(“Santa Vaca” is the working title for an RPG I’ve had on the backburner. It stemmed from the idea of working within the confines of D&D’s “sacred cows” of alignment, armor class, hit points, the six abilities, etc. If I was handed the task of remaking D&D without removing any of the sacred cows, what kind of game would it be? “Santa Vaca” is the answer.
(This article originally appeared on my livejournal many years back. It’s been updated and revised a little after a reader asked me “What would you do about alignment?” Rather than write a new answer, I just polished up my old one. Here it is.)
Adjusting Your Alignment
When you really think about it, alignment is a kind of non-rule. I mean, the biggest part about alignment is the whole interpretation of what this stuff means. Nobody can argue whether or not you rolled a 7 on your d20 or whether or not the fireball did seventeen damage to the troll or how far you can jump with a 17 strength or how many spells per day you can cast. Those are rules. They’re solid.
But everyone argues about alignment. What does chaotic neutral really mean? And what’s the real difference between neutral good and chaotic good? And can anybody really be “true neutral?” I mean, Buddhists have been trying forever. Why do you think some dwarf fighter is going to get it right?
It’s an attempt at moral philosophy in a roleplaying game, and while I usually commend that kind of stuff, it kind of… sort of… well, let’s just say that I spent four years in college studying morality and ethics and the way alignments presents themselves sounds like something you’d read in a freshman’s Philosophy 101 class.
Besides, who wants to spend time arguing about rules when we could be playing the game?
Alignment is an important part of the system… and it’s not. I mean, you can play the game without it. In fact, a lot of people do. From my own personal experience (anecdote warning!), most player characters have the same alignment: Chaotic Me. Chiefly because they can justify just about any behavior within the boundaries of their alignment.
Let’s use an example. What’s Batman’s alignment?
I’ve heard that Batman is lawful good. Makes sense. He adheres to a code of morality (lawful) that protects the weak from the corrupt and wicked (good). Batman is lawful good.
But I’ve also heard arguments saying that Batman is neutral good. Batman uses or ignores laws to achieve a certain end (neutral) and that end is protecting others (good). Therefore, Batman is neutral good.
But I’ve also heard arguments saying that Batman is chaotic good. He does not follow any laws at all—he hides his identity from the law, he commits illegal assaults and robberies all the time (stealing from criminals is still against the law). He’s still out to protect others but does so disregarding the laws because the laws no longer work. Batman is chaotic good.
And then, there’s the evil alignments…
One could make an argument that Batman’s quest is nothing more than dolled up revenge fantasy. Bruce Wayne is rich. Beyond rich. He could do anything. What does he choose to do? Go out at night and beat the snot out of thugs. He’s punching the world until it gives his mommy and daddy back. Revenge is evil.
Batman tortures thugs for information. Evil.
Batman doesn’t kill, but he “allows people to die. Remember what he said to Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins? “I don’t have to save you.” That may not be the same as murder, but it’s in the same ballpark. Evil.
Batman focuses too much on justice and too little on the individuals caught up in his plans. The wicked will be punished and he doesn’t care how he does it and he doesn’t care who gets hurt. Don’t buy that? Just ask every single Robin how much Batman cares about people.
Batman is evil. And, he’s good.
The fact that you and I can argue about the case for Batman’s alignment reveals a deep problem with alignments in general. The alignments are too abstract to be rules. Philosophers have been arguing about good and evil for thousands of years. You throw Moorcock’s Law and Chaos into the mix and you’ve got a great big gumbo of moral confusion.
Add to the fact that Moorcock’s Law and Chaos were meant to present a moral argument that transcended good and evil and you’ve got someone trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.
The fact that D&D5 has removed all the rules regarding alignments, but kept them anyways, shows me just how much of a sacred cow the things are. “We can’t ditch them, so let’s just make sure they don’t interact with any rules.”
In the end, alignments are almost meaningless, create confusion and argument and thus do not provide useful game mechanics. So, how do we fix that?
Well, for starters, let’s make them meaningful. In fact, let’s make them necessary. And when I say “necessary,” I mean like gravity, the weak force, the strong force and electromagnetism. Let’s make them as real in the game as the speed of light.
The Primal Powers
Remember when alignments had their own planes of existence? They were forces of nature. Let’s you and me go old school and bring that notion back.
Let’s stop using alignment as an abstraction. Let’s make it real. A primal power in the universe. Your alignment is no longer just words on your character sheet. Good, Evil, Lawful and Chaotic exist. They watch the world and they reward those who serve them, punishing those who act against them.
There is nothing “supernatural” about these powers. They are real forces. Primal Powers. As real as gravity and friction and electricity. Your alignment defines which of these Powers you serve. And you serve them for the benefits they bestow.
Stop thinking, “What is my alignment?”
Start thinking, “What Power am I aligned with?”
These powers are necessary elements in the world. Without it, the world falls apart. We even have planes of alignment: primal elements of the universe. They can’t be removed without screwing everything up.
Because the Powers are sentient agents in the world, that means the DM plays those sentient Powers. They’re NPCs. They have roles to fill in the world.
Yes, this means chaotic and evil are no longer adjectives, but proper nouns. The DM plays the role of Chaos and Evil.
This also turns alignment into something like hit points or armor class or attack bonus. It’s real. This also means alignment is no longer up for debate. “What does evil mean?” No. It’s a real and tangible force. We know exactly what it means. But how do we use it?
The Alignments are Primal Powers now, looming over everything. But they are so distant from us—so alien—communicating with them is not easy. Determining what they want is tricky. The Powers communicate to those who serve them through the symbolic language of dreams, portents and omens.
Law wants Obedience, Structure and Order.
Chaos wants Freedom, Liberty and Self-Reliance.
Good wants Selflessness, Altruism and Comfort.
Evil wants Pain, Hatred and Suffering.
We don’t have to change any of the core alignments’ meanings. They work just well by themselves; it’s when we start combining them that we get problems. Good is good, Evil is evil, Law is lawful and Chaos is… well… what it wants to be.
We’ll get to “neutral” in a moment. Trust me.
Choosing Your Alignment
At character creation, during the step you normally choose an alignment, I’m giving you five points to allocate to the four powers. Your character is no longer “lawful evil” or “lawful good.” You allocate these points to each power. Law 2, Chaos 1, Good, 3, Evil 1. Your three points may change depending on your character’s behavior.
The more points you have in an alignment, the more potent your relationship with that Power is. And the greater blessings (and curses) the Power you’ve aligned yourself with will put upon you.
I’m calling these points devotion because they represent your character’s adherence to the Powers. If your devotion to Good is higher than your devotion to Evil, obviously that says something about your character’s moral standing. Likewise, if your devotion to Chaos is greater than your devotion to Law, that says something as well.
For my own character, I’ve allocated my devotion like this:
- Good 2
- Chaos 2
- Law 1
I could have allocated my devotion like this:
- Chaos 2
- Good 3
Or, like this:
- Law 2
- Good 2
- Evil 1
All three examples add up to five points of devotion. How you allocate your points is up to you. Don’t worry about putting points into contradictory powers.
Calling Upon the Powers
You may, before you make a roll, call upon one of the Powers for assistance. When you do this, you gain a bonus to your roll equal to your devotion to that Power. In other words, if you want to cause pain, misery and sorrow, you may call upon the Power of Evil and gain a bonus equal to your ranks of devotion to that Power If your devotion is 3, you add three to your roll. It’s just that simple.
Any time you call upon a Power, check your intention. Is your intention to cause pain, misery and sorrow? You add your alignment bonus to your roll. Is your intention to serve others, to ease suffering, to sacrifice yourself for another’s welfare? Add your Good devotion bonus to your roll.
The bonus only lasts for one roll. No longer.
If your rank in a Power is zero, you have no bonus. You aren’t neutral—that’s different, as you’ll see below—you just have no alignment to that Power.
Increasing & Lowering Devotion
Whenever you invoke one of the Powers or petition it for power, there’s a chance your devotion to that Power increases.
After you make your roll, roll a d6. If the result of the d6 is equal to or greater than your devotion to that Power, your devotion to that Power increases by one point.
My character calls upon the Power of Good to assist me against trolls ravaging a village. He slays one of the trolls after a particularly nasty attack. When my roll is over, I roll a d6 and compare the result to my current devotion to Good.
My devotion to Good is 3. My d6 comes up with a 2. Because my roll is not equal to or greater than my devotion, it remains the same.
Later, I call upon the Power of Chaos to assist me in freeing slaves from their bonds. (I suppose I could have also called upon the Power of Good, but it seemed more appropriate to call upon Chaos in this instance.)
After I knock out the slave lord with a wicked blow to the head, I make another d6 roll against my current devotion to Chaos.
My devotion to Chaos is 2. My d6 roll gives me a 6. Because my roll was equal to or greater than my devotion, my devotion to Chaos goes up by one rank.
Like I said above, the total rank of your devotions cannot exceed five points. If a devotion increases, you must lower your devotion to another Power by one.
That is, if my devotion to Good increases, I must lower my devotion to another Power by one.
What About Neutral?
Neutrality is not “balance.” Neutrality is non-alignment. The Neutral character does not subscribe to the authority of the Powers. Of course, this philosophy is a direct consequence of introducing “the monk” into the system. Not at all Western, he brought with him a different Power. The Power that is not a Power.
Nothingness. Neutral. (That’s for you, Jess.)
Neutral characters are not aligned to any of the Powers. This means they gain no bonus, but they have an important benefit. Neutral characters do not serve the Powers, they are trying to transcend this limited existence to something else… a place not ruled by the Powers. A place where only one Power exists.
The Power of Will.
Neutral characters have ranks in “Neutral.” Up to 5 points. When an aligned character rolls dice against the Neutral character, the Neutral character adds his alignment points to his defense. Armor class, saving throw, DC of the spell, whatever.
The Power of Will.
Play Dirty: Playing the Powers
Hey DM! You wanna try something really screwy? Instead of taking on the roles of the Powers yourself, have the folks at your table play the Powers. That’s right. The players. In addition to their own characters, each of the players takes a role as one of the Powers: Good, Evil, Law and Chaos.
Whenever a character takes an action that would appeal to the Powers, the player has to appeal to the player taking the role of that Powre. If you have more than four players, switch it out.