Character alignment is remarkable in that it is one most derided and misunderstood concepts in RPGs, and yet is a fixture in the most popular RPGs. Although the general consensus among players and GMs alike seems to be that it is stupid, limiting, or confusing in application, it appears in every version of D&D and in mutated form in lots of other popular RPG systems like Pathfinder and Palladium. I confess that I haven’t had much use for it, myself. But after digesting the wisdom of Jeffro Johnson and Alexander Macris, I have come to the conclusion that Alignment is both essential to the logic of certain game settings and offers exciting new possibilities for both role play and mechanics. I have also come to realize that the average game misunderstands the concept even worse than they suspect.
Alignment as originally conceived, based on Appendix N sources and D&D’s wargaming origins, was meant to convey factional allegiance rather than describe habitual behaviors or explain a character’s moral compass. Certainly this isn’t the only way to use it, and even D&D eventually adopted another dimension (the Good-Neutral-Evil axis), but it is this “Whose side are you on?” aspect of alignment that this essay focuses on. Most modern players have lost sight of this completely, but if you are running a game that involves a titanic struggle of powers greater than the players — whether that means warring empires, feuding gods, or opposing ideologies — then you’re missing something important by omitting alignment.
The Ascension Epoch certainly qualifies as such a setting. Its metaphysics and secret history are based not just on Christian belief, but a particular quasi-medieval conception of reality as best exemplified by C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Earth is the battleground between Heaven and Hell, our current epoch at a lull in an aeons-spanning war. But it is not just the battleground, it is the home turf of the Enemy. Our world is, physically and psychologically, in thrall to the Devil. Its status is known to everyone except the inhabitants of Earth. And yet Great Deeds have been done on our behalf by Holy Powers and Principalities, the Lords of other Spheres, to free us from Infernal bondage. Everything from the ancient disappearance to recent re-emergence of superpowers to the Martian Invasion are aspects or side-effects of the War.
Fortunately for life and civilization, these Divine and Infernal powers only rarely confront each other directly (we’re in a lull in the conflict, remember?), but they do frequently empower mortal proxies to further their cause. Sometimes they bestow them with wondrous powers, but mostly they guide and tutor them with supernatural insight and press their thumbs on the scales of fortune with divine or infernal Providence (or ‘luck’ to the vulgar). The most obvious example in our books is the Signalman, but he is not alone. He is, perhaps, more unusual in that he knows that he has been touched by the hand of powers beyond his comprehension. Because of the gift of free will given to all men, every proxy is, in some way, a willing agent, but almost all are unwitting. At best, some will suspect the hand of a greater power at work during extraordinary moments, but most will never understand that they have become the instruments of vast and unfathomable entities.
Adapting this concept to the standard FASERIP is particularly interesting to me because it explains exactly what ‘Karma’ points are in the game: it’s other powers tipping the scales in the character’s life. And if Karma points can come from a character’s secret, supernatural patrons in addition to (or in lieu of) accomplishing missions or the generic four-color code of conduct presented in the old rulebook, it creates a different dynamic. For one, characters who always lose their Karma (such as by killing people) can avoid that situation and actually gain the benefits of Karma again by serving their patrons, rather than having their adventurous idiom undermined by the rules. Another advantage is that it more convincingly explains why Karma can be used to increase natural abilities to supernatural levels or develop new superpowers, as these would be boons granted by one’s supernatural patron. A third is that it reminds players that, despite their character’s extraordinary abilities, they are but a part of something much bigger, more wondrous, and more dangerous than they are, and that they’d better consider more than just the quickest way to accomplish a mission. The potential for deep characterization and rich, emergent stories as the PCs struggle with the weight of demands and lure of aid from powers beyond their comprehension is vast.
Concrete implementation of this system I must leave for another time, and deeper consideration on my part. But there are a few rules I’m sure of. First is that starting characters are unlikely to become instruments of these supernatural patrons, unless they have some kind of unusual and rigorously upheld bond, like devotion to a patron saint, a pact with a demon, or simply being the favorite son of an Olympian. More likely, characters will come to the attention and patronage of higher powers as they advance in their careers by winning glorious victories for their cause, surviving a transformative encounter with the supernal or demonstrating the qualities favored by their patrons. The second is that while alignment can change, it’s not a matter of accident or whimsy. Every character has a fallen nature, so they will make mistakes and sin, sometimes grievously, yet these failings would not permanently separate the character from a holy patron, who are typically long-suffering and merciful, even if stern in their power to rebuke. Likewise, the deeper a demonic power has its claws in you, the harder it is to break free; even if you feel remorseful and miserable, those feelings will tend to justify more evil deeds. Only a conscientious act of will, followed up by determined behaviors, can break the alignment.
What do you think of this model? I would be especially interested to learn if you’ve done anything like this in your own games, particularly superhero games, or if you have any ideas about applications of supernatural patronage to Karma other than the ones I mentioned. Let me know in the comments, or over email.