|Path -- M. (flikr)|
Recall the goals I have for a substitute alignment system are some forms of motivation and moral constraint on characters -- without the stringent and sometimes unrealistic or incoherent strictures of the classic DnD alignment system. I want something that will help players consider their motivation and how they will act in a variety of circumstances (specifically the circumstances likely in the campaign encounters). How does one understand the role of violence in the campaign? How does one interpret the threat of the villains' schemes? All of these come through a lens of some ethical system.
In the upcoming Vampire: The Dark Ages edition, the characters choose a specific road to follow. (This is a system that goes all the way back to the original Vampire: The Masquerade -- but I will focus on this new version because I have been reading it). Some of the vampires will choose to embrace their animalistic nature. Others will seek to re-discover their humanity.
Each road provides some guidance for character behavior. There is a set of ethics associated with each road. The ethics are defined by five (or so) general statements of goals and moral constraints. There is no attempt to necessarily define the entire ethical system. Instead, there is a sense of what behavior is encouraged (or forbidden) and why. To clarify the ethical systems, there is a list of sins associated with each road. For a vampire seeking to rediscover her humanity, this may be the taking of human life. For a vampire embracing the beast inside, this may be mercy. Instead of trying the connect these on some grid (of law/chaos vs. good/evil) -- each road is a distinct ethical system.
Without getting into the point based mechanics that are specific to the game system, there is a lot that one can borrow for a Cypher System game (or a variety of other systems). The key is simply to define an aspirational ethical system for a character. Without worrying about the relationship between different potential ethical systems and how they relate on a grid, just consider how a character's ethical system would guide action. Write a few statements that guide the player's ethics. These statements need not be entirely consistent (conflicts between even basic principles are not unknown in contemporary ethical systems) but should provide some guidance in the sorts of situations a character is likely to find himself in. You can even go so far as to define a specific list (say 3-7) sins -- a list of actions that are either forbidden or strongly distasteful within the ethical system.
This can be a useful exercise for players to provide some sense of how characters will act and where conflict may erupt between characters. You may not want characters to have ethical systems that will lead to frequent conflict (unless that is the game you want to play) but a little conflict may provide for interesting game sessions. Some planning and transparency about these issues can prevent games from becoming bogged down un 2 hour arguments over how to deal with prisoners (tie them up and leave them behind? kill them? disarm and free them?).
For a game of The Strange in which the characters are members of The Estate, one can imagine a variety of potential roads/paths. One path could focus on ruthless pragmatism -- though pragmatism toward what goal (saving the world? the country? one's family?)? Another path could focus on loyalty to The Estate. One could define ethical systems matching contemporary ethical systems (say deontological cosmopolitanism or libertarianism) or religious ethical codes. Since each path/road can be defined individually (without reference to a grid, etc.), each player can define his character's ethics like he could choose a drive in Night's Black Agents.
This can become another excuse for character development rather than a source of frustration or barrier to play.