Friday, February 3, 2017

Your Alignment Isn't Your Motivation

It was the strangest alliance the kingdom had ever seen. Zal-Thuun, a necromancer whose name was whispered in fear when it was spoken at all, and Neren Ka, the sword of the shining light, should have been natural enemies. They were as light and dark, opposite in nearly every way. But even night and day touch during dawn and twilight, and despite their differences the two of them shared a single goal; preserving the capitol against the demon legion. And, united in that goal, they were a force that shook mountains, and which made the heavens tremble.

They agreed to disagree on the matter of when life truly ends, though.
Like it or hate it, the alignment system is a baked-in part of games that use it. It affects class features in many divine classes, it decides how certain spells affect you, and it can even decide how magic items react to your character. With that said, few mechanics will start arguments as quickly as alignment does. However, there is a trap regarding your character's alignment that players fall into all too often. In short, they choose their alignment first, and then base their character's behavior off of it.

I'd suggest doing it the other way around. Flesh out who your character is first, and then ask which alignment box you check based on their views and beliefs.

Motivation, Not Alignment, is What Drives You

While there's no spot for it on your character sheet, motivation is one of the most important aspects of the person you're piloting. It's their driving goal. It is why your character does what they do.

Yes, but WHY are you shooting zombies in the head?
Some motivations are simple. Your character has to earn a living, pay off a debt, or help out a friend. These are small motivations, and they work pretty well for getting your PC out of the inn and onto the road to the plot. But bigger motivations are also important, because you need to know where you're going. What does your character want out of life? Why aren't they a baker, or a butcher, or a simple town guard? Why didn't they take a teaching position at the university, or travel with the circus to show off their in-born magical talents?

In short, why are you going off the beaten path?

Motivation Can Often Stay The Same, Even if Alignment Shifts

How many times have you seen that villain whose goal is noble, but his methods of achieving it are evil? How many times did that villain start as the hero, only to slide into darkness because he could not achieve his ends with the tools he had available to him? His motivation never changed; he simply chose to go about it in a different way.

Sometimes you make sacrifices when you get into politics.
This could happen in a thousand different ways. For example, someone's goal might be to help take care of the poor. A crafty rogue might decide to steal from the rich, when it was made clear he could not persuade people to donate gold to a good cause, or earn enough legally to help everyone. It's a way to redistribute the wealth, and it ensures that the neediest are taken care of. It also ensures that those who can best absorb the loss are the ones being stolen from. Now, say the rich step up their security. The thief now has more challenges to face, and less margin for error. He may have to take more risks to get to the treasure, and he might have to grow more vicious. While his raids were previously bloodless, he might poison the guards, or cripple them, so they won't be able to bring him down. In time he might kill them to claim the treasure, sending a message that opposing his goals will lead to nothing but misery.

The original motivation never changed. The character is stealing money to make sure those in need can cover their expenses. But the nature of his work took a toll, and hardened him. It made him willing to do worse things in the name of helping others. It also meant the gold he offers is now soaked in blood. But can the desperate quibble about where it came from?

Or, for example, say there was a hunter whose goal is to protect his people. He does it his way, on his terms, using brutal attacks and butchery to weave fear into those who would advance on him and his. He enjoys the thrill of the kill, but the purpose is always to protect his territory. But what if there was another way? If he formed alliances, and made peace with words instead of holding enemies at sword point? Those diplomatic actions might force him to see his former enemies as people, and to understand that there are others who matter in the world. So, while he may keep his blades and skills sharp, violence may no longer be the tool he prefers because he knows there is no further recourse once blood is spilled. Peace is more permanent if it is willingly entered into, instead of enforced with a fist.

Motivation Allows Inter-Alignment Cooperation

One of the biggest problems I've seen DMs turn to the Internet for help on goes something like this. "So, two of my PCs are good, and two are evil. One is neutral. There's so much inter-party bickering that the game is falling apart. What do I do?"

Well, ideally you talk with your players and make it clear that everyone has to work together. But if your players need more than that, you should point to their characters' motivations. Even if they have different ideas about morality, they should all have a common goal in place. That common goal is what will allow them to overcome their differences to work together... even if it's just for a little while.

Fine, I will help you overthrow the prelate. If you swear to me you won't crucify him.
Whatever the goal of your campaign is, you need to build a motivation hook into every member of the party's story. The fighter wants to protect the village from goblin raids because these are good people, and he feels he has to step up. The rogue wants a crack at the swag the goblins have been stealing. The cleric is secretly a servant of an evil god, and he wants all this ruckus to quiet down before someone powerful shows up, and he risks blowing his cover. The bard? Well, the bard lives here, this is his town, and he wants to be able to sleep without checking his closets for the little green-skinned buggers.

Though this party might come from all ends of the alignment spectrum, and their individual motivations vary, they are unified in that they want these raids to stop. Period. So they'll likely set aside their differences long enough to handle that problem. And, by doing so, they might find they work well as a team. It's even possible that, through long-term association, evil could be redeemed, lawful could be bent, chaotic straightened out, or good tarnished. But your alignment is what you're willing to do to pursue your goals. It is not the goal itself.

No one is good for the sake of being good, or evil for the sake of being evil. And whether you're good or evil, lawful or chaotic, that doesn't preclude the sorts of goals and motivations you have. It just says something about the means you're willing to pursue to achieve your ends.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully some folks found it thought-provoking, and that it is a useful way to frame debates at your tables. If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep producing content like this, drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to help keep me afloat, and to get some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?


  1. I wouldn't dismiss motivation entirely from alignment. While motivation may define your goals, alignment plays a major part in how you drive that car, what lines you won't cross. In White Wolf, alignment used to be described as a Humanity index as opposed to a good/evil axis.

    1. The point, LazarX, is that you have to decide who you are and what you believe BEFORE you pick an alignment. Your alignment is just the box you fit into, and you should know your character's beliefs before arbitrarily selecting them.

      Put another way, alignment is like frosting. It's good, and it's important when making a cupcake. If all you have is frosting, it's pretty clear you've got an incomplete project.