Monday, 23 June 2008

Maligning Alignment

"Ah ha", says you, "what a funny title! What clever wordplay! How Shackleton's wit doth sparkle!"

...

(I'll just get on with it, shall I?)

The Status Quo

The classic alignment system is D&Ds two axis, nine alignments. The Lawful - Chaotic axis describes a characters attitude to what might be deemed civil society. The Good - Evil axis describes their.. well.. evilness. Thus, every character is described in two words, e.g. "Lawful Good" or "Chaotic Neutral".

It's simple and, generally, it's effective. There are a few quirks... Neutral ends up being a bit of a catch all and breeds some strange alliances. And it's a bit limited in its application. All in all, though, it's a robust system, despite its critics.

And yet, in a glorious act of self immolation, Wizards of the Coast managed to take the two axis system and make it worse. Abolishing the Lawful - Chaotic axis, D&D 4th edition now takes a single axis with ranges from Chaotic Evil (i.e. really evil), through Evil, Neutral, Good and Lawful Good (helping old ladies across the road).


This caused me some consternation. If I ever get around to a 4th Edition game, it's certainly going to be house-ruled.

All About Motivations


So here's how I tackled alignments in Elements Eight. Is it better? Not necessarily, to be honest, and there are still some question marks over specific aspects. But it does have some nice mechanics.

In Elements Eight, each character has a set of Motivations. These Motivations are things like:

  • Survival
  • Wealth
  • Power
  • Justice
  • Chaos (which can be interpreted as "fun")
  • Nation (loyalty to a specific nation, e.g. "Tirigoth")
  • Race (loyalty to the character's race, e.g. "Elves")
  • Religion (loyalty to a specific religion, e.g. "Elsivere")
  • Bloodlust (roar! attack! kill!)
  • Tribe (which can be friends as well as an actual tribe)
  • Law
and possibly one or two that I've missed.

At any given moment, one of these Motivations will be to the fore, and is called the Acting Motivation. The Acting Motivation gives a solid guideline to both GMs and players as to how the character should behave. No more wishy-washy convoluted discussions as to the exact meaning of "Chaotic". I've tried my best to make the Motivations intuitive, to make them appeal to common sense.

Take Shackleton, for example, our feline pilferer of coins and wearer of fancy hats. Shackleton is motivated by Wealth, certainly. But he is also pretty loyal. So he takes Tribe too. And, when the chips are down, Shackleton isn't such a bad fellow. He takes Justice as a third Motivation. How he acts on the day depends on which of these Motivations comes to the fore.

From Three to Six

How many Motivations should characters have? This is a question I haven't yet entirely decided. Six would be ideal from a mechanical point of view since it would allow more flexibility and nuance. However, having to wrestle with six Motivations for each character is a bit unwieldy. So I'm leaning towards three; or possibly allowing players to just choose the number of motivations on a character by character basis.

There is also a query surrounding how the Acting Motivation is chosen. Either it can be randomised (with a suitably weighted roll). But perhaps it would be better to allow players to simply choose which was their Acting Motivation. Letting players choose would address some concerns I have about rules eclipsing roleplay, and would have the additional benefit of a tactical element (see later).

There's also the possibility of using Motivations to randomise NPC personalities. For example, you might give all city guards the following Motivations: Law, Law, Wealth, Power, Justice, Nation. Then anytime the players encounter a city guard, roll 1d6 to see which is the Acting Motivation for that guard. Lo and behold, you know whether the guard is honest, corrupt, bullying or patriotic.

Thoughts and suggestions on these points would be very helpful!

Diplomatic Armour

Elements Eight has a fairly comprehensive set of diplomatic skills. Briefly, the idea is to provide a solid foundation for roleplaying, but the players should be careful to not let the skill checks replace good roleplay.

Motivations play a significant role in interactions.

Firstly, they guide the player or GM, giving them a foundation upon which to build a characters choices and words.

Secondly, certain Motivations are more vulnerable to certain kinds of diplomatic "attacks". For example, a character motivated by Wealth is much easier to bribe than one motivated by Law; a character motivated by Justice is vulnerable to empathy and pleas for mercy; and so forth. In a way, Motivations are diplomatic armour. Hence the tactical consideration in which Motivation is the Acting Motivation.

Motivations and Spells

Charm spells have never been handled well in D&D and other games. Mostly because there's no framework for describing how a person acts. Indeed, charm spells become a one roll win in many games.

Not so for Elements Eight.

Instead of giving the caster puppet-master like control, Charm and other mind altering spells in Elements Eight tend to revolve around changing the motivations of a character. Imprisoned by the evil count's goons? Charm the jailor to use Justice as his Motivation, whereupon he will surely see that the right course of action is to set you free... but that doesn't necessarily mean he will slaughter all of his pals for you.

There are also lesser charm-like spells. There are fear-like spells which force characters to be motivated by Survival. There are druidic soothing spells that specifically tackle Bloodlust in animals. And there are possibilities for many other interesting spells.


Mind reading spells are similarly given same foundation to work with. Detecting what Motivation an NPC is acting with goes a long way to winning them over, since you know the best diplomatic skill (Bribery, Intimdation, Persuasion etc.) to use.

Finally, Motivation provide a fun mechanic to play with. A good example is the spell "Crusade". When cast, the caster chooses a Motivation (say, Power, for example). All NPCs acting from that Motivation will be feared.

To Sum Up

Motivations offer some nice mechanics for spells and interactions. They also do a fine job of describing many faceted characters. There are some question marks over how extensive the Motivations system should be, some concerns about whether it will slow down play, but I'm keen to keep working with this system because I think it has potential.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is JUST brilliant. Honestly - you've hit the nail on the head, and I love the concept. Especially when you get to charm spells!

I wanted to write you and say that I would so much more prefer to run within a system that gave me a list of motivations and just let every character ascribe major ones (and maybe minor ones). Using a small number (like 6 or 8) ignores the wealth of everything else in the world. Thinking is a motivation! Lust. Happiness. Security. etc.

Massive kudos. I'm a huge fan of psychology, and ANYTHING that incorporates more psychology into a *role-playing* game is a good thing.

Rick said...

Awesome, brilliant. Excellent work.

Shackleton said...

Thanks very much for the enthusiastic response!

I think you are right about not limiting player options. If a player has a character concept which takes advantage of 7, 8 or more motivations, then they shouldn't be prevented for pursuing that.