More Granular Alignment System

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:

Alignments for Game of Thrones

D&D Alignments as applied to Game of Thrones characters

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.

Batman is an alignment

Batman has his own alignment. It’s named named 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.

Alternate Alignment

Alignment defined in terms of empathy, justice and ambition

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:

Batman and Dexter

The three axis aliment for Batman and Dexter

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)?

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8 Responses to More Granular Alignment System

  1. MrPete GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I like that trial of adding more variety and glancing over it there’s no character coming to mind that would be hard to get into there.

    go out of their way to find legal loopholes to help someone who fell hard on their luck.

    That one immediatly reminded me of Mr.Incredible working at the insurance company :)

    Just out of curiosity, how would you translate the pictured GoT-characters into this system?

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  2. 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.

    This actually just happened the other day in a conversation between my wife and me. In December 2012 I bought Fallout: New Vegas in a Steam sale. Last week I finally started playing it, and a discussion of the age of the game came up. To me it only felt like it came out a couple years ago, but looking it up we found out it’s nearly 4 years old now.

    Different people have different ideas of what is evil, or what is considered chaotic.

    I think the lawful-chaotic axis is a lot more objective than good-evil. Lawful doesn’t really mean following the law of the land but rather following some (mostly) consistent, developed moral code. A local monopoly on violence is just one way to derive law, and an alignment system shouldn’t have that method hard-coded. A lawful character is more predictable, often resulting in dependable honestly and loyalty even when evil: if their moral code dictates it as such, they can be trusted never to lie or betray. If a lawful evil villain is killing you, it shouldn’t be very surprising and you probably know exactly why s/he’s doing it. The good/evil component is a measure of their moral code more than of the person.

    A chaotic character is whimsical and inconsistent, and therefore cannot be relied upon for any particular behavior. The good/evil component is an indicator of their tendencies.

    A neutral character is somewhere in between. They have some sort of moral code, but it’s not consistent or they don’t always follow it. They’re compromising, but without being totally unpredictable. The vast majority of people fall under this category. It’s probably the most economical position on the lawful-chaotic axis.

    Now, I only know Batman from the Nolan trilogy and the Arkham games, but under this definition Batman is clearly lawful. He adheres to a strict moral code, regardless of conflict with the current law of the land. That conflict doesn’t make him chaotic. As for Batman’s good/evil, that’s definitely open for debate.

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  3. Karthik INDIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I like the system, it’s simple and expressive. I would allow an option for zero pips, though, to accommodate psychopaths and nihilists.

    The most interesting alignment system I know of is the Tides from Torment: Tides of Numenera. This writeup explains. It’s used a little differently too: Tides are an actual metaphysical force in the Ninth World, and it gauges your PC’s actions and not their motivations.

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  4. joek UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Chris Wellons wrote:

    I think the lawful-chaotic axis is a lot more objective than good-evil. Lawful doesn’t really mean following the law of the land but rather following some (mostly) consistent, developed moral code. A local monopoly on violence is just one way to derive law, and an alignment system shouldn’t have that method hard-coded. A lawful character is more predictable, often resulting in dependable honestly and loyalty even when evil: if their moral code dictates it as such, they can be trusted never to lie or betray. If a lawful evil villain is killing you, it shouldn’t be very surprising and you probably know exactly why s/he’s doing it. The good/evil component is a measure of their moral code more than of the person.
    A chaotic character is whimsical and inconsistent, and therefore cannot be relied upon for any particular behavior. The good/evil component is an indicator of their tendencies.
    A neutral character is somewhere in between. They have some sort of moral code, but it’s not consistent or they don’t always follow it. They’re compromising, but without being totally unpredictable. The vast majority of people fall under this category. It’s probably the most economical position on the lawful-chaotic axis.
    Now, I only know Batman from the Nolan trilogy and the Arkham games, but under this definition Batman is clearly lawful. He adheres to a strict moral code, regardless of conflict with the current law of the land. That conflict doesn’t make him chaotic. As for Batman’s good/evil, that’s definitely open for debate.

    I agree with this interpretation of the lawful/chaotic spectrum. In fact, I think it’s pretty similar to your ‘justice’ meter. Lawful characters will do ‘the right thing’ according to their own moral standards, consistently, whereas chaotic characters are more likely to ignore their own moral system for fun or profit, or not have a coherent or well developed system. Dexter, for example, is lawful: he follows Harry’s Code. Likewise, Javert from Les Mis is lawful: he follows the law of the land, regardless of personal consequences (and eventually kills himself when he feels that he no longer can follow the law objectively). This despite the fact that Dexter is portrayed mostly doing good, while Javert is portrayed mostly doing evil. In fact, I would go further and say that both Javert and Dexter are lawful neutral: both follow their moral code no matter what the circumstances are, and don’t allow empathy (good) or personal ambition (evil) to get in the way of that.

    By contrast, Jean Valjean, also from Les Mis, is probably Neutral Good: he has a personal moral code, but is willing to bend it in order to help others — stealing bread for his nephew, breaking out of custody to go to rescue Cosette, and so on. When he has the opportunity to kill Javert, or to leave him to die, however, he rescues him, showing that his overall morals — not killing, for instance, for personal gain — are still intact.

    Basically, then, I think you are a little harsh on the D&D alignment system: sure, people don’t understand what the divisions mean, but I think that there is in fact a coherent set of definitions to the alignments — and that they basically match up pretty well to those you have suggested in your new alignment system…

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  5. switchnode UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    *shakes head* I don’t think it works.

    The “ambition” slider feels tacked on; it’s so one-dimensional as to be almost useless. ‘Ambition’ doesn’t only refer to desire for personal fame, or glory, or even power; it’s possible to have incredible drive towards entirely orthogonal goals—discovery, self-improvement, activism. Take V: he believes that he can change a nation, and does so—but the same ideology that drives him also leads him to subsume his personal identity completely (“ideas are bulletproof”). Is he ambitious or not?

    All characters have goals, even if they’re only simple ones. There are too many possible directions there to be reduced to a single slider with any kind of usefulness or meaning. Far better to let a character’s goals drive or be driven by the campaign! For the narrativists, it’s the narrative; for the snarky dungeon-crawlers… kill monsters, get gold, clear dungeon. Do either of them need more?

    What you’re left with are the “justice” and “empathy” sliders. (And, incidentally, I think you’ve made another mistake in, if not the intent, the description of “empathy”: alignments are supposed to be about motivation; you’ve made this one about ability. An unwillingness to give a shit about other people’s problems is not necessarily caused by an inability to understand them. I have always argued that the very best villains are the ones who can see the other side of the story, who are adept at anticipating, interpreting, and manipulating the heroes’ thinking, who do understand how they are hurting people—and just don’t care. To assert that antagonism is always inflexible or blinkered is a little dismissive of villainy, and by extension, of heroism.)

    So you have your “justice” and “empathy”, which you present as an improvement on D&D’s “Lawful/Chaotic” and “Good/Evil”… when both of them reduce to, or are best interpreted as, Code/No Code (which the comments above have covered) and Other(s)/Self. You’ve kept the granularity of the sliders—each one gives you three choices—but you’ve made them one-sided instead of symmetrical. Okay, the D&D system can be simplistic and rigid, but its lure is that an Evil person is generally fairly obviously distinguishable from a Neutral person is generally fairly obviously distinguishable from a Good person. There is a qualitative difference—negative/zero/positive—that makes it quick and easy to assign. Whereas the quantitative difference between two pips of empathy and three pips of empathy is… uh… what is it, really?

    What is the mechanical purpose of this? Surely it can’t ever actually be used for anything; there’s clearly no room for ‘protection-from’ mechanics here. Okay, maybe you can have an NPC react differently to a two-justice character and a three-justice character, but is that really better than just keeping in mind the players’ reputation? What else is there—”roll to feel sympathy”? Definitely not an improvement on the “limiting player choice” front. You seem to be saying that snarky dungeon-crawlers need a thing to tell them what their characters are like, regardless of whether that thing ever comes up in-game. But do they really? As long as you’re playing a campaign that doesn’t care about your personality or motivation, is there any reason to play your character in any particular way aside from “fun”? And if you have enough of a narrativist streak to like personality templates, what does this system do that picking, say, a Hogwarts House doesn’t?

    (Actually now that I think of it I would totally play a dungeon crawl where everyone had a Hogwarts House. That would be hilarious.)

    So… tl;dr, a lossy cipher for the standard two-axis, and a largely pointless one at that. I like your thoughts about RPGs, but this one strikes me as mostly cruft.

    Two footnotes:
    1. The GoT alignment chart is from the estimable MightyGodKing.
    2. You might be interested in the discussion of D&D alignment here, particularly the pages “Intelligence” (re: limiting player choice) and “‘Real’ Alignments” (re: good villains, evil heroes, and the many variations on ‘ambition’.)

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  6. It’s an interesting idea… The Empathy and Justice categories kinda fit the D&D Good/Evil and Law/Chaos axes, but stated in a slightly different way. Having said that, I think the phrasing is a definite improvement. However, I am unclear what the middle pip represents? Batman has two pips in empathy and Dexter has one – but Dexter is a psychopath and Batman is … troubled. Three pips would be a paragon of empathy. So is two pips ‘normal’? Would this follow a bell curve where most people would be two pips on empathy and the 3 and 1 would be the 5% outliers? I think a good way to think about it ‘how many people do they care for’? Even Dexter cares about his sister and his friends, so he gets one pip, Batman cares about everyone except for criminals, so he gets two. Looking at it like that, Superman cares about everyone and everything, so he gets three? Or would Superman get one, since he’s an alien and doesn’t really understand us at all (as in the more traditional meaning of empathy), and the protectiveness comes from a three pip justice rating?

    Thinking of Superman, what’s his ambition rating? He is definitely not afraid of literally being a god among men, and the costume doesn’t exactly scream modesty… Maybe Superman and Kent could get different ambitions ratings – 3 and 1 respectively. What about the Joker? Is he a zero pips in all three?

    I agree about time btw… I still think of any film or game that has come out since 2000 as ‘new’ or ‘recent’. Understanding that almost 15 years has past since 2000 is weird.

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  7. Sheriff Fatman UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    First time I’ve heard of the D&D 4th edition alignment system. It seems more than a bit reminiscent of the Warhammer scheme: Law – Good – Neutral – Evil – Chaos.

    Of course, WH’s Law isn’t really the same as Lawful Good, nor is Chaos the same as Chaotic Evil, though Law is “better” than evil, and Chaos definitely causes pain and suffering: it’s just that good and evil simply aren’t the point as far as those two are concerned.

    The angels in Hellblazer are WH-lawful (I don’t know why people think Angels are beatific: they scare the crap out of me — John Constantine): the Divine Plan comes first; humanity rates a very poor second.

    Heath Ledger’s Joker is Chaos personified (Some men just want to watch the world burn — Alfred Pennyworth): possibly no more so than when he accepts Harvey Dent’s bet and puts Dent’s gun to his forehead himself.@ Sheriff Fatman:

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ MrPete:

    Uh, oh… I’m not sure actually. Lanisters would probably be low on empathy and justice and high on ambition (except for Tyrion who would have high everything – he is empathetic, ambitious and have good sense of right and wrong) for example. Well, maybe. I haven’t said this system is perfect. :)

    @ Chris Wellons:

    Yeah, I think the lawful axis is pretty clear cut. The Good/Evil axis is where things get murky and inconsistent – especially when we try to use it to label anti-heroes and vigilantes who do questionable things for good reasons.

    And yeah, I also think Batman belongs in Lawful Good/Neutral side of the chart because of his no-killing rule and the fact he hands criminals over to the police so that they can be arrested and stand a fair trial.

    @ joek:

    Yeah, I definitely am to harsh on it. I love it to pieces because it allows such discussions to take place. I think culturally it is a slam dunk in terms of giving us nerds a vocabulary to take apart character motivations. So this was mostly just an exercise in doing something different.

    Speaking of Jean Valjean, every time Russel Crowe started singing in that movie I couldn’t help but think about that South Park episode.

    @ switchnode:

    Wow, good points. I guess the intent was to get away from vague concepts such as good/evil and try to re-interpret them into more concrete terms (as in empathy and sense of right and wrong). But your points still stand. So I think as a whole the exercise was worthwhile helping us to re-examine the dual axis system. :)

    Anyways, excellent critique and suggestions and dully noted.

    Also, you are right: Hogwarts Houses do kinda work like an alignment system (especially with the way students are “sorted” into them based on personality). Perhaps that’s actually could be an interesting solution: pick a number of houses/guilds/groups which all represent specific character archetypes and personality types and sort characters into them, allowing for internal variance within them.

    @ Michael Miller:

    Yeah, perhaps making it a numerical scale was not the hottest idea. I’d rate Superman’s ambition low because of the way he uses his powers. In my mind the ambition was more about selflessness and or belief in own infallibility. So a Superman with high rating in that stat would seek power so that he could protect people by “fixing” the society and installing new law and order as a supreme ruler of Earth. Instead he seeks to help one person at a time, stays out of the politics and is careful not to intimidate or threaten those he protects. Not sure if that makes sense with the way I worded it though, but that was kinda the intent. Perhaps a word other than “ambition” would have worked better.

    @ Sheriff Fatman:

    Yeah, I think you are right. Though in Warhammer Chaos has a very specific meaning – namely “the shit that oozes out of the North Pole and ruins everyone’s day – and everything associated with that stuff”. So it does make sense that it would be on the bottom rung in the alignment chart, and opposed by Lawful alignment which is that of Witchhunters and religious fanatics. It creates a nice lop-sided dichotomy.

    I do like your example of Constantine’s angels and Nolan’s Joker as representations of Law and Chaos. It makes perfect sense.

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