Monday, July 26, 2010

Character Alignments: Subtlety Rules

"Alignment has been a staple of many role playing games since the industry's beginnings. It's been the subject of countless essays in fanzines and blog posts. Most people either love it or hate it; some could take it or leave it. I myself have gone from one extreme to another over the years, using it as a weapon against my players in my early-and-inexperienced years as a GM, then later completely banning it from my games for a few years, and finally embracing a balance that allows it to influence the game without getting in the players' way."

REF: RPG Character Alignments

I'm also of the mind to keep Alignment as a Character Guide, rather than a rules-centric system. I do have rules around Alignment, but they're not designed to be obvious in-play. My basic philosophy about Alignment is that deeds have consequences to the Character's Alignment, rather than the other way around. So if Beth the Druidess of Oswaldia is self-declared as Lawful Good, sobeit. She can declare her Alignment at the start of the game. I take it as "her intended Alignment". However, I will not be enforcing her to play Lawful Good. She can decide to do Chaotic things. The result will be that her character goes from Lawful Good to Chaotic Good as her actions mount up a compelling reason to conclude that she is in fact Chaotic Good, rather than Lawful.

So, what do I use Alignment for? Alignment influences a number of sub-surface aspects of the game. Foremost, it can influence how the Elkron of Elthos view the Character. There is an Elkron that is the embodiment of each Alignment (12 mixed Alignments, 4 "pure Alignments").

If Beth is Lawful Good, a worshipper of Minvar, and then commits Chaotic Evil acts, over time her connection to Minvar will fade, as Minvar is Lawful Good and expects her devotees to be the same. The miracles she calls on Minvar for will lessen, and eventually cease. A Chaotic Elkron, such as Omri, may solicit her to abandon Minvar altogether, and join the forces of Chaos, which to them is expressed as "The Cause of Freedom". If Beth does convert then she will continue on her merry way, without Minvar's association, and possibly with Minvar's enmity. And so on.

When Beth encounters a Lawful Good weapon, she won't necessarily able to use it effectively, or it might even counter her purposes. And so on.

There are a lot of ways that Alignment can come into play that are not anything like "Your Character is Lawful Good, so she can not do that action." To my mind, the proper use of Alignment in RPGs is a matter of some subtlety. Granted, the original rules for Alignment did not facilitate that type of usage directly, but those GMs who liked the concept of Alignment, but not the rules themselves, were always free to change them. And so I worked out something that I think is suitable for my world.

Another attribute of Alignment in my world is that most Characters are neutral. It takes a lot to embark on the path toward one particular Alignment, mostly because it requires consistency. And many players do not play their characters with the kind of consistency that leads to a specific Alignment, even if they desire to do so. It is by design that this is the case for Elthos. I have it in mind that Alignment beyond the norm (neutral) is difficult to achieve, and so it takes a good deal of effort to move along the Alignment Axis in any direction constantly. The progress is offset, quite frequently, by the contrary decisions Characters make along the way.

To be a Paladin of a particular Alignment is difficult because it is fairly easy to fall off of an Alignment path. However, the further one goes along the line of a particular Alignment, the more likely it is that Elkron will notice them, and either take issue with the Character, or reward them. Sometimes the Elkron award Powers to Characters who show a propensity for a specific Alignment.

I do have a system for awarding Alignment points. Basically, there are overt actions which correspond with the metaphysical Law-Chaos axis. Murder is Chaotic. Giving Alms is Lawful. Building a town is Lawful. Burning down a library is Chaotic. And so on. Then, on the Good-Evil, or moral axis, the question is one of Motivation FOR the action. Motives can be things like Friendship, Honor, Justice, etc. Thus, for example, Beth might one day steal money from a rich man in order to feed an impoverished family of poor folk. In this case the action is Chaotic (theft), but the motive is good (charity). And so points can be allotted on this basis to the Character's Alignment (measured as a coordinate on the Alignment Grid) through this mechanism.

To go far along any axis line, in Elthos, is difficult, and the further you go, the more difficult it becomes to go further still. Only really devoted heroes make it particularly far in any given direction. And as they do, they mount Alignment specific enemies and allies along the way. This has worked reasonably well for me over the years. I first implemented the Elthos Alignment system in the mid 1980s during California Campaigns. The Players seemed to find it unobtrusive, interesting, and even compelling. So I refined and polished it and put it on the shelf. It's a keeper.

I'm wondering: What do you folks think of Alignment in RPGs generally? Do you use Alignment in your games, and if so, how does it work for you? What success or failures have you seen in relation to Alignment? If not, why not?

-Mark
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