Developer's Journal: A Look At Alignment
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Author:  DukeOfURL [ Thu Aug 19, 2010 5:53 am ]
Post subject:  Developer's Journal: A Look At Alignment


Probably nothing sparks more, and more heated, debate than alignment. What does an alignment actually mean, and how does it affect the game? Are alignments absolutes, straight-jackets that constrain a character? Or are they more descriptive and reactive, and if so, how does that tie into the system's mechanics? Under what circumstances can a character act outside of their alignment, and what are the consequence for doing so? At what point does an alignment change, what can be done to accelerate or prevent this, and what does it mean to the character to change alignments?

Lots of fodder for debate, there. And the truth is, there are no good, across-the-board answers to any of these questions. The answers can vary wildly from gaming group to gaming group, or by game setting. In some settings, alignment is very real and important, in others, it can be more flexible or even non-existent.

As such, the Boundless Horizons system downplays mechanical alignment by default. Class and prestige class requirements are not restricted by alignment, with very few exceptions. Some effects, specifically spells, do take alignment into account, but how they do so can be subject to interpretation. The counter-point to this is that referees and/or setting designers are expected to add any such requirements that fit the needs and flavor of the setting they are using.

Note that the following is not codified in Boundless Horizons, but could easily be used in addition to it (or frankly, any other system that uses the law/chaos and good/evil alignment system), modified as needed for a specific campaign or setting.

A Two-Axis View

Rather than look at "nine alignments", it makes more sense to consider the two axes separately. There is a law/chaos axis and a good/evil axis, and a character's position on each is independent from the other.

Law vs. Chaos

Lawful creatures adhere to a specified code of conduct. They are very likely to respect laws, order, and tradition; however they are not compelled to abide by them if they conflict with their own codes of conduct. (For example, venturing into a new land, a lawful creature will show deference to local laws when possible, but may act against those laws when they conflict with his own personal ethos.)

Chaotic creatures live more in the moment. Their actions are based on the current situation and what they feel should be done at the moment. Laws, order, and tradition have some uses, but are generally considered too stifling and ignoring, or even actively opposing, them is the right thing to do.

Good vs. Evil

Good creatures are altruistic. They will gladly sacrifice of themselves for the betterment of the general good. They will offer whatever aid they reasonably can, without the expectation of a payment or reward, though they can accept rewards freely given that do not unduly burden the giver.

Evil creatures are users and abusers. Their own motives are more important to them than any form of society or community. Other creatures are simply a means to their own ends, and they care little for the consequences that those creatures suffer (or, in more extreme cases, delight in those consequences). They will help others if they see some form of profit in it for themselves, although they tend not to put themselves at great risk without a disproportionally large reward.

Neutral vs. Unaligned

Neutrality is a curious condition because it could be active (striking a balance between the extremes of ethics and/or morality), or passive (lack of commitment or a general inability to behave with morals or ethics).

One would assume that active neutrality would be relatively rare in the general population, but so too is truly unaligned behavior, as most intelligent creatures generally show at least nominal tendencies toward particular alignments. This passive neutrality can be labeled "unaligned" and treated differently from "neutral", which represents a more active form.

Strength of Commitment

What traditional alignment descriptions overlook is the strength of commitment or devotion to specific ideals. They don't describe how evil (good, etc.) someone or something is, but lump large groups together. As a way to alleviate this problem, consider breaking down the position of the character on each axis by alignment strength.

One could simply develop a scale, say from 0-100, representing "how aligned" you are, though this makes more sense from a computer role playing game (CRPG) standpoint; games such as Neverwinter Nights, for example. For less automated uses, the following designations are likely sufficient.

Intrinsic: This is generally reserved for beings that embody an alignment ideal, typically carrying the equivalent subtype(s). They cannot act differently than the ideal, as it is simply what they are. Celestials are intrinsically good, devils are intrinsically lawful and evil, demons are intrinsically chaotic and evil. (Unless, of course, your setting alters these typical absolutes.) Denote intrinsic alignment using brackets, e.g., [Evil] or [E].

Dedicated: Creatures that consciously follow an ideal, or who, consciously or not, have established a pattern of behavior so consistent with that ideal, are considered dedicated to an ideal. Clerics and champions (paladins) typically are dedicated on at least one alignment axis that corresponds to their deity's alignment, and any alignment aura they have should be based on their dedicated alignment(s). Unlike intrinsic alignment, dedicated alignment is a matter of choice, whether by intent or as the sum of smaller choices. Denote dedicated alignment with a capital letter, e.g., Evil or E.

Nominal: The majority of intelligent creatures are only nominally aligned. They may profess belief in an ideal, but in their day-to-day life they do not strongly follow the precepts, at least not with any sort of consistency. Still, they generally lean toward acting one way over another, but are far more easily swayed by circumstance than someone with a deeper dedication. Denote nominal alignment with a lower case letter, e.g., evil or e.

Unaligned: Most intelligent creatures have tendencies that make them nominally aligned. It is possible for such a creature to be completely unaligned on one or both axes, but this is a rare case, and is likely only a transient phase. Except for those intrinsically aligned, non-intelligent creatures and those with no concept of either or both of ethics and morality are unaligned.

With the exception of intrinsic alignment, it is possible for a creature to vary in alignment strength over time. Someone who starts nominally aligned may eventually become dedicated to that alignment, or vice-versa. A series of circumstances may arise that has a character begin nominally aligned one way, passing through unaligned and eventually nominally aligned another way.

Micro vs. Macro

Alignment (excepting intrinsic alignment) generally refers to a creature's behavior among the general population. Interactions among family, friends, and associates might differ from the character's overall alignment, as their motivation are far more personal.

An evil brigand might still very well love her brother, and go to great lengths to save him, even putting herself at great risk to do so. This is not necessarily a good act nor does it invalidate her general evil nature. (Although to someone trying to redeem her, it can be used to leverage an argument that her victims are someone else's brother or sister, son or daughter, and that she now knows what that feels like.)

Mechanical Alignment

If using a "strength" system, it makes sense to vary the results of alignment-based effects based on the strength of alignment.

Intrinsic alignment should always be affected by alignment-based effects. That is, a dispel chaos spell should always be effective against [Chaotic]-aligned creatures.

It is a setting designer's or referee's discretion as to how dedicated alignment should be affected. The default recommendation is that dedicated alignment is affected like intrinsic alignment, but this can easily be changed based on the needs of the setting to be more like nominal alignment.

Nominal alignment should typically be free from effects that target a specific alignment, or at least offered significant circumstance bonuses to resist them or subjected to lesser effects. However, it can be treated like dedicated alignment instead. The decision here should be based on the relative importance of alignment within the setting.

Some effects (such as the unholy blight spell), exempt a particular alignment rather than affect them. In this case, run the same logic in reverse: intrinsic and dedicated alignments of the correct type are exempt from the spell, nominal alignment of that type may resist easier or be subject to a lesser effect, and others are subject to the spell's effects as normal.

Roleplaying: The Player's Perspective

Player characters, on the whole, do not have intrinsic alignments, unless certain unusual races are being played. Therefore, the player's perspective is generally based on how a character came to be an alignment, and what it means for that character.

An alignment is a snapshot of a character's beliefs (conscious or unconscious) at a given time. It does not dictate what the character is or how (s)he acts, but instead reflects the character's beliefs and history of choices. It is a mutable thing, which can be affected by any choices the character makes in the future, just as it has been formed by choices made in the past.

If the character has a dedicated alignment, remember the reasons (s)he is dedicated to that alignment and play the character accordingly. Yes, it can be shifted, but a strong conviction should not be moved by trivial events. If the character is sworn to uphold an ideal, that should not be lightly tossed aside. If the dedication is a result of gradual evolution via individual choices, the character may find it difficult to act differently because of that self-created momentum.

Why even bother with nominal alignments, though, if they are going to have little to no mechanical benefit or drawback? Because they can be a powerfully descriptive roleplaying tool that helps the player define the psychology of the character better. A dedicated Evil character might be a true sociopath, but a nominally evil character could simply be a bully who only indulges in abusing others when (s)he can get away with it. Additionally, it can help you track changes in belief and behavior over time.

Just remember, the character determines the alignment, the alignment doesn't determine the character.

Roleplaying: The Referee's Perspective

Just as for players, non-player characters can have their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors fleshed out with a more granular look at the character's alignment, and why the character has developed that psychology. For key NPCs, you may want to put some effort into this, as it can affect their motivations and actions. For minor NPCs, it can be a helpful tool to define personality quirks and how easily they can be influenced by the players' actions (or inaction, as the case may be). As with the player recommendations, note that the NPC defines the alignment, not vice-versa.

Creatures with intrinsic alignment cannot act against that alignment, as it is their very nature. A demon cannot show compassion but is compelled by its very being to act with cruelty and malice. (Not to say an intelligent one can't try to fake compassion, of course.)

It is up to you to track player characters' behavior and compare them to their stated alignments. A character that begins behaving consistently out of alignment may be due for an alignment change, but in general you should discuss this with the player so that they understand that this is what is happening (even if the character has no idea). The player can then either try to stay within the stated alignment or go with the changes, gradually (in a typical case) developing the character down that path. In general, avoiding sudden alignment swings is preferable, except in unusual cases.

A character with a dedicated alignment, especially those who do so as deity representatives (clerics and champions), should be given warnings, perhaps subtle ones, that they are starting to stray. For example, for a Lawful cleric who has started committing chaotic acts, when she is praying for spells she may find that she is no longer granted spells with the [Law] descriptor, although she may receive her other spells.

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