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Living The Ethical Life or: What Do You Do When Supervillains Attack?

October 9, 2012

Part of a continuing series I’ve dubbed, “To Be A Young Necromancer In Love,” updating Tuesdays and whenever the hell I feel like it.

Imagine if you would a picturesque suburban high school. One of those high schools that you see in movies that have surprisingly large campuses, multiple buildings, and course offerings that seem to be what would happen if you mixed a liberal arts college with a number of vocational schools. It’s well populated, sunny, and just like in the movies you can tell who runs with what cliques just by looking at them. Sure, in the modern age it might resemble the parking lot scene from 21 Jump Street more than it does the entrance scene from Ten Things I Hate About You, but the principle is the same.

It’s the first day of school. Upperclassmen greet each other over the heads of confused freshman. Some students are already getting started on cutting classes to smoke, and others are getting a jump start on teaching nerdy kids who runs the school. Overall, it’s fairly straight forward.

Then a group of students teleport into the center of the main building’s lobby in makeshift costumes, and immediately begin attacking students, teachers, and the building indiscriminately. They do this, while blasting Alice Cooper’s, “School’s Out,” over the PA system.


What do you do?

This was the opening to my high school superhero game. As I mentioned when I first discussed this, the game started with far more than the three characters that I talked about previously. The game started not as a private game but as part of my high school’s Strategy and Tactics Club. This was a club that focused on table top gaming, and was ostensibly open to anyone. As the only experienced GM at the start of that school year, and offering a fun and exciting, “Teen Superhero,” game there was a very large response and I decided I’d at least try to accommodate everybody for a few sessions.

The first session had somewhere between fifteen and twenty player characters.

A lot of them were not very well developed, mostly just powers attached to random statements about a back story. Some of them were clearly just player-inserts and/or attempts at Mary Sue’s. Many of the player’s descriptions of their characters read like something out of a bad fan fiction. Still, I decided to press forward anyway.

What made this all interesting though, is that because the majority of the characters didn’t start from a creation perspective of, “I want to make a teenaged superhero,” but, “Well, what if I or someone like me had superpowers,” it made the first session very interesting.

The first session began with that basic question. A group of superpowered teens just teleported into the middle of school and are beating people up and wrecking the place. What do your characters do?

What was interesting was that the majority of them did not leap to the defense of their fellow man. A lot of them responded like normal people would: by searching for their friends, and looking for a way out. They only fought the villains when the villains showed up to confront them directly. The villains only would confront them directly because they didn’t want anyone leaving to alert the authorities. Finding their friends in bad straights, some of them organized to try and defend people without powers as best as they could, while others were trying to contact the authorities. Their instincts were the same as they would be in the real world: Oh God, someone needs to call the police and we need to get the hell out of here.

The three characters that persisted throughout the game actually did end up banding together and fighting back, as did another character or two who occasionally joined them after the whittling down of the cast.

There were two characters though that I think had the most unique of responses to the situation.

One of them was a midget, who had telekinetic powers and the ability to turn invisible. His response was to quietly disappear and navigate his way through the school taking his time to screw with the villains as well as his fellow classmates. It was a very mercenary response to the situation, but as the character explained it like this: no one ever treated him well so why not just take advantage of the situation? He didn’t care for the villains so he screwed with them just as much.

The other character was supposed to be a sort of slacker/loner character, who for some reason could generate lightning and move super-quickly. The player had a better concept of the game mechanics and I thought he would actually stay with the game and perhaps become the group’s Batman in a sense.* When faced with a group of students who had decided that they didn’t have to take it anymore, he suddenly realized that he sort of agreed with that concept. He (both character and player) didn’t like school, and he had enough firepower behind him to be declared a young and bold new god. So unlike everyone else, he decided to join in the mayhem on the side of the villains. The player stormed through the halls, blasting teachers with lightning and zooming about beating people up.

Basically the response to a standard superhero set up was not quite what I was expecting. Of course, when you look back on it, it makes a lot of sense.

We’ve been discussing morality for some time now but I think one of the most important aspects of living the ethical life is something that we’ve sort of glossed over. This is simply that the ethical life is not an easy one to choose.

Whether you believe in something like Christian ideals where the road to Heaven is paved by acts of self-sacrifice and charity. Or if you are a Kantian and feel that you must construct and follow universal imperatives. Even if you’re some sort of Utilitarian, you’re constantly negotiating the questions between personal happiness and if it will result in the best solution for everyone.

There’s always that self-suffering, that comes from always having questions about whether or not you are doing the right thing. The ethical life being one of constant questioning.

Despite what we might think based on ethics inquiries or investigations into various different organizations, ethics isn’t a fire extinguisher you grab after an action. You consult your moral beliefs before you act, or at least you should, and you view your actions in light of those beliefs afterward as well. It doesn’t ever stop.

The thing is though, that as many people know, and countless people have written about, it is difficult to do the right thing. Sometimes, the simple act of telling the truth can be difficult or cause us to harm ourselves in some way. To make further sacrifices, such as putting yourself in harm’s way for the benefit of others is even more difficult.

That’s what I think about when I remember the first session of this game. Many of the players left the game afterward because of other commitments or because they weren’t as interested as they thought, but in a sense they might have left because their characters just weren’t heroes. This was a game about the people who when faced with a threat to their community, would rise up to fight it. It wasn’t a game of people who happened to have superpowers who reacted like the average person would.

It was about characters who, while they did have other ethical issues, believed on some level in their moral responsibility or moral duty to their community. That either by virtue of their super powered nature or simply because they were part of the community and the community was under threat, had the responsibility to stand up and defend it. It’s not a belief that everyone shares, and that was demonstrated, and that’s sort of a great way to set the tone both for that game but also as a great reminder about everything we discuss here.

Ethics is about questioning. It’s about asking ourselves what we should do.

But the practice of ethics is about trying. It’s about attempting to live up to the concept of should. We might not always succeed but we should never stop trying.

Ethics are the code by which you guide your life. They’re not an inflexible slab of stone.

*: The character who is part of the group but for some reason often distances himself. A sixth ranger if you would.


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