GURPS 4e is the rule set of choice in my gaming group. I don’t like everything about it (fights take up way too much time without actually feeling terribly exciting) but there’s lots of interesting debate to be had when you shine a light into the obscure nooks and crannies of the system.
Just one example. Characters can take a Duty. This is a disadvantage of variable points value; by taking it you get points to spend on attributes or skills. The more likely a Duty is to apply during a game, the more it’s worth. You get extra points if it’s extremely hazardous (ie you are at constant risk of death) and also if it’s involuntary. An involuntary Duty is one where the character has no choice in the matter. Their actions are coerced by threats to loved ones, mind control, or a curse.
One of the players in our Victorian campaign took a character who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He argued that the Duty should count as involuntary and extremely hazardous:
"Since the penalty for abrogation of this duty is court-martial, punishable possibly by death (and the utter shame and ruin of his entire family and tarnishing of the reputation by association of his circle of friends) I think his duty is pretty much involuntary. 'Enforced by threats to you or your loved ones...' – GURPS 4e page134."My counter to that was that the whole point about involuntary Duty is it's enforced – the cartel have a gun to your wife's head, the terrorists have strapped a bomb to you, that kind of deal. If you ask a British RN officer in the 1890s why he is carrying out his duties, he's not going to say, "I don't want to, but the British government are holding my life and family honour to ransom." So it's voluntary. The GURPS Compendium explains it pretty well:
Duty (Involuntary; an extra -5 points) Some duties are enforced by threats, threats to loved ones, or by exotic methods of mind control. Such a forced duty can result in difficult decisions or surprising insights for the affected character. An involuntary Duty would not include military service by draft (although service by impressment, as practiced by the British navy of the 18th century, would qualify), nor any other "normal" service. Only cases where life or sanity are directly at stake qualify.The player disagreed. (When do they not, when character points are at stake?)
"It is involuntary! What you're talking about is Sense of Duty, which makes him feel he wants to do it. But he has no choice, and if he should be given an order with which he disagrees, or is too afraid to carry out, the true nature of the duty is clear. It's not just imprisonment or a broken relationship with his patron he has to deal with afterwards. Plenty of the fellows who sign up for the armed forces will attest to the level of choice they have. If it were WW1 and he were in the army, I don't think you'd try and sustain your case. The overwhelming horror of enforced duty tearing against the survival instinct is pretty well documented."Sense of Duty is indeed another, quite different character trait in the GURPS rules. It’s mental, not social, and bears on whether you feel you ought to carry out the duty. This is where it gets interesting. Because all duties must have some degree of either voluntary or involuntary internal compulsion. That’s what the extra -5 points for an involuntary Duty is all about. But does the GURPS rulebook insist that all voluntary Duties are accompanied by a Sense of Duty? No. It is perfectly possible to take a voluntary Duty without having a Sense of Duty.
And quite right too. I know people who were in the British armed forces, ordinary squaddies who joined straight from school. If they had failed to do their duty they could in theory have been court-martialled and imprisoned, but I don’t think that was any kind of motivating factor. They did their duty voluntarily and effectively without any overwhelming sense of duty (a typically British mentality!). They were conscientious, but when they got a better offer they quit the services and did that instead.
The acid test for an involuntary Duty would be "can you resign?" In almost all modern armed forces you can. Being press-ganged on a pirate ship or British navy vessel of the mid-18th century are notable exceptions. A Royal Navy lieutenant of the 1890s is not, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the same boat.
It begs another question: why are involuntary Duties worth -5 pts more anyhow? A person who is coerced into doing his duty is less effective than somebody who does it voluntarily. Also, involuntary Duty could be lifted by removing the coercion. "We have your wife and kids safe, sir. You can put down that gun." So you'd think involuntary Duty would be less of a disadvantage, points-wise.
The player had also claimed his Duty as a naval officer to be “extremely hazardous”, which the GURPS 4e rules define thus:
Extremely Hazardous: You are always at risk of death or serious injury when your Duty comes up. There are significant penalties if you refuse to take these risks: dismissal in disgrace, imprisonment, perhaps even death. The GM has the final say as to whether a given Duty is “extremely hazardous” in his campaign.You can see why that would be worth extra points, at least. And certainly if the lieutenant failed to do his duty he would face the possibility of disgrace, imprisonment or death. (In point of fact, the standard penalty for failure to do one’s duty in the Royal Navy is up to two years’ imprisonment, but that only if the court finds you deliberately at fault.)
But that’s mere plot detail. What interests me about this is the whole question of volition when carrying out a duty. Reading Sassoon on his moral objections to the Great War, or Max Hastings on his various relatives' reactions to fighting at the front shows there's a stew of motivations and conflicts going on there. Did the Twin Towers attackers act voluntarily? If you asked them, they'd probably have said yes, this way lies paradise. But the truth was, how could they back out? To do so would mean not just facing retribution from their al-Qaeda commanders - that's nothing, it probably never crossed their minds - but the much scarier prospect of sweeping away a whole bunch of simplistic beliefs on which their entire identities were built. So I'd say they probably had both involuntary (sic) Duty and Sense of Duty. Humans are wonderfully screwed up pieces of work, aren’t they?
There are a lot of interesting and complex aspects to dutiful behaviour, and we can hardly expect a set of game rules to get to grips with them. But it’s fascinating to come across these questions, discovering all kinds of philosophical and moral matters lurking amid the numbers and mechanics, and the fact that I am continually able to do so is one of the things I love most about role-playing.