Rock and Role! Shadow Morality

Quite a few RPG systems have an alignment system built in to the mechanics. They act as a role-playing aide and a guidepost for your character. In some systems, these guides are absolute and the character may lose abilities or even levels if they are violated. When Ben created Ingenium and I created Æther, we didn’t include and alignment system, and neither does Savage Worlds.

In Wellstone City, that’s a particularly important fact. There are so many ways to go through any of the Wellstone City Chronicles, whether it’s one of our published adventures or one that your GM or Narrator is running. Even characters with high morals and high ethics might try to take the path of least violence, but eventually they’re going to have to compromise those beliefs.

It’s important to have the player/character do that on their own. Systems where they have an alignment can be a tool for the GM to put the character into inescapable situation. Players shouldn’t have their characters punished for good role-playing, not ever, and when they do what they absolutely must to get out of a situation, the odds are good that an a great player will have her character wrestle with the consequences. Even in games with this sort of shadow morality, players usually have lines that they won’t cross with their characters. It is up to them to play within those bounds, but it is up to the GM to remind them when they start to cross them. Not every character is a blood-thirsty psychopath, no matter how easy it is to play one in a setting like Wellstone City.

Systems without an enforceable alignment system require the PCs to have better role-playing. It requires the players to weigh every option against an unwritten system of beliefs, not against some forced and arbitrary (and philosophically worthless) system of good vs. evil and law vs. chaos. It makes the GM be more honest and makes it harder to just shove characters into situations that are not winnable unless the character’s ethics are compromised. In short, systems with this sort of shadow morality require everyone (including the GM or Narrator) to be better role-players, but it also makes it easier to do something out of character when the situation requires and not have them be punished mechanically.

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