.


This is HUGE. My game efficiency and shared comfort – re: clarity about ambiguity, for the whole table – has improved dramatically once I started implementing a “PAUSE BUTTON” habit.
I didn’t call it a “pause button” at first. But talking to players directly – as human-being peers rather than in strict GM and player roles – before the campaign (i.e.: session zero) and, often more importantly, *during these ambiguous moments has done a lot, for me at least.


Yes!! I have found that Session 0 and/or “pitch document” can really help with laying down those ground rules. Maybe as a GM one should consider how to convey actual honesty to the players. Otherwise, that pause button can definitely stand in as needed.

I think it might be worth mentioning, that there’s no right or wrong choices from your prespective – that the setting has stories in it, but the characters story is there’s to tell, even if there’s some chance that there decisions lead to death in a horrible pit.

I’m not necessarily on the same page as others here regarding Session 0. A paragraph in an email or a minute of explanations of playstyle maybe, but without a larger narrative to pre-plan together. With the sadly common phenomenon of campaigns cut short by adult life and short attention spans I always worry a whole session is waste of time to set expectations. For something like B/X, a one page handout if you are running for strangers (including safety rules, the attack matrix, a paragraph of campaign description and a list of maxims is likely more then you need) should suffice.

Though my campaigns all tend to start with:

"the war/disaster/plague/trial/family and your old life are over, you are free, you are also destitute. After a period of wandering best left forgotten you find yourself in the sad hinterland town of Gongberg with only your skills, some equipment and enough money for 2 days food and lodging. Last night you formed a band, bound by drunken promises with a number of similar wastrels, outcasts and desperados. Sunday morning is coming down and your hangover hurts."

Seems to work well for most.


Yeah I think a big part of it, especially with people more used to video games is they tend to think there’s a correct way to “beat” the adventure. Getting in a headspace where the GM has carefully prepared every encounter the way a video game designer would, sometimes even if they specifically know a game is being randomly generated on the fly.


The only thing I do with any situation is make sure it feeds back into the story. Well, that and explicitly remind them of the situation they had created.

An example:

My players had fallen afoul of a group goblins and killed them all without a second thought. Goblins. It was kill or be killed. It happens.

Later they ran into a group of elves attacking a group of goblin females and children… Who were confident their husbands would be returning any second now.

There was a sharp intake of breath.

The elves were allowed to flee. And the players were mortified. They’d left an entire community vulnerable! They immediately set out to found a village for these goblins. And went back often, just to make sure no one screwed with their charges. As the game progressed several of the players would seek out the eldest females for advice.

I don’t remember if the players told the goblins what they’d done.

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