Character's War Crimes

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Here's the full situation:

The players are tracking a small pack of gnolls (one of each in the MM plus two hyena and a cacklefiend) that have left a long trail of bloodshed, and may have captured one of the players. This is lead by the elven ranger (whose passive perception is ungodly high), who finds each kill zone to be a bit fresher. After a full day of tracking, the elf hears the sounds of combat over the next hill.

When they crest the hill, they find the gnolls and hyenas decimating a small band of helpless travelers. Off to one side of the battle, two children are hiding in the tall grass, and on the near side, the limp body of the party's compatriot has been discarded for the duration of the battle. These two pieces of information are quickly passed on by the elf to the rest of the party.

The group charges into battle, the elf staying at the crest of the hill with his bow, the paladin rushes to the unconscious PC, and the rest of the party rushes into combat (just as the gnolls finish off their prey).

The battle rages, blood flies, tempers flare. And, in the midst of it, the player who had been captured heals the first fallen gnoll and agrees to follow him, if he will spare the party (as she has seen before that the huntmaster controls the flow of battle).

He whistles to break contact as he and the bargaining player escape. Before the rest of the gnolls can react, one of them is dropped (the marauder). On their initiative, the claw fighter manages to flee at full speed (faster than even the elven ranger), leaving only the scourge, a hyena, and the cacklefiend.

The scourge shifts away and begins to walk away from combat, the two hyenas on his heels. They are well withing closing distance of the party, so the clever scourge decides to play on the "good" nature of the party (including a paladin of Pelor and a dwarven cleric of Thane [read: Moradin]).

As the first player advances to attack, he turns and delivers a quick ultimatum. Should they even touch him, he swears that the children will be slain before he dies.

The children have been ignored up to this point, though clearly marked on the battlefield.

The player, an unaligned dragonborn warlord, attacks one of the (very) bloodied hyenas, and drops it with the swing. The paladin rushes to the children, barely making it with a run, though has already blown his interposing daily ability, so is less of an obstacle than he would like to be.

The scourge then drops his weapon, gestures to the cacklefiend to fulfill te ultimatum, and raises his hands in surrender, readying an action to shift away, should anyone make an attack. The scourge, with its prolific speed, is able to bound around the paladin and charge in for the kill (the children were a low level "minion swarm"), slaughtering the both of them.

Now, with the scourge presenting no threat, the cleric (of a lawful good deity) charges in to kill the surrendered gnoll, when the gnoll shifts away the dwarf even spends an action point to press the attack, and is able to kill the gnoll (who's hp were in the single digits at this point).

I contest that the act, while perhaps justified, flies in the face of Thane, and as a consequence the cleric will not have his prayers answered for a short time (temporary losing his powers).

I made sure to stop the player, clarify the point that the gnoll had surrendered, asking the basic "are you sure?" question, so he performed the act knowingly.

This was the end of the session for the night, and has sparked some controversy in the group. So I am here to seek some opinions on the matter.

I specifically do not want to hear about whether it is legal to strip a divine character of powers if he violates the tenants of his religion.
Further Background:

Thane is the original paladin in my world's history (yes, I run a homebrew setting). He was a (short and stocky) human and a champion of law and good in the world.

When he was slain by Gobli, his blood seeped into the stone, and by the power of creation, his blood infused with the rock and begot the first eight dwarves, Thane (II) and his seven brothers. Thane crafted a woman from marble, placing gems in her eyes, and prayed to Thane (a guiding spirit to the eight brothers) to make her come to life.

Thane (II) had seven daughters, each wed to his seven brothers, and became the patriarch of dwarves, and the first Thane (king of dwarves). He then had a son, also Thane (III), who was the first heir to the throne, and his bloodline goes unbroken (though it had been lost for a few ages, it was since restored).

Thane was first and foremost a paladin, so while he may understand the actions of his cleric, there must be consequences (not punshments).
I think you handled it well.

I would also argue from a morality point that innocents whose lives hang in the balance should always be the number one priority of such a Cleric or a Paladin. I like that your focus is on the tenants of their religious belief rather than the good vs. evil argument.

Save the children, then live to pursue the badguys another day.

Furthermore, if I was adjudicating this campaign, I would think some penance and redemption is in order for the return of the divine powers. It doesn't make it the end of the world for the character, but adds story and character depth.
Unfortunatly, it was the unaligned dragonborn warlord who decided the fate of the two children. The paladin did what he could, and the cleric never had a chance to prevent it.
To quote the player of the cleric's email to the group:
...I also proffered the opinion about the gnoll not really surrendering and ordering his soldier to kill as gnoll treachery and not true retreat. Consider this: If a swat team enters a building and victims are killed by hostage takers after not heeding the criminals' threats to stay away, do you imprison or fire the swat team? Are they to blame for the deaths? No the hostage takers are. If a hostage taker is killed in the process of surrendering, do we shed a tear? No, they could have been doing any number of things that day instead. Gnolls will never be picking flowers or painting a house, and I think most gods and orders would know that.

If it had been a creature that could reasonably had a change of heart, deadly force would be extreme. But surrendering gnolls? Would a gnoll surrender? And to save its own life? They are agents of chaos, what is death to them?

To which I added, "to kill on the merit of racial prejudice is evil," and...
If the swat team has the situation under control (i.e. the sole surviving hostage taker has dropped his weapon and surrendered) and one person on the team fires a few rounds into his chest, you can be assured that there will be an investigation, accompanied by a cooling off period.

To respond to the bit about surrendering gnolls, which some might point out is written in the MM as something they typically would not do: The scourge is the only gnoll with an intelligence of 13 (+5 skill modifier), while the "typical" gnoll has an intelligence of 9.
Unfortunatly, it was the unaligned dragonborn warlord who decided the fate of the two children. The paladin did what he could, and the cleric never had a chance to prevent it.

Would you allow the cleric and paladin to kick the warlord from the group?
D&D combat becomes very hard to justify on many, many occasions if you attempt to inject modern concepts of morality into the game. "Racial prejudice" wasn't "racial prejudice" when seen through the eyes of people hundreds of years ago. It was "us" versus "them" and that's just the way it was. When you look at it through modern eyes, it's "racism" and therefore "bad."

If you want to avoid pointless, game-threatening arguments, you have a couple of choices:

1. Bad guys are bad guys and good guys are good guys. It's okay for good guys to kill bad guys just like it's okay for bad guys to kill good guys, regardless of circumstances. Don't make it more complicated. It's way too subjective and leads to very unfun arguments; or,

2. Allow clerics, paladins, or whoever else might suffer mechanically from subjective choices to expend a minor action to make a Religion check (or the like) of moderate DC to determine if a particular action might be frowned upon by his or her deity (read: the DM). Then the choice is clear: Do it and suffer the consequences. After all, it's subjective and the players can't read your mind.
Would you allow the cleric and paladin to kick the warlord from the group?

They haven't kicked the city-destroying tiefling warlock demon-worshiper from the group, so this isn't very likely. Though, yes, in-character consequences inflicted by other players' characters is well within their right. Though I would think that they would come to some sort of agreement before that happened, and I don't think that they lay the blame on the warlord, but rather the gnoll itself.
Unfortunatly, it was the unaligned dragonborn warlord who decided the fate of the two children. The paladin did what he could, and the cleric never had a chance to prevent it.

The first moral error of the encounter was to not ensure the safety of the innocents once the group crested the hill. To use the police analogy, securing the scene is a top priority and getting innocents who are at risk to safety is often done with risk to the officer's own lives. This is where I think both the Paladin and the Cleric failed.

I don't see this as a pointless argument. And although the good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys, so lets justify all killing may work for some games. It doesn't work for my group.

And I will say again, just because a character is being reprimanded by their diety, it is not the end of the world, a reason to quit the game, or throw a temper tantrum. It is another opportunity for role playing, and great character development. These are the elements that make great stories, rather than simply glossing over the slaughter of innocents and moving on.
D&D combat becomes very hard to justify on many, many occasions if you attempt to inject modern concepts of morality into the game. "Racial prejudice" wasn't "racial prejudice" when seen through the eyes of people hundreds of years ago. It was "us" versus "them" and that's just the way it was. When you look at it through modern eyes, it's "racism" and therefore "bad."

Don't tell that to the orc character.
1. Bad guys are bad guys and good guys are good guys. It's okay for good guys to kill bad guys just like it's okay for bad guys to kill good guys, regardless of circumstances. Don't make it more complicated. It's way too subjective and leads to very unfun arguments; or,

Unfortunately that isn't going to work with this group. With the infernal-pact tiefling warlock and the orc fighter in the group, attacking based on race or creed are tricky subjects.
2. Allow clerics, paladins, or whoever else might suffer mechanically from subjective choices to expend a minor action to make a Religion check (or the like) of moderate DC to determine if a particular action might be frowned upon by his or her deity (read: the DM). Then the choice is clear: Do it and suffer the consequences. After all, it's subjective and the players can't read your mind.

A good point, though I did pause, clarify, and ask once more if the character was sure that they wanted to continue, something which means that the character will suffer the consequences of their actions (like asking if they're sure they want to attack the ancient wyrm that is meant as a deterrent, not a combat encounter).
To quote an email from the warlord player:
I think some details are being over looked. For example, you used the example of a surrenduring prisoner in Iraq getting taken out with a .50 cal.

You cannot compare these two situations. You cannot compare civilized combat, especially that of modern combat under the geneva convention as well as conduct of combat vs this.

This is against evil creatures who kill without mercy. The entire adventure for the last 3 or so has been based on the fact that an entire city ruthelessly being decimated by Gnolls, until a dragon came and drove them back.

A surrendering opponent of a "civilized" race would be considered as a defeated opponent. Not a gnoll.

You don't capture, and jail an evil creature, much less one who spits on civilized rules of combat. When you have been following this creature who has been trackable by the remains of dead bodies of "civilized" and defenseless humans fleeing a burning city.

You can even simplify it even farther if you want to.

In order to have truley surrendered he would have had to put down his weapon, and either released the hyenas, or made them cower, or removed any agression. Putting down one weapon but still aiming 2 and threatening an attack unless given escape, is not surrender.

The argument of the gnoll posing no threat, and having surrendered will find no purchase here.

To which I responded:
Funny that you should bring up killing without mercy. He did put down his weapon and release the sole surviving hyena (admittedly to fulfill his ultimatum), raised his hands in the air (without fleeing) even readied an action to avoid being hit.

The terrorists in iraq are not tied to the geneva convention. It is those that signed it that are compelled to uphold their end of the bargain. And the war in Iraq is not civilized war (if there is such a thing).

Is there some moral ambiguity? Yes. But killing an intelligent creature that is obviously surrendering and no longer a(n immediate) threat, is not clearly morally justified.

Again, the temporary loss of prayers is not a punishment. It is a consequence. And I hope that the distinction is clear. I'm not saying that what he did was wrong. I understand why he did it. But, slaughtering a defenseless intelligent creature seemed to be what the party charged in to prevent, and when the situation was well under control, the party pressed to slaughter the rest of the gnolls.

D&D combat becomes very hard to justify on many, many occasions if you attempt to inject modern concepts of morality into the game. "Racial prejudice" wasn't "racial prejudice" when seen through the eyes of people hundreds of years ago. It was "us" versus "them" and that's just the way it was. When you look at it through modern eyes, it's "racism" and therefore "bad."

I'm going to disagree. DnD is modern concepts of morality with an 'old time' flavor.

In the past, it was fine to capture a people, castrate the men, salt the earth, slaughter the live stock, take the women as plunder, and sell the children into slavery. A lawful good paladin of Moradin who attempted the same in a game would get more than a few nasty looks. Why? Because modern concepts of morality tell us that's wrong.

Modern concepts of morality are why when you head into a 'standard' gnoll lair, it's not full of women and children. Because if you introduce that into the game, you'll have problems with the players going "Wait a second, this doesn't feel heroic."

Perennial Rock,

I don't think the arguement about prisoners in Iraq are going to get any where. The dwarf is not a soldier in Iraq, but a cleric of Moradin. He knowingly broke Moradin's tenants. If the player, now knowing the tenants a bit better, doesn't feel his character would worship a god like this, let him change in-game to a god whose ideals he's in line with. Or, let him consider his actions and try to serve Moradin better.

You're letting this become an out-of-game issue, and it's not.
Don't tell that to the orc character.

Just as there were always exceptions in real life, there's always exceptions in the game. "I hate orcs, but this orc right here saved my life, so he's alright in my book," is arguably okay. But this isn't my point at all. Read on.

Unfortunately that isn't going to work with this group. With the infernal-pact tiefling warlock and the orc fighter in the group, attacking based on race or creed are tricky subjects.

They are tricky because you chose to make them tricky. I'm not saying this is bad; your campaign is your campaign and as far as my opinion is concerned, your ruling was just fine.

My point is that by choosing to make it "complicated," you invite these arguments, as evidenced by your players' emails. People are now using real world examples to justify in-game actions. I speak from experience; you are setting the groundwork for continuous arguments on alignment, morality, and the implications of both. If you need further evidence of this, just check every 10th thread on these forums...

Sometimes, simpler is just plain better for all the reasons you're now experiencing. Judging things through modern morality will make things complicated. In a D&D world, there are plenty of evil things that are obvious; let the gray areas, such as this situation, simply go. It's not worth bad blood.

A good point, though I did pause, clarify, and ask once more if the character was sure that they wanted to continue, something which means that the character will suffer the consequences of their actions (like asking if they're sure they want to attack the ancient wyrm that is meant as a deterrent, not a combat encounter).

Some people are just dense or have surrendered to the bloodthirst of the moment without considering the circumstances. Hints, subtle or otherwise, are not often enough. Try it out and see how it works.
In my opinion, injecting modern morality into D&D just doesn't work, because the game at a basic level is all about going out, killing things (both sentient and non-sentient), and taking their stuff. When is that ever considered moral today?
In my opinion, injecting modern morality into D&D just doesn't work, because the game at a basic level is all about going out, killing things (both sentient and non-sentient), and taking their stuff. When is that ever considered moral today?

Killing things and taking their stuff... how heroic.
Killing things and taking their stuff... how heroic.

Your players don't loot?

Do you get on the cleric's case when he loots a dead foe? Because in real life, that's a crime, even if you killed someone in self-defense. If you judge the cleric's actions through the lense of modern morality, then why not forbid him to loot?

Do you see where this starts going? It's not worth it. It's a good way to start arguments, so be very careful for your game's sake. Just friendly advice.
The enemy pretended to surrender. Surrender doesn't include "I'll surrender, but kill if you don't x or y." That's not surrender, that's a threat. Killing the threat was the logical decision. The enemy, in this case, is evil. You're talking about a Gnoll Demonic Scourge; a friend of demons. The GOOD thing to do is to kill it, even if it's unarmed. There is no moral ambiguity. This is the black and white that D&D is based on. To pervert it into a relative morality of the modern era makes the game less fun. Keep it fun, or you'll just frustrate the players.

By your words, the good cleric and paladin did what they could at that point. Should they have done more earlier? Maybe, maybe not. Taking the kids to safety could have put far more than two children into danger.

But you have a larger problem. Mixing good and evil characters in a party often results in what you're experiencing. It's a far better game if you have the players pick a side and stick with it as a group.

Also, as a DM you have to remember that you're not the enemy. Make the players feel like the characters were challenged, but step in where needed to make the STORY better. So what if the Paladin had burned his daily? You're in a position to instantly give him a shaft of light and give it back, plus give him the run speed to get there. Think of it as a sign from above. THAT is heroic fantasy.... not letting the bad guy win because of their movement rate.
I specifically do not want to hear about whether it is legal to strip a divine character of powers if he violates the tenants of his religion.

Good.
Finally a fellow Dungeon Master who accepts that he does indeed have all the power to make & enforce rulings. That realizes that divine power comes from a diety - whom he also controls....
My game, at a basic level, is about having fun and (cooperatively) telling a story.

Do characters kill? Yes. Are they within their rights to keep the phat lootz? Finders keepers. But, my player's characters have goals well beyond riches, and killing always has consequences.
two children are hiding in the tall grass

While it was obvious later that the enemy knew the location of the children, the fact that they were hiding when the party approached means that an attempt to rescue them may have actually gotten them killed by uncovering their hidden location.
Do characters kill? Yes. Are they within their rights to keep the phat lootz? Finders keepers. But, my player's characters have goals well beyond riches, and killing always has consequences.

Maybe some of the players want to play the game that the majority of D&D players play; where good fights and kills evil and, for that, their gods smile on them.
There's also (just to complicate the situation) the possibility that a paladin or cleric might be well within bounds to consider themselves 'the law' when in the wilderness, not unlike a sheriff in the Old West. While it might be against the letter of the law to gun down someone who is surrendering, there probably wouldn't be a jury in the region who would convict, if the PC was brought to trial for the 'murder' of someone who, by multiple eyewitnesses, was engaging in multiple murder themselves. The idea that the PC killed an 'innocent' is at least highly questionable; and when the PCs can be considered the local arm of law and justice, the picture can get murky.

On the niceties of a murderous enemy who makes gestures of surrender - while letting loose their pet to commit more murder - it seems a bit disingenuous to calim that the one 'surrendering' was in fact properly doing so. It seems to me that it would be kind of like a bad guy throwing the locomotive into gear toward the helpless damsel, then claiming instant immunity because hes unarmed. This smells much more like a trick than an honest desire to end hostilities.

Of course, deities can have other standards of judgement, as can DMs. From the description, it doesn't sound to me like the PC deserves any particular punishment (calling it 'consequences' seems little more than a verbal dodge); at most a probation period (which, by the way, there's no indication so far how long it would last or what can be done to 'atone').

There's also the risk, in a metagaming sense, of making it undesirable to play a cleric or paladin in this game. Yes, the DM controls the dieties; yes, the DM is within rights to grant or suspend powers; yes to all that. But the danger is that the players will learn that to play a cleric or paladin is to subject your abilities to the whim of the DM, in ways that the other classes are not subject to. Are there mystic currents or spirits that can temporarily nullify a wizard's magic? Is the fighter subject to bouts of weakness when he fails to act bravely or strongly enough? It may be legal, but it's really easy to be unfair - either in reality or in perception.
The enemy pretended to surrender. Surrender doesn't include "I'll surrender, but kill if you don't x or y."

To clarify, the gnoll began to walk away and gave the ultimatum in one round, then surrendered in the next, playing on the character's moral obligations to save him. His gambit failed (in one way) though he tempted a cleric of a good deity to commit an evil act (one for the win column!).
That's not surrender, that's a threat. Killing the threat was the logical decision.

A lone, bloodied, unarmed, surrendering gnoll is not a threat.
The enemy, in this case, is evil.

Based on what? The fact that he defended himself against the attacks of the party? Note that detect evil is a thing of the past.
You're talking about a Gnoll Demonic Scourge; a friend of demons. The GOOD thing to do is to kill it, even if it's unarmed. There is no moral ambiguity. This is the black and white that D&D is based on. To pervert it into a relative morality of the modern era makes the game less fun. Keep it fun, or you'll just frustrate the players.

One of their own party members is a friend of demons, and the party knows it. The fact that it surrendered would indicate that it is different from the typical gnoll (i.e. smarter). They players think that the game is fun, and understand that the morality of the world is gray (hence most of the characters being unaligned). The fact that unaligned is a choice means that D&D morality is not black and white.
By your words, the good cleric and paladin did what they could at that point. Should they have done more earlier? Maybe, maybe not. Taking the kids to safety could have put far more than two children into danger.

Not attacking the gnoll would have been a start, or at least talking to it first, perhaps give themselves time to ensure the security of the children. They could have told the warlord to stop, grabbed him, or some other alternative. The paladin did what he could, yes. The cleric attacked a surrendering opponent when doing so changed nothing and saved no one.
But you have a larger problem. Mixing good and evil characters in a party often results in what you're experiencing. It's a far better game if you have the players pick a side and stick with it as a group.

None of the characters are evil, though the majority (if not all) are unaligned. A lot of good roleplay has surrounded the inner party conflict of motives and goals.
Also, as a DM you have to remember that you're not the enemy. Make the players feel like the characters were challenged, but step in where needed to make the STORY better. So what if the Paladin had burned his daily? You're in a position to instantly give him a shaft of light and give it back, plus give him the run speed to get there. Think of it as a sign from above. THAT is heroic fantasy.... not letting the bad guy win because of their movement rate.

While I do believe in divine intervention, it is normally after a character has done all that they can do rather than when they make a last ditch effort to do something they could have done a long time ago.
There's also the risk, in a metagaming sense, of making it undesirable to play a cleric or paladin in this game. Yes, the DM controls the dieties; yes, the DM is within rights to grant or suspend powers; yes to all that. But the danger is that the players will learn that to play a cleric or paladin is to subject your abilities to the whim of the DM, in ways that the other classes are not subject to. Are there mystic currents or spirits that can temporarily nullify a wizard's magic? Is the fighter subject to bouts of weakness when he fails to act bravely or strongly enough? It may be legal, but it's really easy to be unfair - either in reality or in perception.

Excellent points.

PerennialRook, you, as DM, created this situation. If I were a player, I'd exit the game immediately. Why? Because I don't play this game to get into moral relativism. D&D has always been designed to be black and white, good vs evil as absolutes. Remember, if the gods say a tiger is evil, it's evil... it's not based on a moral code at all. Plato's Euthyphro is a good place to start. The point of what is and isn't good isn't in question, it's why. It's assumed that, if the gods agree that something is evil or good then it is. It's only the godless society that has to ask the broader question. If you have gods giving dogma then the players know their faiths laws.

In many games it would be considered an evil act to not attack a Gnoll, armed or not.

Are gnolls chaotic evil? If yes, then killing one isn't evil, wrong, or a "war crime", which is, quite frankly, a laughable concept in the average D&D setting. Yours may be different, but if the event in question caused players to question your judgment, maybe you should consider what THEY want out of a D&D game.
There's also (just to complicate the situation) the possibility that a paladin or cleric might be well within bounds to consider themselves 'the law' when in the wilderness, not unlike a sheriff in the Old West.

They were traveling with a noble of the major city that was within two days travel (though hadn't crested the hill to join the battle).
While it might be against the letter of the law to gun down someone who is surrendering, there probably wouldn't be a jury in the region who would convict, if the PC was brought to trial for the 'murder' of someone who, by multiple eyewitnesses, was engaging in multiple murder themselves. The idea that the PC killed an 'innocent' is at least highly questionable; and when the PCs can be considered the local arm of law and justice, the picture can get murky.

Good thing deities know the actions of their clerics. :D
On the niceties of a murderous enemy who makes gestures of surrender - while letting loose their pet to commit more murder - it seems a bit disingenuous to calim that the one 'surrendering' was in fact properly doing so. It seems to me that it would be kind of like a bad guy throwing the locomotive into gear toward the helpless damsel, then claiming instant immunity because hes unarmed. This smells much more like a trick than an honest desire to end hostilities.

Gunning down the bad guy in this situation would be excessive force (see the SWAT team example). Wouldn't it be better to talk down the bad guy to keep him from throwing the locomotive into gear, rather than damning the damsel?
Of course, deities can have other standards of judgement, as can DMs. From the description, it doesn't sound to me like the PC deserves any particular punishment (calling it 'consequences' seems little more than a verbal dodge); at most a probation period (which, by the way, there's no indication so far how long it would last or what can be done to 'atone').

I made it clear to the player that this was a slap on the wrist. I'm not imposing a harsh penalty, just drawing the line. In fact, I can see this particular cleric crossing the line without discretion, taking the good with the bad. He's a bit reckless, and has fashioned himself as a "Terror of Thane," who is willing to do things that other clerics and paladins wouldn't.
There's also the risk, in a metagaming sense, of making it undesirable to play a cleric or paladin in this game. Yes, the DM controls the dieties; yes, the DM is within rights to grant or suspend powers; yes to all that. But the danger is that the players will learn that to play a cleric or paladin is to subject your abilities to the whim of the DM, in ways that the other classes are not subject to. Are there mystic currents or spirits that can temporarily nullify a wizard's magic? Is the fighter subject to bouts of weakness when he fails to act bravely or strongly enough? It may be legal, but it's really easy to be unfair - either in reality or in perception.

A fighter is also unlikely to get a visitation from the archangel of their religion (like the paladin did) to receive divine guidance. And, yes, there are places where magic works differently, or not at all, and our resident diabolist has already found out that powerful demons don't always show up when you call them. Martial power is the most reliable and consistent source.
To clarify, the gnoll began to walk away and gave the ultimatum in one round, then surrendered in the next, playing on the character's moral obligations to save him. His gambit failed (in one way) though he tempted a cleric of a good deity to commit an evil act (one for the win column!).

So wait, the Gnoll was trying to "walk away", and wasn't even saying, "I'm surrendering, but if you try to attack me, I'll kill the children"? In that case, your PCs acted 100% in the right. The Gnoll and his minions have already proven that they're willing to harm and kill innocents. Letting him go so that he could kill more would be the evil and irresponsible thing to do. When the PCs refused to let him go, and the Gnoll decided to kill the children, he was not surrendering, he was forfeiting his life for the grim satisfaction that the heroes can do nothing but watch helplessly as two children are slaughtered.

A lone, bloodied, unarmed, surrendering gnoll is not a threat.

He just killed two children. I'd call that a very big threat. Who knows what he'll do next.

Based on what? The fact that he defended himself against the attacks of the party? Note that detect evil is a thing of the past.

Maybe based on the fact that (your words) they were "decimating a small band of helpless travelers"? And the fact that the PCs had been tracking his bloody path for days?

Not attacking the gnoll would have been a start, or at least talking to it first, perhaps give themselves time to ensure the security of the children. They could have told the warlord to stop, grabbed him, or some other alternative. The paladin did what he could, yes. The cleric attacked a surrendering opponent when doing so changed nothing and saved no one.

Incorrect, the Gnoll has already proven himself to be dangerous to innocents on multiple accounts. Letting him go to commit more murders would be wrong, not to mention that the surrender could just be a trick to buy time while, say, his retreating Gnoll buddy was getting reinforcements, or perhaps so that he can unleash some magic item he had in his possession.

You claim to want your games to have consequences for your players' actions, but you have a very different perception of what's proper consequences compared to most people.
Gunning down the bad guy in this situation would be excessive force (see the SWAT team example). Wouldn't it be better to talk down the bad guy to keep him from throwing the locomotive into gear, rather than damning the damsel?

Excessive force is a myth. It's like asking someone to fire a gun and aim for the legs, something you hear people talk about, but it's not part of police training. If you have the right to fire a weapon, you have the right to kill, period. It's not called deadly force for nothing. Only on television shows do people shoot to maim.

But again, we're not talking about modern morality. If the pcs are away from civilization then they ARE the law, the judge, the jury. Killing an evil creature, especially one you know to have done an evil act, isn't wrong, it's right. Letting it go is wrong.
PerennialRook, you, as DM, created this situation. If I were a player, I'd exit the game immediately. Why? Because I don't play this game to get into moral relativism.

Nothing against you, but if you weren't having fun, I would hope that we would part on good terms. I think that D&D can be played in a variety of ways.
D&D has always been designed to be black and white, good vs evil as absolutes. Remember, if the gods say a tiger is evil, it's evil... it's not based on a moral code at all. Plato's Euthyphro is a good place to start. The point of what is and isn't good isn't in question, it's why. It's assumed that, if the gods agree that something is evil or good then it is. It's only the godless society that has to ask the broader question. If you have gods giving dogme, then the players know their faiths laws.

If evil is black, and good is white (or vise versa), then what is unaligned? What is absolute about a shady middle ground?
In many games it would be considered an evil act to not attack a Gnoll, armed or not.

Compulsory acts of violence to remain neutral? That's a bit extreme.
Are gnolls chaotic evil? If yes, then killing one isn't evil, wrong, or a "war crime", which is, quite frankly, a laughable concept in the average D&D setting. Yours may be different, but if the event in question caused players to question your judgment, maybe you should consider what THEY want out of a D&D game.

Are Drow evil? Is attacking Drittz (sp?) on sight an evil act? If a creature is intelligent and has the ability to choose right or wrong, then you must judge them on more than race.
Compulsory acts of violence to remain neutral? That's a bit extreme.

Have you picked up a pre-1600s religious text and a companion history book lately? When a religion goes to war, it goes to war.

And, before the Christian argument pops up, remember that Jesus did tell his followers to go buy swords and healed for a soldier.

But that doesn't matter. Break away from the modern era's moral concepts and embrace the genre. D&D priesthoods walk the streets armed and their gods give them the power to smite. The Gnoll is evil. To not kill it is, in many D&D games, evil. That is how the game is often played... and how it was designed to be played. That good drow was labeled a mistake by anyone not reaping a profit from him, including the original authors of the game.

But again, that doesn't matter. The party knew this wasn't a good Gnoll!
Excessive force is a myth. It's like asking someone to fire a gun and aim for the legs, something you hear people talk about, but it's not part of police training. If you have the right to fire a weapon, you have the right to kill, period. It's not called deadly force for nothing. Only on television shows do people shoot to maim.

He shouldn't have "shot" someone who was unarmed and had their hands raised.
But again, we're not talking about modern morality. If the pcs are away from civilization then they ARE the law, the judge, the jury.

I've already clarified that they weren't that far from the city (a day of tracking, not several) and had someone of passing authority traveling with them.
Killing an evil creature, especially one you know to have done an evil act, isn't wrong, it's right. Letting it go is wrong.

The character itself performed an evil act, should the paladin kill him? I never said they had to let it go, there were plenty of other options.
But that doesn't matter. Break away from the modern era's moral concepts and embrace the genre. D&D priesthoods walk the streets armed and their gods give them the power to smite.

This is a matter of a civilization more than morality. Killing a surrendering opponent is always wrong (in civilized culture).

I was in the military. If an enemy fires at you from cover, perhaps hitting your buddy, then throws down his weapon (before you can kill him) and surrenders, pulling up in your truck and putting a couple of rounds from the .50 cal in his chest, is wrong.

I understand that not everyone plays with moral ambiguity in their games. I do, and thus far my players have thoroughly enjoyed it. I was asking for insight into the one particular instance, and while I appreciate the discussion of morality in D&D, I won't be changing that aspect of my game.
He shouldn't have "shot" someone who was unarmed and had their hands raised.

Spellcasters raise their hands all the time. This is D&D. Hands raised doesn't make one safe.

I've already clarified that they weren't that far from the city (a day of tracking, not several) and had someone of passing authority traveling with them.

They also witnessed the "crime". "You were the one who did this..." is a perfectly valid trial, and Justice is swift.

The character itself performed an evil act, should the paladin kill him? I never said they had to let it go, there were plenty of other options.

The characters performed an evil act? What evil act? Killing evil isn't an evil act.

This is a matter of a civilization more than morality. Killing a surrendering opponent is always wrong (in civilized culture).

Civilized culture burns spell-casters and demon worshipers at the stake. And no surrender was granted, nor did the party "put him in their truck". The rules of modern surrender are very different from those of history, and of those used in most D&D games. Killing a surrendered opponent is always wrong after terms are excepted (in civilized culture). Not accepting the surrender is valid. This isn't modern warfare.
Civilized culture burns spell-casters and demon worshipers at the stake. And no surrender was granted, nor did the party "put him in their truck". The rules of modern surrender are very different from those of history, and of those used in most D&D games. Killing a surrendered opponent is always wrong after terms are excepted (in civilized culture). Not accepting the surrender is valid. This isn't modern warfare.

Especially when the terms of surrender was essentially, "I get to kill these two innocent children".
Here's the full situation:

The players are tracking a small pack of gnolls (one of each in the MM plus two hyena and a cacklefiend) that have left a long trail of bloodshed, and may have captured one of the players. This is lead by the elven ranger (whose passive perception is ungodly high), who finds each kill zone to be a bit fresher. After a full day of tracking, the elf hears the sounds of combat over the next hill.

When they crest the hill, they find the gnolls and hyenas decimating a small band of helpless travelers. Off to one side of the battle, two children are hiding in the tall grass, and on the near side, the limp body of the party's compatriot has been discarded for the duration of the battle. These two pieces of information are quickly passed on by the elf to the rest of the party.

The group charges into battle, the elf staying at the crest of the hill with his bow, the paladin rushes to the unconscious PC, and the rest of the party rushes into combat (just as the gnolls finish off their prey).

The battle rages, blood flies, tempers flare. And, in the midst of it, the player who had been captured heals the first fallen gnoll and agrees to follow him, if he will spare the party (as she has seen before that the huntmaster controls the flow of battle).

He whistles to break contact as he and the bargaining player escape. Before the rest of the gnolls can react, one of them is dropped (the marauder). On their initiative, the claw fighter manages to flee at full speed (faster than even the elven ranger), leaving only the scourge, a hyena, and the cacklefiend.

The scourge shifts away and begins to walk away from combat, the two hyenas on his heels. They are well withing closing distance of the party, so the clever scourge decides to play on the "good" nature of the party (including a paladin of Pelor and a dwarven cleric of Thane [read: Moradin]).

As the first player advances to attack, he turns and delivers a quick ultimatum. Should they even touch him, he swears that the children will be slain before he dies.

The children have been ignored up to this point, though clearly marked on the battlefield.

The player, an unaligned dragonborn warlord, attacks one of the (very) bloodied hyenas, and drops it with the swing. The paladin rushes to the children, barely making it with a run, though has already blown his interposing daily ability, so is less of an obstacle than he would like to be.

The scourge then drops his weapon, gestures to the cacklefiend to fulfill te ultimatum, and raises his hands in surrender, readying an action to shift away, should anyone make an attack. The scourge, with its prolific speed, is able to bound around the paladin and charge in for the kill (the children were a low level "minion swarm"), slaughtering the both of them.

Now, with the scourge presenting no threat, the cleric (of a lawful good deity) charges in to kill the surrendered gnoll, when the gnoll shifts away the dwarf even spends an action point to press the attack, and is able to kill the gnoll (who's hp were in the single digits at this point).

I contest that the act, while perhaps justified, flies in the face of Thane, and as a consequence the cleric will not have his prayers answered for a short time (temporary losing his powers).

I made sure to stop the player, clarify the point that the gnoll had surrendered, asking the basic "are you sure?" question, so he performed the act knowingly.

This was the end of the session for the night, and has sparked some controversy in the group. So I am here to seek some opinions on the matter.

I specifically do not want to hear about whether it is legal to strip a divine character of powers if he violates the tenants of his religion.

In general D&D is supposed to be fantasy adventure, not dark drama.
If you and your players are fine with this (very dramatic) tone for the game then it's all good, but then if your players were fine with it you wouldn't be having such controversy.

This sounds like a situation where the players did there best to deal with what was a very traumatic real life esque situation posed by gnolls, creatures not generally thought of as sophisticated enough for such tactics.
One must ask in such a game world why would even heroes fight monsters, knowing that they could just hide behind human shields and kill off innocents all the time to get at them.

Also note, in D&D characters are supposed to kill monsters. It's both encouraged and half the point of the game.
First, I want to say that IMO, the gnoll wasn't surrendering; he was issuing an ultimatum that included a possible surrender (also possibly a stalemate option, he didn't specify) as a consequence. He never stated that he surrendered, and he was poised to move away if approached. He also loosed a creature under his control to kill helpless innocents while his hands were raised in supposed 'surrender'. Surrender is complete and total. It is not a surrender if you are still directing others to do your dirty work.

I agree that the players were acting within the right by killing him, but not protecting the children at the same time made them wrong.

We can argue the moral relativism all we want, but you, the GM, made the call. It's already been done. What needs to be done now is to determine how to move past that.

I'd start by making it clear to the Pally/Cleric what exactly their deity is unhappy about - don't use analogies, just state how the god sees it and what he doesn't like about it - that's what the consequence is about, having a better understanding of his tenements:

Is he unhappy about losing the kids?
About killing the allegedly surrendering gnoll (a creature which the PC's know is evil by the acts of atrocity he's been committing over the previous days, and also gave his life to commit)?
How does the deity view the surrender - was it legitimate, and why?
(as a player, I'd argue that it wasn't and at the very least it wasn't clearly so at the time)

Once those questions are clear to the players, make it a succession of religion checks (consider them time spent in daily prayer and meditation on their deeds) like a normal challenge that requires multiple checks. Maybe 5 checks at DC15 (maybe 20 for Paragon - I didn't catch the level of the game) each requiring an hour of contemplation or prayer, made all in the same day, and 2 fails means they have to try again on the next day. Then they start getting their prayers answered again because they have begun to understand the nuance of the issue as it pertains to their religion.

If you want to make it harder for them, raise the DC by 5 and tell them that by spending the day in conference with other clergy of their faith (like a church in the nearby city) you'll reduce the DC by 1 for every hour they spend conferring on it, up to a max of 6 hours (plus the time per check spent in prayer and meditation).

You made the call, the best route now is to figure out how to move forward from here. Don't argue the morality of their decision, let them know how Thane views the morality of their decision. You are Thane and you determine his stance on the issue, but that stance needs to be made perfectly clear to the players because the situation presented is, without a doubt, morally ambiguous at best.


One last point, since you noted that this was the end of the last session, did the damage done to the gnoll equal his negative bloodied value? If not, he still lives but is only unconscious. They can bandage him and bind him and still take him to the proper authorities. It seems the issue you are having with the players isn't one about the kids getting killed, but rather one of slaying an allegedly, and easily arguably, surrendering opponent. If his hp didn't hit negative bloodied value, then technically they didn't. 4e simply assumes that after you win a battle, the PC's go around and make sure that all the bad guys are completely dead. AGain, since it was the end of the last session, there's no revisionism in saying that they didn't ensure the gnoll's death, and he was bleeding but not dead, so they bandage and bind him. An easy fix if you're having too many problems here.
I'll leave with this final remark.

You came here with a situation that you thought was morally clear (to you), hoping that others would back you up. However, many of us disagree with you, and your players obviously disagree with you. It's still your game, and you can always claim that as the DM your view is "right", but if you really believe that D&D "is about having fun and (cooperatively) telling a story", then you'll want to reexamine your own position, and perhaps admit to your players that you were wrong in this instance.
Excellent points.

PerennialRook, you, as DM, created this situation. If I were a player, I'd exit the game immediately. Why? Because I don't play this game to get into moral relativism.

That's all fine and dandy but it doesn't sound like the discussion in question is about players wanting to leave. Its a discussion, not an issue of ****** off players. And thats great that you play D&D for moral straight forwardness but some of us like a little moral ambiguity in our story.

D&D has always been designed to be black and white, good vs evil as absolutes. Remember, if the gods say a tiger is evil, it's evil... it's not based on a moral code at all. Plato's Euthyphro is a good place to start. The point of what is and isn't good isn't in question, it's why. It's assumed that, if the gods agree that something is evil or good then it is. It's only the godless society that has to ask the broader question. If you have gods giving dogma then the players know their faiths laws.

Always designed??? Have you played Eberron at all? It doesn't sound like it but no one is black and white in that particular setting. Its up to the DM dude. If the players don't want that, then they don't have to play (so it is wise to appeal to their wants and needs) but ultimately it is up to the DM like it always is. And likewise the opinions and the activity of the gods.


On a side note...it really depends on the gods point of view I guess. If the Cleric killed the Gnoll out of revenge for his slaughter of the children...then yeah, not honorable. If he did it to punish the Gnoll for an evil act, then sure. It's all in the spirit of the player in my opinion. Wrathful justice or bloodthirsty vengeance?

gnolls, creatures not generally thought of as sophisticated enough for such tactics.

If the Gnoll observed good natured honorable treatment previously from these PC's, he might try to take advantage of it. Gnolls aren't bright nor tacticians but they ARE evil and aren't devoid of intelligence.
First, I want to say that IMO, the gnoll wasn't surrendering; he was issuing an ultimatum that included a possible surrender (also possibly a stalemate option, he didn't specify) as a consequence. He never stated that he surrendered, and he was poised to move away if approached. He also loosed a creature under his control to kill helpless innocents while his hands were raised in supposed 'surrender'. Surrender is complete and total. It is not a surrender if you are still directing others to do your dirty work.

To clarify:
  • The gnoll made the threat when characters moved in to kill his hyena as he was walking away.
  • The warlord then attacked, killing the hyena.
  • True to his threat, the gnoll dispatched his cacklefiend.
  • Then, seeing no other option, the gnoll surrendered (as described my me, and subsequently clarified), readying an action to shift away in case of an attack. There were already characters adjacent to the gnoll when he surrendered (in fact, they knocked the cacklefiend around a bit when it dashed off).
  • When he was unarmed, with his hands raised in surrender, surrounded by the allies of the cleric, the cleric rushed in to kill him, and when the gnoll stepped back from the attack (not in retreat, but in self defense), the cleric used his action point to finish the job.

The gnoll did not state that he was surrendering unless the attacked, he threatened them, then surrendered as a last resort (though true to his nature, killed the kids).
I'd start by making it clear to the Pally/Cleric what exactly their deity is unhappy about - don't use analogies, just state how the god sees it and what he doesn't like about it - that's what the consequence is about, having a better understanding of his tenements:

Good advise, and done. The surrender analogy was for further clarification.
Is he unhappy about losing the kids?
About killing the allegedly surrendering gnoll (a creature which the PC's know is evil by the acts of atrocity he's been committing over the previous days, and also gave his life to commit)?
How does the deity view the surrender - was it legitimate, and why?
(as a player, I'd argue that it wasn't and at the very least it wasn't clearly so at the time)

I made sure to clarify that the surrender was sincere/legitimate, and yes, this is the problem that the deity in question has a problem with. Surrender warrants appeal to a higher authority or (lacking the former) informed judgement on the part of the "judge."
Once those questions are clear to the players, make it a succession of religion checks (consider them time spent in daily prayer and meditation on their deeds) like a normal challenge that requires multiple checks. Maybe 5 checks at DC15 (maybe 20 for Paragon - I didn't catch the level of the game) each requiring an hour of contemplation or prayer, made all in the same day, and 2 fails means they have to try again on the next day. Then they start getting their prayers answered again because they have begun to understand the nuance of the issue as it pertains to their religion.

If you want to make it harder for them, raise the DC by 5 and tell them that by spending the day in conference with other clergy of their faith (like a church in the nearby city) you'll reduce the DC by 1 for every hour they spend conferring on it, up to a max of 6 hours (plus the time per check spent in prayer and meditation).

You made the call, the best route now is to figure out how to move forward from here. Don't argue the morality of their decision, let them know how Thane views the morality of their decision. You are Thane and you determine his stance on the issue, but that stance needs to be made perfectly clear to the players because it is, without a doubt, morally ambiguous at best.

The loss of prayers is temporary, and getting them back is about roleplay, so I don't think that religion checks are necessary, but I like the mechanic in general.

Thank you for the input.
I'll leave with this final remark.

You came here with a situation that you thought was morally clear (to you), hoping that others would back you up. However, many of us disagree with you, and your players obviously disagree with you. It's still your game, and you can always claim that as the DM your view is "right", but if you really believe that D&D "is about having fun and (cooperatively) telling a story", then you'll want to reexamine your own position, and perhaps admit to your players that you were wrong in this instance.

Thank you for clarifying my motive. I obviously didn't come here to get further perspective from other DMs. I wasn't looking for constructive debate. I just wanted to show everyone else how a real DM runs the show.

[/sarcasm]
To clarify:[list][*]The gnoll made the threat when characters moved in to kill his hyena as he was walking away.
[*]The warlord then attacked, killing the hyena.
[*]True to his threat, the gnoll dispatched his cacklefiend.
[*]Then, seeing no other option, the gnoll surrendered (as described my me, and subsequently clarified), readying an action to shift away in case of an attack. There were already characters adjacent to the gnoll when he surrendered (in fact, they knocked the cacklefiend around a bit when it dashed off).

I like moral grey areas like these, but I do not think your players acted especially wrong.
I don't think "killing gnolls is ok, because all gnolls are evil" is a valid statement in your campaign where good and evil is obviusly not black and white.


It all boils down to the hyena.
The hyena is the scourges "weapons". He commands them, the players know this, the Scourge know that the players know this.

And he is NOT in fact making a surrender.
He is making a very clear threat to the childrens life. He is saying "If you try to disarm me or hurt me, I will use my weapons to kill the children". That is not a surrender.
It doesn't matter that he drops his sword, because (as is obvious from what happens) the sword is not his only weapon, the hyena are too.


Killing the Scourge after he releases the hyena, I would rule fair, he is (from the previous history) a very bad 'person', and he just proved this by making a threat to some innocent childrens life and following up on it, for no good reason other than; "because he made an arbritar ultimatum that the players didnt' wanted to yield in to".

I do think though, that the Warlord made a mistake in killing the hyena. ... a mistake, not anything morally wrong, but a mistake.

----

To use the modern anology.

The Gnolls got a pistol and 2 bombs, one placed somewhere around, and the other placed near the children.

He is surrounded by several SWAT members (the PC's).

He drops his pistol but hold up a detonater, stating "If you harm me or disarm the bombs I will kill the children.

The Warlord then goes on to disarm one of the bombs.

The gnoll then presses his detonator, making it count down from 12 secs.

The Paladin rushes to the children, to either 'take the blast of the boms' or disarm it before it goes off, but is too late. The bomb goes off killing the children.

The cleric then shoots the gnoll... He is not innocent at all. Nor has he in any way surrendered. He made an ultimatum, the players made a choice (maybe not the one the gnoll wanted them to take, and not the best one for the children, but he gave them a choice and they made it).

---

Should the players have acted differently to have a chance of saving the children? Yes.
Are they guilty of indirectly killing the childrens? Kind of.
Are they guilty of killing an innocent (surrendering man)? No.


---

If the Gnoll truely wanted to surrender he should have made his hyenas run away or clearly make them back down... and not do anything if they got killed.