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Player Guide: Alignment - Context and Nuance

PostPosted: Tue Mar 17, 2015 1:50 pm
by Stam
(Yes, formatting is borked.)

Alignment is a fairly substantial part of the D20 system, with many mechanics and powers tied closely to where one falls on the grid. However, especially in a roleplay-heavy game like our own, it takes on added importance, as a sort of guide for one's behaviors and actions. And though this is traditionally a 'heroic' game that focuses on noble, brave characters performing adventurous deeds, the Player's Handbook itself notes that alignment is not a straitjacket in this regard; the system is not entirely black and white, but also occupied by shades of grey. I realize that I have made this point before (almost ad nauseum), but recently I decided to tackle it in a more straightforward manner, as such:

Below, I have separated the Moral (Good-Evil) and Ethical (Chaotic-Lawful) axes of the alignment grid, and divided them each into ten segments: 1-3 (Evil, Chaotic) and 8-10 (Good, Lawful) form each extreme, with 4-7 comprising the middle (Neutral). I defined the sorts of actions, behaviors, and beliefs held by the average person at each level within the spectrum, showing the gradual shift in opinions between even the similar alignment groups.

For example, looking at the Moral spectrum below, a person who is "Cold" (evil with neutral/good tendencies) has a far different outlook than someone who is "Monstrous" (truly evil, on par with demons)—mechanically she may still count as evil, but she is actually much closer to neutral than truly fiendish. There is a lot of grey area within even the finer breakdown I've provided; some people may see tendencies of their characters in several different numbers, and that's fine. Ideally, they should all hover around a median that suits you.

The purpose of this is not to tell people, "You're X alignment, so this is how you need to play from now on"; if people see this and decide they want to change how they play a character, so be it, but that's not my intent, and people who like their characters as they are can feel free to leave them that way. My main purposes for writing this are simply to give people some concrete standards of what each alignment actually means, to show once and for all the various shades of grey that exist on the alignment spectrum, and to perhaps get people thinking a little more about why their characters act how they do and do what they do, using the below lists as guidelines.

Additional DM-Related Note: I've also made this list to make it easier for DMs and PDMs to track alignment shift. Entries on the main sheet will remain as per the alignments in the Player's Handbook, so that people who don't care about alignment don't have to confront a new system that doesn't concern them. However, the DMs will start keeping track of more detailed alignment notes in their section of each sheet. As adventures are run, and even in normal play, DMs and PDMs are encouraged to watch how people play, and figure out at the conclusion roughly how each character is being played. If it differs from the detailed alignment on the sheet, alignment may be shifted a point or two in the appropriate direction(s). In the interests of avoiding a lot of work in establishing each person's detailed alignment, assume that default values for moral alignment are 3 (Evil), 7 (Neutral), and 8 (Good), while defaults for ethical alignment are 3 (Chaotic), 6 (Neutral) and 8 (Lawful). These are simply base values off of which we can adjust until everyone finds equilibrium.
Some overlap may be noticed; it is entirely possible for one's ethical and moral alignment to come into conflict, and one may have to make a decision that violates one to uphold another. For example, a truly good act may require an individual to violate the laws of that land or his normal code of ethics, so lawful good characters in that situation may have to choose to uphold one or the other. It is arguably almost impossible to uphold extreme values on both the ethical and moral spectra for any length of time, and people devoted to doing so have a very fine line to walk.

Note: It helps to find the "normal" label on each list and read up or down from there, as the entries on either side build gradually off of that 'default' entry.

Credit Where It's Due: These lists owe a great deal to the Humanity system in Vampire: the Masquerade, and to a lesser extent the alignment tables in Rifts. I have based the moral and ethical standards below on the lists in those volumes in the interests of making them as objective as possible, as well as producing tables that have already seen game-testing to a certain degree.

Moral Alignments (Evil-Good)

Generally, one's moral alignment reflects the amount of respect one has for the natural rights of others, particularly when compared to the desires of oneself. Good characters show tendencies towards altruism and concern for the lives and dignity of others, while evil characters tend towards selfishness and a lack of compassion, and some actively gain pleasure from their actions. Dealing with unarmed or surrendering opponents, theft, torture, and the value of self vs. the common good are typical sources of moral conflict. The behaviors on the list below reflect not only the behaviors exhibited by a character of the given level, but also the behaviors she allows those around her to exhibit; a good character is just as appalled by the concept of torturing someone regardless of whether she does it or her party members do it.

Note that while the average humanoid is neutral on the overall scale, most people have a few good tendencies, as these tend to contribute to societal stability; this is why the 'average' on this scale is higher than the mean value.

1: Monstrous. This moral level is best considered as the absence of any morals. There is almost nothing a person at this level will not consider doing, no matter how depraved. Callous murder, perversion, and wickedness for its own sake are freely indulged, and the character probably draws pleasure from these actions even if she does not know the target of them at all. She may be willing to risk herself for one or two very dear people (those at this level are still capable of caring for another, although it likely manifests in a relatively twisted fashion), but otherwise she will not even risk herself without promise of a very clear and substantial material reward, and sacrificing herself outright is laughable. At this level, the character is likely beginning to draw interest from the true forces of darkness, and likely has serious problems working with good characters unless she is very skilled at hiding her nature. Such devotion to pure evil is alien to most, even other people of lesser evil, so mortals of this level are rare (mostly blackguards and evil clerics, though not even all of those meet this exacting level of evil).
2: Horrific. At this moral level, personal convenience becomes paramount; other beings cease to have rights in the eyes of this character if they prove inconvenient for her. Unarmed foes are the best kind, and are killed without hesitation as quickly as a clear threat or competitor. Theft and betrayal mean less than nothing, and even torture and murder may become things done as much on whim as they are in pursuit of a goal; at this level, the character may derive a sense of pleasure from these sorts of activities, especially if the target of these actions has irritated her. Most actions, no matter how trivial, are considered with regards to whether or not they provide any real benefit for the character. Empathy is generally a foreign concept for all but the most perceptive, and working with good characters is quite difficult—this character usually views goodness as weakness.
3: Cold. Lives and property are becoming more irrelevant at this level. If it accomplishes the character's goals, there is little she will not consider: torture, injury, destruction, theft, and even murder are becoming more commonplace—note, however, that she is still unlikely to engage in any of these activities simply for the sake of doing so, and rarely gains pleasure from such an act unless the target of her actions has explicitly raised her ire. She will not sacrifice herself to save another unless that person holds a very dear place in her heart, or she stands to gain a great deal from the action. Unarmed foes are killed without any real hesitation if doing otherwise would be inconvenient. This person is still capable of good acts, but they tend to be whimsical when they happen—either fitting some other purpose of the character, or perhaps to convince herself that she is still a 'decent' person, not completely beyond redemption (or perhaps even in need of it).
4: Unfeeling. Urge indulgence is the key word for people at this level. Capricious murder still bothers this person, but while she gains little or no pleasure from them, destruction, theft, and betrayal are all acceptable tools to accomplish her goals. She has few or no compunctions about taking advantage of people; she would not only keep the shopkeeper's change, but convince him he had shortchanged her if possible. She gains less pleasure from helping others in need for the sake of altruism, and must generally be inspired more by the promise of personal profit. She will almost never sacrifice herself for strangers, even if it clearly serves the greater good, and may hesitate to commit in any situation that seems risky to her personally. Unarmed foes may be killed if they still pose a risk, but some guilt may arise for committing the act (while simply allowing it to happen may allow the character to rationalize her actions with less guilt).
5-6: Indifferent. More selfishness begins to show through in people at this level, who recognize what they need and are willing to do what it takes to get it. The hurting or killing of innocents is still anathema, but this person may be willing to steal from those she doesn't consider friends if she finds a need. She is more willing to take advantage of people, though it may bother her if she later notices that she has caused undue suffering; this sort of person would not blink at keeping the shopkeeper's extra change. This person may be willing to consider torturing a prisoner if there is an urgent and verifiable need, but would be squeamish about doing so themselves, and she still considers killing unarmed or surrendering enemies an act worthy of disdain. She is likely to do what most benefits her in the heat of a moment and consider the consequences later. She is not likely to sacrifice herself for a total stranger, but will still gladly do so for those she cares about. Debates about good versus evil generally bore this type of person.
7: Normal. This is the moral standard for most humanoids, and the basis on which most societal mores are based. A person at this moral level recognizes the natural rights of others, and realizes that it is wrong to hurt, kill, or steal from them. She has some selfish tendencies, however, and isn't necessarily averse to taking advantage of people when it would benefit her; this is the sort of person who would, if given a few extra silver in change from the shopkeep, would possibly mull it over a moment before slipping it on into her pocket. Issues of torture or the killing of an unarmed enemy bother the person at this moral level, though she isn't averse to simple 'strong-arm' techniques or imprisonment in poor conditions, and can perhaps let herself be "persuaded" that such things won't happen when her back is turned. She may sacrifice herself for a particularly vulnerable stranger, such as a child or an old man, and will definitely do so for loved ones, but generally not in other cases if she has much time to think it over.
8: Caring. This moral level reflects an individual who has truly begun to commit themselves to the service of others, though she retains a sense of her own needs and desires that occasionally tempts her towards immoral actions. Lying and betrayal are distasteful actions, though they may be done if needed, especially if the target is a "bad guy." This person will generally not take advantage of others unless necessary; this person would probably give back the shopkeeper's change, though she may mull it over for a minute, especially if she is in dire need. This person is willing to put herself at risk for others, even strangers, but is somewhat more likely to try and remove them from harm's way rather than destroy the threat if the latter poses more risk to her. She will not kill an unarmed enemy unless there is absolutely no other way to keep it from harming others later, and torture is to be reserved for those times when there are simply no other options. She may view agents of evil as beyond redemption, and show intolerance towards them. Paladins at this level are showing mundane moral tendencies that jeopardize their standing.
9: Compassionate. At this level of morality, individuals are clearly devoted to the greater good more than themselves. Lying and betrayal are still distasteful, and may be done only if there is no other alternative. This person never takes advantage of people; she would not only give back the shopkeeper's change, but offer to buy him an abacus for help in counting if it would help (a clumsy metaphor, but it gets the point across). She is devoted to the community, and regularly devotes her time, energy, and wealth to helping others in need. She will sacrifice herself for even strangers almost without hesitation, even if that person has wronged her in the past. She feels that there is no excuse for torture, nor for killing unarmed or surrendering enemies, and will go to great pains to ensure the safety of prisoners. She is tolerant of all, and believes that even those who have committed evil acts can be moved to the path of goodness and redemption if they desire.
10: Saintly. This level of morality represents almost pure goodness. A character of such good nature is hard-pressed to engage in any activity that may cause harm to another without dire need. She regularly devotes as much of her time, energy, and wealth as she can to helping others, even to the point of personal poverty; seeing even a single person in need actually saddens this person and drives her to help. She will gladly sacrifice herself for another, even if she knows that person is evil, if that person is undeserving of their fate. To the character at this moral level, there is nobody beyond redemption, even those who have committed the most reprehensible of atrocities, and rather than shunning or mistreating those of evil nature, she is likely to devote herself to bringing them back into the light of good. Such devotion to pure goodness is alien to most, even other people of lesser goodness, so people of this level are rare (mostly paladins and good clerics, though not even all of those meet this exacting level of goodness).
Ethical Alignments (Chaotic-Lawful)

As opposed to moral alignment, one's ethical alignment defines one's devotion to honor, tradition, and authority, as well as the laws established by society. Lawful characters are reliable, obedient to authority, and self-disciplined, though they can also be close-minded and judgmental—particularly with regard to those who deviate from what the lawful character perceives as "normal." Chaotic characters, meanwhile, are free-spirited and flexible, though they can also be reckless, irresponsible, and resentful of authority (legitimate or not). Respect for the laws of the land, the keeping or breaking of oaths, the use of deceit, and respect for tradition versus the desire for change are typical sources of ethical conflict.

One's position on this scale will have also affect on how one views the concepts of good and evil; the list above can be considered the unmodified or neutral moral spectrum, while the positions below can be applied to those to create various degrees of chaotic and lawful morals.

Note that the ethical spectrum is broader and less clear-cut than the moral one; a character's ethical code and perceptions of law may have a much larger effect on her perceptions of this scale, and players may find a wider variance in the various segments of their characters' ethical alignments. For this reason, some may choose to view the ethical alignment in a strictly supporting role, and there's nothing wrong with that. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that these alignments take into account a very different, non-modern mentality; the wild frontier setting in which the Silver Marches are set leads to very different ethical norms than modern society, and this list is to some degree written with that mentality in mind.

1: Anarchic. Almost any attempt to constrain this person is met with hostility; she wants to do what she wants, when she wants, and how she wants, and to the hells with anyone or anything that tries to stop her. The concept of deceit is actually almost nonexistent, simply because this person usually says whatever she wants at the particular moment she says it, truth or not--it's not that she doesn't lie, but that she ceases to even perceive it in such terms. The concepts of loyalty, personal honor, and keeping one's word are likewise nonexistent; this person simply doesn't comprehend why one would constrain themselves with personal rules and obligations, though she may say otherwise to mollify others less chaotic than she. This person is wholly unpredictable, and finds it extremely difficult to work in any group that does not give her absolute free will; orders are usually met with a contemptuous laugh and ignored outright. Such devotion to personal freedom is alien to most, so mortals of this ethical level are rare (usually clerics devoted to the most chaotic gods).
2: Unprincipled. Laws are unnecessarily restrictive and meant to be broken, according to people at this ethical level. This person will comply with those laws necessary for her to function in society, but she will do so unenthusiastically, and is usually a vocal proponent of change. She is also a firm believer in the idea that law only exists so far as it can be enforced, and may be willing to evade the jurisdiction of law rather than submit to it at all. Traditions are guidelines that are broken the moment they become inconvenient. This person will not take orders that she disagrees with, and if she listens at all, it is usually only to do things the way she wants anyway, no matter how reasonable the request. Self-discipline is a weakness to this individual; restraining her choices and options reduces both her freedom to express herself and her ability to realize her full potential, cheating her. This person will engage in deceit or break her word freely, even with those she cares about, though she may feel a bit guilty about doing the latter. This person has no problems meting out justice to those who "deserve it," even if doing so clearly violates the laws of the area in question.
3: Arbitrary. To a person at this ethical level, laws are necessary evils. All but the fundamental rules of personal conduct are viewed as constrictive, and she will likely try to avoid complying with as many as she can get away with. This person can still take orders in a group, but the reason for them must usually be explained, and she still feels free to ignore the ones she disagrees with most, or follow them in spirit only. She is completely blasé with regards to the concept of self-discipline: if someone feels that it's better to constrain themselves, that's fine; it's just not the sort of thing for her, and she has problems wrapping her mind around the concept. This person doesn't see problems with lying, breaking promises, or betraying anyone but those she cares about, though she may feel some remorse if shown that her actions had unintended consequences. This person would have no problems at all with breaking the law to see that justice was done to her enemy, and might even be willing to mete out the punishment herself if there was no other authority willing to do so (for instance, if she felt like a wrong was committed, but the formal laws did not).
4: Whimsical. At this ethical level, a person is rather less committed to the rule of law, or even personal standards of conduct. Petty laws are freely broken, and any law that inconveniences the person becomes circumspect, especially if enforcement of that particular law is lax or unlikely. This person can take orders in a group, but chafes under someone who enjoys their position of power a little too much, and feels free to argue those orders that constrain her unduly. She occasionally envies the strength some people seem to draw from adherence to self-discipline, though she views the sacrifices as far too much for her to handle. This person is fine with the occasional white lie or breaking inconvenient promises, but still likes to think of herself as principled because she "keeps her word when it really counts." This person would very likely hire someone else to break into her enemy's house and steal the evidence implicating him, and might even be willing to do the deed herself if personal risk was low.
5-6: Normal. This is the ethical standard for most humanoids, though the level of the society in which they live may vary depending on various factors. A person at this ethical level acknowledges the laws of society, and that it can make things easier to follow them (even if they can't necessarily be enforced all the time), but sometimes the petty rules just aren't worth keeping. Traditions are usually kept because doing so is easier than changing them, even if the traditions themselves are strange or inconvenient. She can take orders in a group, but carries them out without much conviction. Self-discipline (encompassing things like temperance, asceticism, evenness of temper, personal honor, adherence to tradition, etc.) is a thing to be aspired to, but not necessarily adhered to if it leads to much personal discomfort. This person doesn't care for the concept of deceit, and likes to think she keeps her word, but isn't above telling the occasional fib or breaking a particularly inconvenient promise. If the only way to prove the enemy's guilt were to break into his house, steal his ledgers, and harass his minions to confess, this person would be skittish about doing it themselves, but might not be opposed to hiring someone else to do the deed or otherwise ‘bending' the law to fulfill the objective. Debates about law versus freedom usually bore this type of person.
7: Conscientious. A person at this ethical level is slightly more conscious of law than most. This person tries to follow the laws of society most of the time, but isn't completely averse to breaking them if she perceives a need. She takes orders in a group, only arguing or disobeying those that seem particularly strange, harsh, or excessively complicated. Self-discipline is obviously a virtue to her, and she may occasionally inconvenience herself in the interests of achieving it, but she slips often enough to make it only a half-hearted pursuit. She will try to keep promises and avoid deceit, but seems good at finding loopholes where doing so is "necessary," though she does sincerely feel bad afterwards. This person would be skittish about even hiring someone else to break the law outright by burglarizing her enemy's house or harassing his minions, but might not be opposed to letting them otherwise 'bend' the law with her back turned.
8: Dutiful. Adherence to law and self-discipline are becoming more important to a person at this ethical level. The person adheres by and large to societal laws or her own moral code, and any personal goals are relegated to being accomplished within those systems. She takes orders in a group without complaint, excepting the most personally risky or those orders that violate her personal tenets, and even then a logical explanation may sway her. This person is reliable and dependable, at least with those who are worthy of the words, though she may occasionally slip to engaging in deceit and betrayal with those she knows are planning the same, and may be prone to misleading others rather than outright lying. She aspires strongly to observe self-discipline, and works hard to maintain strict standards of temperance and personal honor as she sees them, though she may slip due to circumstances "beyond her control." Paladins at this level are showing mundane ethical tendencies that jeopardize their standing.
9: Principled. A person at this ethical level views law and self-discipline as extremely important, and are clearly devoted to both the observance and perpetuation of each. This person believes that law and order are universal concepts that should be extended to places where they do not already exist. She complies with the laws of her society unless given no other choice, and is truthful and honest, even when doing so is a serious inconvenience to her; rather than lie, she will almost always choose to mislead her enemies. She follows orders without question, unless they are in violation of the law or her own strict moral code, and she may start to show intolerance for those who are as not devoted to order as she. Self-discipline is not a virtual or a goal, it is a way of life; this sort of person is ascetic and even-tempered, and firmly set in her ways. Traditions are inviolable, usually regardless of how outdated or inconvenient they are; people have done things a certain way for so long for a reason, after all. This person is reliable and dependable, even with those who have proven not to be in the past; she will keep her word unless it becomes impossible to do so, and will feel great remorse even when forced to break it. She is unwilling to break the law or her ethical code to bring justice to even the most deserving enemy.
10: Righteous. This ethical level reflects an individual completely devoted to the very concept of law. Almost any attempt to circumvent the law in her presence, cause her to violate her ethical code, or foment chaos in a system of order is met with hostility; these are sacrosanct, and the individual who would flaunt them is not to be tolerated. The concept of deceit is almost nonexistent; this person hardly stops to even think of telling anything but the truth as she believes it, and even being misleading is a distasteful thought. Orders that conflict with her personal code or the laws of society create a great conflict in this person. Paradoxically, her devotion to law may thus make her less likely than other characters to follow orders that she disagrees with—unless the one giving said orders is clearly superior to the law she normally follows, at which point any order is holy writ. This person's word is not just her bond, but who she is, and she may be willing to die rather than break that. Betrayal is a foreign concept, and she is not likely to think twice about doing whatever is necessary to fulfill her obligations. She is the definition of self-discipline; ascetic to the extreme, she doesn't even take pride in overcoming the "baser needs" of her kind, as she believes this is the natural state of things. Such devotion to pure order is alien to most, so mortals of this ethical level are rare (usually paladins, and clerics of the most lawful gods).