Main picture: Alice in wonderland by Gordon Tarpley
In my recent piece looking at creating an RPG campaign story, I mentioned there are two parts of stories that are to do with characters: character arc and characterisation. One of the larger parts of the latter of those in RPGs is defined by how the character views the world, and their motivations. So, tying in with character alignment, here's how motivations and backstory can work with alignment to create character depth.
Alignment defines how the character views the world and their place in it. It's separate from their motivation in that this defines how they will respond to a situation, rather than what their response will be.
Lawful vs Chaotic
Law implies honour, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgementalness, and a lack of adaptability. Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behaviour creates a society in which people can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should.
Chaos implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility. Those who promote chaotic behaviour say that only unfettered personal freedom allows people to express themselves fully and lets society benefit from the potential that its individuals have within them.
Someone who is neutral with respect to law and chaos has a normal respect for authority and feels neither a compulsion to follow rules nor a compulsion to rebel. They are honest but can be tempted into lying or deceiving others if it suits him/her.
These give the character's view of authority, personal freedom, responsibility and so on, as contrasted with...
Good vs Evil
Good implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others.
Evil implies violence, oppression, and a lack of value of others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient or if it can be set up. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some malevolent deity or master.
People who are neutral with respect to good and evil have compunctions against killing the innocent but lack the commitment to make sacrifices to protect or help others. Neutral people are committed to others by personal relationships.
These give the character's default patterns of response to situations. Fundamentally, how strong is their conscience and moral code.
There's nine traditional combinations of alignment in D&D style RPGs, composed of two sets of three things...
- Lawful Good - King Arthur, Superman, Mufasa
- Neutral Good - Samwise Gamgee, Mulan, Beowulf, Jason Bourne
- Chaotic Good - Robin Hood, MCU Iron Man, Indiana Jones, Batman, Kirk
- Lawful Neutral - Boba Fett, James Bond, Javert
- True Neutral - Anakin Skywalker, Sherlock, Shrek
- Chaotic Neutral - Darth Vader, Sherlock, Jack Sparrow
- Lawful Evil - Two-Face, Lex Luthor, Judge Dredd
- Neutral Evil - Emperor Palpatine, Bane, Dolores Umbridge
- Chaotic Evil - The Joker, Agent Smith, Smaug, Bellatrix Lestrange
Note that of course the character examples are open to interpretation, but hopefully you'll get what I'm aiming at.
The character's alignment with one of these, combined with their background and motivation give the player the mental notes for responding to what the GM throws at them. So I think this would be a good time to talk about...
I've always liked this definition by Andrew Stanton from Pixar on character motivation:
The idea is that the character has an inner motor; a dominant, unconscious goal that they're striving for. An itch that they can't scratch
That motivation, whatever it is, doesn't have to lead to making good choices. Anakin Skywalker's motivation, reduced to its base, was to protect those he loved. Having recently lost his mother, his drive to protect his wife from the death he believes is coming forces him to choose between the advice of Yoda or Palpatine: accept that everyone dies, or learn from the Dark Side how to save her. Equally, in the Lord of the Rings, despair over his survival given Sauron's power pushes Saruman to choose to support Sauron rather than fighting him.
For an example of potential motivations and the base emotion driving them, take a look at these:
- Wants to help those who need it - Charity/Courage/Confidence
- Has been hurt and need to get even - Hatred
- Doesn't care about the stakes - Indifference/Sloth
- Doesn't feel happy compared to others - Envy/Greed/Avarice
- Wants to hurt other people - Sadism
- Wants people to tell them they're great - Narcissism/Vanity/Pride
- Wants the world to be just - Justice/Vindication/Piety
- Wants to understand - Curiosity/Studiousness
- Wants to rule/to have power - Political/Economic/Ambition
- Wants personal freedom above all else - Lawlessness/Nihilism/Ambition
- Wants to be loved - Romance/Lust
- Doesn't want to cause harm/be harmed - Fear/Rage/Despair
These things all have a base which you could tie into a character's backstory to give a base motivation. For example:
- Take the last one, based around despair, combine it with the loss of a mother and get Anakin's motivation
- Take the first, combine it with naivety and confidence and an upbringing guided by Merlin to get King Arthur
- Take "wants to hurt other people", combine it with being told by a father that killing innocents is wrong, but that sometimes bad people get away, and get Dexter
- Tale "wants to understand" with a need to be told he's clever and a fascination with the criminal mind and get Sherlock
- Take "wants the world to be just" and combine it with having been forced to witness that it often isn't and a lot of survivor's guilt and get Malcolm Reynolds
Note that this motivation is rarely (on its own) good or bad, it just is. Some things tend towards one or the other, but they're mostly just a fact about a character. It's when you combine them with an alignment that they become that way.
Combining Alignment and Motivation
When we combine an alignment and a motivation, we get something driving a person and then setting the tone for their responses based on that motivation and the circumstances we see the character in. For example:
Wants to be loved + chaotic good = funny romantic lead
Wants to be loved + chaotic evil = terrifying
These are two very different outcomes, based on the same motivation. Between the nine alignments and endless potential motivating circumstances and character backstories, you can create a character unique to you, with depth, consistency, their own way of responding to what happens in the game, and a real sense of agency.
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