I admit it– I’ve never liked alignment. All the way back to my gaming origins 20 years ago, I have done my best to sidestep, downplay and at times blatantly ignore the idea that there are these gigantic metaphysical boxes that every sentient being falls into. Creatures whose brains couldn’t be more different– take humans and dragons, for example. Everything about them says that on a logical level there should be no real reason for them to interact– and yet, if they are the same alignment, they are supposed to get along. That just boggles me.
Also, another gripe I have is that every single edition has paid short shrift to exactly how each alignment behaves. Sure, there are small boxes of text that hit the high points, but there are generations of gamers and incomprehensible amounts of space taken up on messageboards everywhere on exactly what alignment means and how it is supposed to be played the “right” way. And may all the gods help us if the words “Paladin” and “Lawful Good” are brought up. You can practically hear the trolls flicking their bics and getting the flames started when that happens.
I’ve had a concept bubbling in my head for a while about how to ditch alignment completely and move toward something more…well, usable. I wanted something that was more concrete than alignment, but also more flexible. A way to codify characters that lets a player have some better guidelines as to what the metaphysical part of their character actually means, and how that can influence the PCs’ actions.
A long time ago, I picked up a copy of Monte Cook’s Book of Hallowed Might. As a resource, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s got so many cool ideas crammed into one small softcover that especially at the .pdf price it’s a steal. Anyway, in the Paladin chapter it lists a “Code of Conduct” that has stuck with me for a long time. It reads like this:
• Prowess: Seek excellence in all endeavors expected of a paladin, martial and otherwise, gaining strength to be used in the service of justice, rather than in personal aggrandizement.
• Justice: Seek always the path of good, unencumbered by personal interest. Recognize that the sword of justice can be a terrible thing, so it must be tempered by humanity and mercy.
• Loyalty: Be known for unwavering commitment to the people and ideals you choose to live by. There are many places in life where compromise may be needed. Loyalty is not among them.
• Defense: Seek always to defend your nation, your lord, your family, your companions, and those whom you believe worthy of loyalty.
• Courage: Being a paladin often means choosing the more difficult path, the personally expensive one. Be prepared to make personal sacrifices in service of the precepts and people you value. At the same time, a paladin should seek wisdom to see the difference between courage and foolishness. Courage also means taking the side of truth in all matters, rather than seeking the expedient lie.
• Faith: A paladin must have faith in his beliefs, for faith roots him and offers hope against despair.
• Humility: Place value upon the contributions of others. Do not boast of your own accomplishments, wait for others to do this for you. Tell the deeds of others before your own, according them the renown rightfully earned through virtuous deeds.
• Largesse: Be generous insofar as your resources allow. Place the needs of others before your own. Keeping this in mind makes decisions regarding justice much simpler.
• Nobility: Seek great stature of character by holding to the virtues and duties of a paladin. Realize that, though one can never teach such ideals, the quality of striving toward them makes one truly noble. Through your nobility you can also influence others, offering a compelling example of what one can accomplish in the service of good.
• Principle: Although a paladin shows wisdom in his actions and commits no act without due consideration, when in doubt, do what is right and good for its own sake. Truth, virtue, fidelity, and honor are motives unto themselves, and each is larger than any single paladin.
• Franchise: Seek all these achievements as sincerely as possible, not for the reason of personal gain but because it is right. Do not restrict your exploration to a small world, but seek to infuse every aspect of your life with these qualities. Should you succeed in even a tiny measure, you will be well remembered for your quality and virtue.
For my heavily Arthurian-influenced campaign setting of Brittanis, this works perfectly as the Code for a paladin and really, for just about anybody. It has all the chivalric ideals and tenets pretty well covered, and could be the measuring stick for how society views people in general. But that’s not what I’m going for. I’m looking on a more macro scale. So instead, I’d not focus on how the code affects a paladin. Instead, I’d come up with more generic, but still as solid, definitions for the pieces of the Code. Prowess would become “seek excellence in all endeavors. Perfection, even if unattainable, should be your goal always. Gain strength, knowledge, and power in order to increase yourself towards your goals.” That still leaves the Paladin free to use Prowess as part of his Code, but it also opens up a whole bag of alternate interpretations.
What if, like alignment was in 3.X, these core ideals were built into the very fabric of the setting? Instead of just lofty ideas, what if they are in fact metaphysical touchstones around with the whole world is built? In one way, you could look at it as if these words and the ideas they represent were some of the first concepts ever voiced by the gods in the Supernal language, giving them massive inherent power. They would infuse everything in some way or another. Just like alignment used to be, these ideals become part of the magical makeup of the world.
Here’s how I’d use them, at least to start off with: each god in the pantheon would be associated with, say, 4 of the virtues– even the most evil of the gods. That’s what makes these tenets so interesting and useful. An evil god can still choose, say, Prowess, Defense, Courage and Faith, and still be mind-blisteringly evil. The thing is, by picking these tenets–the same tenets the PCs will themselves pick from at character creation– you gain a relative sense of how the characters will interact, because you know what is important to them. If each God has four tenets, and PCs choose three at character generation, at least one of those three must be the same for a divine spellcaster (same with the major Primal spirits and Primal characters). Orders of Knighthood or Thieves’ Guilds or Arcane Orders might have associated tenets — by mixing and matching you gain a massive number of combinations, especially when you factor in that some things might have more or less required tenets. As a character gains in responsibilities he might be required to take on more of them, trying to fulfill a higher ideal.
These tenets also would help the GM build encounters and choices into the game– if you know a PC has chosen Courage as one of his tenets, giving him the opportunity to face down ugly odds can play into that. Likewise Largesse can be played up if you put the PCs in contact with an orphanage or some other needy person. You don’t have to make it blatant, either– if a PC has these tenets written on their character sheet they are going to be looking for opportunities to demonstrate it, and they will be more likely to pick up on the adventure hooks you send their way if you wrap it in some tenet-flavored bait.
What do you think? What other kinds of alternate alignment systems have you used? Did they work? Should alignment just be taken from the game entirely? Let’s hear what you have to say!