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The Moral Question of One Man or: To Save Rowkar!

December 18, 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.

The Fantasy Pirate game was certainly one of whacky twists and turns, as well as adventures that made both characters and players both agree to never speak of the session again. Still, sometimes when I think about it, I don’t wish to give the impression that the player characters were your standard PCs after only gold and power. Hell, as I’ve mentioned before, rather than imagining them as unwashed semi-realistic pirates, I often imagined them like this.

Still, even the Pirates of Penzance were pirates. Beholden to no man, and more prone to evil than anything else. I mean, hell, that’s the whole plot of the libretto, really. And so, more often than not the party was out for money and was asking what they could get out of something even when they started to amass large sums of gold they sought treasure and the like. This was all true except of course for one or two times. The most prominent example of the party displaying true loyalty and care for their fellow man came when their navigator and first mate, Rowkar, was captured.

At the start of the Fantasy Pirate game, the party were all captives of the Union and assigned to five-man chain gangs for their future at a sugar plantation turned penal colony. The chain gang contained the four player characters (Vyalatan, Squee, Bug, and Bill) along with a dwarf by the name of Rowkar. Rowkar had formerly been an executive officer aboard a Union vessel, and he had been forced to kill his commander when the other officer became obsessed with tracking a criminal into a dangerous storm. Despite much of the crew testifying in his defense, Rowkar was chained and sentenced to hard labor. From the first moment he encountered the party he was their staunch ally, and a source of friendship and sailing wisdom.

Rowkar was always there when the party was looking for guidance, both navigationally and spiritually. He was essentially an everyman that helped the party stay somewhat grounded in the world. Like every good everyman though, he was also easy to connect with, and the party was truly fond of him. So, like any good character people had connected with, he was a prime target for torture.

One of the first big story arcs that the party took part in had to do with the White Wizard’s coup in the free city-state of Freven. Through various actions they and other teams like them had taken, the player characters had helped put the White Wizard in a prime position to seize control (through force) of the city. The party was dispatched to deal with troublesome and traitorous senators of the Freven republic as the opening moves of the revolution. The party’s target was a senator with ties to the Imperium.

As it turned out, the senator’s home had been an operating base for Imperium intelligence and one of their former crewman who was actually an Imperium spy, a goblin named Baqto, was in hiding there. When the party returned from their mission of killing a senator, they discovered their boat in chaos, and Rowkar missing. Baqto had attacked the boat when they attacked the senator, and eventually when things came to a stand still he escaped by using Rowkar as a hostage.

The party was faced with a serious question, do they fight for the White Wizard and gain ludicrous amounts of bounty, possibly even command of their own island, or do they infiltrate the Imperium and search for their first mate?

Even though they recognized the benefit of possible titles and large sums of gold, they weighed the length of a war against how long Rowkar might survive in a high-level prison cell. The final tipping point was when they hired a group of mages to scry Rowkar’s position, revealing he was already being tortured en route to wherever he was being held. With this information in hand, the party was off at full sail.

To save Rowkar, they sailed into the Imperium on false pretenses, sought out and beat the crap out of several members of the Imperium’s secret police force, abandoned their own ship, and released a small collection of supposed dissidents and political prisoners upon the Imperium countryside. To escape with their freed friend, they ended up stealing an Imperium warship and having quite an explosive exit from the city. Needless to say, over the course of one night the party went from being the hated opponents of a singular officer to recognized enemies of the state.

All of this, for one man…

 

The reason why I tell this story, is because the whole concept of the session itself was the question of whether or not the life of one man is worth the possible risk of war. Granted, in this situation the PC’s wouldn’t have started an actual war, but they did draw the attention of a major world power and basically cut themselves off from dozens of formerly safe ports. All for one singular person.

It’s a fairly classic military ethics question though. Can one person’s life be worth the concept of a war?

Most people would argue that the life of one man, no matter how important or beloved, cannot be worth the deaths of dozens or hundreds or thousands that might occur in a war fought to save him. Even if just one team were dispatched to try and execute some sort of surgical strike, they all might die or still a start a war, or whatever. Even if they succeed, there could still be all of these issues.

Which then raises the question of at what number is it right to go to war, even a personal one? At which point do the numbers tip in favor of risking dangerous, nay world changing, repercussions for the lives of a small group of people?

The answer that I’ve always come to the conclusion of, is the recognition that there is literally no difference. If you go to war over one person or one hundred or one million, it’s still going to war over the interests of a small part of the population. You endanger everyone for the sake of a few.

A prime example of this is the Mexican-American War in the mid 1840s. America annexed Texas, and for a variety of reasons Mexico took offense. Largely the fact that despite Texas being an independent state since their own revolution in the 1830s, Mexico still claimed Texas as its own territory. This makes sense to an extent, suddenly a rogue state is not only recognized by your neighbor but is supported by it. It’s not the sort of thing that brings comfort on the stage of international politics.

So, Mexico and America go to war because of their interests in a small collection of ranches, since Texas wasn’t really much at that point. It could be argued that this lack of people and riches in Texas is why Mexico never bothered to officially reinstate control, or you can choose the Texan viewpoint that Texans officially proved that one does not mess with Texas. While there were other interests at play, such as the United States coveting Mexican access to the Pacific, on the surface this was war for the interests of a few. War essentially in defense of a very few since once again, Texas is not widely populated at this point.

Is such an action morally right? Is this another societal trade off, that for the defense of all our rights (moral and otherwise) we may need to, on the societal level, perform actions that have little to no moral justification?

Of course, these actions only have no moral justification depending on how you react to the concept that there is truly no difference between one man and a thousand. If there is no difference between one man and a thousand, because you’re always endangering the majority for the lives of an extreme minority, one could easily argue that we should abstain from the dangers of their rescue. However, if there is no difference between one man and a thousand because there is an inherent value to sentient life, then we should always try to save them because to not do so would be morally wrong.

How do you make those judgments if the person who’s taken is someone you care about? Once again, in the case of the player characters, why did they really go? They went largely because it was Rowkar. As one player said at the time, “It’s only right that we go, he would do the same for us.” By this point in the game it was clearly established that Rowkar loved the ship, and her crew, as much as he had any other. Come hell or high water, by will or by wand, Rowkar would save a crewmember if they were injured or captured or whatever. However, if it had been some deckhand whose name might have never come up more than once? Would they have gone? Is this deckhand who lacks a character sheet any different from Rowkar?

There is a moral course of action, and then there’s the actions they might have taken.

One man. One thousand men. An entire city of men.

What’s the difference?

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