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Allegiances and Character Alignments
Started on August 16th, 2005 at 6:39PM CST by Sulerin
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The original text of this article is available here in our House Rules section.

Rather than a strict alignment system of law and chaos, good and evil axioms, we prefer a system of allegiances, much alike that which premiered in the d20 Modern setting. Here's all the information you need to know to use allegiances in your own campaign, and reason for why we like it so much more than the traditional alignment system.

What Has Come Before
How many times have we seen a variation of the following situation?

DM Valkin, the high priest of your temple pulls your character aside, "Senator Prailus, as you well know, is a resolute and set against our faith. Though we are held in high favor with the public, they clamor loudly for him to take a position of rulership over the corrupt Senator Garagos. Should he win power though, our faith will be weakened by his policy and aggression against us, our efforts will be set back four decades! He is a bureaucrat, his many allies protect him from being deposed or discredited and the options of our church have been narrowed to a terrible decision. I know I ask much of you, but in the name of our god, this man must not live to assume power."
Player (out of character) Aaaaarg! I can't believe he's asking a Lawful Good paladin to do such a thing! My loyalties are to the church, but what am I suppose to do here? I know he's right, so I can't deny him, but if I break the law I'm going against the core of my character design.
DM (out of character) You will have to make a decision as to what is more important to your character. (In character) Valkin sees the troubled look on your face and says, "I know this must be difficult for you, but the election is tomorrow and we cannot wait and falsely hope that Senator Prailus will not strike against us, will you do this sacred task?"
Player Aaaaaaah!

In a mature game, such moral and ethical quandaries do occur. They add depth and become defining moments for characters, they often play a pivotal turning point in the direction that the story will take. Experienced dungeon master's enjoy opportunities to present such situations because they require a choice and the player's thoughtful consideration of what their character would choose to do.
    Such a situation also illustrates a fatal weakness in the traditional system of alignment that is used in classic Dungeons & Dragons role-playing. The nine alignments formed by the axioms of Good versus Evil, and Chaos versus Law, crossing at the point of neutrality, do not handle this kind of situation well at all. There's no room to define how important these philosophies are compared to other things which a character is personally invested in.
    Is a particular character more Lawful than Good or more Good than Lawful? Which laws does a character abide by when traveling in the wilderness or foreign lands? What if the laws of their guild conflict with the laws of the land that they live in? If the Lawful Good aligned knight of a King is ordered to murder the King's bastard son which law will he obey, the command of a King or the Law of the Land as decreed for many generations, or does he forsake his vows of fealty to the king because it is morally wrong to murder a man who has done no wrong? Variations on these questions are frequently argued in role-playing forums and in philosophical venues. Alignment, as presented in the Dungeons and Dragons game, begins to become an obstacle rather than a tool for making decisions. It is too rigid and not adaptable to such situations.

Allegiances: A Constructive Alternative
In the real world, people make important decisions with great consideration to the beliefs and organizations which they value. Do I move my family to another region for a better job opportunity? Do I intervene when I see a person being victimized by a thug? Do I lie to discredit a member of my sports team and thus improve my chances of becoming team leader? In the first situation we might be deciding whether we value our community more than our job. In the second we might ask ourselves whether we value our own well being over that of someone else. In the last we may ask ourselves if we would trade our ethics for leadership and prestige.
    Each of these situations ask us to decide what is more important to us. Each situation might be resolved if we knew ahead of time where our allegiances lay. If our allegiance to our family, friends, and community are more important than our job then we won't move to another region. A strong allegiance to lawfulness or goodness might give us enough bravery to intervene and risk injury to ourselves when we see someone being harmed by a villain, rather than remain safely distant from the crime. If our allegiance to our ethics is greater than our desire for promotion then we choose not to lie and discredit our team member. Alignment cannot answer all of these questions; where does law, chaos, good, and evil factor into a decision to leave a community for job opportunities?
    Some allegiances are stronger than others. A person with great religious strength will may consider what their faith asks them to do before they consider whether it is good for their country or even their friends. Conversely, a military leader might make concessions which will cause in the deaths of his unit, because he values his country more than the lives of his soldiers. His country and the lives of his soldiers are both important, but one is clearly more valuable to him. It's a tough decision, but these situations do occur.
    Correspondingly, a character in a role-playing game has a hierarchy of values which guide how they make day to day and even difficult decisions. Alignments do not entirely disappear, but instead they become philosophies which a character values. These philosophies might be more, or less, important than other things which they character values: their church, their country, their self, their companions, their family, or many other institutions, recreations, and beliefs.
    Allegiances, thus, are an active system for making decisions, rather than a passive and abstract system like alignment. It is a super-system which encompasses and improves upon the old alignment system.

How it Works
A character can have any number of allegiances. Ideally, each player should list at least five of their most important allegiances and arrange them in order of importance. Later, while role-playing, a character makes decisions based upon this list, starting at the top and most important allegiance. If that allegiance doesn't apply, then they move on to the next allegiance, until they know what their character would do. Some allegiances are very broad, such as an allegiance to a religion, while others are very narrow, such as an allegiance to gardening. A character with a narrow allegiance might seek out opportunities to pursue their allegiance when not already occupied with other allegiances to fulfill. A character with an allegiance to self chooses to do what most benefits their own self before considering any less important allegiances. A character might have an allegiance to an abstract notion, such as bravado; such a character pursues the more valorous, brave, and impressive option when faced with a decision that his more important allegiances do not apply to.
    The top three allegiances of a character are their primary allegiances. The distinction is important. Most decisions a character makes should be covered by their first three allegiances. If a character is constantly faced with situations to which their primary allegiances do not apply, then it is probably time to re-prioritize what they value. This brings up an important aspect of allegiances: they can change. A king dies is replaced by a ruthless tyrant that the player character opposes and their character's allegiance to king is replaced with a lesser allegiance, or perhaps redefined as an allegiance to their country instead. A characters primary allegiances should change only rarely, but their other allegiances may change over time, even dramatically.

Old Meets New: Making the Switch and Adjusting Game Mechanics
So you've decided to replace that alignment system with a useful and flexible allegiance system, but what about spells and mechanics in your game that specifically target creatures with particular alignments? What about paladins who, in canon rules, must be both Lawful and Good? These problems are easily solved. Characters with an allegiance to an alignment among their primary allegiances (their top three) are clearly aligned with that philosophy and they are correspondingly affected by spells such as protection from evil. Characters who have a non-primary allegiance to the philosophy of Good, Evil, Chaos, or Law only faintly radiate that philosophy and they are not affected by such spells or affects.
    Creatures whose alignment is Always Lawful Good or Always Neutral Evil typically have philosophical primary allegiances. Creatures whose alignment usually falls under a philosophy will probably have at least one philosophical allegiance, while those which often are aligned a particular way may have no particular philosophical primary allegiance.
    Dungeon Masters may additionally rule that certain organizations, such as churches, may be tainted with philosophical teachings, thus a character who has an allegiance to the Church of Arden may be required to also have an allegiance to the philosophy of Good.

Our Embattled Hero Decides
This article began with an example wherein a Lawful Good paladin is faced with a terrible dilemma: to serve his religion by murdering a man or to uphold the law and remain true to his ethics. Questions of whether his god supports the action can be answered by augury, divination and commune spells, so we won't worry for the moment about whether the character would lose their paladinhood for deciding one way or the other. Our hero has the following allegiances: Good, Church, Kingdom, Local Law, family, Adventuring Companions. It is well known that the current Senator Garagos is a corrupt man, replacing him might be a good thing, but it is clear that allowing Senator Prailus ro rule will do harm to a good church. In this dilemma, our hero must examine his other allegiances before making a decision, since his philosophy of Good does not clearly provide a solution. Only slightly less important than doing what is good, our hero also is strongly allied to his church. His allegiance to local laws of the area he resides in and to his kingdom are secondary to his allegiance to the church. Though it is a troubling decision, the player decides that his paladin will act against Senator Prailus, even if it means killing him when no other option presents itself.

DM Valkin, the high priest of your temple pulls your character aside, "Senator Prailus, as you well know, is a resolute and set against our faith. Though we are held in high favor with the public, they clamor loudly for him to take a position of rulership over the corrupt Senator Garagos. Should he win power though, our faith will be weakened by his policy and aggression against us, our efforts will be set back four decades! He is a bureaucrat, his many allies protect him from being deposed or discredited and the options of our church have been narrowed to a terrible decision. I know I ask much of you, but in the name of our god, this man must not live to assume power."
Player "I understand what must be done, though this is a low and villainous task that you ask of me, I will do what is best for our god and our faith. I will try to convince him to abdicate from the election, but if I must then I shall ensure by the sword that he does not come to power."
DM Valkin grimly nods his head, clearly burdoned by the decision as well, "The church will not forget this sacrifice that you make," he states.

Had our hero's allegiances been arranged differently (Good, Local Law, Church, Kingdom...) then no doubt this decision would have been made very differently.

Allegiances and Character Alignments
Posted on September 27th, 2005 at 9:28PM CST by Sydryan [bookmark]  [printable]  [reply]
   I have to say, this is a good set-up, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  The concepts that you presents here are indeed well-thought out.  If you have a listing of examples, I would most enjoy reading it.  
   I do have slight issue with it though.  All the time that I have been playing D&D, d20, etc.  I have never had a qualm whatsoever with the alignment system.  I understand that many do.  It can be restrictive, and restraining.  It can be unyeilding, and inflexible.  But I would argue that if one is willing to indulge their creative natures enough to look beyond the alignment system, why do you not focus some of that energy into better understanding it?  I apologize if I seem derisive, that isn't my intent, but rather a start to a friendly conversation.
   In your example (an excellent morale dilemma I must say), I feel that if I were in said player's position, I would chose a different route. Using the standard aligment of lawful good, here's my thoughts.
   In the latter part, the modified example, I honestly see no difference in how this scenario would be played out if the character were running a paladin with allegiances or a paladin with a lawful good alignment.
   One note, and this again is not meant to inflame, but merely my interpretation of the phrasing.  By agreeing to the task, the character has stated that is a bad thing that they want done, but in my opinion, he comes off more as a patsy or blind follower than a PC, a paladin.  By stating that he will talk with him, and try to make him abdicate, I don't see where a lawful good character is not acting in a lawful good manner by this action.  But again, after that comma, that blind allegiance comes back, and I have issue with that.
   Additionally, WOULD a lawful good organization see one person as such a threat that they must order their execution on the night before the election?  The paladin in the example would have to seriously question his commitment to that particular church (the physical location that is), if that be the case.  To me, this is how the paladin's beliefs are brought to bear, they still have their faith, and they should still have the support of their deity, if they choose to walk away from this particular location.  Obviously, the church itself (from the paladin's mindset at least) has more issues to deal with than this Sen. Prailus.  I would begin to question as to what the CHURCH (physical location again, not the collective whole) is doing that would set them back four decades.  If there are secrets to be kept that are that old, AND require the death of another simply on the whim and will of one person (the high priest, Valkun), or group of people (a conclave or group of high priests at this location), what did Prailus uncover, and what is the church hiding?
   Additionally, if a character is playing a lawful good paladin, then whether they lose their special abilities or not should be brought into question.  These are perks granted by the god, deity, power, whatever.  Ultimately, it is there honor that is most sacred, not all the bells and whistles.
Allegiances and Character Alignments
Posted on October 12nd, 2005 at 1:59PM CST by Sulerin [bookmark]  [printable]  [reply]

I used the alignment axioms for nearly twenty years, mostly as a Dungeon Master, but also as a player; I think that I've indulged my creative nature in alignments quite enough ;).

My problem with the alignment system is that it does not provide enough of a guideline. Concepts of law, good, chaos, and so forth can be very subjective - particularly when you add themes of patriotism or religion into the mix. Further, as a tool there is no priority in the alignment system. Is one more good than lawful or more lawful than good? The answer to that question can have broad reaching implications for a character and their actions in a game. While many of the examples used above are examples of alignment in conflict, I also prefer allegiances since they illustrate a characters other motivations outside that of good-evil law-chaos, and provide guidance when these motivations come into conflict.

Obviously, the background story to how our paladin player character came to be in this position, more story information on Senator Prailus and so forth could be illuminating in choice making, but the purpose of the example was to illustrate a potential conflict. Perhaps the paladin's priest was justified in his concerns, perhaps not - that wasn't what the example was meant to address.

Naturally, you can use both systems in harmony with each other, since allegiances is a superset of alignments. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I'm glad you enjoyed the article and I hope you'll consider trying out allegiances in your own campaign.

Best wishes!
Allegiances and Character Alignments
Posted on April 1st, 2007 at 6:46AM CST by Tiggersharrk [bookmark]  [printable]  [reply]
I like the concept, but found the paladin example a bit flawed.  I believe asking someone to commit cold blooded (pre-meditated) murder falls into the extremely evil act category, regardless of how much of a political threat he is.  A lawful good church should have asked the well respected paladin to run against him or find another suitable candidate to defeat him, or perhaps use a bit of diplomacy to change his views on the church.  As a paladin in that situation my first move would be the old pally stare to see if the high priest had gone evil on me, then i would get help to see if he had been charmed, finally if neither of those panned out i would decline the request as it is obviously a test of virtue.  
Seeing as his primary allegiance is to “good” the same would be true using the allegiance system.  A Lawful Good paladin is a champion of his faith, not a religious cook.  The priest basically sent him off on a suicide mission.  If he kills the man he is committing an evil act and looses the favor of his god.  If he dies during the mission, while in bad standing with his god, would his god take him in, in the afterlife?  Would a paladin knowingly go against the wishes of his god because of an earthy allegiance to a church official?  No commune spell is necessary for him to know the answer to this one.  The king example is a quite a bit tougher.  A paladin is designed to see things in black and white, good vs. evil.  A knight is the king’s servant not the gods.  If he does as the king commands he fulfills his oath but will likely be racked with guilt and resign.   In most cases if you are not morally neutral, then your morals trump your ethics.  The alignment system is not a cage, either.  
A paladin that commits an evil or unlawful act looses his paladin status.  Doing as the high priest asked is both evil and unlawful but it was stated as a request not an order… he could refuse with no penalties and seek out other ways to help his faith that don’t involve following unlawful and evil orders.  The Knight (most likely a fighter), unlike the paladin is not restricted in alignment and can change alignment with no real penalty.  If he kills the man he would be acting in an evil manner but 1 evil act rarely changes alignment.  The player can role-play the guilt he feels, or even shift alignment.  A player’s alignment is normally entirely up to the player. Spells like atonement that repair a paladin who has fallen from grace are convenient in game tools to explain very quick and extreme shifts in alignment.  
I do not like the alignment system myself, and will try to implement the Allegiance system as soon as all my players have read it.  My only concern is the potential for munchkins in my group to use the increased ambiguity of the system to logically argue away on why killing an innocent man in his sleep and rolling him for ail money should not make him loose his paladin status because he looked like the man from the wanted poster that said “wanted dead or alive”, and their primary allegiance is to local-law.
Allegiances and Character Alignments
Posted on April 5th, 2007 at 9:39PM CST by Sulerin [bookmark]  [printable]  [reply]
I would suggest that, by your own arguments, that you request paladins in your campaign to decide whether they are more good than lawful or vice versa. Given your thoughts on the importance of Good over Law in this regard, you might suggest to players who assign Law over Good that they'd be more successful at something other than paladinhood.

We should also bear in mind that some of one's allegiances may conflict with vows that one has made, such as vows of paladinhood. The paladin who finds themselves in this unfortunate state where their vows conflict with their notions of goodness and lawfulness will then have to decide which is most important to them. Knowing which tenant holds priority over the next is then a tool for deciding, and if that leads the paladin astray from their vows, that could provide a provocative and interesting course of events as the character wrestles with the consequences of their actions and perhaps eventually restructures the order of their allegiances.

Naturally, as is nature, allegiances change over time as characters evolve. Player's should not be penalized for this, but encouraged to develop rich and meaningful reasons for why their characters views on life are changing. If a player is constantly changing their allegiances, you might suggest that their true allegiance may be to something more fickle, such as philisophically to "chaos" or perhaps to "self." This is not a license for the character to justify self- or campaign-destructive activities. If you have players evolving in that direction, then perhaps your conversation with them should be more than talking about mere allegiances or alignments.

In my own campaign setting paladins are champions of their gods cause, perhaps this is closer to the idea of a crusader than that of a traditional D&D paladin Lawful-Good aligned archtype. Due to this, not all "paladins" are Lawful and Good in the Sulerin setting, they instead hold the alignment of their god and though they are universally warriors of their faith, their powers vary somewhat from one deity to another. In this kind of situation the paradigm of good-evil and law-chaos axioms is perhaps secondary to a paladin asking themselves, "what would my god want me to do?" By that same token, some paladins may prefer to obey the rules of their church to a fault, trusting in their religious leaders to speak the truth of their gods will. Such zealotry is certainly not uncommon in the real world as men commit atrocious acts yet believe that they act with divine virtue. Other paladins might challenge the authorities of their church when asked to perform tasks that seem to contridict traditional teachings of their faith and they may trust their inner compass more.

As you say, a virtuous knight who is asked to put a village to the sword by his lord finds himself in a similarly sticky situation. Does he tend to listen to his heart or does he put aside his personal feelings and serve his lord?

For a player faced with these kinds decision, allegiances can be a useful tool, allowing the player to define what their priorities are and form a decision making tree. If his allegiance is to his lord before his allegiance is to good, then we know how that character will act most of the time. In less arduous decisions, common to day to day, they also help guide the characters priorities. Does he, even given a chance for holiday, choose to find ways to serve his lord and be a useful servant or does he seek comfort in his maidens arms when his lord does not need him in active service?
Allegiances and Character Alignments
Posted on November 20th, 2007 at 1:12AM CST by MGuy [bookmark]  [printable]  [reply]
I am probably reviving a dead debate here bt such is the curse of just finding the place. I have to admit that I am a supporter ofthe alignment system. If that marks me I am sorry but the system, as i see it, does not cage anyone precisely because there are so many holes in it. Now bear with me please, becuase I have trouble explaining myself clearly at times.

The example, in a nutshell is this: Church in a territory disagrees with popular and rising community leader. A leader in the church requests that a Champion of the Church solves the problem, quietly and permanently.

The paladin being lawful good has a healthy respect for the law and high moral standards, but his faith is in danger. Now when I think Lawful Paladin I would natural believe, as it has been stated, that he is a champion of his religion, not local law. He is Lawful, but only to the tenets of his faith. He also has a high moral code to go along with his beliefs. By this standard he could easily march in the man's office (while trying to avoid innocents if he is a Paladin of a Good aligned church) and kill him without a second thought and not be considered evil.

For those that might argue against this. Let us say that instead of a human senator it was a devil masquerading as a charismatic human. Would this make the situation any different? The fight would be tougher to say the least. Surely murdering this man would be hardly any different then enacting genocide upon werewolves or raiding a nest of kobolds. The bottom line is a Paladin serves his faith and if a high priest comes to a paladin and requests the removal of a known evil that has corrupted his position, the choice is pretty clear. There is hardly any grey area in this particular scenario in my opinion.

What's more there are too many uknowns that would actually change the situation such as the alignment of the church. however, even then such things can be overlooked because as history will tel you even the "holiest" of religions have been known to do some underthe table work. Which brings me to my next question and its a big one. Why would they send a Paladin on this job. 'm sorry but I believe wholeheartedly that the church would want this hush hush job done by a more subtle blade. A paladin is a more kick in the door character type.

In the three other examples with the family move, good samaritan, and lead vs follow scenarios you brought up the question of how alignment fits in there. In the first scenario with the family, i agree. alignment doesn't present a guideline here but I don't think it should. That kind of choice shouldn't need be dictated by alignment but personal character choice and attitude. in the thug example its pretty clear that any good aligned character along with some particularly good natured or concerned neutral characters and the occassional Lawful Evil character might involve themselves in the plight of a fellow citizen. This again doesn't seem like a grey area to me. It is obvious evil and the PCs are generally heroes or at least better than the common thug. If they care to (especially if they are good aligned) then they will most likely get involved. In the last example personality is in question here. While being lawful or good would generally prevent underhanded tactics for obvious reasons, those who are not of that alignment are free to make the choice based on character developement. The last example with the king and the knight is obvious. A knight serves his king, there is nothing beyond that. if a knight disobeys he may be punished accordingly. There definitely is no grey area there.

All of this being said, I have no problem with your proposed system. In the end the DM has the last say. I feel that as long as there is character developement occurs then personaly choice generally comes before alignment. The DM can sort out the alignment later. In the end I do admit that I am working on an alternative myself that uses the same setup as alignment but looks at it in another way with order vs freedom and paragon vs menace axis but its far from complete and in so far i haven't had a GREAT need for change.