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Friday 21 February 2014

Arrows of Indra: Alignment

One common subject for debate in RPGs relates to the very notion of Alignment and how to approach it.  Significant numbers of people, even old-school gamers, find alignment as presented in D&D less than useful.  I've always liked the alignment system, but even I admit that alignment in standard D&D can seem more restrictive than useful if misused, and a lot of this informed my take on Alignment in Arrows of Indra.  I knew that in a game set in a world where interaction with religion and gods was so important, I was all but obliged to use an alignment system, and I wanted to keep it (like everything else in the game) in some form recognizable to Old-school gamers.  This ruled out creating any kind of complex systems involving Karma or anything like that.  Never mind that there's so many different notions and ideas about karma (a concept that underwent considerable evolution and change over the centuries, and which in the modern day is viewed very differently by different schools in Hinduism and Buddhism, not to mention by all manner of woo-woo new agers in the west), that I didn't really want to open up that can of worms anyways.

So here, copied directly from my manuscript of AoI, is how alignment is handled in Arrows of Indra:

There are three possible alignments in the campaign: Holy, Neutral, or Unholy. Alignment is not a strict reflection of one’s acts but of one’s favor with the gods. A Holy person is someone who is well-looked upon by the gods, has faithfully conducted the religious practices needed for his caste and class (including any alignment strictures placed upon him by a particular class, like a Virakshatriya or a Yogi), and avoiding sinfulness. Acts that remove Holy status are all the sinful acts: murder, lying, stealing, contact with taboo substances (unclean animals, feces, dead bodies, consuming human flesh or blood, or contact with untouchables), intoxication, and sex outside of marriage (or formal concubinage). There may be a few exceptions to this in certain cases (for example, a Thugee committing an assassination in devotion to Kali-ma does not lose his Holy status; nor will anyone who is Holy lose their holy status for killing a dangerous animal, monstrosity, or demonic creature, or any creature or being who is Unholy). Someone who is not Holy can achieve Holy status by performing purification rituals upon their person (usually requiring donations at a temple at a cost of 10000 rupya, or owning a household priest), or by ritual bathing at a “Mela” ceremony held at one of the sacred rivers (the Sindhu, Suraya, or Ganga river) once every 12 years, and in either case by renouncing all previous sinful actions. A character can also achieve Holy status through direct divine intervention, usually if he performs some great act of devotion to a particular deity. 

Most human individuals are neutral. They are not spiritual enough to be Holy, but not wicked enough to be Unholy.

Unholy characters are actively disfavored by the Gods, but have the favor of the Asura demons. To become Unholy one must intentionally and willingly commit grossly sinful acts (small-scale lying, stealing, drunkenness or fornication do not cut it) on more than one occasion. Any character who offers sacrifice or prayers of devotion to a demon will instantly become Unholy. 

Alignment can affect characters in various ways, as certain spells and items have different effects on Holy, Neutral or Unholy characters. Additionally, in encounters with divine beings or the servants of divine beings, as well as with demonic beings or their servants, one’s alignment will have a very significant effect on their reactions to you. Deities will never look favorably upon anyone who is Unholy. On the other hand, Asuras or unholy creatures will not necessarily react favorably toward Unholy characters, but will always be particularly aggressive toward Holy characters. 

Finally, please note when it comes to alignment that “Holy” and “Unholy” do not equate directly with “good” or “evil” from the perspective of modern morality. They are measurements of how well one sits with the gods (or demons) of Jagat, how well one obeys the religious laws and taboos; and while certainly many of these connect to moral concepts, a character who is “Holy” can certainly do all kinds of things that wouldn't in any way be “nice” by modern conceptions. Consider that the avataras, Shiva, Rama, and (in the present time of the setting) Krishna, are all the epitome of Holiness, living incarnations of divinity, and they did or do all kinds of things that modern western perspectives would consider questionable (for starters, they had a tendency to leave trails of bodies in their wake). Holy alignment does not require that the person who has it be particularly “nice”, and likewise someone who is Unholy will not necessarily be a mustache-twirling villain.

 So there you have it.  The other part of this is that in the rest of the game, the alignment mechanic in AoI plays a higher role than it does in D&D, although it takes its cues from that game in terms of how the mechanics work.  Magical items are heavily oriented toward the alignment system, so that different items have particular alignment limits, or different effects on characters of different alignment; spells and magic affect alignment, and creatures (particularly supernatural creatures) will react differently to characters of different alignment.  And of course, the rules for divine intervention are directly tied to whether the character seeking such intervention has the favor of the Gods.

Its one of the things I'm extremely satisfied with in Arrows of Indra: an alignment system that's a bit more fluid, a bit more relevant, that is based more strongly on the actions characters take, and that has real relevancy to how the game feels. All this, and still very old-school.


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  1. As I suspected when I started to read this, you've adapted the traditional D&D alignment system to another, almost-as-old approach to the whole issue - allegiance. RuneQuest, Stormbringer, Pendragon etc have all encouraged the concept of playing an "ethically-dedicated" character according to the particular set of ethics that that character would follow, instead of having a "one size fits all" approach which has always been the issue people had with alignment. Having rewards for so doing is a part of these systems, and having those allegiances/relationships detectable by opposing forces go with both approaches.

    I am glad your game effectively adapts D&D to the fascinating area of Indian myth, it's just interesting to note that, again, the RuneQuest family of games appear to have got their first.

  2. Given that I don't play runequest and would not have been able to name that mechanic (and haven't read a runequest book in something like 20 years), that's not what I did. Maybe they have something very similar there, but this is not just me copying it. I think on the whole Runequest doesn't do a very good job of really capturing the historical feel of religion.

    Its like I once said "people who like Runequest think it does religion the way ancient peoples did it, when in fact it does religion the way Cultural Anthropology Majors think about it". Those are not the same thing.

  3. Parallel evolution. RuneQuest does religion in a way that creates player characters who behave in an apparently religiously devout way. It's difficult to be an atheist or backslider in a classic RQ setting. Much easier in RQ6. Very easy in Pendragon or Stormbringer.