Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Just Drawn That Way

Many roleplaying games have morality--or 'alignment'--systems that describe and proscribe the behaviors of characters.  Like all game mechanics, alignment systems must balance verisimilitude with manageability. Too much system granularity can overwhelm players in both video and tabletop games, while too little makes roleplaying morality less compelling.

"Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost."
The classical Dungeons & Dragons alignment system has two axes: 'ethical', consisting of Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic, and 'moral', consisting of Good, Neutral, and Evil. All characters in the game fall into one of the nine intersections between those axes, e.g. Neutral Good, Lawful Neutral, Chaotic Evil. While very granular and elegant in theory, I have found this alignment system unwieldy in practice, and largely cosmetic in most tabletop games.

My favorite tabletop RPG alignment system is the Path mechanic in Vampire: the Masquerade. By default, PCs (who are all vampires) follow the 'Path of Humanity', essentially a simulation of secular humanist morality on a scale from zero to 10. Each level has a set of behavioral standards, the violation of which triggers a roll that determines whether the character feels remorse for the action, thus retaining his Humanity, or rationalizes the action and drops one level on the Path.

This mechanic seems clunky, but I have found it surprisingly useful and intuitive in the context of the game. It has an admirable balance of crunch and fluff, providing system incentives both for maintaining a high Humanity score and for letting it slide, just a little. Even more, the game contains several other Paths to which characters can 'convert' if they reject Humanity, including ones that glorify that which most humans conventionally regard as 'evil'.

Many video games have linear alignment systems. Star Wars games, such as the Knights of the Old Republic and Jedi Knight series, use the Light Side/Dark Side system as portrayed in the films. The Karma systems in the inFamous and Fallout series both measure morality on a Good/Evil axis, and adjust the way NPCs interact with the PC accordingly. A common problem with these single-axis mechanics is that they often yield rewards only at the extremes, which can discourage roleplaying in favor of powergaming the alignment system.

The most interesting and nuanced alignment system I have encountered in a video game is Reputation in the Mass Effect series, which grants Paragon or Renegade points for dialogue choices as well as other actions. It looks like a single-axis Good/Evil system on the surface, but in fact Paragon and Renegade are closer (though not equivalent) to Lawful and Chaotic. Furthermore, they are measured on completely separate scales. So the player can gain both Paragon and Renegade points in the course of a single encounter without one canceling out the other. High scores on these axes unlocks special actions that can affect the game in fairly dramatic ways.

I find, sometimes to my own disappointment, that I gravitate toward playing 'good' PCs. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from portraying a well-developed villain or anti-hero when I game master, yet have little interest in such characters as a player--this includes video games. I have occasionally made 'bad' characters in games like Jedi Knight or inFamous just so I can go on a rampage, but lose interest in them fairly quickly. Unless I make a conscious effort--and sometimes even when I do--I end up playing goody two-shoes characters. This probably explains, at least in part, why I have so much interest in alignment mechanics that break the Good/Evil mold.


  1. I liked the Vampire system as well, but (I guess I have already told you) I prefer if characters were encouraged to create their own moralities. The Path of Humanity is nice and all, but it should be for fledglings, not elders. Having a significant portion of elders follow totally bizarre moral patterns adds to the horror and "otherness" of vampires.

    I never particularly liked D+Ds alignment system, but it gets the job done for basic fantasy. I should spend some time thinking of a alignment system for Ironworld.

    1. Most players have an easier time wrapping their heads Humanity than an alternative Path (for obvious reasons) and, in fairness, most PCs start out as fledglings. That said, I also find other Paths much more interesting, and always try to include NPCs who follow them surreptitiously.