Lancelot, Luke Skywalker, and Avatar from Ultima.
Three characters that have had hard choices to make along their way. They are some of the greatest champions of moral choice in fiction I can think of, having to make choices that determined the outcome in major ways.
I had never thought about Luke Skywalker’s fight with Vader so much; but I saw a reviewer who commented about how Luke gave into his emotions when he went batshit on Vader for mentioning turning Leia to the Dark Side if Luke would not. Right after that, he tells the Emperor, “I will never give in to the Dark Side”.. The reviewer stated that is bullshit because the dark side was painted ‘Fear Leads To Anger, Anger Leads to Hate, Hate Leads to Suffering’, and how if they lost control they would never get back. So, how come Luke could say that he was not going to the Dark Side, especially when Anakin later went down the same path in the Prequels?
The main reason I attribute to it is because that while Luke did dip into the emotions, everyone does. However, it is more that he was able to step back and distance himself from that and try to see the larger picture, let the universe unfold and not trying to manipulate events the way he wants. Anakin wanted to keep Padme safe and, as one of my friends said, gave off all sorts of stalker boyfriend vibes. Luke, however, after going and cutting off Vader’s hand had stepped back, letting Vader live as the combat is over and the enemy is done for.
Let me use some other examples. First, we have the Knights of the Round Table with Lancelot as the example I choose to use as I have heard it said he was the most trusted knight of Arthur. However, he also had an affair with the King’s wife Guinevere, bringing about the end of Camelot. Before that happened, he was a great hero, going about fighting for the cause of good. He did major things and helped the cause along, but he had some minor flaws that he worked to deal with and overcome. One of those being his love for another man’s woman.
In Ultima, there are the eight virtues you need to uphold. Sometimes, they don’t always fit well together. For example, Compassion is raised by letting non-evil enemies live, while Valor goes down by running from enemies. So, it is a matter of which virtue you want to focus on at the time. You need to develop all of them to win the games, but you don’t need to be a god in all of them all of the time, so you can pick up some points here and there. So, you can go questing for XP and GP by slaying all the creatures around and then work at healing your Compassion karma.
Each of those characters show how you can have a strict moral code but still play within those rules. You can push the boundaries so long as you are able to find a justification for the action that makes logical sense and you are willing to atone for it. That is what makes the code such a hard thing. That is what separates the regular people from these heroes. They all will have things they will stand for, but the truly heroic are the ones who will stray from the path and then work their way back. There once was a man who asked a monk, ‘What do you do in your monastery’ and was told ‘We fall down and we get up and we fall down and we get up’. A good GM will put you in a position where you need to take risks and make choices that may not always be so black and white. A perfect example I heard once, A ritual of summoning a demon into the world is using a young child as the gateway. The demon will enter through the child and run rampant, killing thousands. The child is not a willing participant, just an innocent child who was chosen. Do you kill one innocent person to save a thousand, or do you let a thousand die because one life is precious? Maybe you can go kill the demon later and save the world, but those people will still be dead. Most importantly from a roleplaying standpoint, do you show how the choice weighs on you? You kill the child to save thousands, but now your character strives to save children, perhaps adopting some orphans or founding an orphanage, because they are trying to atone.
Also, remember to break out of Lawful Stupid sort of alignment boundaries, remember that a hero is more as an icon than a recruiter. You do not need to keep the other players from doing evil things, though you can. It is more to the point of what does your character do, what does your character hold dear. I heard of one Paladin character who was in a group where some of the players did things that would be considered illegal in that city, and later the player went and turned himself in for acts that he himself had committed because it was the right thing to do. For example, a character is wandering around in his quest to save the kingdom and growing quite hungry, stumbles upon a collection of apple trees. He picks a few of the apples and sates his appetite before finding out that it was a farmer’s land he was on. Even though he could tell how he was on a righteous quest and likely be fed for free, he tried to make recompense to the farmer for the goods he took, because it was stealing otherwise and he was above that, and boasting of his quest to get a free meal would have been just as against the code, because he was being prideful. So, you shouldn’t immediately break your code if you do it unwittingly, or if you have no other choice, only if you willingly, knowingly break it without showing remorse. Like if you’re on watch and somehow get enchanted to let something happen, like someone controls your mind or puts you to sleep. You should only break the code if you do not seek to make it right. Which is why Anakin fell to the Dark Side, while Luke was able to dip his toes in it and come back to the Light.