Giving credit where credit is due: a big thanks to my good friend, Kenneth Gerety, for the title Alignment Confinement. You are a Wordsmith.
Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. Order vs. Chaos. Human vs. Monster. Struggle and conflict are bread and butter in role-playing games. The strongest and most prevalent of these is most likely Good vs. Evil. So what spins one’s moral compass in a role-playing game?
A character’s moral code guides them in their actions and interactions. In Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, you have the Alignment system. In the old World of Darkness-based games you typically have a morality rating, such as Humanity, combined with Nature and Demeanor. In the new WoD-games – Virtue and Vice. The list goes on, but typically some sort of system of checks and balances for morality is in place. How strongly that system is adhered to can be a source for debate in a game.
Does the Lawful Good Paladin really need to judge and punish a thief whose crime is stealing food for their family to survive? Are they so stupid that they absolutely must sacrifice themselves even when it isn’t necessary? It’s a point of contention for some that feel morality systems are often too black and white. Moral paths can often have a mechanical effect in the game, such as the spell Detect Evil. Morality, spells, and abilities can mix to affect those around a character in these instances. Do players truly care to follow their characters’ moral codes or is it simply a checkbox that had to be filled in during character creation?
For that, I believe it depends on the attitude (and mental state) of the player and their level of connection to their character and the story. I have seen polite and good players kill NPCs or each other for the sake of chaos in a game or because they felt it was something their character would do. I have also seen aggressive and out-spoken players humbled by the consequences of their actions (myself included). Role-playing games are an exploration of the psyche where you can commit acts of heroism or villainy. This allows the character and player to benefit (or possibly suffer) from the outcome of their actions. Trial and error or trial by fire, the player inevitably decides what they will do and how they will do it.
Take for instance the story of a character I made a long, long time ago for a D&D game – Ebbert Hammersong. Ebbert was a Dwarf Fighter from the famed Hammersong clan. He was an honorable and courageous Dwarf with a strong moral code who heavily fell under the Alignment Lawful Good. Through several game sessions, I strived to uphold his values while surviving day to day in the adventure by fighting for his life. This inevitably led to me adopting a “swing first” attitude when in areas of hostility, slowly beginning the fall from his high and mighty alignment.
One day, while our party of adventurers were sneaking into a Gnoll village to put an end to the threat to other nearby villages, Ebbert sensed movement in a window of a hut next to him. I had Ebbert swing his axe into the window and the hit was successful. Sort of. It turned out that the creature peaking out of the window was a baby Gnoll. An innocent child, regardless of its race. They had yet to commit an act of evil and here, my noble, heroic character had slaughtered them.
I was shocked. Ebbert was devastated. Murder. He had just murdered a child and I, at the wheel, was responsible. I glared at the Dungeon Master, my eyes obviously voicing my thoughts. “What the hell, Andrew?!” He shrugged and continued on with his narrative as the horror of what had happened crept over me. I was quiet and reserved with all actions for the rest of the session. That day marked a grave change in my hero’s life. All actions have consequences. From then on, that character has had a grave, sullen attitude.
So, what spins one’s moral compass then? It shouldn’t be a set of fixed rules that don’t leave room for interpretation. It’s a combination of the way the player envisions their character and the way the character is actually played. The moral code should be subject to change, character actions should have room to fluctuate for rough periods. If the character’s actions begin to deviate from their moral code, perhaps they are evolving or perhaps the player is just taking the easy route. I have participated in several games where a player’s actions consistently don’t align with their code and have seen the evolution of a character, for better or worse, as they move farther toward hero or delve deeper toward villain. There’s a great bit of satisfaction there.
I think for my coming Dungeons and Dragons game, I’ll have my players leave their Alignments off the sheet and track their actions instead.