Saturday, July 4, 2009

Alignment and Morality, A topic sure to go down smooth at every gaming group

Well I figure I'd jump on the bandwagon of a lot of other RPG bloggers this week and discuss morality. The flaw I'll discuss today is the old 9 fold alignment model we all know (I don't need to repeat it do I?). The problems are many and vary group to group, so I'll just describe how Piecemeal operates and why.

Each persons Morality operates on two parts: A major concern, and a minor concern. The major concern is what primarily guides their opinions and their view on right and wrong, their minor concern is what they strive for as long as it does not violate their major concern.

Each persons Morality contains two aspects: Their view between personal liberty and external rules, and their view between self-interest and the good of others. These are couched in terms like Honourable, Lawful, Pious versus Chaotic, Free, Libertarian and Selfless, Good, Compassionate versus Selfish, Evil and Uncaring. There is no "unaligned" or "neutral".

So a character might be Honourable Compassionate, or Selfish Free.

Note that morality is how a person feels not what they do. Someone may be Good Lawful in their morality but sneak out and commit debauchery and engage in vice while their family sleeps. They will just feel guilt about their actions and probably describe it as a weakness.

Morality only comes into place really in Social Conflicts. It is hard to convince someone against their morality, and easier to convince them for. Even then, the rules for "stubborn refusal" keep morality for ever being a straight jacket.

What about spells like Detect Alignment? Well I personally hate spells like that, "plot killers". In traditional Games I've seen this exact event unfold. A murder is committed, the court is sequestered until the guilty is found, no one can leave the ro.. , "I cast detect evil and point out the evil guy". "Just because someone is evil doesn't mean they committed the murder" to which the reply is "No, but it means they shouldn't be the kings advisor either way". And you know what? That's perfectly logical. If we in society had an infallible test to know if someone was a bad person, don't you think we would screen everyone and keep bad people out of positions of power or influence?

But it is a fantasy world an spells like that are part of mythology. My personal solution was to make the spell "Know Morality" a risky deal and a vile act. Its a violent intrusion into someones soul and seen in the same way of other forms of violation. Add to that there is the chance (regardless of if the person is willing) that it scrambles the caster's brain (resulting in possible death even for the mightiest wizard). Thus the spell becomes something you use before trying to prove the innocence of a condemned man, not to prove the guilt of someone at random.

Why do I do it this way?

1.) It adds a lot of variability. A pious compassionate man is different than an honourable selfless man, even if both are "lawful good". A lawful good and a good lawful man might be best of friends and agree on everything, until faced with a dilemma: Do the good thing or do the legal thing?

2.) Its not in any way a straight jacket, its not about deeds its about what you feel is right..even if you don't live up to it. That doesn't mean good committing evil in weakness either. The Pirate captain might have a morality of Uncaring Free, but despite no ability to profit and the risk of death he for some reason turns his ship around to save the heroes from the tribe of Island Cannibals. Thus you never get "That not how someone of your alignment should act!", maybe they shouldn't but from time to time they do.

3.) Detect Evil sucks.

4.) Neutral is a cop out. Everyone has a view deep down on these matters. If you don't have any view at all, you'd be Free and Uncaring. "Evil is the absence of Good" as the quote goes.

How to make simple changes to make this fit?

The Morality system is easily plug and play. For the spell 'detect evil' etc. Give a saving throw to a target, if you try and detect their alignment, on an epic success on the save (mandatory save, can't not take one), make the wizard take a save vs death. For any "protection VS Evil" make it only function on supernatural evil, or people you know are evil conclusively OR people you legitimately think are evil..whether or not they are.

Its not perfect, but its all about the type of game you want. If this isn't the trope you want, it is not be worth it.

what are your thoughts?


  1. side note: Happy 4th of July to any American Readers, try not to lose any fingers with the fireworks.

  2. Good post! This is how I tend to use alignment too (when I have to use it at all) - the relations of self to group and the importance of self over group (or vice versa). AD&D alignment has become a 'shorthand' for these concepts...ugh - I'm gonna have to jump on this alignment bandwagon too...hope there's still room!

  3. Why use alignment at all? What does it add to your game? I've given it up and it has done absolutely no ill in my games; it simply contributed nothing.

    Also, in which mythologies is something detect evil-like present? I can't think of anything right now, not even in Christian mythology where the good/evil division is strong. I'm probably missing something, though.

  4. In terms of "detect alignment" no, I can't think of any. In terms of being able to sense someones character, or their purity, its alot wider net, the most common example I can think of is the weighing of the heart to a feather. The "flame of truth" or "candle of truth" is another.

  5. The Egyptian underworld, indeed.