The recent case of Jerusalem Jax generated some discussion here at the Intwischa office. Not quite the lengthy philosophical debate that kicked off the White Crown quest, or our ongoing argument about who’s the best Batman. However, Matt’s response to that question of my greedy character’s alignment really brought things into focus for me: Alignment may not actually exist.More accurately, characters are not made for alignment but rather alignment was made for characters. Alignment is merely a description of the actions, principles, motivations, and beliefs that compose a character’s… well, character. To create a PC, then try to pigeonhole his psyche into a linear matrix of nine moral compass facings is a proposition that is bound to fail, if for no other reason than morality is fairly relative in most role-playing games.
The Nelville Paradox
In our original campaign setting, which has hosted the vast majority of our games, the dominant government in the civilized world is a theocratic monarchy. In the current timeline, thanks to an overly ambitious wizard who caused the empire some serious trouble, the church has labeled arcane magic as heresy, which has led the monarchy to outlaw it from their borders. You can see how this could present problems for a player intent on casting spells, but that low-magic dynamic has served our group very well since long before I joined it.
The debate referenced above, that was the opening five hours of a Cabin Trip campaign, centered around one crucial cog: ‘alignment,’ as defined by the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Most of the PCs, who were members of the city guard of a tiny hamlet called Nelville, and thus sworn to uphold the laws of the land, had listed their alignment somewhere along the “Lawful” axis. They more or less mutinied, however, when a local farmer was sentenced to death by a visiting church inquisitor. His crime: accusations of witchcraft. The first mission of our party: burn him at the stake in the middle of the town square.
What followed was a (largely circular) series of apologetics about the nature of alignment. Was the farmer evil simply because the church outlawed magic, and he chose to dabble in it after dinner? Could a good-aligned character execute a defenseless citizen based on a religious doctrine they didn’t particularly agree with? Is a lawful neutral character a soulless automaton who does as his superiors dictate, simply because they represent the rule of law? Could following a law that resulted in destructive acts and loss of life ever be construed as the act of a good character?
While this is one of my most memorable gaming experiences ever, I also remember being overwhelmed by the sense that such an intricate dissection of role-playing morality couldn’t be what the game designers intended. As far as most of us knew, alignment was helpful in determining what spell domains or magic weapons one could control. It wasn’t supposed to incite this kind of violence; that’s what Wandering Monsters were for.
I Pledge Allegiance
While none of us could agree on the proper interpretation of the moral imperatives at work in that encounter, each character’s primary motive was pretty obvious through their dialogue. Some placed personal freedom above all else, while others put ultimate faith in the church and its teachings. Some were bound to a notion of the public good, while others fought to uphold the laws that kept society from chaos.
In other words, each character’s allegiance was clear.
After Matt posted his comment regarding the questionable motives of Jerusalem Jax, I looked into the mechanics of “Allegiances”, as defined by the D20 Modern system. Rather than choosing a commitment to a nebulous concept like “good” or “law” or “neutrality”, allegiances allow a PC to pledge their devotion to specific and singular philosophy, person, or government. The rules suggest that the character start with up to three allegiances, as defined by the player.
The most interesting approach, however, would be limiting the character to just one allegiance at character creation. They can be as detailed as they want, but each PC has to pledge their loyalty to a specific focus. That pledge binds up their motives and morals in a neat little package, and is the guiding force behind major conflicts or decisions that may crop up in the campaign. Game masters may allow adding or amending an allegiance throughout the course of play, to represent the character’s growth and evolution. Likewise, they may choose to strip that allegiance if the character acts in gross violation of their pledge. The best part of course is that the GM is then entitled to “assign an allegiance more suitable to [the PC's] actions.”
Where were you ten years ago, D20 Modern? You could’ve saved us four hours and two bottles of rum.
Good as Gold
So when it comes to Jerusalem Jax, my Level 3 Gunslinger and mercenary treasure hunter, I demand a mistrial. More specifically, he was trapped in the legalistic confines of Pathfinder’s “alignment” and cannot be fairly judged using that legal precedent. In fact, in light of his character creation, Jax should be commended for acting in perfect harmony with his sworn allegiance: Money.
When we put together our band of tomb raiders using the usual Group Template methodology, we all agreed that we were a retired band of military comrades that had now turned to mercenary means to support our lavish lifestyle. We had a reputation of completing every mission we were hired for with ruthless efficiency, and being worth every penny we were paid for it. In light of all that, Jax’s code of conduct should come as no surprise to his party members:
- Never take a life, unless you’re getting paid for it.
- Practice the Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.
- There are only two acceptable outcomes to a job: get rich or get dead.
- Any problem caused by money can be solved with money.
- Everyone has their price.
It’s been said that the love of money is the root of all ‘evil’. Fortunately for Jerusalem Jax, he doesn’t love money; he just demonstrates an unfailing allegiance to it.
Has your group forsaken ‘alignment’ for a different system of moral bearings? Does your favorite campaign setting have a unique interpretation of what is “good” or “evil”? Have you also found that role-playing and rum don’t mix? It would be good if you could tell us in the Comments!