Design Corner – Misaligned

Welcome to Design Corner, where we talk a little bit about game design and the reasons we’ve made some of the choices we did. This time, we’re talking about a pet subject of mine: alignment.
Alignment is how a game codifies your character’s moral standing. In other words, some games need to have a way to translate the concept of morality into their own structure. Once it’s been translated, it can be the basis for clear, objective rules. Without an alignment system, any rules that have to deal with moral standing become subjective and hazy; lots of games, especially rules-light story games, have no problem with this approach because they don’t require hard numbers at every turn.
Why include rules based on morality? Well, for starters, they can be immensely satisfying – rewarding characters for moral actions makes the game feel more like a story, where there are clear lines between good guys and bad guys. Whether or not we want a story where the good guys always triumph, encoding morality in a game lets us bring the game’s story a bit closer to the classic stories we treasure. It lets us play in a world where a person’s moral choices are always meaningful in concrete ways.
Encoding morality also lets us re-create some of the important images of our mythology. Angels and demons are only possible in a world where morality has a concrete presence and power of its own, and the same goes for the holy knights and evil priests in their service. Being able to use, say, Smite Evil, tells the player that the battle between good and evil exists in your game just as it exists in countless timeless stories.
But it’s not a simple proposition. When you make an alignment system, you’re trying to take something without any concrete form and give it solid rules, numbers, and categories. How do you make it objective enough to be part of the rules and still keep some semblance of complexity? If it’s too basic, it will ring hollow, but too many shades of gray will be difficult to navigate. A good alignment system has to be clear, reasonably nuanced, and supported in the gameplay with interesting mechanics. It should give more to the players than it takes away, making up for the loss of freedom with satisfying game moments.
When we started out back in the day, we had “Scruples and Method” – basically, D&D’s good/evil and law/chaos axes, but on a 12-point scale. Like most of our teenage designs, this was out of frustration with the only system we knew at the time. It was nuanced, yes, but it wasn’t exactly clear because it was based on a somewhat unclear system to begin with, and we never made benchmarks. Worst of all, though, we never designed mechanics around it, so we had a system for regulating and quantifying player behavior – and exactly zero payoff. Not exactly a triumph of design.
But, we were lucky enough to have a head playtester who got into so many fights over alignment that he completely hated the entire concept. Tired of GMs telling him what his character would or wouldn’t do, he pushed for us to abandon the alignment system entirely. For all the reasons above, I wanted us to keep one, but because of Shawn’s insistence on being the only one to determine his character’s values, we came up with Code.

So, Design Corner! Assuming we’re still making a universal system (From the Design Corner on classes), do we need an alignment system? It’ll expand the archetypes players can recreate, but it will also provide limits. If we’re building a universal, then it had better work just as well in the far reaches of space as it does in 1928 Chicago. If we do decide on an alignment system, how do we minimize inconsistencies and arguments, and maximize the rewards?
Honestly, if I were to design another game, alignment would probably be the part that killed me.

Remember to check out the City Limits Kickstarter and to check us out on twitter at @TeamCabalGames for more updates!

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