Time is weird. When you are two years old, then the summer vacation seems to be an eternity because that two month time period represents nearly a tenth of your entire life. As you get older, the ratio between the entirety of your waking life, and any select time period slowly decrees. Summer vacations at first appear way to short short only to become barely noticeable blips on the radar. Eventually whole years slip through your fingers like grains of sand on the beach. This is simple mat: it’s fractions. And yet, it feels weird.
Today I wanted to write a post about alignments, and I recalled writing a piece I wanted to reference. I could have sworn I have published it just a few weeks ago. It turns out the post was written back in 2011. This is happening more and more. I will be talking to someone about a video game that came out “a few months back” only to have them remind me it is actually a six year old title. I think I’m somehow got unstuck in time… Or I’m getting old. It’s probably one of these things. Becoming a timeless being could be kinda cool, but I’m not very keen on the second thing, so I’m just going to change the subject and talk about role playing games now.
Aliments are a shorthand for describing who characters are as a person: whether they are a paragon of virtue or a backstabbing villain. This is a very gamy concept in that it creates a mechanic for something that should essentially be role played. Most characters ought to have motivations, convictions, prejudices and character flaws that can be derived from their back story. Most of modern, more storytelling oriented systems eschew the alignment mechanic and instead let players define their characters in terms of traits, personality quirks, desires and etc.. D&D, however, was born out of tabletop miniature games and was initially mostly about dudes exploring dungeons. Hence it needed a mechanical thing that could be put the character sheets, and be used to, for example, create spells that only affected evil creatures.
Everyone’s favorite alignment system is the classic dual axis D&D system. It is classic mostly in terms of no longer being used (4e flattened it to a single axis, effectively making it much less granular), because it originated with AD&D and not the original game. But who cares. The point is that the system seems granular because it offers nine possible alignments that represent the character’s altruism and stance towards justice. It is blatantly evident that this system strikes a chord with most people because just about everyone loves to make these things:
It is actually a really fun exercise: you pick your favorite series, franchise or setting and then you try to fit its characters into the grid representing all the possible D&D alignments. For bonus points, you provide a quote that supports your decision below each picture. It quite astonishing how well this works until you try it with batman.
The “slot a character into an alignment” game is so much fun, because the alignments are super arbitrary. Any character can be made fit into just about any slot. That’s the beauty of it, but also it’s biggest flaw. The very terms used in the system: good, evil, law and chaos are very abstract concepts. Different people have different ideas of what is evil, or what is considered chaotic. But in game terms it is kinda supposed to be treated in absolutist terms. This was one of the reasons Wizards of the Coast decided to flatten the two axis system. If you look into the release notes for 4e you will notice that one of their primary concerns with the old system was that it limited player choices. The example they gave was a Lawful Good player feeling compelled to attack a Chaotic Neutral rogue upon learning their alignment. Granted, their new system isn’t much better, but that’s besides the point.
I was thinking about how the flaw in the dual axis could be fixed while still maintaining this sort of gamy feel that simulationists and gamists (as defined per the GNS theory) could get behind. Lets face it, narrativists do not need a thing on their character sheet that tells them how their character will want to behave because their chosen system probably incentivizes and provides mechanics for building a good back story. On the other hand folks who just want to play a heroic fantasy game where they kill orcs and loot dungeons while pretending to be snarky heroes (all PC’s have +20 to snark by default) usually appreciate a slot on the character sheet which could be a substitute for morality and personality.
The thing about alignments is that they are not really about these very abstract, and very broad concepts like evil or chaos. Ultimately they are about how your character relates to other people and what motivates him or her. So why not define the alignment in such terms. Fore example, imagine a WoD style entry on your character sheet which has three “characteristics”, each of which has three pips next to it. At character creation you have to fill one or more pips in each category.
Yes, technically I just created a three axis system but I think this one might be a little bit more intuitive.
The first characteristic on the list is empathy which describes how well your character is able to relate to plight of other people. Someone with high empathy (3 pips filled out) is very good at imagining oneself in the shoes of someone else. If they see a beggar on the street, it would be hard for them to just walk away because they can can imagine how it would feel to have to beg for food. Not only that, they would be very good at seeing things from another points of view. So for example despite being a noble themselves, they would be very upset seeing a peasant being flogged/hanged as punishment for trapping a deer from the local forest, even if there was a law against it.
On the other hand someone with only a single pip of empathy would be very self centered. They would be oblivious to the plight of others and incapable of relating to someone different than them. They simply assume that all people think the same way they do, and everyone who doesn’t must be confused or mistaken. This doesn’t make them inherently evil – just selfish.
The second category, justice describes the characters moral compass. It indicates how willing they are to act when they see injustice being done. This is not a measure of how “law abiding” the character is. It not about law or chaos but about “doing the right thing”. The justice rating comes into play after your character goes “hey, this is wrong” and describes what happens next. A high justice character will feel compelled to do something about the perceived injustice. That said, whether or not the character can perceive something as unjust depends on the empathy rating. For example, someone which high justice and low empathy would be an archetypal bureaucrat: a stickler for literal letter of the law who refuses to bend the rules regardless of situation. On the other hand a bureaucrat with high empathy and high justice would work tirelessly to “fix” the laws, or go out of their way to find legal loopholes to help someone who fell hard on their luck.
Just with this two characteristics I’d argue this system is already more granular and clearer than the D&D alignments despite also having only nine possible variants. Let me give you an example: lets say your character sees a homeless drunk stumble onto a city guard patrol. Being very inebriated the man decides to address the guards and “tell them how it is” venting his anger at the way poor are treated in the city. The guards are having none of it, and decide to arrest him. The drunk naturally resists and tries to get away, because he was not planning on spending the night in the dungeon. Given their numerical superiority, sobriety and better equipment, the guards quickly take the drunk down and decide to “teach him a lesson about respect” by giving roughing him up a bit. How does your character react to this if you are Lawful Good?
Well, it really depends on how you argue your case. Because you are Good, you will probably feel compelled to help the drunk. On the other hand, being Lawful you probably recognize he was clearly disruptive, belligerent and perhaps indeed in need of a “corrective lesson”, and starting a fight with law enforcers would be a crime. Your choice is to essentially err on the side of law, or goodness… And either choice can be explained away as the correct course of action that does not violate your alignment.
How about our new system? A high justice, high empathy person would recognize the drunk didn’t do anything wrong (his was an error in judgement, mostly caused by the state of inebriation) and step in. Low empathy and high justice character would applaud the guards for keeping the streets clean. High empathy and low justice characters would feel bad for the drunk, and maybe write a sternly worded letter to the mayor about the brutality of the guards, but would not risk life and limb to help the man. A low justice and low empathy person would just walk on by and not give a shit.
The third category is ambition which represents the character’s drive and desire for personal success. It measures how much the character values their public image, or how much they desire fame and fortune. People with high ambition want to be in the spotlight and they become politicians, orators or heroes whose exploits become the stuff of legends. Those with low ambitions prefer a simple life, and want to fly below the radar most of the time.
A good example of medium empathy, medium justice and medium ambition would be Han Solo at the beginning of A New Hope. He is not much of a people person, and can be grating. He does not get along with the princes, and he is not terribly upset that the Empire just blew up an entire planet. That said, he is not completely oblivious (empathy). Similarly, he does not want to make waves or be famous. He just wants to make some money, pay off his debts and stay out of jail. But he is a little disappointed that Ben and Luke never heard about his legendary ship so he obviously does care about his image (ambition). At the end of the movie he takes the money and leaves just before the big fight stating that he doesn’t really care about politics. However at the last minute he turns Millennium Falcon around and “does the right thing” by helping the rebels destroy the Death Star. From that point on he decides to continue doing the right thing. He becomes legit, and he fights along side of the good guys. Potentially you could say he gains a pip in justice.
That’s kind of the beauty of a pip based system. Instead of a slot based alignment that punishes you for “violating” it by going out of the box, this system is fluid. When a player decides they just had a “character development moment” they can fill in or erase pips on their character sheet as appropriate.
Now, the question remains, can this system represent Batman and Dexter accurately enough? Well, I’m not sure actually. Maybe it can. Let’s try:
Let me explain my choices here. Batman gets two pips in Empathy because of his “no kill” rule. He doesn’t mind beating villains into a pulp and he will inflict as much pain as possible on those who he deems deserved it. But he knows how it feels to lose a loved one, and he does not want anyone ever experience that kind of pain. He realizes the villains he fights have families who would suffer if he was to kill them. He gets three pips of justice because he is compelled to go out every night and police Gotham the best way he can. Finally he gets one pip of ambition because he wears a mask. He does not care about fame, and he does not mind if Batman’s image is tarnished as long as justice can be done.
Dexter gets one pip in empathy, because, well, he is a psychopath. He often narrates about his problems relating to others, and his inability to have feelings like normal people. Like batman he has strong sense of justice: he only kills murderers, and he defends the innocent to the best of his ability. Granted, his code of conduct is mostly a defense mechanism but he never willingly deviates from it so it stands. I made his ambition so high, because he actually gets off on the idea of being a hero. When the police discovered the bodies of his victims he had a brief fantasy sequence in which he was being cheered on as a hero by crowds of people. Of course he can’t reveal his work to the public, but secretly he wishes that his brilliance, and his contribution to the society was recognized.
What do you think about the system? Is it any better or worse from classic D&D alignment? Or does it simply have a slightly different set of problems? How would you rate Han Solo, Batman and Dexter on this scale? And for that matter where would you place them on the D&D grid (and no, we’re nod doing the alignment grid meme, so all of them can have the same alignment if you can explain why)?