At its most basic, the alignment system asks if a character is Lawful or Chaotic, and.. Good or Evil. These two axes of alignment are a very simple guide as to how a character should be roleplayed or a measure of their morality. However, this simple two-word descriptor for a character opens the door to all sorts of muddy messes. In older iterations than 5e, it could cost you class features, light you up like a beacon to supernatural threats through detection spells, or even shoehorn you into roleplaying a character with a certain attitude if you ran afoul of the right magic or accidentally beamed yourself up to your starship during an ion storm. Now, though, the 3×3 grid of character alignments has lost its teeth, and only seems to exist on character sheets as a vestige of days gone by. My game groups seldom consider a character’s alignment during character creation, and I honestly can’t tell you the last time I wrote an alignment into that space at the top of my character sheet – That’s some prime real estate for something that has no bearing on my games! There has to be an alternative.
The existing alignment system is such a simplistic approach to go off of, and there are much better gages of a personality to get insights about a character’s behavior. Coming from a business management background, it feels like every month there’s a new zodiac of personality archetypes, like the Alpha to Omega mindsets, Myers-Briggs tests, Johari windows, Clifton Strengths, your dorms at wizard schools, and even, “which piece of construction equipment are you” Facebook quizzes. My goal for this System Tweaks article was to try and make a system that could provide players and GMs these insights, and reward players for acting in line with their characters’ personalities.
In my homebrewed Star Trek: Orpheus campaign, my first approach was to take inspiration from Lasers & Feelings, a system that only has two stats, Lasers and Feelings. (Technically, the system has only one stat: where on the spectrum from Lasers to Feelings your character lies. You can’t be good with Lasers if you’re good with Feelings, and vice versa). Because I like my 5% intervals, the Orpheus Crew used a range of 1d20 + ability ± [pb] for any ability checks, using one of four Values based on Myers-Briggs: Introversion/Extroversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, and Judging/Perception. I feel like I was onto something, but I did have some flaws with my execution. Namely, once my players got used to the concept, they would bend over backward to justify anything they wanted to do – the player experience became an attempt to shoehorn the skill you were good at to “win” a check you were bad at.
The experiment wasn’t a total loss, though. This was better than my original attempt for this system, where it felt like almost every skill relevant to the campaign squeezed into the mental stats from D&D. It also gave me a refreshingly fast way to look at my NPCs’ attitudes – I could quickly adjust a few sliders and build a personality for a character, and the act of making those 4 decisions got me into their mindset very quickly during my session prep.
For D&D, I wanted to preserve this window into a character’s mind without affecting the skill system as a whole. As a result, I came up with the following system:
- Pick two central themes to your campaign – these can be any opposing Values that might set a character apart from one another. Do they value innovation or tradition? Individual or society? Intent or results? Don’t think of one of these values as inherently “better” than the other – that’s a job for your protagonists and antagonists to sort out in the story.
- When your players create a character, instead of choosing an alignment as normal, have them decide where between these two values their character lies. They can be Neutral, Favor, or Strongly Favor one of these values (and as you can see, this also means they are Neutral, Oppose, or Strongly Oppose the opposed value).
- When a player makes an ability check that reflects their Favored value, you may add their proficiency bonus to their result(if they were already proficient or had expertise in the check being made, they may add their proficiency bonus again).
- If a player makes a difficult decision that reflects their Strongly Favored value, you may award them with Inspiration, once per long rest.
- When a character makes a decision that reflects a value they Strongly Oppose, they must roll a saving throw whose DC equals 10 + their proficiency bonus + the number of times they have rolled this saving throw. On a failed save, their alignment is Challenged. They cannot benefit from a Favored alignment until they complete a long rest. If they take further action that reflects a value they Oppose, they take a level of exhaustion.
In action, the alignment axes system provides a framework for a storyteller to define the “aboutness” of their campaign or setting. From here, an enterprising storyteller can continue to expand the Alignment Axes system. If exhaustion isn’t your cup of tea, you might explore other conditions to better suit your campaign, including damage vulnerabilities, temporary decreases to their proficiency bonus, cumulative penalties to concentration, or even ability damage if appropriate. While challenging a character’s convictions nonstop could slow a game down, taking the time to recognize those characters’ values could bring a new level of depth to the roleplay at your table.