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Alignment sans Morals

What if Alignment weren't a moral compass?

Depicting the struggle between good and evil is a hallmark of storytelling, and this seems to be the origin of various RPG alignment systems. However, an important provision here is that no one truly considers himself evil, so the best we can do is define evil as the opposite of good. Unfortunately, unless you have an objective definition of "good," you will run into problems with alignment. The Law vs. Chaos alignment system is a bit more objective, as it spins on an axis of order rather than goodness, but it's still a relativistic system.

So what if alignment weren't about morals or order? What if alignment were about disposition? More like a personal trait to suggest behaviour than an ethical doctrine?

I dug up these notes from an RPG project I worked on in that late '90s. This is actually the first time I've read them in about 10 years. They're pretty close to the Palladium system, but more along the Law/Chaos axis than Good/Evil. I'm sure it's not my solution, but maybe it's an idea starter.


There are five basic dispositions, and character falls principally into one disposition above any other. Characters can (and do) shift disposition traits, but this is typically a matter of subtle overlaps either slightly higher up or lower down the moral ladder. The list below is cited in descending order, from most restrictive in terms of self- and societal discipline to least:

The tenants of fairness and honour are promoted above all, regardless of personal sacrifice. Virtuous individuals seek always to be fair and just, generally upholding the causes of the weak and oppressed. Virtuous characters may be marked by hubris and are sometimes difficult to get along with, as their strict ethical code does not always grant great behavioural latitude. Some, however, are more tolerant of others, and promote their lifestyle through example instead of authoritarian admonishment.

Those who are motivated primarily by kindness and benevolence. These individuals are capable of sin, but are genuinely remorseful of such transgressions and seek to mend what harm they may have wrought, whether against others or themselves. While they strive to maintain high moral standards, conscientious individuals often fall short of their lofty goals. Conscientious characters can be counted upon to keep their word, and they try to avoid harming others. Honourable and attentive to purpose, conscientious beings are still capable of vanity, greed, and hatred toward those who wrong them. Consequently, those of this disposition have no qualms about committing violent acts in the name of a “just” cause.

Such individuals are moral chameleons, capable of committing any act for pleasure or profit, but ascribing to a personal code of ethics nonetheless. Adulterated characters view law and order as restrictive, but only where their own desires and goals are detained or thwarted; thus they may uphold certain laws and regulations for personal gain when such allegiance suits them. Opportunistic, such individuals strive constantly to retain their personal freedom. As a result, such beings break laws and bend rules when convenient, with little regard for moral consequences, though they still maintain an aversion to doing wrong without constructive purpose.

Individuals seldom bothered with guilt or remorse, and who have scant regard for the ethical standards of right and wrong. Criminal characters behave in whatever manner is most suitable to their immediate objectives, possessing a sense of personal freedom greater than most; they do not trouble themselves with concern for the plight of the weak or the oppressed. The ethical code of such beings is best described as “survival of the fittest.”

Such individuals view self-aggrandisement as the ultimate goal, and there is no act of depravity they will not commit. Causes of interest universally culminate in the acquisition of power and influence for selfish purposes, and the degenerate individual uses all available tools to attain his goals, unconcerned with the consequences his actions might have on others. Those of this disposition frequently construct their machinations upon a foundation of logical and purposeful order; as a result, they can be quite cunning and manipulative.

Final Words

While disposition doesn't necessarily evoke the classic struggle between good and evil, it does represent how people go about pursuing their goals.

Which makes me think more about whether alignment is even necessary—players will always do a good job of representing how their characters go about pursuing their goals. I'm thinking, too, about so-called allegiances or loyalties, used in other systems. These sound a bit more realistic, since instead of defining the broad world view, they suggest behaviour espoused by affiliation with a particular organisation. That certainly removes the subjective element, but it still makes me wonder if alignment isn't better suited for NPCs, leaving characters to make their own choices, as it should be in theory and often occurs in practice.

So I ask: What alignment system do you use in your campaign? Is there a system that's useful for PCs, or is it best simply to excise it from the game?

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  1. johnkzin
    January 2nd, 2010 at 04:41 | #1

    I don’t use alignment for either of those things. For me, it’s allegiance.

    In games with a spiritual component, it becomes a sort of spiritual residue. If you’re loyal to Odin, your “aura” has a glow that has the fingerprints of Odin to it. There’s no “detect evil”, it’s “detect enemies of my spiritual allegiance”, and etc.

    I also don’t make it exactly apparent which residue is which. I had one player who, as soon as he learned magic (from a book), had a particular aura that the Paladin could now see. It was the same aura as their primary enemy. The same god had his fingers in many pieces of the pie. Some of his minions were self-serving bastards. Some of them were benevolent. Some of them were on the opposite side. Some of them were on the same side. Some of them had motivations that had nothing at all to do with the main plot-line of the story. And how you got that aura/residue might be a direct allegiance (directly worshipping a deity) or indirect (using magic that had been taught by that deity).

  2. January 2nd, 2010 at 10:32 | #2

    I like the idea – certainly more objective. I had removed the ‘evil’ from Protection and Detect spells in an earlier campaign, which worked out quite well. Using allegiance is, I think the next natural step in that direction.

    Is there a limit to how many allegiances a character can have? If more than one, are there different degrees of loyalty to each (e.g., allegiance to Odin first, King Rygar second, and the party third)?

  3. February 11th, 2010 at 10:15 | #3

    I have always had a hard time with Alignments that PCs pick themselves–I think the DM should decide based a character’s actions.

    That said, I prefer Alignment bars like johnkzin mentions, and those are the ones that I use. I don’t see why, in the Law vs. Chaos scale, (using Conan’s world as an example) a Dark Wizard from Stygia who upholds his country’s slavery and brutality would be on the same Aligned side as a Paladin of pure heart.

    The scale you have posted here makes a lot more sense to me, because it’s more about how the people view themselves, it seems like. I dig it.
    .-= Brenton Haerr´s last blog ..Game Review: Stratego =-.

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