Let me start by asking a question. Who has never been in a game where a fellow party member acted like a complete prick only to justify it by saying “I’m [insert alignment here.]”
Now, debates on in-game alignment and morality come up near constantly. Both in and out of character, sometimes these evolve into full-blown arguments and can even break up games which I think we can all agree is very sad indeed.
The problem in many games (including the fifth edition of that popular roleplaying game with those dice that have twenty sides) is that morality is all too often presented as an essentially static fact, leaving players trying desperately try to grapple with the fiction that the people and creatures they are playing and interacting with have inherent and immutable moral inclinations inborn, shaped by dint of their race or culture.
Now not only is that quite restrictive but it sounds a bit like the language of the racial pseudoscience of the eugenics movement (and all the frankly awful historical baggage that comes with it) and so it is understandable that very few people sit comfortably with this kind of inflexible reasoning nowadays.
In most of the games I’ve played recently, (regardless of system) we’ve chosen to simply ignore alignments and get on with the game. That said all my games are made up of all pretty experienced players and generally we don’t tend to waste much time before revealing our character’s moral/sexual/social boundaries in-game through their interactions with the world.
But as much as I vastly prefer this alignment-free gaming method over the cast-iron bounds of stated morality it does mean that it is harder to describe your character to someone else. Gone are the old days of saying “I play a Lawful Awful Dwarf Paladin. Damn, does the party’s Neutral Evil Elf Rogue hate me.”
Which is not a particularly common issue really, but what if you want to define a pick-up and play character? Or don’t play very often? Or maybe you play lots of different games and you need an easy way to remind you of your characters moral inclinations?
do you have a better suggestion?
Well yes, I think I might.
This really would be a terribly indulgent ego-stroke of an article if I didn’t.
… what is it then?
I propose that instead of alignments each player creates a profile of values to define the way their character tends to behave.
To build this profile, imagine how the character would describe what motivates them. remember, initially this will be just a snapshot of how they feel at the beginning of the campaign, and they may still be a little naive or even swept up in some romantic ideal.
For example: what formerly might have called a “Lawful Good” Knight or Paladin might have an extensive profile of values like this:
- Lawful: I strive to uphold the laws of man & gods alike
- Pious: I hold fast to my god, my prayers are my weapon & my armour
- Guardian: I endeavour to protect the innocent from harm
- Crusader: I aim to strike at injustice wherever I find it
- Chastity: I aspire to preserve my purity of body & mind, no intoxicants or unclean pursuits shall sully me
- Compassion: I try to grant aid to any who ask for it, even if they are my foes
Whereas a formerly “Chaotic Evil” Mage might have far simpler no-nonsense values like this:
- Ruthless: My search for arcane power comes first, I let nothing stop me.
- Vicious: I think nothing of harming those who stand in my way
what do we gain by this?
Well, by this method a group could have might might seem like two similar characters whicht can now be easily differentiated on paper for all to see, or conversely, two very different characters now might come to share some common values creating hints for their players and PM about how they might interact.
Thomas the Thief and Aeryn the Assassin, both are members of the guild of shadows and they share the following values:
- Faithful: My guild is my family, I won’t betray them
- Greed: Cash is King, and I want to be rich as a prince
- Coward: My hide is just too precious to risk putting holes in
But Thomas the Thief doesn’t kill.
4. Pacifist: I’ll defend myself but I’m no killer, after all, you can only rob a corpse once.
Whereas Aeryn the Assassin delights in killing her targets slowly and painfully.
4. Sadist: I love to watch my marks suffer as they die, it makes my day.
Two characters, likely with almost identical abilities, suddenly defined as vastly different by their values, and as you can see as long as Thomas and Aeryn don’t have to work together too often they’ll probably get on fine.
So How are these profiles of values different from alignments?
For a start a profile of values is less prescriptive, you control what mix of values your character has and you determine how those values apply to their wider worldview.
Also, a profile can be as simple or as complex as you want. A highly principled character could have dozens of specific values (like the ten commandments) or just a single overarching value (try to be a good person) either works just as well.
Of course profiles are by no means set in stone, they can (and really should) evolve over time, gaining, changing or losing values as a campaign unfolds, reflecting your character encountering new situations, making new friends and enemies or facing difficult challenges that force them to change their worldview or rationalise actions they previously wouldn’t have considered.
This modular approach to morality allows characters far greater freedom to react to their world, the scars of the things they have witnessed and the repercussions of their past actions can change them into very different people.
The ability or the player and PM to change a character’s profile on a value-by-value basis to reflect decisions or events in-game allows you to easily chart your characters progress as they either rise above their base drives or sink into the depths of depravity.
Is that it?
Yes it is, so there you are, that was my token stab at untangling the thorny issue of in-game alignments and even what I hope might be a thought-provoking alternative.
Everybody take a level of Suffering!