Values Dissonance
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"So your people seek to emulate this God of yours do you?"
"Uh, yes … yes we try…"
"This God who was tortured to death so that his followers could become immortal by eating his flesh?"
"Never let it be said that I did not honour the Gods…"

Basic Information

Values Dissonance occurs when the morality of a character or culture in-story (whether historical, fictional or game plot) conflicts with the morality of the audience (or players). This can turn out to be something of a challenge for some players and audiences and may need to be handled with care - whilst in an ideal world bowlderisation would be severely punished too much dissonance may make a work more trouble than it is worth for a given audience.

It is also possible to have dissonance between cultures in-story - indeed it reduces the congruent reality of a setting if there is not some dissonance as well as some common ground between any two given cultures. How much of each will normally depend on geographic difference (and species if appropriate). In some cases lack of dissonance may be noteworthy. This sort of dissonance is typically a good way of creating cultural flavour.

Another important role of values dissonance is in the creation of meaningful antagonists for your characters (or meaningful PCs if your players like to run villains and antiheros). Although it's a pretty standard trope for fantasy villains to be self consciously "Evil" … and even for "evil" to be a cause in its own right … this is a little too dissonant to be credible1. In reality - and in congruent settings - very few people are likely to consider themselves "evil" but will appear so to others due to values dissonance. If a worldbuilder or GM takes the time to create realistic motivations for his antagonists, the resulting story is liable to be much more playable.

Dissonance, therefore, can occur at a variety of levels:

  • player/setting (where elements of the setting are deliberately dissonant to the players)
  • player/character (where the player plays a character with a different moral outlook to their own)
  • character/setting (where the character's morality is at odds with those around them)

Some common sources of values dissonance:

  • Crime and punishment down to what is a crime and how and by whom they may be punished, not to mention little matters like due process2.
  • Food and drink - with regard to what is, and is not acceptable.
  • Funerary practices
  • Poison
  • Property rights
  • Racism, of the fantastic and mundane varieties (which may include "speciesism") - even so far as to which races/species have a right to life and which may be freely slaughtered for experience points and treasure. Bonus points when the various species comprise various literal races that are colour coded for your convenience.
    • Whether or not the "genocide licence" attached to a given species attaches to its non-combatants as well as combatants.3
  • Recreational Drugs
  • Religion … or the lack of it, and related religious practices, including freedom of religion and the boundaries thereof.
  • Slavery
  • Treasure
  • Various gender and sexuality issues, including social gender roles, relationships between species4 and the like.
  • Other social politics, including differing ideas on the acceptability of violence, class/caste structure and social mobility.
  • Animal handling - including hunting, appropriate behaviour towards livestock5 and things like whaling.
  • Magic - if it may be used, and if so, on whom and for what6. And who or what gets sawn up for power components and various forms of sacrifice.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Player/setting dissonance is probably the most likely form to be encountered and the easiest to work with - you should probably expect there to be elements of it in any realistic setting - and it is with this that RPGs make a good tool for exploring various issues if your group is into that sort of thing. However, this is best handled with a clear idea of your group's boundaries and a minimum of "GM onboard" - player/GM dissonance is best avoided.
  • Player/character dissonance may well be the result of well handled player/setting dissonance - the ability to think your way into the skin of one of your own potential ancestors, let alone a different species on an imaginary world, is the stuff of good roleplaying. It's also what allows escapist gaming - you may have an aversion to solving social disputes by ramming a sword into someone, but if you happen to be playing an early modern gentleman, duelling is a very real social phenomenon.
  • Character/setting dissonance may result from badly handled player/setting dissonance leading to a character wandering around a historical or fantasy setting with the prejudices of a C20/21 Westerner (as most players still are). Which is likely to be vastly inappropriate. On the other hand, this can make for excellent roleplaying, either from a character who is deliberately dissonant from his own culture (either because he is a villain or because he is a visionary7) or once characters leave their home culture and are trying to adapt to a different one.
  • If your players are setting blind enough that, regardless of any worldbuilding, their response to the existence of slavery in a campaign is always to set up some kind of apparently anachronistic emancipation movement … well, pay them back in their own coin. Ensure that they is already an anti-slavery movement, but mix up the Roman anti-latifundia movement with modern anti-immigration nationalists: the activists partly object to slave run farming and mining displacing working class citizens and partly with the "corruption" of their nation by imported foreigners (even if they are slaves). The sort of player who does this type of thing will bleed from the eyes to find themselves on the same side.
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