The Good, The Bad, And The Chaotic Neutral
Many role-playing games include a system meant to model the characters' moral compasses or beliefs (or lack thereof). But is such a mechanic really necessary in a roleplaying game? If so, what's the best way to implement it? I'll share my opinions on what works and what doesn't in my own gaming experiences; you can (and should!) do the same in the comments.
For most gamers, there comes a time when the numbers that delineate your character's attributes, skills, saving throws, and special abilities don't come close to describing everything about that character. Stats will tell you how hard your character's fists can hit their foes, or how good they are at casting magic spells - but they don't always tell you who your character would want to punch, or what might be a likely use for their spells. But we gamers have always loved to have things written out in black and white, which results in the creation of systems like D&D's alignment, meant to quantify a character's beliefs, morals, and behavior. Whether or not alignment or other morality systems are a necessary or good thing is a long-standing debate in the gaming community, and isn't really meant to be the point of the article you're reading now. Instead, the question I'm exploring today is twofold: What are alignment or morality systems good for in a game? And if you decide to use them, which one works the best?
Why bother having an alignment or morality system in the first place?
First off, why bother having an alignment or morality system in the first place when plenty of games get by without it? This is a question I'm often asking myself. I'll confess that, all other things being equal, I personally tend to prefer games without alignment - if only because I already try to consider my characters' moral and ethical stances when I'm playing them, even without a potentially flawed system to give me a mechanical or benefit for doing so. But at the same time, there are plenty of scenarios in which having a clearly defined alignment system can be a boon. For example, when playing a character whose beliefs differ from your own, alignment serves as a handy reminder of how your character might approach certain situations differently than you would. Similarly, I've found that when I'm stumped over how my character might respond to a particular challenge, looking to alignment can give me a hint of how she might respond. Finally, alignment can be a helpful tool for new or reluctant roleplayers who have trouble getting deeply into their characters' psyches without some sort of in-game mechanical reminder to serve as a jumping-off point.
So if alignment systems have a place in many different styles of gaming (and they do), which of the many options out there best rises to the challenge of helping players model their characters' belief systems? The first such system that most gamers probably think of comes from the game that popularized the word "alignment" in the first place - D&D. Even thirty years later, the nine alignments generated from the opposing axes of good vs. evil and law vs. chaos provide a simple, elegant, and easy-to-understand way of depicting a character's moral compass. It's no wonder that the general outline of what alignment is and how it works has persisted through all editions of D&D, and that so many other games have borrowed from this concept. For these reasons, the classic D&D alignment system often provides a good jumping-off point for incorporating codified character morality into a game.
Of course, this means that the alignment system has been around long enough for it to become one of the more resoundingly criticized aspects of D&D. Like any attempt to put a complicated real-world issue into simplified game terms, D&D's alignment system has been blasted for being overly limiting and simplistic. Indeed, at its worst, alignment can become a straitjacket, with bad DMs using alignment and sessions degenerating into endless debates about whether a certain action is really Lawful Good enough. Yet in my own experiences, the opposite has been much more common. My current D&D group pretty much ignores alignment except in the most general sense, which seems to be the trend in many groups. This begs the question, then, of what alignment is good for in the first place if many players elect not to make it very important to their games.
Another take on modeling character morality in RPGs is White Wolf's World of Darkness - both the original system and the revised Storyteller approach. For the most part, original WoD stayed away from an alignment or morality system. With the exception of Vampire's Humanity meter and to a lesser extent Werewolf's Renown system (both tools that was essential to the function and theme of the game), old WoD described character behavior and beliefs with a normally-not-alignment-implying Nature and Demeanor and allowed players to work out their characters' moral compasses on their own. But it's not so in the revision. In the new World of Darkness, characters of all types possess a Virtue and a Vice (basically, one of each of the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues) as well as a meter tracking Morality (or a similar virtue for supernatural types). Fulfilling either your character's Vice or Virtue earns him Willpower (much as fulfilling Nature worked in oWoD), while the Morality meter diminishes if your character carries out various unethical acts without remorse and rises if she redeems herself (though lowering it is much easier to do). Morality runs from ten (a living saint) to zero (a total sociopath) and tracks what is usually a long slow slide toward tiny little numbers, this being the World of Darkness and all.
I'm not crazy about nWoD's system.
It's hard to compare the two Worlds of Darkness in this respect due to the often substantial differences between the original games and their revised versions, but as a matter of personal preference I'm not crazy about nWoD's system. There are some very good aspects to the system; tying the morality system directly to useful in-game rewards like Willpower makes it automatically relevant and useful, and it and other standardizing measures across the WoD were very welcomed for those wanting to run crossovers without tearing their hair out. But in the end, Vice, Virtue, and Morality strike me as limiting in a way that D&D's alignment generally is not. In terms of Vice and Virtue, there's the question of how much standardization is too much. With seven of each, there are only 49 possible Virtue/Vice combinations, which nearly as reductionistic as D&D's alignment if not more so. Add to that the fact that certain combinations are much more likely to occur than others; a pack of "fighting type" werewolves in nWoD is likely to consist primarily of characters with the Fortitude Virtue and Wrath Vice, whereas the same pack in oWoD would still be unbalanced but have a higher chance of diversity of viewpoints and behaviors thanks to the more open Nature/Demeanor system. Moreover, what if you want to play a character from a non-Western culture, who may praise or revile traits that are totally different from the Eurocentric ones offered by the WoD?
Morality (or Humanity, or Wisdom, or Clarity, or whatever your game calls for) also suffers from many of the same problems that came along with Vampire: The Masquerade's Humanity system. Under the system as written, characters only lose dots in Morality if they don't feel sorry for the wrong they've done. Whether or not they feel sufficiently sorry is decided by a roll of the dice; if they don't, they risk gaining a psychological Derangement. Certainly involving dice in the equation makes the process seem more equitable, but it has always seemed to me that I'm a better arbiter of whether my character would regret a certain action than a handful of dice are. Also, not unlike D&D alignment, feeling bad about our characters' actions is something the nWoD Mage group I play in tends to ignore; we roll the dice and see a favorable result, say "oh, that's nice," and get on with the game without actually bothering to portray the guilt that the dice tell us our characters feel. We've also got at least one character who, thanks to occasionally flexible morals and poor rolling, is quickly becoming a walking talking mass of Derangements. Luckily for that player, he enjoys acting out the gaggle of neuroses he's acquired, but if it were someone else they might not be having nearly as much fun.
In my opinion, the World of Darkness Storyteller system does a better job of tying its morality system directly to gameplay than D&D does, but this approach has its own problems too. So I'm fortunate to have found a game system that, at least for me, gets the job done more successfully. That game is Unknown Armies, a criminally underrated and somewhat obscure modern fantasy/horror RPG. UA posits that each character possesses a rage stimulus (something that makes the character really angry), a fear stimulus (a phobia the character has), and a noble stimulus (a cause or belief that the character strongly supports). Like almost everything else in UA, the field is wide open in terms of defining what these stimuli might be. When a character encounters one of their stimuli, he gets a substantial stat boost if he wants to attack or destroy that rage stimulus, escape from that fear stimulus, or go the extra mile to fight for that noble stimulus. The end result is that all characters in UA, no matter how saintly or evil they might seem, are fully capable of violence and righteous fury, acts of supreme cowardice, and moments of utter heroism - not unlike real human beings. What's more, including the three stimuli at the beginning of character generation gets players thinking about what really motivates their characters, and displaying a much wider and deeper range of believable behaviors because of it.
Morality and character behavior in UA is also tied to five separate meters (Violence, Unnatural, Isolation, Helplessness, and Self) that behave like Sanity points on steroids, and have to do with how well the character copes mentally with the stresses of the crazy adventures all gaming characters eventually go through. I won't go into too much depth about this (awesome) system here, but suffice to say that the more exposure to weird and bad stuff a character has, the easier it is for that character to face similar stressors in the future. (Of course, too many failed rolls can also lead to psychological problems, but that's another issue entirely.) But at the same time, a character who spends too much time around heavy violence or supernatural stuff risks becoming a sociopath, unable to use their rage, fear, or noble stimuli at all.
Madness meters also add a fun element of randomness to shake things up.
The thing I love about the Unknown Armies way of approaching morality is that it's reasonably realistic while still being fun. It rewards players for gaming according to their characters' moral codes by making it easier for them to carry out actions that reflect their beliefs. Madness meters also add a fun element of randomness to shake things up. When a character fails a madness-related roll upon being exposed to a level of bad they've never seen before, the player chooses whether their character's resulting freak-out is panic (run away at top speed), paralysis (stand there frozen in terror), or frenzy (beat the hell out of it!). In the UA campaign I ran, my players had a great time with this aspect of the game; it gave them a choice over how to be scared while also acknowledging that in some circumstances, real people sometimes have uncontrollable reactions to the unknown. The rage, fear, and noble stimuli also do a great job of modeling the fact that drives both noble and base can coexist in the same person, which is perfect for UA's "shades of grey" approach. If UA's system has a flaw, it's that madness meters require a substantial amount of tracking on the part of the GM (as do many other aspects of UA). But that's a problem I'm willing to face for a system that really works for me.
So in the end, which morality system is the best? The answer to that question depends on your preferences and those of your gaming group. As for my players and I, we're perfectly happy with the lack of a morality system in the Serenity RPG (though not with other aspects of the system, which is definitely a topic for another time!). Unknown Armies is still my preference, but I get along fine in D&D and WoD when those systems are called for. And now I leave it up to all of you: What's your take on morality systems in RPGs? Necessary or not? What's worked and hasn't worked for you? Speak out in the comments, because in this case, there really is no right or wrong.