φησὶ γάρ που ‘πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον’ ἄνθρωπον εἶναι, ‘τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστι, τῶν δὲ μὴ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.’ —Plato, Theaetetus
When designing a scenario or adventure, writers and referees often create allies and antagonists, by which I mean entities that the designer intends to have some degree of predetermined disposition toward player characters.
When I created my initial materials for Vaults of Pahvelorn, I explicitly attempted to avoid this tendency. I tried to create factions, monsters, and personages with particular motivations, rather than antagonists, and let players decide which would became enemies during play.
This was a game of D&D, so I was expecting adventurers to engage in conflict with at least some of these imagined creatures, but I wanted to avoid predetermining sympathies. Superficially, this may seem like some form of moral relativism. However, I also tried to retain my judgment of particular motivations. Some groups of non-player characters were wicked, or greedy, or ruthless, or principled.
I was curious about the way in which players would choose to interact with various factions rather than intending to subvert tropes, such as, for example, presenting orcs as having a sympathetic subaltern perspective. For example, given two wicked factions in tension controlling different aspects of a dungeon, how would players react? What about two seemingly sympathetic factions locked in internecine conflict?
I wanted to play to find out who would become the antagonists.
This approach led to, from my perspective, particularly engaging play outcomes. Due to a potential flood of undead released from the module Deathfrost Doom, one of several modules I inserted into Pahvelorn’s wilderness, an tyrannical, inscrutable necromancer king became a particularly valuable ally, and also key for the strategy players chose to thwart the invasion of borg-like demons. Earlier in the campaign, players ended up taking the side of a resurgent snake cult operating clandestinely beneath the scenes of the starting town against a number of hermit magicians engaged in variously curious and unwholesome activities.
In retrospect, maintaining a certain degree of discipline regarding avoiding moralization at the time of populating the setting enabled greater player freedom and, probably, more interesting and complex moral outcomes, without transforming the game into a simplistic morality play, or pandering to the idiosyncratic political ideals of myself or my group of players at the time.
Σωκράτης: οὐκοῦν οὕτω πως λέγει, ὡς οἷα μὲν ἕκαστα ἐμοὶ φαίνεται τοιαῦτα μὲν ἔστιν ἐμοί, οἷα δὲ σοί, τοιαῦτα δὲ αὖ σοί: ἄνθρωπος δὲ σύ τε κἀγώ
More generally, I think this stance toward refereeing exposes a general affordance of roleplaying games which can be easy to overlook: Any potent inimical force can become a tool. It is this realization which makes balancing scenario threats limiting; balancing threats deprives players of potentially the most potent implements. Adventurers can lure enemies into a devious trap as well as falling into the trap themselves.