Friday, May 5, 2017

What is Your Character's Moral Code?

Fewer things start more fights at a gaming table than talking about alignment. Like it or hate it, though, there is something it does do fairly well. It boils down a complex set of characteristics, views, beliefs, and moralities into a simple, two-word description. Which is fine for NPCs, for monsters, and for other characters who are only on stage for a little bit. Player characters, though, are the stars of the show. They're in every episode, their actions drive the plot (more often than not, anyway), and we explore them more than we do any other characters in the story.

Which is why it's important to dig past that two-letter abbreviation to find out more about who your character is. What do they believe? What is right to them, and what is wrong? What offends their moral sensibilities, and what won't so much as trouble their sleep?

You've got to have your priorities in order, after all.

Honor Among Thieves?

The difficulty with alignment, as I said back in Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs, is that alignment is viewed from a meta perspective. We know that the duke is evil, because his alignment says so, but we also know that no one really thinks of themselves as evil. People don't sit in doom fortresses laughing maniacally, thinking about how they are the most villainous of villains. Most people, by and large, see themselves as just trying to do what's best for themselves, and those they care about. Even people who, when viewed from the outside, are clearly the big bads of a campaign.

This statement, of course, excludes beings of unknowable evil, the mad, and the twisted. Generally speaking, we're talking about characters we can identify with in some way, shape, or form, and who have a rational understanding of themselves, and the world.

You know, like the people who SUMMON Yog-Sothoth.
Let's start with someone good. After all, good sometimes feels self-explanatory; you do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. Arend Brandt was a soldier, and when he was honorably dismissed from service he swore his sword to the church. A holy warrior, he patrols pilgrimage paths, and tries his best to uphold his vows.

That's pretty straightforward, but there are questions that need to be asked. How did Brandt come to the faith? Was he raised with it, or did a career on the front lines make him crave answers about right and wrong in life? Does he agree with his vows in their entirety, or does he feel certain edicts are out of date, or were created by men rather than the divine? Is he punitive, believing that punishment should be swift and harsh, or does he believe people can be redeemed? Does he view some crimes as worse than others? Does he make excuses for himself when he lapses, or does he hold himself to the same standards he does everyone else?

Now, let's change gears and look at someone evil. Duke Farnam is the stereotypical corrupt nobleman. His laws are harsh, his taxes bankrupt families, and he indulges his own whims over and above his duties. But does he still have rules? Does he have things that, corrupt as he is, he still upholds as moral?

The duke may not, for example, bat an eye at stealing. Whether it's from the crown, or from those in his fiefdom, thievery is the cost of doing business. Despite that ugly worldview, though, he still loves his wife, and his children. He makes sure they have the best of everything. He may also feel that other crimes, especially violent crimes, must be punished. So while he might have no personal feelings about forgery, or pick pocketing, highwaymen and bandits are things he will not tolerate. Not because they steal... but because they hurt people. Violence against his subjects won't be condoned because it is his duty to protect them. Or, at least, to protect them against those kinds of threats.

Ask Specific Questions, Get Specific Answers

One habit to unlearn is using your character's alignment as a justification for their morals and actions. "Well, Siegfried is chaotic good, so he believes X," is typically how it's phrased.

Do not pretend you know me.
The key to figuring out your character's moral code is just like figuring out your own; ask how they feel about certain ideas, crimes, and actions. Ask how the character came across those feelings, then incorporate that into their worldview.

For example, ask how does this character feels about lying. Are small lies all right, but not big ones? Is it all right to lie unless you gave your word? Is your promise ironclad, or is it just your way of saying you'll do your best? Now ask those same questions about other issues. Is prostitution wrong? Is slavery? Is killing someone? What makes those actions right or wrong?

This kind of nuanced thinking can reveal aspects of a character you may not have considered before. For example, did your former bandit walk away from his gang because they just started killing people because it was easier than robbing living travelers? Does the holy man with the vow of chastity believe that all sex is wrong, or does he feel that his choice is his own, and he has no say over how other people live their lives? Does the town guardsman let small criminals go in order to catch bigger ones, or does he judge each according to their deeds?

Some of the answers to those questions might feel like they go against the grain of a character's alignment. The chaotic neutral barbarian, for example, might be willing to go to the ends of the earth because he gave his word. The chaotic evil serial killer might rescue a little girl instead of killing her. The assassin has a strict code of ethics that says no women, and no kids when it comes to who he'll target. The career thief will only steal from people who are wealthy or powerful, even though those are the people who can afford good security systems, and elite guards.

People are more complicated than an alignment. So figure out who they are first, and once you have all the nuances, ask which of the nine big boxes they generally fit into.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. I hope some folks enjoyed it, and I look forward to spirited discussions about it. If you want to keep up to date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Pledge as little as $1 a month to get my everlasting gratitude, as well as a thank you basket filled with sweet swag!


  1. I was just reading a post where Lawful was described as "He has a code he's Lawful". So I had been been mulling over this idea of personal codes myself. To avoid the obvious alignment debate, I'll get to my thought.

    It isn't necessarily just having a code it is how it is applied. For example: A rogue may "believe" in codes or rules but some of those don't apply to HIM or in THIS situation. The more this happens the more we notice his true moral code. In contrast a monk will adhere to rules set before him never wavering and the code will be more complex. These examples are pretty basic and easy to mesh out.

    With human nature things get a little less clear. Say an NPC is a strict ultraconservative church follower and his religion says no sex before marriage which he clings to strongly for HIS daughters, the butchers daughters are another story.

    Someone may look at this and say OK complex code you follow = Lawful, Loose code you ignore when it restricts you too much = Chaotic. I'm more interested in my second example.

    You can call it perspective, rationalization, or context but I think they are all equal and we use these all the time to justify/legitimize our actions.

    Lets take rules of the road for example. No speeding! Well it is OK for ambulances and police. I only speed on the highway, not in town and never in a school zone. My wife is in labor we are going to the hospital. All speeding is wrong. Which one is you and why is your answer correct?

    Are the alignment boxes fixed? When is OK to step outside the box ever and who gets to decide? Which rules apply to you? why or why not? Is it an excuse or an exception?

  2. This is all extremely valid stuff... for MORAL alignments. The way I've believed alignments work in DnD since I was first exposed to Planescape is that morality is linked to alignment on a cosmic level, but cosmic alignment is still very much seperate from personal morality.

    Take the undead. Cosmically, they're evil, and there's no question as to why- They violate the natural order and are a perversion of life. Their very animating force tends to cause gradual corruption.

    By an interpretation from D&D's common tropes, undead that have (or ARE) souls might have a completely different personal morality than they do cosmic morality. After all, the soul grants a certain amount of free will in D&D to begin with, and stuff without souls usually don't have free will at all.

    The multiverse still considers undead evil, and they are drawn to evil acts because they have corrupting energy within them. Ultimately, however a lot of the ghosts (which are undead, and thus rely on evil energy to exist) aren't innately morally evil; they just have a harder time NOT committing evil acts reflexively, often in spite of personal morality.

    1. That would be the whole point of the post, yes. Not simply leaning on the crutch of your alignment to determine who your character is, and what they believe, but asking those questions and answering them for yourself.