Replacing Alignment with Character Values

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!

This entry was posted in Applying Theory, Brittanis, Characters, GM Advice, Group Dynamics, Rules, Tropes, Worldbuilding. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Replacing Alignment with Character Values

  1. Tom Stanley says:

    I was on Yahoo and found your blog. Read a few of your other posts. Good work. I am looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Tom Stanley

  2. Jared Brown says:

    I think that both alignment and values have useful places in D&D–and I also think that 4e has taken steps to implement a more “values-centric” (but *not* values-only) approach. The main reason for this is that alignment is no longer tied to mechanics, it’s just descriptive. “Good” and “Evil” are no longer physical elements, the Astral Sea (aka the Plane Above) is no longer the exclusive domain of “Good” beings (almost all deities live there, including multiple Evil ones), and Undead things while usually evil are Necrotic (and thus weak to Radiant damage, which is often generated by deities of all alignments).

    Added to this, we now have relatively simplified commandments for all published deities. For example, Bahamut’s entry contains the following section:
    “He commands his followers thus:
    * Uphold the highest ideals of honor and justice.
    * Be constantly vigilant against evil and oppose it on all fronts.
    * Protect the weak, liberate the oppressed, and defend just order.”

    So there is already a move toward this “values” type system, though I don’t think it’s nearly as developed as the one you’re proposing. It’s interesting to compare the two, at any rate.

  3. Tim Newman says:

    Are you famliar with Pendragon? That used paired character traits such as Brave/Cowardly, which sometimes have in game effects. You’d resist fear-causing magic with your Brave or a seduction attempt with Chaste. Different religions have a different set of character traits which they regard as desirable, and if you embody them you get some small benefits. Which would perhaps work well with a D&D pantheon, since while you might have several gods embodying Prowess, Courage and Faith the benefits you got from each would differ according to the god’s attitude. A good deity with those might give a bonus to some saving throws, while an evil one would give a damage or attack bonus, perhaps.

    The other part of the ‘character values’ bit of Pendragon characters is the Passions section of the character sheet. Which I actually think is far more useful for most games. In this case, if something that engages your Passion appears in the game you can roll against that Passion for a bonus to actions directly related to it. If the evil knight abducts your wife and demands you duel him to get her back, you can use your Love(Wife) Passion to enhance your combat skills temporarily. With the penalty that if you fail, there’s a chance the Passion will decline as you start to doubt yourself. That seems eminently adaptable to a range of games, and Ive used it in that way in Pendragon, Runequest, D&D, and several others.

  4. ave says:

    It’s sounds really cool. Maybe such things must be included in next generation of DMG as a most interesting option.

  5. Pingback: Replacing Alignment Part 2 & In-Game Astrology « The Action Point

  6. Louise Stanley says:

    I like this, it is much more of a treatise on how to replace alignment rather than simply doing away with any moral values whatsoever (I’m sure we’ve all read threads on WotC boards and elsewhere with someone desperately trying to prove that PCs raping, pillaging and looting their home village is a neutral act because they were somehow “provoked”).

    The jury is out for me, as we have a 3.5e DM who works heavily with specific Evil opponents and holds us to Good alignments. I play a paladin who is not merely a stereotypical knight-in-shining-armour but is more of a wandering enforcer/companion to adventurers that his baron has sponsored in a war-torn nation.

    I try hard to role-play, particularly with the beautiful female bard (yes, I play a man, almost all the group play cross-gender characters) as the object of my courtly affections. I like your list of values and think that they are an appropriate substitute for alignment, though a little bit restrictive for some of the more mercenary characters in the party. My paladin refers to our rogue/shadowdancer as the “scout” — whose values owe little or nothing to the restrictive values you have but are nevertheless fully orientated towards good. A little expansion and you would have a great system.

    I am coming round to the 4e idea of descriptive alignment quite nicely. I just hope Wizards don’t remove moral judgement from the game as a whole: a lot of people playing it now need that compass more than ever. As a potential parent myself, what I’ve seen of the game that I’ve played for 20 years, since I was 14, is enough for me to think that I wouldn’t like a 14 year old now to play it.

  7. I ran a game about 4 years ago that ran completely on a values and honor based system. I created a list of roughly 20 values and the players had to choose at least three but no more than 5. They were encouraged to come up with some of their own also. I told them that there was no good or evil in the world, simply perceptions and beliefs. I had never seen finer roleplaying from any of the five players than i did in that campaign.

    In 4e the choice to be unaligned has been fun, in so much as it removes the messy baggage of “good versus evil” “that’s not what a hero would do” arguing that used to plague 2nd edition games. Overall i could see running values again in a campaign, but perhaps adding good, evil, law, and chaos to the list.

    Also, this is my first post and I love your blog.

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